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 (Back) To The Movies: Review – “Post Tenebras Lux” (“Light After Darkness”) (2012) 5.17.15

I noticed that this film was playing at a theater in town of which I think I talked about in a couple of other reviews. It’s Oregon’s “only student-run cinema” that shows films that are a bit different, avant-garde, art house, whatever you want to “label” them as. I personally always get excited when they announce their upcoming lineup each term of the school season, and I even mark a calendar for what films I plan to see. They’ve opened me up to a lot of new experiences with movies I would have never heard of if it hadn’t have been for them in the 8+ years I’ve been living in Portland. I was particularly interested in this one. As after having seen the trailer before another film I saw their recently, Harmony Korine’s brilliant and misunderstood “Spring Breakers” (2013), they showed a trailer for it where I learned a couple of things. For one, it won the “Best Director Award” at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival in Mexican writer/director Carlos Reygadas 4th trip to Cannes. It’s an award of the utmost highest prestige for any filmmaker, and one that certainly has some clout (just the year prior, Nicolas Winding Refn won for “Drive”). I’ve always felt like Cannes is especially good at choosing projects in certain categories, and knowing my love for directors and the “auteur theory”, this caught my attention. As it looked to be one of those sprawling films takes place all over the world and didn’t really have any kind of narrative thread that I could tell of, at least by the film’s trailer. It also stated that it evoked the works both the great American director Terrence Malick as well as Hungarian director Bela Tarr. Anybody that knows me knows that my affinity for both of these directors runs deep, particularly that of the former, so at the very least, I knew I was in for something that at the very least would be worthwhile from a challenge the moviegoer point of view.

The film starts off with a little girl (the real life daughter of Reygadas) playing on a farm on the verge of a thunderstorm with cows, horses, and dogs circling around her. She’s shown looking around in a state of marvel or wonder at the “life” she sees going on all around her. It’s the first in a sequence of loosely edited together “fragments” or sequences within the film. From here things go from strange to stranger, as we are introduced to several vignettes of different segments in which the viewer kind of has to connect the dots in order to make any kind of sense of what they’re watching (and just as a disclaimer – I don’t mean this as a bad thing). An AA meeting of some sort takes place, which quickly soon after jumps out of Mexico to England, where the camera brings us into a boy’s locker room as they prepare for a rugby game, to a Lucifer-like, red animated Devil figure with a toolbox who seems to be making house calls of some sort (the film is rich with ambiguous symbolism), to a bathhouse, where the little girl mentioned above’s mother and father, the two central characters of the film – Juan and Natalia partake in some rather deviant sexual activity. From there the film mostly carries on in this fashion. With Mexican villagers climbing the film’s gorgeously shot countryside (it quickly becomes apparent why Reygadas won the coveted Best Director prize) to scenes involving Juan and his nuclear family, and both back to the Lucifer-like hellish character, and finally back to the English boys playing rugby to act as the film’s rather loose and open-ended climax (if you even want to call it that) of the film.

This was somewhat of an endurance test even for someone like myself who (without sounding boastful) is a bit more versed in what people consider art house cinema than most. The film comes across as a sort of “expressionist” painting, which leaves us as a viewer, the audience, to try to make sense of what it’s trying to say. The first thing that was striking, at least to me, was the way in which the aspect ratio of the film was shot. Imagine those old “home movies” from the sixties that you see in films or on TV that show just a small square in the middle of the screen. Well, the entire film is shown in this ratio, apparently known as 4:3. Apparently done to achieve a look with a clearly framed center. But (and this is a tab bit hard to for me to explain to someone who hasn’t seen it) with the outside of the square box shown in distortion like you’re looking at something through a foggy glass window. This gives it the expressionist feel in which I spoke of above.

Now here’s my major critique of the film and my critique of film’s that are simply art for art’s sake in general. Without any sort of narrative arch or development of any of the characters within the story, I found it almost “too” abstract and too challenging to make any sort of sense of what was going on. Sure the cinematography was rather impressive, and I genuinely did enjoy what I made out to be the film’s rich symbolism when taken its fragmented scenes and tried to put them together. What did each character represent though, and what was the film trying to say? Even for a hardcore art house film enthusiast such as myself, I found that I was constantly questioning why the director consistently transported us from one location to the next, without any outward meaning or semi explanation at least on a surface level. I’ll end by saying that I’m a big fan of the Swedish art house director of Ingmar Bergman (1918-2007), who may be the greatest filmmaker within the art house genre of all time. But even despite his loose interpretations and symbolic leanings, there was always, even with Bergman’s more artistic endeavors, I always felt like there was some semblance of understanding on my part. Which, despite of the undeniably impressive cinematography on display here, the interpretation seemed like that of a Rorschach Test, and admittedly, there has to be a point somewhere in where I draw the line, which wound up being the case with this film.

[C+]

A Trip To The Movies – Review: ‘Birdman’ or (The Unexpected Virtue Of Ignorance) 11.15.16

Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu is perhaps maybe the single most influential filmmaker on my becoming a film student and how I view film. More than any other filmmaker I’ve written about on this blog up to this point. I didn’t really get into looking at film as an art form until I was around 18 years old, in 1999, when I took a film class my senior year in high school that was being offered for the first time. I remember vividly the teacher telling us that first day that we needed to be prepared to “never look at film the same way again”. It was that same year I really starting delving into films by directors who would go on to become some of my favorites – people like Stanley Kubrick, David Lynch, and Paul Thomas Anderson. To name just a few. Then, a year after, just when I was really starting to formulate a film vocabulary and started developing a taste in what I liked or didn’t like, a film came out by a young director hailing from Mexico City, Mexico named Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu called “Amores Perros” (2000). It completely took me by storm and seemed to encapsulate everything I loved about the medium that I had learned about up to that point. It had an multi-thread, interwoven script about 3 well developed central characters, all of whom were interconnected as if by a mere act of chance. It brimmed with energy and was explosively violent shot with an assured sense of immediacy at times (just re-watch the opening 10 minutes and prepare to have your jaw gape) while switching gears and becoming incredibly patient at others. But most importantly, and what Innaritu went on to continue to explore in a lot of his work to come following, it focused on people facing life’s ultimate challenges (2003’s “21 Grams” and 2010’s “Biutiful”) from all walks of life all over the world (2006’s “Babel”). And in by watching and re watching those films it’s almost as if I started to develop my own sense of “cultural language” in film. Because Innaritu was and is one of the first international/foreign filmmakers to explore universal themes that affect almost everybody on a global scale. So it didn’t matter if his stories were set in Mexico, the US, Morocco, Japan, or Spain. Each film had an undeniably human element to them which I really connected to and identified with. Though many Innaritu detractors complained about his films being too depressing, too dark, too grim, and feeling all a bit too similar, which I guess I always felt like I could see but personally looked at his films as something deeper and uniquely different from one another. Then enter 2012-2013, and reports started to come in from film circles that Innaritu’s next project was going to be something that fell more into the comedic realm. A total 180 from his trademark stark and bleak dramas. One that would be set in New York City and star Michael Keaton, an actor who I had almost practically forgotten about since his heyday in the 1980’s where he played Batman in the Tim Burton version (1988) and who I couldn’t recall having seen in anything since Quentin Tarantino’s “Jackie Brown” (1997). Though as was with any Innaritu film the level of excitement and anticipation for his next release was unprecedented.

The film opens to us taking a look at a levitating man (played by Michael Keaton), who seems to be preoccupied in some form of meditation. He sits in front of a mirror in a dressing room and has one of those internal dialogue monologues that give us some back story about who he is. A sort of has been once famous movie actor in a trilogy of films called “Birdman”. Soon after he is interrupted by his lawyer/agent (Zach Galifianakis) that his scene in his writing, directing, and acting in play is about to start, and we’re then introduced to a few of his actors (one of whom is played by Naomi Watts) as well as his freshly out of a stint in rehab daughter played by Emma Stone. An unexpected accident occurs, and with only 3 nights left until opening night of the play, he is forced to find a stand in. Enter Edward Norton’s character, who acts as said stand in, and who Galifianakis’ agent promises will double the size of his audience. Which his fledging play seemingly needs. We also meet his current lover (played by the ravishing Andrea Riseborough) and ex-wife (Amy Ryan). Can this be the comeback play his career so desperately needs? Or has his time come and gone and his resurgence as an actor be a complete and total failure?

“Birdman” winds up being a cinematic and theatre lover’s wet dream (as I so eloquently put it as the house lights in the theater and credits started rolling). It has more energy, more snap, crackle, pop, bang, and more ingenious elements encompassing it cinematically than any other film I’ve seen this year. It’s director Innaritu’s masterpiece and has some of the most confidently assured and inspiring camera work that I’ve seen from any filmmaker in years. The way in which he zooms, zips, and swirls around every corridor and crevice of the theatre in which 95% of the film takes place in, is nothing short of a revolutionary feat. He captures it with the utmost authenticity depicting what the theatre scene is like through filming it with a mightily and very impressively minimal amount of takes and edits which makes the entire film feel like one long tracking shot. Which is a true testament to the art and craft of theatre. As anybody who is versed in the both the theatre and feature film medium knows that the major difference between the two forms understands that in the theatre there is no room for mistakes. Which comes across in the film and gives it a sense of urgency like the theatre which is executed perfectly on screen. Augmented by the dazzling cinematography by Emmanuel Luzbecki, fresh off his Oscar win from last year’s stunning “Gravity”. The whole affair is also brought to life by the incredible jazzy sounding and bopping score by Antonio Sanchez. Never mind the acting and performances, all of which are exemplary, but particularly that of Michael Keaton, which is sure to garner him an Oscar nomination for Best Actor, and possibly put him in the frontrunner position to win. His borderline real life self-referential bravura performance proves to us all once again that actors don’t ever necessarily lose their gift, they just become older and are replaced by younger talent making it harder and harder to find a great script that suits them. And this character fits Keaton perfectly like a glove. Edward Norton is almost equally as impressive as a narcissistic, vain, and completely full of himself actor, also who’s aging, and who also seems to know underlying that his time is running out. Expect some awards buzz and a Best Supporting Actor nomination for his work here as well as he is nothing short of dynamite. I also have a newfound deep respect and admiration for Emma Stone, perfectly cast here as Keaton’s post-rehab daughter/assistant, who really shines and proves why she’s considered to be such a talented and sought after young actress. Everybody in this rich ensemble piece really seems to bring the razor sharp screenplay by Innaritu and his writing team come to life. I could go on…and on…and on to talk about it’s satirical comment on the nature of celebrity and mental illness, dark comedic undertones, rich underlying symbolism, and ambiguous ending. But I’m afraid this would turn into something that looked more like a thesis than a film review. Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu – you have finally made your masterpiece at 51 years old and 14 years into your career. With a film that should garner Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Director (Innaritu), Actor (Keaton), Supporting Actor (Norton), Cinematography (Luzbecki), Original Score/Screenplay, and Editing. This is hands down one of if not the best film of 2014. And a landmark achievement for both director Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu and star Michael Keaton. In a film that’s sure to explode over the next few months and catapult both of their careers into exciting new territory.

[A]