I love urban fantasy. I mean, I love fantasy in general, but there’s something especially fun about throwing the monsters and magic of a fairytale into a normal 21st-century environment and watching how regular people handle them. It’s a genre that hasn’t gotten as much mainstream attention as I think it deserves, so I was rather pleased when I saw the Netflix advertisements for this film.

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Director: David Ayer
Writer: Max Landis
Starring: Will Smith and Joel Edgerton
Music by: David Sardy
Rated TV-MA

The story takes place in an alternate version of modern Los Angeles that is mainly populated by three species: elves, humans, and orcs, listed in order of their social standing. Daryl Ward is a human cop who is reluctantly partnered with Nick Jakoby, the only orc officer on the force. When the movie begins, Ward is returning to work after recovering from being shot, and he’s a wee bit upset with his partner for letting the culprit (another orc) get away. But the pair soon have bigger problems to worry about after they stumble across a magic wand–a powerful weapon that can only be wielded by someone born with magical abilities, called a Bright. Hunted by a corrupt police force, power-hungry gangsters, and an evil elvish cult, Ward and Jakoby have to keep the wand out of the wrong hands while protecting the runaway elf who guards it.

Despite its fantastical trappings, this movie is filmed very much like a gritty cop drama, complete with boatloads of profanity, several bloody shoot-outs, and some utterly gratuitous shots in a strip club. Personally, I could have done with a lot less grit, but there are times when the “urban” and “fantasy” sides of the equation complement each other quite well. It’s clear the filmmakers put a lot of work into creating their world, a version of modern America where fantasy creatures have always existed alongside humans. Elves and orcs even get their own languages, and there are references to what sounds like a fascinating alternate world history. This movie introduces so many interesting ideas, in fact, that I almost feel it would work better as a TV series. Two hours just isn’t enough time to fully explore the concept on which it’s built (although a sequel does appear to be in the works).

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I need to know more about how elves got so scary.

Also, Bright has some…problems. Some of the attempts at humour are cringeworthy (“Fairy lives don’t matter today!”), and some of the musical choices are even more cringeworthy. Ward is such a jerk for most of the movie that it can be hard to sympathise with him. And I found a few plot developments towards the end to be extremely predictable.

Still, taking one thing with another, I’d say there’s more good about this movie than bad. Even if it does feel like it would be better suited to a show, the sheer amount of worldbuilding here is impressive for a stand-alone movie, and it’s even accomplished without too much awkward exposition. The relationship between the two cops, as they start to overcome their distrust and prejudice, and eventually form a kind of friendship, is very believable and leads to some heartwarming moments. That’s largely thanks to the acting skills of Will Smith and Joel Edgerton, who play off each other excellently. Also, I found Jakoby to be a very endearing character in general. As an orc who’s seen as a traitor by his own race and a monster by humans, he’s clearly had a lot of crap thrown his way throughout his life, but he’s still an optimist who just wants to make the world a better place for humans and orcs alike. He more than makes up for his partner’s jerkishness.

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He’s just a big ol’ sweetheart.

Obviously, the fantastic race relations in this movie are meant to mirror real-world ones. Elves are the privileged elite, with all the nice clothes and cars and control over the government. They’ve even got police checkpoints outside their gated communities to keep out the riffraff. Orcs are the oppressed minority group, brutalised by police and feared by civilians, often turning to a life of crime because it’s their only option. It’s not subtle, and it hits many of the same beats Zootopia did a couple years ago. Still, in this day and age, it’s hard to dislike a heartfelt story about two people from very different cultures working together and finding common ground. “Don’t hate people just because they’re different” may not exactly be a revolutionary message to see in a movie, but it’s still a worthy one, and the friendship that forms the heart of this film makes it seem all the more sincere.

Bright definitely won’t be everyone’s cup of tea.  If you don’t like urban fantasy and/or aren’t familiar with it, the cop drama/fairytale mash-up could come across as too weird or silly to stomach. As a fan of urban fantasy, but not such a big fan of cop dramas, I found some of the violence (and the aforementioned gratuitous strip club scenes) rather off-putting. But in the end, the movie’s imaginative world and the relationship between the two central characters saved it for me. I enjoyed it quite a bit, despite its flaws.

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“We’re not in a prophecy, alright? We’re in a stolen Toyota Corolla.”

But as a fantasy fan, I’m still holding out for a good Netflix adaptation of The Dresden Files.

Grade: B-



Pan’s Labyrinth

So you know the Disney versions of fairytales we all grew up watching? With the singing animals and the pretty princes and the happy endings? Yeah, this movie is the opposite of that.

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Pan’s Labyrinth (or El Laberinto del Fauno)
Writer and Director: Guillermo del Toro
Starring: Ivana Baquero, Maribel Verdu, Sergi Lopez
Music by: Javier Navarrete
Released: 2006
Rated R

Pan’s Labyrinth is a faerie tale about a young girl named Ofelia, who has the misfortune to be growing up in 1940s, Fascist-controlled Spain. In a bit of a twist on the traditional faerie tale set-up, she has an evil step-father, a sadistic army officer who has just summoned her and her heavily pregnant mother to come and live with him. Despite the cruel realities surrounding her, Ofelia still believes in magic and faeries. So she’s delighted when she enters the titular stone Labyrinth on her step-father’s property and meets an ancient Faun. The Faun tells her she is the reincarnation of a lost faerie princess (named Moanna–don’t laugh, this was years before the Disney version), and that her true parents have been searching for her. But in order to prove she is the real princess, she must perform three difficult and frightening tasks before the rise of the full moon.

I enjoy a good dark faerie tale every now and then. And there really aren’t enough of them in movies–not the grim, bloody, Grimm-style ones, full of child-eating monsters and morally ambiguous Fae. When this movie is a fantasy, it’s exactly that type of fantasy, and it’s fantastic. The creature designs–largely created through costumes and prosthetics, not CGI–are some of the most imaginatively creepifying things I’ve ever seen. Extra points for creepiness go to The Pale Man (the aforementioned child-eating monster), of course, but everything else about the magical realm is mysterious and oddly beautiful, too, from the tiny, insectoid, shape-shifting faeries to the majestic Faun. All it takes is a haunting soundtrack and some gorgeous underground scenery to complete the atmosphere.

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Shaking hands with him is awkward.

But Pan’s Labyrinth spends about as much time being a war movie as it does being a fantasy movie, and as scary as some of the supernatural monsters may be, they’re nothing compared to the human ones. Ofelia’s step-father, Captain Vidal, is one of the more irredeemably evil characters I’ve seen in a movie. One of his first acts onscreen is to viciously stab a young man to death in front of his father because he thinks he might be a Communist. And he only gets worse from there. Thanks in large part to him, the movie is almost unbearably bleak and sad at times. This is not the kind of story where the villain is defeated easily, or without causing the heroes a lot of misery along the way.

But fortunately, it does have its fair share of heroes. Ofelia may make one or two of those idiotic choices that seem to be required of all faerie tale protagonists, but she also shows constant courage, resilience and selflessness even as tragedies pile up around her. Ofelia’s only ally in the mortal world, a maid named Mercedes, is also worth cheering for as she secretly helps a band of resistance fighters behind the Captain’s back.  Ditto for Mercedes’ friend and fellow conspirator, Doctor Ferreiro. Throughout the movie we constantly see people rebelling against evil authorities (whether human or Fae) in order to do the right thing, regardless of consequences. And the bleak circumstances just make these heroic moments stand out all the more.

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“But captain, to obey, just like that, for obedience’s sake… without questioning… That’s something only people like you do.”

I found the theme of disobedience particularly interesting, because a lot of faerie tales are all about how important it is to obey the rules: “Don’t touch that spindle,” “Don’t eat that food,” “Don’t go into the woods alone.” And there are moments like that in this movie, but the problem is that almost all the people making up those rules are either evil or under the sway of evil. So the only way to be a hero is to disobey. Maybe that wouldn’t be such a good moral to teach kids, but in case it wasn’t clear enough, this movie is not suited for kids in any way, shape, or form. And the importance of disobeying evil authorities, even when it could cost you your life, is an excellent moral to each adults…especially if they happen to be living under a fascist regime.

My only real problem with this movie is that its fantasy elements all but disappear for most of the third act, leaving us with just the war elements. I was hoping for more fantasy lore and prosthetic monsters. But that’s a personal preference on my part. Both halves of the story are told equally well, and neither would work without the other.

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“I’ve had so many names. Old names that only the wind and the trees can pronounce.”

Some other thoughts: 1. The English title is a misnomer. The god Pan neither appears nor is mentioned at any time in this movie, and the Labyrinth is never said to belong to him. The Spanish title, “The Labyrinth of the Faun,” is much more accurate. 2. This is the first foreign-language movie I’ve watched in which I could actually understand the foreign language (most of the time). So that was fun. I now have the words for “faerie” (hada) and quite a few expletives added to my Spanish vocabulary. 3. Some might say the ending to this movie is ambiguous, but they are wrong. It’s a faerie tale ending, plain and simple.

I don’t think everyone would enjoy Pan’s Labyrinth. It’s a little on the odd side and very much on the tragic side. There’s quite a lot of gore and at least one scary monster (possibly more, if you’re not into the Faun’s design), and if you go in expecting a more Disney-esque fairytale, you’re going to be very disappointed. And probably traumatised. But the movie’s been out long enough that I think most people know what to expect, and for me it delivered exactly what I was hoping for: a dark, tragic, visually stunning fantasy with enough layered symbolism and references to a history that I (sadly) know little about to make it worth further unpacking.

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Now that I think about it, this movie has a lot of Alice in Wonderland vibes, along with the whole faerie tale thing.

So even though it didn’t spend quite as much time with the magical creatures as I would have liked, this is still a movie I could see myself watching over again. Like all great fantasy, it immersed me in a creative magical world without ever letting me forget what the real one is like.  And despite its deep darkness, it ultimately tells a rather hopeful story: one in which wonder, courage, and innocence are glorified while arrogance and cruelty are condemned.

Man, I wish Del Toro had directed the Hobbit movies…

Grade: A-

A Monster Calls

“So you didn’t get your ‘happily ever after?'”
“No…but that’s life. Most people just get ‘messily ever after.'”

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A Monster Calls
Director: J.A. Bayona
Writer: Patrick Ness
Based on the book by: Siobhan Dowd and Patrick Ness
Starring: Lewis MacDougall, Liam Neeson, Felicity Jones, Sigourney Weaver
Released: 2016
Rated PG-13

Conor, a little boy in England, is not having a happy childhood. His single mother is dying of a disease heavily implied to be cancer, and his grouchy grandmother is trying to get him to come live with her as a result. To make matters worse, he’s getting beaten up regularly at school, he has no friends, and he keeps having the same nightmare over and over. But one night, at precisely 12:07 a.m., he is visited by a monster made from an ancient yew tree. The Monster says he will tell Conor three stories, and after that, Conor must tell him a fourth: the story of his nightmare. Sure enough, as his mother’s illness gets worse, the Monster keeps visiting at 12:07 to tell Conor stories about the times he went walking before, and what he knows about life and the people who live it. Meanwhile, Conor just hopes the last story will end with his mother being cured.

Like all the Monster’s stories, this movie looks and acts a lot like a fairytale at first glance. The titular creature looks amazing, and his stories are animated with lovely watercolours that look like they came straight out of an illustrated fantasy book. The movie’s beginning, what with the sick mother and the Monster suddenly appearing in a surreal fashion, even reminded me of a Narnia story. (The fact that Liam Neeson voices the Monster helps.)

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“And when he shakes his mane…the ceiling caves in.”

But the Monster’s stories are not fairytales. Each one twists the usual character types and morals of a fairytale (such as evil queens and knights in shining armour) and subverts them in order to tell a harder truth: that real people don’t fit into those little boxes. Sometimes the evil queen has her good points, and sometimes the knight in shining armour is less noble than he seems. “There isn’t always a good guy, nor is there always a bad one,” the Monster says. Another story examines a man who was willing to give up everything he believed in order to gain a favour, thus proving he never had true faith in the first place. You know…basic picture book morals like that.

But that’s how this movie rolls. It’s a story about a boy coming to grips with the loss of a loved one, but more than that, it’s about the importance of facing the truth. The lesson Conor really needs to learn is that he must admit the truth about his feelings, especially towards those he loves, if he’s going to be able to survive tragedy. In keeping with that message, the movie itself is consistently honest. It doesn’t try to sugarcoat the awfulness of watching a loved one die, and it doesn’t take the easy approach to characterisation. There are no villains in this movie. Conor’s grandmother might be fussy, and she certainly doesn’t understand him, but she loves both him and his mother deeply. His dad (who lives in America with a new family after a divorce with his mother) might be a bit of a deadbeat, but it’s clear he’s trying to be a good father in his own way. Conor himself, despite being the protagonist, is very flawed and does some terrible things over the course of the movie…but given the kind of story we’ve got here, that often just makes it even easier to sympathise with him. Even the Monster, despite giving out lots of sage advice, is still, well, a monster. He delights in destruction and he can be rather menacing at times.

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The movie has an all-star cast (one of several reasons it baffles me that it didn’t get more attention when it came out last year), and everybody is bringing their “A” game. Liam Neeson has one of those voices I could listen to forever, and he puts it to great use here. Felicity Jones, of Rogue One fame, gives a horribly tear-jerking performance as Conor’s mum. It’s a little weird to watch Sigourney Weaver  being a British grandmother, but then maybe I’ve just seen Aliens too many times. She does a good job, even getting the accent right for the most part. But Lewis MacDougall really carries the movie, showing a ton of emotional depth and nuance in his acting. Impressive, considering he was about 13 when it was filmed, and this is only his second movie.

I don’t cry easily during movies…or at all, for that matter. Sure, occasionally a real tear-jerker will make my eyes go a bit misty, but until this week, the only movie that had caused me to actually break down crying was Inside Out–and that was because it gave me flashbacks to a particularly difficult time in my life. I was crying like a baby by the end of A Monster Calls. It is, hands down, the most thorough exploration of grief and loss I’ve ever seen in a movie, and it got downright hard to watch at times. I think that’s why it got rated PG-13, despite not containing any harsh language, sexual content, or graphic violence. This is definitely not a movie you watch with your kids, unless you want to have some very serious discussions with them afterwards. But its sadness is cathartic. It made me, as a viewer, feel that I had been on a journey with Conor and understood a bit of what he was feeling. Sometimes it’s easier for me to empathise with unpleasant feelings when they’re presented in the form of fiction, and this movie did that for me.

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“Humans are complicated beasts.”

And I think that is the entire point. Early on in the movie, Conor watches the original King Kong with his mother, and he feels sorry for the titular monster. He asks why the soldiers are trying to shoot Kong down. “People are afraid of what they don’t understand,” his mother explains. Understanding is another major theme of this movie. People avoid or even bully Conor because they don’t understand what he’s going through, while he does the same to the relatives he doesn’t like. But by the end, he realises that everyone is fighting their own kind of battle, and he begins to understand why some of the people around him react the way they do. That’s the thing about grief: it can divide, but it can also unite people. Everyone dies, after all, and almost everyone has lost loved ones. It’s the one terrible thing we all have in common.

My only real problem with the movie is that I would have liked to see more of the Monster’s stories reflected in Conor’s life. I haven’t read the book this is based on (though now I want to), but I have a feeling a lot of things were left out in the adaptation. For example, the Monster’s third story is really just a few sentences that don’t get animated at all, and although subsequent events show what the intended lesson was, it’s not dwelt on as much as the others. I also would have liked to see the bullies in the movie humanised a bit more, like other characters are. It would seem to be in keeping with the story’s themes.

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After all, if even fairy tale villains have their good sides, you would think primary school bullies would, too.

But overall, this is a beautiful, thought-provoking movie with an unusual message: that life, love, and loss are all complicated things, and it’s okay to have complicated feelings about them sometimes. It advocates honesty and understanding between people who are suffering. It shows that everyone has both good and bad inside them, and shouldn’t necessarily be judged by just one or the other. They’re all things we need to know in order to live full adult lives, but are rarely expressed so clearly in movies.

I’d highly recommend seeing A Monster Calls if you get a chance. Just keep the tissues handy.

Grade: A

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom

Yes, there’s an Indiana Jones movie I haven’t seen before. Clearly that must be rectified.

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Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom
Director: Steven Spielberg
Writers: Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz
Starring: Harrison Ford and some other people
Released in: 1984
Rated PG (because PG-13 wasn’t invented yet)

So just in case you don’t know the story, this movie starts with everyone’s favourite disaster-prone archaeologist delivering an artefact to some Chinese mobsters in Shanghai. Naturally, things go wrong, and he ends up escaping on a plane with a little kid named Short Round and a living migraine named Willie Scott. They crash-land in India, where they meet some villagers whose children have all been taken by a local ruler, along with a sacred stone rumoured to have magic powers. Then the plot really kicks in, as Indy  decides to go on a quest to find and return the stone.

I love the Indiana Jones movies. Raiders of the Lost Ark was one of the first “grown-up” movies I was allowed to see as a kid, and both it and The Last Crusade have always been family favourites at my house. (I also saw Kingdom of the Crystal Skull in theatres, but…that one’s less of a favourite.) However, I was never allowed to see Temple of Doom as a kid, and it’s one of many movies I never quite got around to seeing as an adult. Until now, that is.

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Yeah…can’t imagine why my parents didn’t want me to see this as a kid.

To be honest, it struck me as a bit of an odd movie. Plot-wise, it’s much like all the other Indiana Jones movies: there’s a big opening scene with lots of punching, Indiana has to go search for a lost treasure, evil folks get in the way, there’s a bit of romance going on with the lead lady, they run into some freaky supernatural stuff, and it all leads up to a big climactic fight scene and a happy ending, although Indy still doesn’t get the treasure. But its tone is very different from any other entry in the franchise, and I think that’s what weirded me out so much. For about the first third, it almost feels like a slapstick comedy. All the Indiana Jones movies have a certain amount of humour, but this one starts out feeling downright goofy. There’s a fight scene where Indy shish-kebabs someone with an actual kebab, followed by a car chase with a little kid driving the car while making puns in bad English, followed by a plane crash where everyone survives by means of a physics-defying inflatable raft, and so on. And then somewhere around the half-hour mark, the tone completely changes into something very dark and disturbing, with a lot more gore than any of the other films had. Then, for the final third, it switches back to the exciting Indy action we know and love. All three tones work fine on their own, but together, they’re a bit of a weird combination.

Still, I’ve always heard this movie described as the low point of the original Indiana Jones trilogy, so I was pleasantly surprised by it in a lot of ways. The story itself is every bit as exciting as any of the others, it has several amazing action scenes, and you just can’t go wrong with young Harrison Ford playing Indiana Jones. He’s the perfect action hero, and he’s also quite funny, as I often forget between viewings. Every good Indiana Jones movie has two or three moments that make me smile just because of how…Indiana Jones-y they are. This movie has them, too: the part where he dives under a collapsing door to grab his hat, the entire mine cart sequence, “Prepare to meet Kali…IN HELL!”, etc. Classic Indy.

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You can keep your Tom Hiddlestons. This is what a real Hollywood heartthrob looks like. 

Granted, this movie is, shall we say, less than PC. It’s made clear that the evil Thuggee cult Indy encounters has nothing to do with actual Hinduism (it also has nothing to do with the real-life Thuggee cult, but whatevs), but the movie still gets away with a much more offensive portrayal of another culture than you’d see in most blockbusters today. Then again, the other two movies showed us a pretty laughable caricature of Christian mythology, and I didn’t let that ruin them for me. It’s Indiana Jones–you can’t expect much in the way of historical and cultural accuracy.

In the end, I do have to agree with the majority opinion that this is the worst of the trilogy, but only for one reason: WILLIE. My word. She is easily one of the most annoying characters I’ve ever seen in a movie. I had heard of her infamous screaming voice before, but I didn’t realise she uses that voice throughout the entire movie. She contributes almost nothing to the plot, half the time it doesn’t even make sense for her to be there (why did Indy decide to bring her on a dangerous mission, again?), and she’s either screaming or whining in every other line of dialogue. For most of the movie, Indy seems as annoyed by her as the audience, so their “romance,” if you can call it that, feels incredibly forced. It wouldn’t be so bad if she was a minor comic relief character, but no, she’s in almost every scene of the movie, distracting from Indy’s awesomeness by screeching about her nails. Within the first five minutes, I was thinking, “This chick needs to die in a fire.” And when she actually gets a chance to die in a fire later in the movie, spoiler alert, she gets rescued! I’ve never been more disappointed to see the plans of an evil death cult foiled. The only good thing I can say about Willie is that she made me appreciate Marion from the first movie all the more.

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She’s like Jar Jar Binks. Only blonde.

But there is one aspect of Temple of Doom that I think is actually an improvement on the other movies. For once, in this movie, Indiana Jones does something genuinely heroic–on purpose. Usually he’s chasing a treasure more or less for his own gain, and then the Nazis just happen to get in the way, so he has to fight them. But in this movie, he takes a huge risk in order to rescue a bunch of kids from slavery, without necessarily expecting a reward. It’s nice to see a nobler side to our normally selfish treasure hunter, and it makes it even easier to root for him in his more Willie-free adventures. And even though I thought it was a little weird at first for him to have a 12-year-old sidekick, I also found his relationship with Short Round to be pretty endearing by the end.

Overall, I enjoyed this movie. It’s not as much fun as the other two in the original trilogy, but it’s much better than Kingdom of the Crystal Skull–or, indeed, several other modern action movies I could name. And now that I’ve seen all the movies in the series, I feel like I can finally call myself a proper Indiana Jones fan.

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Cue amazing John Williams music.

Grade: B

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

All right, here we go! My first non-English film!

This movie came out in 2000, and I have a rule: if a movie is more than 10 years old, I’m allowed to spoil it.

Anywho, the film is set in 18th century China (or thereabouts–it’s a version of China where people can fly, so I’m not sure they were super bothered about historical accuracy). Shu Lien and Li Mu Bai are professional swordfighters who have loved each other for years and won’t admit it. Jen is an aristocrat who’s engaged to be married, and isn’t thrilled about it for two reasons: she’s secretly an expert martial artist herself, and she’s in love with a desert bandit named Lo. The characters’ paths converge when Mu Bai decides to retire and give his legendary sword, the Green Destiny, to a trusted friend, only for Jen to steal the sword from under the trusted friend’s nose. As Mu Bai and Shu Lien track down the thief, they find out she may be connected to Jade Fox, the woman who killed their former master.

Much kicking ensues.

Some stabbing, too.

The first thing I have to talk about, regarding this movie, is the sheer number of epic fight scenes it has. If you edited together all the fight scenes in The MatrixSerenity and the Bourne trilogy, I bet they would only last half as long as the fights in this movie. And they’d only be half as awesome. We’ve got rooftop fights, desert fights, treetop fights, restaurant fights, etc., all with just about every weapon imaginable. And it’s obvious that all of the actors are doing their own stunts.  (It’s also obvious that they’re on wires whenever they “fly,” but whatever.) Also, the Green Destiny sword is seriously cool.

But this movie isn’t all rooftop fights. It also takes a lot of time to build up each character and their motivations. Even though pretty much everyone in the movie is an expert fighter, usually with mystical powers to boot, they’re all being held back by something. For Mu Bai and Shu Lien, it’s their past, which is keeping them apart even though they love each other. For Jade Fox, it’s her lack of education and her bitterness towards those martial artists who were able to get ahead of her. For Jen, it’s society’s expectations.

You have to marry a guy you don’t care about and give up all your freedom–but at least you’ll look stunning!

To me, one of the most interesting things about this story is how each female character deals with those societal expectations. In a Hollywood movie, I feel like all these characters would be hyped up as “empowered” women. After all, they spend a good chunk of the movie kicking dudes in the head and talking about how awesome their kung fu is, and in Hollywood, that’s all it takes to be a Strong Female Character. But here, despite their ultra-competence, they’re all still trapped by their gender. I got the sense that one of the reasons Shu Lien doesn’t just tell Mu Bai how she feels is that she’s afraid she would be expected to settle down and give up the whole swordfighting thing if she was married. Jade Fox’s explicit reason for turning evil was that Mu Bai’s master wouldn’t give her the same training he gave the male warriors (she never even learned to read). And Jen, despite being capable of beating up a whole restaurant full of bigger fighters, still can’t have the life she wants. Her frustration with the system, and distrust of everyone even slightly associated with it, leads her to do so many shady things that she ends up destroying her chances of freedom and being driven to suicide (maybe–the ending is pretty ambiguous, but that’s one interpretation). Basically, none of them finds a solution: retaliating against the sexist system doesn’t end well, but neither does going along with it. It’s a dilemma many women have faced throughout history, and not just in China.

Things I Had to Look Up: Subtitles make the story very easy to follow, but there were still a few China-specific references I didn’t understand right away. 1. Lots of references to “Giang Hu,” which apparently is a term for an underground community of martial artists in the wuxia genre to which this movie belongs–and/or real life gangs. 2. When Jen and her boyfriend first meet, they have a conversation where she claims to be “a real Manchurian,” and he responds that he thought she was a Han. According to Wikipedia, these are two different Chinese ethnic groups with their own languages and cultures, both of which were the “ruling class” in China at different periods of history. (I should probably have known this already, but didn’t.) 3. Finally, I had to do some research to find out why Jen and Lo’s names don’t sound even remotely like how they’re spelled in the subtitles. Turns out it’s because, in the Chinese script, their names are actually “Jiaolong” and “Xiaohu” respectively–names that refer to a type of dragon and a “little tiger.” Which is as close as I could get to figuring out what the title means.

I guess she’s sort of hidden in this scene? He still doesn’t do much crouching, though.

I really enjoyed Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. It’s got solid acting, a well-written story, and tons of great action. And I feel like it has enough subtext and symbolism to make repeat viewings worthwhile. Which is probably why it’s one of the most popular Chinese movies in America. Perhaps next month I’ll go with something slightly less well-known in these parts. But right now, I really just want to learn kung fu.

Grade: A

Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them

I love Harry Potter as much as the next person, but it’s taken me a while to go see the latest movie set in the wizarding world. This is because I don’t believe in unnecessary prequels (especially not when they get turned into their own multi-film series–I’m still mad at Peter Jackson for the Hobbit movies), and everything in me recoils at the idea of making a movie as a follow-up to a series of books. The Harry Potter story was completed satisfactorily almost 10 years ago, the film series finished up equally well in 2011, and Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them just seemed like a shameless money-grab to me.

But of course I had to see it anyway.

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WARNING: Neither the following review nor the movie will make any sense unless you’ve read all the Harry Potter books and seen all previous movies, preferably multiple times.

Fantastic Beasts takes place across the pond from its predecessors, during the rise of Gellert Grindelwald in the 1920s. Newt Scamander, a sort of wizarding zoologist, arrives in New York City with a suitcase full of magical creatures (the case is bigger on the inside). Almost as soon as he sets foot in America, several of the creatures get loose, which is particularly bad during a time when evil magic is on the rise and many Americans are starting to get suspicious of magical activity. While Newt begins an impromptu scavenger hunt through New York for the missing creatures, he gets mixed up with an ex-Auror and her mind-reading sister, a hapless muggle, and the ridiculously strict Magical Congress of the United States of America. Meanwhile, another magical threat is building in New York that makes even the most dangerous of Newt’s pets look tame.

I have to admit, I was pleasantly surprised by many things in this movie. First off, it has two very important things that the Harry Potter books lacked: a Hufflepuff who isn’t a total loser (Newt himself), and a heroic muggle (Newt’s friend Jacob Kowalski–who is actually called a “No-Maj,” which, if I’m being honest, is exactly the kind of stupid term I’d expect American wizards to come up with.) The lack of good muggles, in particular, has always been one of my biggest pet peeves about the Harry Potter universe, so Kowalski’s presence is greatly appreciated.

Good news, kids: You don’t need magic powers to be useful!

Fantastic Beasts may have been made for greedy purposes, but it’s clear that good ol’ JK still put quite a bit of thought into writing the script. It’s fun to get a detailed, but not overly-exposited, look at what the wizarding world is like in another country, and what sorts of things wizards get up to after they’re done with school. The beasts are indeed fantastic, especially the cute Niffler and the majestic Thunderbird. And Eddie Redmayne is as delightful as ever in his role as a socially awkward animal lover who’s a lot more competent than he seems.

Tone-wise, this movie resembles the later Harry Potter instalments a lot more than the early ones–which makes sense, since it has the same director. There are plenty of fun scenes with the beasts causing mischievous mayhem, but it earns its PG-13 rating with themes of child abuse and some fairly gruesome on-screen deaths. More annoyingly, it continues the later Harry Potter movies’ habit of having wizards cast wandless spells left and right, and fight duels that consist of two wands pointing energy at each other. Neither of these things ever happens in the books except under special circumstances, and neither has ever made much sense to me. Wands also seem to behave oddly like guns in several scenes–but then, this is America.

Even our fake magical government sucks.

I have a couple of complaints about this movie. One is that it’s too long. Overall, I think JK did a pretty good job balancing action and exposition in this introduction to another side of her universe, but there are still several rather slow scenes–and an entire subplot involving a newspaper editor and his family–that could have been cut without damaging the story at all. The ending, in particular, seemed to drag on.

The other problem is that THEY’RE MAKING FOUR MORE OF THESE. That’s more than half the number of actual Harry Potter movies, and if all of them make money–which they will–I have no reason to believe Warner Brothers will stop there. One spin-off movie I could understand, but there is just not enough plot in this story, or its scant source material, to justify that kind of bloated franchise. When will we let Harry rest?

The one good thing about getting a whole prequel series is that we might eventually see the famous duel between Dumbledore and Grindelwald. And my excitement over that has now been diminished by the fact that Johnny Depp, of all people, is playing Grindelwald. I like Depp’s acting for certain, very specific roles (mainly bonkers ones), but I just can’t imagine taking him seriously as Wizard Hitler. And his brief cameo in this movie did not reassure me.

Sorry, but this guy was a much better villain.

But in the end, there’s a certain amount of storytelling magic that the Harry Potter universe just can’t seem to shake, however hard it tries. This movie has some genuinely heartwarming moments, some surprises, and plenty of fun in between. It avoids many of the common pitfalls of an unnecessary spin-off (like copying the plot of its predecessor), and actually manages to feel like a pretty original movie, even though it takes place in a familiar universe. Much like the Harry Potter books, it has several characters I instantly fell in love with (especially Newt, because Eddie Redmayne), and as much as I hate the idea of four more sequels, I won’t mind seeing what happens to some of these chaps later on.

Did this movie need to be made? No. But now that it’s here, we might as well enjoy it for the quite decent story it is, and remember that the original Harry Potter books will always be around for us purists.

And while we’re at it, let’s enjoy Eddie’s face, for it brings happiness and joy.

Grade: B+