NOW YOU SEE ME 2 *** A magically inspiring sequel to its predecessor

From years of watching NBC’s America’s Got Talent, I’ve learned at least two things about magic and magicians.  One, I never really look forward to their acts, and two, once they’ve begun their acts, I can’t take my eyes off the screen.  It seems that, in spite of myself, I’m a total sucker for well-done magic acts.

No surprise, then, that back in 2013 when the film Now You See Me, about a troupe of Robin Hood-like magicians called The Horsemen, came out, I kind of dragged myself to it, but was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed it.  This year’s follow-up, Now You See Me 2, made me similarly skeptical, given that it’s a sequel (which are almost universally a disappointment compared to the original), but once again, I was pleasantly surprised.

In this outing, the Horsemen (returning stars Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Dave Franco, Mark Ruffalo, and newcomer Lizzy Caplan) once again are about taking down, in very public fashion, a nefarious ner-do-well.  This time he’s a diabolical young genius (Daniel “Harry Potter” Radcliffe in a delightfully nasty turn) who is out to rip off all the personal information that anyone in the world has ever put on the Internet and sell it to the highest bidder.  There is, apparently, a super-computer in China powered by a next-generation quantum chip which can crash through any encryption system currently in use, a chip that has been stolen by Radcliffe’s character.  The job is to steal the chip back and expose the baddie, who supposedly died the year before.

As in the first edition, the Ocean’s Eleven-like Horsemen each use their particular illusionary specialities to pull off the caper in some of the slickest magic routines you’ll see outside of a Vegas casino show.  It’s fascinating, never-ending, and keeps you guessing quite literally to the last frames of the film.  The screenwriters have provided an intricate story that not only deepens and expands the relationships between the franchise’s characters (antagonists Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman are also back this time…), but also delves into the universal mystique of magic and the dedication that magicians around the world have for preserving it.  Performances are solid all around from the cast, with special kudos for newcomer Caplan, whose Lula may not be as slick or sexy as Isla Fisher’s Henley Reed, but more than makes up for it with heart and humor, and Radcliffe, who makes a marvelous and honestly scary bad guy in his first such role in a major studio film.

To be sure, you’re going to get a lot more out of this show if you’ve seen (recently even) the first installment, but if you haven’t, don’t let that put you off.  You’ll still find this immensely entertaining, and don’t be surprised if the first thing you want to do as you’re walking out of the theater is to find some way to see the original.  They’re both magically satisfying movie fun.

WARCRAFT ** (for us non-MMORPGer types)

So if you DON’T know what the above acronym stands for, this review will be for you.  If you DO know what it stands for, you’re probably sniggering already and can definitely add a star to my above rating.  In other words, for you, the initiated, you will undoubtedly see an entirely different (and much better) movie than the rest of us poor ingrates who might stumble into it looking for an interesting fantasy-action pic (as I did).

Oh, and if you’re a pre-teen guy (or female of the same ilk, or adult who’s still stuck in prepubescence), it won’t matter whether you “get it” or not.  You’ll just revel in it because of its virtually non-stop slashing, dashing, bone-crunching action.

Alas, though, my pre-teen days are long gone and I’ve barely heard of the acronym, so Warcraft to me was little more than gobs of Lord of the Rings-style violence (though the Orcs here make even LOTR‘s Uruk-kai look like midgets) interrupted now and then with enough character interactions to give the mayhem something approximating a story and some character development.  This may actually get you rooting for a couple of the creatures and/or trying to figure out who the good guys and bad guys are, which I found mildly engaging, as well as trying (mostly unsuccessfully), to figure out the structure of the fantasy world that I was living in for those couple of hours that I watched the show.

Otherwise, Warcraft was little more than a Michael Bay-style over-the-top fantasy action flick (think Transformers) except set in a world so foreign that it may as well have been in another universe, which, btw, most Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games are.  So enjoy if you’re one of the 100 million or so initiates (who have at one time or other played the game from its inception in 2004 until now) or “of that certain age” mentioned above.  For the rest of us, save your bucks, dig out Pacific Rim or Transformers whichever, and order a pizza.

ME BEFORE YOU; the title (unfortunately) says it all **1/2

A qualification before I get started here; I’m generally not a fan of “tear-jerkers,” which is the kind of film that this new movie from MGM and New Line Cinema is being touted as.  I saw The Notebook in the theater and haven’t seen a single Nicholas Sparks book-to-film ever since.  I saw Million Dollar Baby in the theater, was impressed enough to buy the DVD, but have never watched it.  I saw Moulin Rouge in the theater and sobbed openly in my car afterwards; it was 15 minutes before I could even drive home.  The joy that pervades that film is about the only thing that got me to watch that DVD.  Same with Titanic.  I’ve seen The Age of Adaline once, and won’t see it again.  I avoided The Fault in Our Stars altogether.  My heart’s a big one, but sensitive too, I’m afraid, and getting it ripped out at the end of a movie is not often my idea of “entertainment.”

Any tears that may have been jerked from me after this film, though, were quickly swallowed up by outrage as I later put together its thematic undertones, its provocative climax, and its title, which turns out to be a particularly insidious twist on a much more common–and heroic–bit of romantic phraseology, and discovered what the filmmakers here could actually be championing.

As with all love stories, this one starts with two people, and if you follow Hollywood’s traditional take, they’re about as mismatched as a Barry Manilow ballad would be in the soundtrack of a Mad Max movie.

One is Will, played by Sam Claflin (Finnick for you Hunger Games fans), a self-absorbed richy who’s led a spoon-fed life indulging his every pleasure until a tragic accident paralyzes him from the chest down and confines him to the family castle (literally).  There, he sits in his motorized wheelchair and self-piteously contemplates what he feels should have been while refusing to deal with what actually is.

The other is Louisa “Lou” Clark, played by Emilia Clarke (Danereyes Targaryan for you Game of Thrones fans), an effervescent bundle of joy and freakish fashion sense who seems to find the gold even in a family situation where she’s 26, still living at home, and has just lost her job, which largely helped support her mum and dad, a guy who hasn’t been able to find work in months.  In desperation, Lou takes a job advertised by Will’s parents (Janet McTeer and Charles Dance, another Game of Thrones alum) to be Will’s “companion,” and there you have it; the perfect couple–obviously (at least in Hollywood).

From here, and for about 95% of the rest of the film, we follow the typical beats of just about every movie romance; he finds her idiosyncrasies interesting, then charming; she finds his stand-offishness challenging, and of course, his looks adorable.  He endeavors to expand her horizons, she shows him that life can still be lived, in spite of his confinements.  She breaks up with her current, ridiculously clueless boyfriend (Matthew Lewis), and the two fall in love; a future of promise seems at hand.

This is all very well-done.  Claflin and Clarke have a marvelous chemistry.  It’s particularly fun to see Clarke, the fierce and indomitable Mother of Dragons, transform herself into the irresistibly bubbly Louisa, who’s also so short that she has to scootch herself forward in the seat just to get out of a taxi.  And her smile is an absolute scene-stealer.

But of course, lurking around throughout the plot are signs of dangerous waters ahead, and when the waves finally break, their monstrous implications unfortunately crush the story’s goodness like a tsunami, and the emptiness and anger remains even as the film’s epilogue tries to neatly sweep it all under the rug.

“You can’t approach that topic in a throwaway manner on film.” said Me Before You author and screenwriter JoJo Moyes in a recent interview.  She was actually talking about a traumatic scene from her book that never made it into the movie, but I wish she’d thought as carefully about the staggering implications of her story’s theme as played out in its ending and quantified in its title and, perhaps, reconsidered.

Let’s hope you got away with it, Ms. Moyes; that the mobs of Millennial women that are making your film an over-performing box office hit and given it an “A” CinemaScore (an 81% female audience on opening night, 72% under age 35) are doing so because they adore the actors and/or their performances or love Louisa’s goofy outfits or the romance of castles and star-gazing on the beaches of Mallorca while sitting in Sam Claflin’s lap, and not because of what you tried so hard to distract us all from there at the end; the apparent real meaning of that “interestingly” twisted title.  Because if that’s why these legions of young women are flocking to see this, the consequences could literally be lethal.