Movie Review ~ The Legend of Tarzan

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Tarzan, having acclimated to life in London, is called back to his former home in the jungle to investigate the activities at a mining encampment.

Stars: Alexander Skarsgård, Margot Robbie, Samuel L. Jackson, Christoph Waltz, Djimon Hounsou

Director: David Yates

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 109 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: Two full months into the summer season and we finally have a blockbuster worth talking about. Don’t get me wrong, strong entries have been made with Captain America: Civil War, Finding Dory, and X-Men: Apocalypse but The Legend of Tarzan represents everything a popcorn film should be. It’s an exciting, action-packed thrill ride that’s been given grand treatment not only from its director and cinematographer but from it’s surprisingly nimble cast. I went into the film being mildly interested in another retelling of the classic Tarzan tale and left with the kind of energized good-will that made me feel like swinging from vine to vine singing its praises.

Thankfully, The Legend of Tarzan isn’t merely an origin story of how young John Clayton lost his parents to the wilds of Africa and was raised by a caring ape before joining society after falling in love with Jane. This story is there but it’s interspersed throughout the first half of the picture as well-timed glimpses into a past Clayton both longs for and recognizes he needs to move forward from. Married to his love and living in his Greystoke estate, Clayton is asked back to Africa under false pretenses and becomes the victim of a villainous power-hungry jewel smuggler.

What sets The Legend of Tarzan apart from similarly styled blockbusters is that it has an actual plot at its core.  Screenwriters Craig Brewer (Hustle and Flow) and Adam Cozad (Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit) ping off of the stories laid out by Edgar Rice Burroughs as they craft a story around Tarzan returning to his roots and saving the people and land he loves from mercenaries, slave traders, and land developers. It’s not heavy-handed stuff but it feels like it means something, much more than a superhero going after a stone with special powers.

As Tarzan, Alexander Skarsgård (The East) is the true vison of what his creator must have had in mind. In impeccable shape but still bearing the signs of a life in the wild, Skarsgård Tarzan is soft-spoken and curious, only jumping into action when he or his family is threatened. He’s matched nicely with Margot Robbie (The Wolf of Wall Street) as Jane, still plucky and headstrong but perhaps a tad bit on the underdeveloped side. While she’s given some swell heroine moments, I still felt like she was given less important hurdles to navigate than her male counterparts.

At first I was scratching my head at the presence of Samuel L. Jackson’s (The Hateful Eight) supporting turn as a Civil War veteran sent by the US President to England in hopes of exposing slave trade in the Congo. Jackson’s cooler-than-you swagger is kept at bay here, with the actor getting mighty physical as he tries to keep pace with Tarzan. Even if he uses a few too many modern turns of phrase (was “screwed” a popular term in the late 1800s?), he easily gets the most positive audience reaction and seems game for whatever Yates and company throws his way.

I’ve about had it with Christoph Waltz (Big Eyes, Django Unchained) playing a soft-spoken smarmy villain outfitted in pristine attire. The two-time Oscar winner feels like he’s coasting on his initial popularity but is managing only to lull us into slumber. Feeling like a half-hearted extension of his Spectre bad guy, Waltz never grooves with the other actors and feels miscast. It’s always nice to see Djimon Hounsou (Furious 7) in anything and he’s utilized well as the chief of a tribe with a personal vendetta against Tarzan.

On the production side, the score from Rupert Gregson-Williams (Winter’s Tale) is tone appropriate whether it be a full-throttle action scene or a more somber moment between Tarzan and his ape brethren. Cinematographer Henry Braham’s stunning vistas are a seamless blend of live-action and CGI that make quite the impact when seen in 3D (note that the 3D adds appropriate depth for items that appear to extend past the screen).

No matter how well The Legend of Tarzan does, director David Yates is bound to have a great 2016 overall. With Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them arriving November, Yates is at the helm of two potential franchise starters after lovingly guiding the last four Harry Potter films to their conclusion. Even if you aren’t swayed by the actors or the story, Yates has brought forth a sharp looking film that looks like an old-fashioned epic.

Movie Review ~ The Purge: Election Year

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Two years after choosing not to kill the man who killed his son, former police sergeant Barnes has become head of security for Senator Charlene Roan, the front runner in the next Presidential election due to her vow to eliminate the Purge.

Stars: Frank Grillo, Elizabeth Mitchell, Edwin Hodge, Betty Gabriel, JJ Soria, Mykelti Williamson

Director: James DeMonaco

Rated: R

Running Length: 105 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: I’m not sure if The Purge: Election Year was part of writer/director James DeMonaco’s long-term Purge franchise plan from the start, but with Americans steeling themselves for another bitter election in November and the continued struggle with gun control it’s arrival is anything but poorly timed. Now, the movie itself is fairly run of the mill with performances that range from metered investment to foamed-mouth zeal but, like its two predecessors, its morality tale is disquieting and prescient.

What started as a home invasion thriller in 2013’s The Purge morphed into a rough and tumble sequel in 2014’s The Purge: Anarchy. Both films pretty much disintegrated in their third acts and The Purge: Election Year also struggles with making it over the finish line with any semblance of order…but for me it was an improvement over the previous entries thanks to a strong build-up.

Set in the year 2025, Election Year brings back Frank Grillo from Anarchy as Leo Barnes, no longer out for revenge for his son’s murder but instead focusing on protecting a beacon of hope to end the yearly Purge. That hope is Charlene Roan (Elizabeth Mitchell) an idealistic senator hoping to win the approaching election to unseat the bureaucratic nebula called the NFFA (New Founding Fathers of America) that instituted and continue to support the annual Purge. Running a campaign based around her desire to outlaw the yearly Purge, she’s made a number of enemies from the elite NFFA who conspire to use the pending Purge to get rid of her.

Though their methods of dealing with conflict differ greatly, Roan and Barnes are united in knowing the horrors the Purge can bring. When Roan is double-crossed by agents meant to protect her, Barnes teams up with an inner-city crew to keep Roan alive until the night is over. As in Anarchy, Election Year introduces us to another set of characters whose storyline will intersect with Barnes and Roan sometime during the night. Those other characters are a deli owner (Mykelti Williamson), his immigrant employee (JJ Soria), and a reformed tough-gal (Betty Gabriel) who has left her Purge bloodlust behind and helps transport victims to a triage center instead.

A solid first 45 minutes gives way to another Purge night filled with gory killings and ordinary citizens turning into crazed psychos. All manner of crime is legal for one night…yet DeMonaco never focuses on the jaywalkers, embezzlers, mattress tag rippers, and movie pirates. I suppose it would be tough to generate a thrill from following people that steal stop signs all night, but when we see yet another shot of someone getting an arrow through the head or turning up at the business end of a guillotine it does make me wish for more white-collar crimes.

The film has several endings, none of which are very satisfying. Most of the bad guys are dead, some of the good guys are…but nothing feels finalized or complete. Grillo (Captain America: The Winter Soldier) and Mitchell are strong leads and I liked what Gabriel was giving us. Williamson gest a full meal out of his scenery chewing while Raymond J. Barry and Kyle Secor (The Doctor) devour the film like they’re at an all-you-can-eat buffet. I have to make some space for Brittany Mirabile for her absolutely unhinged schoolgirl turned savage out for payback on Williamson and his store. I’m not saying it’s a good performance, but credit Mirabile for having gusto to just go for it.

It feels like this could be the last entry in The Purge franchise and that’s AOK with me. There’s not a lot further DeMonaco could take the concept/characters and the true finale hints at a Purge-less future that may be even scarier…mostly because it reminds us of the here and now.

Movie Review ~ The BFG

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A girl named Sophie encounters the Big Friendly Giant who, despite his intimidating appearance, turns out to be a kindhearted soul who is considered an outcast by the other giants because, unlike them, he refuses to eat children.

Stars: Mark Rylance, Ruby Barnhill, Penelope Wilton, Jemaine Clement, Rebecca Hall, Rafe Spall, Bill Hader

Director: Steven Spielberg

Rated: PG

Running Length: 117 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: There’s something about a Steven Spielberg film that makes it instantly recognizable. I feel I could watch a film of his with or without a blindfold and know right away that the director of Jaws, E.T., Raiders of the Lost Ark, or Close Encounters of the Third Kind was the captain of the cinematic ship. Lately, Spielberg has dug into more dramatic territory with the historical epics of War Horse, Lincoln, and Bridge of Spies with many of the muscles he used for his early flights of fancy going unstretched.

Long interested in bringing Roald Dahl’s 1982 book The BFG to the screen, Spielberg finally gathered the pieces together and I think that’s owed in no small part to the director finding a new leading man muse. After teaming with stage actor Mark Rylance on Bridge of Spies (which brought Rylance an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, surprisingly beating out odds-on favorite Sly Stallone in Creed), Spielberg has caught Rylance fever, casting the actor in The BFG and (as of now) his next two pictures.

In the not too distant past, a lonely orphan girl goes on the adventure of a lifetime one night when she’s plucked out of her bed by The BFG (Big Friendly Giant) and brought to his home in Giant Country. Not really a prisoner but not quite allowed to leave, the headstrong Sophie clashes at first with her towering friend. As she comes to know him better she recognizes the loneliness of this outsider as reminiscent of her own life and sets about to help him out from under the thumb of nearby giant bullies. Pretty soon there’s a trip to Buckingham Palace and a finale involving the Royal National Guard, with Sophie and The BFG bonding over dreams, sadness, and wishes for the future.

All of this is right up Spielberg’s alley and reteaming with the late Melissa Mathison on her final script, Dahl’s world is recreated from the ground up in a faithful adaptation. While other Dahl works like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and The Witches have had memorable their trips to the big screen, The BFG feels the most like it sprung from Dahl’s brain fully-formed. And that’s where there’s some trouble.

Dahl’s books are lovingly bonkers escapades with numerous tangential diversions along the way, almost feeling like curated episodes than one streamlined work. The BFG has several of these that don’t quite land the way I think Spielberg or Mathison (or Dahl for that matter) intended. Each moment of the film is beautifully shot by Janusz Kaminski (The Judge), gorgeously scored by John Williams (Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens) and skillfully designed by Rick Carter (Jurassic Park)  but the middle of the film seriously drags and it winds up a solid 20 minutes too long. Though the trip to meet the Queen (Penelope Wilton, The French Lieutenant’s Woman) is a nice lark, it goes on for an eternity as Sophie and The BFG have a spot of tea with Her Royal Highness before an extended sequence of fart jokes.

The whole thing is perhaps too sophisticated for its target audience and likely should be marketed more to adults than young children who will tire quickly of the talky nature of the piece. When Spielberg does give us something substantive, such as a knockout sequence where Sophie and The BFG catch firefly-like dreams, it can feel too heavy-handed and repetitive.

I’m not sure if any other actors were considered for the titular role but it’s hard to imagine anyone playing it quite like Rylance has. While the performance may be motion-captured, Rylance brings a special magic to the part, uniting the actor with technology to fairly stunning results. Many have felt that motion-capture performances should be recognized by the Oscars and you can be sure Rylance’s work here will be cited as an example of why.

Newcomer Ruby Barnhill is a real find, believably navigating a range of emotions that suggests a promising career as she matures. Wilton is a hoot as the Queen while Jemaine Clement (Men in Black 3) voices The BFG’s tormentor with a nice mixture of weirdness and humor. I’m not quite sure what Rebecca Hall (Closed Circuit) and Rafe Spall (Prometheus) are doing here, with their characters feeling exceedingly extraneous to the proceedings. Hall and Spall (hey, that rhymes) are pleasant actors but they seem to know they’re little more than human-sized props.

Any chance for Spielberg to make us feel like a kid again is a worthy experience in my book. While not on par with the best of the director’s works from the past, The BFG is a reminder of how good a storyteller he is when working with material that’s personal for him. I just wish he hadn’t been quite so precious with Dahl’s source material, I think even Dahl would say there’s opportunity to trim it down without losing any heart.

The Silver Bullet ~ Sully

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Synopsis: The story of Chesley Sullenberger, who became a hero after gliding his plane along the water in the Hudson River, saving all of his 155 passengers.

Release Date: September 9, 2016

Thoughts: Though he doesn’t wear a cape, Tom Hanks is the unquestionable superhero of moving movies. The amazing story that came to be known as The Miracle on the Hudson made its captain, Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, a media darling and Sullenberger’s recounting of his courage under fire made for good reading.  Judging from this first look at Sully, there’s more to the story than most of the public would ever know as it shows the rippling backlash after Sully’s moment in the spotlight. While I feel it looks awfully similar to the 2012 fictionalized Flight and that J.K. Simmons would have been a more ideal Sully, Hanks (Cloud Atlas) and director Clint Eastwood (American Sniper) make this one something that might fly high this fall.

The Silver Bullet ~ The 9th Life of Louis Drax

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Synopsis: A psychologist begins working with a young boy who has suffered a near-fatal fall and finds himself drawn into a mystery that tests the boundaries of fantasy and reality.

Release Date: September 2, 2016

Thoughts: French director Alexandre Aja is known for his more, ahem, extreme work (High Tension, Mirrors, Piranha 3D, Horns), so I was more than a little surprised his name was attached to this big-screen adaptation of Liz Jensen’s 2005 novel.  I mean, there doesn’t seem to be any opportunity for characters to be dispatched of in a most grisly fashion but perhaps The 9th Life of Louis Drax is an attempt to show Aja’s softer side.  Focused on a comatose boy and the secret as to why he’s in his current state, this September release might be a nice return for the carefully constructed mystery genre that’s been dormant for far too long in my book.  Starring Jamie Dornan (Fifty Shades of Grey), Sarah Gadon (Dracula Untold), Aaron Paul (Need for Speed), Barbara Hershey (Insidious: Chapter 2), and Oliver Platt (Flatliners), if Aja can withhold the bloodletting and let the story take center stage he may just have a winner on his hands.

Movie Review ~ The Shallows

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A mere 200 yards from shore, surfer Nancy is attacked by a great white shark, with her short journey to safety becoming the ultimate contest of wills.

Stars: Blake Lively, Óscar Jaenada, Brett Cullen, Sedona Legge

Director: Jaume Collet-Serra

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 87 minutes

Trailer Review: Here & Here

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: Summer is in full swing and mere days after the 41st anniversary of Jaws, another big shark movie is making its way to your cinematic shores. Long regulated to schlocky SyFy Channel movies and its own week of programming on the Discovery Channel in late June, sharks just don’t get the kind of love they deserve. Here’s a perfect predator that we can easily stay away from if we didn’t love the ocean waters so much…but again and again we venture underwater with the threat of winding up a tasty snack for a mammoth fish.

As another Sharknado looms large on the horizon and with memories of the fun but ultimately forgettable shark flicks The Reef and Bait 3D on the brain, I had high hopes that The Shallows would deliver. It’s first trailer presented a nice tease while subsequent marketing materials disappointingly spilled some of the secrets that lurked beneath the surface. Feeling like I’d seen the whole movie in its final 2 ½ minute trailer I went into the screening less enthused but still curious.

The good news is that The Shallows is a competent, well-made, suspenseful thriller…as long as no one is talking. Which leads to the bad news. The script from Anthony Jaswinski has a solid set-up but so much awkward exposition that it takes a bigger bite out of our enjoyment than a great white shark ever could. For once, backstories don’t really matter at all to the forward motion of the plot but still Jaswinski feels the need to add extra characters and tangents that, had they been excised, would have left the film 10 minutes shorter and tighter overall.

But let’s party down a bit that the production values are high enough that not only do we get gorgeous underwater photography (for those of us remaining landlocked this summer) but an exceedingly believable gigantic swimming nemesis intent on chomping down on a nubile surfer chick. Said chick is Nancy (Blake Lively, Savages) and she’s come to a secluded beach in Tijuana Mexico as a tribute to her late mother who first visited the same beach while pregnant with her. Alone save for two local guys catching waves, she takes the day to remember her mom, think about her future, and surf the dangerous waters.

As the guys depart for the day, Nancy takes one last ride and that’s where her trouble starts and your nail-biting will commence. Getting too close to a whale carcass floating nearby, Nancy is struck by a Great White shark that doesn’t like anyone messing with his mealtime. Stranded on a rock that eventually will be submerged as the tide comes in, Nancy has to fight to stay afloat and out of the jaws of a very intelligent super predator.

Lively is the entire movie and the actress is engaging and engaged with the material, selling the stilted dialogue as best she can and doing it in bikini bottoms and half a wet-suit. Stuck without any weapons 200 yards from shore, she becomes incredibly resourceful as she plots her way off the rock while avoiding several shark attacks that get bolder with each passing hour. At 87 minutes, the film somehow manages to get more people into the water to become shark bait but sags ever so slightly whenever the shark’s presence isn’t felt.

When the shark is onscreen the suspense is well maintained by director Jaume Collet-Serra (Non-Stop) who elicits some genuine surprise jolts when Lively’s fishy co-star swims into frame. A tense final act leads to a finale that, I must admit, was supremely satisfying and well-earned. An epilogue hastily filmed less than two months ago feels unnecessary and doesn’t send you out on the thrilling high note it could have had it called it quits at the true climax of the film.

On the way out of the screening my movie-going companion jokingly asked me if I thought The Shallows was better than Jaws. I didn’t dignify that with a response then, nor will I here…but I can easily recommend The Shallows for the shark-loving film goer.

Movie Review ~ The Neon Demon

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The Facts:

Synopsis: When aspiring model Jesse moves to Los Angeles, her youth and vitality are devoured by a group of beauty-obsessed women who will take any means necessary to get what she has.

Stars: Elle Fanning, Karl Glusman, Jena Malone, Bella Heathcote, Abbey Lee, Christina Hendricks, Keanu Reeves, Desmond Harrington, Alesandro Nivola

Director: Nicolas Winding Refn

Rated: R

Running Length: 117 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: First 75 minutes: (7/10); Final 45 minutes (1/10); Overall (4/10)

Review: When I first caught the trailer for The Neon Demon, I thought it had a nice giallo look that reminded me of horror maestro Dario Argento. Giallo, for the horror-averse, is a 20th-century Italian film genre and giallo films are thrillers often with slasher, supernatural horror, or crime fiction elements. Awash with bright, bold colors and an overall vison that favored style over any shred of substance, these films can be seen as overly cornball now but were considered viscerally raw during their time of release. I went into The Neon Demon expecting a nice side dish to Argento’s classic 1977 film Suspiria, but wound up with sour stomach.

While the thought of indulging in any food that slithers, slimes, or swims gets my stomach roiling I think I have a steely tolerance for gore and general grotesqueness but The Neon Demon finally broke me. This is a film with a substantial ick factor aiming to shock more than awe, it practically begs you to disengage more and more as the minutes t(ick) by. And that’s too bad because I can’t remember another movie in recent memory that starts off so well before devolving into a gross display of nastiness.

Right off the bat the film introduces an uneasiness as the studio credits/logos appear with no sound (one genius audience member kept asking for “Sound, please?”) and the credits play over a color shifting texture set to a synth score. We’re at a photo shoot and young Jesse (Elle Fanning, Trumbo) is playing dead for the camera, bathed in blood and keeping her eyes fixed and breathing to a minimum. New to town, she’s befriended by make-up artist Ruby (Jena Malone, Inherent Vice) who appears to be taking a parental interest in Jesse’s well-being but may have sinister intentions hidden away.

Ruby introduces Jesse to her model friends, Gigi (Bella Heathcote, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies) and Sarah (Abbey Lee, Mad Max: Fury Road) who size up the fresh face as a serious threat to their already diminishing shelf life. Picked up by a prestigious modeling agency (led by Christina Hendricks, Zoolander 2 in a dandy of an all-too-brief cameo), favored by both a bad-boy photographer (Desmond Harrington, The Dark Knight Rises) and a famous designer (Alessandro Nivola, A Most Violent Year), and pursued by a seemingly benign acquaintance (Karl Glusman) before she knows it Jesse is the toast of the town in an other-wise gluten free industry.

These developments occupy the first half of the film and it creates genuine intrigue in the viewer as well as the characters. Who is this girl and where did she come from? Hints of a broken home and a dangerous past are only that, hints, mere morsels of information that lead down a rabbit hole. Once it leads you to the bottom, though, the ground hits hard and reality sets in. There’s blood letting (and drinking), necrophilia, cannibalism, and adolescent rape for the viewers that stick this one out (numerous people at my screening didn’t make it to the end credits).

It’s no secret that director Nicolas Winding Refn thrives on excess. Making a warm entrance with 2008’s Bronson (which introduced Tom Hardy to us) before releasing his big splash Drive in 2011, he fell mighty far with his follow-up Only God Forgives two years later and now The Neon Demon is his most difficult film to stomach yet. This one has an uncooked feel, bloody and tenderized without offering any heat. Some movies could make up for a lurid ending by knocking the beginning out of the park but even the fascinating opening stretch can’t save this one.

Winding Refn’s style (and name, his monogram appears over the beginning and end titles, showing up in the same frame as his actual film credit) is all over this one. He’s admitted to being color-blind which is why his palette is so vibrant and the film admittedly has a chic perfection to nearly every frame, but the script (co-written by Refn, Mary Laws, and Polly Stenham) is a schizophrenic mess. One moment it’s a wicked parable condemning the industry with its subversive commentary and the next it’s glorying the excess of young flesh and starved bodies. The graphic nudity feels exploitative and unnecessary, with Winding Refn lingering too long and too intently on his subjects.

Some sort of survival award must be given to the actors Winding Refn cast here. Fanning manages to come out the best, nicely using her blank stares and whisper of a voice to suggest innocence even when we start to suspect she’s been playing us all along. Lee and Heathcote are a nice pair of harpies, gnashing their teeth the higher Jesse rises and Lee in particular really sells an insanely disgusting moment near the conclusion. I’ve always loved Malone and feel sort of sorry for what she’s asked to do here, including an act so revolting I can’t bear to think about it let alone write about it. Then there’s Keanu Reeves (John Wick) as a manager of a seedy motel that shows up in one of Jesse’s twisted psycho-sexual nightmares only to act out an even more horrifying atrocity in reality.

Going back to Suspiria, I always loved its tagline: “The Only Thing More Terrifying Than The Last 12 Minutes Of This Film Are The First 92” and could apply a similar one to The Neon Demon: “The Only Thing More Disgusting Than The Last 5 Minutes Of This Film Are The Previous 112”.

Movie Review ~ Now You See Me 2

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The Facts
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Synopsis: The Four Horsemen resurface and are forcibly recruited by a tech genius to pull off their most impossible heist yet.

Stars: Jesse Eisenberg, Mark Ruffalo, Woody Harrelson, Dave Franco, Daniel Radcliffe, Lizzy Caplan, Jay Chou, Sanaa Lathan, David Washofsky, Tsai Chin, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman

Director: Jon M. Chu

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 129 minutes

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review:  I’m just as surprised as you are that 2013’s Now You See Me did well enough to warrant a sequel seeing that I left my screening frustrated at its cheats and wholly averse to its attempts to charm. Still, someone thought it was smart move to assemble the old crew again three years down the line and aside from a new female in the mix, not much has changed about the film or my opinion of the series as a whole.  What could have been a slick summer mea culpa sequel is just another time-wasting sleight of hand.  It’s not that we can see what the actors and filmmakers have up their sleeves, it’s that we don’t care in the first place.

If you haven’t seen the first film you’re going to get some spoilers so if you don’t mind having the final twist of the original spoiled for you keep reading.

In the years since the Four Horseman took down a wealthy mogul (Michael Caine, JAWS: The Revenge) and a shady secret spiller (Morgan Freeman, Lucy) they’ve kept a fairly low profile. Daniel Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg, American Ultra), Merritt McKinney (Woody Harrelson, Triple 9), and Jack Wilder (Dave Franco, Warm Bodies) haven’t gone far though and as they’re readying another elaborate trick to expose a cell-phone hacking scam they’re joined by Lula (newcomer Lizzy Caplan, Bachelorette, replacing Isla Fisher as the lone lady in the bunch) who was recruited by their leader, FBI agent Dylan Rhodes (Marc Ruffalo, Spotlight).  A mole in the FBI agency, Rhodes has been leading his colleagues on multiple wild goose chases, until it all catches up to him and his Horsemen when the tables are turned and they’re split up.

The Horsemen wind up in China, face to face with elvish Daniel Radcliffe (What If) who has grown a beard to show he’s not Harry Potter any longer. There’s some jibber jabber about an all-powerful computer chip Radcliffe wants and a rather lengthy sequence where the Horsemen break into a high security company to retrieve said chip. Hiding the wafer thin treasure on a playing card, director Jon M. Chu (Jem and the Holograms) takes, no kidding, nearly five minutes showing the Horsemen passing the card between each other to avoid being caught by guards that are frisking them. It’s an exhausting passage of time that isn’t nearly as impressive as anyone involved thinks it is.

Meanwhile, Rhodes has to bust Freeman’s character out of jail because only he knows who’s behind the mystery.  A personal vendetta between the two men quickly resurfaces and becomes a focal point for several head-scratching plot twists down the road. When the Horsemen and Rhodes are reunited, the final truth of who the man behind it all is and though the mystery is ostensibly solved, there’s still a good forty-five minutes left.  It’s in these forty-five minutes that I officially checked out as it’s just a series of parlor trick moments that are less than magical.

As I’ve said before, magic tricks onscreen just don’t work for me because there’s no sense of disbelief one can reasonably hold.  When magic is done live and in person, it can be an impressive experience because you learn to not trust your eyes.  On film, when I see a trick being performed in the middle of multiple edits and angles I’m just wondering how many takes and lighting set-ups it took to get it to look right. It just doesn’t work for me.  At all.

Performances here are in line with the broad script.  God love him, Ruffalo acts the hell out of his role and for that I thank him. If only his co-stars had found a way to do the same. Eisenberg is as nebbish and stilted as ever, Franco is disarming but not given much to do, Caplan starts off with spunk but gradually gets reduced to ninth banana, Radcliffe as usual is having way more fun than we are, and Caine and Freeman are just there to cash their checks (at least Freeman is required to both stand up and walk in this film…unlike London Has Fallen).  And poor Harrelson pulls double duty as Merritt and his offensively fey twin.

Capping off with another finale that throws some random turns in at the very end, Now You See Me 2 is slickly made and moves fast but is superficially bland and all together hollow.

Movie Review ~ The Conjuring 2

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The Facts
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Synopsis: Lorraine and Ed Warren travel to north London to help a single mother raising four children alone in a house plagued by malicious spirits.

Stars: Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Frances O’Connor, Madison Wolfe, Lauren Esposito, Patrick McAuley, Benjamin Haigh, Maria Doyle Kennedy, Simon Delaney, Franka Potente, Simon McBurney

Director: James Wan

Rated: R

Running Length: 134 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  Is it as good as the first?  That’s the question you really came here for, right?  Any sequel to the 2013 fright delight The Conjuring had an uphill battle from the get go and everyone onboard The Conjuring 2 knows it.  Instead of fast-tracking the sequel for the very next year, director James Wan (Insidious, Insidious: Chapter 2) and screenwriters Chad Hayes and Carey Hayes took their time in crafting their follow-up based again on the casefiles of paranormal pariahs The Warrens.  While it doesn’t quite creep its way past the original it rests comfortably in the spooky shadow of its predecessor.

Like the original, the pre-credit sequence of The Conjuring 2 finds the audience in the middle of one of Ed and Lorraine Warren’s famous cases.  This one is going to mighty familiar to fans of a certain series of films involving a haunted house in upstate New York…and it’s a clever way to sneak another franchise in without simply rehashing its oft-told tale. It’s during a séance that Lorriane sees a vision that will haunt her (and us) for the next 130 minutes as the Warrens travel to London where another family needs their help.

The structure of the film is entirely familiar as its nearly the same set-up as the first: Normal family experiences strange happenings that they ignore for a while until they need assistance from the Warren ghostbusting squad.  Hey, if it ain’t broke or boring, why fix it.

The family in fear this time around is a working class single mother and her four children barely getting by. Their council house is spacious but grimy with water-stained walls, peeling paint, and crumbling plaster. Don’t forget the creepy basement half flooded with rainwater that of course is the setting for one of Wan’s deviously scary sequences.  With the haunting mostly centered around a pre-teen girl (Madison Wolfe, Trumbo, displaying an iron-will resolve and ghostly eyes), the media soon seizes the sensational new story of the family, which catches the eye of the church who give their old pals the Warrens a call.

Even more than the first one, The Conjuring 2 stresses the religious angle of the Warrens assistance.  Employed by the church to investigate/debunk possessions and hauntings, the Warrens are God-fearing people that believe their talents are meant to be in service to the church. They’re not Bible beating snake charmers but they do take their roles very seriously…and so do the actors portraying them.

I still find Patrick Wilson (Prometheus) a bit on the bland side but he’s fleshed out a bit more this time around, mostly because he’s part of a terrifying vision Lorraine is trying to decipher before it’s too late.  Vera Farmiga (The Judge) is again the star of the show here, displaying the deepest of sincerity even when she’s speaking some of the hokier lines that populate the final third of the film.

Most horror films, especially sequels, don’t take much time in re-establishing returning characters, let alone any new ones but Wan and the Hayes brothers indulge a bit too much in the over-development of the people at play. How else to explain an extended sequence where Ed strums a guitar and has an Elvis sing-along with the family they’re helping while Lorraine looks on moon-faced and starry eyed?  It’s a strange sequence that doesn’t add much to the thrust of the picture but gives Broadway-vet Wilson a chance to show off his singing skills.  Still, I’ll always take fully realized characters fighting evil instead of fratboy airheads that get sliced and diced alongside their bimbo babe girlfriends.

What do a freaky as hell nun, a crusty old geezer, a storybook ghoul, and an overstuffed leather chair have in common?  They’re all tools that Wan uses quite effectively to scare the ever lovin’ daylights out of audiences and for the most part he succeeds.  Once again with interesting camera angles helping to keep viewers off balance, Wan brings on the gooseflesh early and keeps those bumps raised for much of the film. The big scares come during scenes that already have you on the edge of your seat and I saw quite a few heads bopping up over seats when Wan hit with the big whammy’s.  The scares don’t come cheap, though, and it builds to an effective climax which manages to send you off into the night shuddering.

The Warrens have huge casefiles and I can see more films coming from Wan/Wilson/Farmiga. I’m for sure onboard for more if all involved stick with it and keep true to the root scares that feel so good. With a  sequel to the spin-off Annabelle arriving next year, they have some time to think things through but on the next outing I hope things can be tightened up a bit.

The Silver Bullet ~ Don’t Breathe

dont_breathe

Synopsis: A group of teens break into a blind man’s home thinking they’ll get away with the perfect crime. They’re wrong.

Release Date:  August 26, 2016

Thoughts: If you believe the early buzz (and you often can’t), Don’t Breathe is going to be one of those word of mouth flicks that seem to arrive at their release date with a lot going for them only to fizzle out after its first weekend.  True, the horror genre is a bit limited at any time of the year but in the waning summer months it can be hard to drum up excitement/scares when audiences are exhausted after the effects-a-paloozas they’ve sat through so far this year.  What gets this one a higher position on my radar is what’s going on behind the scenes.  The director is Fede Alvarez who successfully remade Evil Dead in 2013 as a gore-orgy that was as impressive visually as it was scary.  Another Evil Dead alum, Jane Levy (Fun Size), stars alongside Dylan Minnette (Prisoners), and always interesting character actor Stephen Lang (The Nut Job) in a plot that finds the tables turned on a trio of teens out to burglarize a blind man.