Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindenwald (2018)

The last time I was this devastated by the imaginary happenings of J.K. Rowling’s Wizarding World was due to the death of Sirius Black. The Crimes of Grindenwald compounds that trauma since pretty much no one gets out of this film unscathed. Critics and fans might include themselves in that number too. This second installment of the Fantastic Beasts series received a frosty reception by those who took issue with its sloppy writing and convoluted plot, fair points on both accounts. For what it’s worth though, which is not a lot, I’ve spent more hours with this movie than with all the other films and books combined.

Sure, I’ll cop to being superficial and acknowledge that the cast is partly the reason. Former Burberry models Eddie Redmayne and Callum Turner are fucking snacks in their woolen three-piece suits. Then there’s Jude Law, a man who can do smoking hot pope and smoking hot wizard prof. Zoe Kravitz holds it down for the ladies. I’ve never wanted to be an emotionally tortured witch from the 1920s as much as I do when I see her, and her wardrobe. In fact, the whole costume department can come over and outfit me for the day, or forever. The handsome period clothing is also matched by the film’s sumptuous design, with Europe proving a far lusher playground than gloomy post-war America.

The malcontents are not wrong about the film’s faults though. The story, which takes place a shortly after the events of the first movie, is slow to come together. Magizoologist Newt Scamandar (Redmayne) is back in London after tearing up New York. He briefly reunites with his former Hogwarts teacher, Dumbledore (Law), who seeks his help on another errand that will likely get both in trouble with the Ministry. Events soon force Newt and the others to travel to France, where everyone is pursuing the mysterious Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller). American auror Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterson), who tried to protect him in America, follows the young man to Paris, keeping an eye on those who seek to kill or corrupt him. Grimmson, a bloodthirsty bounty hunter employed by the British Ministry of Magic, and Yusef Kama (William Nadylam), a shady Frenchman with a grudge, both want him dead, while the dark wizard Grindenwald (Johnny Depp), aided by his band of pureblood acolytes, hopes to use Credence for his own ends.

With no book as a guide, there’s a lot to piece together, and even the film’s 134 minute run time seems too short to do its story and characters justice. Director David Yates works with a script penned by Rowling, but they don’t filter out which of the many details are most important for this particular movie. Whereas the first film was largely about Newt and Tina’s efforts to protect Credence, Crimes of Grindenwald is missing a similar overriding narrative. At times, it is focused on Credence’s search for his true identity, and at others, it is about Grindenwald’s attempt to upend the world order, replacing it with one in which witches and wizards reign superior. Leta Lestrange (Kravitz) also finds herself at the center of things. Newt’s best and only friend from Hogwarts, Leta is now engaged to his brother, Theseus (Turner), and remains haunted by a past that she’s reluctant to revisit.

The lack of strong relationships is one reason why the film seems so disjointed. The movie conspires to keep everyone apart, creating a certain amount of tension but also scattering the characters across different ends of Britain and Paris. We know Newt and Tina grow closer, but we don’t even see her for a good half hour. Meanwhile, Queenie (Alison Sudol), Tina’s sister, and her no-maj baker boyfriend, Jacob (Dan Fogler), part in anger after crashing at Newt’s flat. She’s left wandering the streets of Paris by herself. The two men then travel to France to pursue their significant others, but it turns into a real downer of a trip. Newt is too distracted by everything else to pay much attention to his best bud, and with no one as his foil, Jacob ends up looking deflated. There are good reasons for his pessimism, but the camaraderie between the two was something I was looking forward to. Fogler is great with a wry one-liner or a flummoxed stare, and he doesn’t get many chances to flex that humor here.

The actors do their best to make up for gaps in storytelling though. Redmayne and Miller ease back into their roles, finding new points of turmoil for Newt and Credence, and Sudol reveals a different side to Queenie, one in which her good and trusting nature leads to desperation. Queenie and Jacob share only a few scenes this time around, but they capitalize on them with some truly heart-wrenching moments. Likewise, the script doesn’t reveal much in the way of Newt and Theseus’s strained relationship, and we get just a few flashes of the ill will that’s been brewing for years. As Grindenwald’s threat grows, however, the brothers are forced to come together in a raw and pained confrontation.

Yet the actors’ committed portrayals in the final act are a reason why I was a little disappointed. The emotional gut punches come mostly at the end, making the rest of the film a long waiting game. The first two-thirds of the movie aren’t as stirring as they need to be and leave too many of these rich, dynamic characters hanging. Of the neglected characters and storylines, none is more underserved than Leta and Theseus’s relationship. A burning love story exists somewhere, but we hardly get to see it. That’s a shame because not only are Kravitz and Turner sexy beasts, their romance also informs so much of Newt’s character. There’s a lot of unpacking to be done regarding Dumbledore and Grindenwald’s relationship as well, work left to the remaining three films. Similarly, Nagini (Claudia Kim) is overlooked. Best known as Voldermort’s serpent companion, she still exists in human form and befriends Credence after they meet in the circus. Kim has about two lines in the whole movie and spends most of it looking very worried. If we don’t see much more of her as the series progresses, then Rowling might as well have left her out.

This brings us to a major criticism of Crimes of Grindenwald and one that I hope is corrected in the next film. The treatment of women, from lead character Tina to Newt’s fawning assistant, Bunty (Victoria Yeates), isn’t flattering. With the exception of Queenie, most are secondary to their male counterparts. Vinda (Poppy Corby-Tuech) does the bidding of Grindenwald, Nagini comforts Credence, and Bunty can’t seem to get a handle on any fantastic creature without Newt around. Even Tina is sidelined. The tenacious auror who proved all of the Magical Congress of America wrong, she does one thing of actual consequence – zapping Theseus, who is in hot pursuit of his brother, with a spell. Most maligned, however, is Leta. The embodiment of the tragic mulatto, she doesn’t get her due; rather than coming into her own, she is defined by her relationship to other men, be it Newt or Theseus or Credence. Nevertheless, I found Kravitz’s performance most moving, and having just seen the film for the nth time, I’m still picking up the pieces of my broken little heart. If Crimes of Grindenwald is an opening act for what’s to follow, then I’m very open.

Released: 2018
Prod: David Heyman, J.K. Rowling, Steve Kloves, Lionel Wigram
Dir: David Yates
Writer: Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler, Alison Sudol, Ezra Miller, Zoë Kravitz, Callum Turner, Claudia Kim, William Nadylam, Kevin Guthrie, Jude Law, Johnny Depp
Time: 134 min
Lang: English, some French
Country: United Kingdom
Reviewed: 2019

Les Misérables (2012)

Having seen the recent BBC adaptation of Victor Hugo’s novel starring Dominic West and David Oyelowo, it’s hard to go back to any other version, catchy tunes or no. The aching six-part miniseries only amplifies the deficits of Tom Hooper’s big screen production and shows the limitations of the musical format in telling Hugo’s sprawling story of poverty and revolution. That’s not to dismiss this handsome film, which boasts many positives, or Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg’s long-running musical, which was my introduction to musical theater, but rebottling emotions can be difficult, and this grand project leaves as much to be desired as to be admired.

I’ll start with a positive, topped by Anne Hathaway’s show-stopping rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream.” She deserves every award for her performance as Fantine, a character who doesn’t even make it halfway through the first act. It’s early nineteenth century France, and after the young woman loses her job in a factory, she turns to prostitution to pay for her daughter’s keep. Hair shorn and teeth pulled, Fantine bats away lechers and wonders how her life has come to this. The camera is fixed on Hathaway, unable to ignore Fantine’s hopeless fury.

Her misery is felt equally by Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), a convict sentenced to years of hard labor for stealing a loaf of bread. He finds redemption first from a merciful bishop (Colm Wilkinson, who originated the role) and then in the town of Montreuil, where he becomes a respectable businessman and mayor. Nothing he does seems to atone for his past though, and he is undone by the tenacious prison guard, Javert (Russell Crowe), and his guilt over Fantine’s downfall. Jackman is at his best when Valjean is at his lowest. “Valjean’s Soliloquy,” sung shortly after his release, is laden with despair but also carries the faintest strains of hope.

That is something in short supply as every hard won happiness is met by more suffering. Valjean rescues Fantine’s daughter, Cosette (Isabelle Allen), from the abusive Thénardiers (Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen), but they are forced to hide from Javert, who’s determined to chase them throughout France. When the story shifts forward nine years, the focus turns towards the anti-monarchists charging through the streets of Paris. Among them is Marius (Eddie Redmayne), a young man infatuated with Cosette (Amanda Seyfried), loved by Éponine Thénardier (Samantha Barks), and loyal to the student rebels. Things finally come to a head at the barricades, where everyone loses one way or another.

I’ve always been drawn to the emotional texture of Les Misérables, and the film’s overall look primes the landscape beautifully. Several set pieces show off the story’s scope, such as the cavernous shipyard that opens the movie, the cramped and humble Parisian alleys, and, briefly, Marius’s decadent family home. The factory in Montreuil is also striking, sparse but saturated in blue. The entire production design, including makeup and costuming, are fitting of this spectacle.

Hooper’s direction never really rises above the ostentation though. Here is a story brimming with regret and love and forgiveness, where every character, perhaps with the exception of the Thénardiers, walks along some path of redemption. Hooper plows through it all. It’s as if the movie is at the service of brassy showtunes rather than the characters, who barely have time to catch their breath. Even with its substantial two and a half hour runtime, we’re watching one song crash into another and then another.

His decision to film the live singing instead of using prerecorded music is at least partly to blame. The technique has its advantages, and in the case of the slower songs, we get some nuance that we might not see and hear from a studio performance (again, see Anne Hathaway). But this also necessitates a lot of close-ups, and for a sung-through musical, that’s a lot of giant headshots. The camera is far too tight on the actors when they are singing. It translates into a visually overwhelming, claustrophobic experience, something my friend discovered when he got motion sick and nearly lost his dinner all over the lobby floor.

Some of the better performances are powerful enough to ignore that. Redmayne impresses with his intimate interpretation of a broken Marius in the second act, revisiting the scene of the uprising in “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables.” He doesn’t have the gravity of Michael Ball, who originated the role, but is heartbreaking because of his fragility. Daniel Huttlestone, taking on the part of street urchin Gavroche two years before he co-starred in Into the Woods, also proves he can handle a musical challenge. In the middle of the pack are Seyfried, Barks (reprising her role from the twenty-fifth anniversary concert), and Aaron Tveit as the rebellion’s leader, Enjolras. All give fine performances if not particularly memorable ones. As the comical and rascally innkeepers, Baron Cohen and Bonham Carter add levity, but their singing falls flat.

That leaves Jackman and Crowe, both capable actors but not the best fit for this film. Of the two, Jackman fares far better as Valjean and is quite moving in his despair. If this were a non-musical adaptation, his acting would shine. I keep circling back to his singing though and think his voice too reedy considering Valjean’s physical and emotional heft. For someone best known as Wolverine, Jackman sounds pretty feeble as he strains for the higher notes.

Still, casting the Tony-winner is understandable, unlike the choice of Crowe as Javert. He’s in his own league of awful here but not for a lack of trying. Crowe is so out of his depth that he completely loses his character. Rather than a police inspector with an obsessive agenda and an unbending sense of justice, Javert is a confused guy in a funny hat squeaking out threats. Surely a dramatic reading of the lyrics would have been better for all of us. If there is a bright side to Crowe’s participation, it is the reminder that Philip Quast gifted us with this profound performance of “Stars” in the tenth anniversary concert, and that is the version I’m off to watch now.

“Valjean’s Soliloquy” by Hugh Jackman:

“At the End of the Day” by Anne Hathaway and cast:

“I Dreamed a Dream” by Anne Hathaway:

“The Confrontation” by Russell Crowe and Hugh Jackman:

“Castle on a Cloud” by Isabelle Allen and Helena Bonham Carter:

“Master of the House” by Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter:

“Suddenly” by Hugh Jackman:

“Stars” by Russell Crowe:

“Paris/Look Down” by Daniel Huttlestone, Aaron Tveit, Eddie Redmayne, and cast:

“Red and Black” by Aaron Tveit, Eddie Redmayne, and cast:

“In My Life/A Heart Full of Love” by Amanda Seyfried, Hugh Jackman, Eddie Redmayne, and Samantha Barks:

“On My Own” by Samantha Barks:

“One Day More” by Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Eddie Redmayne, Amanda Seyfried, Samantha Barks, Aaron Tveit, Sacha Baron Cohen, Helena Bonham Carter, and cast:

“Do You Hear the People Sing” by cast:

“A Little Fall of Rain” by Samantha Barks and Eddie Redmayne:

“Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” by Eddie Redmayne:

Released: 2012
Prod: Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Debra Hayward, Cameron Mackintosh
Dir: Tom Hooper
Writer: Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried, Eddie Redmayne, Helena Bonham Carter, Sacha Baron Cohen, Samantha Barks, Aaron Tveit, Daniel Huttlestone, Colm Wilkinson
Time: 158 min
Lang: English
Country: United Kingdom
Reviewed: 2019

Golden Years (2016)

Golden Years doesn’t map out the ideal retirement plan, but you could keep it on the backburner. Or don’t since this slight comedy of errors about pensioners with a vengeance doesn’t quite live up to expectations. The heist film offers a daffy plot and a veteran cast to match, but it also suffers long pauses slowing the overall momentum. Those inclined to rage against the system may find in this movie some poetic justice, but it’s not as satisfying as say levying a seventy percent marginal tax rate on millionaires.

Arthur (Bernard Hill), a generally content retiree, has his life turned upside down when his pension is wiped out. Besides the utter indifference of financial services representatives, he faces the more pressing concern of paying for his wife’s medication. Martha (Virginia McKenna) is kept in the dark while Arthur tries to figure out how they’ll make it through the next few months, never mind the next few years. He comes upon an age-old plan, the one everyone gets when they’re really hard up for cash, and decides to rob a bank. He doesn’t scheme so much as fall into the idea, and his first robbery of £75,000 is finely choreographed if chaotic and unexpected bit of handiwork.

The story hits national news and attracts the attention of two police detectives, Sid (Alun Armstrong) and Stringer (Brad Moore). Stringer, a hard-charging officer who imagines himself the hero of every scenario, is convinced that the series of robberies is being carried out by highly trained young men with a meticulous attack plan. Sid is more circumspect, his years of experience telling him that something doesn’t add up but he’s not sure what.

Heist films operate on the premise that one’s luck is always about to run out, and there are some humorous if predictable close calls here, one of which involves eating the evidence. There’s not enough of these moments though, and Golden Years doesn’t follow through on the formula. Instead of each side ratcheting things up, the tension subsides the more Arthur and Martha get away with it. They become so comfortable in their new line of work that they even enlist a few friends (Phil Davis, Una Stubbs, Ellen Thomas) to keep up with their ambitions. The expected showdown between them and the law fizzles, however, and instead turns into a counseling session for Sid and his unhappy wife (Sue Johnston).

The film could have made bigger impression if it had padded the story with more humor and less of a feel good attitude. It tries to have it all ways, taking the real hardships and the indignities suffered by the elderly and pairing it with goofiness of a heist plot. That dichotomy can work, but this film takes the easy way out with every resolution instead of confronting its somber feelings. When the only consequence seems to be a good one, it blunts the emotional impact, and the story goes from looking at real injustice to a game some old folks play because it’s a step up from bingo night.

Released: 2016
Prod: Mark Foligno
Dir: John Miller
Writer: John Miller, Nick Knowles, Jeremy Sheldon
Cast: Bernard Hill, Virginia McKenna, Sue Johnston, Phil Davis, Brad Moore, Mark Williams, Una Stubbs, Ellen Thomas, Simon Callow, Alun Armstrong, Richard Cambridge
Time: 96 min
Lang: English
Country: United Kingdom
Reviewed: 2019