Updated: Jul 19, 2019
By Derek May:
YIN: Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald
Sequels are always a complicated affair. It’s all about balancing the effective elements of the first, moving the characters forward, expanding the established world, and elevating the thrills, chills, and spills. In many of these respects, Crimes succeeds in its attempts; but in several others, it unfortunately falls well short.
I’ll assume at this point that readers are quite familiar with the first film of the spinoff franchise establishing the adventures of Newt Scamander, his trio of human cohorts in sisters Tina and Queenie Goldstein and muggle/no-mag Jacob Kowalski, as well as, of course, a cryptozoological plethora of magical creatures that provide no end of mischief or assistance. That film seemingly captured lightning in a bottle, nailing the perfect recipe of well-drawn characters, a new-but-familiar world, and a complex-yet-fascinating story. It would be a tall order indeed to expect such a strike twice, but with J.K. Rowling herself scripting and go-to director David Yates returning to the helm, there’s little reason to think it couldn’t. But the fact is, while Crimes spins an entertaining yarn, it’s surprisingly threadbare.
Let me be clear in saying that as far as expanding the Wizarding World, Crimes certainly exceeds all expectation. We delve far deeper into the inner workings of not only the various ministries and institutions, but into the conflicts boiling within the community. Having moved from London to New York, this time we also see Paris in all its glory, putting each character even further out of their element.
It’s powder keg that allows escaped villain Gellert Grindelwald to begin setting his machinations in motion, sowing the seeds of discord while seducing the susceptible to his cause. While there are certainly parallels to the actions and motivations of Voldemort, there is enough distinction to make Grindelwald unique, yet equally dangerous. Johnny Depp gets to play the role properly this time, playfully shifting gears from a persuasive leader pandering to the masses in public to ice-cold psychopath capable of horrific acts when baring his true soul. With a sort of militaristic Billy-Idol-bondage look and an English accent, Depp’s in his wheelhouse of eccentricity, but still manages to find the shred of relatability under the bleached skin. It’s that more than anything that makes Grindelwald so terrifying, especially in this day and age: that on some level, warped as it may be, his points are alluringly well made.
To stop such an entity, you need the greatest monster-sympathizer around, and that’s Newt (Eddie Redmayne). But per usual he’s not completely alone, being under the watchful direction of none other than a young Albus Dumbledore, with Jude Law taking over the role with a youthful vibrancy that never overshadows his sage prominence. As we come to find, there are specific reasons Dumbledore must work by proxy, and thus it’s left up to Newt.
Rowling and Redmayne do an excellent job of maintaining the Newt we’d grown to love in the first film. He remains the shy, awkward hero more comfortable around his animals than his human compatriots, in particular his heroic brother Theseus (Callum Turner).
Through both flashbacks to his time at Hogwarts and his dogged investigations, we reinforce Newt’s empathetic and misunderstood nature. But that’s also part of the problem; everything about Newt is simply covering old ground rather than breaking new ones. We already knew about his strained relationship with his brother, and this time around we are given plenty of evidence of that. But we don’t really see much depth to their relationship, or much growth. By the end, while Newt does make a gesture toward his brother, it’s still relatively superficial, and more of a general human action than brotherly reconciliation.
Similarly, we understood that there was some relationship between Newt and Lita Lastrange (Zoë Kravitz) which ended in heartbreak. Unfortunately, while we get some very interesting background into what set up their relationship, we don’t get much into how it ended other than that she’s now with Theseus. And while there is some awkwardness to the trio, it really feels like a missed opportunity to explore the various feelings amongst them. Without that, the culmination of Lita’s journey feels less impactful than it should given the circumstances, despite Kravitz’s emotional performance throughout.
All of this leads to the looming issue at hand, which is that the film is so chock-a-block with varied storylines and exposition we have to wait three more films to see paid off that it sacrifices the relationships and motivations of most of the characters here and now. As much as Crimes centers around Grindelwald, it also continues to pull the narrative thread of Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller)—somehow having survived his apparent demise—and his search for his true identity.
Following that trail is Tina Goldstein, which leads her to meet up with Newt, who’s either searching for Credence to help him, or searching for Grindelwald to kill him, or searching for Tina to rectify a somewhat silly misunderstanding (and that’s just to start with!). The first two parts are seemingly dropped, or at least set aside, in favor of the latter, which would be perfectly fine given the couple’s beautiful chemistry from the last film. But they spend so much time and effort chasing their respective goals that we get very little of their reconnection. And thus by the end the film, Newt and Tina are more or less where we left them the first time round.
As for Credence, he appears to play a far greater role in the larger world than we could have ever suspected. And while that’s an interesting narrative ploy, it’s also quite a massive coincidence. The elements that tie several of the characters together reeks of convenience and, to no small degree, implausibility. If we take it all at face value, it admittedly does tie together Grindelwald’s manipulations, though how he was privy to so much secret information is never revealed (guess we’ll get that in later movies). In all, despite coming from Rowling herself, audiences are still crying foul, and rightly so.
Adding it up, we’re tracking about a dozen characters, each shoehorned into converging in a final confrontation that attempts to tie the threads together, and to some extent does. But the issue lies in the fact that the climax, for all its visual splendor and shocking revelations, lacks an emotional punch given that we’ve been following what everyone is doing, but not really what they honestly feel about it.
I find no better example of that than through Jacob and Queenie. They were probably my favorite couple from the first film, and I was so looking forward to their development here. But instead, they are torn asunder, their relationship used to reflect the growing divide between the muggle and wizarding worlds. Which is perfectly fine, and on the surface a brilliant idea. But their interactions and decisions, especially Queenie’s, feel trifling and even somewhat artificial. One of the reasons the characters were so strong before was that they were intelligent and motivated, and this time Queenie feels naïve and easily susceptible while Jacob is so single-mindedness as to be rendered one-note. By the end, Queenie makes a decision that feels fairly unearned, if superficially understandable.
Though well over 2 hours in length, the film still feels like it needs more. Not action, not effects, not magic; but more scenes of interaction, of reflection, of introspection. The movie tells us a lot, but doesn’t show much other than sparkle and sleight of hand. Let’s see Tina and Queenie together, confronting their opposing views. Let’s see Newt and Theseus and Lita work through their complicated issues. Let’s see Jacob and Queenie bare their souls rather than exchange trite barbs. Let’s see Newt question his motivations and decisions.
I have almost no doubt these elements exist in some form. Rowling is too good a writer not to have addressed them somewhere, whether in her own notes, in the screenplay itself, or in deleted scenes. And it’s the latter that I suspect exists. There’s plenty of evidence to suggest that a wealth of helpful footage lives to fill in the gaps. There’s some really odd and disjointed editing in this movie, so much so that not only do we feel confused as to the characters, but often disoriented in the action. Several key sequences are very hard to follow, becoming lost in a blur of motion. Characters sometimes disappear and reappear in other places (and no, it’s not from apparating). And shots are clearly cut to save time rather than allow the scenes to breathe or develop. Even composition is suspect, as one early scene frames the characters in uncomfortable closeups that just feel odd rather than eliciting the desired effect. One can’t help but feel that a more complete movie might be saved from the cutting room floor.
It all makes me wonder if after five Potter-verse films Yates has hit his limit. If he’s run out of creative juice, or is simply directing by numbers at this point, it would be understandable given his epic run. But perhaps new blood and fresh eyes are needed, and as great as he’s been, perhaps it’s time to step aside for the greater good.
The Crimes of Grindelwald may not ultimately be limited to laws of the Wizarding World, but to cinema expectations on the whole. We’ve been spoiled to this point, and our demands are high. And while there’s much to appreciate in this film—from the heart-stopping cuteness of nifflers and other magical beasts to the undeniable pool of acting talent who each give 110%—the film lives or dies by the heartfelt connection between audience and characters. It’s not enough to know them, we have to engage directly with them, feel what they feel, suffer alongside, and this is the note that rings dullest. Whether that blame falls to Rowling, Yates, or simply the ravages of editing, it matters not at this point unless the deed is repeated in the films yet to come. The Harry Potter films certainly weren’t all perfect, and thus a series of Fantastic Beasts films is due a hiccup. But let’s hope lessons are learned and we can move forward with renewed vigor and attention or, if needed, new hands altogether.
YANG: Animal World
After seeing the trailer for Animal World (check it out below), you probably shook your head, yelled “WTF?!” and immediately decided it looked either batshit awesome or POS terrible. A Ronald McDonald on steroids slicing through CGI creatures on a train, crazy slow-mo shots, fast and furious action . . . and was that Michael Douglas there amongst the Chinese subtitles?
Yes, it was.
But I’m here to tell you that while all of that is absolutely in the movie, it doesn’t begin to tell you what it’s really about. So I will.
The mostly Chinese-language film is loosely based on a Japanese manga called Tobaku Mokushiroku Kaiji (Gambling Apocalypse Kaiji). We follow Zheng Kaisi, a fairly aimless slacker with a dead-end job and a bevy of personal issues. One of them happens to be that when we feels emotionally overwhelmed, he retreats into a fantasy where he’s a cartoonish clown of supernatural deadliness who skillfully dispatches the sources of his anxiety, who he sees as monstrous beasts. And while this psychological retreat occurs a few times in the film, it actually doesn’t hold much weight in the grander scheme. Instead, we actually follow Kaisi as he uses his superior math skills to survive something far more sinister: the most epic game of rock, paper, scissors that has ever been conceived!
Still with me?
Good. Because as utterly ridiculous as all of that sounds, it’s actually sort of brilliant. Desperate to keep his comatose mother in the hospital and his would-be girlfriend from abandoning him, Kaisi makes a deal that ends up placing him in debt for millions to the sort of people you don’t want to owe, led by Michael Douglas in a surprising yet effective cameo. To pay off his debt, Kaisi is placed aboard a floating casino to compete in the aforementioned R/P/S contest, reimagined as a card game with complicated rules, finite probabilities, and deadly consequences. If by the end Kaisi has played his cards and earned his points, he goes free. If not. . . .
The unusual story is supported with incredible visual effects that go far beyond CGI clown battles. If you try to imagine how you might explain a complicated card game involving mathematics, probability, and bank loans, I doubt you’d dream up what’s in director Yan Han’s head. But to my amazement, it really works. Explanations are both perfectly understandable and visually engaging, and the effects service the story rather than the other way around. The tension is palpable as Kaisi makes plays, winning or losing in unexpected ways and gaining allies and enemies. Relationships are never what they seem, and the movie keeps you wondering if Kaisi will make it out until the very end.
Li Yi Feng plays Kaisi, and even if you follow Chinese cinema you may not have heard of him, but something tells me you will in time. He’s got the typical boyish good looks to go with a sharp underlying intelligence, able to play it tough while maintaining a vulnerability that never veers into weakness. Li carries the film, and his charisma pulls us into his peril. As Kaisi accepts his predicament, he starts to come out of his shell, realizing that this crazy scenario actually fits his unusual skillsets. Li grows the character before our eyes, and by the end he’s earned a new lease on life.
In and amongst the contestants are various international characters. While predominantly Chinese, we have just about all groups represented, which not only gives scope to the film but weight to stakes. Each actor plays to the hilt, and the sincere performances all around serve to ground the audience in the absurd reality.
While the film resolves its core storyline, there’s enough of a cliffhanger that should it prove profitable, there may be more, including between Li and Douglas’ characters. I’d personally love that. China has become a major player in the international movie market, and has been elevating its game for years. There are plenty of stinkers out there, sure, but there are some serious contenders too. And I’d argue that despite the near-nonsensical marketing, Animal World ranks high. Whether your taste runs to the absurd, the risky, the escapist, or the solidly crafted, Animal World is worth the risk, especially now that it’s on Netflix. For my money, it’s a gamble worth taking.