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

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

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

February 14, 2013

2013: Fears

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Cloud Atlas

David Mitchell’s 2004 novel is one of the most bafflingly over-rated books of  the last decade. Six novellas stitched together, and wanting a medal for  referencing their own sub-Stoppardian structuring, it comprises pastiches of  Golding/Melville, Huxley/Isherwood, 1970s Pakula, Amis, and even The Matrix; small wonder then that it’s the  Wachowskis who’ve filmed it with co-writer/director Tom Twyker. But they’ve  added another layer of inanity, not since Zelig have people played other races so  ridiculously. February 22nd sees Halle Berry, Tom Hanks, Jim  Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, and Ben Whishaw being racially insensitive in the  service of a misguided interpretation of the novel as in thrall to  metempsychosis rather than meta-textuality.

 

Oz: The Great and Powerful

James Franco achieves every stoner’s dream when listening to a certain  synched Pink Floyd album and floats his way to Oz. Or rather to a greenscreen  warehouse where Sam Raimi promised he’d CGI Oz in around his roguish Kansas  magician later. The rights to Baum’s novels are out of copyright but don’t  expect to see any innovations made in the classic 1939 film because it’s not out  of copyright. Raimi’s not directed anything truly impressive in ages but his  witches are quite a triumvirate: Mila Kunis, Michelle Williams, and Rachel  Weisz. Incidentally did you know that Wicked is coming to Dublin in November? Go see Wicked

 

The Host

Saoirse Ronan has been on a bad run of giving performances better than the  film that houses them, and this looks like another example. In Time auteur Andrew Niccol adapts and  directs the latest Stephenie Meyer franchise. Ronan is Melanie Stryder, whose  body has been claimed by an alien but whose mind resists the parasite. Liam  Hemsworth is her love interest and William Hurt and Diane Kruger are Melanie’s  relatives put on the spot by her reappearance. On March 29th we’ll  find out if Niccol has managed to find a method to convey the struggle of two  minds in one body that is any way, shape, or form visual.

 

Gatsby

I venerate F Scott Fitzgerald’s  masterpiece, and the trailers of Baz Lurhmann’s suspiciously postponed splashy  film bespeak a totally disastrous adaptation. Leonardo DiCaprio is a good choice  to play the enigmatic titular old sport, as is Joel Edgerton as his  nemesis Tom Buchanan, but the blanker-than-thou Tobey Maguire as Nick Carraway  may narrate us all into a coma, while Carey Mulligan has the eternally thankless  role of Daisy. Lurhmann has a remarkable inability to handle subtlety; Gatsby is not about swooping thru raucous  parties and zeroing in on high camp comedy scenes. And as for the delay, ‘allegedly’ for a Jay-Z score; Aliens  was scored in less than a fortnight…

 

The Hangover: Part III

May sees the latest instalment of the inexplicable comedy franchise spawned  by a crude film with a handful of good gags and a not nearly as clever structure  as it thought it had. Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms, and Zach Galifianakis this time  head to Mexico. So, more racist stereotypes, idiotic cameos, and crass humour.  But at least a different plot as we’re promised a character death… The Hangover is largely responsible for making  Galifianakis a star, and, given how dispensable he is from Bored to Death say, that’s an awful lot to set  against getting Cooper in the position where he could star in Silver Linings Playbook.

 

Man of Steel

On June 14th 300 director  Zack Snyder will unveil his first PG-13 film deliberately scripted as such.  Russell Crowe as Jor-El, Amy Adams as Lois Lane, Laurence Fishburne as Perry  White, Diane Lane and Kevin Costner as Martha and Jonathan Kent are all solid  casting choices, while Michael Shannon as General Zod is truly inspired. Against  that Henry Cavill as Superman is a gamble. The first non-American to don the  cape, he’ll struggle unless David S Goyer’s script eschews angst and that  doesn’t seem likely. Maybe this’ll be the origin story we didn’t know we needed,  but trying to Nolanise such an optimistic character seems like a folly.

THE LONE RANGER

 

World War Z

June 21st finally sees Brad Pitt’s UN worker try to prevent a  global zombie epidemic in an adaptation of the seminal Max Brooks novel by  Matthew Michael Carnahan, writer of the inert Lions for Lambs. The studio ordered massive  reshoots and the third act was rewritten by Drew Goddard so we’ll see if that  and the presence of Matthew Fox and David Morse can save proceedings. Director  Marc Foster was handpicked by Pitt, but reports have it that they ended up  communicating only by messages to a studio executive; perhaps because of small  mishaps like how production started before there was an agreed make-up design  for the zombies.

 

Pacific Rim

Guillermo Del Toro hasn’t made a film since 2008’s Hellboy II: The Golden Army. Talking Movies was rather hoping he’d never  make another one, and just stick to writing novels with Chuck Hogan, but  somebody has relented and financed a giant aliens versus men in giant robots  blockbuster. So, the last 5 minutes of Aliens but supersized and with bad CGI instead  of great VFX… Oh, and clockwork. It’s great to see Rinko Kikuchi’s stellar  turn in The Brothers Bloom rewarded with  a leading role opposite Charlie Hunnam as the mind-melding pilots fighting the  Kaiju water monsters in IMAX 3-D, but, even with Clifton Collins Jr, can this  work?

 

G.I. Joe: Retaliation

This film should have been released last  year but was pushed to this year (in one of the funniest stunts ever pulled by a  major studio) because Channing Tatum had some major hits just before its release and so they  wanted to do some reshoots, as he died in the first act. So a Superbowl ad,  warehouses full of toys, and Jon Chu’s original directorial vision be damned!  Here comes a completely different G.I. Joe:  Retaliation in which The Rock, Bruce Willis and Adrianne Palicki tackle  Cobra’s evil Jonathan Pryce, Arnold Vosloo, Lee Byung-Hun, and Ray Park in a  script from Zombieland’s writers – now  with added Tatum!

 

The Lone  Ranger

Pirates of the Caribbean shipmates  Gore Verbinski and Johnny Depp lurch aboard a tremendously over-budget  revisionist take on the Lone Ranger character. It has the same release slot as  the first POTC, August 9th,  but the self-indulgence involved in this movie’s budgeting farces makes you  think it’s more of a POTC 3 endeavour.  Armie Hammer is the masked avenger who’ll be playing second fiddle to Depp’s  super-authentic Native American tracker Tonto.  Helena Bonham Carter also  appears, even though Tim Burton is not directing. Mind you, Verbinski does share  some traits with Burton; he also gets fixated on quirkiness and loses sight of  his story and his bland heroes.

 

Elysium

August sees District 9 writer/director Neill Blomkamp make  his Hollywood debut with a sci-fi that pits the 1% in the shape of Jodie Foster  against the 99% in the shape of a bald Matt Damon. Blomkamp’s South African  colleague Sharlto Copley is also in the cast as is I Am Legend’s Alice Braga. This is set in a  2159 world where the poor live in overcrowded slums on Earth while the rich  orbit above in an immaculate spaceship. The concept sounds not dissimilar in  feel to the Total Recall remake. But  that could be because this film’s been much delayed by reshoots and  rescheduling; which might suggest grave studio concerns.

 

Gravity

Alfonso Cuaron hasn’t made a film  since 2006’s Children of Men, perhaps  because he’s returning in October with another film which is more about its own  shooting style than anything else. It’s in 3-D, it’s incredibly CGI heavy as it  tries to grasp weightlessness, and the opening sequence is shot in one  continuous silent 17 minute take. Sandra Bullock stars, with support from George  Clooney, as astronauts who survive a catastrophic incident aboard a space  station and have to find a way to return to Earth. Every actress in Hollywood  seems to have been interested in this script, but not to the point of committing  to it; which raises suspicions…

 

The  Counsellor

The 2000s were marred by two notable  co-dependencies; Johnny Depp and Tim Burton, Russell Crowe and Ridley Scott;  which hurt all involved. Let us hope that poor Michael Fassbender is not  getting sucked into the sinkhole that sunk Crowe’s leading man career as he  reunites with his Prometheus director  Scott for a drama about a lawyer getting in too deep with his drug-trafficking  clients. The cast includes Brad Pitt, Cameron Diaz, Penelope Cruz, Breaking Bad’s Dean Norris, logically enough,  and Javier Bardem, also logically enough; as this is No County for Old Men novelist Cormac  MacCarthy’s first original screenplay. Expect terse dialogue, stark amorality,  brutal violence and no catharsis.

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