A wan wand effort: Magic missing from wizard saga
By: Matt Brunson
The magic is woefully missing in Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald (two out of four stars), the first picture that in itself feels like a crime against the rock-solid Wizarding World franchise that began back in 2001.
It was an impressive run, with all eight Harry Potter pictures and 2016’s Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them offering hours of entertainment via a heady mix of vibrant characters, layered storylines, and razzle-dazzle effects. The Crimes of Grindelwald, on the other hand, is the first series entry to feel as if it’s doling out punishment rather than pleasure. It’s an unwieldy beast, with various characters and subplots all clawing their way to the spotlight – a spotlight, incidentally, that is never relinquished by the suffocating CGI that dominates the proceedings.
“Abundant CGI in a fantasy flick? You don’t say!” Yeah, yeah, but the difference is that the previous pictures all offered FX in support of the story, not at the expense of it. Yet here, there are numerous scenes designed solely to show off the visual wizardry rather than advance the film in any significant way. The Crimes of Grindelwald often feels like a CGI demo reel for Academy consideration rather than an actual movie, but here’s the real rub: The effects aren’t even that great, with many moments that look absolutely unconvincing in all their polished petrification.
At any rate, the most ingratiating ingredient about Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them wasn’t its effects or its plot or even its fantastic beasts. Instead, it was the foursome that resided at the center of the tale: the gawky wizard Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), magically endowed sisters Tina and Queenie Goldstein (Katherine Waterston and Alison Sudol), and No-Maj (non-magical) baker Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler). Director David Yates (who had helmed the final four Potter pictures) and creator J.K. Rowling (making her screenwriting debut) kept the focus on this quartet, providing audiences with heroes worth following.
Yates and Rowling have returned for The Crimes of Grindelwald, but they’ve largely left their Fantastic four behind. The characters are here in body more than spirit, as Scamander merely operates as a connective tissue between the various plots rather than as an actual individual while Tina and Jacob basically stand around gawking at the proceedings. As for Queenie, she undergoes a transformation that’s as illogical as it is ill-conceived, feinting in a direction that makes no sense given what we learned about this great character in the previous picture.
Speaking of that previous film, Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) showed up in the waning moments, revealed as the true villain of the piece. Now he’s the star attraction, a dark wizard with all the megalomaniacal ambitions of a Bond villain. The only one who can stop him is the respected wizard Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law), but because he’s bound by a secret from the past, Dumbledore has to hand over corralling duties to Scamander. Depp is merely OK as Grindelwald — he lacks the towering menace that Ralph Fiennes brought to the role of Potter nemesis Voldemort — but Law is a delight as Dumbledore, making it easy to see this noble, shrewd and compassionate young man morph into the elderly statesman we all know and love.
Like Mr. Creosote with his food in Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life, Yates and Rowling pile on subplot after subplot and character after character, eventually resulting in a vomitous rejection by viewers disgusted by the haphazardness of the entire enterprise. And for those who rolled their eyes at all the convenient family relationships in the Star Wars saga, prepare for even more coincidental linkings in this film. Honestly, it’s easier keeping up with the Kardashians than it is keeping track of the lineage in a wizarding world that suddenly seems to be the ultimate word in nepotism.
Despite being steeped in violence, Widows (three and a half stars out of four) opens with a steamy kiss – more than one, in fact. Veronica and Harry Rawlings (Viola Davis and Liam Neeson) appear to be the type of married couple who never exited the honeymoon phase, and their time seen together is playful and passionate. Unfortunately, Harry is a career crook, and it’s not long before he and his cohorts in crime are killed during a heist that goes terribly wrong.
Widows sets up these competing scenarios – back and forth and back and forth between the romance and the robbery – right at the beginning of the film, and then proceeds not so much to build on them but to dissect them, peering deep into their bowels and consequently spinning the story off in unexpected ways.
British filmmaker Steve McQueen, who won an Oscar for co-producing the Best Picture winner 12 Years a Slave (he lost the actual directing statue to Gravity’s Alfonso Cuaron), has teamed with Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn to adapt a six-part 1983 mini-series that was a big hit in the U.K. (the American T.V. remake, which aired on ABC in 2002 and starred Mercedes Ruehl and Brooke Shields, didn’t fare as well). Whittling the mini-series’ 290 minutes down to the movie’s 130 minutes couldn’t have been easy, but what remains is compact enough not to wear out its welcome yet expansive enough to give all of the major characters plenty of breathing room.
The title refers to the wives of the four dead men, with three of them (Davis, Michelle Rodriguez and Elizabeth Debicki) forced by outside aggressors to pick up where their husbands left off – by successfully planning and executing their own heist. What’s remarkable about Widows, though, is that its scope isn’t just limited to this trio and their caper.
Other characters are constantly being introduced, like a slick politician (Colin Farrell) who’s as corrupt as they come and yet occasionally seems to actually give a damn, or the hot-headed youngster (a chilling about-face for Get Out star Daniel Kaluuya) who just can’t stop hurting people, or the beauty salon employee (Tony Award winner Cynthia Erivo, fresh off her big-screen breakout in Bad Times at the El Royale) whose babysitting gig leads to a riskier proposition. And there are other story threads at play, but unlike Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, which suffers from too many plotlines being ineptly handled, this one benefits from its wealth of narrative, with nary a false move impeding its headlong plunge into a dynamic denouement.