A Trip To The Movies: Review – “Sicario” 10.10.15

What can I say about Canadian born director Denis Villeneuve that hasn’t already been said. Anyone like me who has been following the director since his breakout film – 2010’s “Incendies”, which, was nominated for Best Foreign Language film at the 2011 Oscars, knows that he is one of the most interesting movie auteurs currently in the business. Because of the success of that film, like with what happens with many foreign directors, Hollywood came a calling. Now a lot of the time, in fact more often than not, this is usually met with mixed results. Except what was different about Villeneuve is that he debuted his first English language film with 2013’s “Prisoners”. An immensely dark, emotionally powerful, and complex film with an all-star cast that included Jake Gyllenhaal, Hugh Jackman, Paul Dano, Terrence Howard, Melissa Leo, Maria Bello, and Viola Davis. It was a major success and praised by critics worldwide but was only seen by a certain demographic of American audiences. Mainly the kinds like myself who enjoy films that mostly straddle the line between somewhat commercial but are more indie type fare. Many people I know skipped it over entirely. But it’s the one film that I’ve noticed comes out the most out of any other film I’ve seen in the past 3 years when I talk among people who have seen it. And it’s usually something like “why hasn’t everybody seen that film”? “Prisoners” introduced us to a new kind of filmmaker, one whose vision and style is more akin to David Fincher, but his darker works like “Se7en” (1995) and “Zodiac” (2007). In fact “Prisoners” was deemed “too dark” by a large demographic. But I think this had to do with the fact that it dealt with a very difficult subject for people to swallow – child abduction – which I’ve heard is every parents worst nightmare. But besides its dark subject matter and tone, it was and still is a master class in the art of filmmaking. Then came his second American film, “Enemy”, released in 2014, and also starring Jake Gyllenhaal (for those of you who ever hear me showering Gyllenhaal’s praises it’s because of his work in those two Villeneueve films). “Enemy”, much so even more than “Prisoners” was under seen and overlooked, mostly because of it’s incredibly strange mood and tone. It was Villenueve’s love letter to the great David Lynch, who is admittedly a very acquired taste and it had a very limited run in theatres because so few people saw it. I for one loved it, and like his other 2 aforementioned films prior, all 3 made my best of top 10 list in the respective years in which they were released in.

Villeneuve’s newest film, “Sicario”, is his first film in 2 years and also his first film since “Prisoners” to bode such an impressive cast. I remember hearing about it almost a year ago now when it was in production, and saw that Emily Blunt, Benicio Del Toro, and Josh Brolin all had signed on to do it. I also learned in reading the production notes and summary that it was about the US/Mexican drug war in Juarez. Which, as a huge admirer of the crime drama and love for the director, I started counting down the days then until its release. And when it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival back in May and competed as 1 of 5 films for the Palme d’Or (Cannes’ category for Best Picture), I was beside myself in anticipation for it and marked it as my #1 most anticipated film of the fall way back in May of this year.

“Sicario” (English for “hit man”) opens right off the bat with an incredibly intense and well executed sequence involving Emily Blunt’s character, Kate, a FBI agent and tactics expert who, with the rest of her team, raid and take down a drug cartel outside of Phoenix, Arizona. This is one of many harrowing scenes in the film that shows the urgency and imminent threat of death behind every corner of this particular line of work. Because of her stand out job and reputation as a tactics expert (she’s 5-0 in taking down the drug cartels she is assigned to, she is called on by the CIA, but really an elite confidential special tasks force unit, led by Matt (Josh Brolin – in as fine a form here as I’ve seen him in anything since “No Country For Old Men” (2007) ), a Department of Justice adviser that commissions Kate to take down one of the largest drug cartel/crime syndicates in the city of Juarez, Mexico. Kate reluctantly signs on, and she is partnered up with one of those elusive, quietly restrained, we have no idea what he’s doing here types named Alejandro (played by Benicio del Toro, easily the best part of the film and his finest work since well, ironically enough, 2000’s “Traffic”). We see the film through Kate’s eyes, and she quickly finds out that both the special unit that she works for, as does Del Toro’s character Alejandro, operate under their own set of rules and seem to understand that the drug war in Mexico is like night and day compared to the drug war that Kate is used to in the States, and in a pivotal sequence that I was so flabbergasted by, she learns what she’s in for as they enter Juarez for the first time (all I will say is both this, and the tunnel sequence, were two of the most expertly staged and riveting sequences we’ve since the bank robbery segment going all the way back to “Heat” (1995) ). Where the intensity and anxiety that was induced had me swallowing my tongue in my throat. As Kate and her team, along with the always present Alejandro, go on to take down these so-called cartels, Kate goes through a personal transformation as both her morals and beliefs are tested to the limits and she enters a world that one might call nightmarish.

“Sicario” is a dense, thought provoking, action packed thrill ride, which also winds up being director Villeneuve’s most straight forward and accessible film to date. Which to me was its biggest surprise. It totally defied almost every expectation I had of it. In while it’s congruent and feels very much like a Villenueve film. It also felt like his most restrained. Not so much in terms of its level of violence. It’s incredibly violent, and should be, as its subject matter practically demands for it to be (after all, it’s a film about taking down drug cartels). But in its ability to not alienate the moviegoer as some of his previous films have. And while it was dark and psychological like many of Villeneuve’s prior work. It gets more into the mind of the Kate character, as we literally see everything from her eyes and point of view. Blunt’s performance, much like Jessica Chastain’s in “Zero Dark Thirty” (2012 – a film I drew a lot of comparisons to), she is thrown into a world that even despite her vast knowledge of, she really has no idea what she’s in for until she’s thrust straight into the heart of it. I also thought its treatment of the War on Drugs and the politics behind American intelligence in relation to the Mexican cartels themselves was handled rather deftly and two-sided. There wasn’t at any point within the film that I thought I was watching a “pro-American” depiction of the War on Drugs and I thought it showed a very equal representation of both parties involved, from the counter-intelligence officials to the cartel members themselves. Del Toro is outstanding as the quiet vigilante type, who we never quite know and are kept in secret as to why he’s commissioned for the job. Unlike Kate/Blunt’s character who is more of a “by the book” FBI agent who seems to live by a moral code and tries to upkeep everything she’s been trained to operate under, but only inside the States. This dichotomy between Kate/Blunt’s character and Alejandro’s/Del Toro’s characters, being on both sides of the law but operating under very different laws of their own, was handled with the utmost precision and was utterly compelling. The story arch and character development is on par with one of the greatest films I’ve seen out of the genre in as far back as I can remember. The cinematography (by the great Roger Deakins – 11 time Oscar nominee) is astonishing as is the film’s pulsating score, which left me and most of my movie group viewers on the edge of their seats. In closing, I think fans of Villeneuve’s previous work might be left feeling a little underwhelmed, but only because of what they’ve come to expect from the director. The film isn’t quite as dark or psychological as a fan of his might expect it to be (though don’t be fooled – the violence is consistent and packs a wallop). But it’s a rather straight-forward, though smart and intricate, take on the War on Drugs and the moral decisions and complexities all of those involved have to face. This is the finest “Drug War” movie since “Traffic” (2000), and it should easily earn a low spot on my top 10 or high on my Honorable Mentions list at this year’s end. Villeneueve is the newest foreign equivalent to something we have Stateside to the likes of David Fincher. And I personally can’t wait to see any and every film he puts out from this point forward in his career.

[B+]

Sicario – w/Emily Blunt, Benicio Del Toro, and Josh Brolin

Saturday, Oct 10, 2015, 3:45 PM

Regal Lloyd Center 10 & IMAX
1510 NE Multnomah St Portland, OR

11 Portland Film Enthusiasts Went

Synopsis: An idealistic FBI agent (Emily Blunt) is assigned to work a dangerous stretch of the US-Mexico border by her superior officer (Josh Brolin). She’s exposed to the brutality of the Mexican drug cartel, and becomes partners with a defector from the cartel (Benicio Del Toro) who possesses keen knowledge about the organization. As she gets dee…

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A Trip To The Movies: Review – “Chappie” 4.12.15

Writer/Director Neill Blomkamp burst onto the scene in 2009 with the Science Fiction game changer, “District 9”, which many could say (minus maybe Duncan Jones’ “Moon, also released that same year), is one of, if not the best Science Fiction films of the past decade. It carved out a new niche in Science Fiction infusing faux-documentary elements, guerilla filmmaking, and a visceral-like quality usually only found in War films. It also contained many allegorical themes, mainly using his story of alien life forms who land on earth only to be ousted and pushed into “ghettos”, clearly Blomkamp’s take on the rising number of illegal immigrants and how they are treated once they enter into this country. Blomkamp’s follow-up, 2013’s “Elysium”, once again saw Blomkamp digging into more allegorical themes in a movie about classicism and two planets that separate the rich from the poor. “Elysium”, at least in my opinion (and most likely the opinion of everyone else) wasn’t half the film “District 9” was. But that would have been a tough feat to pull off. Considering how influential the former film was. As for his more recent film, what first piqued my interest about it a long long time ago was that film news websites were saying things like “Neill Blomkamp teams up with rap/rave group Die Antwoord on his newest film”. I immediately took notice as many people who know me know how much of a Die Antwoord fan I really am. And it seemed to make sense that the most unique voice coming out of Africa in film would team up with the most popular musical group from the same country (that and both Blomkamp and Die Antwoord have expressed their deep love and admiration for one another to the press). It was only befitting that the two would team up for a film. What also drew me to this particular project, despite its less than favorable reviews, was not only the casting of Die Antwoord (Ninja and Yolandi Vi$$er), but Hugh Jackman (who I have a newfound respect for because of 2013’s “Prisoners”), the legendary Sigourney Weaver (any Science Fiction director’s dream to have cast in their film), Dave Patel from “Slumdog Millionaire” (2008), and finally third-time collaborator Sharlto Copley (playing the voice of the robot of the titular character. Even in spite of it not getting such great reviews, given the film’s pedigree it was almost a given that I would see it while it was still in theaters.

The film first introduced us, as did “District 9” did, to a decaying, crime ridden Johannesburg, South Africa. And through a series of interviews with Ph.D types, discusses the city’s elite police force, robots which are manufactured by a company called Tetravaal. The company is the leading distributor of the droids. Within the company there are two developers, Deon (played by Dev Patel) whose sight is set on making a more human-like robot. One that can think and feel emotions on the same level that humans do. The company’s other developer, Vincent (played by Hugh Jackman) has developed his own machine called MOOSE, which can be remote-controlled and handled solely by the company employee’s themselves, which puts the two in competition. Both developers are assets to the company, but are given very little help financially in getting their prospective projects off the ground by the head of the company, Michelle (played by every Science Fiction director’s dream of having her star in their film – Sigourney Weaver). A shift in plot brings us to a visceral car chase scene after a drug deal whose occupants include both Yolandi Vi$$ser and Ninja from Die Antwoord, playing fictionalized versions of themselves (or are they?). Ninja is threatened and told by the city drug lord, “Hippo”, that he needs to pay back $20 million dollars lost in the deal or else they will both be killed. Desperate and not knowing what to do, Ninja and Yolandi come up with a plan to kidnap Deon so that he will help them manufacture a killer robot to help them pull of a heist so they can pay back the money the $20 million they owe. It’s at about this same time that Deon finally figures out the right formula to create his project of making a robot that closely resembles a human. While in transit of taking hardwired parts to make said robot, he is kidnapped by Yolandi and Ninja and taken to a remote, abandoned factory in which he is forced at gun point to create this human-like robot by the two gangsters (or shall I say “ganstas”), and completes putting together a robot that can mimic humans of whom they name “Chappie”. After doing so, Deon isn’t needed anymore, so Chappie becomes Ninja’s and Yolandi’s project in teaching and training him to become the first robot “gansta”. So that they can use his bulletproof armor and apathetic conscience to pull of the heist that will allow them to pay the money back.

Does the premise of creating the world’s first A.I. gangster sound silly? It sure does. But it’s also a heck of a lot of fun if you don’t take the movie too seriously (which I think is what turned off many critics about it). This is essentially Die Antwoord’s film. Both Yolandi and Ninja get the film’s most screen time, and for a musical duo of non-actors (except for their starring role they did a few years back in a short filmed by Harmony Korine) their characters are mostly drawn out well and come across as believable. Both artists/actors essentially play themselves, and Blomkamp seems to have clearly been inspired by the group’s aesthetic. As everything from the set design, music, graffiti, costume, and film’s music seems lifted from what I call the Die Antwoord aesthetic (otherwise known as “Zef” culture which broken down into laments terms is the band’s own “gangsta” lifestyle). The two of them essentially teach and educate Chappie on said lifestyle, which is in conflict to his creator Deon’s, who wishes for a more law-abiding and morally conscious Chappie. It’s within these so-called “training” scenes in turning Chappie “gangsta” that the film produces its most laughs, poking fun of itself and never seeming to take things too seriously (much like the band members themselves). Yolandi takes on the role of “Mummy” to the robot and Ninja taking on the role of “Dada”. Ninja being the one most responsible for turning Chappie into a gangster robot (imagine a robot version of James Franco’s “Alien” from Harmony Korine’s “Spring Breakers”). It’s from here that the plot grows increasingly more and more preposterous, as Chappie is conflicted by both the “gansta” lifestyle of his kidnappers and the more morally conscious embodiment of his programmer Deon, who desperately tries to get him back.

I had a lot of fun with this film, even though as hinted at I’m partially bias being in that I’m a fan of Die Antwoord, whose performances in the film are borderline if not full on self-parody, which I found amusing and interesting to watch when put into the context of the film. It also has a great electronic throbbing score by the legendary Hans Zimmer (whose work up to this point in film composing has always been more orchestral). The concept of the film itself is strong enough even if the plot is jarring and the execution seems funny and pointless.

This wound up being a film that I was much more entertained by than I was in its ability (or lack thereof) to be believable or to be taken too seriously. As you have to suspend quite a bit of disbelief to enjoy it. As I was able to going into it which ultimately wound up being the case here. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this to anyone, except for die-hard fans of the genre and even more so, fans of Die Antwoord. But for those looking to kick back with something that doesn’t require much thought on behalf of the viewer other than to be somewhat of a standard slice of contemporary Science Fiction, I can assure you there are a lot worse ways that you can spend your time outside of watching this film. However, that being said, let’s just hope that Blomkamp takes his next project, the “Alien” reboot, a bit more seriously as he’s going to have quite a bit of fine tuning to do.

[B-/B]