Newt Scamander is a shy, young writer. He looks out from under his thatch of hair as Diana, Princess of Wales, once shyly peered out. Scamander has been traveling to record stories of fantastic beasts, and he steps on to the dock of New York City, his suitcase full of trouble.

He finds a city in turmoil, a dark, moiling consternation of witches and wizards, city officials and power-mongers. He finds division and crises with no clear sense of who's good and who's evil. The year is 1926 -- 70 years before a young wizard named Harry Potter will read his report. This New York presents as grey and noisy and duplicitous, a city of car horns and cloche hats.

Into this scene arrives Jacob, who works in a cannery. He would be called a Muggle in England, but in America, Jacob is a No-Maj, one without magical properties or skills. Dan Fogler handles the part like yeasty dough. Yet, there's something about Jacob's ambition -- he wants to open his own bakery -- and his innocence. At one point, amidst flashes and crashes, he says, "I ain't got the brains to make this up."

But J.K. Rowling does. She wrote the script for this movie just as she wrote the Harry Potter series, from which Fantastic Beasts shoots off. David Yates, who directed four Harry Potter films, directs Beasts with a good sense of balance between plot and special effects. Beasts refers tangentially to the novels, not so much as to confuse newly viewers. Beasts sinks along the way, just as the Potter films did, but its plot follows a more direct path and its effects and production and costumes are noteworthy and fun.

Eddie Redmayne acquits himself well and earnestly as Scamander, supported by Samantha Morton, Colin Farrell, Jon Voight, and Katherine Waterston. And, yes, that is Johnny Depp in a cameo.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is just fabulously fantastic.

 

 

Just ask Jeff Nichols how to make a movie based on the lives of two quiet people. How do you build a script around the voices of people who barely spoke? How does one direct a movie about a Supreme Court ruling when the contestants never appeared in court?

Nichols, who also wrote and directed the exquisite film Mud, just made this film with what he had and let it tell the story of the black and white couple who thought it unfair that they could not marry in Virginia. Nichols does not go so far back as courtship nor to adolescence with these two young lovers, one black, one white. He begins the film with Mildred's simple announcement that she is pregnant. Her head is wreathed in yellow from the porch light. Richard mulls that news over and then says, "Good." He is smiling very loudly.

The two young people drove to Washington, D.C., with her father and were married. Then they drove home to Virginia, where Richard is a mason, a construction worker. And, there, they were drug out of bed and jailed because in Virginia in the late Fifties, the law against miscegenation was still on the books.

Nichols spends the rest of the film showing how the Lovings lived their lives, quietly and a bit desperately. They had three children, who had to play in the D.C. streets. When one is run over and bruised, Mildred wraps them up to return to the countryside where she and Richard face the discordant music.

Ruth Negga, born in Ethiopia, plays Mildred with grace and firmness; Joel Edgerton, born in Australia, plays Richard with stoic simplicity. They are stunning as their eyes do the talking. Their supporting cast is strong -- no weak links. The only really recognizable faces -- Nick Kroll and Michael Shannon -- do not steal the spotlight.

Loving carries a quiet energy of righteousness.

 

 

Early in writer/director Ben Younger's Bleed for This, world lightweight boxing champion Vinny Pazienza suffers a humiliating defeat in his 1988 junior welterweight bout against world champion Roger Mayweather. With his reaction to that loss, including the difficulty of making weight, Vinny reassesses his prospects and, in sometimes humorous consultations among his team, redefines himself. 

Based on Vinny Pazienza's real experiences, that unexpected and unprecedented reevaluation is the heart and soul of Bleed for This, a good boxing film peppered with noteworthy bouts and a strong location presence for this Rhode Island native. A winning fighter in three different weight classes (lightweight, light middleweight, and super-middleweight), Vinny improbably ends up fighting Roberto Duran in the super-middleweight championship match. But as visceral as the boxing is, it doesn't dominate the action. That centers on the intense psychological battle Vinny wages against his physical limitations after a catastrophic automobile accident left him with serious spinal injuries and a broken neck. His medical prognosis is that he may never walk again, much less box, and watching Vinny move with his four-pronged "Halo" headgear puts the real fight into another arena, one that invites heartfelt empathy for injured individuals in all walks of life.

As in his film Boiler Room, director Ben Younger shows a rare ability to fold a wealth of details into a character-driven story. In that regard, Miles Teller made a strong impression with Whiplash, and he again conveys a charismatic, muscular intensity as Vinny. Equal on every level and a real standout is Aaron Eckhart as Kevin Rooney, Vinny's alcoholic trainer and confidant. Eckhart grapples with his own demons right alongside Vinny, and their pas-de-deux is a marvel of graceful and ferocious nuances. As Vinny's parents, Katey Sagal and Ciarán Hinds bring an authentic working-class attitude, as does Ted Levine as the manager.

Paz's painful, uphill comeback battle defines his character and lends unusual insight into obsession and, not incidentally, the needed desire to achieve what seem impossible goals. "Bleed for This" is a boxing movie that isn't just for boxing fans. At several area cinemas, check the listings.

 

South Korean director Chan-wook Park is known for unconventional, bold films, including Old Boy and Lady Vengeance. His latest, The Handmaiden qualifies in a distinctly different way. In the tradition of Marquis de Sade, with co-writer Seo-Kyung Chung, Park explores lust and desire from female and male perspectives, meaning in The Handmaiden the sexual politics of power dictates behavior. 

In 1930s Korea under Japanese occupation, a Japanese man posing as Count Fujiwara selects Korean servant Sook-Hee to travel with him to a lavish estate. There she will become the title Handmaiden to a very wealthy Lady Hideko held in isolated captivity by her Uncle Kouzuki. Sook-Hee will encourage her Lady to fall in love with and marry Fujiwara who will, in short order, confine her to a sanitarium and abscond with her money and valuable jewelry.

Adapting British writer Sarah Waters' 2005 Victorian story "Fingersmith," Park posits a divided state of affairs in terms of both gender, language and nationality. He also divides the film into two main sections, the first part told from a limited point of view and the second from an omniscient one. Elaborating on each, Park takes his time with both perspectives. There's no rushing in this languorous, two hour 24-minute film. Throughout it, the camera caresses and lingers on gorgeous fabrics as well as the women's faces and bodies. In addition, close-ups and characters' comments emphasize appeals to taste and touch. Park invites us to embrace sensual pleasure, even though human duplicity will intrude into that self-indulgent world through jarring developments.

The stylized acting requires Min-hee Kim as Lady Hideko, Kim Tae-ri as Sook-Hee and Jung-woong Jo as Fujiwara to convey volumes with silence, glances, and gestures, and they succeed admirably. The music and sound intensify the mood of dreamy surrender, though, in stark contrast, Park's signature violence makes an appearance near the end in a horrific scene. With sexual content throughout, The Handmaiden is for mature audiences only. No one under 18 will be admitted. With Japanese dialogue in yellow English subtitles and Korean in white English subtitles. Exclusively at Landmark's Tivoli Theatre.

 

 

In April 2014 director Otto Bell saw Israeli photographer Asher Svidensky's BBC photos stunningly depicting 13-year-old Aisholpan Nurgaiv. In the remote northwest Mongolian steppes Aisholpan lives a nomadic life with her family with one exception. She is "The Eagle Huntress" of Bell's documentary, the first woman ever to compete in the annual Kazakh Eagle Festival against 70 men. 

What happens before and after that event in the Nurgaiv family is an anthropologically rich and absolutely engrossing presentation. Bell profiles the five main aspects of this culturally and historically rich tradition: capturing an eaglet, taming and bonding with it, training and then teaching the eagle to hunt, and making needed equipment. With a wingspan over six feet, golden eagles weigh up to 15 pounds, average three feet tall, and reach speeds of 190 miles per hour. A fearless Aisholpan with a million-dollar smile embraces the challenges, fascinated by eagles from an early age and supported by her father and mother despite elders' disapproval.

The Eagle Huntress is as exhilarating as it is inspirational, in part because of resourceful cinematographer Simon Niblett who uses extraordinary drone camerawork and a GoPro fitted onto an eagle. Shooting with never more than a four-person crew, Bell and Niblett put us in the ger (the family dwelling), on the precarious ledge where Aisholpan captures her eaglet, in the midst of the eagle competition, and soaring over thigh-high snow during a fox hunt in minus-40 degree temperatures. Bell says he budgeted five days for the hunt; it took 22 days.   

Among the many touching moments, a veteran male eagle hunter releases his seven-year-old eagle to the wild, which is the custom so the eagle will mate and continue the cycle. Equally affecting are wordless interactions between a charming Aisholpan, her mother Almagul, and her father Agalai as well as between Aisholpan and her fellow school classmates. Its understated presentational style extends from the music and sound to the limited, unobtrusive narration by Daisy Ridley. Among the best films of the year, The Eagle Huntress is one to reflect on and savor. It transported me to Mongolia and a refreshingly polite and supportive community. In Kazakh with English subtitles, at a Landmark Theatre.

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