Monday, November 26, 2018

Magic Season – Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald

Eddie Redmayne and Callum Turner in Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald.

We can all agree that the more franchises crowd the multiplexes, the more difficult it is for other sorts of pictures to get seen – indeed, to get made at all. Still, some of the most enjoyable experiences I’ve had at the movies this year have been at the latest entries in various series: Incredibles 2, Mission Impossible: Fallout, Ant-Man and the Wasp, even the much-maligned Solo. However, Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald towers above the others. It confirms that, visually and emotionally, this particular franchise is on the same level as the recently concluded Planet of the Apes trilogy.

At the end of 2016’s Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, a Harry Potter prequel written by J.K. Rowling and directed by David Yates, the nefarious wizard Grindelwald, who had been in disguise as Percival Graves (Colin Farrell), was unmasked, revealing, in a coup de théâtre, an unsuspected Johnny Depp in the role, and captured. In the opening sequence of Crimes of Grindelwald, he eludes his guards en route to Azkaban and continues to develop his master plan to turn the wizarding world into an aggressive, militaristic fascist dictatorship determined to wage war against the “no-majs” (or “muggles”). Like all of Rowling’s fantasies, this is a barbarians-at-the-gate narrative with analogies to present-day politics suggestive enough to provide considerable emotional power for audiences. But setting these movies in the 1920s permits Rowling to lock her story into historical events as well. In the latest film she has inserted a flashback to the sinking of the Titanic, and though the story begins and ends in 1927, it’s clear that she’s looking ahead to the Second World War, with Grindelwald’s grab for power yoked somehow to Hitler’s. Crimes of Grindelwald has both a wide scope and an intimate feel, focused as it is on the personal histories of its characters and the ways in which those histories – their unresolved issues of loss and abandonment – shape the decisions they make about which side of the growing chasm between Grindelwald’s thugs and the law-abiding Ministry of Magic they come down on. It’s thrilling and moving.

It’s also often rather confusing. Grindelwald’s escape at the top of the film certainly looks spectacular; the cinematographer is the matchless Philippe Rousselot, with his taste for dark, glittering palettes and his old-style romantic grandeur, and the editor is Mark Day; both worked on the first Fantastic Beasts, and Day collaborated with Yates on all four of his Harry Potter movies. But I couldn’t figure out what was literally going on during the escape. And as the movie proceeds, with the protector of fantastic beasts, the pure-hearted but frantically introverted Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) at its center but an extended supporting cast boasting maybe twice as many characters as its predecessor, the plotting goes haywire. There are two siblings long believed dead, and the vulnerable characters often are at the mercy of two or three different plots on their lives from different quarters.

At times the tail appears to be wagging the dog, the storyline devised as an excuse for exciting, gorgeous set pieces. But that’s actually not the case, because Rowling is a tireless conjurer of subplots and backstories. The problem really seems to be that she comes up with too much: enough for a whole novel, more than a single two-and-a-quarter-hour movie can reasonably contain. Leta Lestrange (Zoë Kravitz), the fiancée of Newt’s auror brother Theseus (Callum Turner), is haunted by an event in her childhood that is hinted at in a flashback to a Defense Against the Dark Arts class at Hogwarts where the students are being trained – by a young Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law) – to face their greatest fears, in the form of a shape-shifting creature, familiar to Harry Potter readers and viewers, called a boggart. Then it takes the movie about an hour to tell us what the image that encapsulates Leta’s greatest fear means, and when we get to the answer, it’s embedded in the Titanic sequence, where there’s so much going on in such a short space of time that the resolution of this part of the plot feels both implausible and oddly tacked-on. Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller) shows up again, at first in a traveling freak show where he’s been befriended by a character named Nagini (Claudia Kim) who can turn herself into a serpent; he’s still Grindelwald’s pet project, but since his story isn’t developed very much past what we saw in the first Fantastic Beasts movie, we mostly have to rely on two-year old memories. Crimes of Grindewald jumps on the bandwagon of franchise movies that don’t bother to recap plot points from earlier chapters, but unlike the younger viewers toward whom they are targeted, I don’t watch them over and over again, so I end up puzzling over remnants of plots I can’t reconstruct in my head while I’m in the middle of the latest one. Grindelwald is assisted by a young man I didn’t remember from the first Fantastic Beasts because he didn’t make much of an impression, and since then he seems to have switched alliances. And one of the new characters, Yusuf Kama (William Nadylam), is rescued by Newt from a parasite before we have any idea what he’s doing in the picture. Yusuf is like a minor figure in an Agatha Christie mystery who turns out to have an agenda we couldn’t possibly have guessed. And I’m afraid that’s the only part he plays in the movie; Rowling didn’t get around to writing a character for him. And then there are the “i”s she and Yates don’t dot and the “t”s they don’t cross. In both London and Paris, the movie’s two main settings, muggles seem to witness several supernatural incidents yet no one ever seems to think to obliviate them so they won’t remember what they saw.

Dan Fogler and Katherine Waterston in Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald.

The key relationships are mostly carried over from the first movie: Newt’s with the New York auror Tina Goldstein (the talented and statuesquely beautiful Katherine Waterston) and that of Tina’s flaky-soulful sister Queenie (the ineffable Alison Sudol) and the no-maj Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), whom Newt involved accidentally in the goings-on and who tumbled into a romance with Queenie. Newt believes he obliviated Jacob before returning home to England; when he shows up with Queenie Rowling supplies an explanation for the misperception. Jacob is such a lovable character, and Fogler is so charming, that it would have been a deprivation for fans if Rowling hadn’t found a way to bring him back. Newt and Tina are both introverts and socially awkward, so their romantic story has proceeded from the outset in a one-step-forward, two-steps-back manner. Here they have to get past a romantic-comedy misunderstanding: Tina thinks Newt and not Theseus has become engaged to Leta because a newspaper story screwed it up. What is thrown in the way of Queenie and Jacob’s love story isn’t so easy to fix: her insecurity and low self-image, which prompt her to cast a spell on him so that he’ll agree to marry her (though this isn’t a healthy climate for intermarriages between wizards and muggles) – and that ultimately, in an alarming turn of events, makes her lose her grip. I thought when I watched the movie that this shift wasn’t sufficiently prepared for, but even if that’s the case, Sudol, who has one of those not-easily-pinpointed gifts for hiding an enchanting, airborne personality in a series of eccentricities – think Margaret Sullavan, think Barbara Harris – makes it work.

The most important new relationship is the one, begun at Hogwarts, between Grindelwald and Dumbledore, whom the Ministry has asked to track down his old friend but refuses. Depp’s deeply unsettling performance culminates in a speech that, as he plays it, is a marvel of demagoguery. The addition of Albus Dumbledore is a treasure in the movie, largely because of Law, who taps into the reserves of warmth and psychological balance that distinguished his few scenes as the title character’s father in Hugo. In the flashback to the Defense Against the Dark Arts class I recognized another connection – to David Thewlis’s Remus Lupin in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, another character representing profound love and loyalty and, not so incidentally, the professor who teaches Harry and his friends about boggarts. In some ways Law’s Dumbledore and Redmayne’s Newt Scamander, with his gnomish, retiring personality and his unpredictable forms of pragmatism, echo each other: both are unshakeable, their moral conviction reflected in small actions as well as large ones. Once again Redmayne makes Newt the rarest and least likely of heroes, a member of a vanishing species like his precious fantastic beasts. My favorite line in the script goes to Leta, who, suffused with guilt over the childish impulse that ended in disaster, points out that Newt has never met a monster he couldn’t love.

As in the first movie, Crimes of Grindelwald presents a dazzling catalogue of fantastic beasts, some of them familiar from its predecessor (Rowling finds a plot purpose for Newt’s beloved mischievous scavenger, the niffler), some of them new, including a few menacing creatures that would not have been out of place in Guillermo Del Toro’s Hellboy II. The setpiece episodes, embroidered with Stuart Craig’s production design and Colleen Atwood’s costumes, are terrific except for the climactic one, which doesn’t contain sufficient invention and eventually flattens out. (The same was true for the climax of the first Fantastic Beasts.) It’s the only sequence in the movie that feels overlong; I was startled when the movie came to an end because it had unraveled so speedily I thought there was another half-hour to go. Whatever its faults, Crimes of Grindelwald sweeps you up as the children’s stories we remember most fondly do and leaves you in a state of sublime impatience in anticipation of the next chapter.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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