SICARIO 2: SOLDADO**** Bloody. Good


THE SCORE THAT drives this unflinching examination of State sponsored amorality is all deep, basso-profundo atonal notes. Like the memorable “ta da” that heralded the approach of Jaws, the building intensity of Sicario 2: Soldado is accompanied by a sound that seems to emerge, like the soldados, from hell…like the hoary breath of a slowly rising demon. “As dark as the swoon of sin”

Here, even in the arid deserts of Mexico where the sky is a canopy of endless blue, there really is no light. Everyone wears shades, as if the sun were an offence to these moral troglodytes. Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) and Alejandro (Benicio del Toro) have been reunited to disrupt the Mexican cartels whose operations have evolved from ‘mere’ drug running into people and (they think) terrorist trafficking. After a brutal series of suicide bombs in Kansas, the war on drugs has been folded into the war on terror. And the very particular skills sets of Matt and Alejandro have been unleashed by a (typically) gung-ho, revenge boasting Secretary of State (Matthew Modine). Their mission is to start an inter-cartel war that’s free from any restraints. (“Restraints”? Matt says to an ‘enemy combatant’ he’s arrested in Africa: “We only use waterboarding where we can’t torture. But this is Africa.”) The plan is to kidnap the daughter of one kingpin (The one who killed Alejandro’s family) and frame the act on another.

Who let the dogs out!

The story focuses almost entirely on Matt, Alejandro and their team. There is no attempt to personify (or for that matter, demonise) the enemy combatants. They, and their families remain as they’re seen by the authorities: faceless people who are there to be summarily exterminated in a never ending war…machine gunned in the heart of Mexico City or drone bombed in the heart of Africa.

The point writer Taylor Sheridan (who scripted the first Sicario) and director Stefano Sollima (The TV series Gomorrah) are making is that this elite squad (of DEA and Army professionals)…these “soldados” are, like the cartel gunmen, just another group of sicarios –  “hitmen”. To them, the sanctity of state lines simply do not exist: they punch into any country with impunity and indifference, and arrogantly kill whoever’s on the Kill list. This is the grubby underbelly of 007 in the real world.

Their only rule is to leave no trace…that can be traced back to the authorities. The sicarios do the dirty work. The blood is on their hands (and faces and hair and everywhere). The politicians (enabled by a clear-sighted, cynical middle person, played by Catherine Keener) keep their hands clean.

The story turns when a chink of moral, human sunlight enters, just as the casual kill list becomes its darkest. Director Sollima teases out the ironies as an unbidden moment of conscience (Alejandro the kidnapper slowly becomes a father figure, as he did in the first Sicario) potentially compromises the mission. In flight with his kidnap victim cum daughter (an expressive and convincing Isabel Moner from Transformers: The Last Knight), the taciturn Alejandro becomes almost chatty, using expressive sign language to communicate with a deaf and dumb family that helps him out. Their simple human decency and goodness moves him. It’s as though the silences of their communication carry more moral worth than all the shouted threats and political platitudes that precede it.

But to this muscular administration…this group of macho warriors, these tough men who brush away bullet wounds without feeling pain, the concept of having feelings at all, let alone a conscience is not an approved emotion and it (and Alejandro) must be eliminated.

Welcome Sicario 3.

Director Sollima does not (or chose not to) demonstrate the kinetic action reflexes of director Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario 1. The overall feel is darker, more brooding and with a very physical, tangible sense of place. The director’s observing eye and Dariusz Wolski’s magnificent cinematography leave you with a real feeling of having been there: there at night in the no-man’s land just north of the border, raked by slicing helicopter beams; or there in the crowded bus stops where fee-paying refugees jostle for spaces in suffocating trucks; or there in any one of the bustling border towns with their carnival mix of celebrating gringos and Mexican desperadoes.

Movies like this (classified as “action” for want of a better word) never quite make it to the Oscar nominations…just more fodder for the long hot A/C seeking cinema-goers. That’s a pity; for it address and frames one, increasingly dominant slice of modern Americana that we’d all be much happier to pretend is just a movie: the never ending symbiotic knit of venal politicians, lawless law enforcers and murderous gangsters.

There’s a President for that

 

SICARIO 2: SOLDADO. Dir: Stefano Sollima. With: Benicio del Toro, Josh Brolin, Isabel Moner, Catherine Keener. Writer: Taylor Sheridan (Wind River, Hell or High Water). Cinematographer: Darius Wolski (All the Money in the World, Alien: Covenant, The Martian). Composer: Hildur Guonadottir (The revenant). Production Design: Kevin Kavanaugh (Nightcrawler, The Dark Knight Rises)

 

 

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HAIL CAESAR!*** I Came, I Saw, I Yawned


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ALL THE ELEMENTS are there for a wonderful, and nostalgic screwball comedy in Hail Caesar! – the Coen Brothers’ affectionate homage to the golden era of Hollywood.

The story is largely built around a few days in the life of the production head of Capitol Studios, Eddie Mannix…manic? ( A charismatic Josh Brolin).

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It’s his job to placate an invisible powerbroker in New York, manage the direction of his many productions, and at the same time hide the peccadillos of his wayward stars (DeeAnn Moran – Scarlett Johansson as America’s virgin and an Esther Williams type – is pregnant; Gloria DeLamour –Natasha Bassett- is about to be raided for doing a nudie shoot, and his big ticket star, Baird Whitlock – George Clooney – who may be a Rock Hudson-esque closet queen, has gone missing, maybe on a bender). It’s all crippling him with guilt. His mandate of maintaining appearances at all costs comes down to his own small peccadillo of smoking behind his wife’s back. In the world of Tinseltown tales, image is all.

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We see peeks into Eddie’s multiple simultaneous productions, all of which are spot-on perfect: DeeAnn Moran is the mermaid-tailed centre-piece of one of those synchronised swimming extravaganzas…except her bulging stomach is beginning to prove troublesome (Mannix must dream up a plausible story to account for the arrival of her child: adoption? marriage to someone the public will approve of? No one mentions abortion, which, duh, you’d think would be obvious);

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Burt Gurney – Channing Tatum – is a brilliant singing, dancing sailor who hoofs it in a dreamy routine straight out of South Pacific (except that he’s part of a new group of Hollywood communists…more trouble for Eddie);

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Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich from Blue Jasmine) is a Ricky Nelson type crooner who the studios want to cast against type as an urbane sophisticate; and Baird (all looks and no brain) is the heroic star of the eponymous Hail Caesar!, a The Robe/The Greatest Story Ever Told type production with a cast of thousands. But he’s kidnapped by a group of communist writers who call themselves The Future.

And thereby hangs a tale.

Poor Eddie, he’s up against the past, with the warring gossip columnist twins (Tilda Swinton and Tilda Swinton) digging up the dirt on Baird, and now also up against the future (the advent of TV, the collapse of the Hollywood Studio system, his own job security, and of course this shadowy group of recognition seeking, equality demanding pre-Blacklist commie writers). Lockheed is courting him and offering him a better image of the future…one that’s secure. It’s an ‘out’, and it’s awfully tempting. Will he be tempted?

And amidst all this happy mayhem, there are some outlandishly funny moments (in particular an hysterical attempt by snooty Brit director Lawrence Lorenz – a pitch perfect Ralph Fiennes – to coach simpleton Hobie Doyle into appearing sophisticated and articulating his words with that peculiarly fake semi British accent that represented Hollywood classiness back in the 50’s).

But for the large part, Hail Caesar lacks the verbal dexterity of a Woody Allen (which it tries to ape in some of the silly discussions about God and Communism), or the screwball plotting of, say a Some Like it Hot. The mish mash of a plot – more loosely connected vignettes than plot per se – never really builds to any sort of punch line and our fearless hero – George Clooney – wearing his Oh Brother Where Art Thou ‘stupid face’ is embarrassing.

George has done some marvelous work in the past: The Descendants, Up in the Air, Michael Clayton, Good Night, and Good Luck etc. But Hail Caesar! falls into his group of ‘really bad crap’: Tomorrowland: A World Beyond, The Monuments Men, Fantastic Mr. Fox, The Men Who Stare At Goats

As for the Coens, their recent creds are almost beyond reproach (Bridge of Spies, Inside Llewyn Davis, True Grit, Burn After Reading, No Country for Old Men etc). Let’s hope this is an aberration from which they can quickly recover.

At least, even during its (many) moments of humourless tedium, the look of the movie, shot be the peerless Roger Deakins (Sicario, Unbroken, Prisoners, Skyfall etc) is always engagingly watchable

 

SICARIO**** It’s a hit, man


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SICARIO WE ARE told, in this heart-stoppingly gripping movie of the same name, was the term given to the insurgents, the freedom fighters, during the Roman Empire. It’s also Mexican slang for hit-man. Alejandro (Benecio del Toro) and his boss, Matt (Josh Brolin) the titular sicarios of the movie, live in this grey world where the noble mission of halting the drug trade veers into a murky world of extra-legal collusions, assassinations and revenge.

We follow the story from the eyes of a courageous, idealistic, but naive Kate (Emily Blunt) who, angered by the bizarre and fatal turn of events on a mission she’s recently led, allows herself to volunteer for a more dangerous mission- to find a people smuggling pipeline and bring to justice the leaders.

At least that’s how she sees it.

As she slowly realizes however, this isn’t about Mexicans crossing the border, this isn’t even about justice. This is a darker mission about bringing down one of the many drug lords. Her new boss and ‘mentor’, the laconic, amoral Matt (a tough, weather-beaten Brolin) jokes that the aim of the mission is to “dramatically overreact”. And to accomplish this, Matt is armed with Alejandro, an emotionally wounded man turned attack dog, whose personal mission is one of single-minded vengeance. His is a ruthless take no prisoners approach that means nothing and no-one, not even Kate, will stand in his way.

Canadian director Denis Villeneuve (“Prisoners”) leads us through the story from Kate’s perspective. She, like us, slowly piece together what the real mission is, without ever really understanding who her colleagues (backed up by a mini battalion of Afghanistan trained mercenaries, who seem to be paid by whatever drugs they seize) are. They may be DEA or CIA. Who knows? At one point she’s told, “nothing will make sense to your American ears, and you will doubt everything that we do, but in the end you will understand”. What she does come to realize is that she’s joined a team that has no compunction about crossing the border and waging war in Mexico, where the demarcation between the police and their prey, between the good guys and the bad is, like the border, ever shifting.

The philosophical construct Villeneuve offers is the existential conundrum: play by the rules and the war on drugs will never be won. Break the rules – which means murder, torture or at best collusion – and you’ll stand a better chance of success… at the price of your moral conscience.

“Sicario” has the nerve biting, muscular tension of the best of Michael Mann. The score of composer Jóhan Jóhannsson (“Foxcatcher”, “Prisoners”) – all low notes and frenzied electronics – and the cinematography of Roger Deakin (“Skyfall”, “Ture Grit”) – flat, at times over lit, at times dark and brooding (he’s considered one of the three best cinematographers around) lend the movie a sense of unrelenting dread. You get a sense that even the land and the elements are threats.
Brolin and Blunt (who was the best thing about “Edge of Tomorrow”) are a solid, compelling duo.

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But the stand out performance is that of Benecio del Toro’s. His Alejandro is no one-dimensional killer. He’s clearly a wounded man with a warmth and paternal protectiveness which his job and his past must mothball. These are not the times for gentleness and caring. As he tells Kate, “you are not a wolf. And this is a land of wolves”. He has become, despite himself, a wolf. Del Toro’s triumph is that he allows us to see the dark symbiosis of the sicario…the nobility and fearlessness of the freedom fighter and the savagery of the hit-man.

“Sicario” is a slickly directed action movie placed in service of a serious look at quagmire of the drug trade. In the end, as the cynical Matt (Brolin) observes, until the 20% of the American public who want the drugs, curtail their needs, the war will never be won.

MOVIE: Gangster Squad


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A NEW VIDEO game has just been launched. It’s called “Gangster Squad”. Actually, hang on, it isn’t a game, it’s a real movie. It looks like a game; the characters in it, who are apparently real actors, move like it’s a game; and the storyline sounds like a game. But the fact that it’s on at the Clapham Picturehouse and not on X-Box… that, I guess, is the big give-way. It’s the only give-away.

So, buyer beware – don’t be fooled by the glittering cast of this new, thuggishly dumb gangster movie that premiered this week.

The premise is this: it’s just after the war (1949 to be exact) and Sean Penn is Mickey Cohen, a low life Hollywood gangster with ambitions of taking over the entire West Coast. He controls not only whole legions of armed hench-men, but most of the politicians and police, who turn a blind eye to his nefarious activities. Except for Nick Nolte, who is taciturn, which means he’s uncorruptible. It is he who conscripts a squadron of ex-army (equally uncorruptible and dedicated) cops to make war on Cohen and his gang, outside of the constraints of the law and the badge.

Maybe you’ve come across plot lines like this before, and, what with this array of stars, you may be lulled into thinking that there’s some fiendishly clever twist on this old cliché to introduce new energy and thematic pulse, the way, say “The Untouchables” did.

But no, you’d be wrong. This is simply one of those super-masculine outings where the women are dames waiting to be saved by strong jawed men; where the bad guys just don’t seem to be able to hit their targets despite truck loads of bullets (shown jumping from their rifles in loving slow mo’), but where the good guys are keen-eyed shooters; where there is a relentlessness of sadistic blood-splattering violence; where the body count is unremitting; and where the dialog is snappy and meaningless.

Which matches the acting style.

The only excuse could be that director Ruben Fleischer (who gave us that classic, “Zombieland”) pushed them to go for, let’s say, a more broad interpretation of character. This must have opened up Sean Penn, who is usually very compelling and believable (the only half way decent thing about the dreadful “Tree of Life”) to ham it up to such an extent that I fear he might have his Equity card revoked. Josh Brolin, as Sgt John O’Mara the square-jawed un-killable leader of the pack of ‘good guys’ delivers a performance of such flinty resoluteness, he appears constantly to be busting his brains to remember his lines. And ‘it’ man, Ryan Gosling snatches his performance from the “cool dude” draw where he stores his “Drive” school of expression-free acting.

Much of the action takes place on a back lot that Fleischer’s production team must have snapped up from an X-Box drawer of fire-sale design discards. For it is quite clearly a back-lot; nothing remotely credible.

But, there is a lot of attention to wardrobe. Mary Zophres who dressed Harrison Forde and Daniel Craig in “Cowboys and Aliens” as well as the team from “Iron Man” gives us the GQ version of roaring twenties, rogue-cop style.

So at least, if “Expendables II” wasn’t your cup of tea; or if you aren’t surprised to find that the Oscar judges have passed over Jason Stratham yet again, you may find some solace in the flashy masculine clothes on display. And if even this is not your cup of tea, suggest you conserve your energy and time.