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Schultz reviews: "Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald," "Instant Family," "Suspiria" and "Widows"

Schultz reviews: "Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald," "Instant Family," "Suspiria" and "Widows"

 Carl Schultz

 

“Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald” Distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures, 134 Minutes, Rated PG-13, Released Nov. 16:

 

In this sequel to the 2016 picture “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” wizard and Hogwarts School professor Albus Dumbledore recruits magizoologist and former student Newt Scamander to help subdue the powerful dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald. Grindelwald was captured by the Magical Congress of the United States of America at the end of the previous installment, but has escaped MACUSA custody and is gathering followers to assist him in his objective of creating a race of pure-blooded witches and wizards to rule over all non-magical beings.  

 

The second of a projected five films in the “Fantastic Beasts” motion picture franchise — and the tenth overall in the “Wizarding World” series which began with the eight pictures in Harry Potter franchise between 2001 and 2011 — “The Crimes of Grindelwald” benefits from earnest performances from the entire cast, particularly Eddie Redmayne as Scamander, Johnny Depp as Grindelwald and Jude Law as Dumbledore.

 

For those who don’t know how the two series fit together, the “Fantastic Beasts” saga predates the events depicted in the “Harry Potter” series by about 50 years. In the series, Newt Scamander’s book “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” became a primary text for Harry Potter, Hermione Granger, Ron Weasley and the other students at the Hogwarts school. Scamander’s colleague and friend Albus Dumbledore became the headmaster of the Hogwarts School, played in the Potter films by actor Richard Harris and after Harris’ death by Michael Gambon.

 

Directed by Harry Potter veteran David Yates, “The Crimes of Grindelwald” itself is a contrived concoction, of primary interest to Harry Potter fans in need of a fix. The special effects are dazzling, especially in 3-D, but the narrative isn’t as strong as in other chapters of the saga, and is probably incomprehensible to those viewers not familiar with the series. The picture’s myriad problems are made infinitely worse by its almost criminal overlength, and an overabundance of unnecessary subplots.

 

Still, the picture’s a lot of fun when it’s not taking itself too seriously ... which unfortunately isn’t often. “Harry Potter” author J.K. Rowling herself wrote the screenplay, which is likely part of the picture’s problem: Rowling seems obsessed with packing as much story as possible into the picture, as well as providing enough of a continuum to the events of the later Harry Potter pictures to satisfy aficionados of both series (Rowling began writing “Fantastic Beasts” as a means of respite from the Potter books, and recreation.)

 

After the domestic problems which made Johnny Depp a staple of the supermarket tabloids, the actor’s casting in “Fantastic Beasts” was roundly, and very loudly, criticized in some quarters as being inappropriate to what is essentially a children’s picture, although Rowling herself endorsed Depp’s participation. Simultaneous to the film’s post-production, the Walt Disney company was making plans to continue Depp’s enormously popular “Pirates of the Caribbean” series ... without Depp. The disputed actor’s characterization in “The Crimes of Grindelwald” as a criminal archvillain might help to defuse some of the controversy.

 

If you’ve ever wondered what a movie with a $200 million production budget looks like, this is it. After a Nov. 8 premiere in Paris, “The Crimes of Grindelwald” was released worldwide on Nov. 16 in multiple formats including IMAX, RealD 3D, Dolby Cinema and 4DX. Playing in a whopping 4,163 theaters across North America, the picture was expected to earn up to $75 million domestically during its opening weekend. Distributor Warner Bros. Pictures is gonna need it — the picture will eventually need to earn some $400 million in box office dollars just to break even.

 

Critically, “The Crimes of Grindelwald” is not faring as well as other chapters in the overall saga. The picture has been given approval ratings of just 39 percent from Rotten Tomatoes and 53 percent from Metacritic, and a grade of B-plus from exit audiences polled by CinemaScore, the lowest viewer score in the history of the J.K. Rowling franchise.

 

“Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald” is rated PG-13 for sequences of fantasy action.

 

“Instant Family” Distributed by Paramount Pictures, 119 Minutes, Rated PG-13, Released Nov. 16:

 

The laughter and tears come in roughly equal measure in “Instant Family,” but rarely where you think they’ll be. While the picture eventually arrives more or less where you think it will, it rarely travels in the directions you expect. In the process, “Instant Family” becomes a special picture indeed, not only an audience-pleasing family comedy, but also likely an entertainment classic as well as an instant holiday perennial.

 

Pete and Ellen are a childless couple in their early 40s. Partners in business and in marriage, in approximately that order, the couple purchase and renovate houses for sale to affluent families. Having put off starting a family because each always felt the other wasn’t ready, when the couple purchases and begins to rehabilitate a home containing five bedrooms across the street from a playground, they begin to consider the possibility of foster parenting.

 

With a wry notion that they can bring a disadvantaged older child into their home and pretend they started earlier, the couple begins an eight-week orientation class in foster parenting, among other like-minded couples and individuals with their own motivations. But when Ellen and Pete find themselves faced with the challenge of simultaneously hosting three young siblings with a tragic shared background, they quickly learn that parenting is not quite as simple as renovating homes.

 

Written by John Morris and Sean Anders, and based on the actual real-life experiences of writer and director Anders, “Instant Family” is one comedy that steps up to the plate and bats a grand slam home run in just about every possible way. Despite its often maudlin subject matter, this picture is a sharply observant, perceptive and heartwarming comedic masterpiece from its first frame until its last. Never aiming for cheap laughs, “Instant Family” instead mines affectionate humor from believable characters in credible situations, and in the process produces the kind of satisfied laughter that usually only can be found in real life.

 

Led with virtuoso, heartfelt performances by Rose Byrne and Mark Wahlberg as Ellen and Pete, there are no slackers or small performances in this perfectly-cast picture. Special standouts include the by-the-book Tig Notaro and plain-spoken Octavia Spencer as social workers who train the rookie foster parents and ease their transition into parenthood. Notaro and Spencer work together like old pros, and their scenes together are a highlight in a picture filled with memorable moments.

 

Likewise the wonderful Margo Martindale as Wahlberg’s gregarious and sometimes overbearing mother, Iliza Shlesinger as another prospective foster parent, and Javier Ronceros and Rosemary Dominguez as a veteran adoptive couple who both inspire and challenge Byrne and Wahlberg. Julie Hagerty and Michael O’Keefe as Byrne’s parents also figure prominently into what is likely the most side-splittingly funny Thanksgiving holiday family dinner ever captured on film.

 

But during a year filled with strong characterizations from young performers such as Isla Fisher in “Eighth Grade” and Amandla Stenberg in “The Hate U Give,” the real breakout star of “Instant Family” is 17-year-old Isabela Moner as Lizzy, the oldest of the trio of siblings who come to live with Pete and Ellen. Far from being just a comedic foil for the antics of the other performers, Moner builds a full-blooded characterization as a child who’s seen so much of the sad part of life that she’s unable to recognize the good parts.

 

Opening in 3,258 theaters across North America, “Instant Family” is writer and director Anders’ third collaboration with Mark Wahlberg following 2015’s “Daddy’s Home” and its 2017 sequel. Originally scheduled for release on Feb. 15, 2019, the picture was moved forward by three months to coincide with the holiday season. The picture’s gala Los Angeles premiere was cancelled due to the continuing wildfires in the region, and the film was instead screened in an evacuation center for victims of the fires.

 

It probably won’t win any major motion picture awards, but “Instant Family” is a movie not even a Grinch can dislike.  And if you aren’t moved to tears by the picture’s denouement, consult a physician — you don’t have a heart.

 

The picture is rated PG-13 for thematic elements, sexual material, adult language and numerous references to substance abuse.

 

“Suspiria” Distributed by Amazon Studios, 152 Minutes, Rated R, Released Oct. 26:

 

In this reimagining of influential Italian filmmaker Dario Argento’s acclaimed 1977 horror picture, a young American woman from a repressed Ohio Mennonite family is accepted into a prestigious dance academy in 1977 West Berlin. As she adapts to the school’s curriculum and dormitory-style living quarters, it becomes increasingly apparent to the woman that the company is administered by a coven of witches, and that they have ambitious plans for her.

 

“Suspiria” turns out to be a high-end horror picture filled to the brim with obscure and perplexing details and punctuated with troubling elements and disturbing images. Screenwriter David Kajganish uses Argento’s picture as a basis for the update. But after having established the details of the plot and building for a while toward a third act filled with eerie promise, director Luca Guadagnino takes off in his own sometimes potent but often confusing direction.

 

“Suspiria” travels along its own peculiar but intriguing path for nearly two hours. And just when it starts to make sense and you think you have it all figured out, Guadagnino decides to go for broke, and inserts into the picture’s final third one of the most offensive and repugnant bloodbaths in recent motion picture history. From that point forward, “Suspiria” becomes as pretentious and overbearing as any picture you’re likely to see. As one character exclaims toward the end,“This is not fantasy — this is art!”

 

Still, you don’t need a geiger counter to tell you when you’re being creeped out. There’s a particularly vivid scene at about the halfway point in which the veteran dancer being supplanted as the company’s prima ballerina involuntarily experiences the maneuvers, contortions and dance steps simultaneously performed in another studio by her replacement. The older dancer resists the uncontrollable gymnastics until her body is a mangled heap collapsed on the floor. The scene is almost unbearably horrific, and just goes on and on and on.

 

“Suspiria” ends up being kind of picture which after initial screenings will likely go straight to video. On a supplemental audio track, the screenwriter and director can explain what the movie’s really about, the reason they made such dumb narrative choices, and why in the world they felt Argento’s original picture needed a remake in the first place.

 

Actress Dakota Johnson was cast in “Suspiria” on the strength of her performance in Guadagnino’s “A Bigger Splash” in 2015. Actress and performance artist Tilda Swinton plays three different characters in the picture, one of them a male role under the pseudonym Lutz Ebersdorf. And after building a reputation from solid performances in such hit pictures as the 2013 remake of “Carrie” and “The Equalizer” in 2014, poor Chloe Grace Moretz still seems determined to prove her versatility. She deserves better than this.

 

Dario Argento’s “Suspiria” was based partially on British essayist Thomas De Quincey’s 1845 work “Suspiria de Profundis,” Latin for “Sighs from the Depths.” The remake was originally optioned by filmmaker David Gordon Green. Green’s version of “Suspiria” was eventually scrapped by the studio, clearing the path for Kajganich and Guadagnino, and allowing Green to write and direct this year’s enormously successful update of “Halloween.”  

 

Critical reception for “Suspiria” is sharply polarized, although the picture managed to earn an approval rating of 61 percent from Rotten Tomatoes, and 64 percent from Metacritic, indicating “generally favorable reviews.” A number of critics note that the picture actually improves with repeated viewings. Once will likely be more than enough for most of us.

 

“Suspiria” is rated R for ... well, you name it. The MPAA let the picture off easy. You’ve been warned.

 

“Widows” Distributed by 20th Century-Fox Pictures, 129 Minutes, Rated R, Released Nov. 16:

 

After four high-end Chicago criminals are killed in a police shootout during a disastrous robbery attempt, their widows are left with crippling debts owed to ruthless and unforgiving creditors. In order to satisfy the financial liabilities, the widows are forced to to band together and complete a heist originally planned by their late spouses ... an objective which is influenced in unexpected ways by Chicago precinct politics.

 

Adapted by “Gone Girl” author Gillian Flynn and director Steve McQueen from a six-part Thames Television series broadcast in Great Britain in 1983, “Widows” becomes a compelling rumination on the nature of crime and criminals in modern America, where good guys and bad guys are often indistinguishable ... and sometimes interchangeable.  

 

Viewers expecting a lighthearted variation of the recent “Ocean’s Eight” are strongly advised to look elsewhere: This riveting and perceptive drama is territory once covered by the likes of directors such as Michael Mann and Martin Scorsese. But with incisive direction by acclaimed filmmaker Steve McQueen and full-blooded characterizations by an ensemble cast containing a dozen or so of our finest actors, “Widows” stands with 1973’s “Mean Streets” and 1995’s “Heat” among the greatest American crime pictures ever produced.

 

There are no slackers or small parts in a cast of veterans, anchored by a superb Viola Davis as the ringleader of a gang of reluctant criminals, including Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki, and Cynthia Erivo. Colin Farrell and Brian Tyree Henry portray Chicago politicians battling each other for a lucrative and powerful elective position as an alderman on Chicago’s South Side. And Jon Bernthal, Coburn Goss, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo and Liam Neeson are the widows’ late husbands.

 

The scenes between Colin Farrell and Robert Duvall are reminiscent of the scenes between Al Pacino and Marlon Brando in “The Godfather.” Veteran character actor Kevin J. O’Connor shines in a supporting role as a retired criminal running a bowling alley. Elizabeth Debicki’s part was originally intended for Jennifer Lawrence, who bowed out of this production to appear instead in “Red Sparrow.”

 

Rated R for violence and adult language and situations, “Widows” begins strongly and then just gets better and better, building to a pulse-pounding finale that’s almost excruciating in its tension.  

 

Playing in 3,000 theaters across the United States, the picture has received an approval rating of 91 percent from Rotten Tomatoes. It goes without saying that this one’s not for the kiddies.

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