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 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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