‘Sicario’: Review

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Jeez, I don’t think my palms have stopped sweating yet. This is a film that slowly ratchets up the tension very slowly, always bubbling under the surface, never fully exploding, until the multiple simmering paths of the film converge in the final act with this haunting release of power and uncertainty that makes things clearer, but not for the better for all those involved. There hasn’t been a film I’ve been looking forward to more in recent months than Sicario, and I’m glad to say it lives up to the hype. Denis Villeneuve delivers another knockout that cements is status as one of the go-to modern auteur filmmakers working today.

The film follows Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) a hot-shot FBI tactical team member who is recruited by a special task force led by Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) to take down a Mexican cartel operating within Mexico and past and into the American border. Along with the group is Alejandro (Benicio del Toro), a mysterious and calculated piece of the puzzle whose motivations provide paramount for the story as it unfolds. Macer finds herself immersed deeper and deeper with this task force who use methods she’s less than familiar with, and only questions deeper and deeper the true reason why she was the one chosen.

I’m obviously going to avoid spoilers, so I’ll leave it at that, but man, Blunt does an excellent job portraying this unraveling character who still maintains her composure, but is deeply rocked by all the side effects that start to come down on her by joining this group who she’s never entirely sure of. Questions loom, and slowly get answered, but are the kind where you were probably better off not knowing the answer if you’re one of the characters in the film. Macer wades through this as best as she can, trying to seek revenge on the cartel who killed officers under her command at the start of the film, but everything Macer finds out is a whole lot larger than a couple dead FBI agents to avenge.

Del Toro’s Alejandro is the lynch pin of the film, who begins as a quiet tertiary character, only until he slowly makes his way to the forefront of the film and blasts the entire thing wide open, and his deepest secrets are revealed. Del Toro is perfect as this mysterious guy who looks like he could easily swing from being a by-the-books family man to a stone-cold killer, or what have you. Brolin is also pretty perfect as the smug asshole leader who is just a little too entrenched in his way of life to see things any differently nowadays, a stark contrast to the green Macer.

The word I keep coming back to when thinking of this film is quite simple, “haunting,” mainly due to the exceptional work of Roger Deakins’ cinematography and of course the unmatched direction of Villeneuve. I would say this would be a slam dunk for Deakins to FINALLY get his Oscar, but then someone reminded me that The Revenant is still coming out to steal that, but still this is just yet another masterful piece of work from the best in the business. There’s a few shots in here that is literally just of dust floating and it’s some of the most well-shot scenes and I’ve seen in recent memory. Villeneuve and Deakins also wonderfully film the Mexican and Arizona deserts as both establishing shots, but also as to illustrate the eerie and emptiness of these areas.

It’s such a treat to have a film work on every one of its levels and add up to an extraordinary piece of work. The story is tense and thrilling, albeit lagging a bit in direction in the middle parts. The characters are interesting, defined, and all with several levels. And finally as I mentioned the film is shot so wonderfully and filled with expression in the bleakest of manners. I expect Oscar love for this, from Blunt, Del Toro and Deakins at the least, and hope it doesn’t get overshadowed like Villeneuve’s films have in the past.

Of course, yeah, Sicario is a crime thriller, but given the talent behind it it succeeds at being much more than that. In and of itself it is an excellent ride filled with tension, but gives its subject matter a lot of credence and manages to tell a small story in the grand scheme of things that is relevant to the war on drugs and Mexican cartels in the larger sense. In that forever and seemingly equally going forward the drug war in Mexico and abroad, spearheaded by these numerous cartels are all just multiple parts of the same seven headed dragon. No matter how much a dent you think you put into something, there’s always another party just waiting to fill that space and leave you wondering if all that bloodshed was worth anything. It’s a vicious circle and one that Sicario does a masterful job outlining and revealing its true and real ugliness.

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‘Straight Outta Compton’: Review

Straight Outta Compton

So, here we are 25 years after their hey-day and anti-establishment/authority defining group N.W.A. gets their own Hollywood Summer blockbuster-esque bio-pic grossing $60 million in their first weekend, the best in history for this type of film. Quite the evolution.

Admittedly N.W.A. was some of, if not the first rap music I not only listened to, but went back to and listened again and again. Their final album was released six months before I was born, and although I could never relate to their specific issues growing up that channeled into their music, something always resonated in me with them, particularly their themes about not caring about what other people think and doing whatever you wanted. I always gravitated to Eazy-E, I think mainly due to his voice, delivery and the charisma he oozed that just made you want to listen to song after song to hear his voice brood about his life.

I was a little apprehensive going into the film about how biased it would and what picture it would paint over the tumltuous (at the very least) history of the group and everything that spun out of it that would lay the foundation of rap for the rest of the 90s and early 2000s. Obviously, current day Ice Cube and Dr. Dre were producers of the film and championed pretty much every part of it and would tailor it to their liking. Most notably how they would treat Eazy, and how far they would go with things. Ultimately, they went just as far as really would be expected that didn’t stray too far away away from reality and didn’t completely gloss over more truly what went on. I don’t know if things were as truly amicable and “wrapped in a bow” as they were in the film, but it skirts the line enough that the fiction doesn’t completely overshadow the truth. I would’ve been interested to see in some alternate world an unbiased source taking a crack at things with all the same resources, but as it stands it is a worthy and reputable film for the namesake.

Most impressively that made the film work, and would’ve quite so easily made it fail immediately and they not succeeded were the performances by O’Shea Jackson, Jr., Corey Hawkins and Jason Mitchell as Ice Cube, Dr. Dre and Eazy E. It’s gotta be hard to begin with to play a real-life figure, but tacking on top of that the added mannerisms, characteristics and performance qualities of these rappers who have been lauded in the public for years must’ve been exceptionally difficult. But, to their credit, each actor nails their role, with Jackson, Jr. stealing the show playing his father, which must’ve been really weird and daunting at the same time. I will say one thing that was kind of too much for me and sort of weird was when they had the actors performing songs whether it was in the studio or on stage, it was the actualy recording of whatever song that the real-life rappers had rapped, so it would be the master track of Ice Cube rapping coming out of Jackson, Jr.’s mouth which provided an unnerving disconnect that didn’t work.

The success of the film feels very warranted, it not only caters to older fans who grew up with the group and through these events, playing up them recording these classic tracks to the appearances of landmark figures like Snoop Dogg and Tupac, but it also moves along at a surprisingly fast clip (for the first 3/4 or so, anyways) and doesn’t really wallow in much before it’s pushing things forward. I think the film was a touch too long and thus drags a bit in the final act, but bio-pics usually land on the longer side and something of the heft and convergence of events at the end really isn’t an ending as it’s really just a beginning in the even more now illustrious careers of Ice Cube and Dr Dre.

7/10

‘Guardians Of The Galaxy’: Review

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I couldn’t take it anymore, I had to succumb to the peer pressure of the Summer movie bonanza that I don’t take in anymore. I still like blockbusters that these months provide, but I just don’t care enough anymore to actually trek out in public with other people (ugh) and watch the same thing I see every summer with a bunch of strangers. I’ve also been a bit sick of comic book films of late, again they’re usually fun to look at and watch, but are just increasingly so much of the same that it just doesn’t seem a necessity to watch them that ravenously anymore, where the Blu-Ray release will suffice.

Well, Guardians of the Galaxy had seemingly changed all that, and I was bored so I actually ventured out to see my first movie of the Summer. Now, I’m no alien to the film or its development, I’ve been a huge James Gunn fan for years and was ecstatic to see him get a project of this magnitude and see so much trust put into him, so it’s super cool to see it insanely pay off for him. Everything looked cool with an interesting cast and a band of characters that were like the Avengers rejects type, that didn’t look all that cool or had amazing superheroes.

The main thing the film delivers, and obviously it’s intended feeling was fun. It’s just a lot of fun to go on this adventure with these characters and explore the oddities of their world with the oddball humour that James Gunn has always been known for, just multiplied on a 100 times bigger scale. The casting is perfect with Chris Pratt channelling his dumb and sarcastic model that must be like reading the back of his hand to play. I was so suspect during the production that Bradley Cooper would really be the best choice as Rocket Racoon’s voice as I really didn’t think he had the energy and life in his character to make Rocket everything he was supposed to be, but I was definitely wrong on that. Dave Bautista was your typical nowadays WWE star in a mainstream movie, and somehow was able to pull off the role of a big, dumb lug. Zoe Saldana didn’t really do anything crazy, but she was just as fine as she normally is.

The film really had presence to, a feeling that this wasn’t just some slapped together film by a group of executives or focus groups. It had a driving force and a spark to it that really separates itself from other superhero movies of late (even though it’s really not a superhero movie). I also loved James Gunn sticking to his roots, of course he did, by having Michael Rooker and his brother Sean Gunn in decently sized parts, and even a cameo by Nathan Fillion that I seemingly missed. So, thanks James Gunn in proving that there’s still room for a little heart in your mult-million dollar Marvel Summer blockbuster.

8/10

‘The Great Beauty (La Grande Bellezza)’: Review

The Great Beauty

The Great Beauty is indeed that, a great beauty to look at. It’s not only a gorgeous film to look at, but it’s film in an equally beautiful way as well. Rome is the backdrop for a film that looks to explore the wonders of life, in past, present and future, as an aging man recounts his life in a position of change. The film embodies a life of high luxury, countless parties, love and what have you, the ultimate dream life for a person. It uses the imagery to not only shape what Jep, our main character, has enjoyed his life through, but also how it has shaped him.

Ultimately, the film is a celebration of life. Jep looks back on all these events throughout his life, how they have shaped him to who he is now, and the pleasures of his adventures. I think The Great Beauty is interested in all these disparate ends that create a person and make up yourself, whether you like it or not. From the people you meet, fall in and out of love with, where you live and party, it makes who you are.

On the other side, Jeb just kind of fell into all this, having wrote a famous novel, and just living off its success for the rest of his life. Feeling some regret, having all the opportunity ahead of him and all just to spend it partying the rest of his life. He’s thinking back if he made the right choice or not, but simultaneously enjoying these memories of what he once was and what he still could become.

7/10

‘Leviathan’: Review

Leviathan

Leviathan is unlike anything I’ve ever seen before in any genre, let alone in a documentary. We’re used to the typical documentary format of late from popular films like The Cove, Food Inc., and Gasland. A controversial topic is explored through narrations, vast interviews, visits to points of origin, sob stores, government inquiries and stuff. Piling us with information, teaching us a bunch in the most educational way possible. Sure, these films are often entertaining and give use the required information, but they still largely operate in the “plug-and-play” environment of getting everything across.

Leviathan is a different beast. The only thing we get is the cameras rolling on a fish trawler, and that’s it. Nobody to guide us, no talking heads, no interviews, no location changes. Cameras trained on the fisherman, the boat, machinery, animals, the hull. Everything is covered, but it’s up for you to take what you will. For some it could be boring to watch, endless minutes on end of seemingly minut activities for an hour and a half. It’s often fascinating and perplexing watching it all and trying to parse meaning. Or if there is any at all.

Normally, documentaries try to tell you something and come out pretty clear one way, or at least outline it for you. This is completely the opposite, do you take all this meaning to be a critique on our society’s method of attaining food and pillaging the sea, or do you see it as an exploration into the hard lives and hazards of the modern fisherman, or perhaps a commentary on the cycle of life and what it means. Or most simply it could be just some long shots that equal up to an hour and a half of people catching mass amounts of fish. The film goes to know extraordinary means to say which way it leans, anyone could be correct I’d image, it’s how you interpret it. What’s for certain is that the title is no mistake, “Leviathan,” a monster that comes from the sea, but is it man or animal? Nature or psychology? You choose.

8.5/10

‘Fruitvale Station’: Review

Fruitvale Station

Fruitvale Station doesn’t mince words or time, and at 85 minutes it has scant ability to do so. Telling the story of Oscar who was shot by a police officer on New Year’s Day in the so titled Fruitvale transit station in California. The film doesn’t cover a sprawling telling of Oscar’s life from a child and the struggles he went through or how he came to be. Rather the film follows him throughout his last day on earth, the first one we meet him on, and a defining day for everybody around him.

Michael B. Jordan is pitch perfect in the role, and just continually proving why he is one of the best young actors working. He gives off by nature a tough exterior, but it’s often heavily weighed out by hist soft heart in caring for others, and helping people out beyond himself. It’s set-up of course for the what happens to him in the end, trying to put more weight on the emotions, but Jordan plays it so truthfully beforehand that it seems all the well earned.

The film was never destined to be a large budget film, nowhere close, where even it had troubles to be made at its current dollar figure. But, really this type of material shouldn’t be filmed any other way than on low budget measures, echoing the grittiness of the story in the filmmaking.

It does well to tell this story like many others surrounding an event fail to achieve. It solely focuses on this event, and the direct lead-up to it, never wandering in any other direction, everything is honed in on the one direction. It’s never really a mystery what is going to happen, even if you hadn’t been aware of the story, but the film takes no mind to take, and it still hits as hard. Much is due to Jordan’s performance, but also to the solid and real directing around him

8/10

‘The Bling Ring’: Review

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I don’t think this film really needed to get made. I mean there’s really no story here. A bunch of kinda already rich teenagers decide to break into the homes of their favourite celebrities, they eventually get caught, and then are charged with varying crimes. That’s the movie and the story. Yeah, I know we’re in a celebrity obsessed society where we love anything revolving around these people, but the film offers nothing of commentary really on the subject. You would think that maybe the film would try to make a point about celebrities and how our culture demonizes them, our weird hero worship of them, and how both sides influence each other in negative ways. The film does nothing of the sort, and is really just a straight-forward telling of not very compelling story.

While the content doesn’t delve any deeper than the surface level, Sofia Coppola keeps the movie from being boring by her continued excellence behind the camera. She’s on of my favourite visual directors, who really knows how to compose shots and images that are striking, yet never steer the viewer away from the narrative on-screen or distract from the story. She mirrors the wealth and glamour atmosphere of the film by composing shots and sequences that seem to be highlighting these aspects.

The actors are all pretty well cast, with Emma Watson being the stand-out. She plays Nicki (Alexis Neiers) in real life, doing a pretty good job of her valley girl accent. Her performance was the big one where you could tell they were trying to re-enact as best they could Neiers mannerisms, but also make fun of it at the same time.

As much as this review might not suggest, I really enjoyed the film that was made, but wondered if something even better could’ve come out of it. As is, with Coppola putting her visual flourish on the straightforward events of the story was fine, and enjoyable if not provoking in any way.

7.5/10