Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald

Genre: Fantasy

Director: David Yates

Screenplay: J.K. Rowling

Cast: Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler, Zoe Kravitz, Alison Sudol, Ezra Miller, Callum Turner, Claudia Kim, William Nadylam, Poppy Corby-Tuech, Kevin Guthrie, Brontis Jodorowsky, Victoria Yeates, Jude Law, Johnny Depp

Running Length: 133 minutes

Synopsis: At the end of the first film, the powerful Dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) was captured by MACUSA (Magical Congress of the United States of America), with the help of Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne). But, making good on his threat, Grindelwald escaped custody and has set about gathering followers, most unsuspecting of his true agenda: to raise pure-blood wizards up to rule over all non-magical beings. In an effort to thwart Grindelwald’s plans, Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law) enlists his former student Newt Scamander, 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.

Review: So here we are, waist deep in the new (sub?)franchise of Fantastic Beasts, with two movies done and (purportedly) three more to go, and there’s this unshakeable sense that the franchise is somewhat in the woods. While excuses can be given for the slightly faltering first film in 2016 – since it requires not just an understanding of the Harry Potter universe, but also require new world-building from Rowling herself – this second movie should have been the one where the franchise finally hits its stride, and we find ourselves whisked away on an amazing journey back in the Wizarding World. Unfortunately, that’s not really the case – and no, I’m not referring to what Newt Scamander is housing his menagerie of beasts in.

There’s no denying that J.K. Rowling is a master storyteller, and her Harry Potter novels and movies have enthralled millions for a reason. However, with Fantastic Beasts, and in particular The Crimes of Grindelwald, she seems to have fallen into the same trap as George Lucas, stuffing the movies full of Wizarding World minutia that honestly even the hardcore fans would find trouble following, and crushing the film under the sheer weight of subplot after subplot after subplot. The most frustrating element of The Crimes of Grindlewald is that it cannot stand alone as a feature movie, and only works when seen as being a chapter in an as-yet incomplete movie consisting of five parts.

Despite running a rather long 133 minutes, much of The Crimes of Grindelwald is simply moving chess pieces around, setting up a bigger story that fails to percolate or conclude meaningfully in this installment, leaving the film feeling even emptier and more incomplete than its predecessor. The storylines are also not easy to follow, and in one instance, Rowling actually leads audiences down one narrative and then literally gets another character to say “but wait, something else actually happened!” It’s largely unnecessary and coupled with the labyrinthine construction of links back to the larger Harry Potter universe, makes the viewing experience of The Crimes of Grindelwald in turns confusing and taxing. And since Rowling is the sole screenwriter credited for the screenplay, the blame really falls squarely on her shoulders.

It also doesn’t help that the central characters in this universe are actually less engaging than the “minor” players – the trio of Redmayne’s Newt Scamander, Depp’s Gellert Grindelwald and Ezra Miller’s Creedence Barebone are uninteresting and flat in terms of performance, and in this installment even the fantastic beasts come off as being rather one-dimensional. What does help is that some of the new additions to the cast fare better, notably Zoe Kravitz’s spirited performance as Leta Lestrange, as well as Jude Law’s youthful take on Albus Dumbeldore (and carrying off a waistcoat far better than most people could). Returning favourites Queenie (Alison Sudol) and Jacob (Dan Fogler) continue to be delightful characters to watch, but unfortunately get very little screen time this installment.

Visually, however, The Crimes of Grindelwald is definitely one of the better looking films of the year. It is clear that a lot of thought has been put into making the 3D viewing experience a positive one, with 3D effects at times even seemingly extending beyond film’s borders (this isn’t something I’ve ever observed prior to this film). There are also plenty of visual effects that pack a punch, even though it really is par for the course these days. However, visual pizzazz can only do so much, and while The Crimes of Grindelwald is a guaranteed box office success, one wonders how much longer the Harry Potter goodwill will last if the films continue to be so lackluster.

Rating: * * ½ (out of four stars)



A Wrinkle in Time

Genre: Sci-Fi, Fantasy

Director: Ava DuVernay

Screenplay: Jennifer Lee, based on the novel by Madeleine L’Engle

Cast: Storm Reid, Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon, Mindy Kaling, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Michael Peña, Zach Galifianakis, Chris Pine, Levi Miller, Deric McCabe, André Holland, Rowan Blanchard

Running Length: 109 minutes

Synopsis: After the disappearance of her scientist father, three peculiar beings send Meg (Storm Reid), her brother Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe), and her friend Calvin (Levi Miller) to space in order to find him.

Review: A Wrinkle in Time is a mixed bag – while it’s a high budget (over US$100 million) remake of the beloved novel and checks off many boxes in the diversity checklist (black female director, racially diverse casting choices), a very unevenly developed storyline, wooden performances and sporadically subpar visual effects detract significantly from the film. It’s undoubtedly still entertaining and should appeal somewhat to the YA and younger demographic, but it’s hard to imagine audiences being enthused enough to recommend this film to friends and family, unlike, for example, Disney’s immensely successful (and still running) Black Panther.

It would always be a challenge to adapt Madeleine L’Engle’s novel for the big screen due to the massive number of ideas and plot threads L’Engle had placed in a relatively short novel, and even with the deep pockets of this film’s production budget, the end result is hit and miss. The Christian subtext has been gutted from the screenplay, and a rather pivotal character (Aunt Beast) has been excised entirely, and even the villain’s appearance and methods have been altered somewhat. What does remain is thus even more confusing, and character motivations come across as being very muddled. While Storm Reid does a decent job as a Meg Murry, the same cannot be said of the remainder of the cast – Deric McCabe in particular is landed with a thankless role of trying to be a precocious child prodigy (but ends up being more Children of the Corn than anything), and the many famous faces that are in the film end up being celebrity cameos that bring nothing to the plate.

Some of the worlds that the ensemble “tesser” to are indeed gorgeous works of art (as are some of the crazy outfits that the Mrs Ws wear), but then there are also sequences where it just feels like the production ran out of budget to complete the CG work, none more egregious than the protracted (and ultimately unnecessary) visit to the Happy Medium (unfortunately played by a rather miscast Zach Galiafianakis), which is so terribly rendered it looked like a stage production more than a location in a film that cost many millions to make.

Most frustratingly, however, is how all the storytelling and world-building ends up for naught. The denouement of A Wrinkle in Time lacks any form of true coherence and concludes the film on a whimper, leaving many questions unanswered and most audiences who haven’t read the novel prior feeling puzzled and underwhelmed. It really is a darn shame, because there are moments where it almost seems like the film is destined for greatness, but it just falls short on so many levels that all it can do is be a somewhat entertaining diversion for a couple of hours.

Rating: * * (out of four stars)


Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Genre: Fantasy

Director: David Yates

Screenplay: J.K. Rowling

Cast: Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler, Alison Sudol, Ezra Miller, Samantha Morton, Jon Voight, Carmen Ejogo, Colin Farrell

Running Length:  133 minutes

Synopsis: Based on a textbook Harry Potter reads while at Hogwarts, this first film in a new prequel franchise of the Harry Potter universe is set in New York during the 1920s, and follows the adventures of Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) as he makes his way through a secret wizarding community in search of magical creatures.

Review: 5 years has passed since the eighth and “final” movie in the Harry Potter universe made it to the big screens, but there really was no doubt that the Potterverse was too lucrative to be left alone. Not long after, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them was announced, set 70 years prior to the events that unfolded in the original Harry Potter franchise. It has since been revealed that this would be the first of five movies, and while this is a good thing for fans, I had reservations – the Harry Potter films to me were a highly functional (read: $$$) but a decidedly average franchise. Would Fantastic Beasts fare any better? The answer is – yes and no.

The Harry Potter films got gradually darker as they progressed, but Fantastic Beasts takes it even further. This is easily the darkest film in the Harry Potter universe, and deals not just with multiple character deaths, but also touches on child abuse and bigotry (amongst others), difficult subjects for any film to handle, and even more so for a film that is at least partially targeted at younger viewers. This is probably a conscious decision on J.K. Rowling’s end, since she takes on the screenwriting duties for the first time, and one can somewhat appreciate the fact that she chose not to talk down to the audience. This does mean that Fantastic Beasts will not work well as a family film if there are younger children in the mix.

Fantastic Beasts is heavily steeped in Potter-speak, and a newcomer to the universe would likely feel a bit alienated by the lack of an introduction into the world of wizardry. It is, however, still quite a wonderful universe to be lost in, and David Yates, with his plentiful experience in Harry Potter movies, has managed to bring some conceptually difficult sequences to life. The highlight of the show is definitely the myriad fantastic beasts featured, and really shows off Rowling’s imagination as a writer. The actors largely do a reasonable job, with Eddie Redmayne seemingly becoming typecast as the awkward, slightly bumbling protagonist (which he plays to the hilt here), but the bigger names in the cast list do nothing more than what amounts to cameo appearances. The only problem is that the beasts boast more personality than the actors, which isn’t something that could be said of the original Harry Potter franchise.

Fantastic Beasts also exposes one of the weaknesses that Rowling has as an author. Every installment of the Harry Potter franchise unfolds in largely similar manners (surprise villain, characters with secrets – good or bad – to hide, and so on), and the same predictability dogs Fantastic Beasts. There is no surprise to be had, and even though the universe is an enchanting one, at times Fantastic Beasts feels like the pilot episode of a drama series, building towards something potentially greater a couple of movies down the line. It remains to be seen whether this new franchise would take off, but given the amount of fan service that Yates and Rowling have offered here, the likelihood of commercial failure seems remote.

Rating: * * * (out of four stars)


Warcraft: The Beginning

Genre: Fantasy

Director: Duncan Jones

Screenplay: Charles Leavitt, Duncan Jones

Cast: Travis Fimmel, Paula Patton, Ben Foster, Dominic Cooper, Toby Kebbell, Ben Schnetzer, Rob Kazinsky, Clancy Brown, Daniel Wu, Ruth Negga, Anna Galvin, Callum Keith Rennie, Burkely Duffield, Ryan Robbins, Dean Redman, Glenn Close

Running Length: 123 minutes

Synopsis: The peaceful realm of Azeroth stands on the brink of war as its civilization faces a fearsome race of invaders: Orc warriors fleeing their dying home to colonize another. As a portal opens to connect the two worlds, one army faces destruction and the other faces extinction. From opposing sides, two heroes are set on a collision course that will decide the fate of their family, their people and their home.

Review: Where to begin…? While Warcraft will hold some appeal for fans of the various games set in the Warcraft universe, it will almost assuredly be a complete miss for anyone who isn’t deeply acquainted with Azeroth and its denizens.

Not only is the film overstuffed with arcane references to the Warcraft universe, there’s little to no effort made in explaining any of it to the audience. Strip away the somewhat decent CG and the strength of the brand name, and what’s left is an overlong film featuring way too many characters that is nothing more than a mediocre entry into the fantasy movie genre. It’s truly hard to imagine how Duncan Jones moved from projects like Moon and Source Code (both rather good, low budget films) to something that feels like a B-movie through and through, despite the big budget spent to produce it.

Very few fantasy movies are able to juggle multiple characters and plotlines well, and it is clear in Warcraft’s case that it is no Lord of the Rings in this aspect. There are so many lead characters and so many different subplots that everything is given short shrift. Nothing and no one is given more than a superficial treatment, and it’s difficult for viewers to feel vested in any single character, when one may not be even able to remember their names until the movie is halfway through. At times it felt like I needed a cheat sheet to make sense of the film’s comings and goings. The film also cuts from scene to scene without much of any segue, serving to muddle things to an even greater extent. That the live-action acting is universally poor (ironically the CG actors do a far better job) doesn’t help matters either.

Apart from the inability to present a coherent or engaging storyline, Warcraft’s steadfast refusal to explain anything in its two-hour plus running time makes for a frustrating viewing experience. What exactly is “fel”? Why is that black chunk of rock that is spinning in the air? Who are those elders with glowing eyes and what exactly do they do? What makes the Guardian a Guardian? Why are there dwarves and elves and other tribes doing absolutely nothing while showing up in the movie? This is coming from someone who has a passing knowledge of Warcraft and World of Warcraft, so I cannot imagine how the viewing experience would be like for someone who is new to the franchise or the genre. Maybe the ambition was to make this a first installment in a newly-minted film franchise, and hence everyone and everything showing up in this movie is merely a precursor to future films; but given how clunky and uninteresting this film has ended up, I somehow doubt that Hollywood would be forgiving enough to give the orcs and humans a second outing.

Rating: * ½ (out of four stars)


The Huntsman: Winter’s War

Genre: Fantasy

Director: Cedric Nicolas-Troyan

Screenplay: Craig Mazin, Evan Spiliotopolous

Cast: Charlize Theron, Emily Blunt, Chris Hemsworth, Jessica Chastain, Nick Frost, Rob Brydon

Running Length: 123 minutes

Synopsis:  Freya the Ice Queen (Emily Blunt) brings her sister Ravenna (Charlize Theron) back to life, and the powerful evil siblings plan to conquer the Enchanted Forest. Only the Huntsman (Chris Hemsworth) and his secret lover Sara (Jessica Chastain) can stop them in this sequel continuing the twist on the Snow White fable.

Review: While Snow White and the Huntsman was a somewhat interesting twist on the classic tale of Snow White, it didn’t really need a sequel or a prequel – but with near $400 million in global box office takings, it was perhaps inevitable that The Huntsman: Winter’s War was green-lit. Unfortunately, it seems almost all the life had been sucked out of the franchise with this second film, and even though the door remains open for yet another sequel, it would certainly take a huge leap of faith for most audience members to revisit this world for a third time.

Strangely, the decision was made to excise Snow White’s presence out from Winter’s War, leading to some rather convoluted storytelling where the film starts several decades prior to the time frame of Snow White and the Huntsman, then awkwardly lurches forward to “seven years later” after what had transpired in the first film. The writers seem to assume that everyone has seen (and remembers) the first film’s plot, however unlikely that might be, and there will be moments in Winter’s War that will not make a lot of sense if one is unacquainted with the previous film.

That Chris Hemsworth is a pretty face (and body) without too much thespian talent has been quite established in his body of work, but in Winter’s War he is particularly unspectacular, taking a back seat in dramatic duties to all the leading women (even the annoying dwarves seem to do better), and absolutely lacking in any romantic chemistry with Jessica Chastain. Chastain herself fares a little better, given a Tauriel-esque character with slightly more depth than Hemsworth’s. Charlize Theron hams it up and thus steals the spotlight from anyone sharing scenes with her, but the film’s true saving grace is Emily Blunt, who chooses not to overact but instead turns Freya into a believably vulnerable and emotionally fragile character, even as she inches ever closer to Ravenna’s darkness. If not for Blunt’s participation, Winter’s War would probably have been much less watchable.

Nicolas Cedric-Troyan is helming his first feature film here, stepping up from visual effects director in Snow White and the Huntsman, and his mastery in visual effects is indeed very clear. The entire film is saturated in visual effects, and some of them are indeed extremely impressive, none more so than the final showdown between the Huntsmen and the two Queens. The costume design by Colleen Atwood is also top notch, especially the various gowns worn by Blunt and Theron. However, the visual beauty of Winter’s War isn’t quite enough to overcome its flaws in character development and storytelling, and there’s certainly nothing on show here that will legitimize a third film in this already stretched-thin franchise.

Rating: * * (out of four stars)



Genre: Fantasy

Director: Kenneth Branagh

Screenplay: Chris Weitz

Cast: Lily James, Cate Blanchett, Richard Madden, Helena Bonham Carter, Holliday Grainger, Sophie McShera

Running Length: 113 minutes

Synopsis: Kenneth Branagh directs Disney’s 2015, live-action take on the classic fairy tale Cinderella, which stars Lily James as Ella, forced to endure a life of labor at the hands of her stepmother (Cate Blanchett) after her father dies unexpectedly. Although forced into a life of a servant and cruelly nicknamed “Cinder-ella”, Ella maintains her good spirits and serendipitously makes the acquaintance of a stranger in the woods, who turns out to be the prince (Richard Madden). When the royal court holds a gala ball, Cinderella wants nothing more to attend, and although her stepmother won’t allow it, she gets help from a surprising source.

Review: It’s not easy to turn a well-loved, enduring Disney animation into a live-action movie, but Kenneth Branagh manages to get everything right – this 2015 version of Cinderella not only manages to retain the spirit of the original cartoon, but also adds a little of “something there that wasn’t there before”, quite possibly making it the definitive Cinderella moving forward.

Unlike Maleficent, this is a mostly straight-up adaptation of the 1950 animation, and almost everything that you remember from the animated film is present, but with the new adaptation comes deeper characterization, particularly for the two leads. Ella’s backstory is deepened and she is fleshed out a bit more, and Prince Charming (well, Prince Kit in this version) is not just a pretty face. In fact, a tender deathbed scene with Kit and his father (played by Branagh stalwart Derek Jacobi) is one of the most heartfelt and affecting in the film. Even the evil stepmother (flawlessly portrayed by Cate Blanchett) is made a little more human with a peek into what made her so.

On top of that, Cinderella is an absolutely gorgeous movie to look at from start to finish. Every scene is lush, colourful and packed to the gills with details – this is a movie that really needs to be experienced on the biggest screen possible.  Dante Ferreti’s production design is amazing, and the attention to detail can be seen in nearly every frame of the movie (the gilded carriage is literally a work of art when observed up close). Also, I’ll be extremely surprised if the costumes and jewellery by Sandy Powell do not earn multiple nominations in next year’s awards race, because simply put, they are stunning pieces of work.

Because of these additions, the live-action Cinderella will not only appeal to the children (yes, this is a totally family friendly film, and would be my top pick for the school holidays next week), but also to older viewers. Perhaps the social message of the movie is repeated a little too many times – I’m sure everyone would remember to “have courage and be kind” after the tenth time it’s mentioned – but it’s hard to begrudge a movie that is so well-made and yet remains so accessible to audiences of every age group.  I have to admit that I was initially quite skeptical of the film despite the talent attached to it, but I am now quite the convert.

P.S. The film is preceded by an animated short film, Frozen Fever (yes, THAT Frozen), but unfortunately aside from the fact that the new characters (the Snowgies) are pretty cute, it’s a rather uninspired short film, with a rather bland musical number. I was not impressed but for the children still caught up in Frozen-mania, I’m sure there would be no complaints.

Rating: * * * ½ (out of four stars)


The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

Genre: Fantasy

Director: Peter Jackson

Writers: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson & Guillermo del Toro, based on the novel “The Hobbit” by J. R. R. Tolkien

Cast: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellan, Richard Armitage, Luke Evans, Orlando Bloom, Evangeline Lilly, Lee Pace, Stephen Fry, Cate Blanchett, Hugo Weaving, Christopher Lee, Benedict Cumberbatch (voice)

Running Length: 144 minutes

Synopsis: The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies brings to an epic conclusion the adventures of Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) and the Company of Dwarves. The Dwarves of Erebor have reclaimed the vast wealth of their homeland, but now must face the consequences of having unleashed the terrifying Dragon, Smaug, upon the defenseless men, women and children of Lake-town.

As he succumbs to dragon-sickness, the King Under the Mountain, Thorin Oakenshield, sacrifices friendship and honor in his search for the legendary Arkenstone. Unable to help Thorin see reason, Bilbo is driven to make a desperate and dangerous choice, not knowing that even greater perils lie ahead. An ancient enemy has returned to Middle-earth. Sauron, the Dark Lord, has sent forth legions of Orcs in a stealth attack upon the Lonely Mountain. As darkness converges on their escalating conflict, the races of Dwarves, Elves and Men must decide—unite or be destroyed. Bilbo finds himself fighting for his life and the lives of his friends as five great armies go to war.

Review: By this third installment, it’s safe to say that The Hobbit trilogy is kind of a misnomer, since the titular character doesn’t really factor all that much into the proceedings, made most abundantly clear in this episode, The Battle of the Five Armies. This is a natural outcome of trying to stretch out what is essentially a children’s storybook into a fantasy epic, in an attempt to make The Hobbit trilogy’s breadth and scope similar to the Lord of the Rings trilogy. So much material in the three Hobbit movies aren’t even in the novel that it is moot to discuss the faithfulness of the movie to the source, and not all additions work in the movies’ favour.

That said, The Battle of the Five Armies is easily the best film in the trilogy, far trumping the soporific An Unexpected Journey and an improvement upon the sporadically interesting The Desolation of Smaug. The film opens with Smaug raining fiery destruction on Lake-town, and the CG effects, especially Smaug himself, remain a sight to behold. The action never really lets up from there, culminating in an epic battle sequence lasting more than an hour, with the expansive battle coming close to the best scenes in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Bookended by these two setpieces, The Battle of the Five Armies feels closest to being a complete entity of its own, unlike the two films that came before it, both of which ended very abruptly. There can be a case made for too much CGI as the trilogy progresses, but it’s hard to argue that the end results are very impressive and rightfully lends an epic feel to the sequences. (A side note: HFR 3D remains a little too sharp for my own preferences, but at least the 3D is not entirely redundant in the film, unlike almost every other title that decides to open in 3D.)

It’s no secret that there are plenty of embellishments in The Hobbit trilogy to pad out the thin storyline, even creating characters that were not part of the canon – most notably the female Wood Elf Tauriel. Sure, the interspecies romance between Tauriel and Kili will probably make the film more appealing to a greater number of moviegoers, but it just flat out does not work well as a plot device because it feels so ill-fitted in the Tolkien universe. The decision to include Legolas as more than just a cameo probably stems from the same desire to appeal to a specific fan base, but the action sequences involving Legolas have devolved into near-farce, especially one in which he seems to be in a different movie – Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon perhaps – altogether.

The same can be said of many returning faces, and everyone (save for Gollum) makes an appearance, making it feel almost like some Middle-Earth reunion movie of sorts. However, such extraneous filler also manages to diminish the central plot and character, and much of The Battle of the Five Armies sees Bilbo Baggins being sidelined as a spectator of the proceedings. It’s a shame, because Martin Freeman is excellent in his role, but the audience simply does not get to see enough of him despite it being an almost two-and-a-half-hour movie (for those keeping count, this means the combined running length of The Hobbit trilogy is a whopping 474 minutes).

And so, thirteen years after embarking on a journey to Middle-Earth, Peter Jackson finally concludes his six-film saga with a big (enough) bang. Jackson has stated that there will be no third set of films based on The Silmarillon from him, but one can never be too sure about such things – after all it does seem that rights issues is what’s stopping potential production. When looked upon as a complete body of work or as a part of the entire Middle Earth saga, The Hobbit doesn’t do all that badly (though I still maintain that it should never had become three movies – even the originally planned two-parter was a dubious decision), and is already a qualified box office success even before The Battle of the Five Armies opened. This last movie singlehandedly raises the trilogy to above mediocrity, and whilst The Hobbit never comes close to its predecessor on any level, The Battle of the Five Armies rounds out one of the better film trilogies in recent years, paling only to Christopher Nolan’s superlative Dark Knight trilogy. That’s not to say that the films are without their flaws, but at the very least the journey there and back again has a decent payoff.

Rating: * * * ½ (out of four stars)

Overall Rating for The Hobbit trilogy: * * * (out of four stars)