Thursday, November 29, 2018

Film Review: Fantastic Beasts - The Crimes of Grindelwald

Sexuality/Nudity Acceptable
Violence Acceptable
Vulgarity Acceptable
Anti-Catholic Philosophy Acceptable

The main problem with this movie is not in its content but with its place in this film series.

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindlewald is the second part of a 5-part story that began with 2016's Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.  In that film, what seemed to be a diverting adventure into the bygone days of the Harry Potter universe has instead morphed into a deep dive into the mythology of the Wizarding World before the adventures of the Boy Who Lived.

Crimes of Grindlewald picks up about six months after the first movie.  Grindlewald (Johnny Depp), escapes from his prison transport and seeks out Credence (Ezra Miller), who appeared to have died in the last film.  Credence is the carrier of an immense dark power known as an Obscurus that Grindlewald wants to use for his own ends.  Meanwhile our main hero Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), is being actively recruited in the fight against Grindlewald.  At first the Ministry of Magic try to lure him under the influence of Newt's war-hero brother Theseus (Callum Turner), who is engaged to Newt's childhood love Leta Lestrange (Zoe Kravitz).  The Ministry wants Newt's help in tracking down Credence and killing him.  Newt balks at this, but then is approached by none other than Dumbledore (Jude Law), Newt's old teacher.  Dumbledore is working apart from the Ministry and wants Newt to find Credence and save him.  Newt is then met with a surprise visit from his friends from the last film: muggle (or NoMag) Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) and the mind-reading witch Queenie Goldstein (Alison Sudol).  After a fight, Queenie goes to meet up with her sister Tina (Katherine Waterston) in Paris, which is where Credence was last sighted.  This sets Newt and Jacob on their quest.

Director David Yates clearly loves the Wizarding World he has helped to create in cinematic form.  He makes sure that everything in this world feels as tangible and lived-in as possible.  One of the great charms of the Harry Potter mythos is that the magical world and the ordinary world exist side-by-side.  If we could only pull back the veil a little, we could see the wonders around us.  Yates does an excellent job of tying these two worlds together while keeping their aesthetics distinct.  He also hasn't missed a trick with the camera and his ability to draw you in with dynamic action and beautiful vistas.

As I stated at the beginning, the main issue with this movie is the structure of the franchise itself.  If this series were a trilogy, we would be much further along in important story points.  But even after two movies, it still feels like we are only at the beginning.  Towards the end of the film, we see a motley and unlikely crew of people assembled throughout the movie that we now recognize to be our main heroes going forward.  But the movie ends before we can spend any real time with them as a group.  It would be like if the Avengers only formed their team in the last 10 minutes of the movie.

The movie also gambles its emotional payout on Leta Lestrange.  She is the center point of two love triangles and she carries with her a secret that is essential to the plot.  Her arc is the most important emotional movement in the film and for me it just did not pay off like it should have.  In addition to our returning characters, Crimes of Grindlewald also not only introduces us to Dumbledore, Theseus, and Leta, but also the following important characters:

-Yusef Kama (William Nadylam): a mysterious stranger to Paris with scars on his wrist who is also searching for Credence
-Nagini (Claudia Kim): a woman who has been cursed with the ability to transform into a mindless snake who will one day be unable to change back into her human form forever.
-Nicolas Flamel (Brontis Jodorowsky): an ancient alchemist who adds some nice comic moments.

They have to juggle all of these new characters while giving compelling arcs to Newt, Tina, Jacob, Queenie, Grindlewald, and Credence.  There is simply not enough emotional breathing room to properly invest in Leta the way the story wants you to do.  This makes the extra attention focused on her feel more like a diversion than an essential emotional tether.  And because of this, you feel other storylines cut short.  It feels very much like they cut much of Nagini's story from this film.  That is a shame because Kim does an excellent job with the little screen time that she has and her slow-moving tragedy is something that I would loved to have explored in this film.

I have to take a moment to talk about Johnny Depp and his Grindlewald.  I was assuming that his performance would default to something completely outrageous like we have seen from him in a number of his recent movies.  I was so pleasantly surprised to see how grounded he made Grindlewald.  From the beginning of the movie, we are warned how dangerous Grindlewald is in using his words to seduce people to the dark side.  Most movies never quite deliver on this hype, but they do here.  JK Rowling does a fantastic job of writing Grindlewald's dialogue in a way that makes us not only understand his point of view but almost agreeing with him.  He speaks to the wizards and witches and asks them a simple question: why hide in shadow?  Do we not have the right to live free to be ourselves?  His words are so subtle in their prejudice that they border on genius.  He says "Muggles are not lower than us, just other.  They are not of less value, just different value."  You can feel how the subtleties of shifting the language can create a mental shield against the conscience's repulsion to prejudice.

And that is why it is so disappointing that Rowling did not have the guts to completely commit to the character.  What I mean is that she places too big of a stumbling block in front of you to let Grindlewald become an actual complex character.  Earlier in the movie and at other parts Grindlewald kills with glee and coldly sanctions the killing of child.  Rowling stacks the deck against any of his arguments because we have seen behind the veil and know he is a monster.  But if she had held back just a little and let dangle the possibility that Grindlewald isn't a fake hero but a misguided hero, then she could have created one of the great screen villains of all time.  But instead, they take the safer road of making clear that Grindlewald's seeming heroism is all a manipulative act.  What a missed opportunity.

Despite the above criticisms, Crimes of Grindlewald is still an an enjoyable adventure.  The characters of the first grow on you more.  Newt's awkwardness has become more endearing.  Tina's failing attempts at stoicism make us care about her and her relationship with Newt even more.  Fogler still knocks it out of the park as Jacob and actually takes his character to some surprising emotional depths.  Even characters that seemed flat in the first film like Queenie, are taken through a transformation.  Miller is a problematic actor for me here because he makes Credence so unpleasant to look at that I never want to spend time with his character and his arc.

I honestly do not understand the flack that Rowling has received for having "lack of representation" in this movie.  The cast and characters are incredibly diverse in ethnicity, age, and gender.  Knowing that Dumbledore is gay, you can clearly see his lingering romantic feelings for Grindlewald.  But the movie wisely chooses not to make it explicit so that the story is more accessible to children and families.  Dumbledore says that he and Grindlewald were once "closer than brothers."  There is nothing about that statement or anything presented that is in and of itself objectionable regarding Catholic moral theology.

Thematically, the movie makes clear that there is good and evil in the world and that we are all called to choose a side.  This is especially difficult when there are those on the other side whom you care about.  Nevertheless, sitting on the fence is an indulgence for when things are peaceful.  This film is about our characters choosing their sides of the coming conflict.

Nothing about this movie turns me off to the series.  It makes me want to see what happens next.  The problem is that what happens next is what I expected to happen in this movie here.

image by Yasir72.multan

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