REVIEW: Sicario

30 12 2015

SicarioIn Denis Villeneuve’s “Sicario,” the border is not a mere setting. It is the very subject of the film.

And not just the U.S.-Mexico border, either. Of course, that line serves as a shorthand for a number of the film’s dialectical battles: chaos vs. order, civility vs. barbarism, domestic vs. foreign. But none of these provide any easy demarcations like the fence does; these divisions prove far more permeable.

The uncertainty, and even dread, that comes with such free exchange gets echoed in every aspect of “Sicario.” It starts in the script and gets amplified in the direction, the acting and even the photography. Cinematographer Roger Deakins tells the story primarily through two contrasting shots: hovering aerial landscapes and tightly-held close-ups. The first showcases a vast, unfeeling terrain that dwarfs all human activity. The second, though a smaller canvas, provides an equally robust commentary on the men and woman traversing the territory.

Though mere chess pieces in a much larger board game, the minute details of how each characters processes information and suppresses emotions provide a second layer of story running throughout “Sicario.” No face receives more attention than that of Emily Blunt, who plays the film’s protagonist, FBI agent Kate Macer. Practically every scene in the film happens twice, first as it unfolds and then again as reflected through Kate’s face.

Blunt’s performance is screen acting at its finest. Villeneuve and Deakins maximize ability of the camera to pick up the smallest of twitches and motions, which might otherwise be imperceptible to the naked eye. Rarely has the quiver of a lip as it gulps down the smoke from a cigarette registered so much. Blunt makes her character the farthest thing from a blank slate, ensuring that each infinitesimal shift of her face reveals her fast-racing mind. To that end, Kate’s big, explosive scene unfolds in a shot taken from a great distance where her emotions remain obscured. She’s a compass, steadfast but still a little shaky.

Read the rest of this entry »





REVIEW: Escobar: Paradise Lost

26 06 2015

EscobarDespite what the title might imply, “Escobar: Paradise Lost” is not really a film about Colombian cocaine kingpin Pablo Escobar.  The name must have its roots in a marketing meeting because Benicio del Toro’s titular figure shows up about as often as Robert DeNiro’s Al Capone in “The Untouchables.”

For the uninitiated, writer/director Andrea di Stefano provides a little more information about the drug lord than season 3 of “Entourage” can give.  In lightly sketched detail, Escobar’s appeal to the dispossessed in his country becomes a little more clear.  Whether willfully or naively, the film implies most Colombians remained in the dark about his lucrative illegal enterprises but were not asking questions so long as the money kept flowing.

The true protagonist of “Escobar: Paradise Lost,” Josh Hutcherson’s Canadian surfer bro Nick Brady, encapsulates this journey from tentative acceptance to fearful resistance.  Nick falls in love with Escobar’s niece while working in the forests near the Colombian beaches, and he graciously accepts an offer to work on the family farm rather than face harassment from armed thugs.  He suspects something might be awry with his relative and employer but remains silent, to his ultimate detriment.

Read the rest of this entry »





F.I.L.M. of the Week (February 26, 2015)

26 02 2015

As it turns out, Kevin Spacey has been training to play the role of his life, Frank Underwood, for decades now.  Back in 1995, he starred in “Swimming with Sharks,” a biting satirization of Hollywood’s corporate culture.  But, rest assured, there are no résumé requirements necessary to enjoy the film since it so perfectly captures the experience of working for a hellacious boss.  Writer/director George Huang manages the balance of the specific and the generalizable so well that his debut feature earns my nod for the “F.I.L.M. of the Week.”

This film saw release long before Meryl Streep’s Miranda Priestly cast an icy spell over the hot summer moviegoing scene in “The Devil Wears Prada,” and it even predates Spacey’s later turn as a sadistic slavedriver executive in “Horrible Bosses.”  Yet even in spite of the proliferation of the archetype, “Swimming with Sharks” still entertains and enlightens with its valid criticisms of the Hollywood system.

The subject of the film is not Spacey’s bag of hot air masquerading around in a fancy suit, Buddy Ackerman, though.  The events of “Swimming with Sharks” are seen and felt through his latest poor assistant, aptly named Guy (Frank Whaley), who has to endure constant harassment and humiliation until he amasses enough experience to move up in the business.  Buddy boasts all the pedantry and pettiness of Jeremy Piven’s Ari Gold from “Entourage,” although he appears relatively lacking in creativity and productivity to earn the rights to be such a jerk.

What inevitably follows comes with a strange mixture of pity, rage, schadenfreude, and even a little bit of surprising empathy.  Even within the confines of a fairly familiar story, Huang makes his everyman worth rooting for by stacking the odds heavily against him – as well as pitting him against a particularly devilish superior.  Spacey knows how to be scarily threatening with his words, and he also knows how to be scarily vulnerable with his emotions when the time comes.





REVIEW: Inherent Vice

25 11 2014

Inherent ViceNew York Film Festival

Thomas Pynchon’s novel “Inherent Vice” ends with his chief character, Doc Sportello,  attempting to discern shapes within a haze that has formed outside his car window.  Not to worry, this is not a spoiler since screenwriter and director Paul Thomas Anderson chooses to end his cinematic adaptation on an entirely different note altogether.  But the passage is such an apropos summation of “Inherent Vice,” both in terms of its content and the ensuing experience, that it certainly deserves a place in the discussion.

While this is a not entirely unusual noir-tinged mystery surrounding corruption and vice, the story is hardly straightforward or easily discernible.  Characters drop in and out of the narrative at will, making it rather difficult to decipher who the key players really are.  Take no motivation and no appearance at face value, because it is likely to change in the blink of an eye.

Anderson cycles through events at such a dizzying speed that trying to connect the dots of “Inherent Vice” in real-time will only result in missing the next key piece of information.  (I found myself drawn to read Pynchon’s novel after seeing the movie to get a firmer grip on the plot.)  Might I suggest just to kick back, allow the film to wash over you, and let Joaquin Phoenix’s Doc Sportello be your spirit guide through the fog of Los Angeles in 1970.

In a fictional beach community outside the city proper, steadily stoned private eye Doc tries to make sense of a strange case in a transitional time period.  The city is still reeling from Manson mayhem, and hippies are no longer cute animals at the zoo but entities whose every move is subject to suspicion.  People are beginning to anticipate Nixonite and Reaganite malaise, though it remains unformed and intangible.  Ultimately, his understanding is about as good as ours – which is to say, it scarcely exists.  What begins as a routine investigation of Doc’s ex-flame and her rich new lover quickly spirals into something far more sprawling.

Read the rest of this entry »





REVIEW: Jimmy P.

16 06 2014

Jimmy PCannes Film Festival – Official Competition, 2013

Every year, Cannes is known to select a dud or two for its official selection, an honor bestowed upon “Jimmy P.” at last year’s edition.  Arnaud Desplechin’s English-language debut, sometimes subtitled “Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian,” is a tedious bore whose two hour duration feels like two years.  I found myself dozing off repeatedly throughout the film, yet I felt like I hardly missed a thing when I would wake up.

Psychotherapy doesn’t have to be boring – just look at the films of Woody Allen, which incorporate the process humorously and insightfully into their proceedings.  (Heck, even the forgettable “A Dangerous Method” made it somewhat intriguing.)  Desplechin’s snooze-fest, on the other hand, is a clunky procedural that focuses on the nitty-gritty psychology.  The film adapts unconventional source material – essentially a textbook on psychotherapy – and fails to find what’s cinematic about it.

Furthermore, it yields little revelatory light on either of its characters, therapist George Devereux (Mathieu Amalric) or patient Jimmy Picard (Benicio del Toro).  Amalric and del Toro are both great actors, so it’s disappointing that Desplechin has them playing at such an understated level.  Del Toro gets a few shining moments given the fact that his character sustained traumatic injuries in World War II, but Amalric is absolutely affectless.

Not every great performance has to be over-the-top scenery chewing, but it always feels like “Jimmy P.” is holding back the big moment we need to fully make sense of the characters.  Aiming simultaneously too high with its adaptation and too low with its excessively cautious directing, the film is a fairly thorough misfire.  C-1halfstars





REVIEW: Savages

1 08 2012

I’m not one to say that a movie HAS to be made a certain way or in a certain style. Having said that, movies about drug trafficking, drug cartels, and drug violence should really be done in a raw, gritty fashion.  That’s the standard, be it Steven Soderbergh’s “Traffic” or television’s “Breaking Bad.”  The style and the content really work in perfect harmony.

And it’s a standard for a reason.  Oliver Stone, ever the belligerent iconoclast, feels no need for such formalities.  He’s begging for attention as usual in his latest feature effort “Savages,” a film that’s about two drug growers in a ménage à trois with a girl who winds up being used as a pawn against them, although it’s really just about Oliver Stone.  His insistence on making curious directorial choices often makes the film feel like a tasteless, hair-brained Tarantino flick.

His insistence on savagely graphic violence aestheticizes slaughterings, tortures, and killings to the point where it seems to serve only Stone’s eye.  One particular scene goes way too far; it’s a disgusting sight to behold and really doesn’t have much to say about the morality of violence.  Scorsese-esque, this is not.

And if the violence doesn’t make “Savages” unwatchable for you, then maybe the acting will.  Blake Lively, taking a page from the Kristen Stewart playbook, grunts, moans, and brays her way through a juicy role that could have been memorable in the hands of someone like Elizabeth Olsen or Rooney Mara.  Aaron Johnson and Taylor Kitsch as leading men in a love triangle (that Stone presents with some homoerotic undertones) are passable, but Kitsch really should find a role where he can channel the emotional honesty he brought to Tim Riggins on television’s “Friday Night Lights.”

Stone also finds a way to turn Oscar nominees John Travolta and Salma Hayek and winner Benicio del Toro into caricatures, particularly Hayek, whose thick accent is played for comedy.  It’s a shame that “Savages” is hijacked by its director to flaunt the peculiarities of his own mind.  The story, a caper of duplicity and cannabis, is actually quite captivating.  But to Oliver Stone, it’s merely a canvas onto which he can make his “Bonnie & Clyde.”  In the hands of a director who respects the source material enough to subvert and subdue their own tendencies if they were not suited for the story, “Savages” could have easily been something very special.  C+





REVIEW: The Wolfman

5 08 2010

Joe Johnston’s “The Wolfman” is a remake of the 1940s original, yet it winds up making you nostalgic for a completely different decade.  Strangely enough, it most resembles the 1980s.  Benicio Del Toro in his werewolf makeup looks like he walked straight off the set of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video and somehow wound up in 1890s England.  Weird…

The movie tells the same story we have seen countless times with all sorts of predatory creatures, although it’s typically werewolves and vampires.  Some sort of flesh contact is made with the creatures, a normal person is transformed into one of them, and they subsequently find themselves living on the outskirts of society.  In fact, we just recently saw Neil Blompkamp use this formula and apply it to aliens in “District 9,” and he created something that felt refreshingly original.  Here, it’s just same old, same old.

In fact, the only thing that Joe Johnston does to add some flavor to the tired story is to amp up the violence and gore.  “The Wolfman” bears an R rating and uses that level of freedom to go hog wild on the blood.  There’s all sorts of decapitations and ripping of limbs in the movie, almost to the point where it becomes overkill.  One has to wonder if Johnston turned over the reins to some violent video-game loving teenager for these sequences.

I can’t think of the last time where I actually thought that a movie’s special effects were bad, but they certainly are here.  Blame poor planning and poor execution on the filmmakers’ part.  And there’s absolutely no relief from the hackneyed story, not even from a pair of Oscar winners, Del Toro and Anthony Hopkins.  Never has the latter been so far away from his “The Silence of the Lambs” glory days.  If he doesn’t start picking better movies, I’m going to have to hold a moment of silence for his career.

And still, I just can’t get over that wolf makeup because it’s just absolutely horrific.  I find it so hard to believe that it’s the work of renowned Oscar winner Rick Baker, not some mom for a high school play.  Watching Del Toro’s wolfman fight civilians just made me chuckle; watching him fight another werewolf was as funny as any comedy this year.  The suspenseful, climactic battle scene just feels like a dreadful”Scary Movie” parody of the wretched “Twilight” series.  D /