Film

The Conjuring 2, Warcraft, Now You See Me 2, Presenting Princess Shaw, The Idol, Older Than Ireland, Puerto Ricans In Paris, Unlocking the Cage

THE CONJURING 2

3CR-Steve at the Movies-newYou know a filmmaking team (especially in the horror genre) has confidence when a storyline involving the Amityville Horror case is relegated to the prologue of your primary, based-on-a-true-story haunting investigation plot. But such is the case with director James Wan’s long-awaited further adventures of paranormal detectives Lorraine and Ed Warren (Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson), who guided us through the hauntings and possessions of The Conjuring three years ago.

Wan is one of the few genre directors working today who has managed to combine quality filmmaking with actual success in most cases (with the first Saw film, the two Insidious films), and it has allowed him to branch out and dabble in the non-horror realm with the megahit Furious 7 and an upcoming Aquaman movie. But he has a recognizable style and rhythm to his horror works that is identifiable and still highly effective. In fact, he’s almost noticeably uncomfortable with downtime in his movie (clearly seen in a blessedly brief sequence involving Wilson doing an Elvis Presley song and impersonation), which results in the scares coming at a sometimes relentless pace. That works for me.

The opening Amityville sequence is something of a set up, while attempting to establish whether the haunting of that house is real or a publicity-seeking hoax. But during a seance, Lorraine is exposed to an evil force in her vision that takes the form of a truly terrifying demonic nun, in an attempt to use the iconography from her religious upbringing against her. It is established immediately that this is a vengeful and aggressive presence. Thus it’s not difficult to predict that when it goes away when this new case arises, that it’s not the last we’ve seen of it.

The Conjuring 2 takes the Warrens to London, where a particularly nasty and violent ghost is terrorizing the Hodgson family, with mother Peggy (Frances O’Connor) and four children, including daughter Janet (the fantastic young actress Madison Wolfe, from Joy and Trumbo most recently), on whom the ghost seems to be centered. The build up of disturbances in the household, leading up to the Warrens being brought in, is fantastic and utterly terrifying. It starts out with Janet falling asleep in bed and waking up in the living room, at the foot of a ratty old chair in the darkest corner of the family living room. But before long, things begin to move, loud noises only heard by certain family members come from everywhere, and something unseen (and eventually seen) starts grabbing and biting. Fun for everyone.

While the set up may sound a whole lot like The Conjuring, the differences are there. This second installment adds a deeper layer of Lorraine’s spiritual protection to the mix, which isn’t surprising since her faith is under almost constant attack in this film. Crucifixes are used to push the pesky spirit out of a room just as readily as the ghost turns dozens of crosses upside down in Janet’s room before attacking her. In essence, the attacks begin to feel personal, and the Warrens begin to wonder if this particular spirit (who turns out to be the ghost of one Bill Wilkins, played by Bob Adrian, an old man who once lived in the house) is somehow tied to the spooky nun from the beginning of the film.

If I had one overriding issue with The Conjuring 2, it’s that it strays too far from what feels like fact-based material. Having this demon following Lorraine feels like plot, but the nightly hauntings feel more reality based and thus far scarier. There’s a particular sequence in which Janet begins speaking in Bill’s old-man voice, but the way the moment is shot, Janet is out of focus while Ed is in focus in the foreground. But your eyes never leave the fuzzy Janet in the background because something changes in her appearance that you can’t quite make out but you know it’s awful.

A Wan horror trope brought over from his Insidious movies is bringing in paranormal scientists to attempt to make audio and video recordings of any disturbances. I was genuinely and pleasantly surprised to see Franka Potente pop in as Anita, who is heading the team of skeptics. They point out how all of the early incidents of hauntings can be explained or faked. In truth, the moments with this late edition to the story don’t really feel necessary, and as much as I love the idea of horror getting as long a running time as a dramatic epic or a Judd Apatow film (The Conjuring 2 comes in at about 2.25 hours), there is undeniably some fat on the bones here. It’s forgivable because so much of what’s here works so beautifully.

Wan and veteran, Oscar-winning cinematographer Don Burgess have created a film of such pure atmosphere and dread that you’re almost choking on the sense of foreboding and tension. The screenplay—credited to the original film’s writers Carey and Chad Hayes, as well as Wan and David Johnson—is packed with so many ideas that it begins to feel slightly cramped with crisscrossing plotlines. It’s not enough to ruin the experience, but it’s noticeable.

Still, The Conjuring 2 is so good, that much like the first film, I can see it inspiring another wave of sub-par copycats for the next few years. Wan allows his camera to flow throughout the house, and we know something bad is going to happen, so it becomes a waiting game. Can he surprise us, or will we see the monster coming a mile away? Ninety percent of the time, Wan gets us. And in the horror realm, those are stats you cannot ignore, and if Wan is truly taking time off from scare films for a while, my heart will break a little, but I’ll eagerly await his return as well as whatever else he has planned down the line.

WARCRAFT

While I get that any film based on outside source material should do what it can to play well to the fans of said material, in order to be a work that actually draws in mass audiences, it has to appeal to all—or at least as many people as possible—even those who have never been exposed to the source material. In the case of Warcraft, the original is a video game series from Blizzard Entertainment that I’ve never laid eyes on, although I’ve certainly heard about it and know plenty of people who have played it over the years.

My immediate thought after seeing the film was that I was legitimately fascinated that the creators (of game and film) effectively borrow elements from all manner of fantasy—from King Arthur to The Lord of the Rings to Stargate—and smash them together to create a new story. I actually don’t have any issues with this approach, since so much of fantasy is derived from other sources. In many ways, watching Warcraft reminded me of my time discovering ’80s fantasy films that were low on budget and not exactly front loaded with original ideas, but they still found ways to be fun and playful. If I had one overriding complaint about this film, it’s that it takes itself so damn seriously that it forgets how damn silly some aspects of it can get.

Warcraft begins on two worlds: one that includes humans, dwarves, elves and Guardians (which are basically just wizards), and another that is a dying world where Orcs live, including Durotan (a motion-capture creation, with Toby Kebbell at its core), an Orc who is tired of the evil-trending turns of the predominant force in his world, a warlock named Gul’dan (Daniel Wu), who is supported and protected by a war chief named Blackhand (Clancy Brown). Since the Orcs’ world is dying, Gul’dan has devised a plan that opens up a portal between the Orc world and Azeroth, which they plan on inhabiting and taking, killing off the current population in the process, since the “souls” of living creatures are needed to open the portal in the first place.

Dominic Cooper plays the realm’s king, Llane Wrynn, with Lady Taria (Ruth Negga) as his queen. (Fans of the new AMC series “Preacher” should get a kick out of those casting choices.) As he learns of the Orcs’ plan (after several areas of Azeroth have already been taken over), he enlists the help of his greatest warrior Anduin Lothar (Travis Fimmel of the series “Vikings” but also recently seen in Maggie’s Plan) and the most powerful Guardian, Medivh (Ben Foster). Also in the mix is a Guardian in-training Khadgar (Ben Schnetzer from Pride), as well as arguably the film’s most interesting character Garner (a half-orc, half-human woman, played by Paula Patton), whose allegiances are mixed and questioned frequently by both sides.

And if all of those names and character descriptions are already making your head spin, then perhaps Warcraft isn’t for you. But for those inclined to give fantasy films a shot, you might find yourself giving this one a fair shot. There are messages woven into the many stories of Warcraft about heroism, survival, fathers and sons, and what it means to be loyal to a people rather than a leader. Both sides suffer heavy losses, and it becomes clear at a certain point that the makers of this film see this brand going far beyond just one movie (good luck with that).

The very capable director Duncan Jones (Moon, Source Code) has moved far beyond his far more intimate science fiction tales to full-on world building, with varying degrees of success. I love the detail in the individual orc character designs, from costumes to body piercings to the varied way their tusks poke forth from their mouths. I was less impressed with the various robes and armor of the Azeroth realm, which felt more like leftover costumes from every movie to ever feature a castle in the last 50 years. The production design is hit and miss as well, and even the best set work doesn’t stand out. I realize that a considerable amount of the film is artificial to some degree, but that’s no excuse for shoddy craftsmanship.

I suppose the biggest issues when you borrow so heavily from better-known and better-written sources is that you have to find ways to make your hybrid creative in different ways, and to me the greatest leap Warcraft makes is allowing some of the Orcs to be rational creatures, who don’t immediately want to jump into battle. The scenes of uneasy peace interrupted by spies and other Orcs who only want to destroy, are some of the more interesting in the film. Durotan and Lothar are the most fully rounded characters of the bunch, and that’s done by design since they both have family members whose lives need protecting—Durotan has just had a baby Orc son, while Lothar’s grown son is on the verge of becoming a mighty warrior himself, which also makes him a target (screenwriters Jones and Charles Leavitt don’t really offer up many surprises).

Warcraft isn’t the disaster early reviews would have you believe. From a purely technical standpoint, the film is fascinating viewing, but special effects and creature design only go so far. I could actually see places in the story where I wish the pacing was slowed somewhat just so we could spend a few extra moments with some of the more underdeveloped characters. At various points during the film, the pacing was so breakneck I was afraid to blink. And since I was trying desperately to keep all the names, locations and various alliances straight, a rapid trip through the story is a very bad thing. As much as I didn’t loathe this film, I also wasn’t thinking about it an hour after I saw it, which might be the greatest indicator that something substantive is missing. Younger viewers might get more out of this than I did, but Warcraft features decapitations and head squishing (mostly of Orcs, but still…), so you might want to gauge your child’s tolerance for violence. This one mostly works as a decidedly average fantasy tale, but it’s not especially good and it’s certainly not essential viewing.

NOW YOU SEE ME 2

I had forgotten how much I genuinely disliked the original Now You See Me until I watched this overblown, all-flash, no-substance sequel. First of all, I wholeheartedly reject the idea that a movie about master magicians has so much clearly CG magic in it. I don’t care what the filmmakers or actors say about the use of practical magic in this production, the tricks that are meant to dazzle us are fake. And what in any realm is dazzling magic done with computers pretending to be real? Second, I reject the film’s “the whole world is watching” premise. What is this based on? What magicians (or any one celebrity, for that matter) has the whole world watching live anything they do, especially magic? Pulling back even further, third, I reject the idea that the Four Horsemen are folk heroes to the masses. Nothing that has come before nor anything that happens in this movie leads me to believe that these tricksters would be so beloved in the internet age. The haters would be out in force, and with good reason.

If you’re watching a film and you can’t even buy into its core premises, there’s a major problem, and Now You See Me 2 has many, many problems. I feel like the only premise about this franchise that makes sense is that some sparks might actually happen by putting this many interesting actors in the same room together. Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Dave Franco and Lizzy Caplan (stepping in for Isla Fisher, who escaped with her dignity) are the returned Horsemen, who plan to use their skills to take down an off-the-grid tech giant (Daniel Radcliffe), who shockingly is not a nice fellow and threatens them if they don’t pull off a heist on his behalf. Also floating around is Mark Ruffalo’s FBI Agent Rhodes, who is pretending to continue his search for the Horsemen but is, in fact, aiding and abetting them.

In addition, Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine return as the bad guys from the first film, and still major instigators. I guess the big switcheroo in part two is that the Horsemen are the ones being played, and once they figure that out, they have to find a way to expose whomever the master manipulator is without that person/persons realizing it. I think… Actually, Now You See Me 2’s plot folds over on itself to such a degree and relies so much on lingering questions (that no one was actually asking) from the first convoluted film that I gave up trying to unwrap everything and just counted down the minutes until the big finale was over and done with. It doesn’t help that an epilogue further complicates and confuses the situation.

A look at director Jon M. Chu’s previous credits made me shudder—two Step Up movies, G.I. Joe Retaliation, two Justin Bieber docs, and last year’s monster hit, Jem and the Holograms. This man has made a career of making slick, flashy films with little or no substance. And although I didn’t think it was possible to make a shallower film than Now You See Me, I’ve been proven wrong.

In the spirit of always looking for the good in a sea of bad, I suppose I learned something about how good actors behave in such a terrible film. Hell, just to make it interesting for himself, Harrelson plays his original character and that guy’s evil twin brother; I wish I were making that up. But he seems to be enjoying himself, so we’ll let him have this one. Caplan is always a welcome addition to any cast. She has a wit and intelligence that at least adds those qualities to this extraordinarily stupid movie. As for the rest of the actors, I just see them faking enthusiasm and collecting carefully negotiated paychecks. Even the addition of Jay Chou (The Green Hornet) as the co-owner of one of the oldest magic shops in the world can’t help save this empty-headed endeavor.

With a screenplay by Ed Solomon, Now You See Me 2 is an exercise in wasted talent on a massive scale. You often hear the question about many recent sequels, “Who was asking for a follow-up to that?” but the truth was, the first film was a modest hit three years ago. I’m not a fan of equating box office to the quality of a film, but there was some call for this film from a public that I’m fairly certain will reject this pompous sequel that is so pleased with itself, you want to punch it in the throat. If there was a minute of this film that I wasn’t in agony while watching, I’ve forgotten it. This will easily go down as one of the most unpleasant times I’ve had in the theater in 2016. Enjoy!

To read my exclusive interview with Now You See Me 2 star Dave Franco, go to Ain’t It Cool News.

PRESENTING PRINCESS SHAW

In a truly unique music documentary, Israeli filmmaker Ido Haar (9 Star Hotel, Enlistment Days) partnered with musician and composer Kutiman (real name: Ophir Kutiel), whose specialty is finding a cappella videos on YouTube and enlisting musicians from all over the world to help build an arrangement around the clip without the singer knowing about it until it was complete. All of the submitted musical tracks are done via YouTube as well, and results are often quite extraordinary. Presenting Princess Shaw is about the intersection of Kutiman’s work with that of a total stranger, a New Orleans resident named Samantha Montgomery, who performs (often to empty clubs on open-mic nights) under the name Princess Shaw.

Montgomery is no stranger to capturing her own life via her cell phone. She films short videos (for whom, we don’t really know) documenting her day-to-day life as a healthcare provider in an old age home, but finds ways to write often heartbreaking songs that she sings with her raw, soulful voice. I’m not sure what the pretense was that brought her and director Haar together (he likely told her this was a doc about YouTube stars), but establishing what a tough life she has makes the moment when she first hears Kutiman’s finished version of one of her songs that much more powerful.

If the story ended there, Presenting Princess Shaw was still be worthy of viewing, but the song becomes such a YouTube sensation that Kutiman invites Princess to Tel Aviv to perform the song—and others he’s arranged that she doesn’t even know about—in a massive concert. Tracking her journey to Tel Aviv, meeting Kutiman for the first time in person, and watching her come alive in rehearsals and on stage is mesmerizing. It doesn’t take much for her inner star to surface, but she never forgets to be kind and gracious about the opportunity afforded her.

Princess Shaw is pure uplift. Tears will likely be shed, both due to the emotional content of her songs and the joyful way that her life has paid off. It’s also a great portrait of two artists who seemed destined to work together, despite coming from vastly different worlds. The direction is simple yet completely effective, and the impact is substantial and near perfection. There is an inherent power in watching someone’s dreams come true, and Presenting Princess Shaw knows that and proves that. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

THE IDOL

One of the most celebrated Middle Eastern filmmakers currently working is two-time Oscar nominee Hany Abu-Assad (Omar, Paradise Now) and his latest work is also his most accessible. The Idol is the true story of Mohammed Assaf, living in war-torn Gaza, who was a gifted singer from a very young age. He formed a band with his defiant sister and two friends, and immediately began getting work playing weddings at a time when girls weren’t allowed to play instruments (the sister disguised herself as a boy and hid behind stage props). But when tragedy strikes the Assaf family, Mohammed gave up singing out of pure grief, until many years later when he runs into one of his childhood friends who encourages him to sing again.

In the time between his childhood and more modern times, the Gaza landscape has changed considerably, and to have any desire to play in the Cairo Opera House seemed indulgent at best. But after getting an audition on “Arab Idol” (the region’s version of “American Idol”), Mohammad allows himself to dream of becoming a great singer once again. There are moments in The Idol that feel a little forced and fictionalized, even if they aren’t, especially when Mohammad must use fake ID papers to get across the border to Egypt, using his voice as the true means of convincing the border guards to let him pass.

The film’s messages about those in Gaza being oppressed by Israel are both weirdly unspoken but still very much a part of Mohammad’s story. His moving up through the ranks of “Idol” was said to give voice to the voiceless in his country. But there are almost no direct mentions of the conflict, just shots of building after building absolutely leveled after years of instability. It seems odd that the visuals are clearly meant to be so powerful, yet any direct criticism of the state of affairs between the two cultures is unspoken. If such a message was more overt, The Idol might not be playing in America at all.

As it stands, the movie is a bittersweet reminder of how the simplest thing can motivate and inspire so many people. In many ways, Mohammad became a reluctant celebrity, because he felt uncomfortable having the pressure of an entire people on his shoulders. Those personal aspects to his story ring more true and have more far-reaching meaning than him sneaking past checkpoints. I wish there had been more such moments. The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre.

OLDER THAN IRELAND

The seemingly light-hearted documentary Older Than Ireland features a series of interviews with Irish centenarians who have been alive at least as long as the Republic of Ireland itself (2016 marks the 100-year anniversary of the Easter Rising of 1916 that led eventually to Irish independence). Filmmaker Alex Fegan (The Irish Pub) has collected an absolutely glorious group of folks for his subjects who are representative of the living, breathing history of the nation and have the stories to prove it.

Fegan starts out small, asking about childhood memories and how their parents raised them, but before long the questions turn to subjects like Bloody Sunday, British military occupation, and the Irish Republican Army (at least one of the subjects actually met Michael Collins when he was a youngster). As the film goes on, we begin to see the unique personalities creep into their answers. We discover which were raised and are still deeply religious, while other couldn’t give a feck about the church. The language is colorful (and thankfully subtitled), and those interviewed managed to lay out a fairly precise portrait of Ireland across the decades (their attitudes about young people today are none too favorable).

Not surprisingly, the most moving material here is when the interviewees are asked about the loves of their lives and the great losses as well. Many of them express a sense of loneliness, since everyone they’ve known is gone, and they have done all they’ve wanted to do with their lives. And while this may sound a bit maudlin, it’s actually quite lovely to see people who aren’t afraid of death, since many of them hope it will reunite them with those they’ve lost. But when you get them talking about their first kiss or even a censored version of their sexual discovery, all bets are off, and Older Than Ireland becomes an absolute joy.

Clocking in at under 80 minutes, the doc is a straight-forward approach to a weighty subject—the history of an impassioned people. It’s also a powerful reminder that sometimes the best stories can be told with voices and faces. Older Than Ireland is a complete emotional and historical journey in an elegant and streamlined package. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

PUERTO RICANS IN PARIS

This is a very silly film, which is not necessarily the reason it doesn’t quite work. Silly can be enjoyable, but it can also be pointless. And I’m still racking my brain trying to figure out what the point of Puerto Ricans In Paris is supposed to be. Luis (Luis Guzman) and Eddie (Edgar Garcia) are two NYPD detectives who specialize in busting those who sell and manufacture knockoffs of designer clothes and accessories (I guess someone has to do it).

They’re actually rather good at their job, and as something of a reward, a French clothing CEO pays to bring the pair to Paris to stop the sale of a one-of-a-kind handbag from designer Colette (Alice Taglioni), whose prototype for her highly anticipated bag has been stolen and is being held for ransom. The company hires the detectives to find out who the bag-napper really is, after narrowing the list of suspects to a few close associates. So these two totally blend in in Paris and work undercover to find the thief.

Puerto Ricans In Paris establishes the only character traits we need to know about these two men. Luis is a sexist pig and relationship phobic, but he’s met a great woman (Rosario Dawson) and is being tempted to actually commit. Eddie is married (to Rosie Perez) with many children, but their relationship is troubled because he’s so busy with work that he keeps forgetting to appreciate her. When the two get to Paris, Luis is the one who keeps striking out with the ladies, while the more subdued Eddie seems to be getting some attention, including forming a close friendship with Colette. He’s not interested in straying, but that doesn’t mean Colette isn’t going to tempt him.

The film is the first feature from Ian Edelman (who co-wrote with Neel Shah), creator of “How to Make It in America,” and it’s a bit all over the place. It’s not especially funny, Luis’s brutish behavior is supposed to be amusing, but it’s mainly just gross. Eddie is certainly the more interesting of the two characters, but he spends so much time exploring the city that you wonder why they aren’t devoting all their time to the case they’ll be paid handsomely for if they solve it. The case itself is really just an excuse to bring the boys to this sophisticated city, so when the story actually has to veer back into the big mystery, things get rather dull.

While watching Puerto Ricans In Paris, I don’t think I ever stopped shaking my head wondering what the greater meaning was of all the squabbling between the men, the moronic undercover stings they set up, and all the partying and flirting. If the point was to appreciate their women more, the film might have made this clearer by actually writing decent roles for these two actresses, because the way that they’re portrayed in the film is borderline offensive. As a guy who once said that every movie would be better with a little Guzman in it, this film proves that there are some holes in my theory—ones at least as big as those in this story. The film will open exclusively in the Chicagoland area at the AMC Showplace Cicero 14.

UNLOCKING THE CAGE

In many ways, the new documentary from the legendary team of Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker (The War Room, Elaine Stritch At Liberty, Kings of Pastry) is an exercise in converting its audience, which I normally find deplorable. But in the case of Unlocking the Cage, what the filmmakers are attempting to do (whether they would admit it or not) is convince you that certain high-functioning animals should be considered legal persons so that they may share certain rights that biological human beings do. Their means of making this argument is Steven Wise, an animal rights lawyer who has brought cases on behalf of certain animals (in these cases, they were chimpanzees being held as roadside zoo attractions in sometimes deplorable conditions). His thinking is simply that by calling them people (as in “not property”), they would qualify under habeas corpus to not be held without cause and could be taken to sanctuaries to live out their lives in more natural conditions.

We see Wise and his small army of lawyers both explain and argue to such a degree and so convincingly that it’s likely only a matter of time before your brain simply slips into the same mode as theirs about these bigger-brained animals (which also include elephants and certain water-based mammals like dolphins, orcas, etc.). Over the course of many months, not only does Wise move through the judicial system, waiting for just one open-minded judge to possibly grant his clients habeas corpus, but he goes on just about every talkshow that will have him explaining his position. As a result, the media coverage also shifts, from initially treating him like a crackpot to looking at the real ramifications if he succeeds. If a corporation can be considered a person in certain circumstances, why not an animal who knows when it’s being abused and/or held captive.

There are victories and failures along the way, and Hededus and Pennebaker use their fly-on-the-wall tactics to capture every strategy meeting and adjustment in Wise’s plan. Almost without realizing it, the film’s tone goes from vaguely whimsical to more serious as the movement picks up steam and begins to be taken seriously. The detail-oriented nature of the judicial process, coupled with the fact that Wise and his people are paving new ground—one where precedent does not exist—is all quite maddening at times. But Wise (mostly) keeps his cool and stays the course in a way only a person of absolute conviction and certainty can. Unlocking the Cage is strangely inspirational and a deeply rewarding watch, no matter what side of this issue you fall. The film opens today for a weeklong run at the Gene Siskel Film Center.

After the 7:45pm screening tomorrow, June 11, associate producer Julia McInnis will take part in an audience discussion.

Categories: Film, Screens

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