Movie reviews: 'Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes Of Grindelwald' feels thin despite its grand face
Film critic and pop culture historian Richard Crouse shares his take on five movies: "Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes Of Grindelwald," "Widows," "The Front Runner," "Instant Family," and "A Private War."
FANTASTIC BEASTS: THE CRIMES OF GRINDELWALD: 2 STARS
If you already know what a 'magizoologist' is you're likely a fan of J.K. Rowling's wizarding world. If not, you've got some catching up to do before buying ticket to the second instalment of the Harry Potter spin-off "Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes Of Grindelwald."
When we last saw magizoologist Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) he temporarily put aside his study of magical creatures to travel to New York City and help MACUSA (Magical Congress of the United States of America) bring the powerful Dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) to justice.
The story picks up as Grindelwald escapes. Like all good villains he craves world dominance, but only on his own terms. He believes in wizarding superiority and sets in motion a plan to lead a new Wizarding Order of pure-blood wizards who will rule over all non-magical beings.
Enter Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law), professor of Transfiguration at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry and an influential member of the British Ministry of Magic. To stop Grindelwald's diabolical plot Dumbledore contacts Scamander, a confidante and former student.
The film based on the second original screenplay from J.K. Rowling is more fantastical than magical. There are all manner of creatures and wizard's tricks that could only have sprung from her fertile imagination but there is very little actual cinema magic. Sure Potter fans will love seeing Hogwarts and a glimpse of Quidditch again but that is nostalgia, and Alison Sudol's Judy Holliday impression is as winning as it was the first time out but overall "The Crimes Of Grindelwald" feels like a placeholder for the films yet to come.
Non-Potter-heads will likely be confused by the barrage of names, the myriad of subplots and a deadly scene about the family tree of Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller) that gives the word convoluted a whole new meaning. Part of the joy of the Rowling's story weaving in the Potter series was its depth and complexity. Here it feels as though she's being paid not by the word but by the character.
When director David Yates isn't bathing the screen with blue digital flames and the like there are things to admire. The set and costume design are spectacular, appropriate for both the 1920s setting and the otherworldly characters. Also interesting are the messages, both timeless — the search for identity — and timely — unity, fear mongering and freedom through force — provide subtext that is more interesting than the actual story.
Ultimately "Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes Of Grindelwald," despite its grand face, feels thin, over written and under dramatic.
WIDOWS: 4 STARS
Widows may be one of the most subversive heist films ever made. Based on a British mini-series from the 1980's it stars Viola Davis, Elizabeth Debicki, Michelle Rodriguez and Cynthia Erivo as four women bonded by debts left to some very bad men by their late husbands. It is part caper flick and part survival story that makes strong statements on hot button topics like sexism, poverty, prejudice, power and police brutality.
Set in modern day Chicago, the action in the story begins when Harry (Liam Neeson) and his crew of robbers gunned down and blown up after a heist gone wrong. His widow, teachers' union executive Veronica Rawlins (Viola Davis), is left with a $2 million debt to local crime boss Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry). Manning is a tough guy attempting a stab at legitimacy by entering politics, running against corrupt local alderman, Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell).
Manning wants his money and, after mistreating Veronica's dog, gives her just one month to come up with the cash. "That money was meant to buy me a new life," snarls Jamal. "That money was about my life. Now it is about yours." If she can't come up with the cash she'll have to deal with psychopathic strong arm Jatemme Manning (Daniel Kaluuya).
It is a dire situation but Veronica has a plan, or rather, a notebook and a plan. Harry left behind a handwritten book detailing every bribe he ever paid and blueprints for a future heist. Putting the widows of her late husband's hoodlum crew to work (Debicki, Rodriguez, and non-widow Cynthia Erivo), she creates a gang of her own to steal $5 million cash and save their lives. "I'm the only thing standing between you and a bullet in your head," says Veronica.
Co-written by McQueen and Gillian Flynn, the author and screenwriter of "Gone Girl," "Widows" is a tightly constructed thriller that builds with each passing moment. McQueen takes his time with the material, allowing the audience to get to know the characters, to learn what's at stake if this caper goes south.
First and foremost is Davis, fierce and formidable. Her evolution from executive and unsuspecting wife to criminal mastermind is emotional, logical and very motivated.
Opposite her is Debicki as a damaged woman whose own mother suggests prostitution as a career choice to make things meet. Her shift from abused woman to a person completely in control of her life and the way she is perceived—"It's mine to be ashamed of or be proud of," she says. "It's my life."—is one of the film's true pleasures.
The cast is universally strong. Farrell could use a different accent coach but Kaluuya is evil personified, a psychopath with dead eyes and an attitude.
"Widows" is a stylish art house heist flick that pays tribute to the genre but layers in not only intrigue but also social commentary about racism, the cost of political power and the imbalance of power between some of the female characters and their male counterparts. The thrills will appeal both to your heart and head.
THE FRONT RUNNER: 2 ½ STARS
"The Front Runner" is a story of scandal that destroyed a man's public life in 1988 that seems almost genteel given the tone of today's politics. Four years after Gary Hart (Hugh Jackman) lost the Democratic leadership convention to Walter Mondale he entered the presidential race with a giant lead. He was the front-runner. Three weeks later it was over.
By 1988 Gary Hart had served in the United States Senate for thirteen years. A intellectual, he sought to reignite the Democratic party, a group experiencing a slump in popularity and in ideology. His was a campaign of ideas with one of his managers marvelling at the candidate's gift of untangling the bull**** of politics." Unlike his opponents, however, he didn't like to smile for photos like "some sort of game show host." "If I pose for photos what's next," he wonders, "a swimsuit competition?" Discussing his personal life, says one of his aides, is not in his comfort zone and yet it was his personal life that torpedoed his chance at the White House.
His undoing came in the form of Donna Rice (Sara Paxton), a woman who wanted to work on the campaign and ended up in an extra marital affair with Hart, who was then married to Lee (Vera Farmiga). "I wanted to work for Senator Hart," she says. "I liked his positions." The press picked up on the story, partially in response to Hart's dare, "Follow me around. Put a tail on me. You'll be very bored," and partially because it dented his family values image.
Despite the media circus that followed Hart refuses to be contrite. "The public won't care," he says and "the press will not earn the dignity of my response." By the time Johnny Carson cracked jokes about it on the Tonight Show the campaign was over.
"The Front Runner" is a straightforward retelling of the twenty-one days leading up to Hart's withdrawal from the presidential race. What it does best is create the environment surrounding Hart. From the fast-and-furious pace of a campaign in full gallop and the dark humour of a newsroom to the inner-workings of a smear campaign and the anxiety-inducing clickety-click of the still cameras at Hart's final press conference, the film's most interesting element is it's atmosphere. There are some fun performances, particularly from J. K. Simmons as Hart's blunt talking campaign manager Bill Dixon, but the problem lies with Hart himself. He's a bit of a cypher, highbrow yet bland; the film never gives us a reason to care about him or the mess he gets himself into.
In its final moments, however, "The Front Runner" finally indulges in some subtext, courtesy of direct quotes from Hart's withdrawal speech.
"Politics in this country," he says, "take it from me - is on the verge of becoming another form of athletic competition or sporting match. We all better do something to make this system work or we're all going to be soon rephrasing Jefferson to say: I tremble for my country when I think we may, in fact, get the kind of leaders we deserve."
The words are thirty years old and yet sound as though they were written yesterday. Perhaps if director Jason Reitman had followed Hart's lead and focussed more on the ideas and less on the scandal "The Front Runner" might have had more impact.
INSTANT FAMILY: 3 ½ STARS
GREEN BOOK: 4 STARSIn future edition of your Funk & Wagnalls the entry for 'heartfelt' may well be illustrated with the poster for "Instant Family." For better and for worse the new Mark Wahlberg film is an earnest and deeply felt look at adoption out of the foster care system.
Wahlberg and Rose Byrne are house flippers Pete and Ellie. Childless, they are forty-somethings with a well-appointed, orderly life. When the subject of kids comes up, raised by Ellie's sister, Pete worries about being an "old dad." He jokes about adopting a five year old so "it will be like I got cracking when I was thirty-six years old." That one off hand comment triggers something in Ellie who researches the stats on foster kids and is immediately inspired to help by welcoming children into their home. Pete isn't as sure.
"People who take foster kids are special," he says. "The kind of people who volunteer when it isn't even a holiday. We're not that special." Later, after looking at a website of photos of kids available for adoption he relents. "This is what we do," he says, "fix things up. We'll scrape off their emotional popcorn ceiling."
The couple attend Foster Parent Classes run by social workers Karen (Octavia Spencer) and Sharon (Tig Notaro) and, when at a Child Fair they meet the forceful fifteen-year-old Lizzy (Isabela Moner) and her siblings, accident prone Juan (Gustavo Quiroz) and the sweet but screechy Lita (Julianna Gamiz). Drawn to them, Pete and Ellie knew their "cosmic connection" was much more than a hunch; that this group must somehow form a family. That's the way we they became, well, not exactly the Brady bunch, but a family with all the good and bad that entails.
There are parts of "Instant Family" that will make you laugh and parts that will make you cry. Then there are the other parts. Director Sean Anders—who, in real life adopted three children from foster care—clearly cares about making a difference with this film. As the writer of "Hot Tub Time Machine" and "We're the Millers" he's comfortable with finding humour in situations, and he's explored family dynamics in as the writer and director of "Daddy's Home." Here he adds in a third element, the Public Service Announcement.
Spencer and Notaro are tasked with delivering the cold hard facts and figures that shine a light on the difficulty of children in foster care, and they do the best they can with it, but early on it often feels as though you are reading an informational pamphlet from one of their Foster Parent Classes and not enjoying a family dramedy. Once past that you're left with a pleasing story of a hard-earned connection between adoptive parents and their new kids.
"Instant Family's" heart is in the right place and that goodwill goes a long way. The relationship between Wahlberg, Byrne and the kids isn't all sunshine and roses. They have real problems and work through them by trail and error, sometimes with hilarious results, sometimes not. Either way they feel universal—every parent has had to calm a tantrum in public, etc—even though the story is very specific.
A PRIVATE WAR: 3 STARS
These days journalists aren't just reporting the stories, often they are the story. Just ask Jim Acosta. A new film, "A Private War," places the journalist front-and-centre while detailing a story from our recent past.
Rosamund Pike plays Marie Colvin, long serving war correspondent for The Sunday Times. For three decades she put herself in harm's way, covering conflicts the world over. "I care enough to go to these places," she says, "and write about it in a way that makes people want to care about it as much as I do." While on assignment in Sri Lanka she loses an eye in a bomb blast. Later, when accused of being "stupid" for going into that war zone she says "I think stupid is writing about the dinner party you went to last night."
Years of witnessing bloodshed have taken a toll. "You've seen more war than most soldiers," says her photographer Paul Conroy (Jamie Dornan). Plagued by nightmares, she would drink a quart of vodka to calm herself. Her PTSD didn't keep her from the job, in fact it may have been the engine that kept her going.
In 2012 she, along with Conroy, embarked on her most dangerous assignment, covering the siege of Homs in Syria. Her reporting revealed the Syrian government was targeting civilians in an effort to quell the Arab Spring uprising. "I see it," she says of the horrors of war, "so you don't have to."
As the title suggests "A Private War" is about the push and pull inside Colvin. The battle between her life in England with boyfriend Tony Shaw (Stanley Tucci) and the adrenaline rush provided by her work in the field. "Maybe I would have liked a normal life," she says, "or maybe I don't know how. Or maybe this is where I feel most comfortable."
Pike brings passion and fire to the role, although while on duty in Sri Lanka she looks like she's part of a "Vogue" fashion spread, not a reporter in the field. Emotionally raw, it's a portrait of a single-minded person who always put her work first.
Unfortunately we don't learn much more than that. It's a jittery performance that effectively portrays Covin's state of mind but by the film's second half it feels one note.
"A Private War" comes at an interesting time for journalism. With the profession under fire from Fake-Newsers it's important to discover the stories of the people who report on "the rough draft of history."
Richard Crouse shares a toast with celebrity guests and pundits on the talk show Pop Life on CTV NewsChannel and CTV. Catch up on all the entertainment news, reviews and interviews at the Pop Life website.
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