FANTASTIC BEASTS 2: THE CRIMES OF GRINDELWALD – WEAK, FLAWED PLOT RUINS A PROMISING STORY AND UNDERCUTS ITS INTERESTING CHARACTERS

SHORT TAKE:

Sequel to Fantastic Beasts which follows the Hitler-like rise of Grindelwald.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Adults who were fans of the series growing up.

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LONG TAKE:

I'm going to say it because no one in the last eleven years has: JK Rowling is a genius, and therein lies the crime worse than Grindelwald's.

SPOILERS

The premise of the Crimes of Grindelwald is the continuation of the story of Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne – Les Mis, The Theory of Everything) and his sidekick Jacob (Dan Fogler from Balls of Fury), as they look for Credence (Ezra Miller, Flash from Justice League and Suicide Squad), thought to have been killed in the previous movie. Side plots involve a misunderstanding between Newt and Tina (Katherine Waterston) and the ultimately fatal frustration of Queenie (Alsion Sudol) over the law which forbids her and Jacob to marry. Against all this is the rising of the tide of Grindelwald (Johnny Depp – Murder on the Orient Express, Benny and Joon, Pirates of the Carribbean, Public Enemy and almost every Tim Burton movie ever made), Grindelwald's threatening anti-muggle philosophy, which plays out akin to the anti-semitism of the Nazis, and … Dumbledore's initially inexplicable reluctance to fight him.

JK Rowling pronounced, three months after the publication of the last book in the Harry Potter series, that Dumbledore was gay. This was an extraordinarily dramatic twist in the backstory of a major character which had no clues or preparation for it in the books to support it.

Revelations about sexual preferences amongst main characters are not usually the fodder of children's storybook mythology. Granted the people who started out with Rowling when they were 11 are now in their thirties, big people who are more readily able to handle this kind of dark, complex relationship. But this is still a children's story, andDumbledore's same sex attractions are really just not something appropriate to the child-target audience. But, even aside from that, there is no literary justification for it, no relevant hints to it and no established lore for it.

JK doubles down on this issue by making Dumbledore's sexual proclivities a major plot point in Fantastic Beasts 2. Dumbdledore will not confront the most dangerous and diaboliocal wizard ever born because … he is infatuated with him. This is a weak excuse at best and not up to Rowling's best efforts.While there is absolutely nothing explicit whatsoever in the movie between Dumbledore and Grindelwald, there are uncomfortable and unnecessary innuendos and long hairy looks aplenty between Law's Dumbledore and Depps' Grindelwald, which I would NOT want to have to explain to my underage child. It's just not subject matter that should even be averred to in a story primarily aimed at school aged children, even IF the charter fans are well past the age of consent now.

In addition, there are a number of other ill advised, non-sequitor, anachronistic, plot convolutions it will be very difficult for JK to explain away without time turners. Keep in mind Rowling wrote this script so can not blame a poor scriptwriting translation.

Short list:

The presence of Professor McGonagall at the castle during the movie (Fiona Glascott in FB2 and during the first eight movies by Dame Maggie Smith) is one of the most obvious. The film takes place in 1927 and McGonagall did not start teaching at Hogwarts until 1956. Of course, this could have been her relative, but then the appearance of this character would be just a sloppy name drop.

Dumbledore is teaching Defense Against the Dark Arts. According to the original lore, Dumbledore never taught Defense Against the Dark Arts, but Transfigurations.

Credence is alive but there is no explanation as to how. Granted there was a remaining wisp of his obscurus (a manifestation of a wizard's repressed magical powers which forms if they are not allowed to express those powers openly), left at the end of the previous movie. Does even a single bit of the obscurus have the ENTIRE person in it with memories intact? This power is never alluded to in the first story's description of the obscurus.

If the chupacabra (a mini-dragon-like craeture which accompanies Grindelwald at the beginning of the movie) is a guard, why does it attack the ministry member and seem so affectionate to Grindelwald? If it belongs to Grindelwald, why does Grindelwald so casually kill it?

While everyone was happy to see Jacob, the muggle baker, return, it was with a shoddy trick – that the obliviate didn't work on him because it only erased BAD memories and he only had good ones. But at the end of the first Fantastic Beasts it was OBVIOUS Jacob did not recognize Newt, did not clearly understand where his bakery ideas were coming from, and at first did not recognize Queenie. It would have been more believable to say, for example, that Queenie had placed a protective charm on him in their final parting kiss, which would make the obliviate in the rain cause only a temporary loss of memory. But the way Rowling handled it in this second FB script was just clumsy and careless.

Why did Queenie abandon Jacob? If Queenie's primary reason for wanting to follow Grindelwald was to fight the rule prohibiting her relationship with Jacob, then how does leaving Jacob in a collapsing arena, surrounded by lethally enchanted flames, to follow someone who hates muggles, going to further this goal? Was she a victim of the Imperius curse?  She seemed to succumb to Grindelwald's "charms" pretty voluntarily when she first meets him without his using a spell.

On the plus side – The Fantastic Beasts themselves are delightful, especially as they do not heavily rehash the old ones, but introduce us to new ones: the Zouwu, which looks like a Chinese parade float come to toothy life, the underwater horse, the Kelpie (because it looks like it is made from kelp), and the creepy black Matagot cats from French folklore. (Thankfully no more Erumpant-Newt mating dances – that was just embarrassing.)

The special effects – from the underground circus performers to Newt's Kelpie ride – are interesting. The music is familiar Potter themes. And the acting is solid as all the characters we've seen before reprise their roles solidly.

Redmayne is especially outstanding as the socially challenged Newt tries very hard to reconnect with Tina and reconcile with his brother, Theseus. Redmayne's performance is worth seeing the movie for. His depiction of Newt with autistic characteristics – lack of eye contact, difficulty understanding the social cues others take for granted, his hesitant verbal skills, trouble expressing physical affection with his own brother – is not an accident. While Rowling never expressly named the spectrum when discussing the character with Redmayne, Redmayne was openly aware of what these personality quirks denoted and actively created this character within the spectrum of autistic behavior.

No overt mention of autism ever comes up – this movie takes place in 1927 and autism was not even recognized until the '30's, so, appropriately, everyone just accepts Newt's behavior as just a part of his unusual personality. In addition to his spot on Newt, Redmayne presents us with a Newt that grows and develops, improving his interpersonal expressions with those to whom he feels most close: Theseus, Tina and Jacob.

Fogler is again adorable, funny and relatable as the muggle, Jacob. Sudol is disturbing and heartbreaking as she morphs from the gentle Queenie to Grindelwald's complicit functionary. Jude Law, aside from the demands of his unique relationship preferences, is a wonderful young Dumbledore, with just the right whimsy, humor and mystery which could believably mature into Richard Harris' Dumbledore in The Sorcerer's (/Philosopher's) Stone.

The Nazi theme is also very dark, and for mature audiences. There are at least a couple of events, relating appropriately but grimly enough to Grindelwald's rise as a charismatic tyrannical leader, which by themselves would recommend against taking children. One example is the cold-blooded murder of an adorable two year old toddler, even as Grindelwald smiles at the babe's inherent charms, similar to the Nazi thugs who bundled families into gas chambers after giving the children sweets. This parallel hits hard when one notes that Queenie and Tina's last name is Goldstein, an obvious Jewish connection, making Queenie's betrayal all the more ironic and heartbreaking.

But while the characters – creature, wizard and muggle – all fare well, the overall plot suffers from plain old bad writing. If Rowling has something up her sleeve that would clear much of the threadbare points up she has left no breadcrumbs to give us some confidence in a strategy, though the movie ends on a number of cliffhangers and set ups for the next movie.

CONCLUSION

Between the inappropriate sexual references and well thought out but grimly burgeoning magical Third Reich, I would NOT take children to see this movie. If you were the age to receive a letter from Hogwarts when the first books came out, you'd be more than old enough for the themes now. BUT be aware of the peculiar plot holes and unexplained inconsistencies from the long held, previously well established Harry Potter canon, which makes this a disappointing and unsatisfying outing despite the good performances and interesting creatures. Rowling is capable of so much better.

JUSTICE LEAGUE: DC v. MARVEL – It’s a COMIC book not Kafka…..so be nice

SHORT TAKE:

Justice League is an amusing and entertaining excuse to unite the DC comic book characters into their version of Marvel's Avengers but requires some parental supervision because of two short but poorly chosen off hand political and anti-Christian polemics which should require discussion between younger viewers and their parents.

LONG TAKE:

Writing an origin story isn’t easy. You have to deal with a lot of exposition and expectation all while trying to find a new way to tell an established or sometimes even cliched story line. Sometimes it works spectacularly well – like the Chris Reeves’ Superman or this year’s Wonder Woman. Sometimes not so well, like Wolverine or Eric Bana’s Hulk. And when you’re trying to do a team effort that issue becomes exponentially more difficult.

Such is the challenge facing Justice League, especially when three of the characters have only appeared in cameos in Batman V Superman: Flash/Barry Allen (Ezra "Fantastic Beasts" Miller), Cyborg/Victor Stone (Ray Fisher), and Aquaman/Arthur Curry (Jason "Drogo from Game of Thrones" Momoa).

The premise is that Bruce Wayne/Batman, in the wake of Superman’s untimely demise, has discovered that the void left by his super-colleague is attracting very ugly aliens called parademons who look an awful lot like larger flying version of the dwergers from Hugh Jackman’s Van Helsing.

To prepare for the invasion by the parademons master, Steppenwolf (super villain, not the ‘60's band) who seeks to remake the world in his own image, Bruce and Wonder Woman/Diana set out to recruit other supers.  Bruce to seek the Flash and Aquaman, Diana to convince Cyborg. All three of the newbies have troubled pasts (Cyborg, Flash and Aquaman can put their baggage in the closet with the steam trunks from the traumatized Batman and grieving Wonder Woman) but eventually agree, only to find out that their considerable combined efforts will not be quite enough to even create a stalemate with Steppenwolf.

A nice little theme of not putting your light under a bushel, of being able to overcome your fears of failure or worse, dread of the responsibility in leadership, is interwoven in the storyline, but only as light embroidery, not as sustaining warp and woof of this cinematic costume quality fabric.

Other reviewers have complained the story felt disjointed and somewhat disconnected. By necessity this is what happens when you try to introduce three major players into a five "man" mix with a story intended to propel them together and still try to keep the movie less than 15 hours long. A few things have to be cut and you have to edit down a bit.

While Justice League isn’t as lighthearted as Guardians of the Galaxy nor near the apex of the genre that is  The Avengers, or Wonder Woman, it’s an engaging enough flick. And isn’t that good enough?! I mean, come ON, it’s a live action comic book!! If you want Shakespeare then you could watch…..well, OK Branagh’s Thor….

But seriously, there are at least four compelling reasons why I liked Justice League and can forgive them a lot of plot and presentation weaknesses because of them:

1. We get the return of Wonder Woman in a vehicle which did not require a three year wait as many other sequels are glacially cranked out. It was very nice to see Gal Godot don the Amazonian one piece and watch as she balletically beats up bad guys again.

2. DC has managed, as with Wonder Woman, another transformation I would never have thought possible. As a kid Aquaman was on the top of the list for the lamest of super heroes. Mostly a Ken doll who could hold his breath for a very long time he didn’t even make a blip in my Superman-loving radar. But in Justice League Aquaman is a whiskey swilling, tatooed, long haired Norwegian-ey good ole boy who looks like a wrestler and acts like a rock star. This guy is just fun to watch as he exudes the kind of joy battling parademons we haven’t seen since Woody Harrelson’s delightful walking dead killing spree in Zombieland.

3. We see the return, albeit in cameos, of Jeremy irons as Alfred, JK Simmons as Commissioner Gordon, and Cyborg's father Silas Stone played by Joe Morton, whose pedigree with sci fi dates back a lot further than you might think – through a stint on Warehouse 13, to a key role in the Terminator franchise all the way back to 1984's quirky sci fi indie Brother from Another Planet.

4. And most importantly, which reason would have been enough to get me to see this movie all by itself……..well……I’m not going to tell you, but you’ll know it when you see it.

That being said, there are also three reasons I have to take exception to, which are largely unrelated  or at least unnecessary to the story or comic book characters per se:

1. GLOBAL WARMING PROPAGANDA:

Bruce shoehorns a throw away comment to Aquaman about global warming as though it is an established fact rather than the cock and bull fantasy of environmental wackos who want an excuse to tyrannically limit First World progress into the 21st century in order to feather their own Al Gore-jet flying coffers.

2. ANTI-CHRISTIAN CHEAP SHOT:

Lex Luther takes a gratuitous stab at Christianity which I, for one, didn’t appreciate. Granted, he is a bad guy, but his comment stepped right over offensive into blasphemy. When a statement is so over the top that it shocks you out of the suspension of disbelief it does nothing to promote the storytelling either. It neither served the plot or character well nor will endear it to any Christian audience members, and was just plain rude. I continue to be annoyed by the singular targeting of the Judeo-Christian faith by a Hollywood which used to produce movies like Going My Way and Schindler’s List.

3. As I have alluded to in the earlier part of this post there is an awful lot of derivatives, echoes and dopplegangers between the two rival comic book universes DC and Marvel. Along with the ones I have already mentioned like parademons, there is Steppenwolf (DC comics) who looks a LOT like a combination of the fire demon Surtur who appears at the beginning of Thor: Ragnarok (Marvel comics) and Thanos from Guardians of the Galaxy (Marvel). Further Steppenwolf’s goal is to bring together three "mother boxes" (DC) which are not explained well but when glowing look like red versions of  the blue Tesseract from The Avengers (Marvel), and when joined will reshape the Earth with tentacle transformers made of Element X (DC) which look an awful lot like the tentacles from Thor: The Dark World set loose by the Dark Elf Malekith from the Aether (Marvel).

See what I mean? After a while they all kind of blend together. In addition, the are a LOT of other counterparts in each world. I have made a short list below of the most noticeable ones. (And the years they first appeared in order to put to rest any debate about who predated whom. In short – DC and Marvel took turns being "first".)

DC vs Marvel

For the most part Justice League is an airy simple romp. Lots of cartoon violence, super powered heroics, and over the top demonic bad guys. Bringing the "old band back" is a hoot to watch and like the first Star Trek movie, or the first waffle off the griddle, they are entitled to "warm the pan up," so to speak, for future efforts. Besides, they should be able to pull off pretty much anything now that they have Wonder Woman and………you'll see.