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.

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REVIEW: Unbroken

21 12 2014

In terms of below-the-line talent on “Unbroken,” director Angelina Jolie assumes the role of Nick Fury by essentially assembling The Avengers of the cinema.  Every writer credited on “Unbroken” has penned an Oscar-nominated script.  Behind the camera as director of photography is Roger Deakins, cinematographer to great directors like the Coen Brothers as well as franchises like James Bond.

Those images are then spliced and joined together in the editing room by William Goldenberg (Oscar winner for “Argo“) and Tim Squyres (a consistent collaborator of Ang Lee who was Oscar nominated for “Life of Pi“).  And underscoring it all is Alexandre Desplat, the absurdly prolific composer for everything from “Philomena” to the “Harry Potter” series.  Essentially, “Unbroken” boasts what would be the ultimate fantasy squad if such a concept existed in Hollywood.

Rather than exuding passion for the craft, though, everyone phones it in. This dream team works in service of a rather bland and familiar inspirational story, and their respective skills do little to change that.  Instead of elevating the material, they are complicit with Jolie in playing it safe to ensure “Unbroken” plays to the least common denominator of audiences. They color by numbers when they could have been painting something truly inspiring and extraordinary.

The incredible true-life heroism and survival of Louis Zamperini (Jack O’Connell) has all the makings of a truly rousing film.  He had to triumph in the face adversity and anti-immigrant taunts as a child.  He funneled all that into the sport of track, which eventually took him to the Berlin Olympics in 1936.  Then, he survived for months at sea in WWII before getting captured as a POW by the Japanese.  These events give “Unbroken” quite a story to work with, yet the extraordinary feels rather ordinary.

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REVIEW: In Time

27 02 2013

The concept behind “In Time” is actually fairly interesting, and maybe that’s why I was willing to overlook some of the film’s shortcomings.  In a dystopian ultra-classist 2169, people stop aging at 25, and living any longer than that requires you to literally buy time.  Extra time seems to come from just one extra strong and special handshake.

Such a kind of transfer begs the question of why people don’t just go steal it from the rich people why they sleep.  Or why people don’t just use tight grips or shake with superglue.  Needless to say, the broad strokes of inspiration blinded writer/director Andrew Niccol to the many plot holes in this world.

Watching the movie from a post-Occupy world certainly highlights this extreme case of social inequity as the rich live forever and the poor die young.  From my sociology classes in college, I can tell you that inequality is corrosive for society and poverty is quite literally a lethal force.  “In Time” is very conscious of these things and holds an interesting mirror up to the audience watching the film.

Sadly, that mirror is fogged up by some sloppy storytelling and a plot that ultimately can’t sustain beyond the novelty of the “time as life” concept.  The characterization is decent, but the cast of good looking actors who can still pass for 25 – including Justin Timberlake, Amanda Seyfried, Cillian Murphy, Olivia Wilde, Matt Bomer, and Alex Pettyfer – don’t do much to elevate the material.  The intelligence of the social commentary ultimately gives way to a fairly standard action film, but the themes raised in the beginning are enough to make me feel that “In Time” was not entirely wasted time.  B-2stars