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Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald (2018)

When they adjusted the Hobbit movies so there was going to be three instead of two, it required some very noticeable padding and filler material to meet out that requirement. The second Fantastic Beasts film (of a planned five film series, expanded from a trilogy) feels exactly that way, a mostly table-setting movie with more incidents than plot, a few pertinent revelations, and not much in the manner of resolution. The second Fantastic Beasts does improve on its predecessor in several regards. It introduces a formidable villain that’s well played by Johnny Depp. It introduces a compelling younger version of Albus Dumbledore that’s played by the dashing Jude Law. It also finds more purpose for its hero, the shy magical zookeeper Newt (Eddie Redmayne), as the series inches closer to a wizards-vs-wizards world war. Things take a turn for the darker; within the First Act, a baby is murdered. They didn’t even do that in the new Halloween. The larger world building of Beasts, written by author J.K. Rowling for the screen and directed by longtime stalwart David Yates, has been its biggest draw. The supporting characters are back, though not everyone has much to do. Rowling is improving as a screenwriter but she still has trouble executing exposition-heavy scenes, resorting to sequence after sequence of characters prattling on. Ultimately, it doesn’t feel like there’s much of consequence until the very end, so we endure characters running through underdeveloped and contrived storylines. One of these involves Katherine Waterston mistakenly believing Newt is engaged (his brother is) and somehow, despite having access to magic let alone other forms of media, never findings out the easy truth. It’s stuff like that that show me Rowling was struggling to find material for every character to push them forward on this now extended journey. Crimes of Gindelwald is an overall step in the right direction for the prequel series even if this individual movie has trouble standing on its own magical merits.

Nate’s Grade: B-

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Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016)

fantastic-beasts-where-find-them-movie-posterThe Harry Potter publishing universe is almost twenty years old and has racked up more money than can be printed, so it was only a matter of time before some enterprising soul thought about expanding from author J.K. Rowling’s seven novels. I wasn’t anticipating that it would be Rowling as the one reopening her world for untapped franchise potential and financial windfalls.

Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) is one of the world’s foremost experts on magical creatures and will one day write a definitive magizoology textbook for students to doodle inside while they sit bored in magic class. He’s traveled to New York City in 1926 and through a series of misunderstandings he exchanges briefcases with Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), a factory drone trying to secure a loan to open a bakery. Inside Newt’s briefcase is a collection of colorful and unique magic creatures with goofy Dr. Suess-styled names, and they break free and need to be rounded up. Porpentina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) is a disgraced magic authority agent who tries to regain her reputation by helping Newt gather his living contraband before they are discovered by muggles, or as the Americans refer to them, no-majs. Percival Graves (Colin Farrell) is a gravely serious magic official keeping a close watch on the alarming activity. He also has an unclear interest in a fringe political movement that believes witches are real and a real threat. If only they knew the full extent, as a mad wizard-supremacist is also on the loose.

eddie-redmayne-in-fantastic-beasts-and-where-to-find-them1Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is a better franchise catalyst than it is a movie, with several competing storylines that don’t really gel or feel properly developed. This feels like a series of set pieces in search of a movie to unify them. Much of the movie involves dueling storylines that dawdle until they are smashed together at the very end, much like Rowling’s storytelling habit of keeping so many characters and storylines on the fringes and simmering until they are called upon for revelatory disclosure. Storyline number one follows a daffy British magizoologist as he scours New York trying to retrieve his strange and adorable magical creatures. It’s relatively light and mostly fun. Storyline number two is a buddy movie with Newt and Jacob, which is also light and mostly fun. Then storyline number three is an abusive anti-magic movement that may be conspiring to kill wizards that stand in their way, revealing to the wider world the magical realm and the potential threat it poses. This storyline is much darker and adult and it contrasts sharply with scenes like Newt doing a silly dance to present himself for mating with a gigantic rhinoceros creature in heat. It’s hard to reconcile whimsical magic creatures one moment and stern child abuse the next. The varying tones don’t ever gel. The majority of the film is watching Newt scamper around trying to recapture his creatures and stumbling into bigger plot events that are kept on the edges of relevancy.

This movie is more about laying a foundation than telling a relatively complete and gratifying story. The narrative brick laying may be essential for future sequel success but it doesn’t make for the best experience in the theater. Rowling’s first crack at screenwriting has a few hallmarks of novelists-turned-screenwriters (cough, Cormac McCarthy, cough), namely the fuzzy narrative clarity and digressive asides that deter the film’s progressive momentum. It’s hard to critique certain themes and characters that feel useless (Jon Voight for starters) without knowing whether Rowling will decide they are secretly important three movies onward. I don’t know what this movie is about other than setting up lucrative sequels.

18fantasticbeasts1-master768Another area of concern is whom Rowling has decided to be the leader of this voyage back in time; Newt Scamander is quite a lackluster lead character for one movie, let alone the prospect of up to five of them. I found this protagonist rather boring. He’s a kind figure and cares for his exotic animals but the man is pretty much the exact same person by the end of the movie as he is at the start and with only passing hints at a secret tragic past as something to enliven what is assuredly a dull, mumbling character. I’m not against Rowling’s decision to catapult a mild-mannered, shy, polite man as her main character especially in the face of paranoia and fear mongering, but the guy has to at least be interesting. There is not one interesting thing about this character outside of his briefcase full of magical creatures. He is a void of character, a blank slate that isn’t any more filled in by the conclusion. The lack of substance also allows Redmayne to retreat into his actorly tics playing up Newt’s social anxiety, almost to a degree that seems recognizably autistic (at least it was with my friend who saw it with me who is on the spectrum). He feels sensitive to the point that his body is going to collapse inwardly upon itself. I saw the same impulses with his overrated, overly mannered performance in The Danish Girl. When lacking significant depth to his character, or at least something of significant interest, he overcompensates with what he’s given and that’s not usually for the best. Just see Jupiter Ascending if you’re truly brave enough or equipped with enough liquor.

I think the stronger lead character would have been Newt’s buddy, Fogler’s no-maj Jacob Kowalski. He’s already our entry point into this older time period so why not make him the focal point? Jacob is a far more interesting character and he’s actually astonished by the revelations of a magical world right under his nose, adding to the general sense of discovery for himself as well as the audience. He’s the more relatable character as he discovers the world of magic and develops fluttery feelings for a magical lass (Porpetina’s psychic sister, Queenie, played by Alison Sudol). The sweet and flirty stutter-stops of a possible romance with Jacob and Queenie are far more heartfelt and engaging than whatever the film tries to pretend has been set up for Newt and Porpentina. By the very end, the movie expects a few smiles and arbitrary sexual tension to compensate for the rest of the film’s 133 minutes that did not establish one passing moment of attraction. Sorry, Rowling, but cinematic romance doesn’t work in spontaneous vacuums. If you want us to fee for the characters and compel them to get together, we need to see your work if you want the coupling to be remotely satisfying.

The rest of the actors do what they can with the thin scraps of characterization that Rowling provides. Fogler (Fanboys) is a reliable source of comic relief. His sincere pleasure from the magical world and its inhabitants makes him endearing, seeing this world through necessary fresh eyes. Waterston (Inherent Vice) is a screen presence that stands out from the pack, though her character is too muted to leave the same impression. Her character’s goal is to clear her name but she seems to readily forget this motivation. Until writing this review I had no idea that Sudol (Transparent) was the songstress A Fine Frenzy, an artist I’ve enjoyed for a decade. Her acting isn’t quite as accomplished as her singing but Queenie is something of a walking ethereal, sad-eyed psychic kewpie doll. Rowling treats her more as a handy plot device when she needs some item explained or intuited. Queenie’s budding relationship with Jacob makes her more interesting. There are plenty of familiar faces that are stranded in underwritten and confusing roles. The likes of Colin Farrell, Samantha Morton, Ezra Miller, Zoe Kravitz, Carmen Ejogo, Jon Voight, and Ron Perlman, as a mo-cap goblin, must have simply been happy to participate, and I can’t blame them considering the fortunes that await this franchise.

rs_1024x683-161111052810-1024-fantastic-beasts-and-where-to-find-them-111116The world building is hazy yet the world of wizards in 1920s New York City is intriguing enough to keep me hopeful that a better movie could emerge later. We’ve never been stateside before in this universe so my first point of interest was the difference between the magical authorities from across the pond. Apparently the magic-inclined aren’t legally allowed to romantically mix with no-maj folks (call it muggle miscegenation laws). That’s interesting but we only get a glimpse. The Second Salem movement in the United States seems to believe that witches and real danger. They seem like a fringe political conservative movement. It’s interesting yet we only get another glimpse at best. Then there’s an evil wizard who wants to wipe the world of the unclean, surely a setup for You-Know-Who and his malevolent Death Eaters. He’s kept further to the background and only bookends the movie. I just looked it up and Voldermort was born in 1926, so expect even more foreshadowing in the future. I wanted to know more about the world inside the Magical Congress of the United States of America. Why do they have a killer magic tar pit and what does it really do to people? There are passing references to the pre-established Harry Potter universe, small morsels for the crowd to hold onto to get them through this muddled expository journey. Still, there is an undeniable entertainment value of seeing magic interact with a 1920s American landscape. A magic speakeasy is a delightful moment to open up this world in amusing historical ways. Newt’s suitcase and its vast interior world is also a great source of wonder and a potent highlight.

Fantastic Beasts doesn’t quite rise to the level of fantastic implied with its title, though if you’re a Potter fan it could be a welcomed and promising start. That’s really what this movie is, a start, and not so much a complete story. It’s a Potter prologue that provides just enough to get an audience interested but not enough to perhaps get them excited. The main character is a total washout and the varying tones and storylines fail to gel. Rowling has some screenwriting novice growing pains and her general world could use more texture amidst all the special effects sequences. Those magic critters are cute I’ll give them that. There just doesn’t seem like there’s enough here of genuine substance in any capacity, other than setting up a playpen for its four sequels. Director David Yates has shepherded the Potter universe for five movies now. The visual continuity from prequel to main story arc reminds me of Peter Jackson’s turn at reviving the Hobbit trilogy. Actually, Fantastic Beasts reminds me of the Hobbit films in more ways than one. They were both somewhat crass moneymaking ventures inarticulately stretched and padded to ensure more movies and more profits. They are also decidedly lesser than the main story arc. To my movie muggle tastes, Fantastic Beasts ranks toward the bottom of the Potter franchise, just a step above Half-Blood Prince. Too often it feels like textbook Potter stuff minus the character investments. It’s a series of set pieces and latent possibilities and less a full movie. Then again, take my so-so critique with a relative grain of salt, Potterheads.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2007)

The most interesting aspect for me about the ongoing Harry Potter big screen adaptations are how each new director handles the material. Christopher Columbus got the ball rolling with his autumnal and slavishly loyal films, Sorcerer’s Stone and Chamber of Secrets. Then Alfonso Curaon made the series feel magically its own for the first time with Prisoner of Azkaban. Mike Newell made The Goblet of Fire feel like a teen romantic comedy. Now it’s David Yates’ turn to be at the Potter helm. Yates has little to his resume beyond assorted TV movies, but his direction must have impressed the Potter brass. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix feels somewhat like setup to more important events yet to come, but with Yates and new screenwriter Michael Goldenberg, this new entry feels up to the entertainment challenge of its forebears.

Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) is entering his fifth year of education at Hogwarts School of Magic. The Ministry of Magic is trying to silence Harry’s claims that Voldermort (Ralph Fiennes) has arisen anew. They’ve installed one of their own, Delores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton), as the new Defense Against the Dark Arts professor. But she’s not interested in teaching the students actual magic. The Ministry feels it’s best for the Hogwarts youth to just have a theoretical knowledge, so they’re distributed out of date and censored textbooks. Umbridge gathers greater power and eventually has the run of Hogwarts, forcing Harry and his friends, like longtime buds Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermoine (Emma Watson), to practice their own protection spells in hiding. Umbridge and the Ministry are convinced Harry and Headmaster Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) are trying to unseat their leadership. In actuality, they’re just trying to warn people about a war that is on the horizon.

The fifth movie is also the most grownup in tone and temperament yet. Harry is in a very different place and feeling alienated from the important people he cares about. The Ministry of Magic is turning the public against him by making everyone believe that Harry is a liar. Order of the Phoenix explores a lot of psychology and doesn’t have anywhere near the humor of previous installments, especially 2005’s heavily comedic Goblet of Fire. I think this is a step in the right direction. Harry’s mortal enemy has been resurrected, his schoolmate has been murdered, and you can’t really go back to zippy Quidditch matches and silly spells that make people hurl slugs. The Harry Potter universe has gotten darker and more serious and Order of the Phoenix reflects this. Harry warns his peers during a training session that death is a real consequence of what they’re about to face, and that bad things will indeed happen to good people.

[I]Order of the Phoenix[/I] is structured into two dominant storylines: Umbridge and the school repression, and Voldermort’s attempts to infiltrate Harry’s mind. Voldermort is handled as a murky puzzle, mostly in a succession of quick flashes and nightmares, and this results in the storyline feeling more like a fuzzy memory. I found the Umbridge character to be far more interesting and even far more menacing than He Who Must Not Be Named. The combination of political suppression of the truth, fear mongering and paranoia, torture interrogations, trampling over civil rights, and teaching students censorship in the name of safety is a fascinating correlation with our own modern society. The book may have been released in 2003, and written by an English woman, but the political repression feels alive and relevant today. While I appreciated the well-crafted peeks to the nasally-challenged Dark Lord, I found Harry raging against the system trying to keep him mum to be the real meat of Order of the Phoenix. I lost some interest once Umbridge had been vanquished.

Harry Potter advocates of all stripes and sizes constantly ask me why I have little interest in sitting down and reading the actual novels, why I’m content to wait the extra time for the movies. The answer is two-fold: 1) I’m lazy, and 2) I think the slimmed down screenplays may boil the essence of J.K. Rowling’s verbose books and present a better and more focused story. In all honesty, I don’t really care about who wins a Quidditch game, or how someone helps a magical creature that is of no consequence to the story. Rowling’s massive tomes seem so overstuffed, and I repeat that I am passing this judgment never having read one book, that I don’t mind all the superfluous subplots and characters that are trimmed and/or eliminated in the path of economic storytelling. The essential essence of the story and all the really important elements will be included, any the quibbling of what gets tossed aside is often enough to confirm for me that I don’t need to read the books to see what I’m missing. Then again, this entire paragraph may do nothing but prove that I am willfully ignorant or just plain wrong. Oh well. Two more movies to go and two more books not to open.

Yates brings in the shortest Harry Potter movie to date at 2 hours and 18 minutes long, but the hastened pace sometimes causes the film to stumble or lack clarity. There’s a death late in the film (while I’m sure the entire world knows the person’s identity I will refrain from spoiling) and I had no idea what had just taken place. The death is abrupt, and the person just sort of leans back and disappears into some gate that is never given context. The whole scene is meant to be defining drama but if I hadn’t known ahead of time what was supposed to happen then I would have been scratching my Muggle head. The prophecy that the bad guys want so badly seems rather unimportant, so the ending scuffle over this little glowing ball seems like much ado about nothing. Most of the new characters, like Helena Bonham Carter as Bellatrix Lestrange, don’t feel well incorporated into the overall story. But the worst part of the hasty pace is the fact that when we finally get an all-out wizard battle between good and evil that it ends far too quickly. The Order and Voldermort’s Death Eaters are going at it with colorful attacks jettisoned around the room, but this exciting bite of action turns out to be little more than a morsel. After the wizard-on-wizard combat, Order of the Phoenix goes back to a pretty predictable finish with little in payoff. And was Hagrid’s giant goofy brother really necessary to include?

The adults have always been impeccably cast in the Potter flicks, and real star of the fifth film is Staunton (Vera Drake). Umbridge is a juicy role and Staunton brilliantly plays this fascist little school marm in Pepto pink. She has this exquisite stuttering giggle, and her ever-smiling, cherubic face quivers like there are strings attached. Staunton makes even the most innocent “excuse me” sound like it’s dripping in poison. She’s so peppy and seemingly wholesome but in the same moment is There’s one scene between Umbridge and Professor Snape (the irreplaceably awesome Alan Rickman) where he can’t stand her presence and adds an extra dose of snarl in his annoyed replies; this woman has found a way to make Alan Rickman even more awesome. Order of the Phoenix is at its best when Staunton is stalking the corridors and enforcing her brand of control. I’ll miss her dearly.

I think I need to reverse my stance on the child actors of this profitable series. With the first movies, it seemed like Watson was the real star as the studious and nitpicky Hermoine. It also appeared that Grint would never escape the trappings of squealing cowardly relief. Radcliffe seemed to suit the material but felt overly wooden and I predicted he would never be anything but a blah actor. I now must rescind my earlier predictions. Watson has become more grating as the films progress, She outshined her fellow actors when they were 11, but now that she’s a teenager and working the same limited, yet extremely huffy, acting range, turning her character into more of an annoyance than an ally. Radcliffe, on the other hand, is nicely growing into his role and expressing deeper emotions and anxiety as the weight of his Harry’s name and destiny weighs on him. I think Radcliffe will have a career outside the boy wizard; he was strikingly funny on an episode of HBO’s Extras that sent up his youthful image. I don’t think we’ll ever hear much from Grint and Watson again once the end credits roll on movie seven.

After five movies, I think we pretty much know what we’re going to get with the Harry Potter series. The stories are getting more mature and serious, and this means that the films need more attention to adaptation and weeding out the nonessential elements. I think the fans that are still grumbling about the books being butchered have missed the point (they’re also still fuming over the “new” Dumbledore, even though Gambon has been in 3 movies now). Order of the Phoenix was the longest book but has been turned into the shortest movie, and it still resonates as an exciting and emotionally engrossing fantasy now taking definite and irrevocable steps toward something dark and meaningful. Yates is scheduled to direct the next Potter chapter,The Half-Blood Prince, and even though I won’t have a new director’s style to analyze, I look forward to more adventures with these characters. Just don’t tell me to read the books.

Nate’s Grade: B

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