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

Alien: Covenant

For F*** Magazine

ALIEN: COVENANT 

Director : Ridley Scott
Cast : Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterston, Billy Crudup, Danny McBride, Demián Bichir, Carmen Ejogo, Jussie Smollett, Amy Seimetz, Callie Hernandez, James Franco
Genre : Sci-Fi/Horror
Running time: 2h 3min
Release Date: 10th May 2017
Rating: M18

Five years after the divisive Prometheus, Ridley Scott takes audiences back to the realm of sci-fi horror he helped create with 1979’s Alien. It is the year 2104, 10 years after the events of Prometheus, and the colony ship Covenant is bound for the planet Origae-6. After a neutrino blast wakes the crew early, and a mysterious transmission is intercepted, Captain Christopher Oram (Crudup) decides to make a detour. Against the protests of terraforming specialist Daniels (Waterston), the Covenant sends a lander down to the planet where the transmission originated from. The android Walter (Fassbender) joins Oram, Daniels and other crew members on the expedition, as pilot Tennessee (McBride) awaits their safe return to the Covenant. On this uncharted planet, the crew encounters vicious, hitherto unknown life forms, resulting in multiple casualties. They also meet David (also Fassbender), an android who was the sole survivor of the Prometheus mission. Daniels, Oram and Walter quickly realise that the planet is home to something far more terrifying than the monsters that are pursuing them.

Prometheus left many unanswered questions in its wake. Since there are at least two more films planned after Covenant before the chronology links up to the original Alien, many of those questions remain unanswered. Alien: Covenant is executed with technical polish, boasting marvellous production values and convincing design elements. However, it is also a frustrating work. There are bits of the film that are reminiscent of Alien, and others that evoke the high-octane Aliens, but for most of its duration, Covenant is stuck in limbo between those two.

John Logan and Dante Harper penned the script, from a draft by Jack Paglen and Michael Green. It’s largely a serious-minded film and wants to be philosophical, just not as upfront with the ‘big questions’ as Prometheus was. Then, in its final act, Covenant becomes an action film, leaving audiences with the sense that the film took one-and-a-half hours to get into gear. The first time something genuinely exciting occurs, it’s 40 minutes into the movie.

There are parts of Covenant that are scary, and there are parts that are thrilling, but they remain parts instead of coalescing into a whole. The basic plot structure is a familiar one: the crew of a ship receives a distress call of some kind, go to investigate the source of the signal, then all hell breaks loose. Because of the plans to continue the franchise, Covenant ends up feeling very much like a middle instalment, which introduces some interesting ideas but is reluctant to push the overall narrative arc forward very far. Fans of the series might get a kick out of seeing the classic, sinuous Xenomorph (or at least something very close to it) on the big screen again. However, because it and the other creatures in the film are achieved mostly using computer-generated effects, we lose the tactility that helped make the old-school Xenomorphs in the earlier films so scary. The goblin-like Neomorph is sometimes creepy, but also sometimes too cartoony.

With any sci-fi movie named after a ship, audiences must fall in love with – or at least be interested in – the crew. Several of them are married couples, meaning there’s potential for heart-rending emotional moments. Alas, the characters who staff the Covenant are mostly bland and under-developed. There are also too many for them to be distinct. They do make dumb decisions, but not to the extent of the Prometheus crew.

Waterston does a fine job, and ably handles the pressure of living up to Sigourney Weaver. While Daniels is mostly a Ripley knockoff, Waterston lends the film a tremulous humanity. She gets to partake in big action set-pieces, including a fun one involving an excavator-like crane arm. However, she’s not fearless or unrealistically tough.

Crudup is also serviceable as the First Mate who gets promoted to the position of Captain, a stubborn man of faith who struggles with leading the crew. Since religious themes and imagery played a key role in Prometheus, which was about man’s search for his creator, it’s disappointing that this aspect of Oram remains largely superficial. While one might assume McBride is on hand to provide comic relief, and he does, he also displays solid acting chops, and stays a safe distance from being the annoying quippy sidekick this reviewer feared the character would become.

Fassbender is the best thing about Covenant. He shines in his dual roles: Walter, ostensibly the ‘good’ android, sounds American, whereas the amoral and possibly evil David speaks with a clipped English accent. David’s murky motivations get further explored, and he’s meant to remind viewers of the Nazis: David has an affinity for Wagner, is interested with eugenics, and may yearn for the complete eradication of a certain species. The tension between creation and creator that is at the core of the character gets further play. Walter is programmed with less autonomy, and is therefore less likely to go off the rails. David and Walter’s interactions are as riveting, if not more so, than the scenes involving the alien monsters. The visual effects work required to make Fassbender act opposite a second, identical Fassbender is seamless.

Fans who were hoping that Alien: Covenant would return the series to its roots will likely have mixed feelings about the film. It seems that Scott felt the pressure to deliver a Xenomorph that was closer to the original H.R. Giger designs than the prototypical beasts seen in Prometheus. It’s a sporadically fascinating, but ultimately unsatisfying entry in the series; and there’s just enough to recommend here for the faithful.

Summary: This Alien instalment will make you scream, but as much out of frustration as in terror, its grandeur undercut by an unremarkable stable of characters and an uninspired plot.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

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.

fantastic-beasts-and-where-to-find-them-katherine-waterston-eddie-redmayne-alison-sudol-and-dan-fogler

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.

fantastic-beasts-and-where-to-find-them-colin-farrell-and-eddie-redmayne

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.

fantastic-beasts-and-where-to-find-them-eddie-redmayne-and-thunderbird

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.

fantastic-beasts-and-where-to-find-them-nsps

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.

fantastic-beasts-and-where-to-find-them-eddie-redmayne-and-katherine-waterston

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.

fantastic-beasts-and-where-to-find-them-colin-farrell-and-ezra-miller

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.

fantastic-beasts-and-where-to-find-them-dan-fogler-katherine-waterston-alison-sudol-and-eddie-redmayne

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.

fantastic-beasts-erumpent-dan-fogler

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

Steve Jobs

STEVE JOBS 

Director : Danny Boyle
Cast : Michael Fassbender, Kate Winslet, Seth Rogen, Jeff Daniels, Michael Stuhlbarg, Katherine Waterston, Perla Haney-Jardine, Ripley Sobo, Makenzie Moss
Genre : Drama
Run time: 122 minutes
Singapore theatrical release currently unscheduled

Director Danny Boyle and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin take us on a journey to the core of the Apple in this biopic. The film dives into the frantic lead-up to three key product launches during the career of tech entrepreneur Steve Jobs (Fassbender). In 1984, Jobs and marketing executive Joanna Hoffman (Winslet) labour over the demonstration of the Apple Macintosh. In the meantime, Jobs brushes off his ex-girlfriend Chrisann Brennan (Waterston), denying that he fathered Chrisann’s daughter Lisa (Moss, Sobo and Haney-Jardine at different ages). In 1988, Jobs attempts to get the NeXT computer off the ground after being ousted from Apple by CEO John Sculley (Daniels). The final act of the film skips ahead ten years to the unveiling of the iMac in 1998. Across the three segments, we also see Jobs’ interactions with his close collaborator Steve Wozniak (Rogen), member of the original Mac team Andy Hertzfeld (Stuhlbarg) and GQ journalist Joel Pforzheimer (John Ortiz).

            When Aaron Sorkin writes a movie, it’s immediately known as an “Aaron Sorkin movie”, regardless of however prolific the director is. Steve Jobs sees Danny Boyle take on Sorkin’s screenplay, imbuing what could very well be a stage play with considerable vim and verve. Boyle has never shied away from experimenting with style and Steve Jobs’ visual dynamism complements the wit of the script. Boyle and cinematographer Alwin Küchler shot each act in different film formats: 16mm for 1984, 35mm for 1988, and digital for 1998, with the look of each segment reflecting the gradual evolution of Jobs’ own style. Likewise, Daniel Pemberton’s score employs analog synthesisers for the 1984 segment, an orchestra for the 1988 segment and digitally-produced tracks made on an iMac for the 1998 act. There are conscious stylistic choices running through the film which enhance and reinforce the firecracker dialogue to string the three distinct acts into a holistic piece.

Sorkin’s hook is that instead of giving an overview of Jobs’ whole life, the film offers snapshots of it. The clear-cut three act structure (or a symphony in three movements, if one prefers) is a gambit that pays off. While it might be frustrating that only these specific events are given focus and that the film concludes a fair bit before the iPod or iPhone happened, the interpersonal drama is constructed with admirable intricacy. Naturally, Boyle and Sorkin take a considerable amount of artistic license and many of the incidents depicted in the film have been invented out of whole cloth. Sorkin said of the lines he wrote, “If any of them are real, it’s a remarkable coincidence.” However, because of how trippingly on the tongue all that Sorkinese is delivered, there is nary a moment for the audience to sit back and pick apart the inaccuracies.

Fassbender has been garnering deserved Oscar buzz for his portrayal of Jobs. While many leading men that Hollywood has attempted to foist on us in recent years are blandly handsome and lacking in screen presence, Fassbender is the master of magnetism. His lack of physical resemblance to Jobs is compensated by a bravura intensity and confidence which draws the audience in no matter how utterly unlikeable the character gets and how many tantrums he throws. This is a markedly different character from Jesse Eisenberg’s take on Mark Zuckerberg in the earlier Sorkin-penned tech icon biopic The Social Network. Both screenplays are Sorkin pieces through and through, and it is fun to parse the similarities and differences. Despite the sheer strength of Fassbender’s portrayal, this reviewer couldn’t help but imagine what Christian Bale, who was attached to the project in its earliest stages, could have done with the part.


The film quickly establishes that it takes someone with an iron constitution to not only tolerate being around Jobs but to regularly stand up to him, and Winslet conveys exactly this with her portrayal of Joanna Hoffman. Winslet spent time with the real Hoffman to capture her mannerisms and she nails the slight Polish accent – her work with the dialect is better than Fassbender’s.  When she or any other character goes toe-to-toe with Jobs, it’s like watching a sparring match. Rogen has memorably stated that he “won’t ruin your fancy drama” and while the role of Steve Wozniak is not exactly the acting challenge playing Jobs is, Rogen is personable and the ideal counterpoint to Fassbender’s performance. Daniels’ performance as the mentor figure who eventually has a falling out with Jobs has considerable emotional impact in spite of the relatively small size of the role.
Steve Jobsis not a hagiography because its subject is not a saint. It’s not blind hero worship because its subject is not exactly a hero. If anything, several of the real-life figures portrayed in the film have come forward to say Jobs was nicer than written and portrayed in the film. The film does get it across that Jobs was driven and immensely passionate. The opening archival footage of science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke standing in a room occupied by one massive computer from the late 60s as he predicts that personal computers will one day be as ubiquitous as telephones does put Jobs’ vision of a “computer for the rest of us” and Apple’s eventual realisation of said vision in perspective.

            Biographical dramas, particularly those calibrated for awards season consideration, can often be stodgy affairs. Steve Jobs practically cartwheels across the screen – it’s an exhilarating experience and it’s fun to soak in all those quotable, razor-sharp lines and momentarily feel smarter by osmosis. There are certain conflicts that feel a mite overblown and the ending is somewhat schmaltzy in spite of Sorkin’s and Boyle’s best efforts, but Steve Jobs succeeds as an insightful, unconventional character study that is enthralling throughout.

Summary: Factual inaccuracies are smoothed over with mesmerizing performances, electrifying direction and whip-smart storytelling in this unconventional and beautifully crafted biopic.

RATING: 4.5out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong