Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald

By: Kevin Jordan

Not your kids’ Wizarding World.

Remember way back in 2001 when a young Daniel Radcliffe charmed us all in a kid’s film based on a children’s book?  We thought the first Harry Potter film was a good family affair, even if it did contain snakes, child abuse, and a creepy guy eating unicorns and living on another creepy guy’s skull.  Ok, so we were not the best judges of family movies, but it was a Christopher Columbus film, the king of family movies.  I mean, Mrs. Doubtfire, Home Alone, Adventures in Babysitting…huh.  Wow.  We are kind of fucked up.  Well, at least none of those featured a baby being murdered like in Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald.  Yes, I know Voldemort tried to kill a baby, but he failed.  Attempted murder is okay in family movies.  Or something.

(Mild SPOILERS ahead, unless you are a Potterhead and have read every rumor on every Potter forum on every Internet.  Or something.)

In case I was not clear in the previous paragraph, The Crimes of Grindelwald is not a children’s movie.  In the first ten minutes of the film, multiple wizards are killed and another has his tongue removed.  To be fair, we do not see the actual tongue removal and we barely see the killings (due to the cinematography being performed in either black or really dark gray), but the body count and gruesome factor of this film really hit the ground running.  A few minutes after the opening scene, a family is murdered, including a baby.  Again, this film is PG-13, so we do not actually see the infanticide or any blood to speak of, but J.K. Rowling has gotten really dark.

I will give you three guesses, but you will only need one.

This being a sequel to 2016’s Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, we are reacquainted with Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), who is trying to get his international travel ban rescinded (which was put in place after half of New York City was destroyed in the previous film).  While at the ministry of magic, we also meet Newt’s brother Theseus (Callum Turner), who is an auror, and Leta Lestrange (Zoe Kravitz), who is an assistant to the head of magical law enforcement.  While Newt is pleading his case to lift the ban, the panel of wizards hearing his case offer to lift the ban on the condition Newt agree to become an auror and help hunt down the now-escaped Grindelwald (Johnny Depp).  Newt refuses, even though everyone in the theater knows he is going to end up joining the hunt, and in another country, no less.  If Rowling’s writing is anything, it’s comically predictable.

Eventually, the rest of the gang from the previous film shows up, including auror Tina (Katherine Waterston), her sister Queenie (Alison Sudol), and Queenie’s boyfriend Jacob (Dan Fogler).  Even though I previously wrote that I hoped they all would return for a sequel, I kind of wish they hadn’t.  Queenie and Jacob are forced to play out an insipid relationship spat where she is mad at him for refusing to violate laws that would result in her going to prison.  For all the charm they exuded in the first film, this film treated the two of them like a wad of chaw.  And, they were not the only characters stuck with a dumb romance problem.  Tina is upset at Newt because she misunderstood a newspaper article about Leta being engaged to a Scamander.  Read past the title.  I told you Rowling has gotten really dark, which now apparently includes portraying women as dipshits.

She is standing there, holding a human head!

Putting the relationship nonsense aside, I did enjoy much of the film for the first act and a half.  The film features a few really cool new creatures (one named Nagina, portrayed by Kim Soo-hyun, also known as Claudia Kim) and a great action sequence with Credence (Ezra Miller), whom also returns from the previous film.  If the film had stuck with the whole Fantastic Beasts concept and woven that into the main narrative, this film would have been great.  Instead, the film screeches to a deafening halt near the end of the second act when Leta and another auror vomit twenty minutes of exposition to explain to Credence that they do not know who Credence’s parents are (Credence’s entire story arc in this film is to ID his parents).  Not to be outdone, Grindelwald immediately follows that with more exposition in a speech to a crowded arena where he channels his inner Magneto, wondering why wizards are not currently running the world and ruling over the non-wizards.  Yes, this is the same dead horse of a topic that Rowling stomped into glue during the Harry Potter films, and, yes, but that horse was not a fantastic beast.  I think.

Can you please be done talking?

As always, Rowling is simply out of her league when it comes to weaving social and political allegories into her stories (the parallels with the current American and European problems with racism and nationalist-bigotry are obvious) and this film is no exception.  The film also suffers from smaller issues, like lighting that makes much of the film very difficult to see (the opening fight scene was probably awesome to watch if you are an owl), wizards who often forget they no magic (a running theme of the entire franchise), and relating nearly every character to something in the Harry Potter films, including the atrocious big reveal at the end that is complete nonsense.  Similar to Solo: A Star Wars Story, The Crimes of Grindelwald will scratch your itch for a new franchise entry, but still manages to leave you with a rash.  Or something.

Rating: Ask for eight dollars back and a new writer for the next sequel.

Murder on the Orient Express (2017)

Murder on the Orient Express (2017)

By: Kevin Jordan

Who wants a moustache ride?

It’s time for another edition of “Should You Have Remade That Movie?”  For those new to our game, it’s simple.  We ask a few easy questions and determine how wrong it was to remake a movie.  Tonight’s contestant is Murder on the Orient Express.  Now, let’s play “Should You Have Remade That Movie?”

Question 1 – Is the original more than twenty years old?

Answer:  Yes.  The original was made in 1974.  Plenty of room to spare and manages to be older than yours truly *rimshot.*

Good start.  Let’s move on to Question 2 – Is the remake a shot-for-shot remake?

Answer:  No.  Director Kenneth Branagh and writer Michael Green made some minor changes and created their own adaptation of author Agatha Christie’s classic novel (published in 1934).

Branagh really made the moustache his own.

Well done and two for two.  Question 3 – was the original great, terrible, or in between?

Answer: Pretty great.  Rotten Tomatoes aggregate score is 95% and was very positively received at the time.  Uh oh, it was also nominated for six Oscars, including Best Adapted Screenplay

Ooohhhh (sucking in breath).  That one hurt and leads us to Question 4 – did it win any of those nominations?

Answer (stalling for time): Ingrid Bergman won for Best Supporting Actress.  I’d say this game just took an ugly turn, but we’re talking about Ingrid Bergman *laugh track plays.*

I almost don’t want to ask the next question, but that’s not how the game works.  Question 5 – how does the new cast compare to the old?

Answer: Original cast featured Albert Finney, Lauren Bacall, Bergman, Jacqueline Bisset, Sean Connery, Vanessa Redgrave, and Anthony Perkins.  Oh man, that’s almost not fair.  But, wait a minute – the new cast features Branagh, Penelope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, Josh Gad, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Daisy Ridley.  Two all-star teams you would never bet against, so kudos to the casting director of the remake for living up to the challenge.

If nothing else, the casting director should get a massive bonus.

So far, we’ve got a great matchup here, but let’s take timeout for a word from our sponsor – all libraries.  All libraries would like to remind you that you pay taxes for libraries and a massive amount of movies are adaptations of books.  For no money whatsoever, you can check out a book and read what your favorite movie was most likely adapted from.  But please remember that with great knowledge comes great responsibility.  Return your books on time and resist being that jerk that insists the book is always better than the movie.  Now, on with the show.

Question 6 – does the remake feature a flavor-of-the-month headliner?

Answer: Not only is there not even a hint of anyone who might have been on Dancing with the Stars, but Rihanna does not show up anywhere.

We’re down to our last question before we tally up the score – how much money did the original make?

Answer: $36 million on a $1.4 million budget.  11th highest-grossing film of 1974.  That’s successful, but by no means gangbusters (Blazing Saddles topped the year at nearly $120 million).

While we tally up the score, let’s look at our competitor a bit more so the audience can get to know it a little better, especially those who never saw the original.  Branagh plays Hercules Poirot, a world famous detective and circus-strongman-moustache-thief, who inadvertently ends up on a world famous train where a passenger is murdered during the journey.  Due to an avalanche blocking the tracks, Poirot takes on the challenge of discovering who of the eleven remaining passengers (or handful of crew) is the murderer.  All of the major characters are kept intact from the original, as is the murder being tied to a previous and famous case in which a child is kidnapped and found dead (Christie’s novel being a take on the Lindbergh Baby kidnapping in 1932).  The film maintains the classic mystery structure and feels nostalgic in a way that doesn’t come off like it’s catering to your parents.  Branagh is easily the star of this show, delivering a great version of Poirot, emphasizing Poirot’s OCD and quirky nature to balance his pompousness.  The rest of the cast hits their marks as well, delivering a bunch of characters you will simultaneously like and hate throughout the film.  There are a couple of weak scenes near the climax, one in particular that feels out of place (you’ll know it when you see it), but the flow of the movie is great and you will be invested in finding out whodunit almost as much as Poirot.

The envelope, please.

Alright, the judges have just brought me the score, but let’s get one more word in from our sponsor – all libraries.  Seriously folks, we exist.  Don’t be like the President – read a book or two.

The judges say the remake covers the small things well and really stepped up to the plate with the cast, but took a bit of a beating by thinking it could improve on six Oscar nominations, including one win.  On a scale from Ocean’s 11 to GhostbustersOcean’s 11 being an 11 and Ghostbusters being negative 1000 – we’re scoring it an 8.  Besides the answers, we took into account that classic novels will always get multiple adaptations throughout time, as well they should.  We doubt it will snag any Oscar nominations, but it’s a very solid movie and faithful adaptation that will leave you satisfied at the end.

Thank you judges and thank you for tuning in.  Join us next time where we hope we aren’t covering Jumanji.

Rating: Don’t ask for any of your money back and don’t be surprised if we get offered another moustache ride in forty years.

Into the Woods

By: Kevin Jordan

Lies, damn lies, and previews.

into the woods

When it comes to movie previews (or trailers, if you prefer), you always have to ask yourself how much of the movie you want spoiled and how much you want your expectations swayed prior to watching previews.  It’s been awhile since I last gave this advice, so here it is again – if you want to get a peek at a movie, but not have the preview ruin your expectations or spoil the movie, watch the first theatrical preview and avoid all other previews like the plague.  The first theatrical preview always comes out before the movie has finished post-production editing, so they are the least likely to do something stupid like show you the ending of the movie.  Subsequent previews are almost always made after the film is in the can and usually reveal far too much about the film as part of the marketing push that occurs in the 2-4 weeks prior to the film’s release.  These later previews are the ones that tend to give away the best jokes of comedies, show the misunderstanding that breaks up the couple in a rom-com, or reveal how the thieves steal the gold in The Italian Job.

The other thing previews tend to do is deceive you.  Sometimes they’ll feature scenes that aren’t actually in the movie, and other times they’ll make the movie seem like something else entirely.  Into the Woods does the latter and does it by neglecting to mention a tiny detail about the movie that is kind of important – it’s a freaking musical.  Unless you are a fan of the stage, there is no way you can know that detail unless someone like me tells you about it.  And don’t think Disney just made a mistake – they intentionally kept the previews from revealing that because it would murder their box office receipts by turning off nearly every male between the ages of six and dead.  Dishonest shenanigans like that are part of the reason why Sony got hacked (and for the last time, it wasn’t the North Koreans).

That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy Into the Woods; it just surprised me to find out it was a musical.  I was looking forward to a fun mash-up of fairytales that would help me forget ABC’s incredibly disappointing Once Upon a Time (also owned by Disney).  When the movie immediately kicks off with a song, my first reaction was “we’re going to find out what Emily Blunt and Chris Pine sound like in the shower?  Nice.”  Of course, most of us would rather see what those two ridiculously beautiful people look like in the shower, but I digress.

(Very mild SPOILERS ahead.)

Into the Woods is a fairytale about a couple (James Corden and Blunt as a baker and his wife, respectively) trying to lift a curse on them that prevents them from having children.  In order to lift the curse, they must collect four items for the witch (Streep) who placed the curse on them.  The twist to the story is that it weaves Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk, Cinderella, and Rapunzel into the greater story, though Jack and the Beanstalk is by far the dominant of the four; the other three really just there as side stories to provide supporting characters.  All of the actors are delightful, the stories are fun and amusing, and the audience was thoroughly enjoying the film.  That is, until it ended halfway through and a new movie started.  Yeah, you read that right.

Of course, it wasn’t actually a new movie, but it might as well have been.  There is most definitely a happily ever after concluding the first half and then the movie completely switches tones, going from lighthearted and fun to dark and cynical.  It’s as jolting to the viewer as finding out about the singing, but is much more confusing than the singing.  After the movie concludes, it’s obvious that the intention of the film was in the spirit of a true Grimm’s fairytale, but the two halves are such polar opposites that the movie as a whole doesn’t feel like a whole.  It seemed almost as if a sequel was just bolted on because neither half was long enough to be its own movie.

Before I get to the truly confounding component of the movie, I want to reiterate how fun and entertaining the first half of the movie is.  The movie hops between the different stories and brings them all together seamlessly.  There’s a wealth of humor and the actors, appear to be having the time of their lives, including Anna Kendrick, who is making everyone forget she was in the Twilight series.  Surprisingly, Chris Pine has a very good singing voice, though one that I never would have attributed to him if I didn’t see his name listed as the performer in the credits.  Unsurprisingly, Emily Blunt is amazing and, like Benedict Cumberbatch, is on my list of people who I would pay to watch read the phone book.

About that confounding component, fairy tales traditionally include a moral for the reader.  Based on what you actually see and hear in Into the Woods, the moral is “be careful what you wish for,” which is plainly observed in the second half of the film.  What’s confounding is that the movie ends with Meryl Streep singing the moral of the story, but it’s something else entirely – “be careful what you say because children will listen.”  Huh?  Nothing in this movie points to that moral, in fact, the opposite is stressed since the children in the film don’t listen to what anybody says.  I have no idea where that came from and even less idea what it’s supposed to mean.  Was the movie actually trying to tell us not to cuss around our kids?  Or that we should lie to them?  Were they trying to tell us we should act like parents from the 1950’s?

Like I said, I enjoyed the film – the first half much more than the second half – though I’m not sure I’d recommend it to young children on Christmas.  Though, come to think of it, lying on Christmas is an annual tradition.

Rating: Ask for two and half dollars back.  In addition to the non-moral, I confess that I lied too – and this is a lie of omission – Johnny Depp gets a short cameo that is just above cringe-worthy.