“FANTASTIC BEASTS: THE CRIMES OF GRINDELWALD” (2018) Review

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“FANTASTIC BEASTS: THE CRIMES OF GRINDELWALD” (2018) Review

Following the success of the 2016 movie, “FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM”, Warner Brothers Studios and author J.K. Rowling continued the adventures of former Hogwarts student, Newt Scamander with the 2018 sequel called “FANTASTIC BEASTS: THE CRIMES OF GRINDELWALD”. Starring Eddie Redmayne, the movie was directed by David Yates. 

“FANTASTIC BEASTS: THE CRIMES OF GRINDELWALD” began in 1927, less than a year after the events of the 2016 movie. In the film’s opening, the Magical Congress of the United States of America (MACUSA) is transferring the powerful dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald from their maximum security prison in New York City to London. The latter is be tried for his crimes in Europe. But with the aide of Grindelwald’s follower, MACUSA agent Abernathy, the wizard manages to escapes during the transfer. Three months after Grindelwald’s escape, magizoologist Newt Scamander appeals to the Ministry of Magic in London to restore his revoked international travel rights following his previous adventures in New York City. While at the Ministry, Newt learns that his former Hogwarts classmate, Leta Lestrange, is engaged to his brother Theseus, an auror in the Department of Magical Law Enforcement. The Ministry offers to restore Newt’s travel rights if he assists Theseus in locating Credence Barebone, the American obscurial believed to have been killed in Paris. He has been detected in Paris.

Grindelwald is also searching for Credence. He believes that only the latter is powerful enough to kill his “equal”, Hogwarts Professor Albus Dumbledore. Newt declines the Ministry’s offer, but is is secretly summoned by Dumbledore, who also tries to persuade Newt to locate Credence. Dumbledore under constant Ministry surveillance for refusing to confront Grindelwald, who was a former close friend from the past. Upon his return home, he discovers that his American friends, the non-magical Jacob Kowalski and witch Queenie Goldstein had left New York. Jacob has retained memories of his past adventures with Newt and the Goldstein sisters, despite MACUSA’s citywide Obliviation order. Queenie and Jacob had followed Queenie’s sister Tina to Europe, where the latter is searching for Credence. Newt also discovers that Queenie has enchanted Jacob into eloping to Europe with her to circumvent MACUSA’s marriage ban between wizards and Muggles. After Newt lifts the charm, Jacob and Queenie quarrel about the marriage law, and the upset witch leaves to find Tina. Newt ignores the Ministry’s travel ban and with Jacob, head for Paris in search for the Goldstein sisters and Credence.

“FANTASTIC BEASTS: THE CRIMES OF GRINDELWALD” proved to be an unpopular entry in the HARRY POTTER movie franchise. Even a year before the film’s release, many had criticized the film’s producers, including J.K. Rowling, for allowing actor Johnny Depp to take over the role of Gellert Grindelwald in the wake of his controversial divorce. Ironically, once “THE CRIMES OF GRINDELWALD” hit the movie theaters, both the critics and many moviegoers expressed other reasons for their displeasure. Either these criticisms were merely used as shields to hide their displeasure at Depp’s presence in the movie, or they genuinely did not like it. Although “THE CRIMES OF GRINDELWALD”actually managed to make a profit, it did not make as much as its 2016 predecessor. Nor did it make as much as Warner Brothers Studios had anticipated. So . . . how did I feel about the movie?

I will admit that I have some problems with “THE CRIMES OF GRINDELWALD”. I never admitted this in my review of “FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM”, but I had noticed Rowling’s habit of creating two or more disjointed story lines and allowing them to connect near the end of the film. As much as I admired her use of this narrative structure, I must admit that there were times when I found it frustrating. To be honest, I found it more frustrating in “FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM”, especially Newt Scamander’s search for his missing animals. But in “THE CRIMES OF GRINDELWALD”, there were times when I found myself wondering why Rowling had focused so heavily on Leta Lestrange’s character arc/backstory and Queenie Goldstein’s problems with her non-magical love, Jacob Kowalski. I also had a problem with Colleen Atwood’s costumes. On one level, I found her costumes very attractive, as shown in the images below:

And yet . . . aside from the costumes and hairstyle worn by actress Katherine Waterston, I found the other costumes and hairstyles reminiscent of the early 1930s, instead of 1927, the film’s actual setting. Speaking of the timeline, could someone explain why Minerva McGonagall was a teacher at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, when either the Harry Potter novels or the franchise’s official website made it clear that she was born in 1935, eight years after this movie’s setting. And since Dumbledore was the Transfiguration professor at Hogwarts in 1927, what was the young Professor McGonagall teaching?

“FANTASTIC BEASTS: THE CRIMES OF GRINDELWALD” had its flaws, like any other movie. But I enjoyed it very much. Actually . . . I enjoyed it slightly more than I did the 2016 movie. The reason why I enjoyed it more than the first film is probably the reason why many others liked it less. J.K. Rowling had written an emotionally complicated tale that reminded me that humans beings are a lot more ambiguous than many are STILL unwilling to admit. They might pay lip service to the ambiguity of humans, but I have encountered too much hostility directed at movies willing to explore the complex nature of humans and society in general . . . especially in pop culture films. Some might claim that such ambiguity has no place in pop culture films and franchises. My response to that claim is . . . why not? I see no reason why humanity’s ambiguity should only be tolerated in films being considered for the film industry’s award season.

I noticed in “THE CRIMES OF GRINDELWALD” that the majority of Gellert Grindelwald’s followers were not “dark wizards” or superficially evil. I must admit that the Vinda Rosier, Grindelwald’s loyal right-hand follower, seemed to be the film’s closest example of the future Deatheaters that followed Lord Voldemort aka Tom Riddle Jr. Most of Grindelwald’s other followers seemed to be typical human being who has allowed his or her emotions to indulge in the usual prejudices or make bad choices. One example is the MACUSA agent Abernathy, who had earlier supported President Seraphina Picquery in the 2016 film. But the prime example in “THE CRIMES OF GRINDELWALD” proved to be Queenie Goldstein, the New York-born Legilimens (telepath), who out of her desperation to be with the non-magical Jacob Kowalski, turned to Grindelwald to help her achieve her desire. Many fans had condemned the movie for this portrayal of Queenie. And I do not understand why.

“FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM” had already hinted Queenie’s desperation to be with Jacob, when she conveyed reluctance to follow MACUSA President Seraphina Picquery’s orders to ensure the erasure of his recent memories. She broke the rules even further by paying a visit to Jacob’s new bakery in one of the film’s final scenes.More importantly, Queenie had discovered that Jacob had retained some memories of his adventures with her, Tina and Newt. This is why I am not surprised that Queenie had resorted to desperate measures in “THE CRIMES OF GRINDELWALD” to make Jacob her husband. Love might lead a person to do wonderful things. But it can also lead someone to make questionable or terrible decisions. J.K. Rowling understood this. I never understood why so many people were incapable of doing so.

The ironic thing about “FANTASTIC BEASTS: THE CRIMES OF GRINDELWALD” is that the movie not only featured former protagonists like Queenie Goldstein and Agent Abernathy, who had decided to follow Grindelwald, it also featured . . . Leta Lestrange. Any fan of Potterverse will remember another character with the Lestrange name – Voldemort follower Bellatrix Lestrange. Although Bellatrix had married into the Lestrange family, fans learned that her husband was another one of Voldemort’s highly murderous and faithful followers. I do recall that the 2016 film may have hinted that Leta was briefly as someone from Newt’s past who may or may not have deliberately led him into trouble and expelled from Hogwarts. Thanks to “THE CRIMES OF GRINDELWALD”, audiences learned that Leta was NOT someone who lived up to her pure-blood family’s name and who proved to be a different kettle of fish. She was not perfect. Her one crime . . . which led to years of guilt . . . stemmed from resentment toward her father’s sexist desire for a male heir. As a young girl aboard a sinking ocean liner headed for the United States, she made an ugly decision that affected both her family and Credence Barebone.

The characterizations of both Queenie Goldstein and Leta Lestrange, along with Gellert Grindelwald’s followers made J.K. Rowling’s intent to continue her ambiguous portrayal of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. But instead of viewing this ambiguity from a growing child, audiences get to witness this ambiguity through the eyes of an adult. Instead of realizing that individuals we might perceive as “bad” can also possess decency within, Rowling seemed to be hinting that those whom we might originally perceive as “good or decent” can allow their emotions to make terrible choices or embrace evil. Granted, fans learned in the previous series that Albus Dumbledore had once skated on the edge of giving into some parts of his baser nature. But through characters like Queenie Goldstein and Agent Abernathy, agents get to see how originally perceived “decent” characters can allow their emotions and desires to embrace evil . . . not for any moral good, but due to their own selfishness or prejudices. It is a pity that so many are unwilling to explore this journey with Rowling.

Although I had criticized the film’s costumes for resembling the fashions of the early 1930s, instead of the late 1920s, I must admit that I found Colleen Atwood’s designs very attractive and very original. I rarely comment on a film’s editing, but I found Film Editor Mark Day’s work in the movie first-rate. I was especially impressed by his work in two particular sequences – Grindelwald’s escape in the film’s first action sequence and another one featuring a wizarding freak show in Paris. I was also impressed by Philippe Rousselot’s cinematography . . . to a certain extent. Rousselot’s photography struck me as beautiful and memorable – especially in the Parisian scenes and one particular flashback scene in the Atlantic Ocean. But I really disliked the monochromatic tones (blue, yellow or green) that seemed to dominate the movie’s photography . . . as much as I disliked the brown tones that dominated “FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM”. Also, production designer Stuart Craig, set designer Anna Pinnock, the art direction team led by Martin Foley and the special effects team all did an exceptional job to re-create the wizarding worlds of New York, London, Scotland and Paris.

“FANTASTIC BEASTS: THE CRIMES OF GRINDELWALD” featured some first-rate performances. Lead actor Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler, Carmen Ejogo, Claudia Kim and Ezra Miller all gave excellent performances. But there were performances that I found more than first-rate. Jude Law was superb as the enigmatic and younger Professor Albus Dumbore, who seemed warm and manipulative as ever. William Nadylam gave a very complex and passionate performance as Yusuf Kama: A French-Senegalese wizard who has spent many years obsessively searching for Credence, whom he believed was responsible for the death of a family member. Callum Turner’s portrayal of Theseus Scamander, Newt’s brother, first seemed pretty solid. But his performance became more complex and interesting, thanks to Turner’s skillful acting. Alison Sudol gave an outstanding performance as the increasingly desperate Queenie Goldstein, who allowed her love for Jacob and emotions to lead to a morally questionable decision. Zoë Kravitz was equally outstanding as Newt’s former love, Leta Lestrange, who became emotionally troubled and confused over a morally questionable decision from the past. But the best performance, in my opinion, came from Johnny Depp, who portrayed the film’s main villain, Gellert Grindelwald. Depp’s Grindelwald seemed like a completely different kettle of fish from the more obvious villains of the Harry Potter novel. More subtle, subversive and manipulative. Insidious. The franchise’s Palpatine perhaps? Honestly, Depp’s Grindelwald made Tom Riddle Jr. aka Lord Voldemort seem like a rank amateur as far as villains go.

This 2018 sequel to “FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM” proved to be a disappointment at the box office. Between the controversy over Depp’s casting and the hostile reaction to the Queenie Goldstein character, I guess I should not be surprised. But I am disappointed that the majority of moviegoers had failed to appreciate Rowling’s story, because I thought it was first-rate, thanks to her screenplay, David Yates’ direction and the excellent cast led by Eddie Redmayne. To be honest, I personally feel that it was slightly better than its 2016 predecessor. Perhaps one day, more filmgoers will be able to appreciate it.

 

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“X-MEN: FIRST CLASS” (2011) Review

“X-MEN: FIRST CLASS” (2011) Review

Recently, I came across a comment that the last “X-MEN” movie, 2009’s “X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE”, had been a failure. I found this opinion surprising, considering that it actually made a profit at the box office. Failure or not, Marvel Studios decided to continue the movie franchise with a fifth entry called “X-MEN: FIRST CLASS”

Directed by Matthew Vaughn, “X-MEN: FIRST CLASS” is, like the 2009 movie, another origins tale. Only it traced the beginnings of the two friends-turned-adversaries, Charles “Professor X” Xavier and Erik “Magneto” Lensherr. The movie began in a scene straight out of 2000’s “X-MEN” – at a concentration camp in 1944 Poland. While young Erik Lensherr was being separated from his parents by Nazi guards, he displayed an ability for magnetism manipulation by tearing at one of the camp’s gates. This ability attracted the attention of the camp’s scientist, Dr. Klaus Schmidt, who tried to coerce Erik into using his ability again by threatening his mother with death. Unfortunately, Erik failed and Dr. Schmidt killed Mrs. Lensherr. At an estate in Westchester, New York of the same year, young Charles Xavier awakened from a deep sleep by a noise from the kitchen. He investigated and found his mother searching for something to eat. However, being a telepath, Charles was able to discover that he was facing a stranger. The stranger turned out to be a young, blue-skinned shapeshifter named Raven “Mystique” Darkhölme. Charles invited the young stranger to stay at the Xavier mansion and the two became close friends.

“X-MEN: FIRST CLASS” jumped another eighteen years forward to 1962. Charles Xavier has become an instructor on genetics at Oxford University. Raven has remained his close companion in a sibling-like capacity. Erik Lensherr has spent the last decade or so, hunting down Nazis that escaped prosecution by the Allies – especially those who had served at the concentration camp where he had been imprisoned. He has especially become interested in finding and killing Dr. Schmidt out of revenge for his mother’s death. The story shifted to Las Vegas, Nevada; where one Moira MacTaggart and other CIA agents are investigating the Hellfire Club, a social organization led by Sebastian Shaw (aka Dr. Schmidt). After infiltrating the club as an “escort”, Moira discovered that Shaw and his mutant followers – Emma Frost, Azazel, and Riptide – are intimidating a high ranking Army officer into relocating military missiles to Turkey. Moira sought help from Charles and Raven to provide information to her CIA bosses about mutants. They also met Erik, during a trip to Miami to track down Shaw. After preventing Erik from drowning during an attempt to kill Shaw, Charles became close friends with the Holocaust survivor; as they work with Moira and the CIA to bring down Shaw.

Personally, I do not believe that “X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE” deserved its low reputation. I thought it was a pretty damn good movie – not perfect, but entertaining. However, I do believe I could say the same about “X-MEN: FIRST CLASS”. I would add that it might be better than the 2009 film. Despite its flaws. In fact, “X-MEN: FIRST CLASS”turned out to be a cleverly written movie that managed to weave two historical events – the Holocaust and the Cuban Missile Crisis – into its plot. Director Matthew Vaughn did an excellent job in maintaining an even pace for a movie not only filled with exciting and occasionally exaggerated action sequences and dramatic scenes. But aside from the director, the movie’s main virtue proved to be its first-rate cast.

Someone once pointed out that the X-MEN movie franchise did an excellent job of using the topic of “mutation” or psychic abilities to reflect upon the themes of bigotry and tolerance in our society. This theme became even more relevant, considering the movie’s setting of 1962 – a period that reflected the height of the Civil Rights Movement. I can go further and commend screenwriters Ashley Edward Miller, Zack Stentz, Jane Goldman and Vaughn for daring to explore all aspects of the bigotry experienced and engaged by the characters.

Some of the movie’s main characters experienced intolerance at the hands of others. Holocaust survivor Erik Lensherr not only suffered under the Nazi regime as a Jew, but also endured the U.S. government’s (in the form of C.I.A. officials) wariness and contempt toward mutants, as did fellow mutants such as Charles Xavier, Raven Darkhölme, Hank McCoy and the group of young mutants they had recruited. C.I.A. officials Director McCone and William Stryker Sr. (father of the villain from the second and fourth movies) were ready to imprison Charles and Raven upon discovering their mutations. Fortunately, one C.I.A. man in particular – the nameless Man in Black – prevented this from happening. The script also focused upon the two mutants regarded as “odd men out” because their mutations were reflected physically. Raven’s natural blue skin led her to maintain a “human” form that allowed her to blend with other humans and mutants. And C.I.A. scientist who constantly wore shoes to hide his mutation – animal-like feet. Their desperation to blend with the others on a regular basis led Hand to create a formula that eventually backfired.

Finally, the movie also focused on those mutants that viewed their mutation as signs of their superiority over non-mutant humans. Characters such as villain Sebastian Shaw and his Hellfire Club followers, and eventually Erik and Raven allowed their dislike toward humans to manifest into a bigotry that encouraged them to engage in plots of genocide that made the Nazis, North Americans of the 18th and 19th centuries and other bigoted societies look like amateurs. One such plot served as the background of “X-MEN: FIRST CLASS”. The movie revolved around Sebastian Shaw’s efforts to use his connections to the U.S. and Soviet military to start a third world war between the superpowers. Such a war would bring humanity to the brink of extinction, allowing mutants (with Shaw as the leader) to dominate the world. This plot eventually resulted in the Cuban Missile Crisis.

The producers of “X-MEN: FIRST CLASS” chose the right actors to portray the younger versions of Charles Xavier and Erik Lensherr. James McAvoy perfectly captured all of Charles’ intelligence, talent for leadership and subtle wit. He also delved deeper into the character’s idealism and occasional naivety. And McAvoy gave audiences an audacious peek into Charles’ penchant for little seduction with pick-up lines that were both charming and wince-inducing. Michael Fassbender portrayed all of the intensity and anger of the vengeance-seeking Erik Lensherr. Every once in a while, an actor comes along with the ability to perfectly walk the fine line between heroism and villainy. Fassbender certainly achieved this in his portrayal of Erik. And looking at the screen chemistry between McAvoy and Fassbender, it seemed a pity that they had never shared a scene when they appeared in the 2001 miniseries, “BAND OF BROTHERS”. Because they were dynamite together.

The supporting cast also proved to be top-notch. The X-MEN movieverse has always provided first-rate villains. Kevin Bacon’s portrayal of the villainous Sebastian Shaw/Dr. Schmidt was no exception. If I must be honest, his Shaw may prove to be my favorite “X-MEN” villain. Aside from intelligence, wit and a taste for grandiose plotting and gadgets that rivaled a Bond villain, Bacon injected a joie de vivre into Shaw’s character that I found very entertaining. Some critics and fans have criticized January Jones’ portrayal of Shaw’s consort, Emma Frost, accusing her of being “wooden”. I am sorry, but I do not agree with this opinion. Yes, Jones portrayed Emma as Miss ‘Cool Hand Luke’. But she also did a first rate job of conveying the character’s strong attraction to Shaw and dislike of his occasional sexist attitudes. And thanks to her subtle comic timing, she provided the movie’s funniest moment in a scene that featured Emma having ‘telepathic’ sex with a Soviet general. Her reaction to being caught had me laughing in the aisle. Instead of Rebecca Romijn, the film’s producers chose Jennifer Lawrence to portray the younger Raven Darkhölme aka Mystique. And I thought she did a pretty damn good job. I have nothing against Romijn’s portrayal of Mystique, but I believe that Lawrence was given a better opportunity for a deeper exploration of the character . . . and she made the best of it. The movie also featured fine support from the likes of Rose Byrne as C.I.A. agent and ally Moira MacTaggart, Nicholas Hoult as the young Hank McCoy, Jason Flemyng as the frightening teleporter Azazel, Oliver Platt as the C.I.A. ‘Man in Black’, and Zoë Kravitz’s subtle and passionate performance as mutant Angel Salvadore.

As I had earlier hinted, “X-MEN: FIRST CLASS” is not perfect. I believe it has two major flaws that prevented it from potentially becoming the best film in the franchise. The movie’s biggest flaw proved to be its lack of continuity with the other four films. “X-MEN: FIRST CLASS” included the beginning of Charles Xavier’s paralysis and the end of his partnership with Erik Lensherr. Yet, Charles was still walking and working with Erik in a flashback set around the beginning of the 1980s in 2006’s “X-MEN: THE LAST STAND”. I am aware that Raven’s cells allowed her to mature very slowly. But did the same happen to Dr. Hank McCoy? He was in his early-to-mid 20s in “X-MEN: FIRST CLASS”. Yet, he looked somewhere in his 40s in the third “X-MEN”, which was set some 40 years later. And the Emma Frost portrayed by actress Tahyna Tozzi in “X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE” looked at least five to ten years younger than January Jones’ Emma in this latest film. And “X-MEN: FIRST CLASS” is supposed to be set 17 years before the 2009 film. Charles began his school for young mutants in this movie. However, he told Wolverine in 2000’s “X-MEN” that Scott “Cyclops” Summers and Jean Grey were his first students. They are no where to be seen and quite frankly, I could have done without this early edition of the Xavier School of Mutants. I found it annoying.

Another major problem proved to be the film’s costumes – especially for women. The movie is set mainly in 1962. Yet, Sammy Sheldon’s costumes reflected the late 1960s, not the early years of that decade. Just to prove my point, look at the following photographs:

1962 Fashions For Women

January Jones in “MAD MEN” Season Two (set in 1962)

January Jones in “X-MEN: FIRST CLASS” (set in 1962)

In fact, the costumes and hairstyles for other female characters DO NOT reflect the year 1962, as well:

 

Both actresses Rose Byrne and Zoë Kravitz are wearing knee-high boots, which WERE NOT in fashion in 1962.

Yes, “X-MEN: FIRST-CLASS” had some major flaws. But I cannot deny that I still managed to enjoy the movie very much. Screenwriters Ashley Edward Miller, Zack Stentz, Jane Goldman and Matthew Vaughn wrote a flawed, but very entertaining and epic story. The movie also boasted first-rate performances from a cast led by James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender. And Vaughn brought all of these factors together with some fine direction. “X-MEN: FIRST CLASS”has made me an even bigger fan of the franchise and I would heartily recommend it for anyone’s viewing pleasure.