NEW YORK (CNS) — There’s a moral underlying the magic-themed thriller “Now You See Me 2” (Summit). It concerns being true to yourself while not always believing in what you see. Such, it seems, is the code magicians live by.
We know this because Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman), the magic debunker and secret friend of the versatile crime-fighting “Four Horsemen” — the central ensemble of this franchise — invokes it both at the beginning and the end of the film.
On top of that, all the tricks performed by the quartet are deconstructed in great detail, as if director Jon M. Chu and screenwriter Ed Solomon are anxious for the audience not to miss any of their cleverness and what it signifies.
The point is to make these characters relatable by their accomplishment of very human stunts, even if their trademark spectacles are enhanced by complicated special effects. That’s fine, although it does give this otherwise compelling, intelligent follow-up to the 2013 original the slight cast of a Scooby-Doo cartoon.
Explaining all the gears and clockwork afterward just makes everything longer. But fans of the first outing won’t mind.
The densely constructed plot with rat-a-tat dialogue is based on a series of elaborate con games involving hypnotism, card manipulation, illusions, escape tricks and a great deal of technology.
All of this leads to a gigantic sting involving a computer circuit known as “the stick,” which can de-encrypt any system into which it’s plugged. Since the magicians are all performers, the big reveal occurs in front of a cheering worldwide audience.
Language issues push this sequel toward adult territory. But it’s probably acceptable for older adolescents.
Returning are group leader J. Daniel Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg) skilled at both illusions and card tricks, hypnotist Merritt McKinney (Woody Harrelson) and sleight-of-hand artist Jack Wilder (Dave Franco), joined by fast-talking illusionist Lula (Lizzy Caplan). She replaces Isla Fisher’s Henley, the escape artist of the original.
This time, FBI agent Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo), who’s chasing down the Horsemen but is another of their secret pals, has a back story. He saw his escape-artist father drown in a botched stunt in 1984, and he somehow blames Thaddeus, who was there, for his dad’s death. He breaks Thaddeus out of prison just to take some form of revenge on him.
One of the Horsemen’s quick escapes, meanwhile, has similar consequences. They find themselves kidnapped, taken to Macau and delivered into the hands of smirking evil genius Walter Mabry (Daniel Radcliffe). Walter wants them to steal “the stick” from a massive, well-guarded vault.
This comes as a bit of a shock, if only because the Horsemen thought Walter, who is being backed by their former manager, billionaire capitalist Arthur Tressler (Michael Caine), was dead. As Walter observes, however, “In a world of surveillance, the only real value is in not being seen.”
Fortunately, the circuit is flat and the dimensions of a playing card, and can easily be concealed and flipped around in the film’s brilliantly choreographed set piece.
Joining the villains is Merritt’s fey twin brother, Chase (Brick Patrick). But he’s not given much to do other than heckling the magicians at key points.
The Horsemen are highly competitive by nature, yet must learn to work as a single entity to pull off their sting. So add co-operation to self-confidence in the roster of values being promoted amid the razzle-dazzle.
The film contains mild action violence, some profane and crude language and a vulgar gesture. The Catholic News Service classification is A-III — adults. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG-13 — parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.
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Jensen is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.
NEW YORK (CNS) — Anyone who has ever doubted the genius of Catholic novelist J.R.R. Tolkien need look no further than the heavy-handed video game adaptation “Warcraft” (Universal) for confirmation of his gifts.
Populated by orcs, wizards, dwarves and elves, as well as more or less ordinary human beings, director and co-writer Duncan Jones’ film inevitably invites comparison with Tolkien’s beloved tales.
But Azeroth, the fantasy world of the movie, is no Middle-earth. And, while Jones’ script, penned with Charles Leavitt, deals with a theme central to Tolkien’s work — namely, the corrupting effect of excessive power — the result is not the intriguing ambiguity the Oxford don-turned-author managed to achieve but, frankly, an unmemorable mess.
One problem undermining the proceedings is that Warcraft’s murderous orcs are not only, as a general rule, morally deficient barbarians, they’re also ugly and hard to understand. The latter fault is a natural result of the fact that they come equipped with huge pointy fangs.
Aside from the professional interest this might arouse among orthodontists in the audience, orcs do not make very engaging company, and they’re given far too much screen time.
They are integral to the plot, however, which centres on the conflict kicked off when an army of orcs, facing destruction on their home planet, uses a magic portal to reach Azeroth. Led by evil mage Gul’dan (Daniel Wu), this vanguard of invaders hopes to colonize the previously peaceful realm.
They also intend to construct another gateway in order to transport the orcs they left behind. To do that, they need to take a host of prisoners and suck the life force out of them.
Heading the home team in opposition to this wicked plan are wise King Llane Wrynn (Dominic Cooper), gallant knight Anduin Lothar (Travis Fimmel) and two practitioners of good magic, veteran spell-caster Medivh (Ben Foster) and sorcerer’s apprentice Khadgar (Ben Schnetzer). They’re backed up by the guidance of Garona (Paula Patton), an orc half-breed whose mistreatment at the hands of her own kind has made her anxious to thwart them.
Shifting loyalties — especially those of Durotan (Toby Kebbell), an orc warrior whose devotion to family life makes him redeemable; keep the pot boiling. And there are, admittedly, lessons here about jumping to the conclusion that the only good orc is a dead one. Call it intergalactic tolerance. There’s even a biblical allusion as Durotan’s baby son has an experience that parallels that of the infant Moses.
But in the end, the whole thing bubbles over and steams rapidly away.
As for the movie’s appropriate demographic, there’s a welcome absence of vulgar language and the combat is generally stylized. But at least two of the casualties meet graphic ends that, though fleeting, do raise the bar in terms of nastiness. Given the overall restraint, however, at least some parents may feel comfortable allowing mature teens to attend.
The film contains pervasive mayhem but with almost no blood, momentary gruesome violence, scenes of torment, a painful birth and a couple of sexual references. The Catholic News Service classification is A-III — adults. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG-13 — parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.
Mulderig is on the staff of Catholic News Service.
NEW YORK (CNS) — There’s not much magic in “The Conjuring 2” (Warner Bros.). What this possession-themed horror story does have are two principal spirits haunting folks throughout — one of them a demon nun.
The twisted “sister” (Bonnie Aarons) in question may lack a sharp-edged ruler. But she does boast sunken green eyes, pointy yellow teeth and a voice that roars rather than speaks.
There’s no explanation of why a fiend should take such an incongruous form. Yet, this being another episode from the “true files” of the energetically self-promoting demonologists and lay exorcists Ed and Lorraine Warren, an overlay of Catholic imagery is to be expected.
The spectral woman religious is too over the top and redolent of a Halloween party to actually offend people of faith. Then again, she’s too poorly utilized by director James Wan to inspire much fright, either.
At 133 minutes, the film is padded out with — wait for it! — multiple Elvis Presley references. Elvis had died a few months before this tale begins at Christmastime 1977.
The King doesn’t turn up in ghostly form, though. Such a shame. He would have been far more entertaining than the nun.
After the habited demon’s first appearance in one of Lorraine’s visions — she’s supposed to be a harbinger of Ed’s demise — Wan keeps her off the screen for more than an hour, and instead focuses on a grumpy domestic poltergeist named Bill (Bob Adrian).
Speaking of habits, Bill’s sole goal is to have the rundown London dwelling in which he died all to himself so he can keep on sitting in the decaying leather chair upon which he expired. This Archie Bunker-like seating preference proves inconvenient for the house’s current occupants, mom Peggy Hodgson (Frances O’Connor) and her four children.
Which is where the Warrens (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) come in. Fresh off their famous dealings with a haunted house in Amityville, New York, the couple is struggling with the resulting notoriety — and public skepticism. So a London junket might be just the thing.
Ed, who died in 2006, billed himself as the only American layman permitted by the Catholic Church to perform exorcisms. In 1985, however, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (the future Pope Benedict XVI), then head of the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, banned laypeople from performing the rite.
No exorcism goes on here. Ed and Lorraine make it clear — several times — that they’re on a less specific mission from the church after Father Gordon (Steve Coulter) asks them to go to London out of compassion for the bedeviled family.
As in any Dracula movie, Ed brandishes the crucifix around his neck to keep cantankerous Bill at bay once the latter has occupied the body of Peggy’s 11-year-old daughter, Janet (Madison Wolfe). Ed encourages poor Janet by repeating what a nun once told him in childhood: “God will be there for all who need.”
This caper is based on a real series of events known as the Enfield Poltergeist, involving telekinesis and strange voices. Speculation about what really happened in Enfield became an enjoyable cottage industry and provided fodder for Britain’s tabloid press.
As the script — co-written by Wan, brothers Carey and Chad Hayes and David Johnson — acknowledges, though, pranks by the children of the household may have been responsible for at least some of the busted crockery and bent spoons.
Still, such rational explanations don’t stop Sister Whatshername from taunting sweet Lorraine. Good thing Lorraine makes copious margin notes in her Bible.
The film contains occult themes, a skewed presentation of Catholic faith practices and intense action sequences, some of them involving gun violence. The Catholic News Service classification is A-III — adults. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is R — restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
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Jensen is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.
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