Too Many Twos! Reviewing Conjuring 2 and Now You See Me 2

There’s nothing that instills more excitement or dread for a movie fan than the number 2. It could mean something great like your favorite characters have returned to continue the story (Terminator 2) or like a drunken one night stand, a movie has shown up on your doorstep demanding child support for this unexpected life we didn’t know we created (Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2). What my confusing similes is trying to say is some sequels can lead with a lot of promise, reinvigorating or improving on a film me already cherish or it can be a load of garbage that make us question was the source material even great to start with (Zoolander 2). More often than not, 2’s tend to land somewhere in the middle of not as memorable as their predecessor but also not a complete waste of time as we get to revisit characters and environments that a few years early we had fallen in love with. This past weekend we got double duty on 2’s with the release of The Conjuring 2, a sequel to James Wan’s retro haunted house horror and Now You See Me 2, the sequel to the 2013 magician movie that wasn’t The Incredible Burt Wonderstone. I had the opportunity to experience both and while I do think they are a part of this middle category they do swing towards the different ends of that spectrum.

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The Conjuring 2 is about the most you can ask for from a horror sequel. It’s a movie you never expect to be as great as its predecessor but James Wan has proved he’s got a handle on how to improve a franchise. While Insidious 2 doesn’t have the same bite as Insidious, it improves on the tonal inconsistencies that I found bothersome in the first one. Here Wan makes a real big budget horror. Bigger set pieces, scarier bad guys and CGI that actually works. On the back of that elevated budget you also get a conflated run time which may be the film’s largest hinderance, I dare you to name another horror movie that’s over two hours. I want it to be a tighter film but I understand that for Wan’s return to the genre, he’d want to go all out.

My feeling has always been that aside from Saw, Wan is a master at making derivative material interesting. Conjuring 2 is haunted house movie, much like the Insidious franchise but instead of demons possessing Patrick Wilson’s kid in present day, its ghosts and/or demons possessing children as Patrick Wilson tries to exorcise them out in the 1970’s. This film not only feels derivative from Wan’s own films but also from The Amityville Horror as that is where the film begins and of course from The Exorcist thanks to the time period, demonic possession of a young girl (her face gets a signature cut up at the end) and the design of the pale faced figure. Even with these homages/ripoffs there’s enough new material that stops me from writing it off completely. The film follows the endless cases of Ed and Lorraine Warren (Wilson and Vera Farmiga) as they travel to England to understand what evil is tormenting a poor family and targeting the youngest daughter Janet (Madison Wolfe). Besides being your usual jump scare fare, it expands on Ed and Lorraine’s relationship and how their celebrity turned on their credibility as paranormal specialists and whether or not their profession is a hoax. I don’t think the film gives enough leeway to these claims since so much is from the perspective of the Hodgson family. We’re so immersed in the instances of horror as furniture and toys move across the room in front of the family and neighbors’ eyes, it’s hard to flip the script and convince us it’s fake. I still appreciate the very real skepticism added to the narrative as it give the film a more grounded setting as the media, skeptics and interested amateurs all voice their opinion of these happenings.

As for the content of the horror which is what we’re all here for, I’ve gotten to the point that you know when the sound cuts out and the camera pans across a quite room in the middle of the night you’re bracing yourself for something to pop out. It’s become oddly safe with its predictability that I can get excited for it to happen but I’m rarely caught off guard. I’m convinced an old woman wronged James Wan when he was a boy because once again the trope shows up here. She (or he as these figures are often played by tall men) in a corpse like nun and given even creepier glowing eye and bloody fangs. There’s a great scene of Farmiga trapped in a room with Her as we watch its shadow glide across the room and line up with a disturbing painting on the wall. There’s other ghastly creatures to encounter like an eight foot tall Babadook/Slenderman hybrid that I would gladly see a spin off movie of. All these new haunting visuals are paired with bold directorial choices. There’s the usual 180 camera spins but also some impression use of foreground and background composition morphing people into ghosts just out of focus. There’s such a strong style in this film which is what sets Wan’s films apart from the usual studio horror movies. You can pretend it’s not a Hollywood cash grab by seeing the filmmaker’s passion in the effort he puts into making an engaging theater experience.

I’m giving this movie the most positive, middling review I can. I don’t think it’s that original or putting out anything mind blowing to get overly excited about, a reaction saved for inventive indie horror but it’s better than say most of the bland remakes or overused found footage we see dropped around Halloween. It’s in a harmless sweet spot. It’s a horror movie where the characters and filmmaking are equally competent as I never want to yell at the screen for a bad decision. There are jump scares aplenty but done in the best way possible but I prefer the instances of more naturally built, atmospheric scares. There’s definitely better films we’ll see this year from the genre but I’m pleased with how this turned out. Patrick Wilson sings Elvis which may be worth the price of admission. Screw Aquaman Wan, can you stick with making my Patrick Wilson summer blockbuster horror?

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How do you make a sequel for a movie no one remembers? In 2013, Now You See Me a caper magician blockbuster opened second at the box office next to Fast and Furious 6. It never hit number one but made steady money throughout June, enough domestically and worldwide to green light a follow up. A lot of people including myself shared the same level of bafflement as this isn’t something we asked for. The first movie is fine. You mix some fresh face actors (Jesse Eisenberg, Lil Davey Franco) with some proven talent (Mark Ruffalo, Woody Harrelson) add veterans who like a paycheck (Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman) plus some flashy lights and CGI and people will show up amid summer break for your movie. Now You See Me 2 seems to be putting its best foot forward by duplicating what “worked” before, deepening the magician “mythology” and making the tricks theoretically more epic. Sadly it feels hollow as it’s a paint by numbers Mission Impossible rip off but replacing gadgets with slight of hand.

This movie is really dumb. I’m not trying to be mean but it’s a very ridiculous. You must suspend your disbelief and embrace magic as a super power, allowing our gang known as the Horsemen who can literally accomplish anything by doing tricks. My gripe, as someone who genuinely enjoys magic is that movies are themselves magic. Through editing and visual effects anything can happen and we accept that what we’re watching is fake. This is why I can’t enjoy a movie about magic. When you see a show live in person you can be dazzled by inhuman feats as the impossible happens before your eyes. Here characters can disappear because the camera cuts away or ordinary playing cards can whiz by at lightening speed because they’re effects made on a computer. The crux of this film is immediately negated due to basic filmmaking. Also backing up my dumb movie claim is this film gets so convoluted so quickly. I’ll give the first one props that it’s a cat and mouse game between the Horsemen, FBI and Morgan Freeman the Magic Debunker, as everyone tries to figure out how these guys robbed a bank across the globe in the middle of a show. It’s very hard for me to narrow down the plot in 2 as it’s a lot of double crossing as the Horsemen are roped into thievery for an illusive businessman played by baby faced Daniel Radcliffe. There’s a whole subplot about The Eye which is some sort of mysterious governing magician body. They appear very important but I couldn’t tell you their greater purpose besides that they’re like the illusionist Illuminati?

Purpose was a huge issue for the plot. There were entire sequences that I couldn’t understand why they were happening accept that it looks cool. This is a film that does so much explaining and yet still makes no sense. One of the instances featuring the popular CGI playing card are when the Horseman are trying to sneak out of a highly guarded facility with a computer chip that they fit onto a card. As they are being patted down by security, they throw the card to each other, hoping to avoid detection. It’s an elaborate scene as we follow this thin chip flying from character to character around the room and all I could think of is “well Davey Franco, the card expert, seems to be really good at maneuvering it on his own, why would he risk it by passing it to the next person right as his pat down ends”. There are elements they set up and fail to complete (don’t get me started on the levitating ship trick Lizzy Caplan promises on that we never see). Congrats for the film attempting to do as much showing as it does telling but even so at the end, the Horsemen say they have about “five thousand questions” to ask and I couldn’t agree more.

It’s not all raining on your parade here (though there is a lot of rain in the film). This sequel has some bright spots like the addition of America’s underrated sweetheart, Lizzy Caplan, replacing “the girl” character originally filled by Isla Fisher and brings much needed enthusiasm to the sleep walking cast. Woody Harrelson reprises his role as Merritt but also doubles as his flamboyant evil twin Chase. I wouldn’t say this gay stereotype is good but it’s quite bizarre as he appears to have time traveled from a 70’s production of Boys In The Band and ended up on location in China. Daniel Radcliffe was a disappointment because I was awaiting a much more hammy performance, instead the script fails him much like everyone of not being that funny. Not that the first one was a barrel of laughs but it had energy and Harrelson was leaned on for charm. Here Merritt is so stone faced to contrast Chase who’s now the comic relief. This movie makes odd choices, most of them incorrect. I’m hung up on Eisenberg cutting off his gorgeous locks I love so much but I realize I have to blame that on Batman V Superman and not this innocent bystander of a movie. Besides hair loss, the ultimate magic trick may be that I’ll forget Now You See Me 2 as soon as the credits roll.

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