Thursday, 21 February 2019

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes Of Grindelwald (2018)

Not only do blockbuster franchises have sequels, prequels and reboots, but luckily for the colossal fandom, the latest emerging trend, is the extended universe or spin-off. Marvel, DC and Star Wars have all ventured into continued iterations of their expansive milieu, and now comes the second instalment in JK Rowling’s evolution of Harry Potter’s Wizarding World. 
After the events of the first Fantastic Beasts in 2016, proceedings inevitably take not only a much darker, but also far more complex turn. It’s even more elaborate, magical, ambitious and visually dazzling than its predecessor. Rowling’s imagination is as boundless as ever, with a whole bundle of new characters, intersecting plotlines and idiosyncratic creatures.
  This descent into the aforementioned far darker territory, is thankfully due to the much bigger role taken by Johnny Depp, returning as the grandiose arch antagonist of the title, Gellert Grindelwald. Depp is absolutely terrific - oozing relentless malevolence, but still retaining this incredibly persuasive capacity to manipulate. Still sporting a shock of blonde hair and haunting eyes that change colour, the film opens in spectacular style, as he engineers a high-octane escape from prison, then plans to eradicate the world of ‘No-Maj’s’ (muggle, or ‘non-magical’ souls)…
 Meanwhile, it’s up to gifted but awkward wizard Newt Scamander, played by Eddie Redmayne (once again a rather bumbling, one-note performance) to stop him. He believes the key may be in ascertaining the whereabouts of troubled orphan Credence (a very empathetic Ezra Miller) who’s desperate to discover the truth about his identity…
Narratively, this chapter strikes the perfect balance between originality and nostalgia. It feels simultaneously utterly fresh, with entirely new echelons of danger, and a tone which hits doomily dramatic heights at times. But also, there are extremely clever references strewn throughout to the beloved, tangibly familiar Potter canon. These include the much-anticipated return to Hogwarts – during which a gleefully exciting portion of John Williams’s signature theme is reprised. As well as a wonderous new score, prolific composer James Newton-Howard subtly intertwines these classic motifs throughout (listen as the 3D Warner Bros. logo floats towards you!)
There’s a young Dumbledore, portrayed by Jude Law – unlikely casting, but he does capture an enigmatic, mercurial quality. 
  The swirling, panoramic cinematography by Philippe Rousselot, immerse the viewer firmly into the action. Stuart Craig’s richly detailed production design – statues move, champagne pops, several artefacts from previous films appear – and Colleen Atwood’s sumptuous costumes, only add to the magic. 
 Giving nothing away, the final scene contains an unbelievably audacious revelation – which sets up tantalisingly for what’s to come next!...

Rating: * * * *

The House With The Clock In Its Walls

It’s interesting to think, that a genre once so fertile in the eighties and nineties – the mainstream family fantasy that wasn’t necessarily a sequel or franchise – has now, all but disappeared. The likes of The Addams Family, The Borrowers and Mousehunt, ended with Nanny McPhee, and has since been foreshadowed by animation, or live-action remakes of known quantities.Now, extreme horror director Eli Roth (Hostel), is looking to revive it, with a film that is now a Hollywood rarity: a family horror-fantasy, squarely aimed at the pre-teen, ‘tween-age’ audience. Based on the 1973 novel of the same, rather perplexing name by John Bellairs (more of a bestseller in the US than the UK, it tells the rather well-worn story of Lewis (Owen Vaccaro – endlessly irritating and over-acting horribly throughout), an orphaned outsider who goes to stay in a mysterious, ancient mansion containing a lifetime of secrets, under the stewardship of a wizard, his uncle Jonathan (Jack Black) and his eccentric next door neighbour, Mrs. Zimmerman (Cate Blanchett – wonderful, and poised-in-purple, but given so little to do).The film itself is a decidedly mixed Halloween-themed bag of too few tricks and not enough treats either, but what I admire about its ambition at least, is Roth’s desire to recapture that aforementioned lost genre: a mainstream effects-laden family fantasy.Tellingly, it’s distributed by Spielberg’s company, Amblin (watch out for the nice touch of its E.T.-inspired logo in its original eighties form. That inimitable Amblin spirit of funny-and-scary-but-not-too-frightening essence of Goonies meets Gremlins, is exactly what this film admirably strives to recalibrate. Many critics have cited Harry Potter, but I think it far more closely resembles the undeterminable strangeness and ambiguity of Lemony Snicket, Dark Shadows, Monster House or Goosebumps – in which Black also stars.Really, it only partly succeeds. It’s fun, but as with so many films trying to balance laughs and scares – it’s not funny nor scary enough. It’s purely personal, but I’ve never found Jack Black remotely funny. Johnny Depp or James Franco would’ve been far better – but would’ve needed far sharper dialogue. The script should zing and sparkle, but it’s nowhere near as polished as it should be. There’s something so airlessly hollow about the whole atmosphere; the pacing should float - it often feels plodding and all so inconsequential.There’s plenty of effects magic which could’ve been pushed further, but there are some great moments, including a brilliantly ghoulish Kyle MacLauchlan, and a fantastically staged attack, reminding us: never to trust pumpkins…

Rating: * * * 

Mamma Mia 2

The first Mamma Mia film became the not-so unexpected highest-grossing film of 2008, now a decade on the star-studded cast are back for a prospect I never thought was possible: more unashamedly silly supposed ‘fun’ that’s even worse than the first one. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a talented ensemble cast in such an overblown embarrassment of riches. For totally unnecessary reasons that become clear all too soon, Meryl Streep – brilliant in the first film even though that was still a mess – is hardly ever in it, a crucial detail which was never made clear in the much over-egged publicity juggernaut beforehand. This is one of those structurally problematic sequel-prequels, with periodical flashbacks which show how Donna built that ramshackle hotel in Greece (Croatia this time around).One of the few saving graces is actually Lily James in the role of young Donna. She has the appropriate amount of spontaneous, impulsive effervescence that make her empathetic. She steals the sorry state of affairs completely, and with this, as well as Churchill and The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society, both earlier this year, the Cinderella star is unassumingly proving again and again her versatility across many genres – and has a lovely singing voice.All other proceedings sadly go wrong right from the start. The tone is, how to put this, – borderline spoof most of the time – and needlessly so. Why for instance, did the fantastic Celia Imrie need to pop up with a completely unnecessary Scottish accent – spinning down the aisles of a graduation in a feather-boa in the endlessly irritating opening number When I Kissed The Teacher?Two of the best actors of their generation, the exceptionally identifiable Julie Walters and the brilliantly quixotic Christine Baranski, do add warmth and one-liners, but bar one tiny scene, Walters in particular is reduced to a series of slapstick pratfalls when she could’ve again been the movie’s ace, foregrounding the infectious Angel Eyes.Apart from some clever panoramic editing of sun, sombreros, suspect singing (Brosnan, briefly) and sentimentality – things go from bad to worse when Cher flies in by helicopter, looking frozen to the point of being deceased, murdering Fernando. Horribly cynical. I’m not holding out for instalment 76.

Rating: * * 
Image result for mamma mia 2 poster