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.”

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

That Ryan Reynolds Movie Everyone is Talking About


Release: Friday, May 18, 2018

→Theater

Written by: Rhett Reese; Paul Wernick; Ryan Reynolds

Directed by: David Leitch

In Deadpool Deuce, Wade Wilson’s greatest enemy isn’t some psychotic surgeon, a mutant-hating criminal or even those gosh-darn regenerative powers of his, but rather the writers who are trying to keep things interesting. The highly-anticipated sequel takes all the R-rated, fourth-wall-breaking elements that made its predecessor a smash-hit and amplifies them. The formula certainly still works, even if all those steroids still can’t mask a fundamentally weak story. And besides, nothing is quite like a first encounter.

Digging deeper into its X-Men roots, the gleefully profane and gory sequel continues the murderous crime-thwarting exploits of cancer-riddled Wade Wilson, a.k.a. Deadpool, as he assembles the X-Force in order to protect an unstable young mutant named Russell Collins, a.k.a. Firefist (Julian Dennison), from the time-traveling cyborg Cable, played by Josh Brolin in his second role as a Marvel villain in as many months. Considerably less devastation follows in his wake this time, though. Meanwhile, a more important subplot finds this reviewer finally reunited with the Maltesers he was looking for — but would they last him the length of the film?*

Spoiler alert: no, no they would not. (In my defense trailers these days are 5 hours long.)

David Leitch, the director of John Wick — less charitably referred to here as the guy who killed John Wick’s dog — takes over the reigns from Tim Miller. Whereas Miller was tasked with giving a fairly obscure Marvel character the right entrance, Leitch’s film aspires to add — dare I even say it? — emotional depth. Both are unenviable positions to be in and ultimately are equally thankless when you consider how their influence pales in comparison to that of their star actor. I mean, it’s undeniable now — Ryan Reynolds is the most influential super-personality since Robert Downey Jr. became Tony Stark. He is this franchise.

On the evening of their anniversary, Wade and his fiancée Vanessa (Morena Baccarin) start talking about the possibility of having a little family of Deadpools. But when work follows him home that night with tragic results, it leaves Wade utterly distraught . . . and global audiences watching him attempt to end his life in a rather buzz-killing montage of self-destruction. It’s all for naught, though, since he can’t die and his dear friend Colossus (Stefan Kapičić) comes to pick up the pieces of Humpty Dumpty, taking him back to the Xavier School for Gifted Youngsters to recuperate and where Colossus hopes to recruit him into the X-Men. The problem is, Deadpool typically operates one way and the X-Men quite another. Add to that the fact that Wade isn’t exactly in a merciful mood at this point in time, and welp. You get the Escape Plan-esque Ice Box scene.

As was made abundantly clear in the first installment, the titular character is a Marvel (anti-)hero forged from immense physical suffering that has rendered him Johnny Knoxville in Bad Grandpa skin. That suffering continues here, except now that the threshold of physical pain has been reached the only thing Wade has left that can be broken is his spirit. To that, Deadpool 2 isn’t a sequel that “goes bigger,” but one that tries to cut deeper. It offers an emotional trial that goes for profound but instead comes across shallow and hard to trust in the face of all that unbridled cynicism. What kind of a father would Wade actually make? Will he ever not be a disappointment to his friend Colossus, who sees more in the mercenary? Does any of this really matter, given what one of the post-credits sequences suggests?

‘Emotional trial’ becomes this catch-all term for what pretty much everyone is going through in this movie. Suffering is true not only of our human-condom-looking hero, but as well the villains and the would-be villains. Firefist, the mutant to which the most significant action accrues, has suffered a terrible childhood at the hands of staff at the Mutant Reeducation Center, a dilapidated facility run by the mutant-hating, Bible-thumping Headmaster Daniel (Eddie Marsan). Marsan is a reliable actor, yet he is only allowed to carve out a very stock villain here, despite his fascinating and brutal backstory of mutant molestation and experimentation and such. Then there is Brolin’s cyborg dude, who has traveled back in time to pull a Minority Report on Firefist, who will in the future perpetrate a terrible act against Cable’s family.

Deadpool 2 fuses these journeys together in a way that, par the genre, defies logic in service of thematic convenience and always finds the most important people in the right location in time for the big showdown — “the big CGI fight,” as it were. The entire film is predictable, and it damn well knows it too — the screenplay even has a part installed where Reynolds points this out to us — but self-deprecation isn’t a great substitute for a truly compelling narrative. At least one with real consequences. This is a second chapter, but the stakes are actually lower than ever now because we have become accustomed to the blasé attitude. The movie may as well open with a title card declaring everything will be okay at the end. It is that shameless — and I love it for that — but holy burned teddy bears is it predictable.

Despite all of that there are some developments that are actually surprising. Like the one stowaway Malteser I found at my crotch when I shifted in my seat for the 80th time late in the film. Surprise candy stashes notwithstanding, new additions like Domino (Zazie Beetz) and Peter (Rob Delaney — famous overnight) help refresh the atmosphere, while stalwart vets like Blind Al (Leslie Uggams) and Dopinder (Karan Soni) enthusiastically await their turn to make another impression. These characters together succeed in forming a spirited, if insane camaraderie. They make a crazy but lovable family, and since a sense of family is usually enough to give emotional depth to a second installment, I can let slide a lot of what this sequel doesn’t do very well, or isn’t interested in doing, and laugh on anyway.

* For anyone out of the loop on this, I refer you back to this monthly round-up post

Recommendation: The Merc with a Mouth returns in fine form, contractually obligated to be even mouthier than he was in the first, delivering rapid-fire insults as casually as he delivers death to those standing in his way. Fans expecting more of the same intensity from Ryan Reynolds as he fends off against new opposition and audience expectation aren’t leaving this one disappointed. Then again, the acting has never been Deadpool’s weakness. He’s got great support from a lively cast but the story could really use some more oomph. 

Rated: the rating that is one tier above PG-13

Running Time: 7,199 secs. 

Quoted: “Dubstep’s for pussies!” 

“You’re so dark. Are you sure you’re not from the DC Universe?”

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

Month in Review: October ’17

To encourage a bit more variety in my blogging posts and to help distance this site from the one of old, I’m installing this monthly post where I summarize the previous month’s activity in a wraparound that will hopefully give people the chance to go back and find stuff they might have missed, as well as keep them apprised of any changes or news that happened that month.

Ah, nothing like putting out a Month in Review post a week late. And as you may have noticed, October was another insanely busy month of film reviewing on Thomas J. For those of you who have been able to keep up with this blistering pace, man. You all are the real MVP. And I thank you with one winky face.

😉

In this edition join me on the confession couch as I open up about major movie omissions and my inexplicably resurgent interest in watching more Independence Day. I also lament the disappearance of my all-time favorite movie candy and $6 Tuesdays.

Thor: Ragnarok — TONIGHT! See you there?


New Posts

New Releases: Stronger; The Foreigner

Blindspot Selection: Cujo (1983)


What’s Been Playing in the Background

October introduced me to Bladerunner. You read me right. I had never seen Ridley Scott’s classic science fiction epic until a few weeks ago. I instantly fell in love, but then, that was kind of my destiny. The Tears in Rain monologue in particular trapped me in a glass case of emotion. I don’t know how you really sort through your favorite movie moments of all time, but I do know that Roy Batty’s eventual acceptance of his own mortality is one of them. The plan was, of course, to see the original in advance of the premiere of Denis Villeneuve’s sequel. You haven’t missed anything there. As soon as I see 2049, you’ll know about it.

And speaking of falling in love: Stranger Things 2 will be my winter warmer for the next several weeks. This show is phenomenal and I have become so cozy in its world. I expect to find much solace in it while House of Cards, my first true Netflix love, is apparently collapsing.

But here’s where things get weird. While I’ve been procrastinating tending to my Blind Spot reviews and learning what those Nexus replicants are all about, I’ve had no such hesitation returning (again and again) to that terrible and awful and embarrassing sequel to Independence Day. (If you’re going to throw things at me after reading this, try to at least throw things that are soft. You know, pies and things of that nature. No beer bottles, please.) Anyway, yeah. It didn’t take many not-very-sober viewings to confirm that indeed Resurgence is, as the French would say, merde. But then I started to think about how dumb it was that Jeff Goldblum saved us from those little green bastards by infecting the mother ship with a computer virus . . . in an age where we were running Windows ’95.

Big Tom has realized that some things in this world just aren’t as holy as they were to Little Tom. The sequel may be in direct competition with Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice in terms of being 2016’s most hated movie. Audiences everywhere took this long-delayed/ill-advised sequel as a personal sleight. The writers had 20 years to prepare, apparently — so why didn’t they prepare better lines? “This is definitely bigger than the last one” is a pretty poor attempt to deflect from the fact that there’s really no justifying the aliens coming back. But, whatever. This movie has grown on me, like a benign tumor. Dr. Brakish Okun’s reappearance is the most unlikely thing ever, but I’m glad it was able to be contrived. Brent Spiner is a lot of fun in these movies. And though Liam Hemsworth is no Will Smith, I’ve also warmed to him. So here is where I stand  (and talk about damning with faint praise): Resurgence has improved from being “terrible and awful and embarrassing” to being just “terrible.”

Meanwhile, and on a less serious note (what am I talking about, this is way more serious!), my regular enjoyment of movie theater snacks has been somewhat interrupted because of Maltesers. Specifically, the disappearance thereof. My local AMC theater used to carry them. It was pretty random, though. You get shelves overflowing with American confections and then you get this one British outcast. As someone who regularly shuns concessions at the theater because things like the Dollar Tree exist and you can buy candy there for less than the mark-up price at the theater, I made the exception for these tasty little pooh-colored morsels.* What do they expect me to do now, go back to Skittles? Ugh.

This isn’t as annoying as my even-more-local Cinépolis seemingly doing away with $6 ticket Tuesdays. Down the road from me is a crummy little complex at the end of a crummy little strip mall where crummy projectors often play good movies, but those discount rates have made visits there more attractive. That theater has changed ownership more times than I can count, yet $6 night has been the one constant. (Well that and the fact that you really don’t want to touch anything once inside the theater.) The price may have only gone up a dollar, but what’s to stop it going up again? And if it does, I may have to start prioritizing my theater trips. It may well be time I start ravaging Netflix for more alternatives. Maybe I’ll become a more regular patron of AMC if it does one of two things: 1) diversifies its weekly showings or, better yet 2) BRINGS BACK MY DAMNED MALTESERS!


Double Feature

Baby Driver · June 28, 2017 · Directed by Edgar Wright · If all you need is one killer track, I choose Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver. This high-energy heist film leaks charisma all over the road as it follows a youthful and talented getaway driver named Baby (Ansel Elgort) who burns rubber day and night for Doc, a shady mob boss played by Kevin Spacey. When a meet-cute with a diner waitress (Lily James) pumps the brakes on Baby’s aimless drifting, Doc’s Good Luck Charm must make a choice between a life of crime and an uncertain future with Debora. The story’s assembled out of parts from countless other films of course, but it’s the synergy between the production’s aural and visual elements that not only make Baby Driver instantly engaging, but consistently and almost unreasonably entertaining. The choreography on display is such that Wright’s new movie becomes more a musical sans the random dance interludes, one where the song selection may be important but the placement of those songs is where the true artistry lies. Jonathan Amos and Paul Machliss’ editing entrances with rhythmic precision and the director’s familiar energy and passion ensure the project steers as far away as possible from self-conscious affectedness, while barreling down the road with purpose and a great sense of humor toward something more pure and honest. One of the summer’s most feel-good and bittersweetly fleeting escapades. (4/5)

Only the Brave · October 20, 2017 · Directed by Joseph Kosinski · Only the Brave presents Mother Nature as an ultimate and merciless foe as a group of dedicated firefighters seek to prove themselves among America’s most elite responders. From the director of such vacuous (if gorgeous) sci fi fare as Tron: Legacy and Oblivion comes an altogether more impressive work, one that deftly balances visual spectacle with touching human drama. Joseph Kosinski’s steadily absorbing tribute pulls inspiration from the GQ article by Sean Flynn, dedicating the bulk of its two-hour running time to fleshing out a handful of the 20-member Granite Mountain Hotshots, a Prescott, Arizona-based squad who faced the ultimate test when they came up against the infamously deadly Yarnell Hill fire in the summer of 2013. The cinematic treatment benefits from an all-star cast who provide great depth to broadly drawn characters, with Josh Brolin leading the charge as the gruff but likable crew supervisor Eric Marsh, torn between his professional and personal commitments. He’s got a lot of support from the likes of James Badge Dale and Taylor Kitsch who contribute to the Band of Brothers-esque camaraderie but arguably overshadowing them all is Miles Teller as Brendan ‘Donut’ McDonough, a former heroin addict who vows to turn his life around by seeking employment with the volunteer fire department. Only the Brave may be the beneficiary of the gut-wrenching facts upon which it is based (the likes of which you are strongly encouraged to ignore until after you’ve experienced the film), and yet the contributions of Academy Award winners Jeff Bridges and Jennifer Connelly are as indelible as they’ve ever been. (4/5)

 

* If you’ve never had Maltesers, don’t let anyone try to convince you they’re the English equivalent of Whoppers. That’s a HEINOUS lie.

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

Hail, Caesar!

'Hail Caesar!' movie poster

Release: Friday, February 5, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Ethan Coen; Joel Coen

Directed by: Ethan Coen; Joel Coen

There’s a new Coen brothers film out in theaters and it is called Hail, Caesar! It chiefly depicts a day in the life of a 1950s Hollywood fixer, a man charged with ensuring that studio productions stay on track and avoid disruption or shut-down due to various intervening factors, not least of which being a movie star’s actions away from the set. Call it a function of public relations but this custodial role actually seems even more thankless.

As a modest Coen brothers fan, I bought a ticket. I watched as the film played. When it was over, I got up and headed for the exit. I got into my car and drove home. Such is the perfunctory, mechanical, obligatory, bland, boring manner in which the Coens chose to “make” their new film. This is a total head-scratcher, a real WTF-er.

All the elements seem to be in place for an uproarious, clever comedy. The talent is there behind the lens and the pens. The cast is the sort only directors with the kind of pull brothers Joel and Ethan now have can afford: Josh Brolin is the fixer, Eddie Mannix. George Clooney stars as Baird Whitlock, a name as epic as the film he’s starring in (you guessed it, Hail, Caesar!). Scarlett Johansson reinvests in her native New York accent playing DeeAnna Moran, the star of a spectacular water-themed production that will apparently involve lots of synchronized swimming, while Ralph Fiennes is a British director unhappy with a miscast  Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) in his stage drama. Frances McDormand isn’t exactly Marge Gunderson this time around but she does have the distinction of being in the film’s funniest scene (and it is great). Channing Tatum plays a tap-dancing Communist and Tilda Swinton has a double role as twin sister journalists.

Oh yeah, I think I forgot Jonah Hill but that’s okay, because so did the Coens. Hill’s cameo barely registers as it seems to have already had its time in previews that have played to death the little flirty moment he gets to have with Johansson. No harm, no foul though. At least I can say Hill is consistently compelling with the two lines of dialogue he gets.

Hail, Caesar! can hang its hat on other things besides its staffing. Visually, it’s a beautiful piece and a love letter to the Golden Age of Hollywood. A sparkling sepia filter bathes the backlots of 1950s studios in a warmth that belies the business-like approach of both Brolin and the narrative at heart. But it’s not all glamorous, for the Coens seem to be indicting Big Business while celebrating the end product, the beauty of filmic imagery and the devotion of a cast to see its completion. Hail, Caesar! is, if nothing else, confirmation that the ‘magic of movies’ really lies in the sequence and number of phone calls a studio exec happens to make. But please, I turn to the Coens to be entertained, not educated. Or maybe I came to be educated, too, but I still put my needs in that order.

The film does very little entertaining. In fact it’s a surprisingly meandering, mindless affair where plot threads begin and taper off out of nowhere; where the comedy comes in spurts and the weirdness rules with an iron fist. Hail, Caesar! is perhaps at its worst when tracing Mannix’s single biggest problem of the day: locating and returning Baird Whitlock who gets kidnapped from his own trailer. This is a subplot that goes nowhere. A group of Communist sympathizers explain to Whitlock the arrogance of studio executives and how they get off on making millions for themselves (and their higher-ups) while never properly paying those who contributed their creative talents — several of the members of this clandestine group are screenwriters, you see — thus the reason why they are holding one of Hollywood’s biggest names for ransom.

Yeah — take that, you big meanies! This arc would have been compelling had it made any effort to engage the audience but philosophical and ideological ramblings (which seem to have this weird effect on the movie star) offer a painfully obvious exit for any theatergoer not well-versed in the Coens’ tendency to wander aimlessly every now and then. This time I don’t blame those people that couple for leaving; Hail Caesar! spends way too much time indulging.

And then it leaves such little time for other stories, such as DeeAnna’s concern over raising her soon-to-be-born child and Hobie Doyle’s aspirations. Mannix offers to protect the former’s image of having a baby out of wedlock (this is the 1950s, remember) by allowing her to put her baby up for adoption until she can claim it without the public becoming any wiser. Doyle is having a hard time fitting into a more talky role and must decide if he wants the western to define him as an actor or if he wants to grow and develop into something more. At least he seems to be comfortable finding a date to the premier of one of his own movies.

There’s another half-baked story involving entertainment beat reporters Thora and Thessaly Thacker — anyone notice a pattern yet? — in which both are morbidly curious about the disappearance of Capitol’s prized possession in Baird Whitlock, and both still have questions about his legitimacy as a star in the first place. Some scandal about sleeping with a male director to get a role early in his career? What? You could almost consider the Thacker sisters prototypes of the folks over at TMZ, their ability to show up at any time and out of thin air simultaneously alarming and amusing.

The Thackers’ presence is microcosmic of the Coens’ unusually tedious throwback: at its best it is a mildly amusing, grin-inducing gossip column. At its worst it is a waste of time, with some moments so dreadfully boring it’s a wonder how a film that’s critical of the film-making process managed to keep them in the final cut.

Screen Shot 2016-02-11 at 4.23.51 PM

Recommendation: One of the Coens’ weakest efforts to date, Hail, Caesar! has its moments but too often the laughs are lost in an unfocused narrative that spreads itself too thin across an arguably too ambitious cast. That said, those who are cast in the film fit right into the scene and do well with what material they have. There’s no such thing as a bad performance here but it’s been a long time since I’ve seen a cast this good fail to compel in any significant way. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 106 mins.

Quoted: “Would that it were so simple . . .”

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 

Everest

Release: Friday, September 18, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: William Nicholson; Simon Beaufoy

Directed by: Baltasar Kormákur

There are a great many A-list names attached to this cinematic treatment of a particularly dark chapter in the history of Mt. Everest, yet the only one that really matters is the one given to the mountain. As a climber forebodingly notes in the earlygoing, “Everest will always have the last word.” She certainly did on May 10, 1996 when eight climbers lost their lives on her unforgiving slopes, but even after that debacle the restless have remained steadfast in their beliefs that their time would soon be coming.

Ah, the hubris of the human race. We have to conquer every summit. Mine every depth, or die trying. And if not that, we find ourselves stringing wire between the world’s tallest buildings and walking across it as an act of rebellion in the face of monotonous existence. Nineteenth century environmental activist and outdoor enthusiast John Muir is famously quoted saying that “when mountains call, wise men listen.” I find it an incomplete thought, for the wisest of men also listen when mountains warn them not to do something. But in the case of the world’s tallest, most notorious peak, the allure has proven time and again to be too great. When out of oxygen just below a summit that is finally in sight, all one has left to burn is ego. Very rarely is that sufficient fuel. Everest, the concept, seems reckless and irresponsible, but then again it’s all part of a world I probably will never understand.

My perspective is irrelevant though, and so too are those of pretty much all climbers involved in Baltasar Kormákur’s new movie. Everest is an inevitability, the culmination of years’ worth of obscure documentary footage about the numerous (occasionally groundbreaking) ascents that have simultaneously claimed and inspired lives within the climbing community and even outside of it (after all, Mt. Everest tends to attract anyone with deep enough pockets and the determination to put their bodies through hell for a few months out of the year). This film is, more specifically, the product of a few written accounts from the 1996 expedition, including that of Jon Krakaeur, whose take (Into Thin Air) I still can’t help but feel ought to have been the point of view supplied.

Unfortunately I can’t review a movie that doesn’t exist so here goes this. Kormákur inexplicably attracts one of the most impressive casts of the year — actually, it does make sense: he needed a talented group to elevate a dire script, people who could lend gravitas to dialogue kindergarten kids might have written — to flesh out this bird’s eye view on a disastrous weekend on the mountain. Everest is a story about many individual stories and experiences, of loss and failure resulting from decisions that were made in the name of achieving once-in-a-lifetime success. It plays out like a ‘Best of’ Everest, but really it’s a ‘worst of’ because what happened to the expeditions led by the Kiwi Rob Hall (Jason Clarke, standing out from the pack) and American go-getter Scott Fischer (Jake Gyllenhaal) was nothing short of tragic.

If the movie focuses on anyone or anything in particular it’s Clarke’s indomitable spirit, and I suppose in some morbid way that’s the most effective use of our time when witnessing a disaster that claimed multiple lives. Hall’s the most developed character, he was an expedition leader, he’s portrayed by the incredibly affable Clarke and his fate marks Everest‘s gut-wrenching emotional crux. Everyone remembers that heartbreaking radio call he made to his wife Jan Arnold (an emotional Keira Knightley) after being left alone high up on the mountain in the wake of the storm that turned the expedition’s descent into an all-out dog fight against the extreme elements. Quite likely it’s the bit that will end up defining Kormákur’s otherwise bland adventure epic. It’s what I’m remembering the most now a couple days after the fact and it’s a painful memory to say the least.

Everest may not work particularly well as a human drama — there are simply too many individuals, prominent ones, for the story to devote equal time to — but as a visual spectacle and a testament to the power of nature, crown the film a victor. The mountain has never looked better, and of course by ‘better’ I mean terrifying, menacing, a specter of suffering and voluntary torture. The Lhotse Face, the Khumbu icefall, the Hilary Step — all of the infamous challenges are present and accounted for. Memories of Krakaeur’s personal and physical struggle as he slowly ticked off these landmarks on his way to the top come flooding back. Along with them, the more nagging thoughts: why is a great actor like Michael Kelly sidelined with such a peripheral role here? Why is his role ever-so-subtly antagonistic? But then Salvatore Torino’s sweeping camerawork distracts once again, lifting us high into the Himalayas in a way only the literal interpretation of the visual medium can.

With the exception of a few obvious props and set pieces, Everest succeeds in putting us there on the mountain with these groups. While it’s not difficult to empathize with these climbers — Josh Brolin’s Beck Weathers being the most challenging initially — the hodgepodge of sources create a film that’s unfocused and underdeveloped. It all becomes a bit numbing, and unfortunately not the kind brought on by bone-chilling temperatures and hurricane-force winds.

Recommendation: Unfocused and too broad in scope, Everest means well in its attempts to bring one of the most notorious days on the mountain to the big screen but it unfortunately doesn’t gain much elevation beyond summarizing all of the accounts we’ve either read about or heard about on Discovery Channel and History Channel specials. The visuals are a real treat, though I have no idea why this whole 3D thing is being so forcefully recommended as of late. I watched it in regular format and had no issues of feeling immersed in the physical experience. I just wish I could have gotten more out of it psychologically.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 121 mins.

Quoted: “Human beings simply aren’t built to function at the cruising altitude of a 747.”

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

Sicario

Release: Friday, October 2, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: Taylor Sheridan

Directed by: Denis Villeneuve

In Sicario we get to take a tour south of the U.S.-Mexico border, heading to Ciudad Juárez to infiltrate the infamously violent and complex system of drug cartels that has consumed Juárez so completely it has become responsible for the random abductions of tourists and citizens alike from the streets of El Paso (an American city about 10-20 minutes from the official border), some of which occur in broad daylight. Villeneuve’s seventh feature film takes us into the lion’s den and forces us to wait around for the lion. It’s the kind of spine-tingling fear horror films wish they could inspire.

What’s most horrific is there’s nothing about Sicario that feels removed from our present-day reality. If you live in the United States you have almost no escape from news stories about escalating tensions along the Mexican border. The term ‘war on drugs’ has been ingrained into our vocabulary and on occasion we might find ourselves even using the term, almost unwittingly, in conversation. History books need to update what they consider to be the murder capital of the world, because for now it is Juárez. While the film’s events are fictionalized, they often carry the weight of the surreal headlines we’ve been appalled by. Bodies hanging from bridges with parts lopped off, as one example.

Unlike with a great many films you pay to watch in a comfy theater, you don’t simultaneously leave this movie and the problem it introduces behind. Although you’re not likely to lose sleep over the matter — especially a film that technically is dramatizing reality — Sicario is a different kind of film, one that doesn’t really feel cinematic. On that ground alone Villeneuve has accomplished something remarkable here. His latest effort is more journalistic than a fictional account, taking us deep into a dark and dangerous world that is often bypassed during our daily channel surfing from the couch because, well, the whole situation is sort of depressing.

Emily Blunt, playing idealistic (maybe naïve is the better word) FBI agent Kate Macer, serves as our access into the action. She is asked if she would like to join an elite task force that will be going after an anonymous drug kingpin, a group whose methods are going to differ from her own by-the-books modus operandi. She’s quickly persuaded by Josh Brolin’s Matt Graver, a man whose laid-back attitude is at once comforting and unnerving, to volunteer because he makes a good point: the work she’s doing in Arizona is trivial in comparison. Thus Sicario is viewed from her perspective; our discomfort owed to escalating violence and unspecific mission objectives that constantly put Kate at odds with her colleagues.

Blunt is once again a revelation in an increasingly familiar role (I mean this in the best way possible) as a no-nonsense woman who finds herself out of her depth. She’s soft-spoken but her actions demonstrate the confidence we’ve been getting used to seeing from her as of late. Adding another strong female lead character to 2015’s all-too-elite list of names, Blunt effects a stoicism that may not be quite as strong as her bulletproof jackets, as she does occasionally come undone at the seams as the pressure of her duties mounts. But because she breaks — has anyone counted how many cigarettes she goes through? — she exposes the humanity buried underneath protective gear and a lot of ammo.

As good as she is though, she can’t deliver all the drama, much less react to it, alone. Taylor Sheridan is responsible for writing one of Benecio Del Toro’s career best roles as mysterious operative Alejandro Gillick, whose past experiences make the unit’s new mission extremely personal. His is not a talkative character, but when the stakes are this high what he doesn’t say is often as important as the things he does. Along with Brolin’s loose cannon Matt Graves, the trio assembled on screen is going to end up being one of the most impressive all year.

The casting certainly goes a long way in establishing Sicario as Villeneuve’s most solemn film yet (although I guess the jury’s still out on that as I have yet to see his Incendies and Polytechnique). Once again, though, it must be Villeneuve who deserves slightly more credit. As was the case in his unbearably tense Prisoners and to a lesser degree his mind-bending Enemy of last year, his directorial touch is driven by a need to take his characters to their breaking point and far beyond it. Think Alice in Wonderland, where Alice spends virtually the entire film tumbling down a rabbit hole to hell. Only . . . there is no Wonderland, and instead of magical talking cats and some semblance of whimsy (I realize I’m making a comparison to an already fairly dark tale) we get bullet-riddled bodies and no Mad Hatter tea party to look forward to.

Whereas Alice stepping into a world entirely not her own felt dreamlike and fantastical, this situation is a nightmarish hell on earth; the fact that Kate’s moral compass does her no good only exacerbates the collective stress in the room. Alejandro and Matt ensure us that their operation is legitimate despite their methods. I guess in this world you fight fire with firepower. Borders don’t exist; even the physical one doesn’t mean much. Like Prisoners, Sicario blurs the line between sound and corrupt morality and judgment, creating one of the most captivating cinematic events of 2015. Villeneuve drops his latest film like a bomber plane drops its primary weapon: confident it will hit its target with brutal force and that the effects will be both far-reaching and devastating. His confidence isn’t misplaced.

Recommendation: Sicario is heart-pounding, fist-clenchingly tense stuff, elevated to ridiculous levels by a game cast who might never have been better. In a business where movies often struggle to overcome the need to simply entertain, it’s nice to come across another one that has a bigger agenda than that. This crime drama is a real eye-opener, a stunningly well-crafted film that has a great chance of landing high on my list of the year’s best. A must-see.

Rated: R

Running Time: 121 mins.

Quoted: “You’re asking how the watch is made. Keep your eye on the time.”

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

Inherent Vice

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Release: January 9, 2015 (limited)

[Theater]

Written by:  Paul Thomas Anderson

Directed by: Paul Thomas Anderson

The Andersonian school of thought is that one ought to at least work a little for their entertainment. A movie featuring a bunch of booze, bongs and babes doesn’t seem like it would be hard to follow along with, but if you don’t know Anderson then know this: the undertaking is going to be inherently complex.

You know when you are being told that story about someone that knew someone else by way of their sister’s bestie who had a rude neighbor and it was that neighbor’s uncle who was important — and by the time Uncle has factored in to the story your attention is well on its way out the door? A similar phenomenon has been known to occur with this already infamously meandering tale about sex, drugs, a lot of paranoia and a little Private Eye-ing.

I suggest passing on this joint if you are the type to tune out of the Uncle anecdote before we even get to the Neighbor. For there are a whole lot of people to meet, an even greater pile of Hindu Kush to burn through and a sea of narrative drift and perhaps indulgently long takes to overcome before arriving at a conclusion that really doesn’t deliver much in the way of closure.

Joaquin Phoenix is tapped to portray a character in a story everyone thought impossible to adapt to the silver screen. Though the buzz has morphed into something else now: the adaptation is possible but perhaps not without throwing a lot of people, the stoned and the sober alike, into confusion after one too many character introductions. But let’s start from the beginning. Doc Sportello is awoken on his surf-side couch in southern California by the sudden reappearance of his ex, Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston), who tells him she’s got a new boyfriend.

The new Mr. Wonderful is someone of fair prominence, a shady real estate developer named Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts). There is a plot, either perceived or actual — just like a great many other situations at hand here — by Wolfmann’s wife (Serena Scott Thomas) and her extra-somethin’-somethin’ (Jordan Christian-Hearn) to have Mickey institutionalized for his wanting to join a clan of neo-Nazis, despite his being brought up Jewish.

This appears to be mission numero uno. On top of this, however, a smorgasbord of subplots start working their way into the fold, including one involving one of Mickey’s bodyguards, who currently owes a lot of dough to some thug named . . . ah, what’s the use with names . . . the guy is played by Michael Kenneth Williams. When Doc goes to investigate the bodyguard’s whereabouts he stumbles upon not a private home but a brothel; when he’s knocked unconscious there he awakens not to the sight of two beautiful girls fighting over his stash of smokable items but rather a disgruntled right-wing, anti-hippie detective named (this one’s important) Christian “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (an absolutely hilarious Josh Brolin) who demands he tell him who killed the bodyguard. And, who is responsible for the recent disappearance of Wolfmann and Shasta Fay.

Ding-ding-ding. Suddenly the priorities change for Doc. But first, another puff. Given the news of his “ex old lady,” he plunges himself deep into the murky waters of the So-Cal beach scene of the early ’70s, a scene that’s loath to obfuscate the difference between acceptable and unacceptable lifestyles — weed is for losers guys, but not cocaine — and assorted other addictions. Doc is a fish-out-of-water 9 times out of 10 as he’s high 10 times out of those same 10, possessing a kind of nonchalance that manifests more often as befuddlement. And of course Bigfoot, himself a former hippie but now more interested in gaining power and prestige, has a field day taking apart and putting back together the cliché that is Doc Sportello.

Behind the year’s best mutton chops lies a surprisingly perceptive private investigator, and a remorseful ex-boyfriend. Though the complexities of Inherent Vice don’t make it easy to access anything on a very deep level, Doc is easy to love. His life choices probably aren’t acceptable to many but when compared to the filth and squalor surrounding him, a misery that encrusts itself upon these shores like barnacles on a ship hull, his vices feel harmless. As Doc works alongside Bigfoot as a favor to him rather than being converted into an informant as requested, he is aided in the unraveling of this seemingly never-ending yarn by a true friend in Sauncho Smilax (Benecio del Toro), a man posing as a criminal lawyer.

There is no point in being vague: I did not understand or keep up with everything that went on during this incredibly sprawling investigation. I could have honestly benefitted from reading the book but there’s something about being confined in a theater chair, completely engrossed by what you’re watching without really any sense of direction or a clear path to the end. Inherent Vice is mesmeric in its ambition. Poetic in its cinematography; entertaining by virtue of its thematic depravity.

Ultimately and unfortunately, not an experience everyone will get high off of though.

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3-5Recommendation: Fans of Paul Thomas Anderson, we may not have the most coherent film ever but this is quite intentional. Readers of DSB, this is also not the most coherent review ever either. Intentional? I think not. This is a damned hard film to describe and I actually really dig that about it. The fundamentals are there for me: stunning cinematography, solid performances enhanced by an incredibly entertaining wardrobe selection, humor, an interesting plot and a hell of an atmosphere. If any of that appeals, hit this one in theaters while you can.

Rated: R

Running Time: 148 mins.

Quoted: “Doc may not be a ‘Do-Gooder,’ but he’s done good.”

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

Frank Miller’s Sin City: A Dame to Kill For

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Release: Friday, August 22, 2014

[Theater]

Okay so there apparently is a major self-destructive streak in me, for I went to see the purportedly ill-advised Sin City sequel and walked out a happy customer. Perhaps more so than I rightfully should have been, too.

Has it really been ten years since the last time we wallowed in the streets of Frank Miller’s sick and twisted imagination? (Actually, it’s been nine but who’s counting?) Point being, its enough time for a follow-up film to be rolled out to the sound of crickets chirping. Moderate fans of the first have all but forgotten that there ever were plans on revisiting this place. Diehards likely even struggled to maintain a reasonable level of optimism. Everyone else simply went about their lives.

See, these aren’t the kinds of films that really move the viewer. And A Dame to Kill For had no intention of changing that, but in a twist of irony it kind of did. It moved people to the point of total disinterest. I had five people in my screening on opening night. Five, myself included. And I didn’t go to the crappy theater at the mall this time, either. Grossing a measly $6.4 million over the weekend (approximately $22 million less than its predecessor), one of its competitors that was already three weeks into its own theatrical run, Guardians of the Galaxy, perhaps snatched that up within a couple of showings over that weekend alone.

I suppose me going on to say that Hartigan (Bruce Willis) is back but only for a paycheck won’t help anyone still on the fence about seeing this. Sure, Bruce’s here, but he’s literally in the background. Instead we get a new group of desperados born and bred in the filth of two of Miller’s graphic novels. He, along with returning director Robert Rodriguez, merges the titular novel with one called Just Another Saturday Night, along with two new stories created solely for the film. We first stumble upon a returning hard-man in Mickey Rourke’s battered and bruised Marv, who is seen picking himself up in the wake of a car crash. He starts recounting the last things he remembers and what brought him to this new low point. This part represents the second of two graphic novels used for the story.

Then, some new blood. Joseph Gordon-Levitt appears out of the blue (okay, the black-and-white) as a cocky but composed card player whose good fortune seems to know no bounds. Unfortunately, neither does his ego as he pits himself against one of the most ruthless scoundrels in all of Basin City — the one and only Senator Roarke (Powers Boothe). The Senator is back and more ruthless than ever, making it his personal mission to track down Johnny and reclaiming the money he “stole” at the game. Yeah, it doesn’t end well for Johnny.

And finally we come to the third main thread in Josh Brolin’s Dwight (played by Clive Owen in 2005), a man with a horrific past now doing his best to stay sober. That is, until the titular Dame comes into the picture, tempting Dwight back into a life he thought he had successfully gotten out of. Eva Green in this film doesn’t fit the description of ‘femme fatale;’ she doesn’t even epitomize it. She’s something else entirely, and it’s terrifying. (Well, I say ‘terrifying;’ others might have another word for it.) Macro-psychotic? Sexy? What?

Let’s actually talk about that for a second. How does A Dame to Kill For compare in its thematic presentation? If you recall, the day Sin City was released wasn’t exactly a red letter day for actresses the world over. Violent, sloppy and misogynistic to a fault, the movie indulged in sequences that had Jessica Alba’s hips gyrating, Rosario Dawson cleavage-ing, Devon Aoki compensating for her looks by just being a raging lunatic. But back then the over-the-top toplessness was. . .and forgive me for saying this. . .unique to the production design. The sheer lack of boundaries in terms of violence and sexuality contributed to the experience that was a solid graphic novel adaptation. Fast-forward nine years and the fact that Eva Green spends 90% of her scenes naked just comes across as sleazy and lazy.

Fortunately Nancy Carrigan’s story has an ever-so-slight silver lining to her dark cloud. Slipping into despair, the concubine chops her hair, mars her face with shards of glass (if women aren’t going to be sexy, they may as well destroy those useless good-looks, right?) and ultimately abandons her post dancing at the bar. Thank goodness. She makes moves to overcome her own personal hell, following Hartigan’s selfish act of suicide. Nancy then decides to partner up with Marv, who similarly has seen enough of this dirty old town.

Audiences clearly have already reached that threshold. But in the same way I find Rodriguez’ and Miller’s need to overcompensate for truly original storytelling with even more sexually explicit imagery and brutal violence an act of desperation (watch for an amusing cameo from All-State insurance guy Dennis Haysbert as Manute. . .and what happens to his poor eyeball), I view the mass amount of negativity heaped upon this release similarly desperate.

No, this is not Frank Miller’s Sin City, but it’s the next logical step and it is still a Frank Miller creation. It’s just too bad those who cared enough had to wait this long. There’s something to be said for the amount of power this trio of stories has likely lost after nearly a decade laying in wait.

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3-0Recommendation: An all-around consistent film in terms of appealing to its uniquely deranged fan base, A Dame to Kill For steps up the intensity of its thematic elements in an attempt to draw in fringes of a general interest audience. It may have failed in that regard, but for returning customers there’s enough to like here to warrant a ticket purchase, if not then definitely a rental at some point. On the other hand, if there was anything that put you off in Sin City, you probably could avoid this.

Rated: R

Running Time: 102 mins.

Quoted: “Never lose control, never let the monster out.”

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

Labor Day

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Release: Friday, January 31, 2014

[Theater]

I have had wet dreams that were more realistic than this — and more satisfying, too!

Jason Reitman (who directed noteworthy films like Up in the Air and Thank You For Smoking) attempts to sweep audiences off their feet with an untraditional approach to a very traditional genre. Labor Day is, in a certain sense, a fantasy since it banks so desperately on the hope that an illogical premise is overlooked in favor of the strengths of two reliable (and attractive) thespians. That part in parentheses is really the key: these people may be down on hard times, but my God, do they still look young and sexy. And that peach pie scene. . . whoa, buddy! How about we pump the brakes for a second.

The extent to which most of this set-up fails proves that this is mostly a delusional dream and not a romance digging its toes into the terra firma of reality.

Labor Day finds Kate Winslet playing an emotionally detached divorcée named Adele. She has a thirteen-year-old son named Henry (Gattlin Griffith) whose quiet, albeit poignant observations of his grieving mother are intended to guide us through the events of an unusual Labor Day weekend.

Since splitting from Gerald (a wasted Clark Gregg), Adele has taken up shelter in her home and rarely leaves, save for the odd grocery store run. On one such outing Henry is checking out some magazines to potentially take home (yes, those kind) when a man emerges out of nowhere, bleeding, and insists that he and Adele help him out for a few hours. The man is at once intimidating, assertive, and conveniently handsome. (Honestly, when are fantasies ever likely to include the ugly?) They awkwardly oblige to drive him back to their home, where he quickly reveals that he’s escaped from a second-story hospital room but only after managing to escape from prison sometime earlier. Both of these facilities should consider re-evaluating their security standards.

Much to Adele and Henry’s surprise this man, Frank, seems well-intentioned. He doesn’t resort to violence when forcing them to take him home, nor does he really seem to rise to anger. He’s even conscientious about what he’s doing; he implores with Adele to let him stay until nightfall, just enough time to let him rest his wounded body before going on the run again. This time frame of course extends into the next morning, and then the following day and then the day after that. He is a fugitive whose motives may differ from those of Adele but his actions parallel hers. These damaged souls are content to stow themselves away from a world seemingly out to get them.

There’s the occasional moment that makes Reitman’s latest film one worth laboring through, but chalk that up mostly to Winslet’s ability to appear vulnerable, afraid, as she must here. Together with Brolin she tries her best to buck the monotonous melancholy more than a few times, though this is perhaps the reason we awake from the fantasy in a cold sweat. The fact that these two form enough of a bond over the course of a weekend to generate feelings akin to love is a little hard to believe. Then again, wet dreams have never been very practical.

Speaking of all things practical, the perspective Reitman selects is hardly one of them, despite his film being an adaptation of Joyce Maynard’s novel of the same name. In fact in some places the perspective becomes downright bizarre. The story is intended to be filtered through Henry’s experience, yet the adults take center stage far too often. Barring a few creepy moments in which the young kid experiences not only the emotional changes that are suddenly taking place within the house but the physical ones as well, Henry’s character is relegated to the sidelines.

The only hint we get that this is told from the kid’s perspective is the usage of a voiceover that is read by an instantly forgettable Tobey Maguire (who shows up on screen for quite literally a few seconds as a twenty-something Henry late in the film). This none-too-subtle narration calls into question whether or not Maynard’s work should have been adapted for the screen. There are books out there that don’t necessarily lend themselves to the film treatment. Admittedly, her premise is intriguing, but it’s difficult to ignore the nagging feeling that much is lost in translation. Whereas Labor Day the film feels like an utter contrivance of the way in which human relationships develop, the book surely had more room to stretch these legs.

Heartfelt performances abound, and Brolin manages to hold his own when put up against an actress of Winslet’s stature surprisingly well, but their charm is not enough to overcome the many weaknesses inherent in this little dreamworld.

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2-0Recommendation: Talk about unrealistic expectations. It’s as if Rietman is channeling his inner Nicholas Sparks in this often cheesy and constantly eye-roll-inducing story about two people who go from complete strangers to passionate lovers in the space of a few days. If you also subscribe to the notion that the police are idiots who can’t do their jobs correctly, this is a film you have to see. There is absolutely no way any of this would go down in reality like so. But then again, there goes my overly analytical mind. Someone once told me, why can’t you let things just be nice? I should let that someone know that in this case, I really tried hard. I did. Maybe some of you out there will have more success.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 111 mins.

Quoted: “I’d take twenty more years just to have another three days with you.”

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