Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwlad

I need a safe house in Paris, because things have gone terribly wrong. J.K. Rowling has finally exhausted her creativity and has delivered the first vapid filler of the Wizarding World. “The Crimes of Grinelwald” could easily be called the “Exposition of Grindelwald”. Almost nothing that happens in this film makes a difference in the narrative that is supposed to be coming. After the opening escape sequence, we get two hours of visual imagination signifying nothing.

Last week on the Lambcast, we covered all eight of the Harry Potter films. I was only on the second show covering the last four films, but if you listen, you will hear everyone at some point praising these movies for making the books come alive and entertaining us. I doubt that on tomorrow’s Lambcast, anyone will be saying the same things about this movie. I fell asleep several times because nothing seemed to be going anywhere. Every time a new scene came up, it involved giving us backstory on a character we just met and who may very well be out of the story by the end of the movie. Halfway through the film I realized I had no idea what was happening and why. I think it’s because nothing was happening and there was no reason.

Let me pick out two or three things that irritate me about the “story” and then I will try to find some things that I can complement. Jacob and Queenie were my two favorite things about “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them“,  in this movie, Jacob is wasted and has lost most of the charm that made his presence in the first film so refreshing. Queenie is completely misused, including having her character undermine the relationship that was so pleasing in the first film. If you get to the end of this movie and you think what happens to her makes sense, please post an explanation so the rest of us can figure it out. Was Katherine Waterson’s “Tina” even in this movie. I don’t recall any scene where she was essential. Her character appears and mostly stands around while other people explain things. She gets back to being an Aurour, but has the investigative ability of a Niffler. She can only see the shiny distraction in front of here and she lets her relationship with Newt turn sour for the stupidest reason imaginable. Newt Scamander is supposed to be the central hero, but Eddie Redmayne is so understated and boring in the film that he is an invitation to nap until something starts to happen (which it rarely does). Now I have a policy on this site to not give spoilers and to avoid recapping the whole movie. The later of these two is easy today because I can’t recall much of the story. As for the former, it is not much of a spoiler to say that Credence, the character from Fantastic Beasts who was responsible for the Obscurial is back. How? I don’t know. Why? the same reason in the first film. What happens?, the exact opposite of what we saw in the first movie.  Again it makes no sense.

There are a wide variety of spectacular visual sequences in the movie. I thought the opening escape from custody by Johnny Depp’s Grindelwald worked really well. The rally sequence at the end also looks solid. There are a few creatures that manage to get our attention as well, but none of them except the nifflers are really relevant to the plot and that is peripheral as well. Jude Law turns out to be perfect casting as a young Dumbledore but he mostly stays on the sidelines. It’s not till we get to the end of the movie that we sort of learn why, and I guess that will be a plot thread for the next film.

Speaking of the end, there is a major issue with the climax of this film. In addition to one of the best characters in the first movie wandering off the reservation, we get a major piece of retconning. It is so unlikely, given the previous materials that if it turns out to be anything other than a convenient lie, I may have to reassess any desire I have to see subsequent film in this series. This is not a good film, and it is a major disappointment for fans of the Wizard World we have been visiting for the last seventeen years.

Murder on the Orient Express (2017)

Elegantly filmed and put together with great craftsmanship, this new version of “Murder on the Orient Express” is fine entertainment for an evening but it lacks the elements that would make it a true classic. Remakes inevitably will suffer by comparison to earlier versions because of changes that might need to be made to the story, the use of technology that distracts from an older version of the same events, or simply nostalgia. We can’t unsee that which we have previously watched, and we can’t unknow that which has been previously unraveled for us. Kenneth Branagh can’t escape comparisons to the Sidney Lumet version from 1974. There is much to be admired here but in the final analysis, this film will live in the shadow of it’s older twin.

There are things to compliment about the film, but let’s save those for the end and start with the disappointments. The first thing that I noticed is that the score of the film is serviceable but not elegant. Patrick Doyle has worked with director Branagh on a number of projects and he has a great track record on many contemporary films. Unfortunately there is nothing that stands out about this music. It sometimes helps build a little tension, but it does not accomplish the same thing that the score from the 1974 movie provided, romance. Listen to the opening musical passage as the train leaves the station, it is light, elegant and decidedly romantic in a traditional sense. It sets the tone for the whole film and that touch provided by the late Richard Rodney Bennett is sorely missing in the new incarnation.

Another element of the new film that I think is problematic, is the very rapid introduction of characters, many of whom are shown before we even get to Istanbul. There is a very solid attempt to familiarize us with the detective Hercule Poirot at the start of the movie. The eccentricity that Albert Finney brought to the part in manner of dress and personal grooming cannot be matched, so Branagh goes for character in some idiosyncrasies. As he solves a puzzle in Jerusalem that starts off like a bad joke, we get a small taste of the OCD that the character must suffer from. He manages to be cordial however, to even the most tiresome people he encounters. Branagh lets his mustache do a lot of the acting for him. Other than Poirot however, we get very little from the other characters by way of personality. They often feel like pieces on a board game being moved around merely for the benefit of blocking the detective’s progress. That is especially true of the four youngest passengers on the train, the Count and Countess and the Governess and the Doctor.

Now for a few things that work. Johnny Depp has been scorned quite a bit the last few years for his personal life and film selection. In this movie however, he plays an ensemble character very effectively and let’s just say that he gets treated the way a person guilty of his crimes probably deserves. Depp had the right attitude as the gangster Ratchett, he is self confident and sniveling at the same time. The exchange between him and Poirot over a piece of cake was a dlightful sequence of droll put downs by the detective. He also has an effective moment with Michelle Pfeiffer in the hallways of the train. For her part, Pfeiffer started off a little rocky but by the climax of the film, her performance settled into a more intriguing character. The film also features Penelope Cruz, Jason Gad, Derek Jacobi and Judi Dench, none of whom manage to make much of an impression despite all the histrionics involved. The reveal of the plot comes much too rapidly and the flashbacks to the events that launched the whole affair are lifeless.

It’s a good old fashioned plot and the performance of Branagh as the Belgian detective that make this worth seeing. The sets are fine but my memory of the original is that it was more detailed and elegant, even without all the special effects computer graphics. If you are looking for a night out, this is still doing business and you will find that it is entertaining enough. If you are staying home however, watch the ’74 version and appreciate the old time storytelling and performances that make the movie so memorable.

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales

Well if you were one of those people who had been encouraged by early word that this edition of the Pirates franchise was measurably better than the last one, be prepared to be disappointed. It is just as limp and unmemorable as “On Stranger Tides” but it does have the advantage of having a better title. Being honest with you all, I liked the movie well enough as I was watching it, but it is a nothing burger in the long run. You will not care about or be moved by the characters here in any lasting way. For a couple of hours they will do things in front of you, some of which are amusing but none of which has any bearing on the world.

Johnny Depp was a star before this series started but he became a “superstar” once Captain Jack became his signature role. His return to the role feels very passive. Whereas he was the protagonist in the original film, he has become more and more a secondary character in the subsequent movies. Jack is a passenger as we are on these elaborate voyages. The character does not really initiate any action but rather participates in the elaborate Rube Goldberg sequences of action and comedy. The most memorable visual gag I can recall from seeing the movie this morning concerns the blade of a guillotine, rising and falling towards Jack as the device itself tumbles through space after an explosion. It requires almost no engagement on Depp’s part, with the exception of some facial mugging during the sequence.

The story actually concerns two other characters, the son of Will Turner and Elizabeth Swann, and a women who is accused of witchcraft but claims simply to be a scientist. The connection between these characters is accidental at first but as plot threads revel themselves there is little chance that this is all going to tun out to be a coincidence. That is one of the major issues I have in feeling connected to the films after that first endeavor, the characters seem to randomly connect and then bond, betray and reconnect as the script demands rather than what the characters do. Geoffrey Rush’s character Captain Barbossa has evolved so much from the antagonist of the first film, to hero of later movies that it makes my head swim. Maybe this is where the precedent for those “Fast and Furious” allegiance shifts came from. This movie is stuffed with secondary characters who are attached to the plot but do nothing to move it forward, and then they are in with the core group and out in the next scene. I just feel like waiting to the end to see what point of view I am supposed to have for anyone.

A second major issue for me are the plot points concerning the sea curses and legends. They always seem to come out of nowhere and are explained quickly without much rhyme or reason. That’s because there is another one coming at any minute. The logic of the compass makes no sense at all. It is unimportant until it suddenly is. There is a map that comes out of thin air, requires the magic of a blood moon to be able to see, but that can;t be read until it can be, with the help of a crystal that somehow allows a star map to function. What?, you might ask. Don’t bother, in a second, dead pirate hunters will not be able to exist on soil, then they can possess a body but never come back to their own corpse, until they can. It is all completely arbitrary.pirates_of_the_caribbean_dead_men_tell_no_tales_ver3

Depp has some funny lines but he frequently is so into the alcohol soaked line delivery that has been selected for him that you don’t get their full impact. The elaborate and complicated battle that has Javier Bardem’s character chasing Jack from ship to ship using the canons as platforms to jump from and land on, is so darkly lit that you miss some of the fun of the sequence. None of the swordplay has the energy or sense of swashbuckling verve that made pirate movies fun in the first place. Heck, I liked the zombie sharks as much as anyone but here needs to be some byplay and conflict between the characters. Mostly we just get Bardem slathering after Sparrow without much of a plan. It’s frustrating when you can see possibilities for a great character driven action movie but the next visual set piece is going to stop it short. If you are a regular reader here, you know I don’t give stars or number ratings, I just try to give my feelings after the experience. I did not have any strong feeling about this one way or another. So that will probably tell you that the three above the title stars are a lot more stars than I would give.