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…

Check out this Meetup →

A Trip To The Movies – Review: “A Most Violent Year” 3.29.15

I can think of at least three people I know, that had seen this film prior to my seeing it, and all three had the same thing to say about it – “I really liked it, but I think it would be something that you would love“. I didn’t quite know what to make of the comments other than mostly everyone I know knows that I have somewhat of a particular eye for film, and that my tastes seem to be a bit more aligned with independent or what some consider to be art-house films. So I interpreted this comment to mean that maybe it fell a bit on the artsy side of the film spectrum. Though people also know that I’m a big Oscar Isaac fan and consider him to be amongst the very best in the crop of young actors currently working in the film industry (the only two actors out there right now within his age bracket who are as good as him are probably Joaquin Phoenix and Jake Gyllenhaal). What I don’t think a lot of people know is how much of a fan I am of writer/director J.C. Chandor. Who’s maybe one of, if not the most promising up and coming young directors, who also happens to be pretty brand new to the film industry but whose two feature films prior to this one I really enjoyed. In 2011 he released “Margin Call”, a mostly overlooked and underappreciated film about one long night revolving around a group of business men and woman the night prior to the economic collapse of 2008. I was almost as equally impressed with his last film – 2013’s “All Is Lost” about a shipwrecked man played by Robert Redford (which deservedly garnered him a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actor). Then I saw the trailer for his latest film, this one, and started to think this guy might be one of the next true auteurs, because not only does he write and direct, but I began to start to realize that he may be the next true “genre” director as all of his films seemed to be entirely different then the one previous to it. Which is incredibly rare these days inside the studio system because a lot of directors (and there are several exceptions mind you) seem to make a hit film and then make subsequent films that don’t really deviate or stray away from the formula that originally worked for them. Chandor, like Bennett Miller (“Capote”, “Moneyball, “Foxcatcher”) seems to not really care about anything other than making high quality genre pictures. So when I heard that his newest film was a crime drama taking place in New York City in the early eighties to say my interest was piqued would be an understatement. Especially considering the number of people who said it was a very specific type of film for a very particular audience, that being someone like myself, my anticipation for it grew quite considerably.

“A Most Violent Year” centers around an immigrant, Abel Morales (played by Oscar Isaac), who lives in New York City circa 1981. Which we’re soon told was one of the most violent years for crime in the city’s history. Abel is a hard-working man who owns an oil business and who seemingly is trying to make a name for himself. At the beginning of the film one of Abel’s oil drivers is beaten down after an interstate hijacking. Abel’s wife, Anna (played by the ever so reliable Jessica Chastain), also his bookkeeper/accountant, comes from a Mob-like mentality family, as does the local teamster’s union reps, pressure Abel to fight violence with violence. Which puts him at a sort of inner conflict because he wants to be a business man and not a gangster. To top off his precarious situation with his business, he’s also informed by the local District Attorney (played by “Selma”‘s David Oyelowo) that he is being investigated for a number of different illegal activities that they think he is somehow involved with. Abel seeks council from his lawyer (Albert Brooks – great to see him back in tbe first role I’ve seen him in since “Drive”) in an upcoming deal he has lined up with a Hasidic owner of a local fuel oil terminal, which is the kind of deal that he’s been waiting an entire lifetime for. This deal is the major plot device that drives the story. But can he close it under the pressure of the number of oil competitors, a loving but seemingly untrustworthy wife, unreliable employees, teamsters union, and the District Attorney. Who with the exception of his loving wife, seem to be willing to do just about everything possible to stand in his way to try to make sure the deal doesn’t go through.

This was a brilliantly well made and executed film that defied my preconceived notions and wound up exceeding my expectations and then some. This is writer/director J.C. Chandor paying homage to the classic Hollywood gangster/crime family drama. Incorporating just about every element we’ve come to expect from the genre. The acting is also outstanding. Particularly from its two lead performances, in what felt like it should have been an Academy Award nominated turn by Oscar Isaac who is nothing short of exemplary, as well as Chastain, who wound up receiving a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actress for her fine work here. Chandor does a masterful job at recreating the look of early 1980’s New York City, filmed in a brown/yellowish color palette (what I call “cigarette stain”) where everything looks broken down, dilapidated, and decaying. A look that I thought was perfect given the context of the film. In terms of feel it felt like some of the seminal films of the genre like Francis Ford Coppola’s first two “Godfather” films (complete with Isaac putting on his very best Al Pacino/Don Corleone impression), Brian DePalma’s “Scarface” (in terms of its underlying theme of an immigrant trying to become an opportunist in the pursuit of the American Dream), as well as some of the crime films of Martin Scorsese (though much more subtle). At times it felt like it shared more of a direct influence with David Michod’s “Animal Kingdom”, which also took a rather stark and bleak look at the decimation of a crime family. The major difference here is that unlike the Michod film, Abel is not a criminal in the same sense as the characters in that film were but rather becomes one as a mere byproduct of the turbulent times he lives in. I was also thoroughly impressed with its deft storytelling which had me thoroughly engaged from the opening credits through its final frame. Not once did I look down at my watch the entire time (which admittedly I’m sometimes guilty of doing even in other good films just to see how far along we are in the story). There was a tense underlying feeling of unease that permeated as the events that unfold give the film an almost paranoiac feel. Last but not least, don’t believe anything you hear about it being a bit of a slow-moving story with little to no actual violence leading some people I’ve heard go so far as to say they have a hard time even considering it being labeled an actual “crime” film. Well let me be the one to dispel those myths. It is very much a crime film, containing almost all, if not every component contained within the genre. Also, if by “slow” people mean a potboiler/nailbiter that takes its time telling its story than I’m sorry. You just may not have gotten the director’s intentions behind delivering the story in the way that he did. The violence may be sparse yes, but when it comes boy does it pack a wallop. I can’t even count on two hands how many times both my myself and the people around me gasped at some of the film’s more shocking moments (and there were plenty of them). This is writer/director J.C. Chandor’s best work to date, as was the case with its star, Oscar Isaac. It’s an old school, classic, crime drama, that if been given a proper release date of last year like it did almost everywhere else, it would have most likely wound up earning itself a spot on my list of the best films of the year. In a year where we saw a slew of director’s making their masterpieces, here is yet another one that deserved way more attention than it got, marking J.C. Chandor as the new poster boy of genre filmmaking.

[strong B+]

A Trip To The Movies – Review: “Nightcrawler” 12.7.14

This was the second to last of my crop of movies to see to wrap up the end of 2014. The other being Bennett Miller’s “Foxcatcher” which is scheduled to be released here in Portland later this month. Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Inherent Vice” doesn’t open here until January, so unfortunately it’s just going to miss the cut and therefore won’t be considered as a 2014 release even though it’s already opened in NY and L.A. I had heard a lot of buzz surrounding this one, and like I do with pretty much every movie I know I’m going to see these days, especially those in the theater, I shut myself off from talking to anyone who’s seen it, didn’t watch any trailers, nor did I read any reviews. As I’ve found this new approach walking into a movie with a total clean slate has made my moviegoing experiences a lot more exciting since I implemented it at the start of the year. To be truthfully honest I saw this film merely because of genre and the few blurbs I had stumbled upon unintentionally about it. But even more importantly because it was a film starring Jake Gyllenhaal. Who since 2009’s “Prince of Persia” seems to be doing everything right in terms of picking projects that he seems to find interesting, seemingly without a care in the world for what’s going to draw the people to the box office or what’s going to earn him the most money. In fact, I am so impressed by Gyllenhaal’s career trajectory since then that he has slowly inched his way into my top 5 favorite actors currently working in the film business today. He has put out one string of good films after another over the past few years. Which started in 2011 with Duncan Jones’ (“Moon”) brainy Sci Fi trip “Source Code”, then David Ayer’s (“Fury”) 2012 “End of Watch”, and the back-to-back films he’s done with French director Denis Villenueve in last year’s “Prisoners” and this year’s “Enemy”. The latter two performances which I considered to be right up there with Gyllenhaal’s best, if merely from an acting stand point. Sure he’s done some other great films like Richard Kelly’s cult hit “Donnie Darko” (2001) and David Fincher’s “Zodiac” (2007). Those are certainly great films in their own respect. However up until this point in his career never has he been so consistently good. I personally thought he was nabbed of a Best Actor nomination last year for “Prisoners”. As I truly thought it was one of his strongest, most compelling performances to date. Then after having seen “Enemy” earlier this year and loving both the film and his performance as much as I did, I vowed to myself that I would pretty much see anything that he’s attached to from this point forward in his career. Then came the second Gyllenhaal film this year, “Nightcrawler”, a film that once again looked like it had the potential to be yet another great film from an actor who over the last few years has proven that you really can’t go wrong with seeing whatever this undeniably gifted young actor does next. It is because of my strong affinity for Gyllenhaal as an actor that I decided to catch this one while it was still playing in theaters, as I heard a very strong response to both the film itself and his performance.

We are first introduced to Gyllenhaal’s character, Lou, a man living in L.A. who is desperate for a job and is willing to take just about anything he can get. He seems to have zero qualifications or any kind of prior job experience but proclaims that he’s a “hard worker” to the employers he tries to persuade to give him a job, any job, at the start of the film. He seems to have no family, girlfriend, kids, or anything that would link him to the rest of the world. Except for the fact that he’s smart, persistent, and has a considerable amount of drive and ambition. One night he stumbles upon an accident and has a sort of epiphany as he sees the race of the reporters desperate to cover whatever story happens to be the biggest one of the night. Gyllenhaal’s Lou then decides that this is his calling and what he wants to do with his life. So he grabs a cheap camera and police scanner and begins to crack the codes of police dispatchers calls in hopes that he will be the first one in line to capture footage of whatever break out news story happens to be going on any given night. It is here that he meets his adversary in the form of Bill Paxton, a fellow freelance reporter who is the man who seems to have broken down this method of beating the cops to the scene of the crime or accident, all in hopes of capturing whatever footage he can get so that he can be the first to sell it to whichever news station will pay him the most for it. On one unsuspecting evening he documents a grisly scene of a murder, and gets his first taste of the potential of his newfound endeavor through a local news station whose director, played by Rene Russo, gives him his first paycheck and the promise of much more money to come if he sticks with it. Lou then begins to slowly fine tune his craft with the addition of a new camera, fire-red mustang, and an intern whom he hires on to help him become faster and more proficient in his almost addictive-like quest to get to the scene of the crime first, and over time he succeeds at doing so. And is in turn employed full-time by Rene Russo’s news station to bring them a story, night after night, which in turn increases his drive and ambition to be the absolute best freelance reporter in all of L.A. Then one night, he stumbles upon a scene of extreme violence and its aftermath, a pivotal scene that goes on to drive the rest of the film and the events that unfold after it.

This was a spectacular film that exceeded my moderate to high expectations. Throughout it made me think of Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Drive” (2011) which I found myself drawing a lot of comparisons to and who ironically enough I came to find after was produced by the same team as it. Mainly because I felt like part of the beauty of it lay in its subtext. Some people will view the film, much like “Drive”, as a straight ahead action-thriller. Which is fine and all. But underneath it all in its subtext I thought it was trying to say something much deeper than what appeared to be at its surface. Oddly enough I looked at it as something similar to that of “Scarface”. About having the drive and ambition in the pursuit of the American dream and wanting to be at the very top by whatever means necessary. Every decision Gyllenahaal’s character does seems to be driven by Capitalist thought. He becomes so incredibly obsessed with the prospect of delivering the next best news story that he’ll do just about whatever it takes even at the expense of those of others around him. Gyllenhaal once again amazes with his spellbinding performance in which he totally immerses himself into his character and puts on one hell of a show. His sunken face (apparently he lost a considerable amount of weight for this film) and beady eyes that look like they’re going to pop out of his head make him look like some kind of insect and acts as one of the many ways of reading into the film’s title. But besides the transformative piece he also really brings a certain depth and range to his character that border lines on someone with a serious mental illness who falls so deep into his craft that he begins to flirt with insanity. A character that brings to mind the late great Robin Williams in 2002’s “One Hour Photo” or better yet even, Robert DeNiro as Travis Bickle in Martin Scorcese’s masterpiece – “Taxi Driver” (1976). He delivers thoughts, ruminations, and words at a mile a minute and comes across as a likely candidate for someone with Autism or Asburger’s Syndrome. It’s a piece of method acting that truly shows his incredible range as an actor. The story itself is utterly and completely captivating from start to finish and has a great sense of pacing. As while on his quest to capture the best news stories the film becomes highly riveting, tense, and psychological. Not to mention that it seems incredibly dark for a studio film (much like “Prisoners” was). His physical and internal transformation is simply an awe to watch. As he starts off as a nobody and brings himself on some sort of self-fulfilling prophecy to uncover the truth, he becomes almost blinded by the world around him and loses his sense of self and identity, turning into some kind of monster. The supporting turns by both Bill Paxton and Rene Russo were also perfectly cast, and help anchor Gyllenhaal’s astonishing performance. This is a film that worked for me on a lot of levels, but mostly in the “can’t look away” turn by Gyllenhaal, that should garner him at least a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actor, if not an Academy Award nomination. Like “Enemy”, this is the second Jake Gyllenhaal film to totally blow me away this year, and is also his second film to likely wind up making my top 10 best films of 2014. This film both shook and rattled me and had me thinking long after the credits rolled. Which in the humble opinion of this writer, only the best ones seem to do.

[that sweet spot between a B+ and A-]