That’s Okay, Dumbledore, I Don’t Really Need to Know Your Secrets

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Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore (CREDIT:
Warner Bros. Pictures/Screenshot)

Starring: Eddie Redmayne, Jude Law, Mads Mikkelsen, Ezra Miller, Dan Fogler, Alison Sudol, Callum Turner, Jessica Williams, Katherine Waterston

Director: David Yates

Running Time: 142 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Wand Thrusts Knocking People Down

Release Date: April 15, 2022 (Theaters)

There’s one moment in Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore that left me responding with a resounding blank stare. Well, actually, there was more than one moment like that. But there was one particular instance where I’m pretty sure that the hoped-for reaction was instead a pumped fist and a round of hoots and hollers. If you’ve seen the trailer, you know what I’m talking about. One of our heroes informs us that their ragtag crew consists of a magizoologist, his assistant, “a wizard descended from a very old family,” a teacher, and a muggle. I guess the idea is that this isn’t exactly the A-team, but they all sound pretty capable to me! I can understand doubting the non-magical fellow, except that the previous two entries in this franchise have already established his bona fides. This all leads me to suspect that Dumbledore’s secrets aren’t as mind-blowing as advertised.

And that impenetrability doesn’t exactly pair well with the complications of watching something written by J.K. Rowling in 2022. If you’ve been fortunate enough to avoid her public persona the past several years, then I regret to inform you that she’s now just as famous for her highly public transphobic views about gender as she is for conjuring magical fantasy worlds. But hey, the Harry Potter saga preached a message of tolerance that seemed to stand in stark contrast to those opinions, so maybe Secrets of Dumbledore might as well, or at the very least be inoffensive.

But even beyond any moral reckonings, there is a mighty struggle at the core of watching this film. It has the vibe of a central creative voice given free rein to the point of absurdity. Rowling is credited as a co-screenwriter and one of five producers, but this is her brainchild set loose, unchecked and unbound. I’m not saying that someone needed to say no to her, but a little interpretation for those of us who don’t live in her brain would have been nice. The climactic battle is one of those scenes that’s so typical of modern blockbusters where the fate of the world hangs in the balance, and I just found myself profoundly confused. What are the stakes here? Why is Grindelwald such a bad wizard anyway? Maybe I missed an obvious explanation, and I’ll gladly welcome anyone who can point that out to me. But I can’t help but feel that I was watching someone tell us a story that was supposed to have self-evident importance, and that just wasn’t coming across.

Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore is Recommended If You Are: J.K. Rowling

Grade: 1.5 out of 5 Blood Pacts

‘Chaos Walking’ is an Impenetrable But Fascinating Piece of Dystopian Sci-Fi

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Chaos Walking (CREDIT: Lionsgate)

Starring: Tom Holland, Daisy Ridley, Mads Mikkelsen, David Oyelowo, Demián Bichir, Cynthia Erivo, Nick Jonas, Kurt Sutter, Óscar Jaenada

Director: Doug Liman

Running Time: 109 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Wham-Bam Action

Release Date: March 5, 2021

Chaos Walking is one of those movies where I’m not entirely sure what’s going on, but I kind of wish I did know more, because the things that I can make sense out of really do grab my attention. It’s an apt title then. Chaos really is walking everywhere, baby! That’s most obvious in the form of its signature visual motif: a swirl of inner thoughts dancing around people’s heads known as “the Noise.” All the men on this planet are afflicted by this condition, and it’s presented so matter-of-factly and therefore so effectively. I initially found it jarring, almost overwhelming, but within ten minutes it made all the sense in the world. I wish I could say the same thing about the plot, though. It’s driven by some sort of fight to figure out the secrets underpinning society, as is the case with so much dystopian sci-fi. I can tell that Tom Holland is earnest and well-intentioned and that Daisy Ridley is probably the key to everything and that Mads Mikkelsen doesn’t want them to succeed because he’s so grumpy, but beyond that, I feel like I needed to study the novel trilogy the film is based on to really understand the specifics.

If you can’t quite follow a movie’s storyline, you can at least vibe with it a bit if you can get on the wavelength of its action energy and its stylistic approaches. From a production design standpoint, Chaos Walking‘s decor is basically Hunger Games-esque arboreal but without the whiz-bang flamboyance. On a thematic level, it clearly has something to say about religion, though who’s to say what exactly that something is, though it’s at least fun to hear characters shout things like “I am the sinner! Purify my sin!” And on the action front, director Doug Liman is a reliable pro. He can even make you absolutely compelled by a chase scene that’s clearly a ripoff of Return of the Jedi‘s speeder bike sequence. (It even features Star Wars‘ very own Daisy Ridley, to boot!)

In many ways, Chaos Walking struck me as shouty, empty, and stitched-together. But I don’t want to dismiss it entirely, because it also struck me as intriguing, unique, and unburdened by expectations. This is a movie that’s comfortable being its own damn self, almost a little too much so. But that qualification is also why I admire it. At first glance, it looks like a generic slice of dystopian YA, but sticking with it allows it time to reveal that it’s a bit of an odd beast. Chaos is  indeed walking, and it’s reigning supreme, and I can’t argue with that.

Chaos Walking is Recommended If You Like: Lots of trees, Visually loud neuroticism, Differences between boys and girls writ large

Grade: 3 out of 5 Spackle Noises

Best TV Performances of the 2010s

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CREDIT: YouTube Screenshots

The extra-special-bonus Best of the 2010s lists keep arriving all this week! Yesterday, it was the Best Film Performances, now we’re moving to the small screen with the top TV Performances. And while the screens were smaller, the roles were arguably bigger, at least in terms of running time.

Regarding eligibility: all Lead and Supporting (but not Guest) performances from any show that aired at least one full season between 2010 and 2019 was eligible. Actors who played multiple characters in the same show were considered one performance. Actors who played the same character across multiple shows were also considered one performance.


Movie Review: ‘Arctic’ Strands Mads Mikkelsen in a Survival Story Stripped to Its Barest Essence

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CREDIT: Helen Sloan SMPSP/Bleecker Street

Starring: Mads Mikkelsen, María Thelma Smáradóttir

Director: Joe Penna

Running Time: 97 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Bloody Accident Images and the Effects of Extreme Cold

Release Date: February 1, 2019 (Limited)

Arctic is like a cinematic version of The Oregon Trail, that old computer game standby, insofar as it’s all about getting from point A to point B, with lots of deadly peril along the way. It also resembles many-generations-ago gaming in its decidedly no-frills nature. Mads Mikkelsen plays Overgård, a man who has been stranded alone in the title tundra for an unspecified period of time. There is hardly any dialogue because the only other credited character is a woman (María Thelma Smáradóttir) in a helicopter crash who is barely, if at all, conscious for most of the running time. The video game comparison does not track completely, as you never really got to know anyone in your Oregon Trail party, beyond all the diseases and snake bites they succumbed to. Arctic, on the other hand, does allow you to spend plenty of time getting up close and personal with Mikkelsen, but in fact you don’t get to know him that well, because he’s too busy just surviving.

Your appreciation of Arctic will depend a great deal on whether or not you believe minimalism is the best approach for this type of story. It certainly has its advantages, as the sheer imposing scope of the setting ensures that director and co-writer Joe Penna does not have to do anything fancy to convey the truth of Overgård’s situation. I enjoyed watching Arctic about as much as an afternoon spent playing The Oregon Trail. But I appreciated it much more deeply for its technical astuteness and efficiency. And it’s also now perfectly clear, if it wasn’t already, that Mads Mikkelsen is ideal company no matter what the occasion.

Arctic is Recommended If You Like: Survival Stories, Snow, Minimalism

Grade: 3 out of 5 SOS’s

This Is a Movie Review: ‘At Eternity’s Gate’ Reveals Willem Dafoe as an Uncanny Vincent van Gogh

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This review was originally published on News Cult in November 2018.

Starring: Willem Dafoe, Oscar Isaac, Rupert Friend, Mads Mikkelsen, Mathieu Amalric, Emmanuelle Seigner

Director: Julian Schnabel

Running Time: 110 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Intense Mental Turmoil and the Fallout of Self-Mutilation

Release Date: November 16, 2018 (Limited)

Wow, does Willem Dafoe sure look like Vincent van Gogh. I had never noticed the resemblance before, but now that the actor has played the Dutch painter in At Eternity’s Gate, I cannot unsee it, and I am left to wonder how I never noticed it before. Perhaps adding a bandage to cover up an ear (or where an ear should be) was essential for making the similarity come into focus. Casting a lookalike actor is not exactly the most impressive cinematic feat, but its effectiveness can transcend its lack of difficulty, as is the case here. The effect is complete only if the actor manages to forge an emotional connection as striking as the physical one. Dafoe is certainly up to the task, with the deep pools in his eyes conveying the sublime weight of the world that hung upon van Gogh’s face.

Van Gogh is one of the most famous examples of the troubled, mentally ill artist. Director Julian Schnabel does not romanticize that side of him, but nor does he attempt to remove it entirely from his creative process. Depression probably made it more difficult for van Gogh to get his work done, but it also forced him into certain perspectives that are strikingly illuminated in his paintings. However, At Eternity’s Gate is less about van Gogh’s creative process and more about how he relates to the world. He has trouble relating to most people, just as they have trouble understanding him. But he does have at least one cherished friendship, with his fellow post-Impressionist, Paul Gauguin (Oscar Isaac). My brother was telling me that he heard that Gauguin’s purpose in this film is essentially to regularly ask van Gogh, “You doing okay?” That is correct, and it is a crucial purpose. In the film, the ear-cutting incident is played as a moment of panic when van Gogh fears that Gauguin is going to abandon him. It is a highly relatable situation for anyone who has ever experienced anxiety related to their friends moving on in their lives, and it serves to make the struggles of someone who lived over 100 years ago less abstract. The world can be overwhelming, and it has been for some time. Somehow van Gogh made his mark on that journey. We should cherish that for what it is worth, whatever that inscrutable value is.

At Eternity’s Gate is Recommended If You Like: The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Melancholia, Willem Dafoe in a starring role

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Starry Nights


This Is a Movie Review: Doctor Strange

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This review was originally published on News Cult in October 2016.

Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Tilda Swinton, Mads Mikkelsen, Rachel McAdams

Directors: Scott Derrickson

Running Time: 115 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for fantastical bumps and bruises and a gruesome accident

Release Date: November 4, 2016

Now at 14 films strong, the Marvel Cinematic Universe shows no signs of abandoning its (consistently profitable) template: initial humbling, transformative origin, world-threatening climax. Doctor Strange is not interested in (or prohibited from) straying from that template, but it does mess with the rules in ways that do right by its protagonist.

That transgressive attitude is there right from the start. Stephen Strange is a highly respected and highly arrogant neurosurgeon whose superheroic path is catalyzed by a car wreck that is as horrific and as indulgent as a PG-13 rating allows. The comic book model often begins with these intense powder kegs, but they are rarely this visceral, unless they are making a show of being “adult,” which is not what this entry is all about.

With his hands left stubbornly tremorous, Strange is enticed by the promise of an alternative treatment in the mountains of Nepal. While initially prone to skepticism about the sorcery he encounters, he hears out the pitch, perhaps because all characters played by Chiwetel Ejiofor or Tilda Swinton exude confidence. Convincing Strange could have been drawn out, but that likely would have been tiresome, so instead he is soundly convinced by a cosmic trip that achieves cinematic psychedelia unheard of for decades.

Of course, this all leads to a grand climactic battle – this time, a traitorous rebellion led by a former pupil (Mads Mikkelsen). As usual, the entire planet is at threat, but Dr. Strange is sly about how this comes to pass. With much of the action taking place in the “Mirror Dimension” or “astral planes,” the world at large generally has no idea what is going on.

Basically, while Doctor Strange must work within constraints, it has no intention of dialing back the pizzazz. And why should it, considering that so many of its characters can bend the very nature of reality? The film’s most striking visuals – rolling skyscrapers, warped cityscapes – are obviously reminiscent of Inception. That earlier dreamscape flick famously utilized primarily practical effects, while Strange quite obviously employs CGI. That is not a knock – this is perhaps the most artful use of impractical effects of all time. As Stephen Strange learns in his hero’s journey, it’s all about playing to your strengths.

Doctor Strange is Recommended If You Like: Inception But Wish It Had Been More Maniacal, 2001, a Healthy Helping of Looney Tunes

Grade: 4 out of 5 Astral Bodies