Reel Opinions


Sunday, June 26, 2016

The Shallows

Just in time to make you second guess that tropical surf vacation you might be planning, here comes The Shallows, a sparse but mostly effective thriller that gets some mileage out of the simplest of storytelling devices.  The movie exists mostly on a rock 200 yards off of a Mexican beach.  On said rock is our heroine, a woman who was bitten by a great white shark while surfing, and is now stranded on said rock, trying to find a way to get back to the beach, as the shark ominously circles around her as it waits for her to get back in the water.

As a basic survival story, it works well enough, and Blake Lively is able to inject some life in her performance as Nancy, the woman who finds herself in this predicament.  All we really learn about Nancy is that she's on vacation, and that she has picked this particular beach because her mom (who has since passed away for reasons the movie doesn't make clear) was on this beach when she found out she was pregnant with Nancy.  We also learn that she has dropped out of medical school, and through a Skype conversation with her little sister and father, we find out daddy's obviously not happy about this.  After the conversation, Nancy goes out to sea, and that's when the shark comes in.  It eats three other people during the course of the film (two fellow surfers, and a drunk who fell asleep on the beach who unwisely decides to wade into the water), but it just keeps on going back for Nancy, even though there's a massive whale carcass floating nearby.  The movie tries to create a Moby Dick-style plot of man vs. nature, and while it is mostly effective, it does get stretched a little thin, even with a running time that just barely hits 90 minutes.

This is essentially a one-woman show, as Lively is required to carry the entire movie totally alone.  Her only companion for most of the film is an injured bird who is perched on the rock with her.  Other times, Lively has to talk to herself as she performs emergency surgery to fix her wounds, or when she tries to determine how much time she has to swim to buoy before the shark gets to where she is.  What's nice is that the filmmakers never once make Nancy into a victim.  Yes, she has her moments where she starts to lose hope, but there is still some form of determination, even in her lowest moments.  She is resourceful, and she never panics so much that she loses sight of her goal of survival.  She is fleshed out just enough, given the film's sparse (and that's being generous) narrative, so that we can support her.  Sure, the camera may linger on her body and her wetsuit for a little longer than necessary at times, but she always remains a likable heroine.

Where The Shallows falls apart just a little is during the climax, where Nancy must take on the shark head-on.  What has been a tight and suspenseful little thriller suddenly turns into a full-blown action film, with an obviously CG shark being set on fire, and turning into a relentless slasher from a horror movie.  I was expecting an action climax actually, but this movie goes just a little over the top.  It's not enough to ruin the effectiveness of everything that came before, but I do kind of wish that the filmmakers had kept up the realistic approach that they had been using for the majority of the film.  The Shallows works so much better as a survival story, rather than an action thriller, is what I'm trying to say.  And since the action doesn't come until the third act, the movie mostly works.

Will this be scary enough to make audiences second guess going into the water this summer?  Probably not.  But, it might make them at least dip their toe in first before they dive in.  There are plenty of moments of heart-pounding tension here, and while you may laugh about it when it's over, it grabs your attention while it plays out.

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Free State of Jones

I have no doubts that writer-director Gary Ross (The Hunger Games) made Free State of Jones with the most noblest of intentions.  He's also given us some lovely images to look at as he tells the story of Newt Knight, a real life historical figure who existed in 19th Century American History during the Civil War.  It's the telling of the story that made me squirm in my seat.  This is a turgid, bone-dry, and completely simplified overview of the story that's about as interesting as those videos they used to play in high school history class.  You know, the ones where you put your head down on your desk, and still tried to pretend that you were paying attention.

Matthew McConaughey, that most enthusiastic of actors, does his best to inject some life into Ross' pallid storytelling, but fights a losing battle.  I wonder if any actor could have brought any life to this overly long, talky and underwritten historical epic.  In the history books, Newt Knight was a farmer in Jones County, Mississippi, who led fellow deserters of the Confederate Army during the Civil War in a rebellion against their own army.  They joined up with free black slaves, and attacked any Confederate soldiers who may have wandered near the swamp where they made their hideout.  Surely there is more to the story than that, but that is the most that Ross' telling of the story informs us.  How did the white soldiers feel about fighting alongside the black slaves?  Again, we learn nothing.  In this movie, Knight's group is basically seen as one big happy family, and aside from a few scenes where someone questions his orders, nobody really raises any questions or concerns.

And surely it must have been hard for the men to survive out there in the swamp.  How did they get food, and in this movie's case, how did they keep their clothes and hair so clean?  Again, very little detail is given, and we don't really get to see them suffer any personal hardships.  Instead, we get long, dry historical speeches about the importance of what Knight was doing, and of course a few instances of cruelty to slaves.  It's always hard to watch this particular moment in American history blown up on the big screen, but compared to something like 12 Years a Slave, Free State of Jones definitely lacks power in its images.  It actually keeps the black characters in the background for a good part of the movie.  This includes a slave named Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), whom Newt fell in love with and eventually married.  Their relationship is bare bones to the point of non-existence.  Not once do we get to get to see how they truly feel about each other, and the most we do get to see is that he helped her learn how to read. 

Speaking of Rachel, her character is involved in one of the key things that bothered me about this movie.  At one point late in the film, we see Newt living with two women - Rachel, and his first wife, Serena (Keri Russell), as well as the boy he had with Serena in the past.  Once again, the movie completely skips over this completely fascinating potential plot point, and simply gives us the bare minimum.  How does Serena feel about Rachel?  How does Rachel feel about Serena?  Heck, what does the kid think about all of this?  Again, no answer is given.  We mostly get a scene where the two women are sitting on the front porch, talking pleasantly with each other, and that's it.  There is no relationship or tension between these two women.  They have nothing to say about each other, or about the situation they find themselves in.  Why bother to bring up this delicate situation if you're not even going to bother to give it any depth?

In an equally clumsy move, the movie will occasionally flash forward to 1948, where the great grandson of Newt and Rachel is being put on trial where he was found to be black because of his family background, even though he was white.  The man, Davis Knight, was eventually found to be "guilty" of being black, though the ruling was eventually overturned.  Obviously, Ross is trying to show us how little the South's opinions had changed since the days of Newt's time, but it is awkwardly handled.  There is often no lead in to these more modern day scenes, and they interrupt what little flow the movie does have.  This is information that could have been saved for some title cards at the end of the film, instead of interrupting the core story every 20 minutes or so.  It's an unnecessary side plot that adds nothing to the film's emotional power, like it's obviously intended to do.

Because of these poor and sometimes odd decisions, Free State of Jones never comes to life.  We can admire what the filmmakers are trying to say, but we simply are not involved, due to the fragmented and basic way that Ross has chosen to tell the story.  All we end up getting is a history lesson with nothing behind it that tells us why we should be interested in the first place.

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Friday, June 24, 2016

Independence Day: Resurgence

What a difference 20 years makes.  Back in the summer of 96, Independence Day flew into theaters with massive hype, made its star Will Smith into Hollywood A-List Royalty, and became one of the biggest blockbusters ever at that time.  Now, its long overdue sequel comes limping into theaters with little hype and the stigma of not being shown for critics in advance - a sure-fire sign that the studio knows they have a bomb on their hands.  The people behind Independence Day: Resurgence have every reason to be worried, 'cause is this movie ever bad.  Oh lord, is it bad.

Even in a cinematic summer that (aside from a few exceptions) has given us one uninspired sequel after another, this one stands out as a total miscalculation on the part of the filmmakers.  It recycles the structure and basic ideas of the first, only with no life and enthusiasm.  It's like watching the Bizarro World version of the 1996 film.  No one will certainly every mistake the original for any sort of classic, but it at least knew what kind of film it was, and had fun with itself.  Resurgence plugs in the same elements from the first movie (stock characters, big alien spaceship hovering over major cities, a lot of aerial dogfights and speeches about humanity coming together), and drains the sense and purpose out of it.  All we can do is watch with quiet despondence as the film slogs along.  There's never a sense of tension, humor, or even a scene that demands our attention.  This is as limp a Summer Blockbuster as there has ever been.

The plot: It's 20 years after the events of the first, and the movie spends a good amount of time allowing us to catch up with the returning characters, such as former President Whitmore (Bill Pullman), who has grown a scruffy beard since the last time we saw him, and is plagued by nightmares about the aliens coming back to Earth looking for revenge.  Jeff Goldblum is also back as David Levinson, looking a lot older than before, but still bug-eyed and constantly exasperated.  There's a notable absence, as Will Smith isn't here.  Apparently the filmmakers couldn't reach a deal with him, so they decided to write his character out by having him die at some point between the two movies while testing a piece of alien technology that was left behind.  In his place is his character's now-grown son, Dylan (Jessie T. Usher), who has inherited his father's skill with piloting a plane, but has none of his personality or screen presence.  Oh, and the wacky Area 51 scientist from the first movie (Brent Spiner) is back, also.  Funny thing, I thought his character died last time.  Turns out it was just a 20-year coma.

These characters are brought together when the aliens return with bigger and badder spaceships, but a smaller overall goal.  They're not here to conquer Earth, and their destruction is rather limited. (Only London, part of China and Washington DC seem to be affected.) Instead, they're searching for some kind of orb which is actually a different kind of alien life, and has been placed on Earth after it was shot out of the sky by our defense forces.  The orb-like alien is peaceful, knows how to speak perfect English, and is viewed as an enemy by the much slimier and dumber evil aliens.  And so, all of Earth must band together to protect the orb from the Queen alien, who is about the size of Godzilla, but isn't any smarter than her thousands of followers who like to fly in the path of our guns.   There are a group of young pilots who lead the fight against the aliens, whose personalities fit the age-old requirements for these types.  They include the brash and cocky one with the troubled past (Liam Hemsworth), the dorky one (Travis Tope) and the Asian one (a Chinese actress credited as "Angelababy".)

None of the characters in Resurgence (original or returning from the last one) are the slightest bit interesting.  They exist to either shoot at aliens like targets in a video game, make boring speeches, or in the case of Judd Hirsch, who is back as Goldblum's stereotypical Jewish father, get trapped in inane subplots.  Hirsch's character finds himself first carpooling with a bunch of kids who lost their parents in the alien attack, and ultimately finds himself driving an entire school bus full of kids by the end of the movie.  This exists solely to lead up to the most ludicrous sight of the summer movie season so far, as a school bus speeds across the desert while it is being chased by a towering alien Queen.  None of the dialogue matters, and nothing these people do have any consequence.  The people in this movie are kind of like those online avatars you see in video games.  You can tell them apart solely by their appearance, because they have no personality or defining characteristics.

What interested me more was the movie's view on interstellar life.  So, the evil aliens are slimy, smelly, growl a lot, and seem to come from a planet where personal hygiene has not yet caught on.  They possess advanced technology, but only seem to know how to use it during the initial surprise attack on Earth.  Afterward, they mostly run mindlessly around so that the human soldiers can pick them off.  For every two casualties on humanity's side, there seems to be 10,000 on the side of the aliens.  However, we also discover that there are other forms of life in the universe that are much more intelligent, represented by the orb-like object the evil aliens are after.  This kind of alien life is mannered, intelligent and polite.  So, what this movie is telling us is that there's a planet of self-defeatist jerks who exist solely to drool and be shot at, and only come out to try to attack Earth about once every 20 years.  Fascinating.

There are workable ideas that could have been explored here.  We learn that Earth has been using alien technology since the war, and has built itself into a peaceful society where all nations are united.  We also see fleeting glimpses of a hi-tech prison where aliens from the last invasion are being held prisoner.  Unfortunately, neither of these ideas are remotely explored.  Watching the film, I don't know if this is entirely the fault of the film's, as large sections seem to be missing.  Characters and plot elements are often introduced with little rhyme or reason, or certain characters (such as the kids Judd Hirsch travels with) are just suddenly thrown into the plot, and feel like they were supposed to have an introduction scene that was edited out.  Whatever the case, the editing and storytelling is jarring, and often feels like it's being made up on the fly.

Independence Day: Resurgence will have a hard time pleasing most audiences, even those who still enjoy the original.  It's a deadly dull retread that doesn't even work on the basic level of dumb spectacle.  Walking in, I just assumed that would be the one area where this movie would be safe.  Maybe I expected more.  All I know is I did not expect this level of disappointment.

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Saturday, June 18, 2016

Finding Dory

If Finding Dory proves anything, it is that the character of Dory, the bright blue little fish with short term memory loss who is once again voiced by Ellen DeGeneres, is much more than the comedic sidekick that she was in 2003's Finding Nemo.  This movie not only emphasizes her and DeGeneres' sterling voice performance, but also gives her a lot more depth and emotion than we realized.  It's always a big risk to go back to a popular character 13 years after the original, but Pixar has managed to pull it off with a film that is just as funny and heartfelt as the first.

DeGeneres clearly has embraced the character, and delivers one of the more memorable voice over performances that ranks up there with Robin Williams in Aladdin.  It's not just great, it's almost iconic.  You can't picture anyone else there in the role, and hopefully they will never try to replace her.  Returning director Andrew Stanton has not only chosen to strengthen the role of her character, but also to expand the aquatic world that she and other returning characters Marlin (Albert Brooks) and Nemo (Hayden Rolence) live in.  We get to see more of it this time, as well as get introduced to a massive aquarium/rescue and recovery operation that is a wonder in itself.  There are new characters who are just as memorable and likable as the old ones, and a sense that this is much more than just a cash in sequel.  This one actually expands on the characters and the film's universe, which is a rare thing for a sequel that comes out over 10 years after the first, which mainly just play on nostalgia alone.

The plot in Finding Dory is driven by fragmented flashbacks of the title character's forgotten past.  Early on, we see Dory as a child under the protective care of her parents (Diane Keaton and Eugene Levy), who are trying to help her get by despite her problem with memory loss.  Naturally, tragedy eventually strikes, and the family is separated.  Flash forward to one year after the original film, and Dory is now living comfortably with her new family of Marlin and Nemo, but she keeps on seeing things that are hints to her past, and triggers forgotten memories.  She knows that her parents are still out there, and may possibly be looking for her.  She also somehow knows that her family used to live in captivity in California.  Marlin and Nemo reluctantly join her search, and while the group do get separated from each other at one point, the title does not suggest a search for Dory, like in the original.  Instead, the title this time around suggests a journey of self discovery, where Dory will learn about her past and where she came from.

In her journey to reclaim her forgotten past, Dory is aided by many new characters, the most memorable being a grumpy seven-legged octopus named Hank (Ed O'Neil), who helps her because she can get him a tag that would give him a one way ticket to an aquarium in Cleveland where he could live in peace without being bothered by anyone.  There is also a nearsighted whale shark named Destiny (Kaitlin Olsen), who knows Dory from long ago, and a beluga whale named Bailey (Ty Burrell), who has doubts about his biological sonar capabilities.  All of these new characters are great, but Hank clearly steals the show with his color-changing abilities which allows him to blend into different backgrounds.  The Pixar artists have a lot of fun with this, creating some wonderful visual gags built around the character, especially during the end credits.  By the way, make sure you sit through to the very end of the credits for this one.


It's actually kind of surprising how effective this movie is, and that it manages to be just as funny, exciting and as heartfelt as the first.  The emotions of all of these characters constantly ring true, to the point that these animated aquatic creatures seem more real than most live actors.  When Dory reaches the darkest hour of her quest and begins to lose hope, it is a wonderful combination of both DeGeneres' performance and the mastery of the artists that creates such an emotional moment.  Speaking of the artists, they too pull out all the stops, creating a world that just seems much more fluid and lived in than before.  The amount of detail here, such as the way the light changes varying on the depth of the water that the characters are currently inhabiting, is simply staggering at times.  Even when the movie is being a cartoon and having the fish doing things they can't possibly do (such as in the hilarious and increasingly ludicrous climax), we still buy it because there is so much warmth and emotion behind these characters.

Finding Dory will likely be one of the breakout hits of the summer movie season, and it deserves every bit of praise it will get.  It's the first summer blockbuster this year that I think can appeal on a different level to just about anyone who watches it.  13 years is a long time for any sequel to hit the screen, but in this case, it's been well worth it, and I can't see anyone complaining about the end result.

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Friday, June 17, 2016

Central Intelligence

This is not the first comedic role for Dwayne Johnson, but Central Intelligence gives him his first great one.  It's a genuinely funny, and very sweet performance.  He brings to his character the same kind of bighearted vulnerability that John Candy used to have - He's goofy, lovable and kind of insecure, with a touch of sadness behind that big grin of his.  Team this up with Kevin Hart's performance here, and you have a comedy duo that consistently works.  The movie they're in is pretty good, too.

Johnson plays Bob Stone, a chiseled and intimidating agent for the CIA, but behind that gruff exterior lies a sensitive and kind of dorky guy who has a thing for unicorns, fanny packs, and John Hughes movies (Sixteen Candles, in particular).  20 years ago, in high school, Bob Stone was known as Robert Weirdicht, the shy and morbidly obese kid that everybody picked on.  When a group of bullies played a particularly cruel prank on him during the big Senior Year assembly, the only person who helped him was Calvin Joyner (Kevin Hart), the most popular kid in the class.  Calvin was the all around scholar, athlete, and reigning king of the 1996 Senior Class.  Bob has never forgotten Calvin's kindness on his most humiliating day, and decides to connect with him when their 20 year high school reunion comes around.

If Bob has managed to turn his life around since high school (losing weight, becoming a government agent who can disarm an entire room of thugs in a matter of seconds), then Calvin's life has not exactly gone as he planned.  Sure, he married his high school sweetheart, Maggie (Danielle Nicolet), but he now has a desk job as an accountant, which he hates, and has never reached the heights he seemed destined for.  The two meet for drinks on the eve of the reunion, but this is all a ruse.  It turns out Bob is being hunted down by some of his fellow agents for supposedly murdering his partner, and committing treason.  Bob, naturally, claims he is innocent and that he needs Calvin's skills as an accountant to track down the information he needs to clear his name.  But we sense that Bob isn't just hooking up with Calvin just to clear his name.  He does truly like and even idolizes Calvin, still seeing him as the all-star that he appeared to be when they were 18.

Central Intelligence could have easily gone the lazy route, and just played off the obvious height and physical differences between its two stars, much like the 1988 Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito vehicle, Twins.  But this movie manages to go the extra mile, making Bob and Calvin into characters that we genuinely like and get behind.  Bob may have turned his life around, but he's still extremely insecure and lonely at heart.  He has no friends, other than Calvin, and given that the guy may or may not possibly be a killer, Calvin's not sure if he even wants to be friends.  And when Bob looks at his reflection, he still sometimes sees the sad, overweight kid that he once was looking back at him.  When he's forced to talk to one of his former bullies, he can barely look him in the eye, let alone speak to him.  The torment he went through still hurts him.  As for Calvin, he seems to have made it with a wife, the steady job and a beautiful home, but he can't help but feel that he peaked 20 years ago.  Hart does get off with his usual motor mouth comic routine, but he's mostly playing the straight man here, letting Johnson fly with his goofy, lovable and genuinely funny performance.

It's how well these two actors play off one another, and how the movie treats them as real characters, that makes the film work.  We genuinely like these characters, and these are strong comic performances bringing them to life.  Yes, the plot is old hat, and involves a lot of misdirection and red herrings as to who is behind the whole situation, something involving a terrorist plot to sell information on the black market.  But the plot is not the focus here.  It's Bob and Calvin who carry the movie, and rightfully so.  Bob is a great comic character, and I wouldn't mind seeing Johnson bringing him back in another movie.  And Calvin allows Hart to show a slightly more subdued side than he usually does, while still pulling off some of his quick dialogue that his fans expect.  Watching the movie, we don't just get the sense that these two stars enjoy working together, we feel like they actually are friends.  It's a fantastic on screen partnership, and the filmmakers were smart to make it the sole focus of the movie.

This is not a smart comedy.  It won't catch you off guard with its witty dialogue, and it doesn't have a lot to say.  But there's just an undeniable sweetness behind it that's impossible not to like.  If anything, it could make Dwayne Johnson into a comedic star to go along with his action star status.  It would certainly be well-earned.

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Sunday, June 12, 2016

Warcraft

Warcraft is the third movie based on a video game we've had in two months, after the disappointing Ratchet & Clank from April, and the mediocre Angry Birds Movie from May.  It tells the story of an epic battle between humans and orcs for control of a world.  Most of the orcs are CG, but some are half-human or "half breeds", like poor Garona (Paula Patton), so she is played by the actress in very unconvincing green make up that makes her look like she wandered into the film from the touring company of the Shrek Broadway Musical.  It's all very silly, loud and garish, but I'm guessing it makes more sense if you've played the games.  I have not.

What we have here is yet another movie with A-production values, but saddled with a B-level script.  Much like Jupiter Ascending from last year, take away the vast CG landscapes and highly detailed monsters, and replace it all with cardboard sets and silly costumes, and the movie would be right at home on Mystery Science Theater 3000.  And when I say A-production values, I mean it certainly does look like it cost a few hundred million to make.  The effects themselves look very cartoonish, or sometimes don't blend well with the live action backgrounds.  I got the feeling that co-writer and director Duncan Jones (the fine director behind films like Moon and Source Code) was in over his head here.  He throws so much stuff at the camera that it all kind of blends together, no matter how epic or "important" he wants it to come across.  It doesn't help that his script is completely disposable and incapable of creating any reaction.  When a character dies or falls in battle, it creates the same emotional response as being at the grocery store, and checking the expiration dates in the milk aisle.

In the two hours or so the movie runs, we are tossed head-first into the story with little lead in or explanation.  The fantasy world of Azeroth is a fairly peaceful place, until some orcs step through a portal, and decide they want to claim the land as their own, since their home planet is dying.  One of the orc warrior chiefs, Durotan (Toby Kebbell), isn't crazy about this idea.  He thinks there might be a connection between their dying world, and their leader, Gul'dan (Daniel Wu), who possesses the magic to steal the life out of living things in order to give himself power.  Since Durotan's orc wife (Anna Galvin) recently gave birth to a bouncing baby orc boy, he's beginning to question his orders of destroying the humans who inhabit Azeroth, and thinks maybe there is a way that they can reach some kind of agreement against the power-mad Gul'dan.

On the side of the humans is the personality deprived Lothar (Travis Fimmel), who serves his King nobly, and is pretty much defined solely by the fact that he has a teenage son whom he frets about a lot when the kid's in battle.  Much like Durotan over on the orc side, Lothar is starting to question one of the people he serves, in this case a magic user known as the Guardian (Ben Foster).  Could there be a connection?  I'm not telling, and even if I wanted to, I don't know if I could.  There is so much chaotic fighting between the humans and orcs, the plot fades into the background, despite some lengthy exposition dialogue that tries to explain why we're supposed to care about all of this.  Nothing here has any resonance or real importance.  When Garona the half-orc joins the human army, you would think this would create some kind of tension or perhaps apprehension, and while this is hinted at early on, it's never really explored in the slightest. 

It's obvious that Warcraft is intended to kick off a franchise, as absolutely nothing gets resolved by the time it's over.  Instead, the movie leaves us with a bunch of loose ends that are supposed to tease upcoming sequels.  I'm all for a good cliffhanger, but first, the movie needs some kind of closure or sense that we have accomplished something by the time it's over.  Instead, when it's over, we feel like we've sat through two hours of set up for a sequel that may or may not get made. (The movie has largely failed at the box office over here, but is apparently breaking records in China and other countries.) All this proves is that Jones and fellow screenwriter Charles Leavitt didn't have much of a story to tell in the first place, and just wanted to get this one out of the way so they could get to the more interesting stuff in the sequels.  I say, if you can't think of a good beginning, don't bother teasing us with what's to come.

I'm sure there are those who have played the games who can tell me the whole intricate backstory of Azeroth, and the characters who inhabit it.  Despite a generous running time, the movie does feel very rushed and incomplete, as if whole character details and arcs are missing.  I'm sure some will read this review, and suggest I didn't understand it because I didn't play the video games.  The thing is, a cinematic adaptation of something should be able to appeal not just to the fans who already support it, but also newcomers alike.  I'm not all that familiar with all the Marvel comic book characters, yet I have been able to enjoy many of their films immensely.  A movie such as this should make me want to look more into the world of the games by intriguing me, not by forcing me to play it in order to fill in the narrative blanks. 

I think that is ultimately where Warcraft comes up short, and why it will frustrate audiences outside of the pre-installed fan base.  However, where the filmmakers really slipped up is that they seemed to have dreams of a sequel before they got the first one up off the ground.  The question remains, if you're not going to tell a good story the first time, why expect the audience to come back?

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Saturday, June 11, 2016

Now You See Me 2

2013's Now You See Me was not exactly a critic's darling, but it resonated with audiences, including myself.  I found the movie's multi-layered and constantly twisting plot a lot of fun to keep up with, even if it didn't always make sense.  Now we have the sequel, and while it's still fun, it doesn't seem quite as clever as before.  The energy, the cast and the sense of humor is still there, but it didn't have me constantly wondering where it was going like the original did.  For a sequel we probably didn't need, it works fine enough.

Unlike the other major sequel hitting this weekend, The Conjuring 2, prior knowledge of the original movie is definitely required before sitting down to watch Now You See Me 2.  We do get a brief recap of events as the film opens from Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman), the magic debunk specialist who now is sitting behind bars, and seems to be nursing a grudge against the Horsemen, a group of magicians who specialize in uncovering corporate scams and frauds.  The Horsemen have not been seen in the 18 months that have passed in the movie's time line, but they are still around, waiting to make their big return.  They once again include street magician J. Daniel Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg), hypnotist Merritt (Woody Harrelson), and card magician Jack Wilder (Dave Franco).  New to the group is the charming Lula (Lizzy Caplan), who steps in for Isla Fisher's character in the first movie.  Fisher's absence is explained away in some very hurried exposition regarding relationship troubles with Atlas. (In reality, Fisher was pregnant, and could not return.)  Also joining up with them once again is Dylan (Mark Ruffalo) an FBI agent who is actually helping the Horsemen.

The Horsemen are called back into action by The Eye, the secret magic society that gives them their marching orders.  This time, they are to take down a tech giant who is about to unveil a new phone device that will secretly steal the information of all of its users.  But when they go to pull the job, it turns out that someone has set up a trap for them.  That someone is Walter Mabry (Daniel Radcliffe), an even shadier tech giant than the one they're originally after, who forcefully recruits the Horsemen to steal the technology for him so that he can use it for his own purposes.  Of course, nothing is quite what it seems.  There are some plot elements that are wildly exciting early on, such as how the Horsemen make their escape down a chute from a New York building, but somehow wind up in a restaurant in Macau, China when they come out the other end.   This alone is intriguing enough to send the mind spinning with possibilities of what other mind-benders the screenplay will come up with.  When we get the explanation behind it, not only is it disappointing, but the movie never quite reaches this level of wonder and excitement ever again.

Now You See Me 2 seems to be trying awfully hard to recapture what made the first movie fun for those who liked it, and while it remains enjoyable, it just didn't leave me with a big, goofy grin on my face as each implausible plot element (a lot of them built around hypnosis in order to explain strange behavior in certain characters) unfolded.  Maybe it's because this time, I was aware of the rules of the game that the movie was playing.  The first one took me by surprise. I didn't know what I was getting into walking in, and knew little to nothing about the film.  And while it constantly stretched credibility, it did so in a way that I found exciting and entertaining, just like a real magic act.  This time, I felt a little bit wiser to what the movie was up to.  True, there were a couple instances where the film caught me off guard, but it didn't happen as much as I wanted.

Still, the cast is having a ball up on the screen, and there are moments when that carries through to the audience.  Morgan Freeman, in particular, has a particularly devilish charm.  Sure, an actor of his caliber could pull off a role in his sleep, but he seems delighted by the chance to be coming back to the character, especially since the movie gives him a tiny bit more to do than last time.  Of the Horsemen, newcomer Lizzy Caplan makes the biggest impression, and gets off the best one liners, while Eisenberg and Franco are pretty much left with scraps.  Harrelson gets off a couple fun moments, and at least gets to stand out.  Like Freeman, Radcliffe seems to be having the time of his life, and embraces playing a sleazy villain for a change.  It's too bad the movie mostly has him standing around and giving orders to his thugs.

Now You See Me 2 is not really bad in any way, it simply feels a little bit less than the original.  It's been made with plenty of good spirit, and it can be fun to watch.  But it also feels largely unnecessary, especially when you think back on the plot and try to sort everything out.  I'm not sorry I saw it.  There just seems to not be as much to this one as before.

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The Conjuring 2

In The Conjuring 2, we get to watch a master at work, and it's director James Wan.  He uses so much skill here using the silence and subtle instances in the shadows and backgrounds that he puts just about most every other haunted house movie out there to shame.  In fact, the only time Wan and the movie itself slips up just a little is when he's forced to rely on conventional jump scares, and some unconvincing CG.  Fortunately, he doesn't do this very often, and this comes across as the rare sequel that had very little studio interference.  This may be the most tense and effective paranormal thriller I've seen since The Babadook

Just like the original film from 2013, The Conjuring 2 also sets itself apart by actually being about the people at the center of the story.  It's an emotional drama as much as it is about things going bump in the night.  It's also unnecessary to see the first in order to enjoy this, as the only connection are the two main characters, real life paranormal investigators Ed (Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine (Vera Farmiga) Warren.  This film follows another famous case from their files, "The Enfield Poltergeist", a supernatural occurrence that happened in London back in 1977, and is still hotly debated by believers and skeptics to this day as one of the more famous hauntings.  You know walking in whether this movie is going to side with the believers or the skeptics, but it does at least allow both views to be reasonably expressed.  And while I didn't exactly believe all the details of this "true story" that were being displayed on the screen, it did not dampen my enthusiasm for the story that Wan and his screenwriters were telling.

During the first hour of the film, we actually see little of the Warrens, although we do get to witness part of their investigation in one of their more famous cases in the effective opening sequence.  Instead, we're introduced to a working class London family, the Hodgsons.  Single mother Peggy (Francis O'Connor) is trying to keep her family and four children together after her husband walked out on her.  The kids include eldest daughter Margaret (Lauren Esposito), middle child Janet (Madison Wolfe), 10-year-old Johnny (Patrick McAuley), and youngest Billy (Benjamin Haigh).  It is Janet who becomes the focus and central victim of the haunting that begins to occur in their home, where she is terrorized by the spirit of an elderly man claiming that the house is his, and that she and her family don't belong there.  The spirit quickly becomes malevolent and aggressive toward the child and the family in general, and when their haunting starts making national headlines (after the police are called to investigate a disturbance, and see things they can't quite explain), the Warrens are called in to investigate and determine whether or not the whole situation is an elaborate hoax. 

What The Conjuring 2 does better than just about any other haunted house movie out there (certainly better than the last one I saw, The Darkness) is create a mounting sense of dread.  Wan achieves this with long camera shots, use of shadows and subtle movements or changes in the background, and things happening or appearing just out of focus.  His method is slow and deliberate, but highly effective, and generates more thrills than any other horror movie so far this year.  The movie has been given an R-rating, but it contains no language or nudity, and very little violence.  Instead, he has embraced the rating in order to give us a relentless sense of tension that a PG-13 ghost story simply could not achieve.  This was the same case with the original movie, and it's really wonderful to see a director not only embrace what worked before, but also build upon it.  This is a wonderfully constructed film, giving plenty of moments to the terror as well as effective character-building moments, and sometimes combining them in the same scene.

Also just like before, it is the performances of Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga as the Warrens that anchor the movie.  The chemistry and relationship that they have built on screen in these films is so strong, this could be the rare case where I want to see a horror franchise build, as long as it continues to be built around the connection between these two, and also as long as James Wan is willing to return to the director's chair.  The love and emotional bond between Ed and Lorraine plays a key role here, and creates an emotional pull that few other horror films have.  We're invested in them just as much as we are the spirit haunting the Hodgson home.  Also effective in the cast is young Madison Wolfe as the terrified Janet, who obviously creates a lot of sympathy, but can also be terrifying when she is used as a vessel by whatever is in her house.

Should this series continue, I truly hope that the studio realizes what makes them so effective to audiences, and leaves the formula alone.  The Conjuring 2 is one of the few sequels this year that doesn't feel like a total cash grab, and has actually been mounted with care and the need to tell a story.  It's an ingenious little ghost story, and just a lot of fun.

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