Sicario 2: Day of the Soldado

Release: Friday, June 29, 2018

→Theater

Written by: Taylor Sheridan

Directed by: Stefano Sollima

I need to file a complaint. Sicario 2: Day of the Soldado is an eyesore of a title. It is an awkward concession, the plasticine product of a marketing scheme designed to put the movie in “the best position to succeed.” Really though, it’s just poised to confuse. Elsewhere (outside of North America, that is) you’ll find the same film operating under various guises, such as Sicario 2, Soldado and Sicario without Emily Blunt.  

Good. Now that that resolved something, maybe now we can talk about the movie itself.

And what a vicious movie it is. Fortunately, at least with regards to quality, the content is not the title. Italian-born director Stefano Sollima confidently carries the torch passed to him in what appears to be a bonafide crime saga anthology in the making. While Soldado indeed navigates the same ethical and tactical morasses Villeneuve established in his instant classic from 2015, it’ll be remembered more for its even bloodier, soul-bruising action bent. And yet, in the spirit of its predecessor and despite the absence of an audience surrogate like Blunt’s Special Agent Kate Macer, Soldado effects the thrill of privileged access to things we should not be witnessing.

In 2018 the game has changed and so have the rules. The war against the ruthless Mexican drug cartels has taken an even more nefarious turn. Rather than the smuggling of illicit drugs, the focus has shifted to the prevention of human trafficking — specifically the transporting of bomb-making desperadoes across the line. An opening salvo details in gut-wrenching fashion precisely what CIA black ops agent Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) and the enigmatic hitman Alejandro Gillick (Benecio Del Toro) are up against this time. We experience first-hand in Kansas City the callousness with which the bad guys are able to dispatch with the innocent.

Graver, who specializes in getting his hands dirty, is called in by U.S. Secretary of Defense James Riley (Matthew Modine) for an assignment seemingly tailor-made just for him. Given such rampant violence, the American government has reclassified these gangs officially as terrorist organizations. Their objective now is to exacerbate tensions between the factions to the point where they simply wipe each other out. Victory by way of escalation, not extradition.

To get things rolling, Graver enlists his friend to carry out a ballsy false-flag operation involving the kidnapping of Isabel Reyes (a crushingly good Isabela Moner), daughter of the sadistic kingpin Carlos Reyes. The mission gets a bit more complicated/spoiler-rich but suffice it to say it doesn’t all go off without a hitch. Double-crosses and unexpected escapes crop up along the way, and it isn’t long before Graver and Gillick themselves question just what it is they are trying to accomplish. (And, as an aside, this is the coldest and most ruthless I have ever seen Catherine Keener. Consider me now a big fan.)

Crucially, Taylor Sheridan returns for this loosely-connected sequel. Once again his screenplay masterfully simplifies a lot of technical jargon without diluting the essence of the conversation. The gifted screenwriter is of course blessed with acting talent to match. Bad-boy Brolin feels at home in his über-niched role as a sandals-wearing DoD enforcer, while the aforementioned Keener and Modine lend incredible weight with their government agents standing at a safe distance. Del Toro may never have been quite this interesting (or this blood-caked). Meanwhile, the child actors — yes, absolutely Moner, but also introducing Elijah Rodriguez as the wayward Miguel — commit to their emotional load-bearing roles as consummate professionals.

Sheridan’s world-building also impresses. What else is new? He presents the labyrinthian network of black market dealers and uneasy relationships among different levels and loyalties of law enforcement as an ever-shifting landscape of personal vendetta and evolving objectivity. A lot of traveling is required and to exotic locations such as Djibouti and the Gulf of Somalia, and we hop back and forth across the border enough times to get dizzy. The director has to temporarily suspend reality in a few places to accommodate character arcs, but even with a few cut corners the main flow of the narrative rarely, if ever, exceeds our grasp — even while we shield our eyes from the more gory details.

Soldado isn’t as sophisticated a drama as what came before. This movie is more of a blunt instrument than a think piece, and it has no interest in being anyone’s friend. In almost any other production it would take some effort to justify this level of bloodshed. No, Soldado doesn’t exactly champion humanity, but it is a reflection of it. And yes, it should upset you. It should make you cringe, if not for Alejandro and friends then for the next generation caught in the crossfire.

Recommendation: Savage confrontations and a dearth of feel-good moments characterize this action thriller of above-average intelligence (poor titles notwithstanding). Soldado should satisfy fans of the original with its continuation of the same blood-soaked moral quandary established three years prior, even if a lot of nuance is lost in the transition. And the way this second chapter leaves you — left me, anyway — is nothing short of morbidly fascinating. I can’t wait for a third installment. 

Rated: hard R

Running Time: 122 mins.

Quoted: “You’re gonna help us start a war.”

“With who?”

“Everyone.”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

The Infiltrator

'The Infiltrator' movie poster

Release: Wednesday, July 13, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Ellen Brown Furman

Directed by: Brad Furman

Brad Furman wasn’t looking to infiltrate more elite groups of directors who had earlier tackled the gritty but ever fascinating subject of the drug trafficking epidemic in America when he paired up with Bryan Cranston. That much is clear just based on the relative nonchalance with which The Infiltrator plays out. Things certainly become tense, but it’s nigh on impossible believing our beloved Walter White is ever in any real danger.

That’s probably because we’ve already watched that character endure five seasons of pure adrenaline-fueled drama. Everything we watch U.S. Customs Service special agent Robert Mazur (alias ‘Bob Musella’) go through here as he gets cozy with high-ranking members within the Colombian drug cartel only to bust them in the end, is accompanied by echoes of Breaking Bad, some of which are really loud. In that way The Infiltrator does feel less threatening, and it loses even more leverage given just how strictly it adheres to formula to get the job done. Just don’t call the film uninspired because you know as well as I that Cranston would never let such a thing happen.

The actor manages to convert what ends up being by and large predictable into a fascinating study of character. Mazur enjoys his job even with the danger it brings, but he doesn’t commit to high-risk jobs as a way to escape the doldrums of his home life — he’s happily married with Evelyn (Juliet Aubrey) and dearly loves his daughter Andrea (Lara Decaro). He enjoys what he does for a living because he’s also very good at it. The movie, his “last assignment,” keeps the perspective limited to his own, making all the mingling and consorting and bribery a devoted family man finds himself so naturally doing all the more unsettling.

Also adept at faking the hustle is Emir Abreu (John Leguizamo), a stark contrast to Mazur’s poker-faced professionalism. He’s a loose cannon who embraces the potential thrills offered by new assignments. This one could be the mother of all thrills: a take-down of high-priority Colombian drug traffickers working for the one and only Pablo Escobar, ‘El Zar de la Cocaina.’ Their target is Roberto Alcaino (Benjamin Bratt), Escobar’s main merchandise handler. Leguizamo is a nice touch as he adds a vulnerability that often veers into comedic relief but the funny is never oversold. Lest we forget, there’s little time for laughter when you’re neck-deep in people who have made careers out of making other, usually more innocent people disappear, often in horrible ways.

The story is fairly straightforward and there will be no surprises for those even moderately well-versed in crime dramas. And those who are probably know that these kinds of movies are only as good as the threat that our good guys are up against. The Infiltrator comes heavily armed with Bratt’s quietly brutal Alcaino and a whole assortment of unstable, varyingly psychotic drug-addicted personalities. Villains are more than just caricatures; the seedy side of life is depicted matter-of-factly and bloodshed isn’t shown to up the thrill count. It’s there to shock and shock it does: the “auditioning” scene is a particularly blunt and cruel microcosm of the world into which Musella has stepped.

The Infiltrator is universally well-acted. On the home front, Aubrey’s Evelyn is a fiercely strong woman who must confront the realities of her husband’s unique profession. Not knowing what kind of a person she’s going to be greeted at the door with night in and night out evolves into a narrative of great concern and Aubrey sells that anguish well. Mazur/Musella reports regularly to Special Agent Bonnie Tischler, played by a possibly never-better Amy Ryan who clearly relishes the opportunity to play the golden-gun-carrying, tough-as-nails U.S. Customs special agent who takes no bullshit from anyone. And Diane Kruger rounds out a strong ensemble playing Kathy Ertz, an agent who’s never gone undercover before and finds herself helping Mazur keep his own story straight.

Stylish, genuinely gripping and sensationally well-performed, Furman’s exploration of the American drug trafficking epidemic can’t escape familiarity but it doesn’t have to when it’s so successful proving why certain well-traveled roads are the ones to take. I loved this movie for its complete and utter lack of pretense. It never tries to be anything it’s not.

Bryan Cranston gets mean in 'The Infiltrator'

Recommendation: Fun might not be the best word to throw around when talking about the escalating drug trafficking crisis but The Infiltrator makes the experience . . . shall we say, worth the while. As if there were any doubt, the performances are what make this movie a must-see for anyone who enjoys what the former Malcolm in the Middle dad is doing with his career these days.

Rated: R

Running Time: 127 mins.

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

Kill the Messenger

ktm-poster

Release: Friday, October 10, 2014 (limited)

[Theater]

Written by: Peter Landesman 

Directed by: Michael Cuesta

Stories like this make me feel better about writing about less hardcore things than politics  . . . . like movies. Because even as a much-loathed film critic your work may come home with you, but it’s not likely to ever actually follow you home. (Unless, of course, your name is Armond White.) I don’t want to become Armond White.

Jeremy Renner puts down that fancy bow and arrow of his — at least for the moment, until Tony Stark screws up again — to pick up notepad and digital audio recorder in this grounded, tense drama about American investigative journalist Gary Webb, an ambitious man who ended up exposing one of the most controversial and disturbing sociopolitical developments of the mid-1990s and later would go on to win a posthumous Pulitzer Prize for the effort.

The American ‘crack epidemic’ of the 1990s, when compared to catastrophically violent and global paranoia-inducing developments such as 9/11 and the ensuing war on terrorism, might now seem something dangerously close to irrelevant; merely an irregularity in the rhythm of the cultural heartbeat. To dismiss as forgettable the moment in which the public became aware of certain facts involving the United States government and the sudden discovery of a massive influx of crack-cocaine on American streets would be to crush one particular journalist’s life work under the rubble of indifference. And in this case indifference might very well be worse than the reception that was awaiting him when he first broke the news.

That, in case you were wondering, was a tidal wave of overwhelming doubt, hissing criticism and public shunning. It would all culminate in Webb’s questionable suicide ten Decembers ago.

In 1996 the San Jose Mercury News, the modest city paper Webb reported for, published his most ambitious work, a three-part, 20,000-word exposé generously detailing the corruption within the CIA as it related to Nicaraguan rebels (or Contras). It asserted the profits made off of the black market distribution to susceptible Los Angelinos (and one can only imagine how far beyond) went to funding, and perhaps even arming and supplying, the rebels. Though, Webb doesn’t quite point the finger directly. His work suggests members within the CIA were aware of the situation, and that President Reagan shielded inner-city drug dealers from prosecution in order to allow for the transactions to occur. Beyond the ego this publication, now infamously known as The Dark Alliance, is where trouble would begin in earnest for Webb.

As the titular ‘messenger,’ Renner amps up his intensity. Sufficiently a leading man — an oddly amiable one at that — he’s distinctly human but there exists beneath the surface a machine set on overdrive. Clearly something compels this character that surpasses familial duty, a persistence that doesn’t allow a father and husband to sleep well at night. Why can’t he stop digging deep into extremely treacherous affairs? Or perhaps the better question: what, if anything, would motivate him to cease and desist? If nothing else, Kill the Messenger goes to prove the lengths required to secure that most coveted of career affirmations.

Cuesta manages to set the performance against a satisfactorily researched background. We travel to dangerous prisons, hold casual (and not so casual) conversations with incredibly dangerous and idealistic extremists, and we flirt with the opposition as much as we shun our friends. Even if we pass through many security checkpoints with a little too much ease and conveniently skip through certain plot details, the development is sufficient enough to leave minimal questions about the actual investigating part. His supporting cast — Rosemarie Dewitt (who plays Webb’s dutiful wife Sue), Mary Elizabeth Winstead (as Webb’s editor Anna Simons), and Oliver Platt (who takes on the role as Mercury News executive editor Jerry Ceppos) — all contribute thoroughly. Unfortunately Ray Liotta and Michael Sheen are wasted in cameos.

Considering the big picture, Renner’s staunch determination conflicted with more than his readers and the general public. When personal relations and friendships become involved, this is where Michael Cuesta’s directorial limitations are exposed as the slump into depression and the subsequent loss of virtually all personal and financial value are hardly unexpected. Not that these things aren’t difficult to experience. This is what really happened (an approximation, anyway). It’s just as incredible to watch how one story, a single idea can consume a person.

ktm-2

3-5Recommendation: Kill the Messenger offers a strong lead performance for an often overlooked and steadily rising talent (original casting choices favored the likes of Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise — yawn). A not-so-subtle indictment of an American society (and of news outlets most damningly) that doubted a single journalist could dig up this much dirt on this many people possessing this much power. For aspiring journalists, this movie might be a must. Not necessarily for the reminding about ethical boundaries and how not to cross them (Webb’s whistleblowing strategy is certainly not a good example) but more so for a clear illustration of the difference between healthy and unhealthy obsession.

Rated: R

Running Time: 112 mins.

Quoted: “I thought my job was to tell the public the truth, the facts; pretty or not, and let the publishing of those facts make a difference in how people look at things, at themselves, and what they stand for. . .”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com