Monday, November 21, 2016

Something unexpected

In among all the umpteen sequels and prequels and reboots and preboots and re-quels we've gotten in the past ten years, most of us just humbly request for something, anything, to take us by surprise.

We recognize the need to reboot and preboot and sequelize. We've given up pressing the position that we should expect and demand new content involving unproven commodities. (Well, the realists among us have given up that fight, anyway.) But it is too much to ask just to get something a little unexpected?

In many cases, it is, as studios tend to err on the side of safety. But not always. And sometimes, just something small that's unexpected is enough to feel invigorating.

Warner Brothers is probably erring on the side of safety as well in its resumption of the Harry Potter series with a prequel set in the 1920s. (I guess it's not technically a Harry Potter movie -- it's "from J.K. Rowling's Wizarding World.") A lot of what's there is to cater to our comfort zone.

But there was also something unexpected that I found delightful.

That is the character of Jacob Kowalski, played by Dan Fogler.

Some mild spoilers to follow. 

When I first saw Fogler on-screen in the movie -- waiting in a bank to have a loan approved for opening a bakery -- I figured the character was likely to appear in one scene. A husky Polish baker with a thick working class accent is simply not likely to play a very prominent role in a Harry Potter movie.

Not only does Fogler end up playing a prominent role, but it kind of becomes his story, in a way.

Fogler is along for this entire ride, which I found quite magical in spots. And he is almost never used as I expected him to be. And he is almost always a joy to behold.

He's our surrogate, a guy taking a peek behind the curtain at a world of wands and wizards and witches that he never knew existed. Having been exposed to magic accidentally, upon picking up an egg that the absent-minded Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) left on the seat next to him, and then watching that egg hatch into a little blue snake, but more importantly, also being whisked across a bank hallway and through a wall just with a wave of Scarmander's wand, Kowalski is meant to be "obliviated." Fans of Men in Black will be familiar with the concept -- it's a way of making people forget the weird thing they just saw so they won't tell others about it. (And actually, it may have appeared in the previous Potter books and movies as well, though I don't recall.)

But for various reasons and at various different times, Kowalski avoids obliviation. He goes deeper down this rabbit hole, and a guy who seems like he would have been brought on for one scene -- even if he stole that scene -- is on board for the whole movie.

And so he doesn't just steal that scene, he steals the whole movie.

The things I love about his character are numerous. For one, the filmmakers didn't look at his portly frame and decide to play it for laughs. Yeah, there's the scene where he struggles to stuff himself into a suitcase (don't ponder that too closely until you've seen the movie) because his midsection catches on the sides of the case. But generally, this movie has no interest in turning him into a figure of fun. There's a moment when Scamander discusses the symptoms of being bitten by one of the creatures that escaped his case -- a creature that bit Kowalski -- and he mentions that among the first is fire coming out of his anus. I fully expected to see fire come out of Dan Fogler's anus at some point in this movie, because it was teased. But that never happened, and the movie was all the better for it.

Not only that, but this actually becomes a love story between Kowalski and the equally adorable Queenie, a gifted woman who can read thoughts. Alison Sudol plays Queenie, and she just makes your toes curl. They don't make for a logical couple, but they each amaze each other -- she's never met a Muggle (they call them Non-Majes in America) and he's never met, well, someone so beautful, but also someone who practices magic. A cute and, gosh darn it, believable mutual attraction develops between them.

But mostly I just like how Fogler plays this character. He's appropriately amazed at the sights that are being unveiled to him, but he doesn't waste more than the requisite amount of time asking whether he's dreaming or not believing his eyes. He incorporates himself into the wizarding world effectively and thoroughly. He's not the cowardly comic relief who is constantly afraid of what thing he never knew existed might try to get him next. He's a lover and a fighter, a man confident in what he brings to the table and how he can contribute.

Now a bit of a more significant spoiler.

But I think my favorite scene involving the character was his last one, or really, his second-to-last one (was it third-to-last? one of his final scenes, anyway). Having eluded being obliviated for the whole movie, Kowalski, under orders from the wizarding president, agrees to step out into the rain that's falling on New York, which has obliviated all the witnesses to what took place during the film's admittedly sort of comic book movie cataclysm finale. He desperately doesn't want to forget what he's seen or a woman he may love, but he's learned enough to know that these are the rules and he must abide by them.

And what does he do?

He cries.

Not big, blubbery tears, the kind that would stick him back in that category of hefty comic relief. No, just quiet, dignified, earnest tears, the tears that represent both his bravery and a recognition that he's losing something valuable to him. They're the tears of someone who doesn't want to let go of something great, but realizes he must.

As Jacob Kowalski kept surprising us up until the very end of the movie, and that meant the movie itself did as well, I kind of wanted to shed my own tears. I didn't, but the emotion of the moment was enough that I might have, under other circumstances.

So when someone tells you the new Harry Potter movie is yet another money-grubbing sequel made only for the profit of the studio, and lacks any sense of soul or wonder, don't believe them. Just go see the movie yourself.

You might be surprised.

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