Sicario (2015)

I’m not a ‘real’ film critic, I just bash away reviews here on the internet for my own amusement, and that of a small handful of readers, who I imagine are only intermittently engaged even then. So when I don’t like a film as much as I feel I’m supposed to by the ‘real’ film critics, I tend to get self-deprecating and assume there’s something wrong with me. You, for example, may love the taut, tense atmosphere established in the brooding first hour of Sicario, beginning with its portentous explanation of the title (something about the Hebrew scriptures, I’ve kinda forgotten, but the film poster says it means “hitman” in Spanish). You may find the apparent moral complexities of the scenario set on the US-Mexican border deeply involving, in which those running the operations (Josh Brolin’s Matt, in league with Benicio del Toro’s Alejandro) have a shadowy identity unknown even to our nominal hero, the quiet and studious FBI agent Kate (Emily Blunt). I don’t want to put you off going to see the film, and it does have its strengths, hence my tentatively positive review. I’m on the level about the atmosphere, for example — it really is very well set up by Canadian director Denis Villeneuve (whose mindfuck Enemy was most recently on UK screens), with a laconic script and plenty of long-shots suggesting at times that we’re watching surveillance footage. We see Kate in action with her FBI team at the outset, uncovering a home filled with dead drug mules (somewhat in the grisly style of Se7en) and rigged with explosive devices, and from there, scarcely rattled, she is swiftly co-opted into Matt’s team via a series of unseen (to her) high-level meetings.

It’s just that, for all the efficacy of its portentous tone, none of the insights seem particularly believable, though the key to that I suspect is that audiences want to believe that the US government operates shadowy black-ops teams who — and here be spoilers, albeit without any names, as these are explanations the film doesn’t indulge until about halfway through — co-opt Colombian drug cartel hitmen to help take control of the Mexican drug trade so as to better… I don’t know, assassinate all the bad guys? In that sense, it all feels a bit 80s. By the time the film gets to its denouement, its titular hitman is as potent a symbol of pure imperialist ideology as anyone out of a Tarantino flick; he might as well be wearing shades and quoting scripture. Certainly the moral complexities seem to evaporate in a haze of Mexican dust and dead bodies, as certain members of the audience emit nervous (or perhaps triumphant, depending on where you’re watching) laughter at key scenes of torture and bloodshed. Meanwhile our apparent hero Kate, despite being an FBI agent, entirely lacks agency within the film, and the times she does attempt to step up, she’s quickly rebutted by violence and intimidation. In this way, it certainly reveals patterns of male violence and controlling behaviour as well as some rather confrontational attitudes towards immigration, but then so did Touch of Evil, a film with which Sicario certainly shares a setting and a few moral grey areas, with Kate and her legal-trained FBI buddy the audience’s stand-in for Charlton Heston. Still, if you’re going to stand up to such a towering work of cinema then Sicario does pretty well all told. Just be prepared for a lot of guys, guns and nasty business.


© Lionsgate

NEW RELEASE ADVANCE SCREENING FILM REVIEW
Director Denis Villeneuve | Writer Taylor Sheridan | Cinematographer Roger Deakins | Starring Emily Blunt, Josh Brolin, Benicio del Toro | Length 121 minutes || Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Wednesday 23 September 2015

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May 2015 Film Viewing Round-Up

Herewith some brief thoughts about films I saw in May which I didn’t review in full.


Ari Kyohaku (Intimidation, 1960)

Aru Kyohaku (Intimidation) (1960, Japan, dir. Koreyoshi Kurahara) [Tue 12 May at home]. You’ll have seen my Criterion Sunday series, working through all of the Criterion Collection releases in spine order week by week. Well, Criterion have their bare-bones sub-label Eclipse as well, but I shan’t take to doing an Eclipse Monday or anything, though one result of watching all these Criterion films is I’ve picked up a few Eclipse releases along the way. Intimidation is the first film in the five-film set by director Koreyoshi Kurahara, whose work (and indeed name) I must admit to being entirely unaware about before now. This film is a short feature (around 70 minutes) and an engrossing psychological thriller, focusing on a bookish bank clerk and his lackadaisical boss, the latter of whom due to various personal circumstances finds himself in the position of holding up his own bank. For the most part it’s tautly told through close-ups of the lead characters, who seem to be constantly calculating their meagre options. ***


Aventurera (1950)

Aventurera (1950, Mexico, dir. Alberto Gout) [Fri 1 May at Barbican Cinemas]. A short series at the Barbican focused itself on the ‘Golden Age’ of Mexican melodrama in the 1950s, and sadly this was the only film I made it along to. However, it is entirely delightful, dealing with Elena, a young woman (the ‘adventuress’ of the title) who finds herself alone in the world as the film starts, with only her wits to get her by, as she moves to the big city to make her way as a dancer. She’s entrapped by a dubious offer, and finds herself in the employ of shady brothel-keeper Rosaura, but there’s a TWIST and soon Elena is back in a position of power. There are double-crosses and twists of fortune, which at times suggest a rather more delicate staging of Showgirls (a classic ingenue-corrupted-by-the-system movie). There are also a handful of song numbers punctuating the melodrama, just to keep us going. ***½


Belle Epoque (1992)

Belle Époque (1992, Spain, dir. Fernando Trueba) [Sat 30 May at home]. A lightly comedic historical romp set not in fin-de-siècle France, but pre-Civil War Spain of the 1930s, which amounts to much the same thing I suppose. It’s a nostalgic time in which people take sides and fight for what they believe, though our republican hero has deserted his military posting and now finds himself holed up at a country home where he woos each of the four daughters of an elderly gentleman he has met. It’s all self-consciously light-hearted, and pleasantly diverting. It won Best Foreign Language Oscar that year, so that probably gives some idea of its artistic achievement. ***


The Expendables (2010)

The Expendables (2010, USA, dir. Sylvester Stallone) [Mon 18 May at home]. A thoroughly overblown exercise in action film narcosis, which is somewhat enlivened by its star-studded cast of genre greats, led by director Sylvester Stallone, still game for a bit of running around and blowing sh1t up. It goes through the setpieces and fulfils the usual expectations, but I can’t pretend it’s not forgettable, because I can’t really remember very much of it at all. However, it does feature Jason Statham, for whose work I always have time. **


Hanna (2011)

Hanna (2011, UK/USA/Germany, dir. Joe Wright) [Fri 8 May at home]. Director Joe Wright has shown himself to be something of a film stylist with literary adaptations like Pride and Prejudice (2005) and Anna Karenina (2012), both of which I rather liked. However, this original screenplay seems to lack a certain something, maybe a sense of anything particularly personal. I love Saoirse Ronan as an actor, and she’s excellent here as in every role she’s played, but her teenager taught by ex-CIA father to be a lethal killer seems a bit by-the-numbers. Wright’s style is still in evidence — this is no straight action thriller, but indulges plenty of other expressive elements — though it is all carried along by a propulsive score in a post-Bourne style. **½


Hit So Hard (2011)

Hit So Hard (2011, USA, dir. P. David Ebersole) [Mon 11 May at home]. A fairly straightforward talking-heads and music-clip documentary charting the career of Patti Schemel, primarily known for her time as a drummer in Hole, of which band this film functions as something of an encomium. You get a sense of some of the tumult of the early-90s grunge scene, and especially touching are the home videos of the band with Kurt Cobain and his daughter with Courtney Love. Yet despite my love for the band and their music, there’s nothing especially inspiring in the filmmaking. **½


John Wick (2014).jpg

John Wick (2014, USA, dir. Chad Stahelski) [Thu 30 Apr at Cineworld Wood Green]. Like The Expendables above, in truth this taut revenge thriller does nothing particularly new, but the pleasure is in the way it does so, emphasising the physicality of the fight scenes — understandable, given the directors (one of whom, David Leitch, is uncredited) come from a background in stunt choreography. Indeed, unlike many such films it has a direct approach to conflict, emphasising the brutality underpinning the genre, as our eponymous protagonist (played by an ever-laconic Keanu Reeves) methodically despatches his adversaries, and even has to reload his weapon. It’s also nicely paced, starting out slowly, building Wick’s character and anguished personal life, before launching into the inevitable violence of the protracted denouement. ***


Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

Mad Max: Fury Road (2015, Australia/USA, dir. George Miller) [Sun 17 May at Cineworld Wood Green]. I never got around to writing a fuller review of this film, mainly because I struggle to find the kinds of superlatives which a lot of people have heaped on it. Undoubtedly it is a spare and at times electrifying chase movie within a dystopian sci-fi desert world — one in which water is a scarce resource, hoarded by a cadre of genetically-deficient mutant creatures who need the blood of the underclasses to survive. It’s in this context that we meet the title character (Tom Hardy), though his central role is swiftly supplanted by that of convoy driver Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron). She is on a mission to liberate her enslaved concubine compatriots, and it’s her character that has understandably excited the internet. Quite whether this all amounts to some kind of feminist victory is unclear to me, though at the least it offers the rare prospect in this context of a kickass (yet believably human) female action hero with agency, and who is not reliant on the help of others (i.e. men) to succeed. Still, this is all but window-dressing to the almost unrelenting forward momentum of the thundering vehicular chase that is at the film’s heart, not that I mean that as a criticism exactly. It fulfils its action remit and does so in a way that largely avoids offensive stereotyping, which sometimes seems like victory enough. ***


Plemya (The Tribe, 2014)

Plemya (The Tribe) (2014, Ukraine/Netherlands, dir. Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy) [Sun 31 May at the ICA]. Another recent film that’s picked up plenty of critical love is this brutal, nasty film about a dystopian society of the underclasses in Ukraine, which has the novel quality of being entirely in unsubtitled (Ukrainian) Sign Language. Our characters are all deaf-mute and largely confined to the crumbling premises of their special school, which seems at the outset to have teachers and administration but is soon, we learn, largely operated by a cabal of brutally bullying students aided by a number of key members of staff. One, for example, exploits a couple of the girls as prostitutes to the local trucking community, and it’s into this milieu that newcomer Sergey is recruited. In some respects, The Tribe reminds me of Alan Clarke’s film Scum, dealing with English borstal life in the 1970s, and there’s plenty here that visually harks back to that decade, if only because one senses that everything we see has been left to decay since then. However, the film is vivified by bold directorial flourishes, including long tracking shots lifted from the Dardenne’s repertoire, as well as a casual brutality and dispassionate carnality that calls to mind Haneke. For all this — or perhaps because of it — The Tribe seems to me to be a hard film to really love. ***


Tomboy (2011)

Tomboy (2011, France, dir. Céline Sciamma) [Sun 24 May at the ICA]. Director Céline Sciamma’s most recent film Girlhood hit cinemas recently, giving me the opportunity to revisit an earlier film of hers. It again picks up on gender issues, but refracted through the story of Laure, a young girl who moves to a new neighbourhood as the film starts out, who amongst her new friends begins to play at being a boy under the name Mickaël. It’s a very subtly balanced film which avoids the expected moralising and overdetermined plot points, preferring a far more naturalistic ambiguity to some of the relationships (such as Laure/Mickaël’s affection for local girl Lisa). ***½

April 2015 Film Viewing Round-Up

Herewith some brief thoughts about films I saw in April which I didn’t review in full. It includes a couple of films I actually saw in March but had thought I’d write up in their own posts (I didn’t).


Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015, USA, dir. Joss Whedon) [Sat 25 Apr at Cineworld Wood Green]. Look at how crowded that poster is and you’ll get some sense of the film, assuming you haven’t already seen it. I enjoyed it perfectly fine, but I get the sense that whereas for the average punter, it’s a long film, for fans of yr Marvel Cinematic Universe and those who are heavily invested in these characters, it’s probably not long enough. They even add new characters (one of whose superpowers I’m still not clear about, but perhaps it’s the power to do whatever’s required by the narrative at any given point). The crowdedness of the ensemble cast is evident in the number of scenes where everyone’s just standing around, stepping forward periodically to deliver their line and then stepping back. Whedon does the best he can and adds those nice little self-aware lines which define his work (like Linda Cardellini’s “I’ll always support your avenging…”, not the mention the snarky asides) but it’s still a big pummelling superhero film that has a protracted denouement, a nonsense evil villain plan (though James Spader is always dependable in such a role) and lots and lots of CGI effects (which are at times so indifferently executed I thought I was actually watching a video game, as in the opening sequence). YMMV. ***


The Book of Life (2014)

The Book of Life (2014, USA, dir. Jorge R. Gutiérrez) [Mon 6 Apr on a plane]. A film I missed when it came out was available on my trip over to the States, so I availed myself of the opportunity, and even given the small size of the screen, it still impressed by its artful and gorgeously-coloured use of Mexican motifs in its story of rival suitors for a lady’s affections. It nods towards female empowerment, even if it has an old-fashioned adventure feel, but ultimately it’s the richly textured design that saves it. ***


En duva satt på en gren och funderade på tillvaron (A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, 2014)

En duva satt på en gren och funderade på tillvaron (A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence) (2014, Sweden/Norway/Germany/France, dir. Roy Andersson) [Thu 30 Apr at Curzon Soho]. Its pace is slow and deliberate, constructed in a series of tableaux-like images which frequently fade to black before the next image commences, and in many ways it takes its cue from that first scene, in which a tourist couple examine birds in glass cases, one of which is the titular (stuffed) pigeon. The humans throughout the film are themselves as waxy and pallid as dead creatures placed on display, and the sets are deliberately minimal in a depressingly beige way. But while Roy Andersson’s film is nominally a (black, deadpan) comedy, it’s really a cautionary moral tale of the bleak dangers inherent in capitalism, as our two Beckettian like heroes wander through a glum dyspeptic world retailing their ‘comedy’ joke items to little interest. There are restrained outbreaks of weirdness — jaunty songs, alternate realities, dreams — which suggest something deeper is going on, and indeed I think this one will work in most people’s minds afterwards, even if it sometimes seems a little inert while it’s going on. ***


Insurgent (aka The Divergent Series: Insurgent, 2015)

Insurgent (aka The Divergent Series: Insurgent) (2015, USA, dir. Robert Schwentke) [Sun 29 Mar at Cineworld West India Quay]. Having enjoyed star Shailene Woodley’s work elsewhere, I decided to watch the first film in the Divergent series in anticipation of this new one (and reviewed it in my March roundup). Usually the way these kinds of series go is that they drop off in quality with each successive instalment, but the first set up such a ridiculous and unbelievable world (dividing everyone into mutually-exclusive castes based on ability) that the bar wasn’t too high, and indeed has been cleared by Insurgent. I’m not saying the second film is a triumph — the world is still constructed along weirdly rigid lines, and the test that evil leader Jeanine (Kate Winslet) sets for Woodley’s Tris is a bit confusing — but it opens up its world in interesting ways and sets up a next episode that I’m actually looking forward to.


Notting Hill (1999)

Notting Hill (1999, UK, dir. Roger Michell) [Sun 19 Apr on a plane]. I’m probably not supposed to like this, but what can you do. Every time it comes on — and I only tend to watch it when it’s there right in front of me — I end up watching the whole thing, and this has happened more than once, so it’s not just some kind of momentary weakness. I’ve not been sold on all screenwriter Richard Curtis’s films, though I’ve liked more than I’ve disliked, but Notting Hill just seems to work despite all its inherent naffness. Julia Roberts plays a big-time Hollywood star, Hugh Grant is a diffident English bookshop owner, they meet cute, one things leads to another, there are some funny setpieces, and well, it passes the time very pleasantly. **½


Pitch Perfect (2012)

Pitch Perfect (2012, USA, dir. Jason Moore) [Fri 24 Apr at a friend’s flat]. I’ve reviewed it before, and it’ll probably show up on this list many times more in the future, because I do love Pitch Perfect. It’s not just Anna Kendrick, whom I’ve recently had cause to hymn once again for The Last Five Years, but the ensemble cast and the time-honoured building-to-a-big-showdown narrative construction, not to mention the hummable music. ****


Premium Rush (2012)

Premium Rush (2012, USA, dir. David Koepp) [Sat 4 Apr at home]. At a certain level this is a fairly slight premise — Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s bicycle courier must deliver a package across Manhattan by a deadline, hotly pursued by Michael Shannon’s corrupt cop — but this is essentially an action film, and you don’t want to complicate the purity too much. That said, the filmmakers weave in a story of immigration and bureaucratic corruption without overwhelming the central chase motif, which is handled with a great deal of vigour and momentum. It also (as far as I can tell) charts a realistic depiction of New York geography as Gordon-Levitt frantically switches up routes to his destination. ***½


Wild Card (2015)

Wild Card (2015, USA, dir. Simon West) [Tue 31 Mar at Cineworld Wood Green]. The great Jason Statham returns in another action romp which as per some other recent outings, shows just a hint of actorly character development around the edges, as he essays the role of Nick Wild, Las Vegas security specialist. Most of the big name cast members (and there are a few: Jason Alexander, Stanley Tucci, Sofia Vergara, Hope Davis, Anne Heche) are there for single scenes only, leaving the main showdown to be between Statham and Milo Ventimiglia as a narcissistic, abusive gangster. If you’ve seen a Statham actioner before, you’ll probably recognise the broad contours, but in the tightness of the filming and the polish of the script this one is probably his best since Safe. ***

The Counselor (aka The Counsellor, 2013)


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW || Director Ridley Scott | Writer Cormac McCarthy | Cinematographer Dariusz Wolski | Starring Michael Fassbender, Cameron Diaz, Javier Bardem, Brad Pitt, Penélope Cruz | Length 117 minutes | Seen at Cineworld Haymarket, London, Tuesday 3 December 2013 || My Rating 1 star bad


© 20th Century Fox

Oh dear, where do I start? I went into this film — whose showing was conveniently aligned with a two-hour gap in my schedule, rather than because I specifically sought it out — with low expectations, to which the film was more than equal. I’ve read and enjoyed novels by Cormac McCarthy in the past, as I have watched and enjoyed films by Ridley Scott, though both are known for a certain pared-down muscularity to their work. It’s not simply that I did not connect with this product of their collaboration, because in many respects I admired the filmmaking on show, as found it to be actively offensive.

Continue reading “The Counselor (aka The Counsellor, 2013)”