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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Fury

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DIR: David Ayer • WRI: Juliette Towhidi, Cecelia Ahern PRO: Simon Brooks, Robert Kulzer  ED: Tony Cranstoun DES: Matthew Davies CAST: Brad Pitt, Shia LaBeouf, Logan Lerman, Michael Peña, Jon Bernthal

War is bad. This mantra has been hammered into the minds of cinemagoers since the dawn of the medium. Not that we’ve ever actually learned from it. With violence so prominent in not just popular entertainment but in the very world around us it’s easy to become desensitised to a man’s screams as he writhers in agony on screen. Every now and again, however, a film is made that offers such a raw, unflinching insight into the actual horrific reality of warfare that it promises to linger in the minds of its audience long after the credits roll. David Ayer’s Fury is one such film.

It’s April 1945 and the Allies are pushing ever closer into the epicentre of the Nazi regime in the German heartland. Sergeant Don ‘Wardaddy’ Collier (Pitt) commands a five-man Sherman tank called ‘Fury’ through a ravished countryside; his team find themselves surrounded by death and brutality – but it’s just another day’s work for the battle-weary crew.

Fresh faced Norman Ellison (Lerman) has spent the war in a cosy clerical position but the death of the Fury’s co-driver propels him into a position with a lot more action, excitement and, of course, danger whether he wants it or not. As Ellison faces combat for the first time he discovers the animalistic savagery that conflict induces in people, soldiers and civilians alike.

One could say there is a lack of subtly in Ayer’s approach to violence; there’s never any allusion to it, we get it served straight up cold on a plate. For the most part I would say this is a fair argument. That tank looks like it’s about to roll over a soldiers head… You’re going to see that soldiers head explode in a bloody mess no question. People being burned alive… Ayer’s got you covered and then some. But let’s be honest, the men on the battlefield were not spared a quick camera cut away from their friend’s bullet ridden bodies so why should we? Stuff like that happened in WWII. It happens today. For all the gore in this film (and yes it is exceptionally gory, you know, like war) it never felt like it was being exploitative. Ayer captures the audience in a vice, proclaiming ‘See! See! This is what happens in war!’ The film’s imagery is shocking yet it is by far its strongest element. Because the film has problems. Boy, does it have problems.

Many fascinating true stories of bravery against impossible odds emerged from the hell that was the Second World War. Fury is not one of them. The events of the film are not historical fact they are the product of Ayer’s imagination. Now, of course, not all films have to be based on a true story just because they’re set in a historical time period. However, it does make the film seem all the more ego-stroking.

One of the biggest themes the film was trying to convey was that war consists of individuals with personalities, likes, dislikes, friends, lovers and what not rather than just faceless masses of marching brigades. And yet the humanity of the American characters is only confirmed through the dehumanisation of the German soldiers. We’re supposed to feel deeply saddened when an Allied troop dies, yet feel a sense of smug satisfaction when a soldier on the Nazi side perishes – it’s an uncomfortable contrast and somewhat undermines the overarching concerns of the film.

Ayer had the perfect opportunity to explore the grey area of conflict but instead decides to stick with the comfortable (but inaccurate) ‘we’re the good guys; they’re the bad guys’ shtick. Disturbingly enough it also means that the atrocities committed by American forces-such as gunning down children are somehow justified in this context. At one point the by now not so dewy-eyed Ellison actually screams out “Fuck you Nazis! Fuck you!” A lack of nuance in the depiction of violence is forgivable but this is just bad dialogue.

The film is also riddled with clichés. Wardaddy is the gruff, all-American, Nazi-killing badass, who is also intelligent, thoughtful and even sensitive. Pitt delivers a pretty solid performance but it’s difficult sometimes not to hark back to his other Nazi-killing performance in 2009’s Inglorious Basterds. You must agree: if you make more than one Nazi film where you’re the slaughtering hero it’s a fetish. Lerman is also quite watchable but his character does stink of the old younger-boy-joins-an-established-group-to-prove-himself-and-is-then-taken-under-the-wing-of-the-leader-cos’-he’s-like-the-son-he-never-had trope. All the other characters also play to a certain ’type’- the ignorant swamp hillbilly, the pious preacher (though I must say LaBeouf gives it his all here) and the ethnic token. That said, the tension that would arise between five men stuck for so long in such an enclosed space is captured surprisingly skilfully. They’ve all been driven a little mad by the horrors they’ve seen yet remain steadfast to their goals and, ultimately, to one another.

We get glimpses of real brilliance and ingenuity in certain parts of this film. It’s just frustrating that Ayer could not sustain this throughout all aspects of Fury, depending on tired clichés to carry the rest. If nothing else, this film will stamp one distinct message into your mind: war is bad.

Ellen Murray

15A (See IFCO for details)

134 minutes

Fury is released 24th October 2014

Fury – Official Website

 

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Cinema Review: Grudge Match

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DIR: Peter Segal WRI: Tim Kelleher, Rodney Rothman PRO: Michael Ewing, Bill Gerber, Mark Steven Johnson, Ravi D Mehta, Peter Segal DOP: Dean Semler  ED: William Kerr DES: Wynn Thomas  Cast: Sylvester Stallone, Robert De Niro, Kim Basinger, Kevin Hart, Jon Bernthal, LL Cool J

For a number of years, debate has raged as to which film is most deserving of the ‘best boxing movie of all-time’ mantle. For instance, whenever a new entry to the genre is greeted with some form of critical acclaim (such as David O. Russell’s 2011 awards favourite The Fighter), it is often described as the ‘best boxing film since Rocky’. Often, this seems like a heightened case of hyperbole, especially when you consider that Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull was released back in 1980, a full four years after Sylvester Stallone’s career-making turn as the ‘Italian Stallion’.

There have been compelling arguments for either film being the very best of its kind, while some have stated that Rocky is ‘the greatest boxing movie’, whereas Raging Bull is ‘the greatest movie about boxing’, which does offer a vague (if nonetheless significant) distinction. What is generally accepted, though, is that both films have set a benchmark that has proven to be extremely difficult to follow.

Although, Stallone’s Balboa is a fictional creation, and Raging Bull’s protagonist (Jake LaMotta) was a real-life World Middleweight Champion, many have wondered who exactly would win in a fight between the two, and with the release of the Peter Segal-directed Grudge Match, we are given some form of answer to that quandary.

Eight years after he last donned a pair of red gloves for the nostalgic Rocky Balboa, 67-year-old Stallone is Henry ‘Razor’ Sharp, while Robert De Niro (who won the second of two Oscars for his portrayal of LaMotta) is his long-time adversary, Bill ‘The Kid’ McDonnen. During their prestigious careers, Sharp and McDonnen fought each other twice, with McDonnen winning the first duel, before Sharp gained revenge in their second bout.

A final grudge match between the two was anticipated, but when Razor unexpectedly announced his retirement, the opportunity for a definitive confrontation had passed. Some 30 years later, they come to blows once again during the production of a computer game, and when the recorded incident goes viral, a young up-and-coming boxing promoter (Kevin Hart) begins to sell the idea of a third fight between the pair (billed as “Grudgement Day”).

Drawing on the exhibition fight motif of Rocky’s sixth cinematic outing, much of the film details the arduous preparation that the two elder statesman have to engage in as they aim to be in tip-top shape for their elongated return to the ring. While Razor hooks up with his former trainer Lightning (Alan Arkin, in typical scene-stealing form), Kid finds himself working alongside his long-lost son (Jon Bernthal) from a brief relationship with Kim Basinger’s Sally Rose, a former flame of Razor.

Certainly, with two heavyweights like De Niro and Stallone, and dependable supporting players like Arkin, Basinger and Bernthal (who can currently be seen sporting a handlebar moustache in The Wolf Of Wall Street), there is enough of a pedigree to make Grudge Match a worthwhile endeavour. The major problem it faces, however, relates to the tone of the film.

Whereas Rocky and Raging Bull were dramatic pieces, Grudge Match is very much played for laughs, with more than a fair share of references to the back catalogue of the principle stars. In the form of Segal, the film certainly has a helmer who is comfortable directing comedy, but despite enjoying great success throughout his career, much of his recent output has been workmanlike at best.

Indeed, much of the time Grudge Match seems overly reliant on the easy charm of its cast, and although the key players do their level best, they can only sustain momentum for so long. Having set-up the trajectory of the story within the opening half-hour, the script also appears to lack some much-needed inspiration, in spite of the input by Entourage creator Doug Ellin.

It also becomes more and more clichéd during the final act, and it is disappointing to see the nature of the relationship between Razor and Kid changing when it would seem more appropriate for the levels of hostility to grow.

That said, there is still some pleasure in seeing two veterans of the screen (De Niro has now reached the septuagenarian stage of his life) meeting face-to-face in an intense, and physically-exhausting battle, and when the titular ‘grudge match’ finally takes place, it does provide a satisfactory climax to the action.

The use of stock footage and digital trickery at the start of the film to show how Razor and Kid developed their rivalry over the years is also rather impressive, and there are some fleetingly funny moments throughout, most of them involving Arkin and Hart – a very popular stand-up comedian on Stateside.

Perhaps it would have been more advantageous for Grudge Match to have been made back in the mid-1980s, when both Stallone and De Niro were able to convince as genuine contenders for a World Championship crown. However, for those who are still looking to answer the immortal Balboa or LaMotta conundrum, then Grudge Match will have to make do.

Daire Walsh

12A (See IFCO for details)
113  mins
Grudge Match is released on 24th January 2014

Grudge Match  – Official Website

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