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Sicario 2: Soldado

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2015’s Sicario was a coming together of several brilliant talents. Screenwriter Taylor Sheridan, who also delivered great scripts with Hell Or High Water and Wind River; director of photography Roger Deakins, who drew closer to his elusive Oscar; the fine acting chops of Emily Blunt, Benicio Del Toro and Josh Brolin; the ever improving director Denis Villeneuve, whose subsequent films Arrival and Blade Runner 2049 cemented his standing as one of the finest directors working in Hollywood. 2018’s Sicario 2: Soldado reunites Sheridan’s writing with Del Toro’s enigmatic Alejandro and Brolin’s bullish yet principled Matt Graver, but minus the other prominent figures with Stefano Sollima behind the camera and Dariusz Wolski on lensing duties. New cast members include Isabela Moner, Matthew Modine, Catherine Keener and Elijah Rodriguez, their presence expanding the scope of this follow-up. Concerns over terrorism and pirating give the film a more global flavour, although these elements serve more as a distraction than contextualisation. The film’s subject matter feels ripped from the headlines as immigration is a prominent feature, much of the film involving Mexicans illegally entering the United States. While there is (currently) no wall, there are certainly obstacles as well as opportunities for those willing to exploit the desperate. Into this potent mix Matt sends Alejandro, with the goal of starting a war between drug cartels. The film is efficiently put together, with several gripping set pieces including a gruelling gun battle on a deserted desert road. Oddly, the film’s more affecting moments are quiet interchanges, especially between Alejandro and Isabel Reyes (Moner), daughter of a cartel head that Alejandro takes custody of. Their relationship is engaging, while Matt’s clashes with his government superior Cynthia Foards (Keener) and Secretary James Riley (Matthew Modine) highlight the political agenda. Unfortunately, these disparate elements are not cohered, while a subplot involving young Mexican-American Miguel Hernandez (Rodriguez) never convinces. Worse, the film lacks the nihilism of the original, and in its final act there are several moments that could be shockingly cruel, but instead the film loses its nerve and takes the narrative beyond its natural conclusion. The border has many interesting stories, but this is one of the lesser ones.

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Blade Runner 2049

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There is a key moment in Denis Villeneuve’s sequel to Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner when a character learns an important truth. The moment features two figures captured in a two-shot that silhouettes their profiles against a richly textured background. This instance encapsulates the film as a whole, as every frame is saturated with meaning, craft and beauty. Set thirty years after the events of the original film, Villeneuve’s follow up is not a sequel that we needed but it is one that fans of the original deserve, as BR2049 pays homage to the original, one of the most influential science fiction films ever made, while also staking out its own territory. Villeneuve and writers Hampton Fancher and Michael Green’s story of cop K (Ryan Gosling, developing his taciturn roles in Drive and Only God Forgives into something all the more eerie) searching for answers in a dystopian California builds upon the first film and explores many of the same questions about humanity and identity, what it means to be a person, what is the influence of voice, embodiment, obedience, views of self and other. Brilliantly, BR2049 takes these questions in new directions, raising issues of what constitutes procreation and the importance of digitization. Production designer Dennis Gassner and the visual effects team go beyond the huge advertisements of the first film with giant 3D projections in the Los Angeles of 2049, while interactive AI and immersive holographic environments appear throughout the film. Blade Runner 2049 therefore continues to explore the tension between what is real and what is artifice, a line that is progressively blurred and distorted. Interestingly, the film is reminiscent both of the original Blade Runner as well as more recent science fiction such as A.I.: Artificial Intelligence and Her. The recurrence of these themes and tropes demonstrates the eternal recycling of concepts in science fiction, yet BR2049 never feels stale or like something we have seen before (even though, in a sense, we have). The central uncanny conceit operates on a narrative, thematic and stylistic level, and even in the very substance of the film.

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Roger Deakins is the true star here, his exquisite visuals spellbindingly beautiful while simultaneously laden with portent. Yet these images are themselves ephemeral, data that has no more physical substance than some of the characters in the film. The viewer’s reaction therefore mirrors the characters. Just as K gazes at holograms with a mixture of wonder and bitterness, so does the film invite awe tinged with scepticism. Some of this scepticism can spill over into criticism – the film’s length and languorous pace is not to all tastes, while aspects of the principal antagonist add little to the proceedings. It also sidelines exploration of its female characters in favour of male questing, which is a shame because the female characters often suggest intriguing alternatives. But overall, these are minor quibbles in a film that largely delivers on the promise of its predecessor, and will likely be analysed and debated for another thirty years.

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Wind River

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Taylor Sheridan is a very fine writer. His previous works Sicario and Hell Or High Water beautifully captured the drama of people caught between social and historical developments. Much the same is true of Wind River, the third in Sheridan’s loose ‘border trilogy’. What the earlier films also had were very fine directors, and Sheridan proves himself less accomplished in this respect as Wind River lacks the enveloping dread that Denis Villeneuve brought to Sicario and the muscular doggedness that David MacKenzie delivered with Hell Or High Water. Sheridan handles his Native American reservation-set thriller solidly but unimaginatively, sometimes overusing dialogue to express the marginalisation and discrimination suffered by one of America’s most underprivileged demographics. Much of this rumination is delivered by Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner), a hunter and tracker with a tangential connection to the inhabitants of the Wind River reservation. After finding the body of a teenage girl in the snow, Cory assists investigating FBI agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen). The subsequent investigation between these mismatched partners is functional, if problematic as it foregrounds white characters in a story ostensibly concerned with Native Americans. Sheridan does not explore the social tensions in much depth, again resorting to telling rather than showing, as well as a rather clumsy flashback that depicts escalating events that are disturbing if rather rushed. However, when the film relies on its visuals, it succeeds admirably, as Sheridan delivers set pieces that are gripping and even shocking in their suddenness, expressing the life or death urgency of the environment. And it is in the environment that Wind River attains heights as lofty as the towering peaks of the Rocky Mountains (Utah standing in for Wyoming). Cinematographer Ben Richardson lenses the landscape with awe inspiring scale, the expanses of snow and ice rendered in a splendour that leave the viewer chilled to the soul. Wind River may not offer much food for thought, but it certainly offers a feast for the eyes.

89th Annual Academy Awards – Final Predictions

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With the Academy Awards now hours away, it’s time for final predictions. I’ve given my detailed views on some of the categories already, but now it’s time for the full list, including what I think will win, and what I would vote for were I a member of AMPAS (none of this ‘should win’ nonsense on my blog, thank you!).

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BEST PICTURE

Predicted winner: La La Land

Preferred winner: Arrival

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DIRECTING

  • Damien Chazelle, La La Land
  • Mel Gibson, Hacksaw Ridge
  • Barry Jenkins, Moonlight
  • Kenneth Lonergan, Manchester by the Sea
  • Denis Villeneuve, Arrival

Predicted winner: Damien Chazelle

Preferred winner: Denis Villeneuve

With all its plaudits and despite its naysayers, La La Land looks set to pick up the big awards. I enjoyed the film fine, but do feel that others, including Manchester by the Sea and Hidden Figures, and especially Arrival, warrant as much if not more attention. So while I see La La Land dancing its way to Best Picture and Directing, my heart belongs to Arrival.

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ACTOR IN A LEADING ROLE

  • Casey Affleck, Manchester by the Sea
  • Andrew Garfield, Hacksaw Ridge
  • Ryan Gosling, La La Land
  • Viggo Mortensen, Captain Fantastic
  • Denzel Washington, Fences

Predicted winner: Casey Affleck, Manchester by the Sea

Preferred winner: Casey Affleck, Manchester by the Sea

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ACTOR IN A SUPPORTING ROLE

  • Mahershala Ali, Moonlight
  • Jeff Bridges, Hell or High Water
  • Lucas Hedges, Manchester by the Sea
  • Dev Patel, Lion
  • Michael Shannon, Nocturnal Animals

Predicted winner: Mahershala Ali, Moonlight

Preferred winner:  Michael Shannon, Nocturnal Animals

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ACTRESS IN A LEADING ROLE

  • Isabelle Huppert, Elle
  • Ruth Negga, Loving
  • Natalie Portman, Jackie
  • Emma Stone, La La Land
  • Meryl Streep, Florence Foster Jenkins

Predicted winner: Emma Stone, La La Land

Preferred winner: Emma Stone, La La Land (only one I’ve seen!)

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ACTRESS IN A SUPPORTING ROLE

  • Viola Davis, Fences
  • Naomie Harris, Moonlight
  • Nicole Kidman, Lion
  • Octavia Spencer, Hidden Figures
  • Michelle Williams, Manchester by the Sea

Predicted winner: Viola Davis, Fences

Preferred winner: Viola Davis, Fences

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All the acting nominees I’ve seen were impressive, and I’d be happy with most of them winning. But it would make me very happy if Nocturnal Animals could pick up something.

WRITING (ADAPTED SCREENPLAY)

  • Arrival
  • Fences
  • Hidden Figures
  • Lion
  • Moonlight

Predicted winner: Moonlight

Preferred winner: Arrival

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WRITING (ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY)

  • Hell or High Water
  • La La Land
  • The Lobster
  • Manchester by the Sea
  • 20th Century Women

Predicted winner: Manchester by the Sea

Preferred winner: Hell or High Water

Tricky ones, but I think I’ve said my piece.

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CINEMATOGRAPHY

  • Arrival
  • La La Land
  • Lion
  • Moonlight
  • Silence

Predicted winner: La La Land

Preferred winner: Arrival

It is always tough to determine if this award will follow patterns, or rely solely on the skill of the Director of Photography nominated. In this case, much as I love Arrival and would like it to win, I anticipate the long takes and crane shots on location in La La Land will shimmy the film to another award.

COSTUME DESIGN

  • Allied
  • Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
  • Florence Foster Jenkins
  • Jackie
  • La La Land

Predicted winner: Jackie

Preferred winner: Jackie

This award typically goes to period films, for good reason, and all but one of these nominees is exactly that. For La La Land to win here would be a bit odd, colourful as the costumes in that film are. After its victories at BAFTA, the Awards Circuit Community Awards and the Broadcast Film Critics Association Awards, Jackie seems like a safe bet here.

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FILM EDITING

  • Arrival
  • Hacksaw Ridge
  • Hell or High Water
  • La La Land
  • Moonlight

Predicted winner: Arrival

Preferred winner: Arrival

This is an interesting one, as Hacksaw Ridge won the BAFTA but Arrival the Eddie (from the American Cinema Editors). I loved Arrival and found Hacksaw Ridge pretty good, and the potential overlap between the various institutions means this could go either way. But maybe Arrival will be this year’s Mad Max: Fury Road, picking up various post-production awards if none of the ‘major awards’. For that reason, I would like to see Arrival walk away with this award, and I believe it will.

MAKEUP AND HAIRSTYLING

Predicted winner: Star Trek Beyond

Preferred winner: Suicide Squad

I know nothing about A Man Called Ove, and the sheer range of weird and wonderful make up designs in Star Trek Beyond make it a likely winner. That said, I would like Suicide Squad to win, because I think the negativity this film received was excessive and it would greatly amuse me if the naysayers have to admit to the existence of ‘the Oscar-winning Suicide Squad’.

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MUSIC (ORIGINAL SCORE)

  • Jackie
  • La La Land
  • Lion
  • Moonlight
  • Passengers

Predicted winner: La La Land

Preferred winner: La La Land

MUSIC (ORIGINAL SONG)

  • ‘Audition (The Fools Who Dream),’ La La Land
  • ‘Can’t Stop the Feeling,’ Trolls
  • ‘City of Stars,’ La La Land
  • ‘The Empty Chair,’ Jim: The James Foley Story
  • ‘How Far I’ll Go, ‘ Moana

Predicted winner: ‘Audition (The Fools Who Dream),’ La La Land

Preferred winner: ‘Audition (The Fools Who Dream),’ La La Land

As a musical, it would be rather odd if La La Land did not win in these two categories. While I’m not the biggest fan of La La Land, I did find the solo ‘Audition’ to be very stirring (being one of those fools myself), and I would be happy to see that pick up an award.

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PRODUCTION DESIGN

  • Arrival
  • Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
  • Hail, Caesar!
  • La La Land
  • Passengers

Predicted winner: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Preferred winner: Arrival

An interesting collection here, with two science fiction films, one contemporary (and very colourful) musical, along with two period films, one which features fantasy elements and the other, like the musical, is about Hollywood. Due to its BAFTA victory, I see this going to Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, although the nostalgia and self-love of La La Land and Hail Caesar! might bring them success. For me, the production design of Arrival was a key element to its eerie alienness, and something I would like to see rewarded.

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SOUND EDITING

  • Arrival
  • Deepwater Horizon
  • Hacksaw Ridge
  • La La Land
  • Sully

Predicted winner: Arrival

Preferred winner: Arrival

Back in 2013, there was a tie for this award between Skyfall and Zero Dark Thirty. Both were favourite films of mine, and Arrival was my top film of last year. So maybe the pattern will continue. I would also like my top film to win something, hence my pick.

SOUND MIXING

Predicted winner: Arrival

Preferred winner: Arrival

Since Arrival is unlikely to win anything else, I can see it picking up both Sound awards. And I want it to, so there.

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VISUAL EFFECTS

Predicted winner: The Jungle Book

Preferred winner: Doctor Strange

After winning the BAFTA as well as an Annie Award and the Awards Circuit Community Award (as well as others), The Jungle Book looks set to pick up the Oscar as well. Much as the animals and landscapes impressed me in The Jungle Book though, the inventiveness and outright trippiness of the visual effects in Doctor Strange had me (sorry) spellbound, and it gets my vote for most impressive visual effects of last year.

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ANIMATED FEATURE FILM

  • Kubo and the Two Strings
  • Moana
  • My Life as a Zucchini
  • The Red Turtle
  • Zootopia

Predicted winner: Kubo and the Two Strings

Preferred winner: Zootopia

Kubo and the Two Strings has done very well at previous award ceremonies such as BAFTA and multiple Critics associations, but Zootopia/Zootropolis was one of my favourites of last year, so it gets my vote. It did win the Golden Globe, so maybe Disney’s delightful comedy about prejudice and tolerance might just strike a chord with the Academy members, in this time of strife and division.

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FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM

  • Land of Mine, Denmark
  • A Man Called Ove, Sweden
  • The Salesman,Iran
  • Tanna, Australia
  • Toni Erdmann, Germany

Predicted winner: The Salesman, Iran

Preferred winner: The Salesman, Iran

The director of The Salesman, Asqhar Farhadi, has stated that he will not attend the Oscar ceremony in protest of President Trump’s policies. Whether Farhadi attends or not, as an act of defiance I hope that the Academy rewards the film, and I would too.

DOCUMENTARY (FEATURE)

  • Fire at Sea
  • I Am Not Your Negro
  • Life, Animated
  • OJ: Made In America
  • 13th

Predicted winner: 13th

Preferred winner: Life, Animated

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DOCUMENTARY (SHORT SUBJECT)

  • Extremis
  • 1 Miles
  • Joe’s Violin
  • Watani: My Homeland
  • The White Helmets

SHORT FILM (ANIMATED)

  • Blind Vaysha
  • Borrowed Time
  • Pear Cider and Cigarettes
  • Pearl
  • Piper

SHORT FILM (LIVE ACTION)

  • Ennemis Interieurs
  • La Femme Et Le TGV
  • Silent Nights
  • Sing
  • Timecode

Pass – I know nothing about these films.

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Unexpected Item in Reaction Area II – Prisoner to Genre

SPOILER ALERT

In my last post, I discussed Rush and that my initial attraction to the film was its director. This was not the case with Prisoners, whose director, Denis Villeneuve, I had never heard of. Prisoners caught my attention with its arresting trailer and stellar cast, but mostly because of its genre. I love a good thriller, especially one that promises kidnapped children, ambiguous suspects, good people gone bad and torture. Moral dilemmas? Unravelling families? Detectives taking it personally? Bring those over here, I can make use of them.

prisoners movie posterI didn’t get what I wanted though, as Prisoners fails to reach the sickening lows of films it seeks to emulate, especially David Fincher’s Se7en (1995) and Zodiac (2007) – the presence of Jake Gyllenhaal as a dogged detective echoes the latter especially. Prisoners is a gruelling watch but, being the sick puppy I am, I wanted to be devastated. Instead, Prisoners was compelling and gripping for the first two hours, then fell apart in the final half hour. The trailer emphasised the central conceit, that two little girls are kidnapped, the police arrest a suspect who is then released due to lack of evidence, and the fathers of the girls, Hugh Jackman and Terrence Howard, kidnap the suspect, Paul Dano, and torture him. Reviews confirmed that this is the premise and that the film raised some interesting moral questions.

This did prove to be the case, as Keller Dover’s (Jackman) treatment of Alex Jones (Dano) is a descent into morally dubious territory, which Villeneuve does not flinch from showing us – shots of Alex’s battered face are genuinely horrifying. On the one hand, Prisoners clearly criticises the use of torture as Keller learns nothing from Alex. But the film does not completely condemn Keller, because any parent in his situation would be frantic and Keller clings desperately to this one hope of finding his daughter, committed to the belief that he is factually right even though what he does is morally wrong.

This thematic strand is engaging and disturbing and one that I wanted the film to explore further, but after two hours of intensity and going beyond genre conventions, the final act slides into generic territory. The last half hour shoehorns in an unconvincing psychopath in Holly Jones (Melissa Leo), some confusing red herrings as it appears Keller may have been responsible for the kidnapping (which we know he cannot have been because we have been watching him otherwise occupied) and a new dramatic development as Keller himself is imprisoned. This last twist was particularly frustrating because it provided too easy a resolution. At one point, the mystery appeared to have been solved with a tragic conclusion, as evidence pointed to another suspect. This proved to be a red herring and he was simply a former victim of the real kidnappers. What I really wanted was no resolution, the red herring the closest thing the families get to an answer, an open ending of bleakness and misery that would leave me shaken to the core. The final scene provided a hint of ambiguity, but it was too little, too late.

LokiPrisoners is not bad, indeed technically it is very good. Roger Deakins’ cinematography is sublime (as always), providing the Georgia locations with a chilly yet sumptuous beauty. The production design is excellent, the music effective and the performances are powerful – were it not for stiff competition from the likes of Tom Hanks and Chiwetel Ejiofor I might tip Jackman for a second Oscar nomination (and never say never). Furthermore, Villeneuve’s direction is very effective, handling the material steadily and drawing the viewer into the respective situations of the families and the detective. This makes the problems with Aaron Guzikowski’s screenplay all the more frustrating, as so much good work is undermined by the plot developments. The final half hour probably feels more disappointing than it is “bad” because the first two hours were so gripping.

The film’s slide into generic conventions disappointed me, much like Side Effects did earlier in the year. Side Effects abandoned its compelling moral questions about medical ethics and the pharmaceutical industry in favour of lazy conspiracy conventions and dubious sexual politics. Similarly, Prisoners abandons questions over how far is too far and provides a ham-fisted conclusion with mistaken identities, murky pasts and confused religious conspiracies. But whereas I found Prisoners’ return to generic territory disappointing, the friend I saw it with found it comforting. He had a similarly contrasting reaction to Side Effects, uncomfortable with that film’s engagement with moral issues and quite relieved when the film resolved itself as a conspiracy thriller. This demonstrates the pleasure of easy resolution, whatever the moral issues are, everything can be tied up with the narrative conventions of the genre.

The contrast of our reactions is very interesting, as I see the great potential of genre as an arena for exploring big ideas. Science fiction and horror are particularly good for this (see the Thinking Film Collective), but thrillers work too, especially in terms of sociological and societal issues. Se7en and Zodiac, the most obvious influences on Prisoners, are, respectively, a parable about sin and a tale of obsession(s). At its best, Prisoners is an investigation into various forms of imprisonment – the girls, Alex and eventually Keller in physical prisons, while the Dovers and the Birches are trapped in prisons of fear and grief (I would have liked more of the Keller family especially unravelling), and Loki is imprisoned by his obsession with the case. The film’s investigation into imprisonment enriches the generic features, which work fine on their own but in a more gleeful way. Trance (Danny Boyle, 2013) is a more gleeful thriller, a neo-noir that revels in its generic tropes and is a lot of fun. Prisoners and Side Effects offer different pleasures through their engagement with moral questions, but depending on your taste, the abandonment of these questions and return to generic frameworks may be a source of relief or frustration.

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