Review: Fantastic Beasts The Crimes of Grindelwald

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I am not the most hardcore fan of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books or the movies. I still find them incredibly entertaining and imaginative. And perhaps it’s my age where I’ve seen fandom devolve from healthy debates to full on battles within fandom that keeps me from going overboard with my fandom. I’ve been through it with Star Wars, Star Trek, and Doctor Who. But I’m at an age where as much as I love these properties and their world I don’t want to center my life around it. They are fun and can be enjoyed for what they are or even dived more deeply for some sort of hidden meaning that is or is not apparent.

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald is going to piss some people off. Some of it will just be fans who just want to recycle the experience and whimsy of the Potter Books or marvel at the fantastic beasts from the previous film. I didn’t want any of that. Your mileage may vary. This is definitely a dark film which means it’s right in my wheelhouse.

The first film, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, saw a new protagonist in Rowling’s world come to the screen. Newt Scamander, played haltingly by Eddie Redmayne, comes to 1927 New York with his magic suitcase full of magical creatures (It’s bigger on the inside).  Soon enough magical shenanigans and property destruction ensues. Beneath that though is fact that Gellert Grindelwald, a dark wizard who believes wizards are meant to rule over humans. He is caught in the end.

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald picks up a few months after his arrest and the film opens with an elaborate escape as Grindelwald is being transferred by Thestral carriage to the wizarding prison of Nurmengard.

Meanwhile, back in London, Newt Scamander has his travelling privileges revoked because he basically broke New York but also because he refuses to become an Auror like his brother Theseus. The Ministry believes that not only is Credence, the young Obscurial from the previous chapter is alive but is in Paris and wherever he is so will Grindelwald be, because — plot.

After Newt refuses the Ministry’s offer to become a dark wizard hunter, along comes Albus Dumbledore (played by Jude Law) who also tries to convince Newt to go to Paris because Credence is in search of his real family and he may be related to someone they both know. It is also revealed that Dumbledore was behind the machinations of Newt ending up in New York in the first place. Newt again refuses.

Newt does go to Paris, though. He brings along Jacob Kowalski who had obviously recovered his memory from the obliviating rain from the previous film. Jacob and Newt are looking for Queenie who left in a huff because Jacob thinks even though England has no wizarding anti-miscegenation laws, their marriage would be harmful for her. So Queenie leaves to join her sister, who not only is an Auror but is also looking for Credence. So plot devices compel Newt forward and to once again become reluctantly involved in the worldly problems of wizards.

What will follow is basically a laying down of the foundations for the next three films since it is projected to be a 5 film series. Now there is plenty of hijinks involving following Credence around as he follows clue to his real life before being adopted in America. Along the way, someone is also hunting him. The dude is the living McGuffin of this movie.

We are also introduced to a very human Nagini, who is described as a Maledictus. A witch with a blood curse that not only turns them into a beast but will eventually permanently make them so. Somewhere along the way, Grindelwald acquires a handful of disposable and frankly unremarkable minions.  Honestly, I think they are there just for Johnny Depp to have someone to talk to.

For a five movie series, there is a lot of information and plot details that are revealed especially in the third act where there is a long scene where hidden histories of some of the characters are revealed eventually revealing who Credence is (is allegedly is). A lot of it does no add up though because of established lore, so there is going to a lot o debate online about that.

I am not going to spoil that for this review but I may get into it in a deep dive in a later post. But the motivations of Grindelwald becomes more clear and we get more background on why Dumbledore can not go against Grindelwald directly.

Crimes of Grindelwald is far from being a perfect film but it is not a bad film. I truly enjoyed it but there are lots of questions I have as far as established history is concerned. Either Rowling made a mistake in the writing and her timeline or she is retconning he lore. And she has been known to retcon before. Nevertheless it is her world and we are along for the ride.

The movie really could have been three hours long mainly because the last act seemed to throw so much information at the end. The final act is solid once you get past the first act of establishment and meandering plot-points.

The visual effects are as can be expected from the series, well done with some nice scenes of the wizarding world. Now concerning the world, the various Ministries of France, England and the United States do not look like the Dickensian world that we have seen in the Harry Potter.Ministers and Aurors wear modern (1927 modern) suits and not robes. The Parisian alternate world, instead of looking like London’s Diagon Alley, it looks like 1927 Paris.

The cast does well with the material they are given. Frankly the love triangle (quadrangle?) does not really work and it seems to show in their performance. Dan Fogler as Jacob and Allison Sudol as Queenie are an incredibly charming couple and the one we instinctively root for. I hope it works out though as there is some Empire Strikes Back level of stuff that goes on by the end of the film.

I’ve heard the Harry Potter franchise described as this generation’s Star Wars. On that note, I’ve seen all the Wizarding World movies and have enjoyed them all, some more than others. Some Star Wars films I outright hated. And with Crimes of Grindelwald we get an appealing movie that moves the narrative forward rather clumsily at some points. It still remains fun and entertaining. But be aware that it is dark.

Recommended with the caveat that if you are just a casual fan, you may have to catch up and if you are a rabid fan, you may be nitpicking this for days.

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Review: Maquia When the Promised Flower Blooms

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I’m a sucker for anime that leaves me an emotional wreck. And as far as that is concerned, Maquia: When the Promised Flower Blooms left me wanting to curl up in a ball. I briefly mentioned in my coverage of Crunchyroll Expo that this film will make you want to call your mother. My mother passed away three years ago. So it drove home even deeper how important she was in my life, though sometimes growing up, I did not realize or appreciate it. It took me a while to process Maquia and it was a good thing I saw it in an English dub as through much of my experience watching it had my eyes filled with tears.

Screenwriter and first time director Mari Okada, manages to do something that is beyond impressive for a debut directing effort. Channeling influences from her own relationship with her mother, Okada has crafted a film that is layered in nuance and allegory. It does occasionally fall into some melodramatic traps of coincidence and convenience in order to drive the story to where she wants it at times.

The director made her reputation as a writer for anime such as Anohana and Anthem of the Heart.  It is very out of the ordinary for writers to become anime directors, they usually work their way up from animators. In fact, Ms. Okada did not have plans to direct. It was president of P.A. Works Kenji Horikawa who wanted a project from her that was “100 percent Okada.” The result, despite a few flaws, is a piece of work that is both personal and beautiful.

Maquia belongs to a race of beings who are not only long-lived but stop showing signs of age at what would appear to others as teenagers. The world appears to be standard fantasy world that is in transition from medieval to industrialization. When her people are attacked by another kingdom seeking their secret of longevity, she becomes separated from everyone as the population scatters and wanders the countryside alone. She finds a newborn baby boy clutched in the arms of his dead mother who had apparently been killed in a raid. Despite having no idea how to raise a child, she chooses to adopt the child as her own and name him Ariel.

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She is taken in by a peasant family that helps her cover up the fact that she is a member of the immortal Iorf clan. Things start to become difficult as it is obvious to everyone in her village that her son is growing older while she seems eternally fifteen. She eventually has to leave but while traveling finds hardship in finding work to support herself and Ariel. No one, it seems, wants to hire a single mother.

The middle of the film takes place while Ariel is in his teen years. No longer able to pass as mother and son, they now must pretend to be sister and brother. As the kingdom they live in prepares for war with neighboring kingdoms, Ariel like teenagers do, struggles for his own independence away from Maquia. Their relationship becomes strained here and throughout his rebelliousness, Maquia still declares that she is his mother no matter what and will always care for him. Ariel knows this deep inside and joins the guard to protect her as she has always protected him.

Parallel to Maquia’s story is the tragedy of Leilia another Iorf who was captured and meant to be a brood mare for the kingdom’s prince. It is hoped that she would give the royal family immortal children but this is not the case as he daughter is perfectly mortal and she is no longer able to bare any more children. She is cast aside and is a kept from even seeing her mortal daughter.

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The core theme and focus of the drama that unfolds is motherhood, and the sacrifices they often make and the secret heartbreak they endure alone. As Lelia must endure the pain of separation from her child, Maquia must endure over the struggles of raising a child that she knows she will outlive. “I won’t cry. Moms don’t cry.” is an oft repeated line to show the maternal strength to endure.

This is a plot heavy animated film that takes place in a world that is very well realized. It never takes long unnecessary expository moments to tell us what this world is though. We know enough about the kingdoms, and the history as is needed. The reasons why the kingdoms are warring against each other are easy to figure out by just the dialog. If you are aware of high fantasy settings like Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones then the world is not that hard to accept. Despite the familiar fantasy setting, the visuals are still a feast for the eyes. Simply, it’s a beautiful film to look at.

The musical score by veteran composer Kenji Kawai, best known for the classic score to the original Ghost in the Shell movie, adds a score that is full of lush strings and woodwinds. It serves  the film well and if you listen to the score on its own, it is quite relaxing.

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It’s not expected that a first time director make a perfect film, and Mari Okada does make a few choices that are overly melodramatic and seem to stretch how much I’m willing to accept the plot device of coincidences — even in an anime. Ariel, at times seems more annoying than is necessary. Some of the Leilia subplot remains unresolved in the end as well.

Unless your relationship with your mother is something out of something like Mommie Dearest, you will want to call your mother afterward. Despite it’s epic and large scale setting, it is at its core an intimate story designed to tug at your heart and stir your well of emotions. I have no problems recommending this with the Highest of Recommendations. Just bring the tissue.

The US theatrical release is distributed by Eleven Arts Studio, which ran a limited subtitled release earlier in year. They are now doing a limited release of the English dub. Information on showings and tickets can be found here. It begins to roll out on September 21st. No word yet on a home release.

As of this writing, Maquia: When the Promised Flower Blooms also has a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.  That, to me, is rare for a non Studio Ghibli anime.

Perfect Blue: A Review and Look Back

 

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Note: This review will contain adult language and subject matter.

Nineteen-ninety seven was a banner year for anime, not only on television but in theaters as well. It brought us the instant classic Princess Mononoke which for many would be the gateway for many Westerners to Studio Ghibli. Then there was a trifecta of mindfuck anime films, Evengelion: Death and Rebirth, End of Evangelion, and Perfect Blue.

Coincidentally all three of these films are out of print in the North American Market. Perfect Blue is available in an English friendly Blu-ray from the UK, however, but locked to Region B so unless you have a region free player, you are out of luck. Hopefully Perfect Blue’s status will change as GKids has the theatrical distribution rights for a new remaster of this anime classic. It is this remaster that has been making the rounds as either a Fathom event or in indie theaters.

Satoshi Kon made his directing debut with Perfect Blue. Despite its age, the film holds up as a suspenseful, disturbing, and surreal examination and critique of fame, especially how it is treated in Japan and specifically its idol culture.

Mima Kirigoe is the lead singer of a moderately successful idol group called Cham. Felling that there is no more for her in the idol scene, she decides to break away from the group and begin an acting career. Some of her fans aren’t particularly happy with this idea, especially a stalker who will later be identified as Me-Mania.

She starts off with a small part in a television psychological crime drama that as it unfolds eerily parallel things going on in her life. She also discovers a fan site on the Internet called Mima’s room. At first she finds it amusing but as she reads further it is evident that whoever is writing it is not only writing as her but knows too much of her personal and day-to-day life.

After the filming of a brutal and traumatizing rape scene, the world of reality and imagination begin to meld an unravel for her. Meanwhile, people around her have been suffering some brutal acts of retribution for perceived slights against Mima’s perfect wholesome idol persona. Is Mima losing her mind? And is it possible that Mima is doing these things herself and not remembering it? She is most certainly losing her grip on reality she sees her old idol personal at random. While surviving members of Cham are charting better after her leaving, she even sees herself in the sound booth while visiting them one day.

Along the course of the film, three journalists act as a kind of chorus commenting on the flighty nature of fans and what is in store for Mima.

Even after 20 years, the prescience of this film really holds up to scrutiny. The only things that seem to date it is the now nostalgic look at early Internet fans and technology. Back then URLs and learning to navigate to a homepage was all new. But in the end, it is not only commentary on Japanese fan culture but on obsessive fandom in general. It is an examination that is as relevant today as it was 20 years ago. In this era of social media and the toxicity of fandom, Perfect Blue holds up as not a warning but a reflection of the horrible effects that fame has not only on the celebrities but the overly obsessive who think they own that celebrity.

It is a shame that this film is out of print in home media. But when someone put forth a question on GKids’ Facebook page about a future home release, they responded with this teasing and hopeful line:

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Until then, catching a screening of this at your local theater is your current option. It has been noted that Darren Aronofsky is a huge fan of the film and at one time wanted to remake it. It seems he is definitely influenced by it. I highly recommend seeing it in the theater if you have never see this important work of anime cinema.

Jade City by Fonda Lee

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Jade City is my adult debut and it also marks my foray into epic fantasy. It came about from watching kung fu movies and thinking, “You know, I’m a long-time student of martial arts, so why can’t I punch through concrete or fly thirty feet into the air yet?” I started envisioning a society where magical jade granted special abilities to warriors with the proper training and bloodline, and the idea merged with my longstanding enthusiasm for mafia stories to become this modern gangster family saga. It’s the most intense, ambitious thing I’ve ever written, and there’s more to come.

— Fonda Lee

Some of my fond memories of growing up was watching plenty of Hong Kong martial arts films as a kid. With the advent of home video, I discovered the gangster genre, which included of course healthy doses of John Woo movies, starring his muse Chow Yun Fat. I also became fans other directors like Ringo Lam and Johnnie To. Growing up, my favorite pieces of American Cinema was and is to this day The Godfather and The Godfather Part II.

Fonda Lee and her first non-YA novel Jade City blends together so much of what I loved in movies from my youth: wuxia, heroic bloodshed, gangsters, and brotherhood. It gives us a world that is heavily influenced by Asian cinema and culture without it being an entirely Asian specific culture or country. What comes out is an original fantasy alternate world that feels like our own yet is incredibly unique and fresh.

Jade is a vaulable substance that allows certain members of society to channel magical properties that enhance strength, stamina, and reflexes. Jade users are known as Green Bones and at times their powers are almost legendary. But in reality they can only can use it properly after very long and thorough training. For the untrained the allure of jade can be seductive and even touching it can have addictive properties, instilling a lust to possess and wear it. Those that are properly trained can become strong fighters and when in single combat duels or other fights to the death, the victor will take their dead opponent’s jade, making them even more powerful.

The city of Janloon is a post “War of All Nations” city on the island of Kekon that has power divided by two ruling clans. Though on the surface, it may seem as these are criminal organizations they are responsible for keeping the peace. They are regarded as protectors of their territories and of the people who live in it. It is almost feudal. Kekon was once colonized by foreigners and goes to say that their is quite a bit of prejudice against foreigners and especially those who are half-blooded.

The Kaul Family run the No Peak Clan and they are highly regarded with its elderly and ailing patriarch, the Torch, a hero to the people. His grandson, Lan, is the current Pillar of the clan, the leader. His younger hot-headed brother, Hilo, is the Horn, the head of the troops, or fists. They maintain a steady peace in their territories. Their biggest rival, the Ayt family of the Pillar of the Mountain Clan is its biggest rival and has aspirations of total control of the city. Within this conflict is family struggles of power, how those who have it don’t want it and those with the greatest power potential is groomed for great things at a young age.

The rivalry between factions come to a head when gang war breaks out and effects the whole city. Battles rage in streets for territory and shops and restaurants are even at play for the loyalty of their proprietors. Within that war, heroes, such as they are, will sacrifice and suffer loss. Bloodshed rains down by duels of bladed weapons, talon knives, or moonblades as they are called. And what gangster epic of heroic bloodshed would be complete without gunplay?

One running theme in the book is of people having to heed a call to a duty they are reluctant to assume. Some family members find themselves in situations where they doubt their ability to lead but because of family loyalty and honor they must. Shae, the young sister of the family is reluctantly drawn back in to the family affairs after leaving for some years and even abandoning her jade. Lan must come to the grips of handling a war that he was not meant to fight since he is not considered a wartime Pillar and must earn the respect of his soldiers. Hilo will later have to assume more responsibility than he had ever wanted or asked for.

The world that Fonda Lee creates is a rich one filled with history and atmosphere. It has a unique usage of titles and honorifics for its large cast of characters. Frankly I wished there was an appendix in the book. But that richness is what makes the world so immersive as well. This book may be heavily influenced by Asian cinema, but I of course kept imagining it as a perfect venue for an anime adaptation with a jazzy soundtrack like Cowboy Bebop’s. Jade City’s world is definitely one I’d like to visit again. And since this is the first of a planned trilogy and the second book Jade War is forthcoming I will gladly plunge into this it all over again. Highly Recommended.

Crunchyroll Expo 2018

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For those who are not familiar with Crunchyroll and it’s service, it is probably the largest provider of anime streaming content on the Internet. Through mobile and console apps via Roku, Amazon Fire, Playstation and XBox, they have grown very popular as the default service for licensed legally available anime. One of the pluses is their licensing deals with Japanese studios to allow simulcasts of current anime seasons. That means as an episode airs in Japan, it is streamed online with subtitles that same day.

In 2017, Crunchyroll had their first Crunchyroll Expo (CRX for short) at the Santa Clara Convention Center. It was quite a good turnout as a medium-sized convention, Not San Diego Comic-Con numbers, and that is a good thing. This year, CRX was held in San Jose, a larger venue and at least as big a crowd if not bigger. To be fair SacAnime was also going on in Sacramento and the behemoth of Dragon Con was also going in in Atlanta.

CRX differs a few ways from other anime conventions in that since it is run by a specific company there is of course bias towards Crunchyroll and it’s content. If you’ve ever been to Sony’s PSX, then this might sound familiar. Fortunately, Crunchyroll has enough content worth running a convention over.

The exhibit hall of the convention center had much to offer, including food from outside vendors whose menus included katsu curry sandwiches, takoyaki, and what has become a mainstay at geeky conventions in San Jose’s convention center, Psycho Donuts.

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In addition to the main hall being a vendors room where you can get all sorts of anime related merchandise from blu-rays to cosplay wigs, figures, plushies and even body pillows, there  was an extensive artists area. This artist area is a great place for finding art prints, postcards, even crochet. And to me the examples of creativity is really well represented in anime conventions.

This year, there were quite a few premiers and retrospective screenings of anime films all throughout the day. GKids, which is celebrating its 10 anniversary, brought in their library of Studio Ghibli films and even their Irish import, The Secret of Kells.  A major stand out for me was the premier of the English dub of Maquia. It had previously made the rounds in limited release subtitled and is now about to make the rounds again dubbed. If you get a chance to see this in the theater do so — and call your mother. Seriously, you’ll want to. It is truly a beautifully animated film that is also incredibly emotional as well.

Another premier was for a new anime about to make the rounds called Penguin Highway. It’s quite a charming and at times surreal film about youth, inquisitiveness, and of course penguins. I’m a sucker for pengins already adn penguins in anime will score huge points from me.

Both films came courtesy of Eleven Arts Studio which was responsible for bringing over the truly remarkable film A Silent Voice — which , by the way, still doesn’t have a North American home video release. I had to import the Region B UK blu-ray. Luckily I had a blu-ray player that can switch regions. More in-depth reviews of both films are forthcoming.

One new upcoming show I got to see was the premier of The Rise of the Shield Hero coming in January to Crunchyroll. Yes it’s yet another Isekai anime, a genre where a protagonist is brought out of their regular mundane world and transported to a fantasy RPG like world. And frankly for the first half of the premier episode I was cynical, but after a twist it does become very interesting and becomes a little darker. I’ll be looking forward to where they go with this in January. Meanwhile there have been several light novels and manga already translated and available already.

Of course, as with most anime conventions, there are guests. One of the most popular animes right now is My Hero Academia, an anime that is heavily influenced by Western super-hero comics. So it’s no wonder that it has a cross appeal not just because its influences but because it’s a darn good show. In my opinion it is also a show that is very well done in the English dub and several of the English voice actors were on hand having fun swapping their roles from several scenes from the show.

Crunchyroll was just recently acquired by AT&T and I don’t know how that will effect the service going forward and also the future of any more Expos. But if AT&T were smart and cared (seriously, I doubt that from my experience) they will grow and continue on with CRX. So until next year — hopefully…

My Reflections on The 2018 Hugos

The Hugo awards, probably the most prestigious award of the science fiction and fantasy community were handed out on August 19th at Worldcon 76 in San Jose. Now this was the second Worldcon I had ever been to but this first one I voted on.

So when you sign up as a member of Worldcon, you are eligible to nominate and vote on the Hugos. I did not participate in the nominating process. And a good thing too. Apparently all the books I read in 2017 were not published in 2017, except for one.

When the Hugo nominations came out I was not prepared for the fact that I did not read a single one of the novels on the list, nor any of the novellas, let alone novelettes or short stories. I did manage to see all the movies nominated which were under the category of “Dramatic Presentation Long Form.” So yay for having the time to watch a bunch of nerd movies and no time to read? No? I guess not.

There was of course no way that I was going to read all the works nominated. There was even a Best Series category. So I set out the goal of reading all the novels, six in total. And maybe the novellas as they were relatively short.

Little did I know, there is such a thing as a Hugo Packet. Much like how around awards season, studios provide screener copies of their movies for review and voting thus becomes easier. Yeah, I found out about this late.

Oh, and the votes are ranked voting, so out of six nominees, you are supposed to rank your 1st place to 6th place choice for winner.

Come the night of the Hugos and the show went on. My friends Veronica Belmont and Tom Merrit lost in the Best Fancast category for their show The Sword and Laser to the Mur Lafferty and Matt Wallace hosted Ditch Diggers podcast.  It’s Tom and Veronica’s first of hopefully many Hugo nominations.

Winner of the John W. Campbell Award for New Writer went to Rebecca Roanhorse. “So listen, y’all a Black and Indigenous woman just won the Campbell award,” she said to applause. Though I have not read her debut novel Trail of Lightning, I did read her short story, “Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience,” which by the way also won the Hugo award for best short story.

Winner of the Best Graphic Story went to Monstress, Volume 2: The Blood. Written by Marjorie M. Liu with art by Sana Takeda. This is the second year in a row of winning for them. It’s a really well done graphic novel series. Very mature, often graphic. But yet beautifully drawn as well. Sana Takeda also won the award for Best Professional Artist.

The winner of the Best Editor Long Form went to Sheila E. Gilbert. Now this is one of those categories that I know next to nothing about but they are responsible for editing many of our favorite novels. Here, I would probably shut down and look at my phone, then Ms. Grant closed with this statement:

I’d just like to add one more thing this year. We find ourselves living in a terrifying dystopian reality. If someone had submitted this as a novel to me, I would have turned it down as way too improbable. But if this had been a novel instead of 21st century America, I could have at least edited and improved the situation. The only way that we can all do that now is to exercise our right to vote. If you can vote in the Hugos, you can vote in the midterm elections. Vote to change the present. Vote to save the future. Go out and vote and get everyone you know to do the same. Thank you all very much.

Truly, to me the highlight of the night went to N.K. Jemisin who is the breaker of records. Not only is she the first African American woman to win the Hugo back in 2015, but she has won it three years in a row. No author has done it three years in a row. She won in 2015, thwarting the efforts of the Puppies movement. Her first win was for The Fifth Season, followed by The Obelisk Gate, and she pulled off the trifecta this year with the final book in the trilogy, The Stone Sky. Now some of those sad and rabid puppies may have cried tokenism and not earning her Hugo, Ms. Jemisin had a message for them:

And yes, there will be naysayers. I know that I am here on this stage, accepting this award, for pretty much the same reason as every previous Best Novel winner: because I worked my ass off. I have poured my pain onto paper when I could not afford therapy. I have studied works of literature that range widely and dig deeply, to learn what I could and refine my voice. I have written a Million Words of Crap and probably a Million More of Meh…But this is the year in which I get to smile at all of those naysayers—every single mediocre insecure wannabe who fixes their mouth to suggest that I do not belong on this stage, that people like me cannot possibly have earned such an honor, that when they win it it’s meritocracy but when we win it it’s “identity politics” — I get to smile at those people, and lift a massive, shining, rocket-shaped middle finger in their direction.

The full video of her speech is below:

And the full text is available here.

The Hugos are a way for us, readers to acknowledge great accomplishments. And this was a tough field to vote on. I regret not being able to vote in as many categories as I could, but I am glad I was able to participate.

For a full list of nominees and winners. The San Jose Mercury News, Newspaper for the host city has a fill list of nominees and winners here.

Until next year, Worldcon. I won’t be in Dublin, but I’ll be sure to vote again next year. And hopefully I will be reading more.