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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Inherent Vice

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DIR/WRI: Paul Thomas Anderson • PRO: Paul Thomas Anderson, Daniel Lupi, JoAnne Sellar • DOP: Robert Elswit • ED: Leslie Jones • MUS: Jonny Greenwood • DES: David Crank • CAST: Joaquin Phoenix, Jena Malone, Reese Witherspoon, Josh Brolin

Pulsing through the pot smoke with cinematic prowess, Paul Thomas Anderson’s vision aligns with the paranoid world of enigmatic literary icon Thomas Pynchon, in an adaptation of Pynchon’s 2009 novel Inherent Vice. This can only make for cinematic voodoo. This is the kind of thing many a square-eyed Pynchon reader has fantasised about for decades; in earnest. And Vice is a narcotic trip, it lulls and pulls. Sucking the viewer straight down the rabbit hole, through the tunnel of love, and back in time to 1970’s Los Angeles; in what, on the surface, presents itself to be a very Chandleresque detective story, in the vain of The Long Goodbye or The Big Sleep.

So we’re in LA, the free love and peace of the swinging ’60s have waned into the paranoia and hedonism of the 1970s. Doc’s just woke up. Mutton chopped, joint in mouth and carrying himself like a Neil Young wannabe rag doll. Larry ‘Doc’ Sportello is played with gusto by a dirty looking Joaquin Phoenix. (I mean he’s so dirty at one point I’m convinced I can smell his feet.) Larry ‘Doc’ Sportello a stoner, sandal wearing private dick. Think Phillip Marlowe after a bag of ‘panama red’.  Anyway Doc’s ex old lady, Shasta, turns up in the dead of night scared and looking for help. She’s been shacked up with some shady real estate developer who’s embroiled in some diabolical plot. She’s freaked and that isn’t groovy with Doc, so he’s hot on the case. Naturally this kinda set-up lends itself to some serious slapstick and ambiance.

But behind the chaotic slapstick and entertainment, Vice is a socially conscious film, a film with a massive heart that pounds along the heroin trails and through the marijuana haze. This is bold crisp American cinema and Anderson has a very decisive view of America. An America that’s disconnected from itself, that’s wounded and looking for answers in all the wrong places. At the heart of Pynchon’s novel there’s a tremendous sense of melancholy, and a sense of disappointment with the promises of the Hippie movement and free love; which in the end proved as much a pipe dream as ‘democracy’ or the American dream; and just as corruptible. These aspects remain true of Anderson’s movie and it’s clearly a perspective Anderson strongly relates to. The sense of an ideological conflict is evident in the love-hate relationship between Big Foot Bjornson (played by Josh Brolin) and Doc. Big Foot is a hippie-hating LAPD detective with a boxy buzz cut haircut and a questionable penchant for frozen bananas. In a sense, the film is a series of short cameos as the case unfolds, and Doc chases down countless leads, and countless red herrings, and some strange entity called The Golden Fang.

As a major fan of both P.T.A and Pynchon, I have an obligation to say it isn’t perfect, it’s rough around the edges, even for what it’s meant to be, which runs contrary to most of the criticism so far. I think a lot of critics who misjudged Anderson’s previous film The Master (2012) are reluctant to fall into the same trap with Inherent Vice. The Inherent problem with this of course is; it’s a bit like that old Woody Allen joke about him applying what he learned from his mistakes in one marriage, to the next; only to find it didn’t work because it’s a completely different woman. In short Inherent Vice is a completely different woman.

It can’t be denied that Anderson accepted a challenge like no other in grabbing Pynchon’s novel by its metaphorical horns. But too some extent I think Mr. Anderson fell into the trap of being too reverent to the source material. He clearly struggled to pare the book down. This has led to some clichéd representations of characters who lack the sense of dimension they had in Pynchon’s book. Anderson has been quoted as to saying that the plot doesn’t matter, which seems to be over-simplifying things a bit. Plot has a clear function in Pynchon’s writing, it just isn’t always in the foreground of the narrative. What is in the foreground are his characters, who inhabit a world over-saturated with information, a world so chaotic and paranoid it seems impossible for them to function within it.

The performances, however, are, by and large, impeccable. Martin Short is stellar as Dr. Rudy Blatnoyd, a sex-crazed dentist wearing an ultraviolet suit who has cocaine nostrils flared wider than bell bottoms. Katherine Waterson’s portrayal of Shasta Fey Hepworth has a mysterious allure and deftness that’s nothing short of nerve-tingling and electric. Right off the bat she’s earned serious brownie points and established herself as a major leading actress.

Anderson took a serious risk in making a picture that, when you break it down, is principally dialogue driven. I appreciate what he was trying to achieve but I’m not entirely sure it worked. One of Anderson’s greatest assets as a filmmaker is his tremendous sense of mobility and his ability to tailor movement in relation to narrative. There’s a very static quality to the staging in Vice, which makes the imagery less emotionally arresting. We’re left with Pynchon’s words, which is exactly the point. In Andersons own words the film is about ‘Pynchon’.

Johnny Greenwood, of Radiohead fame, has partnered with Anderson again. The score isn’t as prominent a feature of this film as his work in There Will Be Blood or The Master. But elements of those works shine through for sure, with a bit of a more seventies’ish use of synthesizers and guitars. Think Bernard Hermann crossed with Steve Reich and you’re on the right track. David Crank’s production design is off the hook in its accuracy. You can practically smell the 1970s from the image. And it’s pungent. Which is no mean feat since I wasn’t even alive then. The cinematography is grainy, fuzzy and beautiful, courtesy of Anderson’s long-time partner in crime, Robert Elswit.

At its core there’s an unhinged authenticity to Inherent Vice, vividly captivating a specific moment in time. Overall though, flaws aside, this is a grade A pedigree pot movie filled with some golden moments of true comic genius. This is the marriage of two of the most astonishing American talents. Pynchon, without argument being a colossus of post WWII American fiction, and Anderson, the once upon a time wunderkind whose blossomed into a virtuoso, who’ll stare down the barrel of a lens fearlessly, knee deep in the trenches, sleeves rolled up, armed to the teeth fighting the good fight; a real good boy. Keep it up Anderson you talented f*cker, keep rocking and rolling.

Michael Lee

16 (See IFCO for details)
148 minutes
Inherent Vice
is released 29th January 2015

Inherent Vice – Official Website

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Cinema Review: Labor Day

DIR/WRI: Jason Reitman  • PRO: Helen Estabrook. Lianne Halfon, Jason Reitman, Russell Smith, Nicole C. Taylor • DOP: Eric Steelberg • ED: Dana E. Glauberman • DES: Steve Saklad • CAST: Kate Winslet, Josh Brolin, Tobey Maguire, Brooke Smith

With Labor Day, Jason Reitman writes and directs an adaptation of a novel by Joyce Maynard, continuing his shift from comedies to more serious fare. It’s a labour of love, but not entirely successful.

 

In 1987, Frank Chambers (Josh Brolin), convicted for murder, escapes prison and shacks up with Adele (Kate Winslet) and her son Henry (Gattlin Griffin). Fugitive Frank may be just the father figure that Henry needs. His manly presence may also help Adele recover from her long depression.

 

Adele has become a broken woman through the absence of her husband Gerald (Clark Gregg), the father of her son. Her hands shake, and she relies too much on her young Henry, who starts a coupon book as he plays her “husband for a day”. Adele explains that “there is another kind of hunger, a hunger for human touch, desire”. Clearly, Henry cannot provide that.

 

Frank’s arrival presents an opportunity to fill the void. Though he’s a convicted killer on the run, he maintains that he didn’t intend to hurt anyone. He ties Adele up, but it’s only for appearance. Brolin, who dominates the film, is a menacing presence in his early scenes, but it turns out he just wants a family too. He starts taking on the chores not done in a man’s absence: repairing the car and the furnace, fixing that squeaky door, cleaning gutters and changing tyres. He sees that the guy selling firewood has taken advantage of Adele, leaving her short. He teaches Henry as he goes about this work and trains him in batting for baseball. It becomes clear that Frank should satisfy Adele’s hunger. He has come to save her.

 

Labor Day feels like it should be a thriller, but it descends into a dull romance with conservative conceptions of gender roles. It features an elaborate sequence in which the newly-formed family bakes a peach tart. As they put the pastry on the top of the filling, Frank asks Adele to help him to “put a roof on this house”, an unsubtle metaphor.

 

Jason Reitman, son of Ivan Reitman (director of Ghostbusters), made his mark with the witty Thank You for Smoking before making an even bigger impression with a series of tart comedy/dramas, Juno, Up in the Air and Young Adult. Labor Day is a beautifully crafted film, nicely shot, with Rolfe Kent’s atmospheric score giving the film an edge that complement’s Brolin’s work.

 

But Reitman maintains Henry’s first-person narration from Maynard’s novel, with Tobey Maguire providing Henry’s adult voice, and he develops Frank’s back-story with wordless flashbacks. Adele later recounts her history to Frank, but Reitman’s structure diffuses his focus across three main characters, and it takes so long for Adele’s voice to come through that Henry and Frank dominate, and Adele’s character lacks development. Winslet has little to do, and when Adele has her chance to make more of an impression, her character becomes even more defined by how motherhood contributes to female identity.

 

It could have added up to a nicely judged psychosexual drama, but Labor Day finishes pregnant with possibility and fails to deliver.

 

John Moran

12A (See IFCO for details)
110 mins

Labor Day is released on 21st March 2014

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Cinema Review: Oldboy

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DIR: Spike Lee • WRI: Mark Protosevich • PRO: Doug Davison, Roy Lee, Spike Lee • DOP: Sean Bobbitt • ED: Barry Alexander Brown • DES: Sharon Seymour • MUS: Roque Baños • CAST: Josh Brolin, Elizabeth Olsen, Samuel L. Jackson, Sharlto Copley

 

On paper, everything about this remake of Park Chan-wook’s 2003 cult action thriller seems promising: one of the best films of the past ten years as source material, an ‘auteur’ director in Spike Lee, Josh Brolin starring with the up-and-coming Elizabeth Olsen and the recently excellent Sharlto Copley.

 

The plot is hard to fault, too. Simple in its synopsis but complex in its narrative, Oldboy tells the story of Joe Doucett (Brolin), who is kidnapped and held prisoner with no explanation and with no idea who might want to hold him captive. After 20 years in captivity, Joe is released with a phone and a wallet full of money. With no answers and many questions, he sets out to seek vengence on the stranger who stole 20 years of his life.

 

All good omens that this particular Hollywood remake of a highly respected piece of Korean filmmaking could be the exception to the recent rule of lazily recycling much loved non-English language genre films. With a chequered history in this regard, perhaps Hollywood was learning to give its source material the respect it deserves, letting the spirit of the original film shine through while making the story relevant to a new audience?

 

But alas, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Oldboy has been transformed from an imaginative, gripping and (crucially) original action thriller into a by-the-numbers revenge thriller.

 

Lee takes Park’s complex protagonist and changes him into the standard ‘bad man who learns the error of his ways and vows to reform himself’, explicitly showing the audience in the first act that Joe is a bad husband, an even worse father, a cocksure businessman and a terrible drunk. The original left all this to be implied.

 

See also the signature action set piece, in which the protagonist battles a posse of assorted ne’er-do-wells with a hammer. In Park’s version, this is simply thrilling in its execution, shot (imaginatively) as a cross-section of the building. In Lee’s, it’s shot in a similar way, showing his obvious respect for what is an impressively-constructed long shot. But the scene is let down by the fight’s choreography, which looks more like a dance with its over-exaggerated falls and dives rather than anything approaching peril.

 

The plot has been given the Hollywood treatment, too.  In Park’s Oldboy, the mystery surrounding the main character’s imprisonment and sudden release only deepens as the film progresses, further drawing you in. But Lee unleashes major plot revelations much sooner than Park, leaving precious little mystery in the film’s final third. Where the original perfectly straddled the grey in-between, Lee looks to attain a perfect symmetry in the unfolding storyline between Brolin’s Joe and his mysterious captor. The director seems to have little trust in his audience, pointing out every little plot nuance, just in case we missed it.

 

It becomes increasingly clear that Spike Lee is merely a gun for hire on this project, rather than the ‘auteur’ of his earlier career. A fact confirmed when Lee neuters the original’s brave ending.

 

Most of the supporting cast do an admirable job with some below-par scripting, with special mention for Copley who is unrecognisable here, playing the polar opposite of his deadly mercenary in Elysium. Brolin works tirelessly trying to combine the physically demanding action set pieces with the deep inner turmoil being felt by Joe but, in the end, neither of these entirely convince.

 

There are things to be admired, though. The film looks great. Sean Bobbitt’s cinematography combined with the set design give Joe’s imprisonment a washed-out dullness, juxtaposed nicely with the outside world’s vibrancy.

 

Measured against Park’s original, Lee’s Oldboy is dumbed-down and hamfisted (and that’s before mentioning the exaggerated product placement). While the film shows the occasional flash of promise, Lee would have done better to fully embrace the brilliance of the original, rather than using it merely as a blueprint.

Chris Lavery

18 (See IFCO for details)

104  mins

Oldboy is released on 6th December 2013

Oldboy  – Official Website

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Cinema Review: Men in Black III

 

DIR: Barry Sonnenfeld • WRI: David Koepp, Jeff Nathanson, Michael Soccio • PRO: Laurie MacDonald, Walter F. Parkes • DOP: Bill Pope • ED: Wayne Wahrman, Don Zimmerman DES: Bo Welch • Cast: Will Smith, Tommy Lee Jones, Josh Brolin, Alice Eve

Men in Black III comes 15 years after the first offering and 10 years after the second. Over time, we have learned our lesson about sequels the hard way, and now assume that anything that comes after the original will suck all of the charm from what we originally fell in love with. Somehow, the Men in Black have timed their return perfectly and proven that, occasionally, sequels can add something special to the original.

For the forgetful: the Men in Black are a secret government agency dedicated to keeping track of aliens on Earth and dealing with any potential threats. They are as conspicuous now as 15 years ago, but when you have many gadgets available to you, one needn’t worry about being questioned. Nostalgia is the ultimate key here as we remember the previous offerings throughout.

Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones) and his young recruit Agent J (Will Smith) are under the instruction of Agent O (Emma Thompson). It’s important to be up-to-date on the alphabet in this agency and it seems as though our heroes are continuing to do well since we last visited them. Of course, this is the movies, and all good things must come to an end.

The hilarious Jemaine Clement plays an ugly alien named Boris the Animal who has managed to escape from a maximum-security prison on the Moon. Whilst this is inconvenient by anyone’s standards, unfortunately Boris has a major vendetta to settle with Agent K for the small matter of shooting his arm off. He hatches the ingenious plan of going back in time and killing Agent K. When K disappears without a trace, it seems his prodigy is the only one to notice. As J questions his absence he is met with odd looks and the information that K has been dead for years. The only option for J is to travel back in time and rescue his mentor from the alien threat before he is ultimately lost to time.

Josh Brolin expertly plays the young Agent K. So convincing is his performance that the audience would be forgiven for thinking that it is simply Tommy Lee Jones wearing an obscene amount of prosthesis. As soon as Brolin speaks in his effortless Jonesian drawl, we can almost feel the relief director Barry Sonnenfield is said to have felt at his convincing portrayal. His performance is so close to perfection, that it is almost unnerving until we settle into it.

Much has happened since the first Men in Black movie hit our screens. The one noticeable shift in attitude between this and the first movie is that the semi-outsider narrative evident in the aliens then, has been transformed into an insider narrative as the alien threat walks amongst us unnoticed. It may simply be a sign of the times, but it is an important shift in social attitudes and is very effective here. It’s also refreshing to see megastar Will Smith has remained grounded enough in his meteoric rise to Hollywood royalty to effortlessly recreate the often-silly scenes required here.

So whilst it’s easy to remain unenthusiastic about the onslaught of sequels we are subjected to, this third installment of the Men in Black franchise is different. Packed full of ingenious monsters, hilarious comedic moments and excellent performances, Men in Black III is not to be missed.  Men in Black III manage to escape the danger of becoming dated by time and Brolin’s performance alone is worth the price of admission.

Nostalgia viewing at its finest, offering a surprisingly satisfying emotional payoff for something we weren’t aware we had been missing.

 

Ciara O’Brien

Rated PG (see IFCO website for details)
Men in Black III is released on 25th May 2012

Men in Black III  – Official Website

 

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