Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore

If you have been following recently, you will not be surprised to see that I am a fan of the Harry Potter films. In the past month I have seen three of them on the big screen, and I was happy to get the opportunity to write about them since I had not yet started blogging when they first arrived. The Wizarding World is an umbrella label that Warner Bros. and J.K. Rowling have coined to cover an expanded universe of materials, including this second series of films that are basically a prequel to the original stories. The first in the series, “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them“, was a welcome addition to the fantasy world and id a great job at setting up a new set of characters. The follow up film, “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald” is another case altogether. While it had the requisite visuals, it lacked the spark of the first film, misused some of the characters that had been created, and was basically a series of exposition dumps that were hard to keep track of and boring to begin with. “The Secrets of Dumbledore” needs to pull the series back from the brink of self destruction, and it largely does that.

This movie is not as narratively strong as the first film was, but it is a lot better at keeping us involved and it uses the characters pretty well. Ever since the back story of Dumbledore and Grindelwald in the last of the Potter Books, it has been believed that there was a love story gone wrong there. This film confirms that in the stories, and as a side note has created problems for the studio as a result. Apparently the Chinese market is not ready to accept a gay subplot in a western made film, so references to that aspect are being trimmed for that market. There is a little bit of hypocrisy here because of the attitudes of Hollywood to stateside policies. but as an economic decision it is inevitable. The film needs as big a market as possible to justify what they have invested in and to be able to pursue more films. 

There are two or three course corrections her in this story that help put the series back on proper footing. The most important of which is that there is plot not just narrative. We know the objective of our antagonist (although the background on why Grindelwald is motivated in this direction is very murky. Power! seems to be all that is there). Jude Law as Albus Dumledore is much more a part of what is happening in the film.  Newt Scamander is more engaging in this story than in the last one, where his character was the dullest thing in a dull movie. He is used expeditiously as one of the main characters, rather than as the lead character. That helps keep the story from becoming tiresome. Eddie Redmayne continues to mumble and remain understated, but at least his characters brother is around to translate on a regular basis, and he has a couple of charming scenes that do play off of his character, rather than just inserting his character into a scene where the personality does not match up. If he were on his own in a scene confronting the International Wizards Confederation, it would be a disaster, but fortunately, his brother Theseus, is more articulate, and a new witch “Lally” is around to fill in gaps. This new character is a welcome addition to the film and fills in where the moping drudge of Leta Lestrange would have dragged the film down more. Katherine Waterston must not be available for shooting most of the time, this would have been a part that she could have played, but she only shows up in a couple of inserts and right at coda. 

The biggest miscarriages of the second film were the misuse of  Queenie and Jacob. The way Queenie gets drawn into Grindelwald’s circle is not convincing, and Jacob was barely noticeable last time out. Queenie is still a little out of place but at least we can see why she was needed in the camp of the dark wizard. Her character is conflicted in this story and that is exactly the way they needed to go. Having stumbled with her, J.K. Rowling and returning co screenwriter Steve Kloves, find a way to at least use their mistake and get out of it by the end. Jacob Kowalski, the Muggle/No Maj, played by Dan Fogler, is the most entertaining character in the films and his charm has been completely restored in this story. He and Redmayne play off of one another really well, and he gets to be included in the plot in a way that makes sense, not just as a tag a long character. The scene where he interacts with the students at Hogwarts is delightful. 

The series is titled “Fantastic Beasts” so it is perfectly acceptable to have the fantasy creatures play a part in the story. Their presence was overdone in “The Crimes of Grindelwald”, but there is just enough in this film to make them relevant without becoming obnoxious. There is a mythical creature with the power to see the future and the decency of a person, the Qilin is charmingly visualized but be ready for a horrifying moment early on in the film, it was disturbing. Newt gets a chance to return to his quirky persona in a prison break scene set in a black site which is a German Wizard’s prison, along the lines of Azkaban, but even more gruesome. In spite of the grim setting, there is a very humorous element that reminds us that we are watching something that should be fun, and this scene reaches for that goal and achieves it.

There are still problems with the narrative. Most of these would have been solved if Rowling had written full books for each of the films, and then adapted the stories so they could be coherent. Because there is not a literary history to fill in details, certain things just have to be taken as a given, and that does not always work. Holes in the plotline are rushed. Grindelwald goes from loathed fugitive to favorite for political office, almost instantaneously. The current head of the International Wizard Confederation is a character with inconsistent actions, and looks substantially like Mads Mickelson who is playing Grindelwald, and that suggests some collusion as well. The Credence plot line is resolved with the least annoying retcon possible, but the whole family connection was a mistake in the first place. 

I don’t know that this film can keep the franchise going. The theatrical revenues will be affected by changes since Covid, as well as the missteps of the prior film. There are still plot lines that could be followed up on, but if it ends with this entry, the conclusion is satisfactory. I’d still enjoy seeing more of the characters, and I would be interested in the timeline and the way it gets integrated into actual history, but that might be a landmine that Rowling should take a lot more time to figure out. The film is largely successful and I would keep following the plot, I’m just not sure it will do enough to expand the audience back to Potter sized proportions.   

The Rhythm Section

EON films, who bring us the 007 pictures, have branched out only slightly with this gritty espionage revenge film. It is still a story filled with hidden agenda’s, violence and international intrigue, but unlike Bond, it is stripped of any glamour. No one is going to want to sleep with the hero or be the hero, it’s not that kind of a movie.

Actress Blake Lively has been cast against type here. She plays not a glamour girl, but a young woman, drowning in sorry who has flushed her life away. Her self loathing at surviving a tragedy that took her whole family has lead her to the most degradation you can imagine. It is only the spark of revenge that stirs her from the soon to be death she is earning herself and leads her to become immersed in a nearly equally degrading vocation.Imagine bits of Le Femme Nikita crossed with  Munich and then take out any sense of fantasy and you get this plot.

The transition from near dead flotsam, to capable undercover operative is achieved using a long more drawn out process than we usually get in a movie like this. Most of the time, there is a rush to the action sequences and the intrigue, here the story labors over the misery that this transition will require. It is pretty effective at showing what rot it is to think someone can become an expert at hand to hand combat in twelve easy montages. Stephanie, our lead character attempts to slip on the skin of an international assassin who has been killed. She needs to use that cover to pursue the mysterious figure behind the deaths of her parents and nearly 300 others. To sell that however, she has to do some dirty deeds that she may not be ready for.

There are a few threads that don’t quite add up but as the story picks up steam, we are not necessarily going to care about that. The credibility of this film goes up with the awkwardness of Stephanie’s evolution. She never becomes a lethal instrument that is finely tuned, there is too much humanity left in her, at least until the climax. We have a pretty good idea what is coming and fortunately it does not require ninja skills and martial arts, but something that is in her skill set.

Jude Law is a mentor figure with his own motives for assisting her, but you would never know he thought she could accomplish anything. The indifference in the training section was a nice change of pace for that trope. The only other actor that I was familiar with was Sterling K. Brown, who plays a connection that might lead her to the unknown person she is pursuing. I know him from his series of appearances on “Supernatural”, some of which are discussed on our podcast.

I can mostly recommend the film. It is not the entertaining Liam Neeson  revenge substitute I was hoping for, but it still made me glad I saw it. The early slog of misery and slow burn is rewarded with some craft and emotional depth, even if the ultimate resolution is a little too pat.

Captain Marvel

The Marvel Cinematic Universe is shifting gears to the next phase, and that means new heroes and another universe. I know nothing about the comic books of the new Marvel character who carries the brand as her moniker, but I can say the movie has been worked pretty effectively into the current MCU sequences and it looks like things will run smoothly after our Avengers are decimated with the departures of some of the long time characters and actors.

It does however take a while for the new central figure to grip our interest. The opening half hour of this movie is a collection of flashback, flash forwards and partially revealed narrative that is confusing at times. The screenwriters are deliberately creating a sucker punch that is not that difficult to see coming, given the rest of the history of Marvel. The science fiction elements will draw heavily on the same kinds of imagery and story lines we got in the “Guardians of the Galaxy” films, but without the initial charm of a clearly sympathetic figure. From the beginning of the story, Carol Danvers who is also Vers on the Kree homeworld of Hala, is a bit of a cipher. If people remember their Marvel history, they will be shaking their heads because the Nova force that was portrayed in the Guardians film was the heroic Federation that stood against the Kree Empire who were apparently villains. This movie gives us a shift in perspective but not necessarily a fair one. Never the less it was a creative method to get our human air force pilot into superhero mode.

It really takes her return to Earth to start the enjoyable part of the movie. When Vers ends up on what the Kree refer to as C-55, she begins to recover some of the memories that lead her to become a member of the star force and a subject to the Supreme Intelligence. Earth in 1995 lives in most of the viewers distant memories and it seem like it would be easy to get that familiar vibe back. This was the main weak part of the production. Other than some soundtrack tunes and a couple of anachronistic computer references, Blockbuster video has to do all the heavy lifting to get us to imagine it is twenty four years ago. The two S.H.I.E.L.D. agents who encounter her are well known in the MCU. Nick Fury is the real co-star with Carol Danvers and this was where there was finally some life injected into the comic action. We need more of the kind of by-play that Samuel Jackson had with other Marvel heroes to make this feel like the same universe and to have some fun. As Danvers and Fury become allies, the story starts to make more sense and the process of revealing narrative becomes a lot simpler to follow.

Much has been made of the feminine hero angle for this movie. I will gladly let others pontificate on the patriarchy, bechdel test, and third wave feminism. I see the movie as empowering to all kids who struggle to find their place in the world. When Vers starts to break her molded persona and assert her humanity, it is how through a series of flashbacks to her as a girl and woman at different stages of her life. It will certainly play as a scene of female empowerment, and that’s great, but more importantly, it is an assertion of individuality that needs to be acknowledged, regardless of the gender of the hero. At the end of the film, there is a scene where carol matches her mentor played by Jude Law, and the line that Brie Larson spouts will certainly resonate with all the homogametic audience members.

The story does feel like it is plugging in to the Avengers Infinity War series in some pretty obvious ways, and of course the mid-credit sequence will flick on the switch for those anticipating next months concluding chapter. As a stand alone film, Captain Marvel is solid and entertaining. It may not be as impactful  as the first “Ironman”  or as exciting as “The Avengers”, but it has plenty to offer fans of the superhero genre and it is clearly going to be a big success. It is not a placeholder in the MCU, it is an important step forward so that the direction of the films can shift to new realms, quantum or otherwise.

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.

SPY

After the horrid reviews of “Tammy” from last summer and seeing the horrible poster for this film featuring the star dressed down and colored gold, I thought this would be one to skip. The word of mouth though has been really strong, the Rotten Tomatoes score was impressively at 95%, so I decided to take a chance and I can say I was rewarded. This is an amusing spy parody that gets a lot of credit for playing off the Bond film tropes but then adds the Melissa McCarthy vulgarity in appropriate doses.  When you throw in a couple of extra performers that I have an affinity for, well you end up with a solid piece of summer entertainment.

The titles and title song are perfect reflections of a Bond opening with Maurice Binder like silhouettes and a soft rock piece of cheese that isn’t Adele but make you think of her. Jude Law plays as typecast as a spy who is good, and of course good looking, but is extra special because of the control operator he has back at CIA headquarters. He’s not incompetent, but he appears to be a little less perfect than 007 would be in the same circumstances. Ultimately, the comedy turns on getting McCarty out in the field, as an unlikely spy with equally unlikely cover.

There is an amusing sequence with the CIA equivalent of “Q”. A spy quartermaster that is dismissive of the agent and also expert at his job. Michael McDonald plays a stone-faced bureaucrat in this sequence and to make it work, he has no joy in his eyes. One of the reasons the film works is because they don’t play it as a parody but rather as a straight spy film with comic overtones. “Q” might smirk, or make a sarcastic comment, but this quartermaster has no sense of humor. Neither does deputy director of CIA operations Elaine Crocker, played by the always great Allison Janney. She is the straight man to a number of jokes in the set up of the film, I don’t know if I knew she was in the movie before today, but ultimately the movie is carried by other performers.

There are three performances that ultimately make the movie work, and then just as a little frosting, there is a fourth actor I want to mention. McCarthy is the big gun here. She knows her way around this kind of material and so far people don’t appear to be tired of the familiarity. Her disappointment at the covers she is given is a nice contrast to the hard edged character she ultimately pretends to be (and it turns out, actually is). As the star of the film, most of the focus is on her and if you don’t care for her, then this film will not be for you. I was impressed with the cold bitch persona that Rose Byrne manages for her villain character. The dry, dull tone that she uses to pass out orders, insults and backhanded compliments was amusing and matched the tone the movie was trying for.  Jason Statham was hysterical as a spy who can’t keep from tooting his own horn in the most outrageous and self delusional fantasies you can imagine. His comic chops are great as he plays against the type of character that he played in “Furious 7”. If there is a sequel to this film, look for he and McCarthy to be paired in the mismatched partner story that a sequel would beg for. Also, stick around through the credits for a couple of stingers and an out-take that will make you laugh one more time. Bobby Cannavale is a comedian turned actor who gets to play a handsome in a slick bad boy kind of way, villain. After seeing him in “Win-Win” and “Blue Jasmine” in the last few years, I am increasingly impressed with his work.

The worst poster of the year winner.

This film is not likely to be seen as a classic. The jokes are good the first time through but I doubt they will have a high degree of repeatability. There are several visual gags that help the film earn it’s rating, as well as the potty mouth of the star. The people behind this get the joke and they know how to tell it. I thought “The Heat” from two years ago was alright but it was a big stretch to believe the two characters as tough cops. This movie suffers from the same problem but covers it up the same way, by making enough jokes that connect to outweigh the improbability of any of the story.