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Arts - Entertainment - Film Review World
 

December 1, 2018 - December 7, 2018

Film Review: Latest ‘Fantastic Beasts’ is a mixed bag of wonders

 

This image shows Eddie Redmayne in a scene from “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald.” (Jaap Buitendijk/Warner Bros. Pictures via AP)

Jake Coyle

Los Angeles (AP) - Like the bottomless trunk totted by “magizoolologist” Newt Scamander, “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald” is a mixed bag of wonders.

Newt (Eddie Redmayne) can reach into his suitcase and, like Mary Poppins before him, pull out just about anything. And it sometimes feels as though J.K. Rowling — a screenwriter here for the second time — is similarly infatuated by her unending powers of conjuring. In this overstuffed second film in the five-part Harry Potter prequel series, every solved mystery unlocks another, every story begets still more. Narratives multiply like randy Nifflers (one of the many species of creature in Newt’s bag).

The usual problem for spinoffs is their thinness or their unfulfilled justification — especially ones that stretch an already much-stretched tale. (There were eight Potter movies.) But neither are issues in the two “Fantastic Beasts” films, each directed by former “Potter” hand David Yates. Both movies are rooted in purpose. “The Crimes of Grindelwald,” especially, is an impressively dark and urgent parable of supremacist ideology aimed squarely at today’s demagogues of division. And neither film lacks in density of detail, character or story.

No, the only real crime of “Gindelwald” is its sheer abundance. In zipping from New York to London to Paris (with ministries of magic in each locale), this latest chapter in Rowling’s pre-Potter saga feels so eager to be outside the walls of Hogwarts (which also get a cameo) that it resists ever settling anywhere, or with any of its widely scattered characters — among them Newt, the conscientious dark magic investigator Tina (Katherine Waterston), the New Yorker no-maj Jacob (Dan Fogler), Tina’s sister and Jacob’s sweetheart Queenie (Alison Sudol) and the haunted former schoolmate of Newt’s, Leta Lestrange (Zoe Kravitz)

No one does the foreboding sense of a looming battle better than Rowling. Now, it’s the rise of Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp), freshly escaped from prison, who casts a lengthening shadow over the land. With a blond shock of hair and a ghostly white face, Grindelwald is Rowling’s magical version of a white nationalist, only he believes in the elevation of wizards — “purebloods” — over those who lack magical powers, or “no-majes.”

It’s 1927 and the dark clouds of fascism are swirling; World War II feels right around the corner. In one the movie’s many tricks, Grindelwald drapes Paris in black fabric, like a wannabe Christo.

Despite the gathering storm, the pacifist Newt (Redmayne, cloyingly shy), resists drawing battle lines. When pushed by his brother Theseus (Callum Turner), who like Tina is an “Auror” who enforces magic law, Newt responds: “I don’t do sides.”

The events of “The Crimes of Grindelwald” will test Newt, just as they will anyone trying to follow its many strands. The hunt is on for at least three characters — the missing Queenie, the on-the-lam Grindelwald and Credence Barebone (Eza Miller), the powerful but volatile orphan who spends much of the film seeking answers to his identity. He’s the Anakin Skywalker of “Fantastic Beasts,” whose soul is fought for by both sides.

If all of this sounds like a lot, it most definitely is, and that’s not even mentioning Jude Law joining in as a young Albus Dumbledore, who turns out to be awfully roguishly handsome under that ZZ-top beard. But our time here with him is short, just as it is with so many characters who — to the film’s credit — we yearn for more of (Fogler’s Jacob, especially). There is a flicker of a flashback that hints at a long-ago, maybe-sexual relationship between Dumbledore and Grindelwald; it would be the film’s most intriguing revelation if it wasn’t merely baited for future installments.

Siblings are everywhere in “The Crimes of Grindelwald.” Just as in the houses of Hogwarts, Rowling delights in duality and the interplay of light and dark. Even within the Aurors there are competing methodologies of law enforcement to face the growing threat. Newt is carried along like an avatar of sympathy: he believes that every beast can be tamed, that every trauma can be healed.

Rowling’s only source material going into the “Fantastic Beasts” films was a slender 2001 book in the guise of a Hogwarts textbook. But she has, with her mighty wand, summoned an impressively vast if convoluted world, one that’s never timid in exploring the darkness beneath its enchanting exterior. And, with Yates again at the helm, “The Crimes of Grindelwald” is often dazzling, occasionally wondrous and always atmospheric. But is also a bit of a mess. Even magic bags can be overweight.

“Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald,” a Warner Bros. release, is rated PG-13 for some fantasy action violence. Running time: 134 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.


In ‘Creed II,’ Dolph Lundgren is happy he has better lines

This image shows Dolph Lundgren (left) and Florian Munteanu in a scene from “Creed II.” (Barry Wetcher/Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures/Warner Bros. Pictures via AP)

John Carucci

Philadelphia (AP) — Being cast as the villain Soviet boxer Ivan Drago in “Rocky IV” launched Dolph Lundgren’s acting career. But he had a brainier path if that didn’t work out.

The 61-year old actor holds a master’s degree in chemical engineering and was on a Fulbright scholarship at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology when Stallone cast him as Drago for the 1985 “Rocky” sequel.

Lundgren doesn’t regret trading academia for those red boxing trunks with the gold stripes, though he wishes his character had a few more coherent lines.

“It felt really surreal, and, at the same time, it felt like a big moment for me in my career as a person, because that character started my whole career and it’s been a great thing for me. But it’s also kind of been a negative in one way because the guy was such a monosyllabic guy,” Lundgren said. “He was a robot.”

This month, Lundgren reprises the role of Drago in “Creed II,” as much a sequel to the previous film as it is to “Rocky IV.” Lundgren remains grateful to Stallone, not only for casting him in the first place, but for bringing him back in a heartier, more substantial role.

“I got a chance to play a guy who was a real person and who has real problems, especially a father-son relationship. When I see father-son relationships in movies, it always gets me emotional. And I had a chance to be part of that,” Lundgren said.

Back in “Rocky IV,” Drago kills Apollo Creed in the ring, only to lose to Rocky Balboa. But he loses much more than a match.

In “Creed II,” we learn he is living in squalor after the embarrassing loss. He is raising his son Viktor, played by Florian Munteanu, to be a boxer and is seeking revenge on Rocky by getting his son to fight the son of the man he killed.

Munteanu said he felt a bond with Lundgren. “It’s an honor to play his son,” he said. “He wanted to create a father-son relationship right from the beginning.”

Lundgren had a unique trajectory that led him to the big screen. He was an engineering student in Melbourne, Australia, when he met actress Grace Jones. While dating, she took him to New York and introduced to him people like Andy Warhol and Michael Jackson. It didn’t hurt that he was a karate champion when Stallone discovered him.

Since then, he’s had a busy action-movie career, which includes “The Expendables” trilogy, portraying He-Man in “Masters of the Universe,” and the upcoming “Aquaman.” Still, he admits to soul searching when it came to his career path.

“‘Why did I quit MIT? Why didn’t I continue with engineering? Why did I become an actor?’ And it took me a while,” Lundgren said.

Now he’s at peace with his acting decision: “Whether I’m a good guy or a bad guy, it makes them feel something, and it brightens up their lives. That’s kind of what my part in this earth has been, I guess.”

This time around, there weren’t a lot of action scenes for Lundgren, and he was fine with that. But he did get in shape to play Drago, who he describes as “one of those guys who’s always in shape.”

“No matter how much vodka he drinks, he’s going to go to the gym,” Lundgren said.


Jefferson Airplane’s Kaukonen is still on embryonic journey

Jorma Kaukonen poses for a photo before a Hot Tuna gig at the El Rey Theatre in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/John Rogers)

John Rogers

Los Angeles (AP) — Long before he wrote and recorded the Jefferson Airplane classic “Embryonic Journey,” Jorma Kaukonen was on a decades-long journey of discovery of his own.

From shy, sometimes bullied upper-class son of a globe-trotting U.S. diplomat in post-colonial Pakistan, Kaukonen would evolve into a hard-drinking, hell-raising teenager racing his motorcycle through the streets of the Philippines in the mid-1950s.

Then it was on to a Jesuit university to study Aristotelian logic and other lofty subjects when not playing lead guitar for the Jefferson Airplane, a band he co-founded with Marty Balin, Jack Casady and others and that helped bring psychedelic sounds to the forefront of music.

Oh, and in his spare time Kaukonen would co-found another iconic band, Hot Tuna, which is still recording and touring 48 years later.

“It’s really funny, it’s hard to rate one’s own life” the 77-year-old guitarist says, smiling broadly as he reflects on how an embassy brat turned intellectual academic seemed to morph so easily into a rock star in 1967’s Summer of Love in San Francisco.

“But all things considered, I have had a pretty interesting life,” adds the friendly self-effacing Kaukonen as he relaxes in a deserted VIP section of Hollywood’s El Rey Theatre hours before taking the stage for that night’s sold-out Hot Tuna show.

He lays out much of that life in the just-published memoir “Been So Long: My Life & Music” (St. Martin’s Press). A quick, engaging read at 288 pages, his prose is followed by the lyrics to dozens of songs he’s composed over the past 50 years as well as a five-song CD tucked in between the final two pages.

It’s a book that’s been generally well received, although Kaukonen acknowledges some have complained it doesn’t contain enough Jefferson Airplane photos or anecdotes along the lines of, “What’s Grace Slick really like?”

Slick, one of the band’s principal vocalists, wrote the book’s forward, which somewhat answers that question. But raising it seems to annoy Kaukonen slightly.

“The Airplane is a huge part of my life. I don’t trivialize it on any level. But it was A PART of my life and it has to fit into the scheme of things,” he says emphatically.

What “Been So Long” clearly describes is a love affair with the guitar that began when a 14-year-old persuaded his father, Jorma Sr., to buy him a Gibson Sunburst J-45 acoustic and then pretty much never put it down.

Eventually he would start writing songs, and although Kaukonen maintains he’s not a prolific musician his body of work would argue otherwise: Six classic Jefferson Airplane albums in the 1960s and early ’70s followed by nearly two dozen Hot Tuna albums and more than a dozen solo projects.

“It’s kind of like learning the guitar,” he says when pressed on the dichotomy. “You start out learning how to play and maybe you get a song or two and you get to do an open mike. And then pretty soon you have enough for a set, and if you keep adding you have a show. And if you live long enough you have a body of work.”

By the time Jefferson Airplane’s breakthrough album, “Surrealistic Pillow,” was released in 1967 Kaukonen had earned his degree in sociology from Santa Clara University and his finger-picking style was now creating electric-guitar sounds pretty much unheard of in rock music.

The album was anchored by soaring vocals from Slick and Balin, Kaukonen’s transcendent guitar passages and Casady’s thundering bass lines on songs like “White Rabbit” and “Somebody to Love.” And, in the middle, was a brief but achingly beautiful acoustic-guitar instrumental called “Embryonic Journey.”

“I thought he was out of his mind,” Kaukonen says of his reaction when record producer Rick Jarrard heard him playing it during a break and insisted it go on the album. It remains a fan favorite to this day, and Kaukonen adds, “I owe him a big debt of gratitude.”

By 1970 he and Casady, a friend since childhood, had begun to tire of the Airplane’s more rigid musical structure and formed Hot Tuna, an ever-changing ensemble dedicated to a range of music from blues to jazz to Americana.

“One of the things people occasionally ask me is if I think about retiring, and my sort of off-the-cuff answer is, ‘Why,” Kaukonen jokes.

“The reality of the situation is that I still really love playing for an audience. And for me to keep my playing at a level that pleases me, I need to perform.”
 


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HEADLINES [click on headline to view story]

Film Review: Latest ‘Fantastic Beasts’ is a mixed bag of wonders

In ‘Creed II,’ Dolph Lundgren is happy he has better lines

Jefferson Airplane’s Kaukonen is still on embryonic journey