Review: ‘Fantastic Beasts: Crime of Grindelwald’ doesn’t conjure up enough charm to make up for confounding story

They linger, skitter and roar; excite and intimidate. Their presence can be curious, and at times the absences of others are a relief. They have their own hierarchies, although at times clashes can break out for the worst.

When a film’s moniker bears the words “fantastic beasts,” it’s not an advantage when those above words describe its multitudes of plot threads as accurately as the extraordinary creatures conjured up for J.K. Rowling’s wizarding world.

Much like this universe’s beloved nifflers, powerful dragons or sassy bowtruckles, the various tidbits of story and exposition in the second installment of this “Harry Potter” prologue series are disparate, with their own ambitions and unpredictable tendencies rooted in a hunger for attention. Ultimately, it’s to the film’s detriment, though fans of the series would be hard-pressed to leave the theater not feeling a little enchanted simply on the merits of returning home to this universe. Increasingly, it feels like reuniting with an old, robed friend. Continue reading →

Review: ‘Fantastic Beasts’ constrained by messy storytelling

An edited version of this review originally ran in the ABQ Free Press, and can be viewed here.

 

I’ll admit it: I was one of seemingly the very few who wasn’t particularly enamored by the idea of a new franchise set in what can only be referred to now as a Harry Potter cinematic universe.

Having read the Harry Potter books and watched each of the previous eight movies more than a few times, I was perfectly satisfied with the universe J.K. Rowling has created. The amount of breadth, even before the advent of Pottermore, was enriching to the point that I was content even with the more ambiguous details in the history of Rowling’s world.

After watching “Fantastic Beasts” – the first in a reported five films which will attempt to turn that ambiguity into canon – my mind hasn’t really changed, and I don’t find myself counting down the days until the sequel.

That being said, “Fantastic Beasts” does add some new things to the wizarding world many are so familiar with, and as long as you can get past the messy tangle of narratives and frustratingly expendable characters, the film becomes an entertaining and satisfying watch for most fans.

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While “Fantastic Beasts” is as visually spectacular as we’ve come to expect from the universe, the film suffers from being perhaps the toughest to follow out of all nine movies in the universe. Rowling definitely wrote the screenplay; while it has its moments of storytelling grandeur, a novel would instead be the best way to tell her ambitious story with its multitude of storylines that intersect in confusing ways.

Some characters are clearly not needed, and as a result the motives and stories of others are not as fleshed out as they could be. One particular moment of emotional appeal at the film’s end is nowhere as effective as it should be.

It also slows the movie down to the speed of a Cleansweep Eleven broomstick after a Firebolt-esque start. The first act is exceptionally well-done, focusing on Newt Scamander and what he’s hiding in his suitcase. An early sequence in a New York bank is hilarious and moves along swiftly, but the moment it becomes clear that Scamander’s story disappointingly won’t be the focus for much of the movie the story becomes less organic, its plot cues more forced.

It’s almost as if Rowling was so concerned about writing a predictable story that she offered a number of plotlines in the hopes that at least one will be compelling.

“Fantastic Beasts” does introduce new themes that haven’t been explored in the universe, including Muggle – sorry, “No Maj” – paranoia and the fragile line that keeps wizarding society under the covers. They initially appear to be much darker stories when compared to the Potter films, but when you remember that those centered around a terrorist with no regards for the lives of schoolchildren, “Fantastic Beasts” isn’t incredibly provocative.

David Yates – who also directed the last four Potter entries – provides an aesthetic much like the one fans fell in love with before, despite the change in setting. Trademark visual cues like the logo hovering ominously through the clouds and moving pictures in newspapers bringing us up to speed on backstory are used. Even the film’s bureaucrats are frustratingly closed-minded, much like Ministry of Magic politicians.

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The varied, imaginative creature design is also top-notch, the spotlighted beasts providing memorable sequences of their own that make for the film’s highlights.

Eddie Redmayne (Theory of Everything, The Danish Girl) its the world about as believably as one would expect, and when the film isn’t pretending to make lead protagonists out of other characters, his scenes steal the show. He is a vehicle of confident naiveté, his nervous smile and even his gait rounding out a fantastic turn as the title character.

Katherine Waterston (Inherent Vice, Steve Jobs) also effectively embraces her role as a former Auror who has fallen from grace, conveying a quietly determined performance opposite Redmayne’s clumsy Scamander.

Tight, cohesive narratives helped make the Potter films so strong. The main problem with “Fantastic Beasts” is that isn’t sure where to focus its storytelling efforts. Because of that, it’s tough to walk away with the same amount of wonder as some of the strongest Potter entries.

 

“Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them” is rated PG-13 for some fantasy action violence

Starring: Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Alison Sudol, Dan Fogler       

Directed by David Yates

2016                   

Pop culture classes add substance to material

But UNM also offers several courses based on popular cultures that don’t seem to have educational value at first glance. A variety of pop culture-affiliated curricula are offered at UNM and its branches, including Rock Music Appreciation and courses centered on Route 66 and even food.

Yet instructors in these courses — like those focusing on hip-hop, Harry Potter and fashion — do feature typical academic approaches and concepts that serve higher educational goals.

Webster Matjaka, an American studies graduate student who facilitates a hip-hop music and culture course, said that by exploring the music genre’s origins, students learn about specific societal movements whose mark can be seen in history.

“What we like to teach in the American studies department is critical thinking skills,” he said. “What I mean by that is students being able to situate things or events in a broader context. I use hip-hop as a case study.”

Matjaka said that even though most modern hip-hop artists are driven by money and selling platinum records, it didn’t start out that way.

“It developed under conditions of people questioning society and their identity, as a way for people to comment on their social conditions in places of oppression,” Matjaka said.

Surprising as it may be, Matjaka said if students are at least interested in taking a certain pop culture course, they will find that the subject matter explores exponentially more than students initially expect.

Julie Hillery, a professor in UNM’s Honors College, teaches two classes focused on contemporary fashion and also said that by studying the subject matter, students can learn much about the world that they live in.

The majority of Honors College courses tend to delve into multiple academic fields, and Hillery said her class curriculum examines fashion from sociological, psychological, anthropological and business perspectives.

“[The courses] are very much rooted in social science, meaning we look at clothing in the context of society,” she said. “We can tell a lot about what is going on in society at any given moment by examining what people are wearing at a particular time. We look at topics such as beauty ideals, gender issues, aging and appearance, race and ethnicity and body modifications.”

Hillery said it is common for students to judge her classes simply by the word “fashion” and envision an easy class. She said they turn out being surprised at the academic value her courses hold.

“I believe that there is definitely a stigma concerning fashion classes and that many of them think of the classes as blow-off courses,” she said. “I have had many students tell me that they didn’t expect to learn as much as they did, and that the classes were much harder than they expected.”

Michael Rogers-Oty, a sophomore East Asian studies major, said he was surprised and excited to see the Honors College’s Harry Potter course, and signed up for it based only on its reference to the popular book and film series’.

According to the syllabus, the course highlights character analysis and compares views of standards of morality in the series to real-life philosophies and theological theories.

“It’s a bit more than I expected,” he said. “I guess from reading the description I didn’t fully grasp the kind of materials we’d read. I’ve learned more about Harry Potter and just the general theme of the class: good and evil in the world.”

Rogers-Oty said it was hard beforehand to see the educational value in something so mainstream. He said the teacher, Sheri Karmiol, has even had to defend the legitimacy of the course because it is so engrained in culture as a topic of entertainment, not academics.

“The majority of people at UNM grew up with Harry Potter and a lot of people see it as something for kids and therefore see no value to the class because it is so entwined with Harry Potter,” Rogers-Oty said.

Matjaka said students come into his course curious about what exactly they’ll take from it, but he starts the semester by hoping that their perspectives about hip-hop change as the class progresses. They usually do, he said.

“One of the things I was afraid of was that students would think this class is too easy. That they can just come in and take the class and think they can just have fun,” he said. “Most students who come in this class are very interested in hip-hop. They come in curious. What I find is that there are changing interests from the beginning to the end because they are learning new things.”

David Lynch is a staff reporter at the Daily Lobo. He can be reached atnews@dailylobo.com or on Twitter @RealDavidLynch.