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Movie Review: Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald

Grindewald posterFans of the Potterverse can rejoice: you have a great sequel on your hands. While the first Fantastic Beasts seemed more concerned with worldbuilding and funny side-business, this second act of a planned five Fantastic Beasts films goes deeper and darker than we’ve ever gone before. The adage goes that in act 1, you introduce characters; act 2, dig a giant pit and throw them in; act 3, get them out. This is a deep, dark wizarding pit and definitely in my top 3 favorite Potterverse films.

From the get-go, it hits you with a fierce intensity. An opening scene re-introducing our villain Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) and a subsequent jailbreak have more action crammed into the first ten minutes than the entire first film combined.

We also get continued beautiful character development of our hero Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) as he is recruited by Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law) to try to track the escaped Grindelwald down. Grindelwald is obsessed with finding Credence (Ezra Miller), who against all odds survived the confrontation at the end of the first film and is now hiding in Paris. Dumbledore is hiding a mystery of why he won’t move against the dark wizard himself, but fears the Ministry of Magic’s Auror office, headed by Newt’s brother Theseus, and their heavyhanded tactics will play into Grindelwald’s plans.

There’s another wrinkle, as Theseus is set to marry fellow Auror Leta Lestrange (Zoe Kravitz) who was a Hogwarts girlfriend of Newt’s in the perfect Hufflepuff-Slytherin relationship the fandom has always wanted. Newt, however, is still in love with American Auror Tina who is also in Paris searching for Credence and Grindelwald. So when her sister Queenie and now-fiance Jacob Kowalski show up on Newt’s doorstep, they all head to Paris searching for each other, for Credence, for Grindelwald.

Everybody get that? Sorry, it’s complicated.

The plot is more layered and delicate than a perfect french pastry. Even better, the characters and their arcs also feed in to the broader themes of the film. A big part of this is also about accepting and loving people because of, not just in spite of, their differences.  Expanding the main quartet from the first film to six by adding in Theseus and Leta is a brilliant move that is executed flawlessly. You have a half dozen people who are so incredibly different from each other and they all love one another in very different ways. Whether related by blood or not, they are like family. And so much of Credence’s story — despite him being the macguffin for this story — is very much about his own search for meaning and who his family is.

There’s also great commentary woven in here about how we co-exist with one another. A major plot point revolves around the legality or acceptance of marriage between the magic world and the non-magic world. There’s a complex morality about whether maybe wizards and witches should reveal themselves to the human world in an attempt to help the humans? Or just outright rule them. And ultimately identity and who we love is the main focus of this film. It is heartbreaking on multiple levels.

You also have Dumbeldore and Grindelwald as these perfect foils for one another. While not mentioned in the film, it would be worthwhile to review their early relationship around searching for The Deathly Hallows and the fateful three-way duel between them and Albus’s brother Aberforth which resulted in the death of their sister. (Note that all of those events take place several years before the first Fantastic Beasts film– you’ll want to get your timeline straight when you see this.)

The film also delivers a climax of epic proportions. When I compare this to the artistry and moral stakes of the finale of The Empire Strikes Back, I do not invoke that comparison lightly, but it is the best analog to what we have in this film. There are emotional stakes. There are plot twists. Bring tissues.

Sounds pretty amazing, right? It is. But the film has some other, er. . . problematic areas.

The first is the casting of Claudia Kim as Nagini. In later films/books, we know Nagini becomes Voldemort’s pet/horcrux, and fans have (rightfully) pointed out the racism in casting a Korean actress as a character who later becomes a pet. Rowling also caught justifiable flak for defending her choice saying:

Yikes. Koreans are not Indonesian, Chinese, Javanese, or Betawi. Ok, so this is hella problematic.

Here’s the deal, though: Claudia Kim in this movie is magic– no pun intended. She gives one of the best performances of the movie. Her character is a strong woman with agency, morals, and a personal story arc. She can also transform into a snake and is Credence’s best friend. It’s actually really terrible that she has to be Nagini and not just some other unnamed Maledictus, as she was originally listed in the casting. This is, of course, a problem endemic to prequels.

The other giant glaring problem with this movie is Johnny Depp. I don’t care what you think of Depp as a person or as an actor. But he is garbage in this movie. I haven’t seen someone so clearly just picking up a paycheck and not expending any effort since…  well, Johnny Depp in the last Pirates of the Caribbean movie. I haven’t seen a character so grating and unappealing in a tentpole franchise film since… well, Johnny Depp in the last Alice in Wonderland movie. He is terrible, and Warner Bros need to cut their losses and recast him for the inevitable (and well-deserved!) sequel. He’s a distraction every time he’s on screen, because he is expending so little effort that it’s simply, “Look! Johnny Depp in a platinum wig!”

The film’s saving grace is he isn’t in it very much despite being the title character. The downside is, this character deserves better. Here’s the real deal: Grindelwald has a point. Like Thanos, like Erik Killmonger, like the best baddies of 2018, he is a villain whose logic is sound, whose grievances are real, but whose methods are immeasurably unconscionable.

This is otherwise a near-perfect film– easily the equal of an Infinity War. But Johnny Depp’s magic spell he casts on this film is to drag it down by an entire star just by himself. In a cruel twist of either irony or tonedeaf marketing, most prints are being paired with the trailer for Aquaman starring Amber Heard as Mera. If there is any sense of cosmic justice, Aquaman will kick Grindelwald’s butt at the box office and Warner Bros may wise up that, hey, maybe having Depp star in our tentpole franchise is a bad idea.

Just sort of expend as little effort as possible in paying attention to Depp– at least as little as he is expending in performing– and try to enjoy the film pretending he is replaced by, oh, say, Christopher Plummer– just kidding. But seriously– Ewan MacGregor. Or Russell Crowe. Or Javier Bardem. Or Paul Bettany.

If you can do that, you will absolutely fall in love with this film. It raises the stakes, dashes expectations, and leaves you wanting more. Bring on the third Fantastic Beasts movie — and look for a spoiler-filled article from me later about why Newt Scamander is the hero we all need for 2018.

4 out of 5 stars

A Short History of Turning Disney Rides Into Fiction

Tower_of_Terror_VideoCoverOne of the common criticisms of modern media is that people have run out of ideas, and that everything that we see is a repetition of something that came before. While this is a contentious enough claim based partially in an over-analysis of tropes and truisms, it is true that those looking to create popular culture stories for movies have looked elsewhere for inspiration in recent years. There have been movies based on blogs for instance, which is a form of media copying another.

In terms of media, many people don’t consider theme park rides to be a form of media, but under certain circumstances they can be. Of courses roller coasters are not really a form of media, but some rides are. After all at Disney World and Disney Land many of the rides consist of a moving vessel which undergoes some mild thrills in the form of chutes or slides, and a story of sorts being told through the depiction of various themes.  In short it serves as a sort of moving theater without a real plot, and is thus is kind of its own form of media (or at least a weird version of theater).

Country_bearsWith the crossover of almost all forms of media from on into another, it thus stands to reason that eventually that someone at Disney would get the idea to base some stories on their own rides, which doubled as extra incentive to take children to the theme parks (if they actually needed more incentive). Surprisingly though, with one notable exception, the transfer to other forms of media has been pretty mediocre, yet recent developments with Disney and Marvel might indicate the path forward for these ventures.

The first movie in this short history of Disney attractions is the Tower of Terror, released in 1997. Featuring Disney staple Steve Guttenberg and pre-Spider-Man Kirsten Dunst, this is the only film of this kind that was released directly to television. It is also notable for its use of the actual ride as a set for the filming as opposed to the other movies which have relied on different settings. This features a fairly typical ghost story and was filmed for a younger audience as it originally appeared on the Wonderful World of Disney.

The second movie in the sequence is the Country Bears, a film based on the ride/show Country Bear Jamboree. This film was released in 2002 and mixed animatronics with real life actors to tell the story of one of the youngest of the Country Bears who discovers his true destiny after being raised by human parents. This was another Disney movie aimed at a younger crowd as it contained rehearsed dance numbers by children and a silly enough premise. Not surprisingly the film grossed back less than half of its budget in ticket sales.

piratesOut of two mediocre films that were either failures or forgettable came Disney’s greatest success. Although it might have seemed absurd at the time, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl was a film which ventured well past what was offered in the ride. Although the plot was perhaps a little basic in certain respects, it was equally a movie that was full of a lot of elements that make a movie exciting. Special effects provided a realistic enough supernatural element, but the movie is tied mostly to the over-the-top role played by Johnny Depp, which resulted in an Academy Award nomination for best actor. Additionally the movie helped to make stars out of its other two leads, Oralndo Bloom and Keira Knightley, who while already known well enough in Hollywood, had not yet been considered to be proper A-list actors. The 2003 film was followed by sequels in 2006, 2007 and 2011 with another sequel expected in 2017, with the latter to each featuring one half of the married couple of Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem.  It is by far the most successful of the Disney rides turned into movies, with gross ticket sales surpassing $3.5 billion.

haunted mansionAfter the success of Pirates of the Caribbean, some thought that Disney might be entering into a period of success for these adaptations, but the follow-up to its big hit was another poorly received movie as the Haunted Mansion failed to gain critical success, even if its box office draw was not as bad as the others. Starring Eddie Murphy in a story that was once again loosely based on the ride, many criticized it for now being scary enough, or funny enough considering that Eddie Murphy was involved. Despite its lackluster final product interest rests in retelling the story by Guillermo del Toro, who might be able to realize a stronger concept considering some of his previous works.

In a bit of a twist, the next movie in the Disney catalog, is not one based on a ride specifically, but rather an entire section of the park, known as Tomorrowland. Although it is still unreleased, it holds a great deal of promise, telling a broader story as Pirates of the Caribbean did, and it doesn’t hurt either that big names like George Clooney and Brad Bird are associated. While there are also rumours of a movie based on “It’s a Small World” (which would presumably be somewhat Carmen Sandiego-like), this is maybe not the way forward for Disney films.

big thunderSince 2009 Disney has owned Marvel Comics, and while speculated on what that might mean for the future of Marvel, it has mostly remained unchanged in terms of the Marvel universe of superheroes. What is in interesting possibility though is the new miniseries Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. After the hit-and-miss (though mostly miss) run of fiction based on rides, this is a chance for Disney to test ideas in a safer market without investing millions of dollars into an idea that might make back less than half of the money invested.  If this is the case, Marvel could also act as an incubator for movie ideas which Disney thinks might fail on the big screen, and this could be a place to see if they could succeed and to fine tune the idea before putting it into production.  Thus maybe if there is to be a “It’s a Small World” movie, it might show up at Marvel first.

Johnny Depp And Graham King To Aadapt The Vault

Official Press Release

JOHNNY DEPP AND GRAHAM KING TO ADAPT THE VAULT

Sam Sarkar is proud to announce that his latest title, THE VAULT, is being adapted for film by Graham King’s GK Films and Johnny Depp’s Infinitum Nihil. Based on the comic miniseries created and written by Sarkar (Caliber: First Canon of Justice), illustrated by Garrie Gastonny (Senior artist at Imaginary Friends Studios, Warren Ellis’ Supergod) and edited by Dave Elliott (current Editor-in-Chief of Benaroya Publishing), THE VAULT will be produced by Johnny Depp, along with Infinitum Nihil’s president, Christi Dembrowski, as well as Graham King and Tim Headington from GK Films. Sam Sarkar is repped by Jon Levin at CAA and Nicole Romano and David Schiff of The Schiff Company.

THE VAULT is about a small team of treasure hunters, struggling to excavate a dangerous and legendary treasure pit before a massive storm hits Sable Island, the “Graveyard of the North Atlantic.” Equipped with all the latest technology, the scientists believe they are prepared against all of nature’s fury, but nothing can prepare them for what they are about to unleash.

“So thankful and happy to have the support of Johnny, Christi, Graham, Tim and Denis in bringing the movie of the Vault to life.” States Sarkar. “Lots more surprises to come!”

THE VAULT is a 3-issue miniseries published by Image Comics, with issues #1-3 available to order through Diamond Comic Distributors (www.diamondcomics.com).

ABOUT GK FILMS

Academy Award winning producer Graham King launched his independent production company, GK Films, in May 2007 with business partner Tim Headington. GK Films is determined to leave its mark on the independent film world, acting not only as a production company, but also with premium marketing, publicity, business affairs and International sales divisions. Under King’s previous banner, Initial Entertainment Group, he produced such critically and commercially successful films as Gangs of New York, The Aviator, Ali, Traffic and The Departed. In total, his films have been nominated for 41 Academy Awards, 27 Golden Globes and 35 British Academy Awards, and have made over $1.5 billion at the worldwide box office. For more information, visit www.gk-films.com

ABOUT INFINITUM NIHIL

Johnny Depp and Christi Dembrowski, whose Infinitum Nihil has a production deal with GK Films, have been busy: The Rum Diary, which was written and directed by Bruce Robinson and stars Depp, will be released by FilmDistrict on October 28, 2011; the Martin Scorsese-directed 3D Hugo Cabret will be released Nov. 23, 2011 by Paramount Pictures; and they are now shooting the TV series transfer, Dark Shadows, at Warner Bros, with Depp starring and Tim Burton directing. Both Dark Shadows and The Night Stalker were based on series produced by the late Dan Curtis.

ABOUT SAM SARKAR

Born in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Sam Sarkar is a 23-year veteran of the entertainment industry. He began his career as an actor and was one of the leads on the long-running, syndicated television series Neon Rider. Following the series, Sam decided to pursue writing and worked for the hit television series Beverly Hills 90210. Stemming from his work on the show, he also co-wrote a television pilot for Spelling Entertainment under the direct guidance of TV legend Aaron Spelling. Deciding then to embark on feature films, Sam took some chances, following a varied path of writing screenplays and working as a sound technician. In 2004, after working on several films with actor Johnny Depp, Sam was asked to help run Depp’s production company, Infinitum Nihil, headed by Christi Dembrowski. As Senior VP at the company, he continues to serve the varied needs of Hollywood as an executive, producer and writer.

ABOUT GARRIE GASTONNY

Having worked as a comic book artist and illustration lecturer, Garrie Gastonny now mainly focuses on illustration to avoid getting beaten up. Garrie also serves as Senior Artist at Imaginary Friends Studios. His credits include Warren Ellis’ Supergod, Caliber: First Canon of Justice and Lady Death. For more information about the artist, please visit http://thegerjoos.deviantart.com/

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