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 – “The Gift” 8.29.15

Mega Sized Movie Poster Image for The Gift

My friend and I happened to decide on this film, after we showed up at another, only to find out that it was sold out. Initially I was reluctant – as even despite of seeing its many fine cumulative scores on the movie websites I frequent, it just looked like something that all seemed just a little bit too familiar like something I’d seen before. That, and while I really like 2 out of its 3 main leads in both Rebecca Hall (“Vicky Christina Barcelona”, “The Town) and Joel Edgerton (“Animal Kingdom”, “Warrior”, “Zero Dark Thirty) who also wrote, starred in, who made his directorial debut with his film here. It’s also Edgerton’s second writing credit, as he also co-wrote 2014’s “The Rover” collaboratively with his “Animal Kingdom” director – David Michod. Though outside of this, and probably my major reason for my reluctance to wanting to see it, was the casting of Jason Bateman. An actor most known for his work in comedy (and mostly bad comedies might I add) and who I really couldn’t possibly envision playing a serious role such as the one it looked like he played in this. This idea of my not wanting to see a film because it has a specific actor or actors is somewhat of a new thing for me (at least in the past few years). Bateman is among that list of actors alongside Vince Vaughn (who in my humble opinion was terribly miscast in season 2 of this year’s “True Detective”).There are a slew of other actors like Bateman and Vaughn, who have made a string of so many bad films, that I develop what I call my own form of “blacklisting”, in that I don’t even have to hear anything about a certain film if I know it stars one of these actors of which I am referring to. That said, this looked to fit into a genre of which I personally can attest to really liking – the psychological, thriller, mystery one. And given Edgerton’s already proven gifts of being a proficient actor and writer. I was able to overlook the fact that it starred Bateman and walked into it with a clean slate, not really knowing anything about it other than it was Edgerton’s directorial debut and the 3 main leads who starred in it. That, and I read one blurb that described it as this year’s “Gone Girl” (2014) so I was intrigued.

“The Gift” centers around a young married couple named Simon (Bateman) and Robyn (Rebecca Hall), who at the start of the film, are relocating back to California from Illinois because of a huge promotion that Simon has received. This said town in California is also very close to where Simon grew up before him and his wife moved to Illinois several years back. After some setting up of the story, mainly the introduction of the married couple and their characters. Simon has a chance encounter with a former acquaintance from his former school days, the slightly off-kilter Gordo (played by Edgerton). Edgerton seems incredibly happy to reconnect with Simon and starts showing up unexpectedly, always bearing gifts. To Simon, he feels threatened by this. Whereas his wife, Robyn, while admitting it is slightly strange, likes to think a bit more highly in people and views Gordo’s gifts as just good faith gestures and simply nothing more than that. So when the gifts start piling in more and more and certain valuables of theirs go missing, Simon becomes more and more increasingly threatened. And somewhat to the dismay of his wife, let’s Gordo know explicitly that he is no longer welcome at their house. This sets off the wheels in motion for the rest of the film, as secrets are exposed and lies covered up, and as Simon and Robyn distance themselves further and further from one another as certain truths are brought into light. We as an audience learn that there are layers and layers of lies and deceit that unfold as we try to figure out who’s responsible for all of it.

The film wound up being a highly rewarding experience even given that my expectations of it were admittedly slightly below average going into it. It took me by quite a surprise in several different areas. It’s a fine example of a of the “stalker” family drama genre. Drawing comparisons, at least to me, to the 1990 film “Pacific Heights” that starred Michael Keaton, Melanie Griffith, and Matthew Modine. Another film about an unsuspecting couple who deals with a rather unruly tenant who is willing to go to any lengths or cost to expose the truth. Bateman does a serviceable enough job as the husband, and doesn’t necessarily add or detract (which I thought he would) from the film. As does Rebecca Hall as his wife, an actress who, at least in my opinion, always brings her A game to whatever project she involves herself in. But the real credit here is due to writer, actor, and director Joel Edgerton, who in his directorial debut, handles a rather complex and intricate script with a deft hand and a sense of confidence in his cat and mouse setup. The thing I personally would like to highlight about the film, which I personally feel like only the best ones do, particularly of films of this genre, plays with audience expectations and keeps them second guessing throughout almost the entire duration of the film. Just when I thought I had the film figured out within its first act, the film defied everything I thought it was going to be about, and proves to be a smart and refreshing psychological suspense thriller, with a creepy and dark tone throughout like last year’s aforementioned “Gone Girl”. Where we as a viewer (and I will say we because the rest of the theater patrons seemed to have a similar response – at least from the vocalizations I could hear from those seated around me) are stretched out like a rubber band and left on the edge of our seats trying to figure out the many of its plots intricacies. Even given that it got a wide release (probably because of the casting of Bateman), it still felt entirely indie, and none of it (and I mean none) played to audience expectations like so many other films do. It takes a lot of work on behalf of the viewer to constantly disassemble and reassemble its many different changes and shifts in plot developments. Which I personally thought was its greatest strength. And despite it becoming slightly confounding towards the end, it’s something that I think I would and could recommend to just about anyone.

[strong B]

A Trip To The Movies – Review: “’71” 3.14.15

Okay I’ll just come flat-out and say it – “Jack O’Connell is the best twenty-something actor, stateside or international, that is currently working in the film industry today”. The last time I felt like I discovered an actor of his caliber was when I was first introduced to Tom Hardy (who coincidentally enough I draw a lot of comparisons between the two) in Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Bronson” (2008), who as I predicted, like I do with O’Connell, would be a household name in just a few years from then once American audiences started to take notice of these highly gifted young actors. Also, like Hardy, I first caught wind of O’Connell in 2013’s “Starred Up” (another prison drama like “Bronson” which I considered the best post-2000 film of the genre outside of Jacques Audiard’s “A Prophet” (2009) ). O’Connell puts in a breakthrough performance that rivaled that of his co-star, the immensely talented Ben Mendelsohn (who’s pretty much been the best part of everything I’ve seen him in). O’Connell was so good in that, that I vowed to myself that I would follow this very promising and undeniably gifted young actor in every project he does from this point forward. And at the young age of 24, he shows the potential to be just as good, if not better, than someone like a Tom Hardy or a Matthais Schoenaerts, but should achieve their same level of fame about a decade younger than they did, those actors being well into their thirties. O’Connell is basically still just a kid, which makes the anticipation of what he’s going to next all that more exciting. And so far, in just the past 2 years, he’s played the lead role in the aforementioned “Starred Up” (2013), last year’s Angelina Jolie directed “Unbroken” (which I still haven’t seen but that has recently moved to the very top of my queue simply because it stars O’Connell), and now this film. Which without giving away what I thought about it too prematurely, let’s just say I wasn’t disappointed by it.

‘”71″ is the new feature film by first time director Yann Demange (I could have sworn when I first read that name I thought it was a pseudonym for the “Muscles From Brussels”) starring Jack O’Connell in the lead (and in fact the only lead, as the rest of the roles I would barely even consider “supporting”). The film is set in (you guessed it) 1971 Northern Ireland and jumps right into the story without little to no setup other than that he’s a British solider who happens to be fighting for the Irish Army. After a quick orientation depicting his squad going through some rigorous training, it jumps right into his specific unit being briefed that they’re being deployed to a dangerous area of Belfast, where an ongoing war is taking place between 2 rival religious factions – the Protestants and Catholics. In one of the more well shot and gripping segments of the film, O’Connell’s unit lands in a war-torn area of Catholic territory, and since the Army is more aligned with the Protestants, to say the townspeople don’t take to their presence well would be a grave understatement. In fact, a full on riot ensues, which is expertly shot using a guerilla-style filmmaking style that makes you feel like you’re right there in on the action. O’Connell’s character, amidst the chaos, gets separated from the rest of his unit, and since his squad is being overpowered by the Catholics, they leave in a hurried rush without him with members of the Catholic militia on his trail (and a chase scene as good as anything I can remember on film since the Keanu Reeves/Patrick Swayze bank robbery foot chase from “Point Break” (1991) ). The rest of the film plays out like a game of cat and mouse where O’Connell’s character, who starts off as the hunter, now becomes the hunted, as just about every character within the film seems to want him dead. The rest of the film takes several twists and turns, which takes a hold of you in its firm grip and doesn’t let go until the film’s closing shot

This was a mightily impressive debut from director Yann Damange and yet another brilliant performance by O’Connell, who seems to be in just about every frame of the film and who is clearly the meat and bones of the picture. The film itself is gripping, taut, and engaging from start to finish, and has an incredible sense of pacing. One thing that stood out to me was that while I went into it thinking I was going to be watching a War film. It rather deftly combined other elements into it that made it an equal parts thriller, political espionage cat and mouse game evoking the works of writer John le Carre, historical drama (1969’s “Z” and 2005’s “Munich” acting as reference points throughout the film), as well as a crime film (my fellow movie companion said it felt a bit like David Michod’s “Animal Kingdom” (2010). Which I didn’t get at first but when he started to explain the levels of corruption by all members of society, I could see why he drew the comparison and understood how he could tie it in. The camerawork was also stunning, and shot in a style reminiscent of the recent films of Kathryn Bigelow (“The Hurt Locker”, “Zero Dark Thirty”) which made it feel authentically real. The only few very minor criticisms I had of the piece was that they didn’t really provide much back story into O’Connell’s character. That and I found many of the interlocking characters from the different facets of society a bit difficult to follow. Kind of how I feel about Asian films depicting the Yakuza – certain characters are difficult to tell apart as many of them appear similarly. Lastly, I think the film could have been expanded on and went further into its story which seemed to go across by quickly at a rather brisk 99 minutes. Those few minor criticisms aside though, this was a well acted, thoroughly engaging, and gripping meta-film about a time and place in history that prior going into the film, I knew little to next to nothing about. And in summation, it was only the second film I’ve seen this year outside of “A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night” that I was so engaged in that I didn’t take a bathroom break because I couldn’t bear the thought of missing even a second of this well constructed and incredibly tense film. That had me on the edge of my seat from its start to its nicely poetic and emotional finish.

[B+]

Review: “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them” 2.1.15

This was a film that I had been following throughout the festival circuit as it had opened to mostly positive reviews at the Toronto Film Festival in 2013. Shown as a 2-part film at that festival with the same title but differentiating each part by “Him” and “Her” it wound up popping up at last year’s Cannes Film Festival put together as one film – “Them”, for reasons I can only speculate on but can imagine the Weinsteins felt a 2-part film would be much more difficult to market and turn off audiences by the daunting task for watching (for further proof see Steven Soderbergh’s brilliant “Che” which was shown in 2 parts but was virtually unseen as it clocked in at just about 4 and a half hours). So here we have the 2 films packaged together in one part that I almost considered seeing in their original 2 parts, but decided to forego the idea and see the version that was released this year on DVD. I wanted to see this film for 2 major reasons, both of them having to do with the fact that I knew little to next to nothing about it other than I thought I had read a Stephen King book by the same name years back and without having researched it though it might be an adaptation of it. That and I really really like Jessica Chastain, who won me over in a number of recent films like “The Tree of Life (2011), “Take Shelter” (2011), “Zero Dark Thirty” (2012), and last year’s “Interstellar” (I’m also really looking forward to seeing her in the recently released “A Most Violent Year”). She almost never seems to disappoint and is one of the best actresses currently working in the film industry working today. I’m also a fan of James McAvoy. Liking his career trajectory and his choices of films he’s made with movies like “The Last King of Scotland” (2006), “Atonement” (2007), “Trance” (2013″), as well as his TV work in the original BBC version of the show “Shameless” (2004-2013). So not knowing much about it added to the fact that I really admire the 2 leads, was the real reason that led me to want to see it.

The film starts out by introducing us to its 2 leads – a woman named Eleanor Rigby (Chastain) and her husband Conor (McAvoy). The two appear to be madly in love which is seemingly quite apparent from the start. However, soon after, we find Eleanor jumping off a bridge and plummet to what we think is her demise. Though she lives the fatal accident, and returns home to her family, who don’t seem to know how to act or what to do or say since their daughter has just attempted to take her own life. Her father (played by the always excellent William Hurt) encourages her to go back to school to get her mind off of things and gets her back into a program she once dropped out of (for reasons that is uncovered as the story unravels) with the help of a professor (“Doubt’s” Viola Davis). Meanwhile James McAvoy’s character Conor, who runs a restaurant that’s a sinking ship, too goes home to his wealthy but distant father and receives little to next to no compassion other than a place to stay. He does seek solace in his best friend, the chef at his restaurant (Bill Hader, who I loved in last year’s “The Skeleton Twins”), but even he can’t seem to be capable of giving the help Conor seems to so desperately need. Conor begins to track down his ex-wife Eleanor as he appears to want nothing more than to have a conversation with her. Though Eleanor is completely shut off from both him and her family, but finds a bit of sympathy in Viola Davis’ college professor. The film then rears its head and gives us a bit more back story into what event ultimately led to the couple’s decimated marriage. Which is when we as the viewer are entered into a heart-rendering story about grief, loss, and the devastating effects it can have when people are confronted with it.

I wound up being slightly mixed about the film but thought it had more pros than it did cons. First off, it totally went against my expectations of being a mystery, suspense, or horror story and winds up a more conventional and straight ahead drama. Throughout it I couldn’t help but think about other films that I’ve seen that deal with similar themes like death, loss, the grieving process, and failed marriages like Todd Field’s “In The Bedroom” (2001 – one of my top 25 favorite films of all time) as well as 2 other films from 2010 – John Cameron Mitchell’s “Rabbit Hole” and Derek Cianfrance’s “Blue Valentine. All of which came to mind while watching it. The acting here, as one would expect from both of these two brilliant young actors, is top-notch. Chastain once again puts on a performance that’s a sight to see beaten down by her loss. McAvoy was also almost equally as good as her grieving ex-husband who has his fair share of demons. I also really liked its ruminations on grieving and how everybody deals with it differently, which is a credit to the writing team. Where it fell a bit short with me was its sometimes slow pacing in which it’s a bit confusing as to why Chastain’s character Eleanor or her ex-husband are in grief and mourning until about halfway through, when I personally thought the revelation could have come much sooner and been just as effective. It also felt a bit too familiar as the majority of us have probably seen this same subject depicted and explored before like in the films I mentioned above. Lastly, the ending felt a bit anti-climatic, that left me thinking what the overall message was that the writer and director wanted me to take from it other than grief and the coping of a loss can be incredible difficult. That being said, the two performances, at least to me, were both good enough and the story though a bit trite, was engaging enough that I’d consider it at least a worthwhile watch. Even if the end result leaves a little bit left to be desired.

[B-]