Saturday, September 10, 2016

Movie Reviews: Now You See Me 2, The Duel

Now You See Me 2
directed by Jon Chu
Although I will do my level best to avoid spoilers for this movie, there is probably going to be at least one spoiler for the previous (first) movie in this series. So if you absolutely can't stand anything along those lines then you know what to do. Although this movie had plenty of fun, including a tour de force computer room sleight of hand combined performance by the magicians known as the Four Horsemen, it was also, unlike the first movie, extremely predictable. If you didn't know exactly what was going to happen in most cases while you were watching this movie that's only because you either weren't paying attention or had been dropped on the head a few times too many as a child. Most people watching this film could probably call out almost all the changes and misdirections ahead of time. This didn't make this installment a bad movie. I wouldn't go that far. But it was something that you've seen many times before, like for example in the first movie, albeit not with the admittedly impressive and upgraded special effects and tricks. There were only a few plot surprises. So basically as long as you don't go into this film expecting the world from it you'll be ok. And you'll probably even enjoy it. It's more style than substance. Lizzy Caplan replaces Isla Fisher. Caplan brings a bit more snark and edge to her role as sole female member of the Four Horsemen. As we open this film the three remaining Horsemen, Daniel Atlas (Eisenberg), Merritt McKenny (Woody Harrelson) and Jack Wilder (Dave Franco) are bored and feuding with each other. A year has come and gone since they escaped the FBI but the new organization they've joined (The Eye) has no assignments for them or any magical secrets to share.  They're wondering if they made the right decision by joining this group. They're also wondering if they can trust FBI Agent/Eye member Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo) who claims to speak for The Eye and doesn't take kindly to any attempt to go over his head.

Atlas is the group member who is most dissatisfied. Atlas can't abide by Rhodes' rules so he tries to reach higher ranking members of The Eye to express his frustration and disillusionment. That doesn't go well but Atlas does meet Lula May (Lizzy Caplan) an illusionist who knows entirely too much about him. There's a reason for May's knowledge. Rhodes explains to the three men that May is going to be the distaff member of the team. And the team has a new assignment. They have to expose the nefarious spying activities of a tech mogul named Owen Case. The group is thrilled to be back in action. But things go wrong. Rhodes' secret life as a member of The Eye is exposed. The team is captured and transported to China where a different corrupt tech executive Walter Mabry (Daniel Radcliffe), Case's former partner, has been nursing grudges against both Owen Case and The Four Horsemen. He's been keeping tabs on The Four Horsemen with the help of McKenny's resentful demented twin brother (Harrelson again). Mabry has an impossible job for the group. But it's not the sort of job they can decline if they want to continue breathing. Meanwhile back in the states Rhodes is trying to stay out of the clutches of his former FBI colleagues. To do this, and find his proteges he realizes he needs the help of the imprisoned Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman). Hijinks ensue. Sanaa Lathan, Michael Caine, and Jay Chou also star.

All in all this wasn't as good as the first movie. I think the first movie had more surprises and plot twists. With this installment I was a little jaded and kept waiting for the reveal. So I was a bit more detached from this film. As with Game of Thrones, sometimes it's difficult to keep shocking or surprising people. Even so this is still an entertaining movie. I'm just glad I didn't pay to see it on the big screen. If I were grading films this would get a B. If you didn't see the first movie this movie would probably be more satisfying. You would not have the high expectations I had. Radcliffe continues to put his Harry Potter role in the rear view mirror. I liked his bad guy but thought he should have been given even more to do.  His bad guy is manic. Harrelson hams it up in his twin roles. He could be the best thing about this film.


The Duel
directed by Keiran Darcy-Smith
What do you know it's another Woody Harrelson movie. It's interesting that someone who first came to my attention all those years ago in his role as a goodnatured but dimwitted bartender has since done so many different things without being typecast. In this movie Harrelson is extremely affable and quite dangerous. Although The Duel is in many respects a classic Western it goes beyond the normal bounds of that genre. It has some things to say about racism and misogyny. It doesn't preach but keeps a focus on entertainment. Or rather I should say it tries to keep a focus on entertainment. The film might have done better to speed things up a tad. I did like that the film didn't explain everything. Often, the viewer will have to make up his or her own mind about what happened and why it happened. This was good in that the film was not trying to spoon feed the viewer as if s/he were a baby. But on the other hand the pacing was slightly uneven. There were scenes in which a lot of action was happening or a lot of information was being transferred to the viewer. But there were also many scenes which were uneventful. Of course, you could say that this is realistic. Detectives, and this is just as much a detective/mystery story as it is a western, spend a lot of time gathering clues and sitting around watching people. Confrontation and shootouts are actually rare occurrences. That may be realistic but it doesn't necessarily make for a super entertaining movie. However, this film's pacing is a throwback to earlier movies made when people weren't as likely to suffer from attention deficit disorder. There are long swaths of film where seemingly not much happens but you can still feel the gathering tension. So basically if you are looking forward to watching a video-game type Western with violence every five minutes you won't enjoy this movie. If you are more patient you will possibly be rewarded though this film is not anywhere near as smart as it thinks it is. It takes inspiration from a very famous 1920s short story which I won't mention for spoiler concerns, again giving credence to the idea that there are only a limited number of original stories that float around our culture or even our species.

The film takes place in post Civil-War Texas. David Kingston (Liam Hemsworth) is a Texas Ranger who, having successfully proven he has the stones and the smarts needed in his job, is sent to investigate a series of murders and disappearances that are centered around a small remote town. It looks like the victims are mostly either non-whites or white transients. This wouldn't ordinarily be a job for the Rangers but the relative of a Mexican general has gone missing. The general is making noises about mounting an incursion to look for his niece. And the US wouldn't put up with that. Bada-boom, bada-bing , another war breaks out. Nobody wants a war. Kingston needs to investigate, find out what if anything is going on in that town, and report back to HQ ASAP. There is another wrinkle to the case, one which the Governor and Ranger higher-ups hope won't alter Kingston's objectivity. The town's secular and religious leader is one Abraham Brant (Woody Harrelson) aka Preacher. Brant happens to be the man who killed Kingston's father in a duel twenty some odd years ago. Kingston's father wasn't necessarily a good guy--mean as a rattlesnake and belligerent when he speaks was a good description of the man--but a man only has one father. The Rangers trust that Kingston's sense of fair play and justice will see him through. Against his better judgment Kingston brings along his wife Marisol (Alice Braga) on his journey. Marisol is a bit naive about the danger of her husband's work. She is fed up with Kingston being gone all the time. Either Kingston takes her on this assignment or when he returns he can put his boots under some other woman's bed. YMMV as to whether this is a wife's touching declaration that she doesn't mind being endangered as long as she's with her hubby or a silly plot trick designed to create a sympathetic damsel in distress. 

Upon arrival at the town Kingston and Marisol give a cover story about their arrival and intentions. People appear to be shocked at Kingston's interracial marriage. Most people don't seem to be too happy to see them, particularly Preacher's son (Emory Cohen). Preacher greets Kingston and Marisol with exaggerated courtesy. He doesn't appear to recognize Kingston. In fact Preacher gives the couple food and lodgings. He declares that the town needs a sheriff and insists that Kingston take that job. Kingston secretly starts his murder investigation and gradually finds a few things that don't add up. He also realizes that Preacher, who knows things he shouldn't or couldn't know, has some sort of fascination with or fixation on Marisol. To Kingston's anger and dismay this may not be a one way obsession. Marisol has some issues with her husband. I thought this didn't make a whole lot of sense but you'll have to watch and decide for yourself. I really liked the settings and cinematography on display in this movie. It was really easy to believe that you were in 19th century Texas. Hemsworth has to do a slow burn throughout most of the movie but there are more than a few scenes of righteous retribution, Texas style. Hemsworth is good at portraying a fighter who will not back down no matter what. As the possibly apocryphal saying goes, "One riot, one Ranger." The film also points out, obliquely and otherwise, that Kingston's hands aren't clean in regards to the expulsion and extermination of the indigenous peoples. If you don't mind a film that takes its time getting to the point then this movie could be for you. But be warned this film also has a lot of ideas it wants to get across, some of which are communicated more effectively than others.
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