Talking Movies

July 1, 2018

Notes on Sicario 2

Sicario 2 is an unexpected sequel providing counterprogramming for the World Cup. Here are some notes on’t, prepared for Dublin City FM’s Sunday Breakfast with Patrick Doyle early this morning.

Sicario 2 starts off with some of the most disturbing and troubling scenes we’re likely to see this year – a prolonged suicide bombing and a retributive hi-tech torture in Djibouti. But these eventually prove to be a bit of a red herring as we return to fighting cartels in Mexico, and find that two men with no limits (Benicio Del Toro, Josh Brolin) eventually question whether they have reached a point where they hit a moral limit. There are great sequences in Mexico: a kidnapping, a murder in broad daylight, and an ambush on a desert road where the abrupt transition to dirt road covers a convoy in a cloud of dust, neutralising the surveillance in 10 miles utility of the drone above. But ultimately Sicario 2 made me think of Hellboy II. Delighted not to have an audience stand-in getting between us and Hellboy, we all soon discovered that character was as necessary as Ishmael in Moby-Dick. Extremities of behaviour work best when observed by someone like Emily Blunt’s Kate Macer in the original.

Sicario 2 feels different from the original, because it is missing so many key personnel. Brolin and Del Toro return but as well as Blunt, director Denis Villeneuve and cinematographer Roger Deakins sit this one out. Composer Johann Johannsson died recently and the picture is dedicated to him, and his music only plays in the last scenes (just before his name appears), reminding us how important his score was to creating the mood of the original. Stefano Sollima directed Italian crime show Gomorrah, and his style of observing extreme violence casually dispensed could best be described as blank in the vein of that show’s 2008 movie progenitor, where Villeneuve and Deakins, while also cold, provided a more Kubrickian detachment; eschewing commentary but inviting your moral reprobation. They also were far more adventurous in their shooting style, here there is less night-vision and thermal-vision photography than your weekly episode of SEAL Team. Ultimately returning writer Taylor Sheridan provides a screenplay that lacks the singular focus that gave Sicario its irresistible momentum and such richness of character.

The abundance of sequels these days means cyclical discussion of the same problems: resetting characters emotionally in order to place on the same reconciliatory arc again in Jurassic World 2, and in this case characters that worked best as supporting enigmas are placed centre stage because they were popular, and by explaining them away you remove the mystique to the point where they are no longer enigmas. This is certainly true with Alejandro, who seems to have reached the end of the line by being made the leading man. This is a pity as Sheridan’s original screenplay was so full of memorable dialogue that you lament the lack of it here as everything becomes a bit more routine, even as he hints at his interest but can’t really develop it in a notion that deserves a full blog post. Ever since Euripides wrote The Trojan Women during the Peloponnesian War artists have been wringing their hands over winning by the wrong methods invalidating the value of such victory. But must you win to wring hands?…

I didn’t get to chat about all of these points, but we did cover most of them. Tune into 103.2 FM to hear Patrick Doyle’s breakfast show every Sunday on Dublin City FM, and catch up with his excellent Classical Choice programme on Mixcloud now.

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January 14, 2016

Top Performances of 2015

As the traditional complement to the Top 10 Films list, here are the Top Performances of 2015. The refusal to isolate single winners is deliberate; regard the highlighted names as the top of the class, and the runners up being right behind them, and the also placed just behind them. They’re all superb performances.

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Best Supporting Actress

Kristen Stewart (Sils Maria) Who knew Stewart had it in her to stop biting her lip and actually act again? As Juliette Binoche’s foil she displayed an unsuspected flair for comedy alongside an argumentative intelligence.

Suzanne Clement (Mommy) Clement as the neighbour across the way was the heart of Xavier Dolan’s movie. She recovered from her own trauma by helping troubled Steve, and stood in for us; bearing tearful witness to events.

Katherine Waterston (Inherent Vice) Waterston made an unexpected breakthrough as Doc’s ex-girlfriend. She had few scenes, but the memorable mix of warmth and wisdom in the opening convincingly set Doc on his quest.

Runners Up:

Mackenzie Davis (The Martian) Davis broke out from indies with panache, grabbing a blockbuster role where she wasn’t just random NASA tech, but instead shared many archly comic moments with Chiwetel Ejiofor.

Julie Walters (Brooklyn) There was great comedy from the nightly dinner-table feuds at Mrs Kehoe’s and Walters provided most of it as the landlady with a waspish putdown for every tenant and every occasion.

Lea Seydoux (The Lobster) All the qualities attributed to her in Spectre, and entirely absent there, were on display here where she was icy cold, forceful, implacable, and without vanity as a sharp-suited rebel leader.

Also Placed:

Elizabeth Debicki (UNCLE) It was only in retrospect I realised she wasn’t actually a great villain. Debicki had used her commanding presence to temporarily conjure the impression of greatness from a threadbare part.

Chloe Grace Moretz (Sils Maria) Moretz was a hoot as a misbehaving starlet doing a play to gain prestige. She pulled off an uncanny balancing act between elements of Jennifer Lawrence and Lindsay Lohan’s personae.

Elisabeth Moss (Listen Up Philip) Moss, as the long-suffering photographer girlfriend of novelist Philip, confidently took over the film for an unexpected segment tracing her own independent story of artistic development.

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Best Supporting Actor

Edward Norton (Birdman) Norton was transparently playing with his own persona, and having the time of his life doing it, but the hilarity of his preening self-regard was balanced by his self-awareness of his failings.

Benicio Del Toro (Sicario) Del Toro cut lines to make stoic DoD ‘adviser’ Alejandro troublingly mysterious, an inspired move as he slowly revealed himself to be a man without limits; breaking the law to do the right thing.

Colin Firth (Kingsman) Firth was effectively playing The Avengers’ Mr Steed, and clearly loving it. His A Single Man tour de force of dry heartbreak now has a stellar contrast on his show-reel: his amazing kill-crazy rampage.

Ewan McGregor (Son of a Gun) McGregor rediscovered his charisma as an armed robber in a post-Moulin Rouge! best. Charming, but ruthless on a dime, he combined both qualities in a deliriously jump-started interrogation.

Runners Up:

Jeff Daniels (The Martian, Steve Jobs) Daniels’ Newsroom-based resurgence saw him verbally duel with Sean Bean and Michael Fassbender with much gravitas, but he also displayed his considerable comic abilities in both roles.

Josh Brolin (Inherent Vice, Sicario) Brolin played law-men fond of crossing the line, but Graver’s dirty warrior sought cynical order rather than law-abiding chaos, while Bigfoot suffered from incommunicable psychic pain.

Benedict Wong (The Martian) Wong was wonderful as Bruce, the ever-harried Jet Propulsion Lab director given impossible deadlines and tasks; his hang-dog expression always one step away from total defeat.

Michael Pena (Ant-Man) Ant-Man sans Edgar Wright’s visual panache plodded like hell for the first act and a half, save his showpiece narration, but Pena’s hysterically distracted inept nice guy criminal kept it going.

Also Placed:

Sean Harris (MI5, Macbeth) The wiry, soft-spoken Harris was scary in MI5 by virtue of his villain’s cunning and utter indifference to casualties, and, as Macduff, he set about revenge with an unnerving feel of unfussy control.

Jonathan Pryce (Listen Up Philip) Pryce let rip as the elder statesman novelist: self-preening, condescending, and supportive to his protégé; hiding his guilt behind anger to his daughter; and denying to himself his own sadness.

Seth Rogen (Steve Jobs) Rogen’s shambling, slightly bewildered Steve Wozniak was a man on a mission, and always bound to fail, but his live-action Fozzie Bear helped humanise Fassbender’s Jobs tremendously.

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Best Actress

Emily Blunt (Sicario) Blunt is assured as an FBI ‘thumper’ who joins a taskforce to hurt drug cartels. Mission-creep gives her doubts, but she’s too dogged for her own good, staying to find the task-force’s true purpose, becoming a Creon to Del Toro’s Antigone – devotion to the law is the right thing.

Rooney Mara (Carol) Mara is terrific as the ingénue who is seduced by Carol and her high society, but has both cruelly taken away from her, and then sets about making her own way in the world. Rooney uses the most subtle facial expressions to chart her transformation from ingénue to equal.

Greta Gerwig (Mistress America) Gerwig shines as the somewhat ridiculous, casually abrasive Brooke, who stumbles through life from one disaster to the next with little self-pity and can charm and/or guilt-trip people into bailing out her last/buying into her next madcap venture.

Lola Kirke (Mistress America) Kirke impressively held her own against Gerwig as the perceptive, quiet Tracy; an aspiring writer who got carried away by Brooke’s mad enthusiasm, but never quite lost sight of the ridiculousness of her venture; and played disappointment exceptionally well.

Runners Up:

Cate Blanchett (Carol) Blanchett was rather good as the socialite whose charming facade masks despair, exhaustion, desire, and a recklessness that at times comes very close to making her dangerous to herself and others. But Carol’s fiery decision to be herself gave her less a meaty arc than Mara.

Rebecca Ferguson (MI5) Was Ilsa Faust a properly defined femme fatale or not? Does it matter when Ferguson gave a performance of such rare mystery and ambiguity? In never quite being able to count on her there was a mix of Han Solo roguery with a more enigmatic quality; even after all explanations.

Emma Stone (Irrational Man, Birdman) Stone delivered an amazing rant in Birdman as well as sparking off Edward Norton, and then displayed her full range with a quiet performance as a student enamoured with her professor in Irrational Man; articulating outraged conscience with great sincerity.

Also Placed:

Juliette Binoche (Sils Maria) Binoche was fully committed to her role as an actress over-analysing to death taking the other part in a two-hander play that made her, and her failed attempts to keep a straight face and seriously engage with  her while she PA defended comic-book movies was a particular joy.

Maika Monroe (It Follows) Monroe gave a strong performance, especially in playing early scenes with a dreamy quality which allowed an ambiguity later about her character hallucinating as PTSD before it became clear ‘It’ was very real and needed a Ripey response Monroe was well capable of giving.

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Best Actor

Michael Fassbender (Macbeth, Steve Jobs) Fassbender’s low-key delivery gave us a weary warrior who lost his mind from one damn killing too many, while his irrepressible warmth allowed Jobs say horrible things but remain charismatic till the belated quasi-apology “I’m poorly made.”

Michael Keaton (Birdman) Keaton made a spectacular leading man comeback with a transparent riff on his own persona. His comic timing was superb, his lack of vanity Oscar-worthy (cough), and he outdid Edward Norton (Greatest Actor of His Generation TM) in artistic and emotional angst.

David Oyewelo (Selma) Oyelowo gave a fiery performance as MLK, whipping up a mass demonstration for a Voting Rights Act. He oozed charisma in three speeches, but was extremely vulnerable in King’s guilt and self-doubt over deaths caused by his rhetoric and leadership, and shame at his infidelities.

Matt Damon (The Martian) Damon’s best studio lead since The Adjustment Bureau was powered by Drew Goddard’s hilarious screenplay. As a one-man show on Mars his sequences were a never-ending vlog of riffs and one-liners, and Damon delivered with immense charm and comic timing.

Runners Up:

Jason Schwartzman (Listen Up Philip) Schwartzman was on familiar Bored to Death turf but he made Philip intriguing. A hugely narcissistic novelist, lacking in empathy, and casually abrasive, but also talented, capable of being hurt to a devastating degree, and perhaps too emotionally guarded because of that.

Keanu Reeves (John Wick) Keanu made one hell of a comeback as a civilised hit-man universally beloved in the hit-community, larger underworld, and the small town he retired to. Keanu’s stunt-work was an endearing mix of fluency and occasional rustiness, and he made us love Wick too.

Joaquin Phoenix (Inherent Vice, Irrational Man) Phoenix shambled endearingly as the perma-stoned PI straight man to a merry-go-round of lunatics, while his self-loathing philosophy professor embracing Dostoyevskyean freedom saw him deliver a truly amazing expression: guilt, fear, relief, and panic.

Also Placed:

Oscar Isaac (A Most Violent Year) A Pacino quality came off Isaac’s performance as oil entrepreneur Abel Morales. Early, subtle Pacino. Abel would not be bullied, would not break the law, and would not accept dirty deeds on his behalf. Isaac played this principled soul with a quiet, dignified stillness.

Tom Cruise (MI5) His implausible early escape up a pole got a few laughs at my screening. I believed Cruise could do it, he’s a fitness nut. Also in other ways, but plane stunt nuts is good; and there’s a self-deprecating quality to Cruise, absent from his 90s heyday, that makes him very winning.

January 13, 2016

Top 10 Films of 2015

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(10) Steve Jobs

The combination of Michael Fassbender, Aaron Sorkin, and Danny Boyle produced a far warmer movie than Sorkin’s previous tech biopic The Social Network. Sorkin’s theatrical script was tense, hilarious, meta-textual, and heart-warming as if each iteration of the same confrontations pushed Jobs closer to doing the right thing, as Daniel Pemberton’s rousing score became less electronic and more orchestral, while Boyle’s changing film formats emphasised the passage of time and  thereby generated unexpected pathos.

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(9) Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation

Since JJ Abrams became Tom Cruise’s producing co-pilot this vanity franchise has suddenly become great fun. This doesn’t equal the blast that was Brad Bird’s Ghost Protocol, but writer/director Christopher McQuarrie’s combined great comedy and stunts, with a truly mysterious femme fatale, and some well staged action sequences; the highlight being assassins’ night out at the Viennese opera, riffing shamelessly and gloriously on Alfred Hitchcock’s twice-told Royal Albert Hall sequence.

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(8) The Martian

Director Ridley Scott may have demurred at this being a Golden Globe ‘comedy’ but Drew Goddard should write all Scott’s future movies on the basis of this screenplay chock-full of great jokes. You know you’re looking at an unprecedented ensemble of scene-stealers when Kristen Wiig ends up straight man to the Fassbendering all around her, and this valorisation of can-do science arguably realised Tomorrowland’s stated intention of restoring technological optimism to the popular imagination.

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(7) Sicario

Denis Villeneuve once again directed a thriller so spare, savage, and elemental that, like Incendies, it invited comparison with Greek tragedy. Amidst Roger Deakins’ stunning aerial photography and Johann Johannsson’s unnerving score Emily Blunt’s steely FBI heroine, in her conflict with Benicio Del Toro’s Alejandro, became a veritable Creon to his Antigone: for her devotion to upholding the law is the right thing, where Alejandro believes in breaking the law to do the right thing.

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(6) Listen Up Philip

Jason Schwartzman was on top form as an obnoxiously solipsistic novelist who retreated to the place in the country of new mentor Jonathan Pryce, and alienated his girlfriend (Elisabeth Moss), his mentor’s daughter (Krysten Ritter), his students, and, well, just about everybody else. This was a tour-de-force by writer/director Alex Ross Perry who threw in a wonderfully gloomy jazz score, a narrator, and alternating perspectives to create an unashamedly literary, unhappy, ‘unrelatable’ story.

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(5) Mistress America

Expectations were high after Frances Ha, and Baumbach and Gerwig’s follow-up did not disappoint. Their script provided compelling characters, with great jokes and screwball set-ups, as well as a literary sense of melancholy. The story of Brooke and Tracy is one of the best observer/hero films I’ve seen lately; from Tracy’s loneliness at college, to her meeting with the whirlwind of energy that is Brooke, to her co-option into Brooke’s restaurant dream, and all the fall-out from Tracy’s attempts to have her cake and eat it; sharply observed, but with great sympathy.

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(4) Carol

The Brief Encounter set-up of the extended flashback to explain the true nature of what superficially appeared to be casual meeting was played out with immense delicacy by stars Cate Blanchett and Rooney Maray in a feast of glances and little gestures under the subtle direction of Todd Haynes. Carter Burwell’s score added the emotion forced to go unspoken in Phyllis Nagy’s sleek adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s semi-autobiographical novel which mixed romance with coming-of-age story as Mara’s shopgirl followed her artistic path and so moved from ingénue to the equal of Blanchett’s socialite.

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(3) Eden

Mia Hansen-Love followed-up Goodbye First Love with another exploration of 20 years in a character’s life. Paul (Felix de Givry) was the guy standing just next to Daft Punk in the 1993 photo of Parisian house music enthusiasts, and the story of his rise as a DJ wasn’t just about the music. We met the women in his life, including Pauline Etienne’s Louise and Greta Gerwig’s American writer Julia, and the male friends who came and went. Eden was always engaging, hilarious, tender, poignant, and rousing; in short it felt like a life.

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(2) Furious 7

Paul Walker bowed out with a gloriously nonsensical romp which made pigswill of the laws of physics because Vin Diesel, The Rock and The State said so. This franchise under the direction of Justin Lin, and now James Wan, has broken free of any link to humdrum reality to become distilled cinematic joy. And it’s so much fun they can even break rules, like not killing the mentor, yet still set themselves up for an awesome finale. CC: Whedon & Abrams, there are other ways to motivate characters and raise the stakes…

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(1) Birdman

Michael Keaton made a spectacular leading man comeback in Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s meta-riff on Keaton being overshadowed by his Bat-past. Keaton was hilarious and affecting by turns, and in support Edward Norton shone in a play on his persona: preening self-regard with notes of self-loathing. Emmanuel Lubezski’s camera-work was spectacularly fluid in maintaining the illusion of a single take, but the time-lapses made you suspect it was a cinematic conceit designed to conceal the theatrical nature of essentially four long-takes. Indeed the characters were highly conscious that theatre was the only medium for a Carver adaptation; the days of Short Cuts are gone. Birdman was interesting, funny, and experimental; and to consistently pull off all three of those at the same time was enough to overcome any quibbles.

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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