‘The Crimes of Grindelwald’ – a witness for the defense

Ugh. When you have enough characters to do a big photoshoot like this — just, ugh. It’s all so slimy. Images courtesy Warner Bros.

4/10 In 2016, audiences were generally pleased and relieved to return to an Americanized version of the wizarding world, but Paul and I were dissatisfied with its length and general lack of direction. Now, the sequel, Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, is being met with critical derision, but I’d like to stand up for it, if only half-heartedly.

A year or so after the first movie, Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) has escaped imprisonment and is hiding somewhere in Paris, searching for Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller), who apparently survived being completely fucking obliterated in the first movie. Wizarding authorities now suspect Barebone is actually Corvus Lestrange, the last in a long line of pure-blood wizards who was thought to be lost at sea as a child. Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law) cannot fight his former lover Grindlewald, and sends Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) to Paris in his stead. Scamander is joined by U.S. auror Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) and Leta Lestrange (Zoë Kravitz), who would be Barebone’s half-sister if authorities are correct, as he searches for Barebone.

This is low praise, but Crimes of Grindelwald is much stronger than its predecessor. Scamander actually cares about the main plot in this outing, and it’s always nice to have a lead character that’s actually invested in what’s going on. Also, the featured beasts are much more vibrant – the first movie was full of “fantastic beasts” that were mostly just giant versions of normal animals, but Crimes of Grindelwald’s primary beast, the zouyu, brings the series back to grounding in real-world mythological creatures.

Scamander is also prone to pulling his creatures out for tactical use. In the first movie he was a magical crazy cat guy, but in Crimes of Grindelwald, he’s more like a magical Pokemon master.

I’m still not sold on muggles having a presence in these movies.

Where Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them had distinct overtones of homosexism, particularly of a gay teenager being abused by fundamentalist foster parents, Crimes of Grindelwald moves on to racial persecution, particularly 20s-era oppression surrounding interracial marriage. This tension is present in several characters – notably, Queenie Goldstein’s (Alison Sudol) entire motivation is arranging her marriage to her muggle boyfriend Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), which is currently illegal – but nowhere is it more apparent than in Leta Lestrange, the unloved child of a powerful white man who lusted after and raped a black woman. Abuse and power dynamics that echo ones enabled by real-world segregation define the main plot.

Unfortunately, that’s a troublesome weakness carried over from the first film – Crimes of Grindelwald approaches extremely dark subject matter, but doesn’t seem to understand that’s what it’s doing. The first movie acutely subjected Barebone to a very specific aspect of LGBT oppression, and then in the climax, every authority figure that should have helped this poor boy years ago gangs up and murders him, and then everyone just moves on as if they hadn’t just committed what was contextually the film’s worst atrocity.

In Crimes of Grindelwald, there are multiple instances each of child murder and mind control-enabled rape – seriously, “’seduced’ with the Imperious Curse?” That is not the correct word for that – and the severity of these crimes also seems lost on the story as a whole.

The problem, I think, is in a movie called Crimes of Grindelwald, these are mostly not Grindelwald’s own crimes. For both movies so far, the primary metaphor the film is interested in exploring is divorced from the ostensible series arc of fighting Gellert Grindelwald. The horrors visited on Barebone and Lestrange are brushed aside without real payoff because they’ve got little to do with the point A or point B of either movie’s plot.

OK, this is bullshit — Albus Dumbledore taught transfiguration at Hogwarts, not defense against the dark arts! That is definitely the massive, unforgivable continuity error that fans are upset about here.

The Fantastic Beasts series is rooted in Warner Bros.’ desperation as a studio and series writer J.K. Rowling’s inability to produce relevant content outside of her iconic series – it’s a long and profoundly sad story, you can read about it at length here — and as such, it’s always going to be a tug-of-war between producers, who want to fit in marketable action sequences and extraneous characters for potential spinoffs, and series director David Yates, who wants to tell a story, and Yates came out much more the victor here. I’m a big fan of Yates. The Harry Potter series saw a sharp uptick in quality when he took the reins of Order of the Phoenix in 2007, and he’s directed every movie since.

While an overabundance of characters is a frequent – and valid – complaint about Crimes of Grindelwald, I like the way it’s handled. Yates lets his characters breathe in the background when they need to be in the background. While it’s true that there’s far too much backstory for new characters, most of their characters and relationships are also expressed through action and blocking in the movie’s present.

What’s particularly deft is how well he establishes relationships between secondary characters without much dialogue – well, it’s weird. There’s very heavy dialogue to establish these relationships that doesn’t do it effectively, it feels like being hit over the head with a wad of script, but Yates establishes these relationships clearly and effectively without dialogue in other scenes. The job is done poorly by Rowling in the screenplay, but done again quite well by Yates in the blocking.

What I particularly notice is how well he gets around poor character development in the first movie – the Harry Potter movies as a series have a habit of getting around that sort of thing.

These relationships become important in the climactic scene in the Lestrange family crypt, where Grindelwald finally reveals his manifesto on muggle inferiority for all to hear. Almost all of these couples are sundered as one partner joins the dark wizard and one sees him for the demagogue that he is. It’s hard not to see American fascism mirrored back in his politely racist rhetoric and the way well-meaning people fall for it.

To respond directly to the backlash and logical problems with this movie, I’ll need to get into spoilers – those are below.

***

Some of the key complaints about Crimes of Grindelwald stem from this climactic scene, in which Grindelwald argues that wizards must subjugate muggles to prevent World War II, and in which Queenie Goldstein, whose entire motivation is to legally marry her muggle boyfriend, joins the evil wizard who wants to kill all the muggles.

After Collin Farrell was the best part of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, I was ready for Johnny Depp to be the worst part of Crimes of Grindelwald, but he acquitted himself quite well. He’s a good actor, he’s fun to watch, and it’s good to see him really putting forward some effort again. It’s not good knowing that he’s only doing it because his wife left him and took all his money because he was apparently abusing her, or that he doesn’t understand how money works and can’t really take care of himself between that and his well-documented alcohol problems, but you take the good with the bad, I guess.

Takes like this aren’t necessarily wrong, but they come from a lack of critical thinking. I’m smart enough to understand that the guy who said in an earlier scene that he didn’t want to exterminate muggles because “there will always be a need for beasts of burden” probably wants to exterminate the muggles. I don’t need J.K. Rowling to hold my hand and walk me through why racism is bad again, or what racism looks like when it’s preached by a charismatic strongman. Instead, I appreciate the representation of a view from the outside, in which people who aren’t clear on Grindelwald being a slimeball might think he has some salient points. The name characters who join him all do so for reasons that are, on the surface at least, noble.

It reminds me a lot of Trump, and the backlash against how unrealistic Grindlewald’s very realistic rhetoric and its results are reminds me a lot of the denial a lot of people are still in about Trump’s movement. In the movie, we see many people join Grindlewald because they want to kill muggles, and many more join him because they can’t see through his rhetoric. In America, we’ve seen the same thing – many people join Trump because they don’t like brown people, and many more join him because they can’t see through his nonsense.

So when someone complains that Queenie Goldstein is being dumb for joining Grindelwald because he says he’ll let her marry the muggle, despite the obvious and extreme negative consequences for that muggle if Grindelwald ever comes to power, my response is, yeah. Yeah, she’s being really dumb. Have you ever met a Trump supporter?

Crimes of Grindelwald isn’t a particularly good movie. There’s entire chunks that need to be cut out or reworked, the script is a mess – I get that Rowling carries a great deal of legitimacy with her as a screenwriter, but she’s just no good at it, and she needs to be moved back into a purely advisory role. But a lot of the biggest problems people have had aren’t accurate at all.

Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate and managing editor of The Lewisville Texan Journal. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook,  follow it on Twitter and Instagram and support it on Patreon. You can reach me at reelentropy@gmail.com.

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