There are two important movies currently playing. One is in the theater, the negatively reviewed Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald. The other is streaming on Netflix, the Coen brothers’ latest piece, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. Here’s my review of the two.
Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald
I had to see this film twice, because the first time was in a cinema with a terribly dark projection screen, preventing me from appreciating the beauty of Jude Law (Dumbledore) and the actual look and feel of the movie intended by director David Yates (also the director of four Harry Potter movies, as well as Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.)
So I went to see Crimes of Grindelwald again, this time at a brand new cinema with an ultra clear and crisp projection. It felt like seeing the movie for the first time. The visuals were so wonderfully David Yates — washed with a dark, moody palette, with a whisper of secret magic. And because of the crystal-clear projection, I could finally understand what the soft-spoken and mumbling Eddie Redmayne as Newt Scamander was talking about by reading his lips.
Crimes of Grindelwald is the second part of the Fantastic Beasts pentalogy (five movies), and it is a prerequisite to watch the first movie, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, or at least read its plot on Wikipedia before seeing this; otherwise, the movie will be 50 percent gibberish to you.
This second installment, set in the late 1920s, is not about Newt — neither is it about the bad guy Grindelwald (Johnny Depp). It’s all about the hunt for Credence (Ezra Miller), the super powerful, abused orphan wizard who’s on a desperate search for his identity.
So everybody is looking for Credence — Grindelwald, Newt, Dumbledore, the magical cops (Aurors) and a lot more. Credence is accompanied by Nagini, a pretty Korean woman (and Voldemort’s future pet snake) from a wizarding circus. Meanwhile, you are given just bits of insight into Grindelwald’s villainous worldview.
The movie is chiefly expository — revealing lineages, relationships and introducing new and old characters. It is also a prelude to something bigger — therefore, plenty of subdued, cryptic conversations, which might be a challenge to grasp (watching it the second time helped a great deal) and for senior citizens and non-fans to stay awake.
Newt, annoyingly twitchy and whispery, is sidetracked, but it doesn’t really matter as he’s just obviously a tool — a Portkey — for Potterheads to revisit Rowling’s Wizarding World and its expanded universe. But his presence is still welcome, as well as the return of memorable characters, such as the mind-reading Queenie (Alison Sudol) and her Muggle/No-Maj boyfriend Jacob (the excellent, lovable Jacob Fogler) and Newt’s love interest, Tina (Katherine Waterston).
Yates is the Christopher Nolan of the Harry Potter-Fantastic Beasts movies. What Nolan did to the Dark Knight trilogy, Yates did to Rowling’s movie adaptations: somber and realistic, with an undercurrent of the fantastical and a deep reverence to the canon.
Crimes of Grindelwald is still a must-see for fans of Rowling’s Wizarding World — I am — as it still provides an immersive, nostalgic feel of the magical world that we have loved and sets a thrilling anticipation for future installments.
There are moments when you might get lost, get a bit impatient, or experience a mild attack of boredom, but if you enjoy expository narratives and you’re a fan of Yates’ style, there’s a huge chance you’ll enjoy this. I did, the second time. Great casting, too. But if you’re not a serious fan, skip it.
3 out of 5 stars
The Ballad of Buster Scrugs
Released on Netflix last 16 November after a short theatrical run in other countries, is the Coen brothers’ 2018 western anthology film The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. It premiered at the 75th Venice International Film Festival last August, where it won Best Screenplay.
A collection of six unrelated stories, the anthology film brings deliriously wonderful tales about the American frontier — ranging from the hilarious and the tragic, to the enchanting and the absurd. Teeming with black humor and sharp wit bound to make you laugh out loud plenty of times, it is also oftentimes poignant and thought-provoking.
Presented as a book, with the pages turning before and after every short story, it starts with “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” the most impressionable and the most hilarious of the collection. Tim Blake Nelson is brilliant as the singing and gun-slinging outlaw Buster Scruggs, taking you to his entertainingly violent and uproarious exploits in a series of saloons.
James Franco plays a bank robber in “Near Algadones,” and this doesn’t have much dialogue, focusing more on physical comedy. Funny, but not hilarious. Here, you realize how much you miss Franco’s presence in a movie.
Liam Neeson stars in the heart-breaking, powerful drama “Meal Ticket,” playing an aging impresario traveling with only one star, the limbless Harrison (Harry Melling). The story has an increasing sense of despair and tragedy, completely humorless. Melling’s performance, emotionally reciting classics (such as “Ozymandias,” the biblical story of Cain and Abel, works by Shakespeare and Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address) is superb.
“All Gold Canyon” is a more subdued entry, about an old gold prospector (Tom Waits) who never gives up. A story of hysterical determination against a backdrop of glorious vistas, it’s mostly a quiet tale, but when it speaks, it’s downright hilarious.
In “The Gal Who Got Rattled,” Zoe Kazan plays a shy young woman, Alice, who meets a love interest while journeying with a caravan to Oregon. The love interest is the handsome Mr. Knapp (Bill Heck). It’s romantic, gentle, delicate — with a shattering ending.
In “The Mortal Remains,” five strangers belonging to different social classes are traveling together in a stagecoach at sunset. Blazing with witty debates and insightful ballads from smartly constructed characters, it is rich with tension, trepidation and humor. The journey, however, is more remarkable than the disappointing destination.
While the six stories are not all on the same level of superior, the anthology is overall wildly entertaining. It’s like enjoying fun-sized candies from the creatively subversive minds of Joel and Ethan Coen, both masters of unforgettable genre-crossing, distinct period pieces. With 13 Oscar nominations and four wins under their belt, you can never go wrong with a Coen brothers movie. Worthy of a re-watch.
4 out of 5 stars