Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
The great charm of J.K. Rowling’s wizarding world is that it exists in tandem with our own,
it’s just that us Muggles can’t seem to notice it. As a wish-fulfillment fantasy then it comes tantalisingly close, as if we could almost reach out and touch it. This is crucial in helping to explain why Harry Potter’s become such a phenomenon: kids can be pretty sure that it’s not real, but then again… can they? That question’s enough.
So one of the best ideas to bless this film is that a Muggle (or ‘No-Maj’ as the Americans say) forms one of the cohort hunting down magical beasts in 1920s New York. His enchantment enhances our own, helping us to marvel once again at the realm of wizards, goblins, and 20ft. monsters. But just like us, the journey to this world can only ever be temporary, as the poor Muggle goes through the film aware that he’s to be ‘obliviated’ (his memory erased) at the end of it. Does that diminish his enchantment? Does it diminish our own, to know that we have to walk back out into the non-magic world once the credits roll? ‘It’s just like opening your eyes,’ the Muggle tells us. Exactly.
The wizard who gives our whistle-stop tour of fantastic beasts run amok is Newt Scamander, played by Potter superfan Eddie Redmayne. In interviews I’ve seen him light up with excitement when talking about Rowling’s creation, though that same thrill is harder to detect in his performance. This is because Newt is supposedly a ‘difficult’ chap, a hyper-intelligent loner who tends to irritate people – which might smack more of Cumberbatch terrain, but Eddie gives it a good go anyway, playing down his effortless likeability. If we don’t get the feeling of a fully formed character, with luck we might over the course of four more films to come.
The same could be said for the supporting characters, with none of them yet standing out as Ron, Hermione, Draco, Hagrid, Dobby, Dumbledore, Snape etc. etc. all immediately did in the prior classics. The villain of the piece here is deliberately confused, hidden away until the post-finale with a last-minute cameo that will wet the lips of fans the world over. Whether this evil-doer will come to match the hideous energy of He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named remains to be seen. Just as it remains to be seen whether Rowling can beef up the love interest ‘Tina’ or provide more insight into the mysterious ‘MACUSA’ (Magical Congress of the U.S.A.). She will need to do both in order to rival the extensive reach of her still-defining series.
Of course the main draw of this winter blockbuster is the action scenes, which is where director David Yates certainly delivers, with some impressive setpieces taking place in the tourist hotspots of the Big Apple (which is where the beasts inevitably congregate). There are more than enough thrills to help this movie cruise the box office wave through to Christmas. And what’s more, it deserves to.
The Weight of These Wings – Miranda Lambert
Miranda Lambert is, simply put, one of the best artists of the decade. Unbeknownst to most in the UK, where country music has only ever achieved fringe success, Lambert’s a critical and commercial smash in the States – for all the right reasons. From the start she established herself as the Crazy Ex-Girlfriend to the bro-country assholes who dominated the charts at the time, a gun-tootin’ cigarette-smokin’ badass prepared to take them to task for their misdemeanours whilst hypocritically (and hilariously) celebrating her own. Then she settled down with 2014’s Platinum, about her marriage to country-bro Blake Shelton, which portended a domestic bliss that came abruptly to an end earlier this year with news of their divorce.
‘The Nerve’ is the name of the first disc of this double album, and Lambert still shows plenty of it in spite of her recent split. The trademark sass and swagger which brought her to fame are still here, with the opening half a dozen songs rocking harder than anything I’ve heard all year, layering guitars and backing vocals atop each other in quite the visceral gut-punch. But the words don’t sound half as self-assured, detailing a return to singleton life viewed as both liberating and scary. She opines in the opener that ‘Happiness ain’t prison, but there’s freedom in a broken heart’. This line gets trickier every time I hear it: if what she had before was happiness, what is it that she’s got now? Is her broken heart a worthwhile price for freedom? She seems unsure, and that uncertainty plagues the songs here, from the depiction of a ‘Vice’ she sometimes finds a comfort but realises might be ‘gone before it ever melts the ice’ to her pained admission that the early excitement of relationships are often just a matter of ‘Pushin’ Time’. The music veers from slick country raunch to eerily sparse ballads as a response to these contradictions, a powerful and disturbing effect that helps to place the first disc amongst her finest moments on record.
‘The Heart’ is the name of the second disc, and like most double albums it’s where the quality starts to decline. At its best, Lambert channels the energy of prior legends with an overt country twang: ‘To Learn Her’ is so much like the great Dolly Parton ballads, both in sliding-guitar beauty and in sentiment; ‘For the Birds’ is reminiscent of ‘Me & Bobby McGee’, at least in the verses, and is almost as much fun; ‘Good Ol’ Days’ has the subtle heart-tug of a Willie Nelson classic, with a warm ocean of acoustic backing to luxuriate in. These highlights can’t detract from the overall maudlin excess though, a navel-gazing that fails to throw up many new perspectives on her heartbreak – or anyone else’s, for that matter – as she does relentlessly on the first disc. But there she is at the end of the album’s slightly OTT 94 minutes, with ‘I’ve Got Wheels’ finding her exactly where she started: on the road, with her heart a little more scarred, her nerve a little more damaged, but still keeping on a-rollin’ on.
Hardwired… to Self-Destruct – Metallica
Metallica are clearly one of the most influential bands of all time, which doesn’t mean I have to like them. I don’t. Their brand of macho metal embodies all the worst impulses that have come to define that genre, a copy of The Rolling Stones’ darkness and arrogance with almost 0% of that great band’s humour and self-mocking irony. When I pay attention I’m objectively able to enjoy Metallica’s undeniable skill with regards to riff-making and compositional grandeur. But I find it hard to ignore the deadeningly dull displays of ‘virtuosity’ on the solos, I find their speed often fails to cover the cracks of some wildly inconsistent songwriting, and whenever I’m unfortunate enough to tune in to the lyrics I find them at best laughable (‘Enter Sandman’) and often much, much worse.
The first disc of this double album opens with a jovial little number called ‘Hardwired’, which has a chorus that goes like this: ‘We’re so fucked/Shit outta luck/Hardwired to self-destruct’. It sums up everything I hate about this band: music as defeatism, music as directionless anger, music as politically neutered rage. I’ve read reviews which seem to believe that these words are a relief in the age of Brexit/Trump, but don’t believe it. It’s exactly this kind of horseshit nihilism that these movements have capitalised on, exploiting an anger (often middle class) so blind it doesn’t give a damn about real-world consequences. In later tracks Metallica continue to pile on the gloom, as is their irritating wont, with ridiculous odes to death, Cthulhu, pyromania, and other things I don’t care enough about to research. Meanwhile the music that’s supposed to make it all valid chugs along ominously. I’m not masochist enough to be entertained by the repetitive-strain-injury rhythm guitar and Ulrich’s whack-a-mole drumming, so by the time ‘Halo on Fire’ comes on I want it all to stop. But that’s just the end of the first disc.
The second disc of this double album opens with an abstract noun that could very well sum up their career: ‘Confusion’. It concerns another obsession of theirs, war and PTSD, which they tackle like this: ‘Confusion/All sanity is now beyond me/Delusion/All sanity is but a memory’. As usual, their good intentions are betrayed by the thrill they seem to get from this macabre element, insanity being just yet another aspect of their obsession with darkness and despair. Things carry on with the usual lack of creativity for the rest of the album, including the worst joke title of the year (‘ManUNkind’), a tribute to Lemmy that confusingly sounds like a sludgy homage to Black Sabbath (‘Murder One’), a good riff dragged out to a woeful 7 minutes (‘Here Comes Revenge’), and a song that fans insist is ‘their best’ in 25 years, which translates to the rest of us as ‘their fastest’ (‘Spit Out the Bone’). Supposedly this 77 minute album is missing hundreds of riffs James Hetfield had written down on a phone lost in Copenhagen. I’m sorry to report that this fact is the most entertaining aspect of the whole album.