With this week's Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them unleashing magic and monsters on period New York, we thought it worth remembering another film where the mean streets went mystical - Cast a Deadly Spell.
Directed by Douglas Watkin, an exciting Indigenous filmmaker from Queensland making his first feature length documentary after twenty years in television, Ella is the story of the very first indigenous dancer to be selected for the Australian Ballet, Ella Havelka.
Ella’s introduction to dance began at The Dubbo Ballet Studio, and with the help of scholarships and hand-me-down tutus, she quickly started winning local Eisteddfods and was soon dancing six days a week. In 2009, after four years of training in The Australian Ballet School in Melbourne, Ella joined Bangarra, the Sydney-based Indigenous dance company, where she learnt not only the very different rigours of contemporary dance, but began a powerful and moving journey of self-discovery into her Indigenous heritage. It was not until 2012 when Bangarra did a joint performance with The Australian Ballet – Warumuk: In The Dark Night – that the call of the ballet was re-ignited within Ella. She accepted an offer to become the first Indigenous dancer to join The Australian Ballet in its 50-year history.
The eponymous film follows Ella as she faces the challenges of adapting back to being en pointe after four years of barefoot dancing with Bangarra, and we see her face fierce competition for roles. We also go with The Australian Ballet on tour to China, where Ella dances in Graeme Murphy’s celebrated interpretation of Swan Lake in Beijing.
Woven throughout the film is a moving personal journey back to Ella’s roots. Guided by her mother, Ella begins to reconnect with her Indigenous culture, hearing Wiradjuri language, engaging in basket weaving with Elders, and visiting the gravesites of her people for the first time. She also explores her childhood. Ultimately, we follow Ella as she finds her own unique form of expression through dance, choreographing her own work. Using a blend of Bangarra’s contemporary Indigenous styles and traditional western ballet, Ella finally expresses herself in her own distinctive way.
Watkin’s direction is modest but skilful, allowing Ella’s story to be told nicely without any personal showboating getting in the way. The photography is world-class, featuring some truly hypnotising dance sequences that convey the perfect balance between aesthetics and substance. Ella isn’t just a pretty picture, but a well packaged glimpse into a very valuable story. Ella is an important project, and Watkin has been clever and measured in his response to a very worthy story. It’s all-together dreamy, heroic, and genuine – don’t miss it!
Prequels can be a tricky business, as George Lucas would likely tell you. But with Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them, J.K. Rowling – the creator, of course, of the Harry Potter series – has taken a sensible, measured approach to the format, expanding her narrative universe instead of plundering it. There are no recurring characters (yet) from the Harry Potter films, and the time gap between this new installment and the last in the prior series (five years) offers appropriate breathing room and respect. The story and set-up is new, and feels essentially fresh. For fans, however, there are references aplenty, and tonally, Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them fits very much within the Harry Potter universe, aided immeasurably by the sure hand of director, David Yates, who helmed the last clutch of installments in the original series.
With a major flourish, the film moves the action in both time and space, setting up its exciting new world in 1920s America. Here we meet Eddie Redmayne’s Newt Scamander, a British wizard (and a Hogwarts graduate) and field researcher in magical creatures who becomes caught up in a major power struggle amongst America’s magical elite, which threatens the uneasy relationship between the wizarding world and the far more prosaic one of the non-magical. When his creatures are blamed for a number of mysterious, deadly occurrences, the stumbling, uncertain Newt is slowly revealed to be a hero of the most unconventional kind.
It’s here that Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them is at its most successful. Eddie Redmayne is wonderfully sweet, eccentric, and charming as Newt, and as Harry had Hermione and Ron, so this new wizard is gifted with a terrific crew of sidekicks. Katherine Waterston is a delight as Porpentina Goldstein (a lowly worker at The Magical Congress Of The United States Of America who crosses paths with Newt and becomes involved in the adventure), but the scene stealing largely comes courtesy of Alison Sudol (as Porpentina breathy, sexy, proto-Marilyn Monroe sister, Queenie) and Dan Fogler (as big hearted baker, Jacob Kowalski, a muggle – or to use the American parlance, No-Maj – whose eyes are amusingly opened to the greater world around him). They’re an entertaining, instantly loveable gaggle of misfits, and they effectively ground the film as now-all-too-familiar CGI villainous orbs (or something) blast and blur their way across the screen.
This brand of CGI destruction plagues most blockbusters now (as does slightly muddled storytelling), and Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them is no exception. There is, however, more than enough to counter-balance this undeniable sense of messiness. The cast of largely British actors (ironic considering that the American setting would have finally allowed Hollywood’s stars to rumble wholeheartedly into J.K. Rowling’s wizarding world) is strong, with Colin Farrell menacing as a top-tier wizard and Samantha Morton terrifying as a magic-hating political mobiliser. Newt’s monsters, meanwhile, are kooky and craftily imagined. And though much of the plot feels like foundation-laying for the franchise to follow, Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them is rich with ideas and imagination, adding ingeniously to the Harry Potter mythos rather than taking away from it.