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.

BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY EXPOSES FREDDIE MERCURY AS A VICTIM OF HIS OWN INDISCRETE EXCESSES

SHORT TAKE:

Mesmerizing biodrama of Queen, the rock band in general and Freddie Mercury its lead singer, in particular, from its formation in the early 1970's through its appearance at the 1985 benefit concert Live AID, including a positively brilliant performance by Rami Malek as Mercury and completely spot-on recreation (or so I've read) of Gwilym Lee as Brian May, lead guitarist.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Primarily adults only due to the nature of Mercury's personal life. Exceptions might be made on an individual basis, but I would STRONGLY advise that the parent see the movie first before considering allowing anyone under the age of full consent see this movie. For lifelong Queen fans I would say this is a must see movie.

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LONG TAKE:

SPOILERS – AS FEW AS POSSIBLE BUT MOST PEOPLE KNOW THE KEY POINTS ANYWAY

What do an astrophysicist, a dentist, an electronics engineer and…an airport baggage handler all have in common? No. It's not a group gearing up for the next Oceans movie. It's, respectively, Brian May (Gwilym Lee), Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy – Angel in X-Men), John Deacon (Joseph Mazzello – as a child actor was Douglas Gresham in Shadowlands and Tim from Jurassic Park) and Freddie Mercury/Farrokh Bulsara (Rami Malek – Mr. Robot series and Twilight Saga – Breaking Dawn) of the 1970's rock group Queen. Maybe I was the last one on the boat with this one, but a lot of the personal details about the members of this unique, audience participatory and groundbreaking musical phenomenon were a surprise to me.

They formed when I was in grammar school and hit their peak with their come back performance at the benefit relief concert for the Ethiopian famine in 1985. While it was a band which achieved unusual longevity and success via the strength of their loyalty to each other and egalitarian approach to the structure of their band, one member, nonetheless, stuck out due to his flamboyant style and scandalous personal life.

In full disclosure – growing up, Queen was, to me, in many ways just background music and a caricature. I liked the music but it was off the wall in the same way that Pink Floyd was, with its experimental sounds and genre combinations. I did not follow any of the details or titillating stories at the time. However, I assume the film presentation is accurate based upon the commentaries from those who consider themselves lifelong fans. So my review will assume the accuracy of the film story as presented.

Much of their personal lives, explored in the movie, came as a surprise to me. All these men were accomplished, intensely creative, profoundly talented, and intelligent men. Most had wives and children. Mercury's personal life was a bit more complex. Fairly quiet about his private life, his flamboyant and effeminate stage behavior was a constant source of unsatisfied conjecture with reporters. According to the film, Mercury was bisexual. In the early 1970's he started a lifetime romance with Mary Austin. In this regard, his life parallels Cole Porter's, who married, but then constantly cheated on his wife with homosexual lovers. Mercury, on the other hand, was faithful to Mary (Lucy Boynton from Murder on the Orient Express), and seemed to genuinely adore her and she him, until he went on tour to America without her. Predictably, his already vulnerable personality succumbed to the allure of wealth and celebrity – indulging in drugs, and the experimental promsicuous sex which lost him this love of his life, his health and eventually his life.

Rami Malek's performance as Mercury is breathtaking, recreating Mercury's flamboyant on and quiet off stage personas. But Mercury's unique four-octave, Tuvan (vocalizing a note AND its undertone at the same time) singing, with exceptional vocal control, and high speed vibratto, was impossible for Malek without assistance. Malek's voice, Mercury's studio recordings and the voice of Canadian Christian rock singer Marc Martel (near the bottom of this page is a video of Martel singing as Mercury) are blended, synced, combined and edited to re-incarnate Mercury's singing voice for Bohemian Rhapsody.

Similarly the instrumental performances of May, Taylor and Deacon were reproduced as accurately as possible, even with the assistance of May, Taylor and other coaches, but these virtuoso musicians could not be duplicated and there is some slight of hand with both the visual as well as auditory recordings.

The result is a spot on reproduction of Queen's music and many of their performances. The music was wonderful – artful and masterful incarnations of the songs which are so familiar to us now, the movie allows us to watch and listen to a vision of how those iconic moments were conceived, recorded, blended and molded into the unique musical expressions we have come to love – from "Happy Birthday" and "Killer Queen" to – of course – "Bohemian Rhapsody", we are privy to their manifestations as reproduced through the magic of cinema. However, and wisely, unlike many other movies about musicians which drown in music to the damage of plot, Bohemian Rhapsody, from scene to scene, as Donald O'Connor might have said, leaves us wanting more. We are only given tidbits of song snacks which enhance the storyline, so that the ending 20 minute full re-creation of the Live AID benefit concert is a welcome musical feast.

One common complaint, with which I agree, is the abruptness of the ending after the benefit concert. Mercury lived for six more years and while I understand and respect the decision not to wallow in Mercury's illness and decline, there was a good deal more Queen written after 1985 to explore.

These men were first, last and primarily, musicians of exceptional talent and creativity. The best parts of the movie were the expression of that talent – even if it was merely re-creations of those brilliant acts of inspiration: building entire songs from one individual phrase, enhancing and individualizing their sound with deliberately peculiar assists like water or coins on the drums, stressing their falsettos, or planned genre blending with opera. During one scene, for example, a disagreement starts to get out of hand between two members while a third is physically trying to keep them separated. The fourth simply starts a guitar riff and the combatants are so taken with it and the idea of creating a song around it the dispute is defused.

Along with the great performances – both acting and the musical slight of hand, there is an amusing cameo by Mike Myers (Shrek) as Ray Foster, loosely based on Roy Featherstone of EMI Records.

Mercury's descent into the more carnal excesses of celebrity are not shied from but are treated with a measure of restraint – ergo my cautionary note to parents. Otherwise the movie is appropriate for mature older teens – but again with serious provisos depending on the discretion of the parents.

So if you are an adult, especially an adult fan of Queen, this movie is a musical treat but also a reminder of the consequences which can occur from a lack of self-restraint. Mercury sang and contributed continuously to Queen until only a few days before he died. Without him, the band could not function as it had before and Deacon's grief over the loss of his friend and collaborator was such that he declined to contribute to the making of the film. Mercury's unnecessary and early death ended the prolific and brilliant contributions of Queen to the rock scene.

But this is not a new or unique story. Indeed, Bohemian Rhapsody does for Freddie Mercury what Amadeus did for Mozart and All That Jazz did for Bob Fosse (Fosse actually made the thinly veiled autobiographic film All That Jazz, which ended in the lead character's death, then himself died the same way a few years later). While I am not comparing Mercury to Mozart to Fosse, there are parallels of tragedy in the needless premature loss of significant musical contributions in their respective genres, all because of personal weakness and the lure of excess, exacting a terrible price from them, their families, and to the culture at large. May they rest in peace.