Review: Sicario

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DIR: Denis Villeneuve • WRI: Taylor Sheridan • PRO: Basil Iwanyk, Erica Lee, Thad Luckinbill, Trent Luckinbill, Edward McDonnell, Molly Smith • DOP: Roger Deakins • ED: Joe Walker • DES: Patrice Vermette • MUS: Jóhann Jóhannsson • CAST: Emily Blunt, Josh Brolin, Benicio Del Toro, Jon Bernthal

 

After Prisoners, Enemy and the Oscar-nominated Incendies, Sicario seems to only confirm Denis Villeneuve’s rightful place in the pantheon of cinematic masters, and proving himself a powerful voice, not to be trifled with. Villeneuve takes you right through the belly of the beast, straight into visceral and cerebral uncharted territory.

Hair tied back in a tight bun, clad in black and navy uniform, and buried under body armour is Kate Maser. Assault rifle in hand. Fearless, stealthy, agile. Her eyes docile as she raises the barrel and aims, straight up in for the head shot. However, underneath the militant Kevlar hide there’s a distinct vulnerability to Maser (Emily Blunt). Through Maser, we’re ingratiated into the front lines of the US war on drugs. Tiptoeing her way down pitch-black tunnels and kicking down doors in the dead of night. Pure subjective psychological horror. Tonally it’s some mind-altering cocktail of Silence of the Lambs mixed with The Shining. And like those movies, Sicario, from the get-go, racks the tension high, unfolding by means of hypnotic slow release.

Anyway, after Maser’s involvement in a major FBI drugs operation in Arizona where a mass of bodies are discovered. She’s eyed for specialist assistance on a Department of Defence retaliatory initiative. A sorta high-end crackdown on cartels. Maser shows some hesitance, but when assured that she’s going to get a crack at the “ men who are really responsible for today.” she signs up, game for blood.

But it’s a labyrinth of agendas and motives, and Maser’s caught in the middle. It quickly becomes apparent that it’s some kind of smoke and mirror, cloak and dagger clandestine military operation. The kind where the legality of the whole thing is shady at best. Crossing the Mexican border into the dusty wilds of Juarez, to essentially kidnap a local drug lord, all in a bid to reveal the location of an arch Drug Lord. And Juarez is like a jungle of skeletal remains. Pure carnage. A world that’s built on a foundation of brutal violence. A living breathing hell incarnate. And from here on out the smoky morality of Masers world only gets murkier as the hunt continues.

Villeneuve expects nothing less of his battalions of thespians than to charge into cinematic battle, and to get down and dirty. Hand to hand combat is a mandatory requirement. Josh Brolin is the sandal wearing, seemingly blasé laissez-faire, Matt Graver, who’s allegedly DOD but who could be CIA? It’s never really clear to Maser. And then there’s Alejandro, (Benico del Toro) Graver’s Trojan wingman who’s shrouded in the same veils of mystery. Del Toro gives a demonic counter-point to his memorable turn in Traffic. And Villeneuve’s camera coils and recoils like a killer snake, slow and steady, spitting and biting. Fangs out; sharpened to a T. All in all making for venomous cinema.

Roger Deakins’ intoxicating cinematography has a sense of subtlety and minimalism that offers a heightened sense of tension and atmosphere that’s tough to argue with. Less is more, proving to be a motto to live by, especially when it’s executed this well. The vast isolated landscapes seemingly ensnare the characters in a world bigger than themselves. There’s a stylistic debt to Melville, Deakins admits as much, but truth be told it’s its own beast. Johan Johannsson’s score is nothing short of malevolent. Orchestral strings clash against electronic drones and waves, drum machines whip and snap against arid vistas; all too suffocating effect.

And when the dust settles, and the streets are lined with hanging corpses Villeneuve puts it to you. There’s blood on our hands, and if that’s what it takes can we live with that? Living in a world where the only code seems to be an Eye for an Eye, a Tooth for a Tooth? Or is there another way? At its core Sicario is essentially an anti-war movie. Villeneuve reinvigorates these questions wholeheartedly. He’s got the rat by the tail and won’t let go. He pinches, till nerves scream and eyes bulge. How are the sides drawn, or, are there even sides at all? Villenueve serves the head, the plate, the whole damn thing, a lean delicacy of pure moral ambiguity. The lines between right and wrong are most definitely blurred.

Turning the screws just isn’t enough for this fecker (Villeneuve), he wants to put the nail through the coffin, splinters and all. Even if you resent the method, there’s little you can do about it, the man’s not to be messed with; he’s a cinematic powerhouse. The rare kind of filmmaker who paralyses audiences and glues eyeballs to screens; leaving a distinct taste of truth.

Michael Lee


15A (See IFCO for details)

121 minutes
Sicario is released 9th October 2015

Sicario – Official Website

 

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Cinema Review: Savages

DIR: Oliver Stone • WRI: Oliver Stone, Don Winslow, Shane Salerno • PRO: Mortiz Borman, Eric Copeloff • DOP: Daniel Mindel • ED: Joe Husting • Cast: Taylor Kitsch, Aaron Johnson, Blake Lively, Benicio Del Toro, Salma Hayek, John Travolta

Oliver Stone is known for making pulpy crime thrillers that focus on the American experience, drugs and casual violence. With Savages, Stone is not only working with familiar material, he’s also trying to update it for a new, young audience. However, he misses the inherent quality of his original work and instead makes something entirely different. Aaron Johnson and Taylor Kitsch play two cannabis growers from Laguna Beach, California. Taylor Kitsch is an ex-soldier who runs the heavier, more dangerous side of the business whilst Aaron Johnson looks after the botanical and legitimate side. Between them is Blake Lively, a young, pampered woman who maintains a polygamous relationship with both. They keep the authorities on side by regularly bribing DEA agent John Travolta and maintain a peaceful status quo. Everything is beautiful for the free spirits until Benicio Del Toro and Salma Hayek want to move in on their territory. What begins as a violent show of force soon deteriorates into a hostage situation when Kitsch / Johnson’s love interest is taken captive.

Taylor Kitsch and Aaron Johnson’s characters are, as often mentioned in the film, two parts of a whole person. Where Kitsch is angry and vengeful, Johnson is more conciliatory and pliable. This means, however, they’re not fully-rounded characters. Both seem to have one speed throughout and makes their performances flat and repetitive. Blake Lively, aside from The Town, has yet to give a performance that sets her apart. This is no different. The real stars of Savages are Benicio Del Toro’s flamboyant psychopath and Salma Hayek’s domineering cartel boss. Del Toro twiddles his signature moustache and growls with a thick Mexican accent throughout that makes him the most entertaining person to watch. Likewise, Salma Hayek plays a villainous, controlling gangster so well that it’s hard to believe she hasn’t been played similar before.
Oliver Stone’s direction and photographic choices harken back to Natural Born Killers and JFK, fusing black-and-white with oversaturated colours to make a landscape that is his own. While this may have come across as inventive ten years ago, now it looks jarring and confusing. It’s not that it’s hard to follow the action, it’s the sharp contrast between styles – varying wildly between grungy handheld to sweeping panoramic shots. As well as this, the film’s script is also all over the place. It’s fairly evident that the screenplay had many hands work on it as it’s completely disjointed – just like the entire film. Here and there, the dialogue spouts Buddhist mantras and Dalai Lama teachings that make it sound like rejected lines from Point Break. Mixed with this is Kitsch’s faux-military speak during action sequences and  John Travolta’s fast-talking DEA agent’s pleading for mercy when things go awry. Overall, Savages is an uneven but decent attempt by Oliver Stone to update himself for the new age. The film’s disjointed pacing breaks up the flow and ends with an unsatisfying twist. If the script had been given over to one person instead of being put through three, it may have gone some way to being more cohesive.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KC2zbOwbeEs

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The Wolfman

The Wolfman

DIR: Joe Johnston • WRI: Andrew Kevin Walker, David Self • PRO: Sean Daniel, Benicio Del Toro, Scott Stuber, Rick Yorn • DOP: Shelly Johnson • ED: Walter Murch, Dennis Virkler, Mark Goldblatt • DES: Rick Heinrichs • CAST: Benicio Del Toro, Anthony Hopkins, Emily Blunt, Hugo Weaving

The chequered history of the making of The Wolfman has gone through a similar transformation as the full-mooned, hirsute beast himself. The film’s original director Mark Romanek headed for the moors just before shooting began and was never seen again. Scripts were slashed and rewritten, and Jumanji’s Joe Johnston appeared and took over the picture. Reshoots followed and the release date was rescheduled and last-minute re-edits took place. All of this shows on the screen as The Wolfman comes across as a pieced-together film of disjointed scenes with glaring tonal shifts that makes for unsatisfactory viewing – all sewn together like Frankenstein’s monster.

The film stays close to George Waggner’s 1941 The Wolf Man, inspired by Curt Siodmak’s innovative writing and Lon Chaney Jnr.’s lead performance, but never comes near its suspense or charm.

Benicio Del Toro is surprisingly poor in the lead role of Lawrence, an American who returns to England to his father’s grand estate in 19th century Blackmoor, after his brother has been mysteriously clawed to death by a mysterious beast. There’s mystery afoot (or rather apaw). Lawrence promises his brother’s widow (Emily Blunt) that he’ll do everything in his power to get to the bottom of his death. Unfortunately this entails getting mangled by the mysterious beast; and so begins Lawrence’s moonlit walks on the wild side. Cue angry mob of villagers and ensuing carnage. All of this is presided over by Lawrence’ s father (Anthony Hopkins) – astronomer of the stars and wearer of luxurious bathrobes.

Del Toro abandons his usual mannerisms and plays it all as if his corset is too tight. His stiff delivery does the film no favours and the turgid dialogue doesn’t help matters. There’s no sense of the tragic hero in his performance. He never demonstrates the torment that comes with the knowledge of what is about to transpire. His anguish is more that of a kitten trying to catch running water, rather than that of a man riddled with werewolfitis. Anthony Hopkins does nothing more than make faces at the camera and reads through his lines with all the relish of a fast-food burger. Emily Blunt doesn’t do herself any favours and seems to traipse through the whole mess auditioning for the next Jane Austen adaptation.

The transformation scenes are uninvolving and serve no purpose other than to make you pine for the special effects of John Landis’ 1981 classic, An American Werewolf in London. The sequences are actually designed by the same make up effects wizard Rick Baker; but in this case rather than the fruits of physical labour being brought to the screen, it is all a bit of a CG unimpressive mess of cracking bones and sprouting hairs – like that guy you used to sit beside in school.

The film resorts to loud sudden scares in an effort to fulfil its horror billing and lacks any subtlety or dramatic tension. When the wolfman is on the rampage, disembodied limbs fly about the screen and the camera stumbles around the place as if the director himself had been caught in the crossfire of slashing claws. The cross cut editing tries too hard to impress.

It’s all a bit too serious. The film labours under its pretentious airs and graces and takes itself far too seriously. Granted, the film has a high production value and certainly looks great. The moors that you should always ‘stay away from’, but never do, are a sumptuous feast and lit skilfully to heighten its eerie elegance. But it’s all let down by the sense of disappointment at what could have been so much better.

If this film has any positive effects, its that it will encourage people to revisit Lon Chaney Jr. camping it up as the hapless victim of lycanthropy in the 1941 classic The Wolf Man.

As for this 2010 version – more turkey than wolf. Howl? I nearly slashed the seats with my false fingernails.

Steven Galvin

Rated 16 (see IFCO for details)

The Wolfman is released 12th Feb 2010

The Wolfman – Official Website

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Che: The Argentine and Guerrilla

Che: the Argentine and Guerilla
Che: the Argentine and Guerilla

DIR: Steven Soderbergh • WRI: Peter Buchman, Benjamin A. van der Veen • PRO: Laura Bickford, Steven Soderbergh, Benicio Del Toro • DOP: Steven Soderbergh • ED: Pablo Zumárraga • DES Antxón Gómez, Philip Messina • CAST: Benicio Del Toro, Demián Bichir, Santiago Cabrera, Elvira Mínguez, Jorge Perugorría, Edgar Ramírez, Víctor Rasuk, Armando Riesco, Catalina Sandino Moreno, Rodrigo Santoro, Unax Ugaldep, Yul Vázquez, Vladimir Cruz

Steven Soderbergh’s epic biopic is drawn out over two films, the first of which is The Argentine. Che will of course entice scores to the cinema because of his revolutionary infamy but I think college students proudly sporting his poster on their walls will be slightly disappointed by this one.

The Argentine splits screen time between Guevara in the Cuban jungle descending on Havana and his US interviews and addresses. Whilst in the jungle he becomes doctor, leader, comrade and friend and although masterfully acted by Benicio Del Toro, the script doesn’t allow insight into his multi-faceted character. Soderbergh intended for this detachment between the viewer and Che to recreate the atmosphere felt by those working and fighting with him. We only really see an intimacy with him and his patients; he is also close and comforting to the peasants he helps along his way. There is a romanticised notion of Guevara as the educator and healer, which seems to override other elements of his personality and although this is not unfounded, it does feel slightly overplayed.

The lengthiness of the films does enable insight into the strategic but mundane nature of guerrilla warfare, but after four hours, it seems something of an endurance test. These long treks through the jungle are interspersed with exchanges of gunfire but the action is short lived and only cool the temperature of what becomes jungle fever. The breaks we get showing Guevara’s interviews in New York reinforce why he is the revolutionary pin-up. We recognise the fat cigar, the military boots and the relaxed smile. The style is detached, it is composed of middle and long shots that fortify Soderbergh’s intention to relay the distant nature of Che recounted through his memoirs.

While Guevara’s Reminiscences of the Cuban Revolutionary War provides a more celebratory close for The Argentine, the first of these two films, the second, Guerrilla, taken from The Bolivian Diary is far gloomier. The colour of Che’s environment begins to grey and become less lush in conjunction with his fading health and the health of the revolution. The interspersed comic relief of the first film wanes and the intensity of the frustration felt by Che and his comrades heightens. The demise of the movement in Bolivia seems foreseen by Fidel Castro, craftily played by Demián Bichir, but losing this pawn may save the king. We can only have empathy for the physical strength and strength of will that fades away before our eyes and the slow shrinking of Che under the lens.

Although beautifully shot by Soderbergh himself, too often there are scenes that seem to have the sole purpose of creating a snapshot similar to the iconic imagery with which we’re already familiar. The cameo of Matt Damon snaps you out of a creatively directed film, which to that point fooled you into thinking these were not actors playing a role. Although no fault of Damon’s, it would have been better to leave the instantly recognisable Hollywood star out of it.

The problem with shooting such a highly stylised film with an iconic revolutionary figure like Guevara is that while attempting to avoid explaining the politics it is often that what is left unsaid that speaks for itself. Che should be watched with the intention of appreciating Soderbergh’s intelligent filmic language. Any insight into the enigma of Guevara is an added bonus. It is also a good starting point from which to explore the history that threw the passions of this man into the spotlight.

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