Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald review

FANTASTIC BEASTS: THE CRIMES OF GRINDELWALD

Director : David Yates
Cast : Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler, Alison Sudol, Ezra Miller, Zoë Kravitz, Callum Turner, Claudia Kim, Jude Law, Johnny Depp, Brontis Jodorowsky
Genre : Adventure/Fantasy/Drama
Run Time : 134 mins
Opens : 15 November 2018
Rating : PG

The Wizarding World gains a new wrinkle as writer J.K. Rowling takes us deeper into the happenings that far preceded young Harry Potter’s enrolment at Hogwarts. It is 1927 and leaving off the events of the first Fantastic Beasts film, magizoologist Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) is still being reprimanded by the Ministry of Magic for his involvement in the chaos in New York the previous year. Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law), Newt’s former Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher at Hogwarts, entrusts him with a special mission: find and defeat the treacherous wizard Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp), with whom Dumbledore has a shared past.

Grindelwald’s agenda of Pureblood wizard supremacy and complete control over the non-magical population requires one special ingredient: Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller), who is off in search of his identity. Newt, reuniting with MACUSA Auror Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterson), Tina’s sister Queenie (Alison Sudol) and Queenie’s boyfriend Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), must get to Credence before Grindelwald does, as Grindelwald amasses more support for his dangerous ideology.

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald takes the flaws of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them and amplifies them. While the first Fantastic Beasts movie was ostensibly a whimsical monster movie about a tweedy textbook author who is flung into a larger-than-life adventure, The Crimes of Grindelwald is on its way to almost entirely dropping that pretence, pushing this line of films further into the tangled back-story of the original Harry Potter series. Director David Yates and screenwriter JK Rowling return, and The Crimes of Grindelwald does feel like a part of the larger Wizarding World, but it also seems designed to frustrate and annoy the Potterhead faithful and casual viewers alike.

While Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them was far enough removed from the main line of Potter lore for neophytes to hop on to, The Crimes of Grindelwald dives head-first into reams of back-story, such that characters are trying to catch their breath while delivering exposition. Many issues with the storytelling can be traced to how this is movie #2 in a planned series of five films, meaning the usual frustration that comes with watching the second movie in a trilogy is multiplied. There aren’t just a few loose ends left untied, this is a two-for-one loose end sale.

The film’s glaring faults aside, fans of the Wizarding World will find plenty that’s charming about this movie, and it will be hard to not be moved by the film’s brief sojourn back to the Hogwarts grounds, a stop by the Great Hall included. Production designer Stuart Craig’s sets are beautiful creations, the French Ministry of Magic a particularly elegant locale. Colleen Atwood’s costumes for the earlier film nabbed the designer her fourth Oscar win, and Tina gets to sport a particularly sleek leather coat this time around. James Newton Howard’s sumptuous score conjures up memories of John Williams’ work on the series, while stopping short of feeling like a copycat. Alas, much of the visual effects work, especially on the creatures, continues to feel synthetic, making us pine for that animatronic Basilisk from the end of Chamber of Secrets.

While the first film planted the seeds of Grindelwald’s looming presence in the magical world, the sequel places him front and centre. No longer a shadowy threat, Johnny Depp is all over this movie, his casting having led to much uproar. Even leaving aside the domestic abuse allegations that make Depp’s presence in this film cast a dark pall on the rest of it, his Grindelwald just isn’t magnetic or menacing enough. The character is meant to be a seductive populist who cleverly veils his hateful creed in shrewd warnings of Muggle arrogance and self-destructiveness. Depp may have residual star power, but he falls dramatically short when he’s supposed to carry this film.

It is comforting to see Newt, Tina, Jacob and Queenie again, but the returning characters must make a little room for new ones. Zoë Kravitz’s Leta Lestrange, a former flame of Newt’s and now involved with Newt’s brother Theseus (Callum Turner), is an enigmatic character who has lots of dramatic potential but gets short shrift. Similarly, Ezra Miller’s conflicted Credence, who proved one of the most interesting parts of the first film, shows glimmers of power, but his story is purposefully incomplete.

Jude Law’s appearance as a dashing young Dumbledore is one of the film’s big selling points, but his screen time is necessarily brief. The crucial relationship and later falling out between Dumbledore and Grindelwald is hinted at but not expounded upon. Callum Turner is bound to become Tumblr’s new boyfriend and the sibling rivalry between Newt and Theseus is fun, but borders on feeling extraneous.

One of the other controversial aspects of the film, casting South Korean actress Claudia Kim as the human form of the snake Nagini, proves to be more fuss than it’s worth. The problematic implications are there, but the inclusion of Nagini contributes practically nothing to the story.

There is another review with the headline “with The Crimes of Grindelwald, J.K. Rowling has hit peak George Lucas”. While that is a bit hyperbolic, the comparison isn’t without merit. There is obviously plenty of care taken in further crafting the look and feel of the Wizarding World, but as the film piles on the reveals and gets lost in doling out fan-service, the movie clearly buckles under its own weight. Now to wait for three more of these and it all might make sense then.

 

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

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Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

For F*** Magazine

FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM 

Director : David Yates
Cast : Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler, Alison Sudol, Colin Farrell, Carmen Ejogo, Samantha Morton, Ezra Miller, Ron Perlman, Jon Voight
Genre : Adventure/Fantasy
Run Time : 2h 13min
Opens : 17 November 2016
Rating : PG (Some Disturbing Scenes)

fantastic-beasts-and-where-to-find-them-posterHow exciting can a film based on a textbook be? If the textbook’s about all manner of magical creatures, pretty exciting. It is 1926 and magizoologist Newt Scamander (Redmayne), future author of the textbook Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, arrives in New York. When several animals escape from his briefcase, Newt runs afoul of the Magical Congress of the United States of America (MACUSA), headed by President Seraphina Picquery (Ejogo). MACUSA’s director of security Percival Graves (Farrell) is tasked with capturing Newt. Porpentina “Tina” Goldstein (Waterston), a former MACUSA agent, aids Newt in tracking the creatures down. Jacob Kowalski (Fogler), a non-magic user or No-Maj, is inadvertently drawn into the fray, and falls for Tina’s telepathic sister Queenie (Sudol).

In the meantime, anti-wizard sentiment in the U.S. is mounting, with the New Salem Preservation Society (NSPS) gaining ground. The hate group is led by Mary Lou Barebone (Morton), whose adopted son Credence (Miller) bears the brunt of her abuse. Mary Lou petitions newspaper magnate Henry Shaw Sr. (Voight) for his support of the NSPS. Henry’s son Henry Shaw Jr. (Josh Cowdery), a U.S. senator, is attacked at a rally by an Obscurus, a sinister parasitic entity. As the wizarding is under threat from all sides, Newt and his newfound allies must restore order to a city flung into mayhem.

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This spin-off of the Harry Potter franchise is intended to expand the film series into a cinematic universe known as the Wizarding World. While we’ve all grown wary of cash-grab franchise extensions, there’s no rule that says they must be devoid of artistic merit. Director David Yates and screenwriter J.K. Rowling are no strangers to the Potterverse – he directed the last four instalments in the series and, well, she created the whole thing. It is a savvy move to make Fantastic Beasts a period piece, giving it a markedly different setting from the Potter films with which we’re familiar. Instead of being a direct prequel, it’s mostly removed from the narrative of the boy wizard and his family history, meaning this serves as an ideal jumping-on point for neophytes and younger viewers who didn’t grow up with the Potter books or films.

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The world-building on display in Fantastic Beasts is meticulous, benefitting from Rowling’s detail-oriented tendencies. Newt experiences some culture shock, and there are little touches which demonstrate how the Brits and Americans do things different. For example, non-magic users are called ‘Muggles’ in the U.K., but are referred to as “No-Majs” across the pond. The 20s New York setting, just before the onset of the Great Depression, is well-realised and immersive. There’s a scene set in a wizard speakeasy and an action set-piece set in the Central Park zoo. We watched the film in IMAX 3D, and the stereoscopic effects are satisfyingly plentiful. James Newton Howard’s score envelops the viewer, and there’s some playful jazz weaved in.

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The titular beasts are plenty of fun, and spectacle isn’t in short supply here. The Niffler, part-badger, part-pangolin and all kleptomaniac, is an adorable mischief-maker. The rhinoceros-esque Erumpent sets the stage for an inspired moment of physical comedy, and Newt has his own Baby Groot in the form of a shy plant-like creature called the Bowtruckle. Newt’s struggles in wrangling the creatures are entertaining, and many of his interactions with the animals are endearing. The visual effects, supervised by Tim Burke and Christian Manz, are extensive and generally impressive. However, this reviewer would like to have seen more practical animatronic creatures mixed in with the computer-generated ones. While Yates does a fine job, we couldn’t help imagining what a director like Guillermo del Toro would’ve created.

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Rowling alludes to the classic film Citizen Kane with Voight’s newspaper owner character and his senator son. Unfortunately, this subplot is under-developed and doesn’t sit cohesively enough with the main plot of Newt’s adventures. The NSPS, with its cult-like nature and cruel matron, is clearly Rowling’s reaction to the religious groups who called for boycotts of the Potter books and films because of their supposedly Satanic content. Newt mentions how he finds the MACUSA’s laws against marrying or even befriending No-Majs to be retrograde. While we appreciate the social commentary and the attempts to give this whimsical fantasy some real-world grounding, it’s not particularly subtle.

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Redmayne is a wonderful fit for this franchise. He seems most at home in period films, and it’s easy to buy him as a tweedy, earnest academic. Redmayne also proves adept at acting against things that aren’t there. As a markedly different type of female lead than Emma Watson’s Hermione Granger, Waterston turns in an appealing, low-key performance. Sudol gets to ham it up a little as the coquettish flapper. Fogler has been a low-rent Jack Black or Seth Rogen for much of his career, but this reviewer enjoyed him as the comic relief sidekick/audience-identification character.

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While the Harry Potter franchise boasts an abundance of colourful supporting characters, those in Fantastic Beasts don’t quite measure up. Farrell’s Graves is the Inspector Javert-type, not unlike his character in Minority Report. There’s a bit of a spin put on things, but perhaps it should’ve been played with more panache. Miller’s Credence is meant to be at once sympathetic and creepy, which he does fine. Ejogo’s Picquery is the equivalent of a police chief on a procedural show, and Voight is woefully underused.

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Fantastic Beasts has enough to offer fans who span the spectrum from “this is kinda interesting” to “legally changed my name to ‘Severus Snape’”. While its story isn’t spectacularly riveting and its social commentary is on the nose, it features likeable lead characters and entertaining spectacle. At 133 minutes though, it is about 15 minutes too long and lapses into multiple endings. It has been announced that there will be five films in the series, but thankfully, this Fantastic Beasts doesn’t do an obnoxious amount of sequel-baiting. Keep an eye out for a certain A-lister as a certain key player in Potter lore.

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Summary: This new chapter in the Wizarding World caters to devotees and newcomers alike, even if the setting is more interesting than the story itself.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

The Legend of Tarzan

For F*** Magazine

THE LEGEND OF TARZAN

Director : David Yates
Cast : Alexander Skarsgård, Margot Robbie, Samuel L. Jackson, Christoph Waltz, Djimon Hounsou, Simon Russell Beale, Jim Broadbent
Genre : Action/Adventure
Run Time : 1 hr 49 mins
Opens : 30 June 2016
Rating : PG13 (Violence)

 

          Superheroes may reign at the multiplex, but the Lord of the Apes is hoping to reclaim the crown. We find John Clayton III a.k.a. Tarzan (Skarsgård) living a life of aristocracy in London, alongside his American wife Jane Porter (Robbie). It has been years since Tarzan has left the jungle and now, King Leopold II of Belgium has invited him to return to the Congo Free State. Tarzan is initially reluctant to travel back to Africa, but is convinced by George Washington Williams (Jackson), an American diplomat who plans to investigate Leopold’s alleged use of slaves to build a railway through the Congo. Tarzan is unaware that he is being lured back to the jungle by the ruthless and avaricious Belgian Captain Léon Rom (Waltz), who has offered to deliver Tarzan to the vengeful Chief Mbonga (Hounsou) in exchange for diamonds. As Tarzan reunites with the various wild animals he grew up amongst, the people of the Congo must fight for their liberty.


            Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan is an enduring figure in popular culture, but is now most often viewed as kitschy and campy. Clad in a loin cloth, yelling as he swings through the trees – he’s not exactly the action hero modern-day moviegoers have become accustomed to. Director David Yates, best known for helming the final four instalments in the Harry Potter film series, endeavours for viewers to take Tarzan seriously again. This take on the story is commendable in that it wants to be about something, directly addressing the colonialist politics and the unethical means by which various European nations went about their conquest of Africa. It’s pretty heady stuff and the film’s approach errs on the simplistic side, but there’s enough action to ensure the film doesn’t get bogged down in its sombre themes.

            Yates, working from a screenplay by Craig Brewer and Adam Cozad, approaches this as a work of historical fiction. The primary antagonist, Léon Rom, is an actual historical figure, who was known for keeping severed heads in his flowerbed. In addition, George Washington Williams as depicted in the film is a fictionalisation of a real-life Civil War veteran, preacher, politician, lawyer, journalist and historian. The 1890 setting is established with enough detail, but one does occasionally get the sense that this is an adventure flick putting on stuffy period drama airs.

            Skarsgård beat out the likes of Henry Cavill, Tom Hardy, Charlie Hunnam and swimmer Michael Phelps, who was toying with using this film to launch an acting career, for the title role. We first see Tarzan as John Clayton III, trying to fit in among the upper crust, and Skarsgård ably conveys that this is a man who is not in his element. While Tarzan is traditionally viewed as a feral man, this version portrays him as a person of both instinct and intellect, having mastered multiple languages and well-versed in various cultures. He wants to be seen as more than a mere oddity. Naturally, we get to see him doff his shirt, and any doubts that he wouldn’t be able to pull off the necessary muscled physique are quickly assuaged. For all his efforts, Skarsgård is still encumbered by a certain stiffness, and this reviewer would like to have seen a more passionate, unbridled Tarzan.

            Yates wanted Jessica Chastain to portray Jane and the studio had their eyes on Emma Stone, but it’s Robbie who portrays Tarzan’s lady love. Robbie possesses an irrepressible radiance and imbues Jane with a charming vigour. The film is able to strike a balance between putting Jane in peril, as she is expected to be so Tarzan can rescue her, while also making her a capable character in her own right. She holds her own opposite Waltz, but the scene in which Jane grits her teeth to sit down for dinner with Rom is a pale imitation of the similar scene between Belloq and Marion Ravenwood in Raiders of the Lost Ark.

            There’s no denying Waltz is a talented actor, but by now, audiences have begun to tire of seeing him typecast as the villain, and he does nothing different as Rom. The character is the embodiment of imperialist greed, striding through the jungle with fearsome troops behind him, taking what he wants at will. There’s no nuance here, and Waltz often seems extremely close to twirling his moustache. Hounsou strikes an imposing presence as the tribal leader who has a long-standing vendetta with Tarzan, but gets too little screen time for their conflict to take hold. Jackson is entertaining as Williams and the character gets a moment to reflect on his own history and explain his motivations. However, his performance can’t help but come off as anachronistic, and Williams is very much a wise-cracking buddy cop sidekick, which can pull one out of it at times.

            There is a great deal of visual effects work and a multitude of computer-generated animals required to populate the Congo. Unfortunately, some of these beasts look sillier than others, and several sequences, particularly a railroad ambush and an ostrich stampede, lack polish. Tarzan calls on his animal friends for assistance during the climax, and for a film purported to be a more serious telling of the Tarzan tale, it is a little goofy.

            The world was never aching for another Tarzan movie, but this one justifies its existence by incorporating historical elements and setting out to make a statement about man’s relationship with nature. This is complemented by a blend of National Geographic-style panoramic vistas and moderately exciting action beats. While it lacks the heart of the animated version the target teen audience might be most familiar with, it’s a fine addition to the Tarzan movie canon, and definitely ranks far above the risible 2014 animated take.

Summary: Historical elements are cleverly weaved into the familiar Tarzan tale and this is not as much of a re-tread as one might expect, but there’s still a certain vitality missing from this version.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong