Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald

November 21, 2018 by  
Filed under Movies

Brace yourself for this one. “Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them” was a charming, sometimes dazzling prequel entry into the Wizarding World Potterverse. It introduced us to a slew of new characters to latch onto, all of them being adults this time: Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) and Queenie Goldstein (Alison Sudol), and Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler). All of these characters were well defined and carried a nice little caper through to this sequel, “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald”.

Well, to say things have gotten a little more complicated is putting it mildly. Last time we saw them, Newt and Tina were trying to protect a poor orphaned child named Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller) who was being held at a boarding house where he was reviled and mistreated. His magic presence, known as an Obscurial, wreaked havoc in America and nearly exposed a wedge that was driving into the relations between magical and non-magical people (known as Muggles in England and…No-Maj in America. Which one sounds better to you?). Thought vanquished, Credence has popped up in Paris searching for his real mother. Meanwhile, the criminal Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp), has escaped while being transferred from his American prison to England to face charges in Europe. Apparently the mages of MACUSA didn’t watch the “Halloween” franchise.

Once again, much like the first “Fantastic Beasts”, this is a crime caper. Grindelwald is loose, trying to lure wizards into his little cult to promote the superiority of wizards over humans (::coughMagnetocough::), and Jacob and Queenie are visiting Newt after he returns to London and is propositioned to work for the Ministry of Magic to work with them in finding Credence. Newt isn’t into taking sides, and even languishes over another proposition from Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law) who has his own agenda. But Newt does eventually accept Dumbledore’s plea, and heads to Paris–mainly since he knows Tina is now there, also working for the Ministry. Newt also runs into his old friend (flame?) Leta Lestrange (Zoe Kravitz), who is engaged to his brother, Theseus (Callum Turner). Tina was led to believe Leta and Newt were engaged, which allows for a bit of a contrived love triangle, and adds a wrinkle to the main story.

Queenie and Jacob are initially just along for the ride, but Queenie finds herself drawn to Grindelwald’s idealism. He wants wizards to be free to do what they want: that includes, she thinks, partnership with the human of her choice. As it stands, wizards and humans shouldn’t mix. Mainly because there’s this silent peace (more like a Cold War) between them where they live harmoniously not acknowledging each others’ existence.

Credence is introduced to us as some kind of circus act along with a snake-woman (yeah, you know which one), Nagini (Claudia Kim). The two of them share a friendship, but Nagini’s future that we know puts a sour note on her character.

Then of course, we have the fantastic beasts: and they are still quite fantastic. The cutest would be the baby nifflers, and the most awe-inspiring would be the Zouwu (a cross between a dragon and a lion, I guess). They play a part of being plot points but they are still wonderful to look at. And for one poor Chupacabra (yes, you read that right), a sad ending.

But mostly, this is a really complex collection of narratives thrown into a blender–and you’d better pay attention to every piece of dialog if you want to follow what’s going on. That’s the one inhibition J.K. Rowling has as a screenwriter: she forgot the memo that exposition in a screenplay is more of a weakness than a strength, unlike in a novel. You simply don’t have the time to establish so much backstory in flashes and snippets of conversations, when the run-time keeps, well, running. In a novel you can stop, read it again, digest it. In a movie, you are visually digesting so much that you can miss the words in between.

That drawback will certainly leave any non-Potterverse filmgoer bewildered and confused; and for Potter fans, it’ll have them wishing they had a remote control to keep rewinding so they don’t miss anything.

There may also be some problems with the revelations revealed at the end–which again, are dropped in so rapidly that it’s hard to really process them all at once, in one viewing. Some of them may also be reviled by some fans.

For me, I think the film works just enough. I still like these characters, and want to see where this story goes: but I did see some predictability in the climax, and the set-up for the next film is very familiar. In some ways this felt like “Fantastic Beasts: The Empire Strikes Back”. It had a lot going on, but not as much character depth that puts it in the same conversation as that film.

I think there is a lot at stake for this franchise, as we no longer have the innocent world that Harry Potter gave us. We have a lot of dark, brooding tones that are shared by adults. And as adults, we already live in that world. This film won’t make you escape that. But it at least gives a good effort at making it entertaining.

My rating: :-)

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

November 18, 2016 by  
Filed under Movies

“Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” is an adaptation of sorts of a 2001 publication J.K. Rowling made under the pseudonym Newt Scamander. The book is meant to be a scrapbook journal of fantastical creatures that Scamander has found and cared for throughout his life. He is mentioned briefly in the first “Harry Potter” book, but he does not appear in any of the books or films. The book itself did not have its own story or narrative, it was just meant to be a companion piece for avid readers of the “Harry Potter” series. It served as a sort of historical piece, somewhat like “The Silmarillian” did for J.R.R. Tolkein’s middle earth.

Now, Rowling has taken the idea of the scrapbook and brought it to life, making a story for Newt Scamander, and bringing the Harry Potter Universe to New York City in the 1920’s. Call it either a stroke of brilliance to take this story into new places, or a cash grab–whichever way you want to look at it, I think she pulls it off quite nicely.

The story begins with Newt (Eddie Redmayne) bringing a curious suitcase with him from England to New York City via boat, in search of a particular species of “fantastic beast” that he has yet to find. Allegedly the creature is only bred in New York City, although he finds out that magical creature breeding had been banned for some time. In fact, the magical world in America is different than it is in Jolly Olde England–the Magical and Non-Magical (No-Maj, as their called) do co-exist, but there’s a coldness between them. There’s a…shall we say…segregation. It turns out that at one time, there was a disturbance caused by wizards that left the community shunned. Because of this, the Wizarding World of New York City is very hush-hush. There’s no friendly Hogwarts Express for the wizards, to gleefully take their comforting ride while the Muggle British carry on without a care in the world. It’s a dangerous place to be a wizard in New York City. It’s a dangerous place to be much of anything really.

For poor Newt, he can hardly settle himself before he’s already being tracked by an investigator, Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), who is afraid that his little suitcase full of creatures will expose them all. Meanwhile, Newt runs into a bumbling but likable New Yorker named Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) who is trying to get a loan approved to start his own bakery. Rejected by the bank, he intends to leave–but Newt has discovered that one of his little creatures did escape and he has to retrieve him. The two of them are then forced into a caper in and of itself, running from police and Goldstein, who finally catches them.

She brings them to MACUSA, the Magic Headquarters of the US, and there we find that she is actually on the outs herself. She’s trying to reclaim her position as an Auror, which is a high position, and one obtained by a mysterious and perhaps untrustworthy wizard named Percival Graves (Colin Farrell). We learn that Goldstein is demoted because of a run-in with some No-Maj’s (just get used to the term) who believe that witchcraft is among them and is evil. The head of this group, called the New Salemers, is Mary Lou Barebone (Samantha Morton). The New Salemers is part orphanage, part religious cult. She disciplines her children harshly, including Credence (Ezra Miller), who may himself have magic in his blood.

It’s not just the creatures they worry about, but a dark presence known as an Obscurial, which represents a manifestation of suppressing one’s magic as a child, when all of those powers are trying to feed into their maturity. Unfortunately for Newt, inside his case (it’s much bigger on the inside), there is in fact an Obscurial of his own. He had obtained it from an African girl who had suffered from the presence, that took her life. Newt kept it, not for malicious reasons, but to contain it and protect the rest of the world from it. Not only that, it still provides the essence of the girl’s life–a piece of her.

The wizards have to find the Obscurial before it tears the city apart, but they don’t know the source. Graves is on his own quest to find it, but for selfish reasons unbeknownst to the rest of MACUSA. For Newt, and Kowalski, they’re seen as the enemy and Goldstein is locked up with them for being an accomplice, since she kept them at her house with her sister Queenie (Alison Sudol). The president of MACUSA, Seraphina (Carmen Ejogo) basically sees them all as threats.

While the plot complicates itself, it isn’t hard to follow, and it’s entertaining throughout. The creatures range from cute to ghastly, from mild to wondrous, and even exhilarating. There are even some amusing scenes of the creatures getting a little out of hand when it comes to finding a mate, or stealing jewelry. The film balances itself well, never losing its tone completely. It can be silly, but not too silly. It can be dark, but not too dour. It can be funny, but not obnoxious. And one thing I really liked was that none of the New York accents were accentuated too much. It never felt over the top, which is usually typical of anything involving New York–especially in a period piece.

Because the film keeps itself close to the button, it always finds a way to thread itself through its narrative without weighing you down. The pace is good, probably better than most of the “Harry Potter” movies. In fact it made me wonder if perhaps Rowling should have penned her own screenplays for those films, as she did with this. It could be that she hadn’t been experienced enough, but by now, she should certainly write whatever sequels this film produces. And I’m sure it will produce a few.

The performances are all well done, and Redmayne and Fogler are especially appealing and their chemistry is very nice. Waterston is a bit tough to like at first, but she’s certainly kind on the eyes, and she comes round by the film’s end. Sudol is instantly engaging. Farrell could pretty much copy his Jerry Dandridge from the “Fright Night” remake; and Ezra Miller plays the suffering but dangerous Credence well.

I also liked the film’s themes about oppression, racism, and classism. The undertones of a group of people who have to live among people but not live *with* them are very nicely handled; it’s never preachy but you can certainly see that Rowling does not like separation of a people. The suffering of the character who bears the Obscurial is sympathetic, and even poignant at times. I do think it’s a bit thrown away at the end, and perhaps the metaphor could’ve been stronger. But I think its presence alone is enough to at least get you thinking.

As the spiritual 9th “Harry Potter” film, I’d say this ranks as one of the strongest. I certainly can’t wait to see more of the Wizarding World of America, and what more fantastical creatures Rowling invites us to. We’ve certainly found enough to want more.

My rating: :D