REVIEW: Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore

It was an interesting take… but did it really do its job?

To long-time Harry Potter fans like myself, seeing the wizarding world on screen again is a big pleasure. Listening to the famous Harry Potter anthem always gives me the shivers, and it did so this time when the anthem was played in the new Fantastic Beasts series. The jolt is from the nostalgia of the story of the boy who lived; it is hard to separate the Harry Potter series from this new spin-off that takes place between. In this sense, this movie was highly interesting in showing diversity in characters and location. We have seen more racial diversity in roles not to mention the story happening outside the UK too, in contrast with the Harry Potter series where the wizarding world seemed to be centered around Hogwarts. The scene where the Manhatten bridge was emphasized in the background was not only pretty but symbolized this change. However, there are some points that did not seem right in consideration of the prior series:

  1. Would the wizards, who have their organized ministry, solely depend on an animal to choose their leader? I guess this was necessary to add a reason for Newt to join the adventure and focus more on Fantastic beasts as the title suggests, but this election process was even odder because the reason why the wizarding world is doing that is not fully explored but suggested abruptly. The audience hears that the animal would ‘bow’ to a great soul and thus is used to choose a leader. It sounds a bit weird, and no further details were given or world-building hadn’t been done to make the story more believable.
  2. The existence of an international wizarding organization and a leader seems to be a bit odd-if such a thing existed, why didn’t they intervene when Voldemort threatened peace?

Story-wise, there were also some issues. Firstly, the charm of the characters is weak because it is told, not shown; making it hard for the audience to resonate with them. For example, Albus Dumbledore suddenly praises Newt after he himself did a grand duel with Grindelwald, and says that he couldn’t have defeated Grindelwald if Newt haven’t helped. However, Newt’s brilliance was not shown in this film, except for the time when he danced to a herd of magical lobsters. The appraise seemed a bit sudden, and so was the headmaster’s praise of Mr. Kowalski. Albus Dumbledore insists that he has a good heart, but the audience has left a mystery about why it is so. In general, I feel that too many stories needed to be in the same movie that none of them was developed to a level that would be interesting. Many ideas, such as the wizarding election, Credence’s troubles, and Aberforth’s conflict with Albus were just briefly mentioned and not discussed thoroughly. Characters are suddenly thrown into the story, without any explanation on why they have to be there. However, the exploration is what makes the audience like the character and fall for the story. This movie, in that sense, did not do such a great job. We’ll see how the next episode of the series, which will be sure to be produced considering how the story ended, may try to improve the loose storyline.

PREVIEW: Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore

J.K. Rowling’s magical world is hitting the screen again in the State theater. Since the beloved motive series of the boy who lived(Harry Potter) ended on 2011, the legacy of the wizarding world is being continued through another world lead by Eddie Redmane as Newt Scamander. This new series follow a young man who devotes himself to the care of magical animals who happens to find that more life than the animals he is taking care of, in fact, a big part of the wizarding world, might depend on him. While the story is not directly related to the Harry Potter series, it will also intrigue the original Harry Potter fans by unveiling the story of Albus Dumbledore, the wise and mysterious headmaster from the original series, when he didn’t have the long, dragging beard. The role is played by Jude Law in the new series-this gives some hints about the characteristics of the wise man in his young days!
This series kicked off with question mark hovering over the fans of the series as it had a big casting change on one of its main character and villain(?), Grindelwald – the character was starred by Johnny Depp untill the second motive of the series, but will be played by Mads Mikkelsen from this movie. How this change will affect the color of the series; we shall find out soon enough.

REVIEW: Turning Red

Turning Red was an adorable, true-to-form triumph. The pixar film deals with everything from generational trauma, female friendships and relationships, to teenage independence – it’s a hysterical joy to watch.

Leaning into telling a deeply personal narrative that draws heavily on the director Domee Shi’s background and childhood experiences made the film all the more charming and insightful. I made many points of connection and felt truly heard through some of the sentiments, frustrations, and challenges depicted throughout the movie. There were even a few that felt a little too spot on.

Set in the early 2000’s, the movie gushed out an onslaught of nostalgia for a time I wasn’t even familiar with. From the flip phones to the girls lining up at an actual ticket box office right before the show, to Bootylicious, the movie is riddled with small shout outs to this era.

Care-to-detail made all the difference. Tiny mementos like the stick-on star earrings Mei adorns because her mom probably doesn’t let her get them pierced and the pastel neon lofi-like sunsets oozed with familiarity. The soothing yet brightly-colored scenery felt like a love letter to classic Ghibli films, another essential from the watchlist of my adolescent years. From the obsession with sparkly eyes, to making ‘eraser crumbs’ by rubbing the dead skin on your hands, this film brought up so many details of my childhood that I had forgotten myself.

Turning Red focuses mainly on Mei’s bumpy but trying relationship with her mother. Mother-daughter relationships are complicated from the get go, but this one hits extra close to home. The beginning of the film shows Mei and her mother setting up their family temple together – like mother, like daughter, they’re so in sync.

As a 13-year old girl, Mei is really hard on herself. With a mom who still treats her like a child, and an absurd amount of pressure on her shoulders, even puberty is put on the backburner. Mei juggles the fear of letting everyone down and the desire for her mom’s approval, all while wanting the simple teenage pleasure of being obsessed with a boy band. As if her body going through changes isn’t enough, Mei feels like “all her [mother’s] hopes and dreams are pinned on me.”

Mei truly knows what it’s like to have a mother with no chill. The mortification of your mom performing overprotective and intrusive things along with the pressures as one becomes a teenager, especially in Asian households and families – it’s no easy feat. “The daisy mart has lost a loyal customer today.” I’ve definitely witnessed my mom using that exact phrasing, and it gets no less nails-scoring-palms each time it’s recited. And the Powerpoint presentation is so… I’ve been there. I’ve gone through notepads of pros and cons lists and had my fair share of compelling speeches at dinner time. The movie gets it so right – it’s right around 13 when you graduate from amateur efforts like begging, and these tactics start to finally work.

   

But in these relationships where fear tactics and ultimatums are regular occurrences, something, someone, is bound to snap.

It was funny to watch this with my family (a trio of a mother and two daughters), because my sister and I made sure to make our mom use this as an opportunity for self-betterment. That weekend, my mom had just had a huge fight with my sister about going to a concert (“Mom, are you seeing the parallels??”), and we were trying to utilize this film to help us all learn the value of perspective.

Despite the film heavily following Mei, we also come to understand Mei’s mother by meeting her as a teenager. We learn that there’s a pattern of sorts: Mei’s mom fears her own mom, and there are ritual feelings of insufficiency passed down with each generation. And yet, Mei’s mom also expresses that there is a lot of guilt that comes with hurting your own mom. She is fighting to not let the same thing happen between her and her daughter. 

Through Mei’s mom’s point of view, both Mei and the audience are able to empathize with the mom, rather than antagonize her. “I’m not good enough for her or anyone,” teenage Mei’s mom says. The two connect in that aspect. “But it isn’t true,” my mom tearfully said, which Mei says not 60 seconds later, verbatim. My sister and I laughed with each other at this, because maybe Mission Reflection was a success.

The film is not a letter of resentment, but a holistic picture of three generations of women. Turning Red accurately documents the growing pains of maternal relationships. Because no matter how strained their connection, the grandmother is fiercely set on “not losing my daughter.” Their family needs each other and cares for one another more than anything. But luckily, they learn that this love cannot interfere with autonomy and self-agency. As one of the auntie’s says: “It’s her life, now move.” – to all of our thoughts!

Mei and a younger version of her mom

Maybe my shared experience with the characters is what made Turning Red stand out to me. But whether or not you identify as an Asian woman or have a helicopter parent, I deeply recommend giving the film a try. In a Wired review, Amit Katwala notes that, “predictably, some reviewers didn’t get it—after movies about robots and talking cars and clown fish, they felt a story about a 13-year-old Chinese girl was too unrelatable, too “narrow” and “limiting in scope.” But ultimately, the whole point of cinema is to transport you into the head of someone you’ve never met and teach you something about yourself in the process.”

Superhero shot of Mei poofing through the city to get to the 4town concert – iconic.

And this movie took risks – several times, I caught myself with mouth hanging open, just thrilled by the audacity these creators had. Specifically, Mei’s worst-nightmare-come-to-life is animated in such a way that my family truly believed it was a dream, so the second-hand embarrassment we were suffering from would surely get reimbursed, right? Just wake up Mei! 

… She was not, in fact, sleeping. (You’ll know exactly which scene when it happens.) Instead, she uses the line we all have once or twice: “I’ll just go to sleep and when I wake up this will all be over.” And if that isn’t the epitome of a fresh-becoming teenager.

From the mention of periods to the animations of pads of all sizes and flows, I want to highly praise the movie for throwing in what is a universal burden for so many women with such casualness. That, along with Pixar’s recent few films completely obliterating the Bechdel test by focusing on relationships between women, made Turning Red such a precious gem. After all, where else will the words “stripper music” and “awooga” appear in a children’s movie?

   

Mei performing gyrations in front of her mother to buy time for her family to perform the ritual

REVIEW: M-agination Film Festival

After two years away due to the pandemic, the M-agination Annual Film Festival made a reappearance at the Michigan Theater this week. The film festival showcased 13 short films, all of them written, produced, and acted by students.

I was largely impressed by the range and quality of these productions. There were a good amount of comedy sketches, some of which fell flat and felt like a group of friends just messing around on camera. Some of them, however, had me laughing out loud in my seat. I particularly enjoyed “Buster,” a gruesome short film about a sentient pet rock, and “Dunked,” a well-executed comedy in which nothing really made sense. There were also a handful of more serious, dramatic pieces, including the spooky, suspenseful short “Familiar,” which I was surprised to find out was partially filmed in my campus residence. I was particularly struck by a piece called “Leisure Activities,” which told a story with no words at all about someone going into the woods to paint. The cinematography and coloring in this one in particular that made this one stand out to me as a masterpiece. 

Overall, I really enjoyed this film festival. The “short” nature of short films meant that we got to see 13 different stories, and there was something for everyone. M-agination created a fun night out–I hope they are able to host their festival next year as well! 

REVIEW: Reservoir Dogs

Reservoir Dogs has Quentin Tarantino’s fingerprints all over it— or, rather, it is Tarantino’s fingerprint. The plot revolves around a group of laughably dysfunctional thieves that encounter trouble when an undercover cop joins their diamond heist. Obscenity-heavy dialogue bounces between twisted characters in a landscape so grim and hopeless that it borders on absurd. Morality is skewed in Tarantino’s world— one minute, the group is discussing the necessity of tipping waitresses, and the next minute a wailing bloodbath is dismissed as a careless blunder. As his writing and directing debut, Reservoir Dogs not-so-gracefully showcases Tarantino’s filmmaking and character-building style; he invalidates the idea that his characters can be redeemed but retains their humanity through witty conversations and vulnerable relationships. There are no villains, heroes, or even a plot structure that feels rewarding; everything is justified and so everything is disappointing. It’s a caricature of the consequences and tragedy of the real world, just framed in a more shocking and theatrical context, and with a lot more blood for a dramatic flourish.

Watching this movie in the Michigan Theatre felt like committing a sin. Reservoir Dogs felt too gritty and grotesque for the ornate and gilded antiquity of the theatre, creating this visceral irony. The experience itself was an oxymoron. Watching the film in such a comfortable space reminded me of the experience of watching Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight, a similarly gruesome tale of bloody stand-offs and unredeemable acts. There is no fitting place to watch these movies without feeling strangely guilty and disturbed, which I’m beginning to think is exactly the feeling Tarantino is trying to evoke. Reservoir Dogs is intended to make you squirm in your seat and want to avert your eyes but the magnetism of the characters won’t let you. This is bound to be a memorable experience regardless of whether you like the movie or not.

Being his directorial debut, Reservoir Dogs isn’t without its flaws. I had predicted that there would be close-ups of some feminine feet in this film— a weird fetish of Tarantino’s— but there were not. I attribute this to the fact that there were zero women in this movie for more than a brief second. Whether or not this is a flaw is a complicated question, because Reservoir Dogs is mostly set in a claustrophobic space with just a few key characters and the film makes a point of subtly ridiculing the hypermasculinity of the group. Constantly screaming at each other, the group of thieves is everything but emotional apt and professional. The explicit racism in the dialogue also felt a bit too far at times, although it also functioned to deepen the immorality of the characters. The script’s edginess felt a little forceful and phony but retained its entertainment value overall.

The consensus is that Reservoir Dogs is a staple Tarantino, but that also means it isn’t for everyone. If you’re in the mood to laugh a little while feeling thoroughly disturbed, check it out at your own risk. Catch another movie at the Michigan Theatre before the year ends. Don’t miss out on the cheap student tickets!

REVIEW: Compartment No. 6

Compartment No. 6, a film by Finnish director Juho Kuosmanen was the kind of film that really makes you forget you’re sitting in a theater. The majority of the film consists of two travelers sharing a cabin on a sleeper train, heading from Moscow to Murmansk, Russia. Laura is a Finnish academic coping with the inevitable dissolution of her relationship while Lyokha is a Russian working-class man headed to make some money in the mines at their destination. Laura is conversely headed to see a set of petroglyphs as a historic endeavor, a trip that her sort-of-but-not-quite ex-partner dropped out from.

 

It feels a little tired to follow the arc of “they can’t stand each other” to “they have a snow ball fight, giggling and red-nosed,” but there’s a sense of sincerity to this film that is impossible to shake. This could very well be due to the fact that I’m not familiar with Eastern European culture and the lived realities of these places, but the setting felt as though it was constructed with a careful and affectionate eye.

 

The train as a center of activity and plot development was fantastic. In such a small space there seems to be an entire world constructed, as the two characters venture throughout various locations within the train. This kind of claustrophobia also lends itself to an accelerated intimacy, both in terms of the visual framing of the characters and the actual plot.

 

I’m still trying to decide how I feel about the ending of this film. I suppose I really mean the final act, as I’m wondering if it was entirely necessary. This section leaves the train and thus shifts contexts in a way that, yes, wraps everything up, but doesn’t quite align with the rhythm of the rest of the film. I think I also would have liked more ambiguity to the way their relationship ends, but at the same time I can’t be mad that this part of the movie finished the story off in a satisfying and sweet way.

 

At the end of the day, though, this film consists of every beat you hope to hit when travelling: interesting and frequent new characters, a feeling of imminent change, and an understanding that everything is so bittersweetly temporary. This movie is well worth a watch, and is sure to remain in viewers’ minds as we all wait for our next train to catch.