NOW YOU SEE ME 2
During its entire first hour, and at random times during its second, Now You See Me 2 is something I never thought it would be: fun.
Minority opinion though it clearly was, I found director Louis Leterrier’s illusionist-themed original nearly intolerable, and couldn’t tell if I hated this grossly synthetic heist comedy more for the maddening phoniness of its repartee – the fast-talking actors all seemed to have met mere seconds before Leterrier yelled “Action!” – or the inherent fraudulence of the “magic” tricks that could only have been pulled off via CGI. (A similar annoyance occurs in the sequel when Jesse Eisenberg explains the source of a miraculous feat as “strobe lights and rain machines,” conveniently forgetting “and lots and lots of pixels.”) But until it goes predictably off-the-rails with impossible visuals and blockbuster-approved antics in its final quarter, director Jon M. Chu’s NYSM2 is perfectly enjoyable nonsense. This time, those sardonic prestidigitaors known as The Four Horsemen (Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Dave Franco, and Lizzy Caplan, the latter filling in for the absent Isla Fisher) take their act, against their will, to China, where they’re recruited by Daniel Radcliffe’s preening millionaire to steal one of those inevitable, only-in-the-movies devices that can cause havoc on every computer in creation. (Ah, how I miss the halcyon days of über-villains who just wanted to blow up the planet.) They do, and the way they do – in a spectacularly well-staged sequence that finds each of the Horsemen passing the playing-card-sized device to and fro in the midst of a collective body search – is Chu’s film at its most exciting and hilarious. Whizzing alongside the object as it slides down Eisenberg’s sleeve and between Franco’s fingers and under Harrelson’s hat, Chu’s and cinematographer Peter Deming’s camera, in this scene, is always exactly where you want it to be – and for the nearly five thrilling minutes of the scene’s length, you’re exactly where you want to be, too. (This tour de force segment is like a Mission: Impossible show-stopper played exclusively for laughs.)
Familiarity, as the adage goes, breeds contempt. But it can also breed a lovely relaxation, and perhaps the happiest aspect of NYSM2 is that its actors all appear so comfortable and playful together; there’s none of that dreadful dead air and vague sense of hostility that accompanied the performers’ previous banter. (Maybe having that fizzy comedienne Caplan around helped, as everyone on-screen, for understandable reason, seems delighted to be in her presence.) Beyond those playing the Horsemen, Morgan Freeman delivers one of his jauntiest portrayals in years, and the extended screen time and backstory for Mark Ruffalo’s undercover mastermind are all too good; thankfully, this follow-up gives him far more to do than simply look befuddled and pissed. As if taking a cue from his newly invigorated cast, Chu paces the film at a speedy yet never incoherent clip, and he shows a surer comedic sense and more style than I would have expected from the director of G.I. Joe: Retaliation and a couple of Justin Bieber docs; only in the scenes with Harrelson as his mentalist’s flamboyant twin brother with blindingly bright veneers does the director appear to lose his grip. (This isn’t entirely Chu’s fault, as Friends with Benefits suggested that no one in Hollywood plays fey less believably than Woody Harrelson.) By the end of Now You See Me 2, I no longer cared either for or about it, with all of the film’s previous personality undone by bogus plotting, unnecessary brutality, and those damned anti-magical cheats. But the movie stayed strong way longer than I anticipated, and I did laugh out loud a good dozen times, which is a good dozen more than I did at NYSM1. Now there’s a magic trick – no CGI required.
THE CONJURING 2
Unlike 2013’s Now You See Me, I had a blast at 2013’s surprise horror smash The Conjuring. It is with a moderately heavy heart that I admit to not really caring for director James Wan’s follow-up The Conjuring 2, and liking the current sequel to a movie I loathed more than the current sequel to a movie I adored. On paper it’s all there, with the original film’s paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) recruited to study a potentially haunted house, and a potentially possessed 11-year-old (Madison Wolfe), in a lower-middle-class London borough. Even though he also directed 2004’s franchise-starter Saw, Wan long ago perfected his distinctive take on the modern ghost story, eschewing viscera in place of shadowy figures, ambulatory furniture, heart-stopping silences, and theoretically wholesome songs that, in their new genre contexts, sound positively terrifying. And all those elements are in place here, as well. (Tiny Tim’s “Tip-Toe Thru’ the Tulips with Me” got a workout in Insidious; now, it’s a boys-choir rendition of “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.”) Yet despite its occasional jolts and effective creep-outs, the movie feels curiously and unnecessarily padded, which is likely to happen when the scare flick in question runs just shy of two hours and 20 minutes.
Just because a film is epic in length doesn’t mean it’s an epic, and with all the time (if not people) Wan has to kill, you can’t help noticing how redundant the soundtrack’s “Boom!”s and “Bang!”s are, and how unhealthily underpopulated the film is, and how the Warrens, despite Wilson’s and Farmiga’s gravitas and skill, are thunderously uninteresting as characters – all moral rectitude and unwavering faith and Disney Channel flirtation. (If you’ve seen The Exorcist, you also can’t ignore how Exorcist-y it is, albeit far less so in these squeamish times.) It opens with a chilling interior of the Amityville Horror house and boasts a wallop of a jump attack near the end, but the lo-o-o-ong middle of The Conjuring 2 just kind of sits there, and its disappointing dreariness is only relieved by – of all things! – an Elvis impression. Already boasting jet-black hair and sideburns, and guitar in hand, Wilson briefly interrupts the purportedly spooky goings-on halfway through to perform “Can’t Help Falling in Love” in its entirety, and while the moment is almost hysterically out of place, Wilson’s warmth and sensational vocals make this scene a total smile. It also made me remember that, in a season-two episode of Bates Motel, Farmiga showcased her own considerable vocal chops performing Cabaret’s “Maybe This Time.” Maybe next time, for Conjuring 3, a musical?
Yet despite the confusingly staged action, doom-laden (or is it Doom-laden?) pronouncements, and inescapable self-seriousness, Warcraft ain’t all bad. It certainly has more jokes than works of this type generally allow, and a bit more cleverness; I, for one, certainly didn’t expect the film to be narrated not by one of our human heroes, but by the orc chieftan, whom actor Toby Kebbell imbues with legitimate pathos and thought. I dug the sight of an orc assailing his enemies by whipping a horse at them (though PETA would no doubt disagree) and Ben Schnetzer’s wizard-in-training turning a prison guard into a sheep – a trick, he explains, “that only works on the simpleminded.” Plus, although lead Travis Fimmel is a smirking dud, he’s surrounded by an almost nonsensically robust cast of talents who look like they’re actually trying: Dominic Cooper, Ben Foster, Paula Patton (in Wicked-green body paint), and even no less a thespian than Glenn Close, who has evidently reached the Judi-Dench-in-The-Chronicles-of-Riddick phase of her career. “I guess they all sell out eventually,” texted my brother. I guess they do. But whatever Close was paid for her minute-and-a-half of screen time, I’m betting, on a dollars-per-second basis, it was totally worth it.