The Ballad of Buster Scruggs / *****

MV5BYjRkYTI3M2EtZWQ4Ny00OTA2LWFmMTMtY2E4MTEyZmNjOTMxXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNDg4NjY5OTQ@._V1_SY1000_SX675_AL_It’s not like The Ballad of Buster Scruggs was ever likely to really disappoint me. The Coen Brothers are my favorite living directors, and even their weakest efforts (The Ladykillers and Intolerable Cruelty) still have their pleasures. But even so, I can’t deny that I was a little worried about Buster Scruggs, just because of the bizarre origin story behind it – that it was originally a TV series, before the Coens decided to turn it into an anthology film. That’s an odd choice (though in keeping for the notoriously controlling brothers, who reportedly made the choice at least partially out of a desire to make sure people watched the segments in order), and could easily lead to a disjointed, jumbled affair.

But it did not, and instead, what you get is one of the most entertaining Coen brothers’ films in recent memory, one that allows them to demonstrate every side of their multifaceted talent: verbal comedy, sublime silliness, existential dread, philosophical musings, quiet human drama, silent storytelling, and more, all done to perfection.

You want comedy? Buster Scruggs delivers out of the gate with the title short, which follows Scruggs, a traveling musician played by Tim Blake Nelson, as he narrates his life to the audience and explains why he doesn’t particularly like the sobriquet that’s been hung upon him. It’s a perfect example of the Coens’ gift for hyper-verbal comedy, as Nelson’s gleefully verbose monologue contrasts with the increasingly violent actions on display. And it’s nicely followed by “Near Algodones,” the anthology’s slightest short, but one that still finds a great pair of performances by James Franco and Stephen Root as a bank robber and a chatty teller, respectively, which gives you a sense of the brothers’ affection for clueless criminal schemes gone wrong.

But just when you think Buster Scruggs is going to be nothing but silly larks, the series shifts wildly with “Meal Ticket,” a haunting, dark tale of a traveling huckster (Liam Neeson) whose main attraction is a quadruple amputee (Harry Melling, of Harry Potter fame) who recites famous oratories from plays and history. Apart from those recitations, “Meal Ticket” features a bare minimum of dialogue, telling its story through body language, framing of images, and astonishing performances. It’s a simple enough story, following these two men as they attempt to perform their way across the West (and there’s a sense where you can feel like it’s got some autobiographical elements, especially with the advent of streaming services that encroach on the old ways of performing), but it’s the film’s most haunting story, one that reminds you that the Coens’ gift for dialogue isn’t their only strength; indeed, “Meal Ticket” would only be harmed with extra dialogue, instead of the way that the story’s mood is allowed to linger and seep in, whether it’s in the awe of a great performance or the isolation of the woods.

Then comes “All Gold Canyon,” which takes the lack of dialogue in an entirely different direction, essentially giving us a one-man show performed by Tom Waits as a scruffy, disheveled gold prospector in an isolated wilderness. (In other words, Tom Waits could easily be playing himself, for all I know.) Waits carries the majority of the short on his own shoulders, talking to himself, the wilderness, the unseen gold, animals, and anything else that hews into his field of vision, but in such a cheerful, ridiculous way that you can’t help but adore the man, even as the Coens clearly underline the way that humanity disrupted the pristine wilderness as they came across the country. Waits is basically just narrating his life and talking to fill the space, but it all allows the Coens to tell their story without ever having characters spend the time explaining themselves or their motivations, and as ever, they never spell out the morals – that’s not their way.

Verbal comedy, black humor, bleakness, and then isolated wilderness…so of course Buster Scruggs next tosses out a beautifully understated, simple story of a man and woman attracted to each other in a time and place that doesn’t have much patience or use for these emotions. “The Girl Who Got Rattled” follows a wagon train across the West, focusing on a young woman (Zoe Kazan) left alone after the death of her brother and her conversations with one of the wagon masters (Bill Hicks). It’s a quiet story, one that’s less about the west than the others, and more about these two characters and the way they start to respond to the other ones, and reminds you that the charges of misanthropy so often leveled against the Coens couldn’t be more false – these are students of human nature, and their portrait of a simple, shy courtship is a beautiful one that sneaks up on you as it goes.

And then it all comes to an end with “The Mortal Remains,” the tale of five passengers on a stagecoach heading to an unknown destination – in other words, an enclosed setting that allows the brothers to return back to their gift for dialogue as characters debate love, death, existence, morality, and more. “The Mortal Remains”, more than any of the other shorts, taps into the sense of religious and existential dread that fills movies like A Serious Man, as the Coens deal with the question of whether human beings can connect to each other or ever truly communicate, but more than that, with the nature of death and what it says about our own existence. It’s undeniably a parable, much like A Serious Man, but one with that inimitable sense of wry, dark humor that the Coens do so well.

In other words, what The Ballad of Buster Scruggs gives you is a history of the Coen brothers in a nutshell. It’s funny, it’s violent, it’s dark, it’s silly, it’s profound, it’s thoughtful, it’s melancholy, it’s wry, it’s beautiful, and it’s ugly. It’s incredibly shot, it’s perfectly written, and it’s impeccably performed. It’s everything you could want in a Coen brothers movie and then some. What else could you possibly need?

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The Black Tides of Heaven, by JY Yang / ****

81ltKJ73HELJY Yang’s The Black Tides of Heaven is a standalone novella that serves as an introduction to a much larger series called the Tensorate Series, which is, in of itself, a great idea – what better way to get readers invested in a large fantasy arc than by giving them a small piece that they can judge on its own merits, rather than asking them to read a huge novel and take it on faith that you’ve stuck the landing? And while I’m not sure that I’m going to jump right into the Tensorate Series, I’ll freely admit that The Black Tides of Heaven is intriguing and compelling, even if its short length holds it back in a way that keeps it from truly working for me.

Black Tides is the story of Mokoya and Aleka, a pair of twins born to the Protector of this land but sold to a monastery not long after their birth. As the twins grow, they begin to question their mother’s rule, yes, but also start to try to figure out their own place in what’s happening – Mokoya has the gift of prophecy, but Aleka is action-driven and wants to be out of the shadow their sibling. And as Aleka starts to discover their path, the question begins to be raised: will the bond between the twins survive, even as both are starting to fight back against their own mother?

As with most first entries in a fantasy world, Black Tides has to spend time establishing the world, and while Yang’s creation isn’t that different from our own, the changes aren’t small ones. Children determine their own gender as they come of age; while they’re young, they’re given gender-neutral pronouns (“they”, generally), before growing into a gender of their choice. As for the world beyond that, Yang has a mixture of ideas, with a hint of steampunk, a deeply Asian-influenced culture, and an elemental sort of magic whose complexity is only hinted at here.

In general, that “hinting” gets at the biggest issue with Black Tides, which, ironically enough, comes back to the length. The scope of this story spans 30 years, which is no small amount of time, and gets into battles, politics, family dynamics, and the nature of growing up – not simple fare, of course, but in the book’s short length, it feels…compressed, especially when you factor in the time that needs to be spent building the world around the characters. Is it all compelling and interesting? Undeniably, and the glimpses we get of Yang’s vision are fascinating ones – there’s a real sense of imagination here, but one that’s grounded in its characters in a way that I appreciate.

At the same time, Black Tides feels like what it is: a short, standalone introduction to something bigger. And while it entirely stands on its own terms, telling a whole story, how satisfying that story is may vary with the reader. For me, it’s a wonderful appetite whetter, but as its own experience, feels a bit too light to entirely leave you feeling like you got a full meal.

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The Name of the Rose, by Umberto Eco / ****

nameofroseI’m fascinated by publishing phenomenons – books that just take over the public imagination. Sometimes you read them and you understand how they became a hit (the Harry Potter series); sometimes you may not like them but you can see why people love them (TwilightThe Da Vinci Code). But other times, what you get is something truly unlikely, such as The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, which I loved but is also a Scandinavian book about female empowerment that takes over 100 pages to get going, is filled with foreign names, and meanders its way around its story in an unorthodox fashion. (I really liked that book, but it’s a truly bizarre best seller.)

But if The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is an unlikely bestseller, The Name of the Rose is positively bewildering in its success. Here’s a book that immerses you deeply in medieval life, gets into complex debates about medieval theology and 14th century schisms in the Catholic church, goes on page-long diversions into church art and the construction of manuscripts, features frequent interludes of untranslated Latin, and does all this while absolutely refusing to hold the reader’s hand at all. Yes, there’s a murder mystery at the book’s core, and a lot of intrigue, and even a bizarre labyrinth and dream sequences, but this isn’t what anyone would call an easy read.

And yet, somehow, I couldn’t put this down, despite my occasional frustrations at Eco’s discursive style, complicated subject matter, and overall verbosity. Or maybe I enjoyed the book because of those things, because whatever else you say about The Name of the Rose, the fact remains that the book immerses you in the medieval era in a way that almost nothing else ever has. No, Eco has no interest in helping you navigate the text, nor its debates and themes, because the characters themselves are already immersed in this world, and they don’t need to explain things to each other. Instead, Eco wants you to live in this world, see it through the eyes of contemporaries, and go back to a different time.

The result is a book that’s really hard to fit into any traditional genre classifications. Is this a murder mystery? Undeniably, with a series of grisly murders, unclear motivations, a possible conspiracy, mysterious labyrinths containing secrets, and a constant sense of danger (to say nothing of a Sherlock Holmes surrogate in the form of a monk). But to label it a mystery doesn’t work, because no mystery would have this much debate about the role of poverty and material possessions in the Catholic Church, or a debate as to the legitimacy of the Pope, an element of the book that’s given equal weight as the murders, and discussed possibly in more depth.

So is it historical fiction? Maybe so…but it’s also weirdly metafictional at times (with a playful prologue that establishes the book as a half-remembered re-creation of a manuscript that might or might not be fake), interested in the minutiae of theology and monastic life, all while being a thriller, but one that only seems partially compelled to follow the murder thread. It’s a truly odd book, and one that really had no business being as popular as it was, if you subscribe to publishing wisdom – it’s difficult, takes forever to get going, doesn’t hold the reader’s hand, and more.

But while you’re under its spell, none of that really matters, in the end; if the goal of a book is to transport you to another place or time, The Name of the Rose does that incredibly well. It’s not always “fun”, it’s not always fast-paced, but it’s immersive in a way that few books manage to be – and that, in of itself, is something worthwhile all on its own.

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The Plotters, by Un-su Kim / ****

theplottersI’ve talked on here about my deep love of Korean cinema, which defies any sort of genre boundaries and easy classification in favor of wild, ambitious stories that defy expectations, go to wild extremes, and mix black comedy and dark tone effortlessly with brutal violence or surprising heart. So it’s no surprise that Korean fiction is equally odd, if Un-su Kim’s The Plotters is any indication. The broad outlines seem familiar enough – a professional assassin is starting to question orders and might be being betrayed by those who employ him – but none of that really conveys what an unusual book this truly is.

For one thing, there’s The Plotters‘ bizarre cast of characters, which includes a man whose pet incineration service also allows him to dispose of assassination targets, a librarian who never reads books, an orphan literally left in a trash can, a slew of hypercapable assassins and crime lords, and a whole swath of dangerous elements inhabiting the book’s seedy underground. But then there’s the world Kim has created, with libraries full of unread books, retired generals living with their dogs, political vacuums, men in shadowy chairs pulling the strings of the assassins’ lives, and so much more. It’s all close to our own world, but Kim adds so many slightly offbeat touches that you can’t help but find it all the more vibrant – oh, and very darkly funny. From toilet bombs to casually severed fingers, The Plotters is a book with a morbid sense of humor, but one that absolutely worked for me – these are violent men, so why wouldn’t their sense of humor be equally dark?

None of this, though, really conveys what it’s like to read The Plotters, which defies easy categorization. Yes, it’s a book where an assassin defies his orders and begins to feel that his handlers have betrayed him, but this isn’t the easy showdown of a conspiracy thriller or a brutal throwdown between lethal assassins. It’s about political corruption, and a lack of use for human life, and a desire for power that’s universal – in other words, it’s not the titular “plotters” that are the problem – it’s the whole world, which has no shortage of men who want horrible things done, as long as they don’t have to do it themselves.

What you end up with here is a wonderfully odd book, one that’s equal parts riveting crime thriller, thoughtful character study, cynical political/social commentary, dark comedy, and action novel – and it does all of them effortlessly, sliding between genre boundaries like they never existed, and even giving you a wonderfully heartfelt section when you think you’ve got the book figured out. Like Korean cinema, this is a book that feels like nothing else out there, and while it sometimes gets too sprawling for its own good – and other times feels too hemmed in by the archetypal story it’s telling – none of that kept me from having a blast reading it. It’s a fun time, and if you want a crime thriller that won’t feel like everything else out there, trust me, you’ll love this one.

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The Three-Body Problem Trilogy (a.k.a, The Remembrance of Earth’s Past series), by Cixin Liu / *****

It’s hard to know where to begin talking about The Three-Body Problem trilogy (officially known as the Remembrance of Earth’s Past series), a truly staggering piece of science-fiction written by Chinese author Cixin Liu and translated to English by Ken Liu and Joel Martinsen (Liu did books 1 and 3, while Martinsen did 2). A trilogy that spans literally thousands of years, deals with quantum physics, game theory, sociology, religion, space exploration, space colonization, and more, all driven by the nature of first contact with alien intelligence – there’s a lot going on in this series, and that’s before you start realizing just how much Cixin (reminder: Chinese names are traditionally written with the family name first and the given name second) truly takes on the advanced science of his ideas. And yet, when you finish it, you realize that you’ve read something truly incredible – a piece of hard science-fiction whose ambition, scope, richness, and ideas are impossible not to find yourself thinking about for days afterward.

ThreeBodyProblem1The series begins with The Three-Body Problem, which opens during the Chinese Revolution, depicting the conflict between science and politics in stark, honest terms -a theme that the series will grapple with often, in wildly different ways. We flash forward, though, to a near future, where scientists are killing themselves for unclear reasons. What this has to do with the characters from that Revolution-era prologue, a government program attempting to reach out to the galaxy in search of alien intelligence, and a complex computer simulation of a civilization subject to bewildering rules of nature, Cixin takes his time to explain. But what becomes clear quickly is that The Three-Body Problem is, in a way, a novel about first contact, and how humanity will react to a race whose purposes for coming here may not be entirely benevolent.

If you’re thinking that all of this sounds like a basic setup for an alien invasion novel, rest assured, that is definitely not what you’re getting with The Three-Body Problem. Instead, Cixin explores the social implications of such an arrival, and deals head-on with the complex questions that it would cause. Would humanity band together in the face of this, or would our already existing divisions fracture even deeper? Would people be terrified of this advanced race, or would they be viewed as gods? And would people truly feel that humanity is worth saving, or would they welcome a race who could bring out peace, even through subjugation? These aren’t simple ideas, but Cixin makes them the meat of the book, along with advanced discussions about the alien planet, which is governed by three suns, leaving their homeworld incapable of safe habitation (the source of the novel’s title).

More than that, Cixin takes no shortcuts in his story, embracing hard science-fiction as a way of dealing with his scenario. Communication across multiple light-years, limited telescopic technology, the disconnect between human and alien intelligences, relativity, black holes – all of this is relevant to the book, and while Cixin makes it accessible, be aware, this book doesn’t spoon feed you its physics. You’re going to have to come with some willingness to think about the advanced concepts on display and ponder them, from gravitational forces to quantum computing. It’s not pure technobabble, but it’s a challenging read at times, and assumes its readers have the willingness to take on its science.

If you do, though, what you’ll get is a complex, fascinating book about first contact, one that’s not quite like anything else I’ve read in how it handles the questions that such a contact would bring about. And while it’s the first book in a trilogy, none of that keeps the book from standing on its own, leaving room for further exploration but existing as a single piece of work that’s already remarkable on its own.

thedarkforestBut once you read The Dark Forest, the series’ second volume, Cixin’s ambition starts to come into focus. The question of first contact is settled, and the nature of the alien’s approach is known: this is to be a takeover of our planet. But how can we deal with a race so much more advanced than our own, constant surveillance by extra-dimensional forces, and fractured elements of humanity working against us?

If The Three-Body Problem was a first contact novel done as hard science-fiction, The Dark Forest is an alien invasion novel, albeit one in which the actual invasion is still many, many years away. It’s the first time Cixin starts using hibernation to leap through decades and even centuries, spanning huge chunks of time as humanity changes and evolves in the face of an arrival which will change everything. As humanity struggles to find ways to either defend itself or show that it means no harm, the race has to deal with its own fears of inevitable defeat or a desire to retreat from the only planet we’ve ever known.

It’s not as if The Three-Body Problem wasn’t already ambitious, but The Dark Forest is on a whole other level, dealing with interplanetary fleets, lightspeed travel, quantum computing, and more, watching as they evolve over huge swaths of time. But more than that, the novel is a deeply philosophical one, discussing the nature of life in the universe, questions about human nature and how we react in the face of threats, how we work together (or not), and game theory in how we try to handle uncertain intentions in allies and foes alike. Indeed, the central metaphor that gives the book its title (which doesn’t arrive until near the novel’s end) is a stunning one that helps you understand that what Cixin is writing about isn’t just this particular alien invasion, but about the nature of all life in the universe and how we attempt to define ourselves in the face of reality.

That Cixin does this while, again, mixing in such a compelling story (focusing especially on the “Wallfacers”, a small group of people tasked with covertly planning humanity’s resistance against the invasion) is nothing short of remarkable. The Dark Forest builds beautifully off of the questions and ideas raised in The Three-Body Problem, but turns them into something else entirely, changing the questions from “how do we initially react” to “how would we redefine ourselves in the face of such news”. Far from suffering from any sort of “middle book syndrome,” The Dark Forest is incredible, engaging with incredible concepts but never neglecting the human characters that anchor its massive scope nor the ticking clock at its story’s core.

deathsendAnd then, along comes Death’s End, the series’ final volume, and everything changes again. Because if the first two volumes were about how we come to terms with the fact that we’re not alone in the universe, the final volume is about what it’s like to realize that you – and every other civilization that’s ever lived – are limited in your time, and might one day have no choice but to end?

Once again using the previous book as a launching point, Death’s End takes on the uneasy stalemate we were left with, but watches as things shift quickly out of control in the exact way the end of The Dark Forest feared they might. Just like the others, Death’s End is undeniably the final part of this saga, but it feels like its own book, giving us another new central character and a very different tone, one that finds itself wondering which is more important: survival or morality? And as usual, Cixin doesn’t believe in easy answers.

Spanning even more time than the other books, Death’s End unfolds on an epic scale, as humanity tries to find a way to prevent itself from being viewed as a threat by the rest of the galaxy. But is the sacrifice worth it – in other words, is safety so important that we should cripple ourselves as a race? Do we escape and leave our planet behind, setting out as nomads across the galaxy? Or do we try to intimidate others, showing that we’re not to be messed with? Death’s End deals with these questions as it has in the other novels, diving into the science, the game theory, and the objections, and giving readers the sense that sometimes, there are no easy answers to be given.

Indeed, what’s so compelling about Death’s End is the main character, who takes choices that so often feel like the wrong ones for a situation – I often found myself almost screaming at her for being wrong…and yet, you understand why she’s doing them, and can almost agree. Where do we draw the line between survival and being a monster? What’s acceptable to do in order to save ourselves? And does it truly matter, on a large enough time scale?

Over the course of Death’s End, Cixin draws all of the series’ various threads into focus thematically, making it clear that this is a series about recontextualizing our place in the universe and how we would react to that. But he’s done so, once again, by focusing on a small group of characters, advanced and thoughtful explorations of science and philosophy, and a story that’s engrossing on both the macro and micro level. And while the series comes to an appropriately complex, epic ending, I love how even to the end, Cixin makes it equally about the larger questions and about these characters and the choices they have to make – and their own emotional stakes as well.

To explain this series is a difficult challenge, to put it mildly. This is a series that spans a huge amount of time, deals with advanced scientific concepts in complex terms, grapples with rich philosophical and political ideas, debates questions without easy answers, and gives you a scope that can be daunting. It’s a story of alien invasions, yes, but one in which the action sequences we’re so used to are replaced with existential dread, a rethinking of our own lives, and a fear of the unknown that’s hard to quantify. It’s also the story of people caught up in these times, trying to give themselves a good life while never forgetting the larger questions of their era, and juggling their own fears with fears for humanity. In other words, it’s what hard science-fiction is great at – thoughtful questions, big ideas, and speculation, all of which change the way you think about the world.

This series is a truly incredible achievement, one that honestly left me a bit staggered and reeling as I attempt to think about it all, but one that I love all the more for what it accomplishes. If you’re a hard science-fiction fan, or simply someone who loves dealing with the complex ramifications of common ideas, this is a must read series. I’ve never read anything like it in my life, and I’m a richer person for the ideas it’s inspired me to think about.

Amazon: The Three-Body Problem | The Dark Forest | Death’s End

The Boy in the Suitcase, by Agnete Friis and Lene Kaaberbøl / ****

suitcaseSay what you will about Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (I was a fan on the whole), but one of the most important things about the series for readers was the way it clued in the rest of the world to the growing Nordic noir movement. Bleak, morally complex, diving deeply into political and gender issues, and ripping off the outwardly placid faces of their countries to expose the dark deeds underneath, it’s a genre that I’m glad finally made its way overseas, giving us the chance to see how other countries take on a genre that’s so familiar to us.

Take The Boy in the Suitcase, by Agnete Friis and Lene Kaaberbøl, which introduces the character of Nina Borg, who the two women have gone on to write a number of books about. (Separately, Friis is a journalist and Kaaberbøl is a children’s author.) The Boy in the Suitcase opens with its titular image, as Borg opens a suitcase she’s retrieved from an airport, only to find a three-year-old boy shoved unconscious and left there. How he got there – and why – is the subject of the book, which immediately backtracks, following the boy’s mother, the kidnapper, the man who ordered the kidnapping, and Borg, watching as each thread plays out and giving us bits of the story along the way, carefully doling out each revelation when it’ll have the most impact.

As you might guess from that opening image, The Boy in the Suitcase is harrowing and intense, and that’s not even getting into the way the book looks at the treatment of immigrants, misogyny, abused women, and more, weaving all of these themes into the book carefully while never getting too far away from its story. And while it becomes clear that this isn’t a traditional child trafficking situation (thankfully), Kaaberbøl and Friis draw no small amount of suspense (and unease) from the questions about what the purpose is in abducting this child, leaving the actual answer – which is horrifying and yet completely logical, within the framework of the novel – until right near the end.

All of which makes this sound more like a traditional mystery than it is. Indeed, Friis and Kaaberbøl play this out unusually, keeping almost all of their threads separate until the novel’s very end, never giving you the moment you’d expect where the “heroes” come together and trade information. The mother is constantly uncertain if her child is even alive; Nina has the child but doesn’t even know his name; the kidnapper can’t figure out where the child is or who has him; and the man behind it all is only aware that everything has gone wrong but doesn’t know how. It’s a book that unfolds in an incredibly odd style, with revelations coming but often not affecting the story, and so many main characters that it sometimes feels rushed when it comes to developing them.

Indeed, for a book that’s nominally the first in the “Nina Borg” series, Nina herself feels like just one small piece of the novel. She’s a compelling character, mind you, one whose experiences working with refugees and abused women have left her damaged and unable to cope with regular life, often going absurd lengths – and abandoning her family – to take on causes. That’s an interesting hook for a character, giving Nina a blend of “dedicated knight” and “damaged hero” that we don’t often get in female characters – in America, she’s be the “cop who works too hard and can’t leave the case at work.” But here, Nina is a social worker whose experiences have left such a mark on her that she refuses to accept injustice, and often can’t be a wife, a mother, or even an individual person – an interesting idea for a hero.

The Boy in the Suitcase is a riveting read, but it’s an odd one, and not entirely satisfying; it feels so unusually constructed that you feel like the story is unfolding more for the reader than the characters, with none of them truly able to change or react to the situations. But none of that will make you able to put it down as Kaaberbøl and Friis turn the screws constantly, ratcheting up the tension and leaving you uneasy as to the fate not only of this child, but also of the various players in this disappearance. It’s a great window into Nordic noir, though, and makes me curious to see what else the genre holds, to see if it’s all this different, compelling, and rich.

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Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald / * ½

mv5bzjfimguzmtatndawmc00zjrhltk0otutmmjimzm5zmvjodqxxkeyxkfqcgdeqxvymdm2ndm2mq-_v1_Look, I’m about to spend a lot of time tearing The Crimes of Grindelwald to shreds. A lot. So before that happens, let me concede the following points:

  1. I really wasn’t sold on the idea of Jude Law as a young Albus Dumbledore, but he pulls off the role wonderfully, bringing an energy, wit, and charm to the part that’s completely necessary to make it work. Law is funny and engaging, and a blast to watch; he’s undeniably the best part of the film, even though he’s barely in it.
  2. The other part of the film I genuinely enjoyed was Newt Scamander’s magical menagerie; it bends reality in a wonderful way that taps into what magic should be, giving the movie one of its only moments of actual wonder. (Mind you, this was also already done in the first movie, so this is basically only repeating a trick that worked once. But I’m trying to find a few positive notes before the rest of this review continues.)
  3. There’s a brief moment where the movie gives Grindelwald a motivation that taps into something truly interesting and complex, turning him into more than a cartoonish villain and instead into a figure who could take the movie in an interesting place. It’s scrapped almost immediately, but for a moment, it’s there.

Okay. Got that? Because that’s about the last nice things I have to say about Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, which is a sloppy, badly constructed, poorly plotted, thrown together piece of fan-service that forgets everything that made the Harry Potter series wonderful in favor of disappearing up its own ass, delivering supposed “revelations” that lack any impact other than what you bring in with you from outside the film, hoping that the audience can do the heavy lifting for the movie. I may not have loved the original Fantastic Beasts (which, to be fair, I didn’t hate, either; I just found it entirely empty and unnecessary, and so in love with setting up later films that it forgot to be worth seeing on its own terms), but compared to Crimes of Grindelwald, it’s a masterpiece of plotting and tightness.

I don’t even know where to begin explaining the problems with this film. Do I start with the fact that it basically has no story, eschewing anything like a multi-act structure in favor of a story that basically revolves around one character saying a sentence to another one, and just finds way to stall until we get there? Because, lord, there’s no story here at all; characters simply lurch from scene to scene, often stopping for massive exposition dumps to push things along, or chasing another character who’s running away for no clear reason. If there’s a point to the film, it’s supposedly about the orphan boy from the first movie (I’ve honestly forgotten his name, and I don’t care enough to look him up) learning who his family is, and Grindelwald tossing up obstacles so that he can claim he’s leading him on a path, mainly so he can stall the kid for two hours before telling him something he could have done at the beginning of the movie. Beyond that, things happen for no reason – or for dumb reasons – giving us a muddled mess of a movie that doesn’t even make sense on its own internal logic. (There is one other plot, involving one character’s missing brother, which I can’t get into for fear of spoilers; suffice to say, it maybe shows that the movie shouldn’t do plot, because that one incident is completely bewildering and doesn’t register as anything that a human being would actually do in life. So maybe no plot is better than incredibly stupid, incomprehensible, nonsensical plot?) Why does that one character sacrifice herself for what appears to be no reason? Why is there so much child murder in this movie? When did Nifflers become capable of advanced thinking? Why would a newspaper print a mistake like the one here? Why is Grindelwald escaping from prison not a big deal (characters literally say, “well, he’s done nothing wrong”)? Who knows? Certainly no one who watched the film.

None of this is a story in anything sort of a reasonable way, but luckily, the movie matches that by not having characters develop at all, so much as they arbitrarily make decisions. One character defects to the side of evil largely because it’s time for someone to make A Shocking Decision You Never Saw Coming, but it doesn’t really make any sense for her to do that. Dan Fogler’s muggle friend appears in the film thanks to the laziest hand-waving away of his memory wipe, but then proceeds to really do nothing except wander around in the background. And our nominal hero, Newt Scamander, decides to be neutral, and then not neutral, for reasons best known to himself, changing because the movie is over and it’s time to tease the third. That’s your character arcs and development, pretty much. And given how much the original Potter series worked because of its rich characterization, how did Rowling turn her back on that in favor of convoluted mythology and high-fiving herself for her clever canon connections?

Because, trust me, the lack of story isn’t nearly as infuriating as the sheer number of times that characters appear only so that the audience can say “ooh, that’s someone I know!”, and have nothing to do with the story? That’s maybe most notable in the case of Nagini, who’s here revealed to be a young woman who will one day be stuck as a snake forever. That could be interesting, I guess, but Nagini literally gets no lines of note in the film, other than occasionally looking scared or worried. We know nothing more about her at the end of the film than we did at the beginning, and her purpose seems only to make people go “wow, that big scary snake in the books was actually a person.” I guess that matters for some reason, but it’s certainly not clear why, because you could replace Nagini with any other female character from the series and have the same effect. (That Rowling has so little interesting done with female characters here is a pretty colossal letdown on its own terms.) But that sort of thing is par for the course for Grindelwald, where a mentioned character from the first Potter book appears without explanation or purpose, Professor McGonagall is mentioned as being in the background so we can all “ooh” and “ahh” (despite the fact that her being there doesn’t actually work within the series’ timeline), and the final line of the movie rams home a “shocking” canon revelation that’s so incredibly stupid and smug that I wanted to throw something at the screen in irritation. (Seriously, even if this movie was good, that ending would be so bad as to ruin the rest of it by itself.)

And, of course, there’s Grindelwald himself. Let’s set aside the choice to cast Johnny Depp, which is pretty awful on at least two levels (as a cinephile who’s bored of Depp’s schtick and laziness, and as a human who’s pretty repulsed by his actions of late) as best as we can, and just focus on this role, which basically is “I’m a bad man.” That’s it. There’s nothing interesting about Grindelwald, no sense of why he’s dangerous, no charisma, nothing more than a heavy-handed Nazi allegory (and, oh, will I have more to say about that in a moment) and a character who is evil because we need a big, over-the-top, EEEEEEEEEEEVIL villain in our “grounded” second series. But what makes him tick? Why is he evil? Why does he fear Dumbledore (a point which literally makes no sense, given some of the film’s revelations)? WHO KNOWS? The movie has no interest in doing anything other than letting Depp wander around and be evil, and that trick got old real quick in the first series with Fiennes. But at least there, it was a bit more forgivable, given the series’ roots as a book for younger children. Here, though? It’s ridiculous, and makes that aforementioned one jab at complexity all the more frustrating and angering.

Not enough flaws for you? Should we discuss how J.K. Rowling continues to want all the credit for declaring that Dumbledore and Grindelwald were lovers, but gleefully elides out any mentions of it from her film, when it would honestly make sense for it to be explained? It’s hard to think of a defense of this that doesn’t boil down to “I don’t want gay characters to hurt my box office,” and that’s a pretty toxic argument to make.

Or should we discuss the way the movie wants to let its villains be Nazis in all but names, but then features a recurring theme that maybe if we didn’t attack and crack down on Nazi rallies and meetings, people wouldn’t want to be Nazis? Because let me tell you, in the wake of events like Charlottesville, that message is pretty hard to take. (And lest you think I’m reaching, I’d only tell you that a legitimate moment in this movie is when one of Grindelwald’s followers attacks someone and gets killed, and then they publicly rally and remind everyone “We are not the ones hurting people,” which is a bit on the nose.)

The short version of all of this is that I hated this pathetic excuse for a movie. All of the actors do their best, and director David Yates films it fine enough, but The Crimes of Grindelwald makes no sense, has no story, gives us no characters to care about, piles on the fan-service to an obnoxious and desperate degree, revises canon in a nonsensical fashion for shock factor, and if all of that’s not enough, legitimately offended me and made me angry in the way it treats gay characters as a tease without any courage and basically takes the side of right-wing zealots in public debates. It’s a mess of a film, and one whose message is at best incoherent, but at worst, legitimately horrible and against what I truly think the views of its author are. It’s a bad film, a bad excuse for storytelling, and one that truly makes the series worse for existing.

But, hey, it’s not like Rowling could have learned the dangers of overly fan-servicey prequels that tie everything into too neat bows while not giving us interesting characters from any other movies, right? Right?

IMDb