10 June 2016

Orcs, Magicians, and Evil Spirits - Anyone Up for Ninja Turtles Again?

We're really at the point where as a nation we're collectively dreading Summer Fridays instead of looking forward to them. How did this summer get off to such a rough start? Today like every Friday through August we're taking a look at the films hitting the multiplex, and somehow in an already extremely rough season this is looking like a fucking turnip fire. The M.O. of Summer 2016 seems to be "sequels that no one wanted" and unlike most years it seems as if the populace is actually voicing their opinion. Nearly every film has bombed. How is this possible? It's quite clear that no one gives a shit about shitty movies anymore.

Obviously, the remedy here is to offer us a cheeky sequel to a film that did kind of okay back in 2013, but no one's cared about since, a sequel to a summer horror film that's as well-regarded as it was unique, and what might quite possibly turn into the biggest box office disaster of 2016. So let's sort through this shit, and I might move quick because, spoiler alert, the answer to every question, "will this be successful?" is almost assuredly "No."
Expecto Patronum!

Now You See Me 2 (2016) can really be summed up by the fact that they didn't name this sequel Now You Don't (2016). That's such a perfect sequel title! Now You See Me 2 is all kinds of awkward, forcing this serialized moniker on the common magic phrase that served as the first film's title. Instead of going in a clever, cheeky, self-aware, or interesting route, it serves as a baseline for this franchise's lack of creativity.

I've only seen bits and pieces of Now You See Me (2013), but I have seen the ending, and it's super weird and convoluted. It also somehow boasted one of the strongest casts ever, with two Oscar winners and three more nominees, with the rest being MĂ©lanie Laurent, Jesse Eisenberg, Isla Fisher, and Dave Franco which is damn solid. The sequel seems to be throwing out Laurent and Fisher, replacing at least one of them with Lizzy Caplan, and throwing in famed magician Daniel Radcliffe (who is doing all sorts of wonderful non-Harry Potter things these days - almost reminding me of the weird directions that Elijah Wood's career has crept), which is all fine by me. It's still amazing, though, that all these great actors got together to make this really awful film.

The issue is the self-seriousness. To make a dumb movie like this that flirts with all these big ideas but never really in a satisfying or cathartic way, you have to have some degree of camp or fun. This film pretends to have fun, but its tonal intensity and preponderance for CGI, even if it's subtle, over real magic (okay, "real" magic) undermines that. This would have been a great Soderbergh or Edgar Wright film. The first film in the hands of Louis Leterrier is a rough onslaught of mismanaged tones (see also: Clash of the Titans [2010]), and Jon Chu is a tremendous downgrade. Amazing that we aren't expecting more from the guy who shepharded the Step-Up franchise, bungled G.I. Joe: Retaliation (2013) (I'll add Stephen Sommers to my list of weirdo campy directors who could make this work) and most recently offered us Jem and the Holograms (2015). Is there a director that more often misses the mark? Don't answer that.

Let's go back in time three years. Now You See Me was a really random success, mostly on the backs of the unabashed failure of After Earth (2013), which it opened against and improbably beat by $2 million. It actually lost that weekend to Fast & Furious 6 (2013) in its second week and never reached #1 at the Box Office. It held on mostly since Furious 6 burned off a lot of ticket sales in early anticipation, along with some high profile bombs like the aforementioned After Earth and The Hangover: Part III (2013). The next weekend it met up with The Purge (2013), which did decent, but not overwhelming business. It wasn't until Man of Steel (2013) that the box office really had a formidable opponent. Suddenly a film that looked like it might be ducking around Will Smith and Bradley Cooper was improbably set up to do pretty well, since it was an original, somewhat clever idea coupled with an amazing cast of likable actors.

We're in a similar state right now, actually. We're loaded up with high-profile bombs, there's no clear winner to project this weekend, and the coast is relatively clear ahead for films of this type. Then again, the one-two punch of Central Intelligence (2016) and Finding Dory (2016) ought to wipe out any legs films have this week. There's also the simple fact that no one fondly remembers this stupid film. Quick - name a single character. Just one. What is Jesse Eisenberg's character's name? No one knows. I might pick this film to do what Now You See Me never did and win its weekend (it probably has to only clear $20 million or so to do it), but it's going to be close, and it won't be that much.

Let's move on to The Conjuring 2 (2016). This is another film whose title annoys me. It feels weird to have a well-regarded horror movie follow-up have so basic of a title. James Wan's other series, Insidious had at least Insidious: Chapter 2 (2013) which somehow feels more natural to me. Anyway, a few years back The Conjuring (2013) surprised everyone by being an actually good poltergeist film that made a lot of money in the Summer and was critically well-received. I didn't actually see it until a few months ago, and I don't really think it was the be-all, end-all of horror films, but it's certainly better than 90% of the genre.

No matter how good The Conjuring 2 might be, it will probably be brought down by the high number of copycat films that have dropped since its predecessor. These range from other great unique films like The Babadook (2014) to spin-off Annabelle (2014), to a whole see of crap like Oculus (2013), Deliver Us From Evil (2014), Insidious: Chapter 3 (2015), Poltergeist (2015), and Sinister 2 (2015). A lot of the Insidious/Sinister/Conjuring series blur together for me, and I'm sure I'm not the only one. Still, amongst the horror crowd, who is constantly starved for films that are actually good, The Conjuring should inspire a lot of warm fuzzy feelings.

There are a couple of other good things going for The Conjuring 2. Patrick Wilson's star has continued to rise since 2013, particular with his starring turn in Fargo. It's also centered around the Enfield Council House Haunting in London, which is supposedly one of the most documented poltergeists in history yet has so far eluded a film treatment. It's also a classic move to switch up locations for the sequel and London is a pretty popular choice these days.

So, getting to the important stuff - will this film be any good, make any money, and leave a lasting impact? It's gotten some decent reviews already and ought to be able to at the least match its predecessor. The first one opened to $40 million without much hype or pedigree, and as improbably as that seems for both a horror film and a sequel landing in Summer 2016, I could see this film matching or surpassing that and winning the weekend, considering it's not going to take much and every other film is awful. Of course, I just said that Now You Don't might be our champion, and I can see that happening if reception to The Conjuring 2 is a bit stiff. Still, horror fans are properly starved and they need something to hold them over until The Purge: Election Year (2016), which is actually a very different kind of vibe. The big gap would be the unabashed failure of Poltergeist last year, but that probably more had to do with being an unwanted remake of a classic that couldn't match any standard of quality.

As for lasting impact, it feels like The Conjuring sticks out in our collective memory, although it's certainly specific to horror fans. It's not like it has a distinguishing monster or anything (can you even picture the central witch who makes the Perron Family's lives suck?). Its cast, setting, and direction are what sets it apart and if The Conjuring 2 can come up with some really unique scares or moments it can ride its pedigree to carve out a spot in our pop culture memory.

"Leeerooooooy Jenkins!!!"
Alright, so let's talk about Warcraft (2016). Finally. This does not look like a good movie. I don't think anyone will go see this. It really begs the question how something as equally expansive as the Lord of the Rings was able to earn critical and commercial success and this entry in the Fantasy genre (and very well nearly every other entry) looks to suck ass. Even Game of Thrones, which has more characters than anyone should be able to deal with, has an immense amount of cultural significance. So why will Warcraft come up short?

We could compare Warcraft and The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) all day. The Fellowship canonized fantasy film much in the way that Tolkien did with his novels fifty years prior. Those fifty years of massively popular books also had a lot to do with it success - especially when older generations could hype it up for younger people who didn't know much about the series. I was fifteen when the Fellowship dropped, and mostly saw it because my dad was a huge fan during the revival the books had in the 70s (probably thanks in this case due to Led Zeppelin).

Warcraft has in inverse effect. The young people have to convince old people that it's cool. And that isn't going to work. But that's a relatively shallow reason. It's amazing, because like anything else, this really just comes down to the film. Each Lord of the Rings was a legitimately good film. It helps that it was supported by years of intricate planning, a massive production, and despite its fantasy setting, it relied on realistic armor function, minimal magic (at least in the sense that it's more about wills, magic doors, and weird creatures than fireballs, sparky laser beams, and forcefields. Game of Thrones is similar to an even greater extent.

This is a somewhat faulty argument. To say that a film is more successful because it's more grounded belittles the hundreds of totally insane films out there, from Star Wars (1977) to Transformers (2007). It doesn't really matter how outlandish a picture is, but what's important is if the film actually looks like it's a story or spectacle worth seeing. The former is typically more important than the latter. With the Lord of the Rings the core story was exceedingly simple. "Get the One Ring to Mount Doom." That's it. There's a lot of complex political stuff and armies fighting around that, but that's primarily an extension of both the characters who originally set out on the simple mission and in support of the few members of the Fellowship who are continuing that mission.

The core narrative of Game of Thrones for all its exceedingly complex posturing, is in the title itself. It's a battle for the rule of Westeros with multiple families and parties vying for political positions within the scheme of the world. This hook allows viewers to get into the story. They know what to expect and what kind of story they're getting into. Once they buy a ticket, the calibre of storytelling and production is what continues to keep the audience coming back.

What's the core story of Warcraft? Well, who knows. Something about Orcs and Humans working together? Or fighting against each other? What is anyone's goal? Who are any of the characters? It's all a bunch of crap that looks like shit we've seen a hundred times before. There's almost nothing distinctive. In terms of spectacle, Warcraft promises to offer some of the most realistic CGI characters ever put on screen. Take that in for a second though - realistic CGI still doesn't look as good as the real orcs from The Two Towers (2002). I am excited to see that technology used for better movies, but it does all feel like it's moving in the wrong direction. That feels awfully like one reason why the Hobbit films haven't stuck in anyone's mind as much as any of the Lord of the Rings films did. That's probably more because they were literally made it up as the production went along.

The last I could find, there are about 5.5 million current World of Warcraft players. Its peak in 2010 was about 12 million. So even if every single player goes to watch the film that's looking something around $120 million or so. That's really not enough to justify a huge budgeted film like this. There's going to be a huge need to convert a lot of normal people to watch this, which I just don't see happening. The core fanbase is a double-edged sword, too - even though they are likely the ones to eagerly wait in line, they will also assuredly be the most critical of the story and character treatment. Also, when you're dealing with a group of computer nerds, they're way more likely to download the film rather than pay for it. All of this really shapes up to be a damn raw deal for Warcraft.

We could talk about this all day. And I'm always fascinated trying to figure out why some blockbusters fail and others succeed. The simple thing of it is that there's no real reason to want to see this movie. There's nothing special or distinct about the story (possibly the humanization of the Orcs is a critical distinction, but I'm not sure that's anything any one cares about. Tolkien started us off in the idyllic Shire so that we could identify and sympathize with the rest of the story. It would have been very different if we had started in Minas Tirith and plunged into political strife and dire endless war right away. I can't even imagine if we had started in Mordor. Oh yeah, that's Warcraft. Instead of unraveling the adventure alongside the innocent Hobbits also discovering it all for the first time, it's starting us in the shit.

And that's not really a bad thing. There's a lot to be said for in media res and taking off with action right away. The problem is making any kind of strong connection with the characters if we're never allowed into their perspectives in a meaningful way. I can't really identify with these big weird CGI orcs. I don't really care to. I think this weekend is a toss-up between Now You Don't and The Conjuring 2 with Warcraft desperately falling behind. Ultimately the best option is probably Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows, which offers all the CGI weirdness of Warcraft without a single drop of the pretension.

What do you think? What are you dishing on this weekend?

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