Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald (2018)
★★ / ★★★★
The highly expository follow-up to the energetic and entertaining “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” may likely force the viewer to wonder if the series has enough fuel to stretch its arms across three more pictures. At its worst, for a story that offers magic, a wealth of imagination, strange-looking creatures, it is talkative but uninformative. For long periods during the middle, nothing much of value happens; I caught myself checking my watch a few times. I considered if author and screenwriter J.K. Rowling ought to have allowed someone else to translate her work through a cinematic medium. What results is a ponderous picture that lacks the power to capture the curiosity of both children and children-at-heart, a quality that seems to come so naturally to the “Harry Potter” movies.
As a sequel that strives to expand its world-building, the material offers a group of new potentially interesting characters. The first that comes to mind is Theseus Scamander, played by Callum Turner, brother of our protagonist who is played by Eddie Redmayne. This character is engaged to be married to Leta Lestrange (Zoë Kravitz), former schoolmate of our quirky magizoologist. Newt and Leta seems to share a special, possibly even a romantic connection, and it would have been an interesting avenue to explore had Theseus been a fully developed character. In addition, Newt feeling insecure whenever his “normal” brother is around is hinted at but never explored. Instead, the siblings are reduced to giving each other hugs. Another possible interesting personality that may have been worth looking into is the alchemist Nicolas Flamel (Brontis Jodorowsky) whose name should be familiar to fans of the magical series. Instead, there are jokes about him being old.
Delivering top-notch special and visual effects is clearly the film’s forté. Particularly impressive is the sequence involving Newt and Jacob (Dan Fogler), the latter lacking magical ability, attempting to track down the whereabouts of an Auror (Katherine Waterston). A spell is cast to retrace the literal steps of their target in addition to the circumstances surrounding this person. The fact that the scene is executed in a calm manner is solid choice because it builds tension. Another example of ace visuals, but of feverish approach, is the opening scene involving the villainous Grindelwald (Johnny Deep) executing a daring escape in the sky as a storm rages on. It takes place at night and it is hard to see in the rain. And yet—we have a complete idea of the events unfolding. The technical mastery of the action scenes cannot be denied. The camera is so alive and the editing is willing to match the beat of the wild dance exploding on screen.
The problem is, when the action dies down, so does the film to an extent. It comes alive somewhat during flashbacks of young Newt and Leta attending Hogwarts. I loved learning about them, especially in how they felt like outcasts as students. This feeling did not disappear as they became adults. It evolved and, in a way, their experiences in Hogwarts stuck with them and helped to shape who they are. It is these moments that “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald,” directed by David Yates, manages to capture the essence of Rowling’s excellent Potter series. The human drama creates more intrigue than the politics—just as exploring Harry and his friends’ relationships is more interesting than having to defeat Voldermort.
Despite its shortcomings, I remain interested in what is going to happen. There is a surprising revelation during the closing minutes involving Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller) and his quest for discovering his biological connections. It is about time that this character moves to the center because he has been running around since the predecessor with little progress, if any. He is beginning to feel like decoration. This, too, can be attributed to the screenplay: it lacks efficiency and urgency. Things that can be accomplished in five minutes are stretched to fifteen. Clearly, a film is not a novel, vice-versa. Given that this series will only grow larger in scope and ambition, I hope that a more effective screenwriter will be taken aboard.
★ / ★★★★
As the minutes trickle away, especially after the murder of interest, it begins to feel blatantly obvious that the material does not know where to go. At times it appears as though “Gemini,” written and directed by Aaron Katz, wishes to be a film noir. When it no longer feels like wearing this suit, it goes for a standard murder mystery. And all the while it wishes to make a statement about Los Angeles and its celebrity culture: the agents, assistants, superfans, paparazzi, and those involved in making movies; it is a mess and by the end, the viewer no longer cares about the answers it provides—probably because those experienced with mysteries have long figured out its endgame.
The assistant who investigates her client’s murder, an actress (Zoë Kravitz) whose career is currently red hot, is played by Lola Kirke, sporting a mannequin-like facial expression almost throughout the entire picture. To me, she delivers an interesting performance because it appears as though Jill is sleepwalking after the trauma of coming across her friend’s corpse. But the screenplay fails to give an intriguing performance any support. Naturally, the assistant is the number one suspect from the perspective of a detective (John Cho) who is assigned to the case.
There is a mechanical pattern to its attempts to increase the tension: Jill enters a hotel room, a house, or a place of business—basically any place where she shouldn’t be—because she is following a lead. The threat is almost always someone potentially finding out about what she is up to. What if the killer is the person whom she least suspects and he or she happens to be nearby? The formula exasperates rather than entertains the viewer because there is no variation in the expected beats. With a running time of less than ninety minutes, breezy for a mystery-thriller, it still drags.
Notice how the dialogue sounds so overwritten. When there is conflict between two characters, one of them suddenly begins to sound like the writer typing the dialogue and trying to make exchanges sound intense instead of actually being in the moment and embracing its messy intensity. And because we notice that the character and the words he employs does not sound like himself within moments of great friction, we are taken out of the moment. Thus, the drama comes across as false and occasionally laughable.
It is clear that the picture’s strength is its visuals. There are moments, especially scenes that unfold at night, when Los Angeles looks like an underworld of darkness and neon lights. Perhaps the only element missing is an eighties soundtrack. But kaleidoscopic visuals do not make an intriguing or ingenious mystery. The writer-director must have a screenplay so sharp that by its opening scenes its claws have us by the throat and never let up. There is no surprise to be had here, just a whole lot of boredom.
Good Kill (2014)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Although a member of the U.S. Air Force, Major Thomas Egan (Ethan Hawke) has not been on a plane as a fighter pilot for years. Instead, he is a part of the Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle (UCAV) stationed in Nevada, controlling drones from halfway across the world. Already unhappy with where his career has ended up, he begins to question whether it is morally right to keep performing his job after the CIA becomes a significant part of his unit’s missions.
Written and directed by Andrew Niccol, “Good Kill” tells an unexpectedly engaging portrait of a man who controls military drones while sitting in an air-conditioned shipping container in the middle of a desert. This is due to a powerful and focused screenplay that highlights the impersonalization of war from several angles. During the film, we are forced to ask ourselves: If we are given the chance to kill someone, for whatever reason or none at all, from halfway across the world—to watch them die, to observe their burnt and crumpled bodies, likely to be in pieces, can we do it?
Hawke has a gift for playing characters with clipped wings. In Niccol’s modern science fiction classic “Gattaca,” Hawke plays a man who dreams of visiting space but is restricted from doing so because he is genetically imperfect. Only the best of the best are able to go up there. Here, he plays a man who wishes to pilot a fighter plane once again but technology has gotten so advanced over the years that it is deemed there is no need to take such unnecessary risks. Instead, he sits behind a computer as if he were a kid playing a video game—the key difference being that every action he takes has real-life, very often fatal, consequences.
Just about every scene hinges on Hawke’s body language. Major Egan is a quiet man. Even when he speaks, his words tend to say very little, much to the frustration of his wife (January Jones). Thus, it depends on us to observe closely what his body is saying given a situation. For instance, notice how he walks toward the shipping container where he is required to do a job he detests. He looks fatigued, dejected. He might as well have weights tied around his ankles. When at home, his eyes are rarely present, always staring at something very far away—as if in mourning of the man he used to be.
Hawke builds a dramatic gravity through body language, a task not at all easy to accomplish. This is proven by his co-star, Jones, who is by far the worst performer on screen. Just about everything she does looks forced and fake: the looks of worry, the tears, the feelings of abandonment. When she is on screen, the material drags a bit—a stark contrast against Hawke’s subtle and effective performance. While Jones is beautiful physically, it is a challenge to relate to her thoroughly because of her inauthentic acting.
Appropriately, the film is at its most powerful during the missile strikes. We watch the monitor closely as we hear the characters perform checks and countdowns. We look at the people being targeted. We look at the surroundings. Complications happen. Mistakes cannot be taken back. Unlike a video game, you cannot simply push a button and restart from the last save point. Instead, you take the dire mistakes with you and they fester in the mind.
Beware the Gonzo (2010)
★★ / ★★★★
It has always been Eddie’s (Ezra Miller) dream to attend Columbia University. In order for him to have a chance of even being considered, he needs an extracurricular activity on his transcript. It is the beginning of senior year and Gavin (Jesse McCartney), the editor of the school paper, is handing out assignments for the first issue. Eddie wants to write about something extreme like the unhappiness of the students in their prep school, but Gavin simply wants a nice “Welcome back!” message. Eddie insists that fire is what the newspaper needs. Due to his insubordination, Eddie is kicked out of the paper. Passionate about writing and telling his readers the truth, he decides to team up with fellow outcasts (Edward Gelbinovich, Griffin Newman, Stefanie Y. Hong) to create “The Gonzo Files,” an underground newspaper that functions as direct competition to Gavin’s “The Courier.”
Written and directed by Bryan Goluboff, “Beware the Gonzo” starts off as a sharp and witty satire about high school students, faculties, and the bureaucracies that shape the frustration and desperation within a social ecosystem. There is a sense of excitement as the characters clandestinely hold meetings in a local diner, discuss the newspaper’s purposes, and how it should look. With the help of Elvie (Zoë Kravitz), a girl with a reputation of being wanton, they are able to create a website as a supplement to the paper. Meanwhile, Eddie takes on the role of the leader.
As the success of their project spread around the school like wildfire, the picture reaches a creative zenith. The reactions of the students that are featured, directly through pictures or indirectly through text, are absolutely hilarious to watch. The videos posted on the website push the revelations that much further. We can almost feel the students’ insecurities leaking through their pores. With such polemical issues brought up by the paper, the majority compliment Eddie and his team for their boldness and honesty while some are, to say the least, threatened.
This is the point where the material should have gone for the jugular. Instead of going for the easy romance between Eddie and Evie, which, by the way, softens the satirical jab, why not explore Gavin’s reaction to his rival’s success? While Gavin is eventually given the chance to express how he really feels, it is pushed toward the back half of the movie. There is no good reason for this. It is most inopportune because not only is Gavin’s delayed reaction unrealistic, it obstructs the film’s brisk pacing.
The writer-director’s decision to sandwich the romance between the release of the paper and Gavin’s desperation to come out on top is to actively look away from serious issues like bullying, plagiarism, and apathy. Also, I would like to have seen more of Eddie’s parents (Campbell Scott, Amy Sedaris). The father seems to understand what his son is fighting for, while the mother focuses on her son getting into college. For the latter, if it means being a harpy while at the dinner table so that Eddie will understand her point of view, then so be it. I enjoyed their scenes because I know a lot of parents like Eddie’s mom, some exponentially scarier. Thankfully, my parents are more like Eddie’s dad: understanding but assertive.
“Beware the Gonzo” shows wit and intelligence when it focuses on the satire. However, when it turns its attention to the unnecessary romance, it feels forced and second rate.
It’s Kind of a Funny Story (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★
Craig (Keir Gilchrist) was feeling suicidal so he decided to check himself into a mental clinic. He hoped that the doctors would give him a magical quick fix for the troubles that plagued his mind. After meeting Bobby (Zach Galifianakis) and several patients, he decided that it wasn’t the right place for him. But tough luck because the hospital, led by Dr. Minerva (Viola Davis), had a policy of keeping voluntary check-ins for at least five days. “It’s Kind of a Funny Story,” written and directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, was a strangely moving coming-of-age film. We weren’t always sure whether Craig was truly clinically depressed or he was just going through the motions of being a teenager. We have different emotional tunings but we all went through a time in our lives when every single challenge seemed insurmountable, that our parents (Lauren Graham, Jim Gaffigan) cared more about their jobs or our siblings than they did about us, and that our friends (Zoë Kravitz , Thomas Mann) didn’t always have our backs. It was a sensitive time and we had a tendency to interpret every opportunity as a chance for failure. The hyperboles felt painful and real. The film was aware of all those factors. It had a sense of humor but it remained respectful of its subjects. Instead of going for the easy laughs like making fun of a person who happened to have schizophrenia or had suicidal tendencies, it remained focused on Craig struggles and discovery that maybe he should be thankful for being smart, talented and, indeed, even cool and charming without losing his sensitive nature. More importantly, especially since the rate of teenagers being on medication is on the rise, the movie had an important message. That is, it’s natural to feel overwhelmed once in a while. It’s better that we care about our future than to simply ride the tide. We may not like where the tide takes us. I found Gilchrist’s acting to be quite effective. In the first ten minutes, he convinced me that his character was miltidimensional without resulting to being quirky. I saw a lot of myself in him because of his proclivity to internalize everything and interpret that as some sort of strength. Both of us can at times be blind to the fact that turning to a support system is a sign of strength, too. I also enjoyed watching Galifianakis because he played a new character. Instead of being a manic five-year-old, he was solemn and more controlled yet capable of expressing devastating rage. But his bouts of rage weren’t played for laughs because the material wanted to take institutionalization and recuperation seriously. Based on Ned Vizzini’s novel, “It’s Kind of a Funny Story” took its audiences through a humanistic approach in understanding Craig. His troubles may seem small to us adults (like the pressure he felt from his father’s insistence that he applied for a summer program) but we all have days when we feel like we can’t go on. But one day we just wake up and it turns out we can.
Greatest, The (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
When Bennett Brewer (Aaron Johnson) died in a car accident, his girlfriend (Carey Mulligan) knocked on his grieving family’s (Pierce Brosnan, Susan Sarandon, Johnny Simmons) door, told them that she was pregnant, and had nowhere else to go. The film focused on grief: the father internalized his anger and sadness so that the family would not collapse, the mother was obsessed with her son’s last seventeen minutes of life and held the belief that her son would still be alive if it was not for his girlfriend, while the son turned to drugs and grief counseling. The movie grabbed my attention because I thought it would be more about the unwed mother’s struggle in trying to cope with her situation. I was pleasantly surprised that she was generally happy with her situation and the only thing she craved was more information about the father of her baby. I was impressed with the way the picture balanced the four main characters and their styles of coping. Instead of going for the jugular and simply letting the audiences feel sorry for them, sometimes the characters said certain things that were hateful but we remind ourselves that they needed closure in order to feel right again. However, I found certain missteps especially toward the last fifteen minutes. When Brosnan’s character finally opened up, something did not feel quite right. That scene begged for a retake because it felt forced. Yes, he managed to internalize (with elegance) negative emotions throughout the film but I had a difficult time believing that he coincidentally opened up because the movie was coming to a close and his wife finally realized the truth. It felt contrived, almost too soap opera-like, and it stood out to me in a negative way because I thought the rest was consistently convincing. Another issue I had was the son’s connection with the girl (Zoë Kravitz) whose sister committed suicide. It fell flat because the latter’s performance felt too Disney Channel and I caught myself rolling my eyes when she was on screen. Maybe it would have worked if an actress that had been casted was used to playing with her character’s subtleties. Written and directed by Shana Feste, what I loved most about “The Greatest” was its earnest honesty despite some scenes that were not completely convincing. It had enough insight about people going through different stages of grief. I also loved it when Brosnan and Sarandon lashed out at each other in passive-aggressive ways just as much as I loved observing Mulligan’s elegance and Simmons’ potential to become a versatile actor. Ultimately, I wished it had more scenes of lingering camera work where the characters in frame did not say a word, such as the daring scene in the limousine after the burial.