Tuesday, April 16, 2019

DARK MAGIC: a review of "Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes Of Grindelwald"

Screenplay Written by J.K. Rowling
Directed by David Yates
***1/2 (three and a half stars)

Now this was much more like it!

Over two years ago, when we were first introduced to the adventures of Newt Scamander via the film "Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them" (2016), itself the first installment of what is going to be a five part prequel series to the "Harry Potter" saga, all written entirely by J.K. Rowling and directed by David Yates, I was surprisingly underwhelmed. To be true, I was not exactly wringing my hands in anticipation over the prospect of a prequel series in the first place, but as Rowling who had more than earned my devotion through all of her writing to that point and had not let me down yet, I was willing to go with her anywhere she wished to take me.

And yet, that first film, which possessed all of the ingredients for greatness, never achieved any sense of greatness--and not for lack of trying-- as it was all due to a leading character that was uncharacteristically bland and even unknowable, repetitive sequences of all manner of fantastic beasts escaping then being captured and then, escaping all over again and all in the service of a meandering and seemingly over-stuffed plot.

Now, we arrive at Chapter Two, so to speak, and J.K.Rowling and David Yates' "Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes Of Grindelwald" has proven itself to being a dramatic improvement over the first installment. Arriving with a greater heft, zest and an emotional urgency that often surprised me in its stirring vibrancy, I am now beginning to see, and therefore, feel the purpose behind this return to Rowling's hidden world of magical beings and creatures in a story set long before the young heroes of Harry Potter had even been born. Where I was once unimpressed, I am now considerably involved, and most of all, invested, as this film has excitedly prepared me fr the three future installments while also making me anxious to view this one all over again.

Set in 1927, one year after the events of the previous film, "Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes Of Grindelwald," opens with the titular dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald's (played with chilling malevolence by Johnny Depp) blistering escape from imprisonment at the Magical Congress of the United States Of America and his return to building his movement for the societal dominance of pureblood wizards over all non-magical beings. As part of his fascistic plan, Grindewald is in pursuit of the disturbed, tormented Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller), thought to have been obliterated in the previous film and whose whereabouts are unknown.

Also in pursuit of Credence are American magical Auror Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), who herself is being pursued by her telepathic sister Queenie Goldstein (Alison Sudol) and American baker Jacob Kowalski (Dan Folger), Queenie's secretive, non-magical lover, whose previously evaporated memories of the events of the first film have been romantically restored.

And of course, we have our favorite magizoologist, the awkward, painfully shy and guarded Newt  Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), now based in London and under a travel ban ordered by the Ministry Of Magic due to the explosive events of the first film. Newt reluctantly enlists himself to aid the formidable Hogwarts Professor Albus Dumbledore (now played by Jude Law) in the pursuit of Credence, which itself will contribute to the fight against Grindelwald, with whom Dumbledore shares a difficult, complicated past.

In a story that stretches from America to London to Paris, and filled with labyrinthine family histories, deepening mysteries, mounting doom, simultaneously sobering and terrifying political allegory and a profoundly sweeping and longing sense of romance and growing destiny, David Yates' "Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald" is a more than worthy addition and extension of  J.K. Rowling's Wizarding World as this second installment not only informs the first film, I greatly appreciated how meticulously Rowling conceived of a history to her own invented universe--much like George Lucas' "Star Wars" prequel trilogy (1999/2002/2005)--and therefore, how handsomely David Yates visualized that history.

As with what we have all come to expect from this series of films, especially with each installment Yates has helmed, "Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes Of Grindelwald" is a gloriously mounted production, filled end to end with seamless special effects, splendid production and costume design, and elegantly Gothic Cinematography by Philippe Rousselot. Whether by greater intention or through the design of Rowling's narrative or even some combination of both, all of the problematic elements of the first film have been eradicated as Yates propels this second chapter with an intense verve that was instantly captivating, and only continued to keep me enormously involved, all the way to the film's startling conclusion/cliffhanger.

All of the film's performances are first rate and filled with a commitment   Mostly, and happily, I found myself greater attached to the character of Newt Scamander himself and therefore Eddie Redmayne's full performance, which I am now gathering is not necessarily a leading performance but one that is an essential piece of a larger ensemble and growing narrative. I struggled with this character the first time around yet this time, I firmly embraced him as I could now see him in a much clearer light as well as one that served a clearer purpose for the larger narrative as a whole.

Indeed, Newt Scamander is that eternal misfit, the one who wishes nothing more than to be left alone to care for his fantastic beasts, perhaps seeing himself more as one of them and less as one of the human wizards he feels to have very little in common with. Close interpersonal relationships for him are rare as he is often so misunderstood and from his own vantage point, humans and their foibles, desires, and faults mean little to him. But he is human, living in a society of humans and what does his reluctance to engage himself within the larger world mean when that very world, and everything inside of it--including the fantastic beasts he loves so dearly--is threatened by a rising fanaticism and fascism? Are the sidelines he craves to cling to a realistic venture in a world like this? 

This quandary is precisely the one Dumbledore has presented to him and over the course of this film Newt is indeed forced to take an active role in the world he wishes to live in, or to eventually be trapped in a world he never made. It is here where both Rowling and Yates have inserted a strong cultural critique and political allegory, as Grindelwald's gradual rise to power and indoctrination of pureblood magical humans into his regime for the purposes of wrestling societal control over all non-magical people through divisive, fear mongering rhetoric showcasing the non-magical as the "other" to be subjugated and ultimately, eradicated. Sound familiar?

Grindelwald's Nuremberg styled rally, depicted late in the film, is clearly designed to evoke responses and comparisons to the fascistic demonstrations of the past and present day, as are other plot points on this wizarding world of the 1920's including the illegality of having magical and non-magical people being able to wed (thus giving the relationship of Jacob and Queenie a more turbulent urgency) and Rowling and Yates also include something that is akin to elements of a slave narrative regarding the complex, intertwined blood lines that exist within the Lestrange family, as represented by Leta Lestrange (Zoe Kravitz) and the French-Senegalese wizard Yusuf Kama (William Nadylam), who is also on the hunt for Credence and may possess a familial connection to both Credence and Leta.

For Newt, "Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes Of Grindelwald" represents a moral line in the sand, and for that matter, also for Jacob, Queenie, and Leta, as they each reconcile themselves as to which side of history do they wish to align themselves; the side of fear, hatred, racism and totalitarianism or the side who fought, potentially to the death, against everything Grindelwald is and represents.

Even with the precarious state of the world within this film, I was honestly surprised and therefore, greatly pleased that Rowling and Yates were committed to making time for love--albeit an aching sense of romantic longing that allowed "Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes Of Grindelwald" to possess an often painfully melancholic heart, much like what Rowling beautifully executed in the guise of her literary pseudonym Robert Galbraith in the current "Cormoran Strike" novel, Lethal White (2018). 

In addition to Jacob and Queenie, whose own relationship is severely tested during this film, we are also given Newt himself, torn by the memories of his past (and possibly lingering) love for Leta Lestrange, who is now engaged to wed Newt's older brother, the British Ministry of Magic Auror Theseus Scamander (Callum Turner). Additionally, there exist Newt's new romantic feelings for Tina Goldstein, who also quietly harbors romantic intentions for him in turn.

We have the shadowy past relationship between Dumbledore and Grindelwald, fully explained within the Harry Potter novels but I would not dare spoil here, of course and yet will undoubtedly have to play a larger role over the next three film installments. And then, there is the story of Credence himself, a figure desperately attempting to understand his own lineage and therefore why he was abandoned in the first place. Credence's search for what is his place in the universe, the existential journey of all of the film's characters, and therefore, for all of us as well. 

Enormously entertaining and strongly substantive, J.K. Rowling and David Yates' "Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes Of Grindelwald" is the installment where this series begins to find its footing, suggesting (hopefully) greatness to arrive over the following three films while also creating a complete, and first rate, cinematic experience in this singular chapter.

J.K., I knew you wouldn't let me down!

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