‘Fantastic Beasts’ casts a big ‘meh!’, while ‘Widows’ conjures up the real magic
Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald (Rated B)
Cast: Eddie Redmayne, Johnny Depp, Jude Law, Zoe Kravitz
And poof… the magic is gone!
Following the successful initial installment of the 2016 “Harry Potter” prequel series, “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them”, it seemed the future was bright for what felt like a “Harry Potter for adults”.
But alas, the follow-up, “The Crimes of Grindelwald”, is a ponderous, burdensome loaf of film, stripped of almost everything that made this tale in the “wizarding world” magical in the first place, retreading themes that we surely exhausted with the original Harry Potter series.
In the film, in an effort to thwart Grindelwald’s plans of raising pure-blood wizards to rule over all non-magical beings, Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law) enlists his former student Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), who agrees to help, unaware of the dangers that lie ahead. Lines are drawn as love and loyalty are tested, even among the truest friends and family, in an increasingly divided wizarding world.
Again, all that made the first movie special – Redmayne’s whimsicalness, the budding romances, the discovery of the new “fantastic beasts” – is greatly diminished and downplayed. We barely see Redmayne, as he’s sharing the screen with so many new additions, including Law, Johnny Depp as the evil Grindelwald and Ezra Miller (“Justice League”).
An even bigger issue is, like all middle chapters in a film series, this one seems to be biding time, saving the future significant action for whatever comes next. And clearly, there’s a lot more coming next.
But if you liked the final few installments in the Harry Potter film series – the darkness and bleakness of it all, then “The Crimes of Grindelwald” may be just your thing.
However, if you believe, as I do, that the series peaked with “The Prisoner of Azkaban” and “Goblet of Fire”, and was more “magical” on its ascent to that peak, then this film may be the greatest crime of all.
Widows (Rated C)
Cast: Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki, Liam Neeson
Genre: Crime, Mystery
It’s often when you’re not expecting much that the magic tricks really blow you away.
And so, it’s not the wizards or witches providing the screen magic this week, but instead the “Widows” – a surprisingly complex drama about some incredibly bad people, with shocking twists and turns. It delves deep into politics and the violent world of organized crime, and how they are often intertwined.
The story is set in one of the most (allegedly) corrupt cities in the U.S., but you may swear you know some of these characters personally.
A police shootout leaves four thieves dead during an explosive armed robbery attempt in Chicago. Their widows — Veronica, Linda, Alice and Belle — have nothing in common except a debt left behind by their spouses’ criminal activities. Hoping to forge a future on their own terms, Veronica joins forces with the other three women to pull off a heist that her husband was planning.
Based on a 1980s British TV series of the same name, “Widows” feels like a TV-show. That’s a compliment! It’s blessed with timing, pacing and character development more in-line with a high-quality television series than a movie with such a large cast.
Credit the brilliant directing and writing team for this achievement. Academy Award winner Steve McQueen (“12 Years a Slave”) directs, and co-wrote the screenplay with Gillian Flynn, who wrote the screenplay for her bestselling book “Gone Girl” – the captivating suspense thriller brought to the big screen one year after “12 Years a Slave” in 2014.
With such a dream team at the helm, even a high school acting troupe could have been propelled to deliver the performances of their lives.
So imagine what happens in the hands of one of the most impressive collection of actors this year!
This embarrassment of riches includes Oscar winners Viola Davis and Robert Duvall; Oscar nominees Liam Neeson and Daniel Kaluuya; Emmy nominees Carrie Coon and Brian Tyree Henry; and Garret Dillahunt, Elizabeth Debicki, Cynthia Erivo and Michelle Rodriguez.
The entire cast is amazing. But there are some standouts: Kaluuya, whom we all loved in last year’s “Get Out”, plays the very worst of all the very terrible people here. Debicki, as one of the widows, steals every scene she’s in. Duvall and Farrell are a fascinating father-son combo.
But most of all, this is The Viola Davis Show. She seems incapable of not producing excellence in any performance, and here she shines in a multi-layered role that’s similar but not wacky like the over-the-top character that won her an Emmy on TV series “How to Get Away with Murder”.
If one were to sit down and watch “Widows” again and again, one might be able to pick it apart over tiny little issues here and there. But in the absence of nitpicking, this is a fascinating character study, from beginning to end, and a completely engrossing and satisfying mystery and thriller.
Dwight Strachan is the host/producer of “Morning Blend” on Guardian Radio and station manager. He is a television producer and writer, and an avid TV history and film buff. Email firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on twitter @morningblend969