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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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Oscar Reflections

KimmelThe Oscars are said and done for another year, and overall I am very pleased with the results. I can agree with the winners, I applaud many of the speeches and the show was a delight to watch.

Most importantly, how did I do? I made predictions in 19 of the 24 categories, and as the show started I did very well, racking up correct prediction after correct prediction. This was pleasing if a little predictable, but as things continued surprises started to appear, such as Get Out winning Original Screenplay and Dunkirk picking up Editing. Overall, I correctly predicted the winners in 15 out of my 19 picks, which at 78% is pretty good going. I’m no gambler, but every year I am tempted.

Picture Correctly Predicted? Directing Correctly Predicted?
The Shape of Water No Guillermo del Toro, The Shape of Water Yes
Call Me by Your Name Christopher Nolan, Dunkirk
Darkest Hour Jordan Peele, Get Out
Dunkirk Greta Gerwig, Lady Bird
Get Out Paul Thomas Anderson, Phantom Thread
Lady Bird
Phantom Thread  Makeup and Hairstyling
The Post  Darkest Hour Yes
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri  Victoria & Abdul
Wonder 
Actor Actress
Gary Oldman, Darkest Hour Yes Frances McDormand, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri Yes
Timothée Chalamet, Call Me by Your Name Sally Hawkins, The Shape of Water
Daniel Day,Lewis, Phantom Thread Margot Robbie, I, Tonya
Daniel Kaluuya, Get Out Saoirse Ronan, Lady Bird
Denzel Washington, Roman J. Israel, Esq. Meryl Streep, The Post
Supporting Actor Supporting Actress
Sam Rockwell, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri  Yes Allison Janney, I, Tonya Yes
Willem Dafoe, The Florida Project  Mary J. Blige, Mudbound 
Woody Harrelson, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri  Lesley Manville, Phantom Thread
Richard Jenkins, The Shape of Water  Laurie Metcalf, Lady Bird 
Christopher Plummer, All the Money in the World Octavia Spencer, The Shape of Water
Adapted Screenplay Original Screenplay
Call Me by Your Name  Yes Get Out No
The Disaster Artist The Big Sick 
Logan  Lady Bird
Molly’s Game  The Shape of Water 
Mudbound  Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri 
Original Score Original Song
The Shape of Water Yes ‘Remember Me’ from Coco No
Dunkirk “Mighty River” from Mudbound
Phantom Thread “Mystery of Love” from Call Me by Your Name 
Star Wars: The Last Jedi  “Stand Up for Something” from Marshall
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri “This Is Me” from The Greatest Showman 
Sound Editing   Sound Mixing
Dunkirk Yes Dunkirk  Yes
Baby Driver  Baby Driver 
Blade Runner 2049  Blade Runner 2049 
The Shape of Water The Shape of Water
Star Wars: The Last Jedi Star Wars: The Last Jedi
Production Design Visual Effects
The Shape of Water Yes Blade Runner 2049 Yes
Beauty and the Beast Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 
Blade Runner 2049  Kong: Skull Island
Darkest Hour  Star Wars: The Last Jedi
Dunkirk  War for the Planet of the Apes
Costume Design Cinematography
Phantom Thread  Yes Blade Runner 2049 Yes
Beauty and the Beast Darkest Hour 
Darkest Hour Dunkirk
The Shape of Water  Mudbound
Victoria & Abdul The Shape of Water
Film Editing Animated Feature
Dunkirk  No Coco Yes
Baby Driver The Boss Baby
I, Tonya  The Breadwinner
The Shape of Water Ferdinand
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri  Loving Vincent

The biggest delights for me personally were one predicted winner and one unexpected though desired victory. When Roger Deakins was announced as the winner of Best Cinematography, I applauded from my sofa. After 14 nominations and such fantastic work in The Shawshank Redemption, The Man Who Wasn’t There, No Country For Old Men, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Skyfall, Sicario and many more, it was an absolute delight to see Deakins finally honoured for the extraordinary visuals of Blade Runner 2049. Well shot sir, well shot.

90th Academy Awards - Show, Los Angeles, USA - 04 Mar 2018

I wanted The Shape of Water to win Best Picture but expected that award to go to Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Over the course of the show, deviations from my expectations made that less likely, beginning with Get Out winning Original Screenplay. In recent years, Best Picture has also won Screenplay, Editing or Directing (making The Departed a quintessential winner for 2006). Since Martin McDonagh was not nominated for Directing, a likely win for him and the film was Original Screenplay. Without that, and with Editing going to Dunkirk, Picture became more open. And once Guillermo Del Toro won Directing, The Shape of Water seemed ever more likely. But in my scepticism, I did not see the members of AMPAS voting for a fantasy film. When Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty announced the winner, I applauded again. For a fantasy/monster/sci fi movie to win Best Picture shows that the Academy members are not as conservative as they used to be, embracing more radical and surprising choices.

The Shape of Water

The show as a whole was very well done. Jimmy Kimmell hosted with great humour, wryness and affection. I especially like Kimmell’s gag of bringing in audiences, a move he and his team pioneered last year by arranging a tour group to come into the Kodak Theater, and built on this year by taking several movie stars into a nearby screening of A Wrinkle in Time. Had I been in that cinema, my mind would have been blown by epic proportions with the sudden arrival of Guillermo Del Toro, Gal Gadot, Armie Hammer, Margot Robbie, Ansel Elgort, Mark Hamill and the rest. Plus a hotdog cannon!208643A3Perhaps the strongest legacy of this year’s Oscars, however, will be the politics. After a few years of controversy over all white acting nominees, the recent scandals over harassment and the subsequent #MeToo and #TimesUp campaigns prompted debate and resistance. Kimmel named and shamed Harvey Weinstein as only the second person to be expelled from AMPAS; actresses received greater prominence as various winners of the Oscar for Best Actress in a Leading Role presented major awards. Last year’s Best Actress Emma Stone presented Directing to Guillermo Del Toro, and two pairs of Oscar winners presented this year’s Best Actor and Best Actress awards: Jane Fonda and Helen Mirren to Gary Oldman for Darkest Hour and Jodie Foster and Jennifer Lawrence to Frances McDormand for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, respectively. McDormand made perhaps the most impassioned speech of the night when she encouraged all the female nominees to stand up, be counted and be counted.

TimesUpSome might complain about this political element, either arguing that the Oscars are about art which is not political, or that the Oscars are entertainment and too frivolous or commercial to engage in politics. I reject both these positions because art is and always has been political, and with its extraordinary reach it would be a terrible waste if cinema were not political. The Academy recognised this through a retrospective on war cinema, dedicated to the men and women of the armed forces and introduced touchingly by actor and Vietnam veteran Wes Studi. Secondly, entertainment expresses social and political concerns purely by its production within particular contexts – the dominance of men in the film industry and cinematic output is a political reality and one that is long overdue a challenge. As recent films have demonstrated, you can have hugely successful films with female directors and leads, and the studios apparently taking such risks demonstrates that the only risk is to conservative ideology. For certain, time is up, and my heartiest applause to every presenter and winner at the 90th Annual Academy Awards who used that grandest stage and widest audience to highlight the state of their industry and to call for change.

McDormand

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.

The Infiltrator

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Films about drug cartels come with certain expectations, mainly about bad things. From Scarface (1982) to Traffic (2000) to Sicario (2015), drug cartels have a cinematic reputation (as well as a real world one) for brutality and viciousness. Brad Furman’s The Infiltrator continues this trend, but with the violence kept as a simmering expectation rather than foregrounded. Instead, and wisely, the film emphasises the strain upon identity and sympathies in this based-on-fact story, in which US Customs agent Robert Mazar (Bryan Cranston) goes undercover as a money launderer and forms multiple connections with senior figures in the cartel of Pablo Escobar. Playing like a combination of Donnie Brasco (1996) and Miami Vice (2006), The Infiltrator is stylishly shot, including two bravura long takes that track Mazar through complex locations, and conveys an effective sense both of the late 1980s and the intricate interconnections of drug suppliers and law enforcement. The film’s master stroke, however, is the incorporation of global finance into its narrative, with Mazar meeting with Panamanian bankers and having to negotiate with the US Federal banking system as part of his operation. This aspect links the film to other economically inflected films, such as The International (2009), Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (2014) as well as 99 Homes (2014) and The Big Short (2015). The Infiltrator‘s blending of contemporary concerns over global finance with the generic elements of an undercover thriller indicate Hollywood’s continued and fascinating engagement in this cultural discourse.

Sicario

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Sicario is a film about liminality, that which exists in a phase between states. The film’s liminal features includes the geographical borderlands between Mexico and the United States, the people who are somewhere between police and military, and a practice of law enforcement that is at best legally dubious. FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) joins a special task force headed by government agent Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), only to become increasingly disturbed by the missions of Graver as well as the mysterious Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro). The viewer’s discomfort also increases, as director Denis Villeneuve creates some incredibly tense set pieces that often erupt into shocking violence, all delivered unflinchingly so that we feel the impact of bullets and the smack of wet blood. Much of the film’s power can be credited to director of photography Roger Deakins, who previously worked with Villeneuve on Prisoners. The desert landscapes are rendered in exquisite detail that is both beautiful and terrible, both at ground level and in remarkable aerial shots that serve a narrative purpose of showing us drone footage used by the task force, and a stylistic purpose for showing the bleak pitiless of the landscape. A night raid begins with the team descending from a gorgeous sunset into an inky blackness, all within a single, static shot. Multiple camera types convey this sequence, including infra red and night vision as well as normal digital photography, and yet this extra visual detail adds to the confusion and sense of other-worldliness. Similarly, Jóhann Jóhannsson’s score is menacing and invasive to the point of being oppressive, as the film moves into ever more murky territory. Sicario does not succumb to genre clichés as Prisoners did, debut screenwriter Taylor Sheridan instead maintaining the story’s conceit of liminality as well as its grim tone, as the placement of Alejandro and Macer’s position towards the events she witnesses and participates in remain ambiguous. Whereas crime thrillers of this sort often feature some measure of hope or at least catharsis, here the viewer is left with a sense of hopelessness and helplessness, a disturbing glimpse into a harrowing world where cynicism and violence are the only way of life.