Talking Movies

October 7, 2015

Sicario

Emily Blunt is an FBI agent in over her head in the crusade against cartels in director Denis Villeneuve’s gripping thriller of a dirty war.

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Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) is a ‘thumper’. She kicks in doors to rescue hostages. Or, as in the startling opening sequence, her armoured car kicks in an entire wall before unleashing her gun-toting squad. But all her rescues don’t really make a dent in the war on drugs, so when prosecutor Dave Jennings (Victor Garber) offers her the chance to join a taskforce led by Graver (Josh Brolin) she volunteers. But the taskforce soon starts to trouble her. It’s bad enough being surrounded by Graver’s crew, trigger-happy jocks like Forsing (Jeffrey Donovan), but their stoic DoD ‘adviser’ Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro) is troublingly mysterious, and their mission soon creeps over the border from El Paso to Ciudad Juarez. Her FBI partner Reggie (Daniel Kaluuya) urges her to quit after that mission erupts into quasi-legal slaughter, but Kate needs the truth.

Sicario is a triumph. Icelandic composer Johann Johannsson’s extraordinary score makes you anxious even before the first image, with its insistent sinister rhythm. At times he almost mischievously quotes Brad Fiedel’s Terminator 2 T-1000 cue, as if to relieve tension, but his melding of digital beats with brass and strings consistently unnerves. Sicario is always riveting, and even when the script (by Sons of Anarchy actor Taylor Sheridan) appears to be losing its tension it’s merely misdirection to increase paranoia. Roger Deakins’ cinematography is jaw-dropping: aerial photography gives a drone’s eye view of the warzone, while a pan across the border-crossing makes Juarez seem incredibly alien, and a climactic sequence with thermal imaging surpasses Zero Dark Thirty. Villeneuve equals Michael Mann in his staging of a prisoner transfer in cartel-run Juarez and a gun battle in a stalled motorway jam.

The opening titles tell us originally ‘sicario’ were Jews murdering occupying Romans. Like Villeneuve’s Incendies, this is a contemporary film with mythic echoes of savagery past. Kate in her conflict with Alejandro is Creon to his Antigone: devotion to upholding the law is the right thing for Kate, where Alejandro believes in breaking the law to do the right thing. Meanwhile Graver’s cynical “If you can’t stop 20% of Americans putting stuff up their noses and in their arms, let’s have some order at least” is not only as grimly realistic as the similar dirty war tactics depicted in ’71 but also oddly reminiscent of the simultaneously historically inspiring and dubiously propagandistic message of Zhang Yimou’s Hero. A major achievement for Villeneuve is that, despite Deakins and Brolin’s involvement with No Country for Old Men, Sicario is its own universe.

Sicario, powered by Blunt’s assured lead performance as a heroine too dogged for her own good, grips from its thunderous opening to its soft-spoken and extremely resonant last lines.

5/5

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September 11, 2014

A Most Wanted Man

Philip Seymour Hoffman’s swansong as a leading man sees him play a German spymaster in Anton Corbijn’s low-key intelligence thriller.

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Gunther Bachmann (Hoffman) is the harassed spymaster of a clandestine unit of German intelligence. Officially Gunther, his loyal lieutenant Irna (Nina Hoss), and Niki (Vicky Krieps) and Maximilian (Daniel Bruhl in a mystifyingly small part); the youngsters who do the physical side of operations; don’t exist, but they keep post 9/11 Hamburg safe from terrorist cells exploiting its port city porosity. Getting in their way is human rights lawyer Annabel (Rachel McAdams), who is attempting to get Chechen illegal immigrant Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin) the fortune his despised war-lord father left in the hands of discreet banker Brue (Willem Dafoe). Gunther wants to turn Annabel, and so use both his existing mole Jamal (Mehdi Dehbi) and suspected terrorist Issa to snare the respected Abdullah (Homayoun Ershadi); who Gunther suspects of covertly using Islamic charities to fund terrorism. Enter the CIA…

Rock photographer Corbijn’s first two films as director, Control and The American, were visually striking, and A Most Wanted Man has equally interesting work right from the opening when the lapping harbour water Issa emerges from becomes shifting whiskey in Gunther’s glass. Corbijn makes great use of shifting focus in a lengthy interrogation, stages a long-take on a ferry very disconcertingly, and hammers home the paranoia of surveillance with Niki and Maximilian’s constant unobtrusive tailing of suspects. The nitty-gritty procedural approach to intelligence work is always absorbing, and Robin Wright’s cameos as inveigling Company woman Martha Sullivan are nicely done. But the extended breaking of Annabel, even though it’s probably quite realistic, sucks all momentum out of proceedings. And then just when things have got properly tense again with Gunther laying a trap, the trademark le Carre letdown is sprung.

An emotionally devastating twist is casually thrown in, but screenwriter Andrew (Lantana) Bovell cannot salvage the unsatisfactory finale which, in typical le Carre style, ends not with a bang but a whimper. le Carre may have had the inside scoop on the Cold War when he started writing, but it’s been fifty years since Kim Philby blew his cover, and it’s hard to think of a profession less likely to spill new trade secrets to former members of the guild, so this can’t be le Carre giving us the real scoop on how post-9/11 intelligence works so much as le Carre giving us his own bleak weltanschauung. It is one he shares with Cormac McCarthy: storytellers who create protagonists and antagonists, place them in peril, but then, because they have no real interest in storytelling, lose interest in their creations.

A Most Wanted Man is a pretty good leading man send-off for Hoffman; particularly the poignant last image in which Hoffman walks out of shot and our lives; but its ending lets it down.

3/5

February 14, 2014

Bastards

French provocateur Claire Denis returns with a moody slice of elliptical noir as a rich businessman is suspected of unspeakable sexual crimes against a family dependent on his financial generosity.

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Broody supertanker captain Marco Silvestri (Vincent Lindon) abandons his ship when his sister Sandra (Julie Bataille) calls. Her husband Jacques (Lauren Grevill), who was also Marco’s best friend, has committed suicide. Debts are about to envelop the family business, and Sandra’s daughter Justine (Lola Creton) is in hospital and deeply traumatised by a sexual assault. Marco is informed by Justine’s carer Dr Bethanie (Alex Descas) that she will need corrective surgery so savage was her raping. In the background to the Silvestri family drama is the figure of famous ageing tycoon Edouard Laporte (Michel Subor). Marco takes it upon himself to raise enough money to move into the apartment building where Laporte keeps his mistress Raphaelle (Chiara Mastroianni), and insinuates himself into her life by fixing her son’s bicycle and giving her cigarettes, to begin an elaborate revenge against Laporte…

Claire Denis co-wrote this with her regular writing partner Jean-Pol Fargeau, and it’s impressively cagey and enigmatic for a long portion of its running time of 94 minutes. However, towards the end, you start to feel a sense of terminal drift; that Denis has no real interest in wrapping up what she’s laid out. Echoes of Chinatown and Chandler, in a savage beating of Marco in a hallway from two mysterious assailants, show up Denis’ deliberate vagueness rather than complement it. We are given answers to some questions, at the very death, but they come after events have taken a distinctly Cormac McCarthy turn, which makes the film feel overlong. In some respects Bastards is reminiscent of Only God Forgives, as being easier to admire than to like; and in being in thrall to hypnotic scenes (notably rainfall and cars).

Denis uses silence and sound to great effect, making the pulsing score of Tindersticks’ Stuart Staples startling when it erupts, most notably for a hallucinatory sequence of dangerous driving. Lindon is a fantastically weather-beaten hero, taking no nonsense as he conducts his own vendetta against an untouchable man, by stealing away his mistress. The affair, however, lacks a certain sense of reality as we never understand why Raphaelle would endanger her dependent relationship with Laporte for the doubtful charms of Marco. Subor nicely layers an imperious viciousness with some notes of concern for his son and a greater understanding of the morally muddled situation than the taciturn Bogart of the piece. Creton (so great as a lead in Goodbye First Love) is sadly over-exposed but under-used as the abused Justine, and the laconic understated script never truly plumbs her character.

Denis’ film, especially in its explicit scenes of abuse, but will not be everyone’s taste, but it’s definitely an intriguing take on a neo-noir.

2.75/5

November 14, 2013

The Counsellor

Ridley Scott reunites with his Prometheus scene-stealer Michael Fassbender for a brutal tale of drug trafficking; written directly for the screen by novelist Cormac McCarthy.

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Fassbender is ‘the counsellor’, the exact nature of whose practice is left as vague as his name. He buys a diamond in Amsterdam (from a cameoing Bruno Ganz) to propose to his naive girlfriend Laura (Penelope Cruz). The money to finance this lavish lifestyle will come from going into business with his client Reiner (Javier Bardem), a cheetah-owning drug dealer with pretensions to being a nightclub impresario, and sagacious middleman Westray (Brad Pitt). Hovering around the edges of this one-time business arrangement though is Reiner’s girlfriend Malkina (Cameron Diaz), who unnerves everyone. Unsurprisingly everything quickly goes sideways, and, with 20 million dollars worth of blow in the wind, scary people from Ciudad Juarez who don’t mess around are soon skipping over the border to El Paso to kill all concerned – this being McCarthy’s patented sprung-trap approach to the drugs trade…

The Counsellor’s dialogue is pure McCarthy in the way 2007’s Sleuth is pure Pinter. Sub-Hemingway shtick like the early “Are you really that cold?” “The truth has no temperature”, vies with unconscious quotations of Keats, and, in a lengthy scene with Ruben Blades’s Mexican drug-lord Jefe, a reworking of a Matrix Reloaded speech by The Oracle. McCarthy’s foreshadowing is hysterically blunt. When the hideous mechanical device the bolito is described, or a snuff movie involving necrophilia, the characters ought to lean in and say ‘It could happen to you! It probably will, in about 40 minutes…’ McCarthy’s interest, par No Country for Old Men, is apparently solely in the operation of the mechanical vice of the drugs trade that slaughters all involved for any misstep. Characters are introduced, and then slaughtered by new characters that we never learn anything about.

The Counsellor works best in its wordless sequences. People at work displaying their murderous tradecraft are absorbing, brutal, and vivid; an assault on a drugs truck and an intricately planned garrotting being the standout set-pieces. One could forgive McCarthy’s unrealistic dialogue in what purports to be an unflinchingly realistic observation of the mechanics of drug trafficking were it not for his troubling characterisation. Beginning with the uncomfortable cold open McCarthy displays a very bizarre interest in hyper-sexualised female characters. Diaz’s goofy grin is rendered pleasingly cruel, but her Malkina displays a very Puritan prurience in Catholics confessing about sexual sins, and that’s before we get to what, following Reiner’s lead, we will call ‘the catfish scene’ – which is WEIRD beyond belief. McCarthy’s lack of interest in his leads is exemplified by Fassbender’s titular lawyer being utterly irrelevant by the finale.

Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe’s bizarre co-dependency ruined them both during the 2000s, we can only hope Fassbender is not about to be snared in the same glossy trap.

2.5/5

November 29, 2010

The Ashen Road

A whistle blew, and the train trembled into movement….

What’s a train?

Oh silly me, I forgot you were born after the hauntingly vague apocalypse.

So I wouldn’t know what a train was.

No, you wouldn’t.

Okay.

Okay.

The man smiled sadly. The man and the boy trudged onwards along the ashen road. The road was covered in ash, the ground on either side was covered in ash, and the trees set back from the road were ashy, probably because they were ash-trees. Ash was everywhere, even in his memories, as his wife had been called Ash, even though she had had a willowy figure. His wife. He remembered her desertion of them without emotion. It had been too long ago for the concept of emotion to remain after the language had died that could express it.

The man woke from a dream. Even his dreams were pallid and ashen. He tried to get back to sleep, hoping that maybe this dream would have some flash of vivid colour. He returned to his dream, he was following a pig in the dark but without being able to reach it. The pig had something on its back – it was carrying fire in a container with glazed sides that allowed the light to escape. The man realised he would never catch the pig. Then he woke and wept.

What’ll we do for food now?

We’ll get by. We always do. Do you remember the time we came across a bunker full of food, and before that the time we stumbled onto a truck full of food, or the time we were hunting for mushrooms in a field, down on our hands and knees rooting like pigs, and then we found a dead pig.

You think that will happen again?

Well, maybe not it exactly, but… Something will turn up, it always does, it’s like some secular intervention keeps putting food just a bit further down the road despite the fact that all life was wiped out some years ago by that oddly unspecified event.

Is that how other people survive?

Yes, that and eating each other.

But we’d never do that.

No.

Never?

Not unless it was someone truly evil. Like Lady GaGa.

Okay.

Okay.

The boy was excited when the man returned from the woods beside the road.

Who’s that?

Who?

That old man in the distance, further along the ashen road.

He looks like a Jungian Archetype.

What?

Damn! I forgot.

You wouldn’t know because the apocalypse happened, somehow, before you were born but a Jungian Archetype is a reference to Star Wars.

Star Wars?

A Film.

Film?

Never mind, the point is that if the man has a beard, he’ll be wise.

You have a beard.

Ah, but my beard’s not white. If his is white he’s wise, if he’s also British then we’re really in luck. He’ll know what’s going on for sure.

The old man stopped walking when he heard the sound of their footsteps. The man approached slowly, and tried to convey by holding his hands out that he meant no harm to the old man.

I’m not going to hurt you. I just want to talk to you, about the apocalypse.

Go ahead.

What reason?

That question makes no sense.

I was being cryptic for the sake of the boy. Can you save us?

Yes. I have a book that can rebuild technology.

REALLY?

Yes, boy of indeterminate age, I have in my mind….The old man tapped his forehead….

The complete King James Bible.

The what?

The boy stood with a confused expression on his face while the old man smiled and the man looked like he was recovering from a nasty shock.

The King James Bible, said the man, disappointed. A book that can’t even get Pi right and you expect it to rebuild civilisation?

Oh, I’m sorry, I must be mistaken, I thought you were characters from the Book of Eli. My Bad.

The old man shuffled off down along the ashen road.

I always thought Jung was full of crap said the man, before coughing so violently that blood dripped ominously from his mouth.

Later. The man was huddled in his blanket. A grizzled man stood looking at him with compassion. Life ebbing, the boy crying.

But I don’t want to leave you.

Don’t be afraid. Remember what I taught you about Hollywood clichés.

To carry the flame, and always just be myself.

Yes. And even the last man on earth can have a happy ending. You just have to believe…

The boy cried for a time. Then he followed his new father figure. If civilisation ever returned, he was sure his dead father’s story would win many awards. For bravery, and other things.

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