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FANTASTIC BEASTS: THE CRIMES OF GRINDELWALD

Producer: Davif Heyman, Steve Kloves, Lionel Wigram and J.K. Rowling
Director: David Yates
Writer: J.K. Rowling
Stars: Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler, Zoe Kravitz, Alison Sudol, Ezra Miller, Callum Turner, Claudia Kim, William Nadylam, Poppy Corby-Tuech, Kevin Guthrie, Brontis Jodorowsky, Victoria Yeates, Jude Law and Johnny Depp
Studio: Warner Bros. Pictures

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There’s plenty of CGI wizardry but precious little cinematic magic in David Yates’s second episode of J. K. Rowling’s prequel to her fabulously successful Harry Potter books and the equally successful movie franchise based on them. The initial installment of the proposed five-part series, “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” was merely mediocre; this follow-up, “The Crimes of Grindelwald,” doesn’t even reach that not-so-lofty status.

Part of the problem remains that Newt Scamander, the so-called magizoologist who’s the protagonist of the narrative, is a dull, colorless character, notable (apart for his ability to bond with peculiar creatures) only for his shyness and reticence. It’s a role that certainly does not challenge the talents of Eddie Redmayne, the capable young actor who won an Oscar playing Stephen Hawking in “The Theory of Everything” and was nominated for another for “The Danish Girl.” Mostly all he’s required to do is hunker down in his oversized overcoat, toss around a floppy head of hair and look diffident (especially when pining away for the girl he likes). Redmayne strikes those poses more than adequately, but it doesn’t make for a terribly charismatic figure.

Perhaps that’s why he’s so often shunted off to the side this time around, ceding the spotlight to a small army of other characters.. Too many, in fact: Rowling crammed plenty of colorful figures into the Potter saga, but the screenwriters of the films, along with the actors who played them, were able to invest them with real personality. Here the author’s novelistic, rather than screen-friendly, inclinations show through: we get a similar parade, but neither Yates nor editor Mark Day seems able to get a handle on it, and for the most part the only characters who make a positive impression are some from the first film—particularly Queenie (Alison Sudol), the flapper sister of Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), the woman Newt is hiding a secret torch for, and her muggle boyfriend Jacob (the happily over-the-top Dan Fogler), whose relationship is sorely tested this time around.

That’s because Newt’s Voldemort is fleshed out in this episode (probably a bit too early for the overall good of the run). He’s Gellert Grindelwald, the ambitious wizard Scamander was instrumental in capturing last time around. Shown in this installment escaping from the authorities during a prisoner transfer in a splashy prologue showcasing his shape-shifting prowess, Grindelwald aims to bring together all the pure-blooded wizard-world to do battle with the humans and take control of the planet.

His rationale, as he explains in a long, lugubrious speech to potential followers, is that unless they step in, the muggles will unleash a terrible war against one another in which their kind will also suffer. (The narrative is apparently set in 1927, and he calls up images of World War II—including an atomic bomb—as evidence. (Using such visuals as a prop in this sort of comic-book level entertainment seems rather tacky, but Rowling seems to have misplaced even her sense of propriety this time around.)

Perhaps Grindelwald might have been an intriguing character, but as played, in another of his highly affected, ethereal turns by Johnny Depp, he comes across pretty much as a pompous windbag. Even the villain’s look is boring: with his spiky white hair and bulging eyes, the question his appearance might raise is: why didn’t they just hire the real Malcolm McDowell?

As for the busy plot mechanics, Grindelwald is recruiting adherents to his cause in Paris, abetted by his staff of lieutenants—Vinda Rosier (Poppy Corbin-Tuech), Krali (David Sakurai) and Abernathy (Kevin Guthrie), as well as Grimmson (Ingvar Sigurosson), a turncoat bounty hunter whom the clueless magic council appoints to track down Grindelwald when Newt refuses the job. But the person whom Grindelwald really wants to add to his roster is Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller), the young man introduced in the last film, because, as we’re often told mysteriously about characters here, “only he” can do something the wizard needs done.

Meanwhile Newt is approached by his former teacher Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law) to find Grindelwald; he can’t do it himself, it appears—also for mysterious reasons. Newt has allies to rely on as well: Bunty (Victoria Yeates), who watches over his menagerie in his absence; his brother Theseus (Callum Turner), who’s engaged to Newt’s old classmate Leta Lestrange (Zoë Kravitz); and Tina.

As if this plethora of characters weren’t enough, there’s also a suave fellow named Yusuf Kama (William Nadylam), a French-Senegalese wizard who’s also searching for Credence; Nagini (Claudia Kim), a Maledictus who will in future become the companion of Voldemort but here helps Credence escape a circus in which both are trapped; and Nicolas Flamel (Brontis Jodorowsky), an ancient alchemist who aids the band of heroes in their climactic survival.

That’s an awful lot of folks to keep straight, and even though some of them—Kama, for example—are given elaborate monologues to explain who they are and what they’re doing, most don’t register very strongly. It’s one of those cases in which a scorecard would help; but even after memorizing who’s who, you’d find yourself at pains to try to care about any of them, even Redmayne’s pallid Newt. One of the few exceptions, along with Fogler’s Jacob, is the young, strapping Dumbledore whom Law plays with welcome energy. But he’s the exception: Miller, for instance, pretty much stole “Justice League” as The Flash, but here he’s tediously one-note as Credence, whose real identity becomes the great reveal at the end of “Crimes,” which otherwise ends—as so many of these so-called tent-pole movies do—inconclusively, leaving you hanging until the next installment.

Of course, the visuals are of high quality. Stuart Craig’s production design is first-class, and so are the effects, especially those involving the beasties of the title, which often have more CGI personality than the wizards and humans they interact with. Nevertheless the lovingly crafted details are often smudged or otherwise obscured by the decision to shoot almost everything in bleak, dreary tones that are more depressing than atmospheric. Cinematographer Philippe Rousselot is adept at capturing the chosen mood, but the result is no more ingratiating than James Newton Howard’s workmanlike score.

There’s still hope for the “Fantastic Beasts” franchise—after all the “Harry Potter” series started out slowly and got progressively better. But on the evidence of “The Crimes of Grindelwald,” Rowling fans shouldn’t get their hopes up.

SUSPIRIA

Producer: Luca Guadagnino, David Kajganich, Francesco Melzi d'Eril, Marco Morabito, Gabriele Moratti, William Sherak, Bradley J. Foscher and Silvia Venturini Fendi
Director: Luca Guadagnino
Writer: David Kajganich
Stars: Dakota Johnson, Tilda Swinton, Mia Goth, Lutz Ebersdorf, Angela Winkler, Ingrid Caven, Elena Fokina, Sylvie Testud, Renee Soutendijk, Chloe Grace Moretz, Christine Leboutte, Malgosia Bela, Fabrzia Sacchi and Jessica Harper
Studio: Amazon Studios

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Dario Argento’s 1977 “Suspiria” is hardly a great movie, or even a great horror movie. The tale of a young woman who enrolls in a German dance school only to find that its staff turns out to be a coven of witches is pretty dumb to start with, and Argento was never a master of narrative even in the best cases. But the picture was memorable as an explosion of sound and color, from its garish visuals to its pulsating score. And it careened forward at a pace that allowed you to dismiss all the absurdity as the roller-coaster ride sped on.

Now Luca Guadagnino’s “Suspiria” has appeared, not so much a remake of Argento’s movie as an attempt to turn it into a Film with a capital “F.” The result is a lugubrious exercise in pretension both narrative and stylistic that snuffs the life out of the tawdry source material and renders it well-nigh unwatchable. If Argento’s “Suspiria” was a goofy, tackily vibrant fever dream, Guadagnino’s is an artsy attempt to transform it into a dark nightmare pregnant with profundity, and all it shows is that it’s still impossible to make a high-toned silk purse out of a lurid, lowbrow sow’s ear.

The plot, of course, remains centered on a young dancer who joins the academy whose faculty are witches. She eventually discovers what the motivation behind the Satanic activity—and the murders attendant to it—is all about. But whereas for Argento, that was just an occasion for a wild exercise in color, sound and weirdness, logic be damned, for Guadagnino it’s a skeleton on which to build a fable about the emergence of female strength in a wounded male world, or—as he has auggested himself—a film about mothers.

The seriousness with which Guadagnino and screenwriter David Kajganich take their effort is indicated by the elaborate structure they impose on the material, and the major additions they make to it This isn’t just a movie, it’s a succession of chapters or “acts,” each announced by an imposing title card. It’s also set in the divided Berlin of 1977, with persistent allusions to the grim historical circumstances of the time—the bombings and plane hijackings undertaken by West German and Palestinian terrorists.

In addition to all that, the script adds a major new character in Dr. Josef Klemperer (advertised in the credits as being played by an actor named Lutz Ebersdorf, though it’s fairly common knowledge that’s a pseudonym). He’s a doddering white-haired psychologist to whom Patricia Hingle (Chloë Grace Moretz), a frantic student at the Markos Dance Academy, comes to declare her suspicions about the place. Klemperer considers her a typically hysterical female, babbling about Mother Markos and her coven, but when she abruptly disappears, he peruses the frightening scribbled notebook she left behind and approaches the police to investigate. Naturally their efforts prove unavailing—especially since the witches enrapture the cops who visit them—and so Klemperer is forced to look into things himself, even as he continues to grieve the loss of his wife Anke (a cameo by Jessica Harper, the star of Argento’s original) back in 1943.

Simultaneously, American Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson), a waif fleeing a repressive childhood in an Ohio Mennonite community, shows up to audition at the Academy, and though untrained she demonstrates a degree of animal power that earns her not only the immediate attention of the school’s artistic director Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton) but a full scholarship—as well as a chance to take the lead in an upcoming performance of their signature ballet, “Volk”—a title with obvious echoes of the nation’s past.

That’s fortuitous, because Olga (Elena Fokina), the girl who was to take that part, has announced her intention to leave as a result of Hingle’s mysterious absence. The coincidence leads to what is the film’s single most memorable sequence, in which Susie’s audition for the role alternates with its effect on Olga—a virtuoso montage of action and editing that may not actually be scary, but is certainly unsettling (and for some will be positively revolting).

How these various threads eventually tie together, culminating in a grand finale in which Mother Markos finally makes her big appearance, would be a chore, perhaps even an impossible one. Suffice it to say that this “Suspiria,” edited by Walter Fasano, mostly lumbers along at a pace as stately as that the aged Klemperer affects—it winds up running, at 153 minutes, nearly an hour longer than the original; even the performance of “Volk,” with the troupe garbed in some remarkably outré outfits, comes across as a loony riff by choreographer Damien Jalet out of Pina Bausch territory rather than a witty foreboding of things to come.

There’s much to admire in Johnson’s performance—no least her response to the role’s physical demands—but the film is undoubtedly a tribute to Guadagnino’s muse Swinton. It’s best if viewers find out about her multifaceted contributions to it by themselves (or through sleuthing they can do afterward); suffice it to say that while it’s possible to criticize what she and the director have pulled off as a mere stunt, it’s one that definitely works. Mia Goth, as Susie’s school friend Sara, gets some creepy footage as a girl eager to discover the secrets that lurk within the academy’s walls, Moretz plays to the rafters in her brief scene; and Fokina shows enormous versatility, of the physical sort, in her single major sequence (though special effects are obviously involved as well). But much of the fun comes from watching grande dames like Angela Winkler, Ingrid Caven, Sylvie Testud and Alek Wek camping it up as Madame Blanc’s faculty colleagues.

Any Guadagnino film boasts extraordinary visuals, and this one is no exception. Inbal Weinberg’s production design and Giulia Piersanti’s costumes are ravishing in their way, though the color palette of cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom emphasizes drab browns and grays, befitting the moody atmosphere. Nor should one overlook the makeup effects; they’re as important as anything else here—more so, in fact—and they’re enormously impressive.

Still, while you can admire Guadagnino’s achievement in reimaging “Suspiria”—this is obviously a very personal vision, carried through with absolute conviction—it’s unhappily the case that his film, apart from some potently disturbing imagery, is not at all frightening, rather dull, and decidedly silly. Ultimately it tries to elevate the horror genre in the way that Kubrick did in “The Shining,” which transcended its source material to such an extent that it even irritated the source’s author. But Guadagnino does not prove Kubrick’s equal, whatever his admiration for his work. In its effect his movie resembles “The Shining” less than it does a picture with a theme similar to its own—Darren Aronofsky’s “mother!” Its message is, to be sure, less deliberately opaque, but the end result is the same: despite the obvious artistry behind it, the new “Suspiria” is loony and tedious in approximately equal measure, whatever it wants to say.