The most elusive of assets in any yarn about whimsical adventure is a writer’s confidence in the material: the assuredness that words and actions have profound ramifications towards a story arc and its characters. Those that lack such an assertion usually become lost in their own inspiration, and rarely offer any sort of significance other than vague interludes of wonder. The new “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” a film within the “Harry Potter” universe that arrives just as the demand for franchise consistency has awoken in the hearts of moviegoers, is of the latter distinction – certainly ambitious in scope and filled with images as enchanting as they are sharp, it rarely seems to know what it has in mind for the ambitious events that are destined to play out. Instead there are only rough connotations for us to rely on; it tells the story of Newt (Eddie Redmayne), a former student of Hogwarts who has arrived in New York carrying a suspicious briefcase filled with magical creatures from the wizarding world to, I suppose, research their bizarre behavior without overreaching influences. Unfortunately, chaos ensues in the presence of an unknowing witness and Newt’s creature are set free in the city, just as the divide between human and magic worlds runs dangerously blurred.
There is a wide array of sensations one is apt to experience while watching the new “Doctor Strange,” but the most inexplicable of the arsenal is an unflinching sense of plausibility – the idea that something so seemingly absurd or above the trajectory of audience absorption can feel so thoroughly believable when spied through zealous camera lenses. A basic reading of a plot synopsis certainly contradicts that assumption, and no wonder: the story, about a brilliant doctor who is crippled in an accident, goes on a mystical retreat, discovers astral projection and literally learns how to bend time seems like nothing more than self-indulgent fantasy. But Scott Derrickson, the motivated filmmaker behind Hollywood’s latest excursion into the pages of colorful comic books, takes an approach far more cognizant than most others would, and what emerges on screen far exceeds the cynical expectations of what we routinely offer this genre. Certainly the details have a familiar air to them – the visuals echo “Inception,” the premise recalls elements of “Batman Begins” and the characters are reminiscent of those contained in “The Matrix”, for example – but so infrequently do such things come together in the service of such an engrossing story, much less a mere suggestion of intrigue.
The two most important memories in Chiron’s life occur on a beach: one early on when a man acting as a parental figure teaches him how to swim, and one in adolescence when he shares a private encounter with a buddy from school. Both moments are catalysts that allow uncertain eyes to peer beyond the shadows and see a lost part of one’s identity, but observant members of the audience will sense their significance stretching beyond simple narrative agendas. Perhaps that is because their underlying intent is substantiated by the profound depth of writing, which tells the story of a sad introvert whose dueling personal distinctions make him an unwanted target of peer bullying. Perhaps it comes down to the riskiness of the ideas, in themselves a reach for any endeavor piercing the membrane of the mainstream. But it is the fact they exist at all in the walls of the same movie that persists as the undeniable force of wonder. The heartbreaking candor at work in Barry Jenkins’ rich character study amounts to some of the most effective dramatic intensity of the year – no question about that – yet rarely has such a story allowed these details to shape the surface so vividly, especially in the midst of a frontal confrontation with the harrowing prejudices that plague those within their own isolated worlds.
Most arguments about the validity of historical events originate from a flaw in the details, and none have thus far been discovered that would alter most of our personal feelings about the atrocities of World War II. A lifetime’s worth of stories and photographs are all that remain of the horror of the Nazi era, for instance, but with them rests a certainty that seems impossible to negate, even from the perspective of those completely removed from the prospect of research or understanding. But in some circles is the pessimism to challenge the very notion of the existence of the holocaust itself – an implication that one’s failure to document an important observation (or to point to a superficial flaw, like the design mechanic of the construction of a camp) must automatically negate the fact that so many people were systematically killed by German fascists. Those sorts are the kind of people who passively nod with the likes of David Duke, once quoted as saying that “we must free the American government from subservient Jewish interests.”
“Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children” is not the sort of excursion that is alien to the behaviors of the eccentric Tim Burton, but unlike a plethora of the director’s recent output it sticks to you with a certain romanticized clarity, as if plucked from some untapped corner of his exhausted imagination. Some credit can be attributed to sharpness of the visuals and even the dexterity of the characterizations, sure, but the most certain of its qualities rests in the writing; based on a popular young adult novel by Ransom Riggs, here is a story tailor-made for the sensibilities of a dreamer, enriched by a consistency in the details that leave their viewers fascinated, shocked and at times enamored. Yet even enthusiasts of the Burton doctrine might find themselves bewildered enough in those realities to stand back in charmed perplexity – as much as they are likely to be thankful the opportunity to be once again swept up in a rewarding adventure, some will be inclined to attach footnotes. A filmmaker this gifted and this pointed in his observations is too precious a gift to be a slave to formula, and yet “Peregrine” represents a departure from that trend rather than the persistence of his individualism.
Every day she finds herself on a train staring intensely out the window, taking an interest in a set of lives that exist among a row of houses overlooking the tracks. They are the faces of people she knows little of, other than what her mind has imagined; one of them is a beautiful blond who wanders into the light full of joy and smiles, and the other is a lustful husband who devours every morsel of her beauty. To her those interactions represent a vicarious consolation of a life she once knew – an existence now etched into the recesses of a past apparently filled with tragedy and pathos. So obsessively does she correlate the two experiences, however, that inevitably they must bleed into one another, and in an opening narration there is a brief suggestion that their worlds are destined to end in fatalistic throes. Is that the pain of the past talking, or specific details she obsesses over? What is to come of a renewed interest from a nearby house in the same neighborhood, which may in fact be the source of her ongoing depression? The movie attempts to clarify the portrait by bouncing between three women as it attempts to frame them in a central story arc full of romance, deceit, mystery and uncertainty, yet it never dawns on any of them that they are participating in material that diminishes their value.