FANTASTIC BEASTS: THE CRIMES OF GRINDELWALD
There's a little something for everyone in the adventure fantasy Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald – and that's kind of the problem. Serving as both prequel and appendage to her Harry Potter series, screenwriter J.K. Rowling's continuation of her latest wizard saga boasts plenty of random pleasures, including some nifty visuals, a couple of cheerful comic turns, and a scarily resonant sequence suggesting a Rowling-ized Nuremberg rally. Yet this second installment in a planned five-part franchise – one that began with 2016's Fantastic Beasts & Where to Find Them – is still so wildly overstuffed with incident and exposition, and so distractingly focused on The Bigger Picture, that it barely gives us a chance to admire its many lovely fringe touches. There may be a little for everyone here, but taken overall, there's not a lot for anyone.
Then again, there won't really be an “overall” until the series presumably ends in 2024, and it's presently hard to imagine who besides Rowling fanatics and paid film critics will have the patience to stick around 'til then. Amusing and gorgeously designed though it was, I was no huge fan of the original Fantastic Beasts, nor of Chris Columbus' first two outings in Harry Potter's cinematic universe. But they at least felt, to a large degree, self-contained; you could leave your screenings satisfied (or not) that their stories were completely told, even if sequels were no doubt in the offing. The Crimes of Grindelwald, however, doesn't feel self-contained in the least. It opens with a prison break involving the 2016 movie's chief villain and closes with the requisite bunch of cliffhangers, and the lingering mood is already so dark and portentous that it doesn't feel like we're in a second Fantastic Beasts so much as a sixth or seventh. Would it have killed Rowling and director David Yates to give us even one more entry in which to enjoy Newt Scamander's suitcase monsters and the comically inspired pairing of Dan Fogler and Alison Sudol before propelling us so forcefully into anxiety and misery? We've barely been introduced to these figures, and already they're being treated as afterthoughts.
Most of the movie's plotting leans toward the grim, with the fey, twitchy “magizoologist” Newt (Eddie Redmayne) assigned to uncover the identity of the angrily tortured youth Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller), and the escaped evil wizard Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) planning to end the 100-year peace between his “pure-blood” kind and non-Magi by forever eliminating the latter. And those seeking further bummers for their bucks will certainly find them: Zoë Kravitz's melancholy Leta Lestrange haunted by a devastating secret; William Nadylam's dour Yusuf Kama insistent on killing Credence; Katherine Waterston's perpetually teary cleric Tina Goldstein thinking that Newt, and not Newt's brother, was the Scamander who got married while she was away. (Rowling has, of course, delivered no end of narrative wonders over the years, but this direct steal from the emotional climax of Sense & Sensibility isn't one of them.) Yet thankfully, as Yates' latest runs a traditionally Rowling-y 135 minutes, there is a bit of time allotted for diversions.
Although they're nowhere near as prevalent as they were in 2016, the fantastic beasts of the title continue to be worthy of their collective adjective. We're treated to the sight of a magnificent sea creature that appears to be composed entirely of kelp, as well as something called a Zouwu, which manages to simultaneously resemble a serpent, a kitty, and the adorable Toothless from How to Train Your Dragon. There are also squeaky-toy monsters and a platypus-looking thing that sniffs for scents like a bloodhound, plus a diminutive being that sails through the air, joyously, on the popped cork of a champagne bottle. I was grateful that significant time was spent, in flashback, at Rowling's literary home turf of Hogwarts, partly because Jude Law was so sensationally relaxed and charming as a young Dumbledore, and partly because the antics involving all those robed teens were a blessed break from the gloom of 1927 New York, London, and Paris. (In one of the more winning throwaway bits, a younger version of Maggie Smith's Professor McGonagall magically removes the mouth of a whiny-chatterbox student ... and the poor girl had just gotten her mouth back.) And again, this series' most bewitching humans – Dan Fogler's Muggle Jacob Kowalski and Alison Sudol's telepathic Queenie Goldstein – emerge as the series' light-comedy MVPs. Mooning over one another and playfully bickering with genuine affection, the blissfully sweet and funny Fogler and Sudol are a dream of a romantic pairing: Guys & Dolls' Nathan Detroit and Miss Adelaide if they weren't allowed to sing.
You don't get much opportunity, though, to enjoy Fogler's and Sudol's chemistry, or the legions of fascinating Rowling critters, because this Fantastic Beasts keeps going to exquisite lengths to remind us that it has bigger fish to fry. So instead we get the apolitical man-child Newt forever dithering over “choosing a side,” which leads to Redmayne overdoing his tic-laden shtick to even more annoying effect. (Please, God, let no one ever decide to cast Redmayne as Hamlet.) We get Depp, looking like a sun-deprived Julian Assange, giving somnolent readings that are meant to be sinister. We get halfhearted backstory for Grindelwald's and Dumbledore's relationship that implies, with an admittedly admirable lack of subtlety, a youthful gay romance that went tragically, disastrously wrong. Even less subtly, we get an assemblage of complicit, if hypnotized, wizards at a packed European stadium agreeing to annihilate their human neighbors, consequently rendering innocent spectators into floating black ash. (This segment would be more powerfully suggestive of Hitler's rise to power and the Holocaust if it wasn't more accurately suggestive of Avengers: Infinity War.) And we're left with mounting senses of unease and despair that would be easier to stomach if we knew relief was a mere movie away, and not three movies away. The Crimes of Grindelwald – and what a terrible, instantly forgettable subtitle that is – features instances of joy and delight. Viewed through the film as a whole, though, you practically need an electron microscope to see them.
From the opening repartee between leads Mark Wahlberg and Rose Byrne to the midsection clogged with sentiment and slapstick to the finale that finds almost every member of its enormous cast crammed into a courtroom for smiling-through-tears uplift accompanied by (oh God ...) Starship's “Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now,” you can predict nearly every comedic, dramatic, and even musical beat in every nanosecond of Instant Family. Mind you, though, that shouldn't necessarily dissuade you from seeing it. Because if we're destined to get one or two of these predictable, heart-tugging releases every holiday season, and history suggests we are, we could certainly do worse than writer/director Sean Anders' semi-autobiographical tale of childless, well-to-do whites who become foster parents to a trio of Latino siblings. It's shmaltzy; it's cornball; it's relentlessly Hollywood. But it's also sweet and charming and in many ways shockingly honest, and when you have dinner-party guests like the ones gathered here, it doesn't much matter if the entree is overcooked so long as the conversation keeps flowing.
Anders previously directed Wahlberg in the two Daddy's Home comedies, and the blithe, fast-talking actor is so surface-level here that he appears to think he starring in a third one. But thankfully, Byrne, who matches Wahlberg in speed and timing, is a much stronger, more emotionally accessible performer, and carries the weight of the new parents' confusion and frustration without misplacing her funny bone. At her best, as when her harried foster mom tries to goad her sleepy son into calling her “Mommy,” Byrne can get you to laugh and well up in the same breath, and that proves to be a useful talent whenever the script (co-written by John Morris) takes a few moments to address the painful realities of foster parenting, especially in scenes with the similarly gifted Isabela Moner. Portraying a troubled 15-year-old with impressive frankness and wit, Moner (Wahlberg's tag-along ally in Transformers: The Last Knight) adds a necessary jolt of teenage truthfulness to the movie's largely cartoon sensibility, and she's nicely matched with Gustavo Quiroz and Julianna Gamiz as her pre-teen brother and sister; between the four of them, Byrne and her young co-stars almost succeed in humanizing Mark Wahlberg, which is by no means an insignificant feat.
To our great benefit, though, Instant Family is overflowing with friendly and sincere participants: Octavia Spencer and Tig Notaro, hilarious and sensible as foster-parent social workers; Margo Martindale as Wahlberg's brashly loving mother; Michael O'Keefe and the great, much-missed Julie Hagerty as Byrne's less grounded folks; Tom Segura, Allyn Rachel, and Britt Rentschler as assorted other familial eccentrics. Even Joan Cusack (speaking of eccentrics) shows up in the final minutes, and proves as weirdly welcome as she is totally superfluous. The film's saccharine trailers should tell you right away whether you want to see Anders' sit-com movie or run screaming from it, but those of you in the latter camp should know that it's not worth the screams. It might, if you're feeling generous, even be worth a look.
THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS
Every Coen-brothers movie is worth seeing. (Mic drop.) Most of them are worth seeing many times over. So in the interest of your patience regarding my thoughts on Joel and Ethan's Wild West anthology The Ballad of Buster Scruggs – which debuted on Netflix over the weekend and is presented as a series of tales in an old-timey picture book – let me simply go through the frequency in which I'll be re-watching its six individualized segments, roughly ordered from “another time or two” to “I'll eventually lose track.”
Story two: “Near Algodones.” James Franco plays a dimwitted bank robber who runs afoul of Stephen Root and other folks longin' for his hangin'. It's the shortest of the film's sextet, and also its slightest narratively, symbolically, and as a nasty good time. But Root, jabbering away in one of his peerless Coen-brothers turns, is amazing. And while Franco is unmemorable, he's given a beauty of a late-film punchline that almost makes the whole thing worthwhile.
Story four: “All Gold Canyon.” A grizzled, white-haired Tom Waits searches, and searches, and searches for gold in a mountain-valley stream. As in all six segments, the cinematography (by Bruno Delbonnel) and music (by Coen veteran Carter Burwell) are astounding, making it easier to ignore the languorous storytelling and underwhelming finale. But also: Tom Waits. That's plenty.
Story one: “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.” The title's happy-go-lucky singing cowboy, played by Tim Blake Nelson, kills with abandon in between crooning gentle Western ditties and breaking the fourth wall to address the audience. It's sometimes really funny and sometimes really (enjoyably) bloody. Clancy Brown and David Krumholtz show up. Its last five minutes made me so antsy with excitement for the rest of the movie that I almost couldn't stand it. I dunno, though. I'm kind of so over Tim Blake Nelson.
Story three: “Meal Ticket.” Carnival impesario Liam Neeson hauls around an armless, legless young man (Harry Melling) with a penchant for poetry from one group of onlookers to the ever-less-interested next. It's more repetitive than I was hoping it would be. But Neeson and Melling are fantastic, as is the visual trickery required to make you believe the Harry Potter movies' Dudley Dursley lost his limbs. And I loved how the tale's overwhelming sadness snuck up on me through both the famed-author recitations and one of the Coens' most diabolical camera zooms: a slow creep forward to the limbless man's inevitable replacement. The last three minutes of this one hurt.
Story six: “The Mortal Remains.” In what sounds like the setup to a joke, a gnarly fur trapper, a stately lady, and a French nihilist converse in a stagecoach. It turns out it is a joke, a cosmic one, and it's on them. It's all funny and scary and, in its way, deeply profound, and ends – after some additional verbiage and crooning from the stagecoach's resident Irishman and Englishman – with one of the more resonant final images in the Coen canon. Huge props to castmates Tyne Daly, Brendan Gleeson, Jonjo O'Neill, Saul Rubinek, and Chelcie Ross, who should (but won't) be in deserving recognition of a Best Ensemble prize at the next SAG Awards.
Story five: “The Gal Who Got Rattled.” A sensible young woman (Zoe Kazan) and her older brother (Jefferson Mays) travel on a wagon train to Oregon, and after the brother dies, the woman has a few choices to make. This one encompasses practically a third of the feature film's running time, and is worth absolutely every minute spent with it. I would've happily paid to see a two-hour version. Suffice it to say it's everything that The Ballad for Buster Scruggs, in its entirety and at its best, frequently is – bold, bloody, riotous, tragic, haunting, mesmerizing, and, sometimes, emotionally mean as hell – in one convenient, unforgettable package. In the hushed yet longing rapport between Kazan's traveler and Bill Heck's wagon-train leader, “The Gal Who Got Rattled” is also something that no previous Coen-brothers outing has ever before been: legitimately, sweepingly romantic. In a movie of miracles, that's easily the biggie.
For reviews of Widows and Can You Ever Forgive Me?, visit “Anything They Can Steal We Can Steal Better.”