SICARIO: DAY OF THE SOLDADO (2018) – SICARIO Sequel A Solid Thriller

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Isabela Moner and Benicio Del Toro in SICARIO: DAY OF THE SOLDADO (2018).

 

SICARIO (2015) was my favorite movie of 2015.

It was also the first film written by Taylor Sheridan, who, along with his screenplays for HELL OR HIGH WATER (2016) and WIND RIVER (2017) has become one of my favorite screenwriters working today.

So, my interest in the sequel to SICARIO went up when I realized that Sheridan was writing it.

That sequel, SICARIO: DAY OF THE SOLDADO (2018), does what most sequels fail to do: it tells a completely different story from its predecessor, as it follows the natural progression of two of the main characters from the previous movie and tells their ongoing story. As such, it feels more like the next episode in a quality TV series rather than a rehash of the first movie, the trap into which many sequels fall. In fact, it’s the second chapter in a proposed trilogy of SICARIO movies.

Its plot is also timely, as it involves smuggling immigrants over the southern border from Mexico.

SICARIO: DAY OF THE SOLDADO opens with Mexican immigrants being rounded up as they try to cross the border. One of the men flees and just as the officials are closing in on him, he detonates a bomb and blows himself up. The action switches to Kansas City where we witness a deadly terrorist attack where suicide bombers blow up a crowded shopping area.

Special agent Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) is called in to meet with Secretary of Defense James Riley (Matthew Modine) and a group of other officials.  Graver explains that while Mexican cartels used to make most of their money smuggling drugs, nowadays they make more money smuggling people. Riley then informs Graver that the cartels have upped the ante as they are now smuggling terrorists.

Riley wants Graver to put a stop to this, and Graver, an expert in dealing with the cartels, says the best way to do it is to get them to fight each other, and so a plot is hatched to kidnap the daughter of a Mexican drug lord and make it look like the work of a rival cartel. Graver is given the green light to do whatever it takes, and as he assembles his team, he includes the shadowy hitman Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro).

Graver’s team pulls off a brazen daytime abduction of the daughter, Isabel Reyes (Isabela Moner) and they do indeed lay the blame on a rival cartel. But before their plan of getting the cartels to fight each other can take shape, things get messy, and as we know, the best laid plans of mice and men—.

In addition to Taylor Sheridan once again writing the screenplay, SICARIO: DAY OF THE SOLDADO also reunites two of the stars from the first movie, Josh Brolin and Benicio Del Toro, as they both reprise their roles from SICARIO, and as you would expect, they are both excellent once again, delivering solid performances.

On the other hand, Emily Blunt, who played the main character in SICARIO, did not return for the sequel and her presence is definitely missed. Likewise, director Denis Villeneuve also did not return, and these are two of the reasons why SICARIO: DAY OF THE SOLDADO, a solid thriller nonetheless, isn’t as good as its predecessor.

It’s a decent enough screenplay by Taylor Sheridan, although it’s probably not as tight as his previous scripts. It tells a tense and riveting story, and gives us realistic characters and dialogue. Like his previous screenplays, it also gives us layers. There’s a lot going on in this story.

One of the fresher and very timely aspects in the script is its take on immigrants coming into the country. For the most part, it seems to vindicate those who argue for stronger borders, but later in the movie, as the mission is spiraling out of control, it’s revealed that the Kansas City terrorists were American citizens and weren’t smuggled into the country after all, which turns the entire mission upside down. It also is one of those layers I was just talking about. Things are never black and white in a Taylor Sheridan screenplay.

But the story isn’t quite as tight as previous Sheridan tales. While the intensity is palpable for most of the film, it doesn’t quite hold up till the end. The story fizzles somewhat by the time we get to the final reel.

But as I said both Josh Brolin and Benicio Del Toro reprise their roles and are both exceptional. I actually enjoyed Brolin more this time around, as his character seemed to be a bit more fleshed out. Del Toro, while less chilling and mysterious than he was in SICARIO, still makes Alejandro a force to be reckoned with.  There’s more sympathy for the character this time around.

I like both these characters and would be more than happy to see them in yet another movie.

The younger actors here also fare well. Elijah Rodriguez is very good as Miguel Hernandez, a teen recruited by his adult cousin to work for the cartels smuggling immigrants across the border. It’s a cold-hearted performance that definitely strikes a chord.

But the performance of the movie belongs to young Isabela Moner as the kidnapped daughter Isabel Reyes. When we first meet Isabel, she’s in a fight at her school with another girl, and when she’s called into the principal’s office, she pretty much tells him off. And when he says he should expel her, she calls him on it, and when he does nothing, she says, “Yeah. That’s what I thought.” She then casually strolls out of his office, knowing full well she’s untouchable because of her father.

Once abducted, she’s terribly frightened, as she should be, and rather than being a clichéd “handful” she’s smart and resilient. The story arc where she bonds with Alejandro also works. It’s a terrific performance by Isabela Moner, and as much as I enjoyed Brolin and Del Toro in this movie, I think I enjoyed Moner even more. She really brings Isabel Reyes to life.

The supporting cast is full of veteran actors, including Matthew Modine, Catherine Keener, Shea Whigham, and Bruno Bichir.

Director Stefano Sollima doesn’t imbue this film with as much sweat-inducing intensity as Denis Villeneuve gave the original, but he’s also working with a weaker story. As much as I like Taylor Sheridan’s writing, the story told in the first SICARIO was a stronger one than the one told here.

Still, there are some effective scenes. The sequence where Graver’s team is attacked by the Mexican police is a good one, as is the initial kidnapping scene. And near the end, where Alejandro finds himself at the mercy of cartel members, the suspense is nail-biting.

But SICARIO was a tight thriller that remained riveting right up until the end, whereas SICARIO: DAY OF THE SOLDADO simply doesn’t do this. It has its moments, a lot of them in fact, but it doesn’t match the phenomenal original.

Sicario, by the way, is Spanish for “hitman,” and soldado means “soldier.” I’m guessing that’s a reference to Josh Brolin’s Matt Graver character, who’s portrayed here much more as a soldier this time around.  And he does tend to take center stage here.

I’m also guessing this one might underperform at the box office. I saw it on opening night with a sparse crowd which was almost entirely male. I spotted just one or two women in the audience.  And these guys were jacked and — well, let’s just say they  looked like they wanted to sign up for Matt Graver’s special ops team. So if you’re looking to put together a secret military unit, look no further than the audience at a  SICARIO: DAY OF THE SOLDADO movie.

SICARIO: DAY OF THE SOLDADO is nowhere near as strong a film as the original, but it’s still a hard-hitting thriller which successfully tells a complex and timely story involving cartels, immigration, and the shadowy missions of the U.S. government.

—END—

Books by Michael Arruda:

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  

Ebook version:  $2.99. Available at http://www.crossroadpress.com. Print version:  $18.00. Includes postage! Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.

InTheSpooklight_NewText

 Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.crossroadpress.com.  Print version:  $18.00.  Includes postage. Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR, short story collection by Michael Arruda.  

For The Love Of Horror cover

Print version:  $18.00.  Includes postage. Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

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DEADPOOL 2 (2018) – Raunchy Jokes Aren’t Enough the Second Time Around

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The jokes work.

The story doesn’t.

That’s pretty much my take on DEADPOOL 2 (2018), the sequel to Marvel’s R-rated superhero romp DEADPOOL (2016) which starred Ryan Reynolds as the hilariously foul-mouthed Deadpool. Reynolds is back again in the sequel, as vulgar and comical as ever, breaking the fourth wall more often than he breaks bad guys’ heads.

Yep, there’s plenty of Deadpool and his trademark humor in DEADPOOL 2, but the story he finds himself in this time around is a complete snooze. But judging by the large audience which laughed out loud throughout, I doubt people are going to mind.

Deadpool (Ryan Reynolds) is living the dream with his girlfriend Vanessa (Morena Baccarin) and they are even planning to have a baby together, but a visit to their apartment by murderous thugs seeking revenge against Deadpool leaves Vanessa dead and alters Deadpool’s course for the rest of the movie.

And for Deadpool that means seeking redemption by protecting a young mutant boy named Russell (Julian Dennison) who has become the target of Cable (Josh Brolin), who’s come back from the future a la the Terminator to kill the young boy in order to stop him from committing a crime that hasn’t happened yet.

And that’s pretty much it for storyline in this one. Sure, there are plenty more characters involved, some interesting and fun, others less so, but the bottom line is that’s about it for plot here, folks. The rest is jokes, jokes, and more jokes. And frankly for me, that just wasn’t enough.

Once more, Ryan Reynolds has a field day playing Deadpool, and the script gives him enough gags to get him through the whole movie and then some. If you’re simply into watching Deadpool make funnies, and don’t care about plot, you’ll enjoy this one. Reynolds is a hoot.  He doesn’t disappoint.

Josh Brolin is okay as Cable, but his performance is not on the same level as what we just saw him do in AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR (2018) as Thanos. Brolin delivered a powerful performance as the CGI enhanced Thanos, but here  he’s playing a character that is far less impressive.

DEADPOOL 2 also introduces the X-Force, a band of mutants who Deadpool recruits to be his superhero team.  This team was actually kind of a disappointment as they don’t do a whole lot nor are they in this one very much. The one notable X-Force member is Domino (Zazie Beetz). Her superpower is good luck, and thanks to Beetz’ performance, luck is something she doesn’t need.  She’s very good on her own.

There’s some star power here as actors like Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Terry Crews, and Bill Skarsgard have cameos and small roles, which is all part of the fun.

T. J. Miller, an actor who I always enjoy, sadly has his screen time as bartender Weasel reduced in this one.

The script by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, who both wrote the first DEADPOOL, and Ryan Reynolds, scores high with the jokes but low with the story. The end credit scenes to this one alone are worth the price of admission. They’re hilarious.

DEADPOOL 2 was directed by David Leitch, who also directed ATOMIC BLONDE (2017). Leitch’s stuntman background enabled him to shoot one of the best fight sequences I’d seen in a while in ATOMIC BLONDE. I thought the fight sequences here in DEADPOOL 2 were less impressive and much more standard.

For me, and maybe it’s because it was released on the heels of AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR and BLACK PANTHER (2018), two Marvel superhero films that instantly rank as two of the best in the franchise, DEADPOOL 2 simply didn’t work.

And the reason, as I said, is its plot, which is not only mediocre, but flat-out boring. I wasn’t interested in any of it. Did I care about young Russell? No. And hence I didn’t care about Deadpool’s mission to save him. Did I care about Deadpool’s relationship with the X-Men? Not really, because this movie didn’t really make me care, as the relationship was simply a set-up for jokes. Did I care about Cable? No. The film didn’t really develop this character, and so his words and plight rang hollow.

Did I care about X-Force? Yes. They were an interesting lot. Unfortunately, they’re in the film for all of ten minutes.

So, while I laughed at the jokes, and had fun with Ryan Reynolds constantly breaking the fourth wall as Deadpool, I didn’t really care about any of it.

The first DEADPOOL got both of these items right. It was nonstop hilarious, and it had a compelling storyline.  I was into the film from the very first scene. In DEADPOOL 2, in spite of the humor, my mind was wandering throughout because no one on-screen other than Deadpool himself held my interest.

Bottom line? If you love the Deadpool character and Ryan Reynolds’ take on him, you’ll probably enjoy this movie. But be prepared for a plot that is as lifeless as it is dull.

And that’s a problem because if the story puts you to sleep, well, it’s hard to laugh at all those jokes if you’re not awake to enjoy them.

—END—

Books by Michael Arruda:

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  

Ebook version:  $2.99. Available at http://www.crossroadpress.com. Print version:  $18.00. Includes postage! Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.

InTheSpooklight_NewText

 Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.crossroadpress.com.  Print version:  $18.00.  Includes postage. Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR, short story collection by Michael Arruda.  

For The Love Of Horror cover

Print version:  $18.00.  Includes postage. Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.  

 

 

 

AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR (2018) – Epic Marvel Superhero Movie Plays Like Season Finale

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avengers_infinity_war_poster2

Awesome.

That’s the first word that comes to mind after seeing AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR (2018), the third AVENGERS film and nineteenth movie overall to take place in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  Yup, Marvel has been on quite the run, and it shows no signs of slowing down with its latest entry.

The story AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR tells is simple and easy to rally behind, making it an action-packed thrill ride with enough emotional ups and downs between light moments and dark ones you’re sure to leave the theater not only entertained but moved as well.

Thanos (Josh Brolin) is busy collecting the Infinity Stones, supernatural items which have been featured in several of the earlier Marvel movies. Thanos wants all six because once he has them, he will have the power to destroy the universe.  Now, Thanos does not want to destroy the universe. Nope, he just wants to trim it down a bit.  Systematically, randomly, and without mercy, he simply wants to wipe out half of civilization, so that the other half can thrive and lead better lives. What a thoughtful guy! As he says, the greatest decisions take the greatest sacrifices, and he’s the one to make such bold decisions and carry them out.

Standing in Thanos’ way are the Avengers, Earth’s mightest superheroes. They scramble to not only prevent Thanos from getting all the stones but also to destroy the madman once and for all. The trouble is, the Avengers as we know them don’t really exist any more.  They broke up, as shown in events from CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR (2016). When Bruce Banner/the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) learns the news, his response is “What do you mean, broke up? Like a band? Like the Beatles?”

So, the group of arguing superheroes has disbanded, and when the fight begins, they are not together.  They also are in need of help, which arrives with the Guardians of the Galaxy, and also Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and the warriors from Wakanda. Together, the fight is on.

But AVENGERS: INFINTIY WAR is much more than just a superhero war movie.

Start with the villain, Thanos, who with his nearly unstoppable powers may be the best Marvel movie villain yet. Thanos is not some cliché madman who wants to take over the universe. No, he wants to prune it, the way we care for trees and gardens in the spring. Remove dead branches and weeds, and prepare for new life. Trouble here is, Thanos wants to remove things— beings— that are very much alive. But his motivations are based on real issues, like overcrowding and population explosion. As he says during one point in the film, the universe and its resources are finite, and it can’t sustain unlimited growth forever, and that’s where he comes in. As he sees it, he’s there to give people a better life, and this isn’t some lie to cover for some other darker more ludicrous plan. It’s really what Thanos intends  to do, and for those reasons.

If there’s one drawback to AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR it’s that if you haven’t seen the previous films in the Marvel movie universe, you no doubt won’t be as moved because you won’t know the background to the characters. You wouldn’t understand the depth of Iron Man’s and Captain America’s rift if you haven’t seen CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR (2016).  You wouldn’t appreciate the relationship between Thor and Loki if you hadn’t seen the THOR movies, nor the full humor of the Guardians of the Galaxy if you hadn’t seen their movies, nor the dynamic between Iron Man and young Spider-Man if you hadn’t seen SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING (2017). And on I could go.

That being said, it’s not an issue of following the story, because AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR handles its storytelling smoothly.  You could see this movie without having seen any of the others and easily follow what is going on and enjoy the story. You just wouldn’t get the same emotional impact if you hadn’t seen these characters before.

The brilliant part of these Marvel movies is they have introduced these characters and told their stories patiently over the years through a series of high quality movies, and there have been so many of them that they really play out like a TV series. You watch AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR and you’ve seen all the other Marvel movies, this film plays like a season finale.

AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR has what all the other Marvel movies had before it, a phenomenal cast, superior writing, and superb direction. Just look at the cast here: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Scarlett Johansson, Don Cheadle, Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Holland, Chadwick Boseman, Zoe Saldana, Tom Hiddleston, Paul Bettany, Elizabeth Olsen, Anthony Mackie, Sebastian Stan, Idris Elba, Danai Gurira, Peter Dinklage, Benedict Wong, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, Gwyneth Paltrow, Benicio Del Toro, Chris Pratt, William Hurt, and Josh Brolin.

Wow.

Double wow.

At the center of this story is Tony Stark/Iron Man, played by Robert Downey, Jr. The recent run of Marvel movies began with IRON MAN (2008), the film which introduced Downey, Jr. as Tony Stark, a role he has made his own over the years.  This marks the ninth time he has played Tony Stark in a movie.

Once more, Robert Downey Jr. excels in his scenes as Tony Stark, and his climactic confrontation with Thanos is one of the many highlights of the film, mostly because we have followed this character since IRON MAN and to see his story arc come to a head with this battle with Thanos is a high impact moment.

Likewise, Captain America/Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is the other main Avengers character, and as we saw in CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR, he has become the leader of one faction of superheroes, separate from Tony Stark and his followers, since they experienced a major disagreement over their relationship with the U.S. government. Like Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans has also played Captain America nine times in the movies, and also like Downey Jr., his performances have been exceptional.

Now known as simply “The Captain,” and sans his mask and shield and now sporting a beard, he assembles his group along with Black Panther and the warriors from Wakanda to defend the Earth from Thanos. In their greatest battle, Captain America and Iron Man are not together.

Also successfully reprising their roles are Chris Hemsworth as Thor, Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner/The Hulk, and Chadwick Boseman as Black Panther. The Guardians of the Galaxy are also on hand, and Chris Pratt and company lend plenty of fun moments to the fray.  And you can’t forget Tom Holland as Spider-Man.

And as I said, Josh Brolin, with his cool, calm demeanor and nearly unlimited strength, makes for one of Marvel’s best villains as Thanos.

There are so many fun moments in this one. Star-Lord’s (Chris Pratt) interactions with Thor are hilarious, as is the rapid fire pop culture discussion between Star-Lord and Spider-Man. Drax (Dave Bautista) is his usual honest self, and he gets to partake in several laugh-out loud moments. Likewise, there are fine moments between Tony Stark, Peter Parker, and Dr. Strange, poignant moments between Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and Vision (Paul Bettany) and an emotional scene where Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Okoye (Danai Gurira) leap to Scarlet Witch’s defense.

AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR has a superior script by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely. It tells a solid story, does a remarkable job giving this huge ensemble plenty to do and many of their own signature moments, and contains fine dialogue throughout. And this is no surprise since both these guys have written several of the previous Marvel movies, including one of the best, CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR (2016).

Brothers Anthony and Joe Russo do a fine directing job. The movie starts off with a thrilling pre-credit sequence showing Thanos tangling with Thor, Loki, and the Hulk, and pretty much decimating Asgard, which sets the stage perfectly for the rest of the movie. The audience learns immediately that Thanos is a formidable foe.

The film is paced nicely as its 149 minute running time flies by.  It also looks great, as the various worlds here are full of eye-popping color and look amazing.  The battle scenes are pretty much all exciting and authentic.

This is the Russo brothers’ first AVENGERS movie, taking over the directorial duties from Joss Whedon. The Russos had previously directed CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER (2014) and CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR (2016).

There are so many memorable moments in this movie they are too numerous to list. But since I can’t contain myself, here are a few more: it was fun to see the characters from BLACK PANTHER back doing their thing here in this movie. Doctor Strange is actually more likable here than he was in his own movie. Loki has one of his best on-screen sequences yet. Gamora (Zoe Saldana) also has some powerfully emotional scenes, as does the wise cracking Rocket (Bradley Cooper), who Thor constantly refers to as the “Rabbit.” And on and on I could go.

And then there’s the ending.

What. A. Bold. Ending.

Okay, I’m partial to dark endings, but this is exactly the type of ending which so many movies which feature such powerful villains should have but all too often don’t because filmmakers shy away from them. I absolutely loved the ending to AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR. It will leave you breathless, speechless, and without saliva. Any other ending would not have seemed as real. It hearkened back to the ending of the best STAR WARS movie, THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (1980).

And of course, we know there is yet another untitled AVENGERS movie to follow, and so we know there is more to this story to be told, even though this ending is as dark as they can get, and the film is better for it.

Like the other Marvel movies, there is an after-end-credit scene, so if you want to see it, be sure to sit through the credits. There’s also another hilarious Stan Lee cameo, and these just seem to get better and better.

I absolutely loved AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR, and as a testament to how good these Marvel films have become, while I loved this film, it’s not my favorite Marvel film of the year so far, as that distinction still belongs to BLACK PANTHER (2018) which is so good it’s in a league by itself.

That being said, you can’t go wrong with AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR which is pretty much nonstop adventure and excitement throughout. Its story about a group of admirable, off-beat, and oftentimes oddball characters who are usually at odds with each other, united to protect life across the universe from a madman who wants to destroy half the population because he wants to save the other half, and has the power to do it, is a winner and a crowd pleaser.

And if you’re a Marvel superhero movie fan and have seen all the movies, you get the added bonus of this film playing out like a season finale.

As such, I can’t wait for “next season’s” premiere, and that will happen with the next AVENGERS movie, due out in 2019.

Let the countdown begin.

—END—

 

 

 

 

 

HAIL, CAESAR! (2016) Missing Spark

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It’s hit or miss for me with the Coen brothers.

For every Coen movie I like—TRUE GRIT (2010), NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN (2007), and FARGO (1996), to name a few– there’s another I don’t like—BURN AFTER READING (2008) and INTOLERABLE CRUELTY (2003) to name a couple.

Their latest movie, HAIL, CAESAR!, a comedy about the the film industry in the 1950s, is one of their misses.

It’s got good ideas, some clever writing, decent acting performances, and an attention to detail that’s second to none, but at the end of the day it’s lacking something, a cohesive spark to both keep the entire film together and lead it to bigger and brighter things.  As it stands, it’s a comedy without much to laugh about and worse yet, not many laughs.

It’s the story of Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), a Hollywood fixer whose job it is to see that everything at Capitol Pictures functions properly.  He’s a problem solver who on any given day is dealing with one issue after another.  That’s Hollywood, for you!  And one thing is for sure, his job is not boring.

In HAIL, CAESAR! Eddie has multiple problems to deal with.  His biggest issue is studio star Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) has gotten himself kidnapped from the set of the biblical epic they’re shooting, entitled HAIL, CAESAR! 

Meanwhile, his boss has inserted bad acting cowboy star Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) into a high profile drama directed by one of their top directors Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes).  And if that’s not enough, studio “innocent” DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson) has gotten herself pregnant, and an unmarried mother is not the image the studio wants for her, so Eddie sets his sights on getting her married.

HAIL, CAESAR! is a collection of little moments.  Some of them work, while others don’t.   For instance, the scene where Eddie assembles a group of religious leaders in a conference room to get their feedback on the studio’s depiction of Jesus in their movie HAIL, CAESAR! is hilarious- an instant classic.  Likewise, when George Clooney’s Baird Whitlock awakens from his drug-induced slumber and casually strolls into the living room and joins in on the conversation with his kidnappers, it makes for grin-inducing comedy.

Moreover, the film also includes scenes of genuine drama.  The scene near the end where Eddie literally slaps some sense into his star Baird Whitlock is poignant and painful, and sets the stage for Whitlock’s dramatic speech at the end of his Biblical movie, a speech that Clooney knocks out of the park, playing an actor acting over his head in a movie that’s nowhere near as good as his performance in the scene- until he forgets his last line.

The scene where director Laurence Larentz confronts Hobie Doyle and literally forces him to say the line “Would that it were so simple” repeatedly is pointedly painful.

But just as many scenes misfire.  Most of Channing Tatum’s scenes fall flat, and Scarlett Johansson, whose DeeAnna Moran is a really interesting character, is barely in the movie enough to make much of an impact. Her one scene with Jonah Hill is buzzing with energy, but it’s just one scene.

While Tilda Swinton, who was so icy cold in both the NARNIA movies and in SNOWPIERCER (2013), is very good in a dual role as sister reporters’ Thora and Thessaly Thacker, her scenes are neither comedic or all that dramatic.  They’re just sort of there.

Furthermore, George Clooney possesses tremendous comic timing, and yet it is barely on display here.  His kidnap tale has all the makings of a screwball comedy, yet that’s not the direction this movie decides to take.

And Josh Brolin, who I like a lot, is very good here as Eddie Mannix, but it’s a straight role.  He’s the straight man, and all the shenanigans of his actors, directors, and studio heads play off him.  While Brolin is excellent in the role, as he almost always is, the character Eddie Mannix as written isn’t really the strongest character to build a movie around.  Perhaps if he were more comedic- the type of persona which Peter Falk used to play- that might have worked better, but that’s not how the role is written. With his Catholic guilt, it reminded me of a role Spencer Tracy would have played.  The character just doesn’t seem to fit in with the oddball characters surrounding him.

You can’t really fault the actors.  They all do a very good job with what they have, and HAIL, CAESAR! certainly features a phenomenal cast:  Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Ralph Fiennes, Scarlett Johansson, Tilda Swinton, Frances McDormand, Channing Tatum, and Jonah Hill.

I also enjoyed Alden Ehrenreich as singing cowboy star Hobie Doyle.

By far, the biggest weakness of HAIL, CAESAR! is that it’s simply not that funny, and for a comedy, that is definitely not a good thing!

Brothers Joel and Ethan Coen have written a script that captures the flavor of 1950s Hollywood, and they have peppered it with interesting and quirky characters throughout, but what they didn’t do was give these characters in this setting a solid story in which to maneuver.  It’s simply a collection of little moments that never quite gel together in order to build something more.

And central character Eddie Mannix, in spite of a solid performance by Josh Brolin, just isn’t quirky enough to be that guy who holds a movie like this together.  I almost wish George Clooney’s Baird Whitlock had been the central character. Had that been the case, the comedy would have soared.  Clooney’s got that kind of timing.

The cinematography and costumes capture the period nicely, and HAIL, CAESAR! if nothing else is enjoyable to look at. But for a period piece comedy, aesthetics without laughter doesn’t really cut it.

HAIL, CAESAR! is an emphatic title.  Too bad its humor isn’t equally as assertive.

 

 

 

 

 

 

SICARIO (2015) – TAUT THRILLER IS ONE OF THE BEST FILMS OF THE YEAR

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MOVIE REVIEW:  SICARIO (2015)Sicario poster

By Michael Arruda

 

In Spanish, “sicario” means “hit man.”  In English, it means “hit movie.”

That being said, SICARIO is not exactly tearing it up at the box office, which is a shame, since it’s one of the best films of the year.

SICARIO is the new thriller by director Denis Villeneuve.  Its story about the hunt for a Mexican drug lord has it all:  riveting direction by Villeneuve, a multi-layered and deeply resonating screenplay by Taylor Sheridan, and fantastic acting performances all around, led by Emily Blunt, Benicio Del Toro, and Josh Brolin.

Wow.  And wow again.

Del Toro has been exceptional in a bunch of movies, so it would be difficult to call his role in this movie as the mysterious and oh-so-cool and deadly Alejandro his best, but he is phenomenal here.  Alejandro instantly joins the ranks of cinema’s most fearsome hitmen.

Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) is an idealistic FBI agent who in the film’s opening segment leads a drug raid on an Arizona home that leads to both a gruesome discovery and tragedy.  Kate and her agents discover over two dozen dead bodies buried within the walls of the house, and later as the agents continue to scour the grounds, a bomb goes off killing members of Kate’s team.

Kate’s exemplary work attracts the attention of special agent Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), and he invites Kate to join his team.  His mission is to hunt down the drug lord responsible for the death of Kate’s men, and so naturally Kate wants in, despite her misgivings about the operation, fueled by Graver’s evasive answers to her questions.  For instance, he refuses to give her a straight answer regarding the government agency for which he works.

Kate’s by-the-book partner Reggie (Daniel Kaluuya) warns Kate not to go, but she is determined to take down those responsible for her agents’ deaths.  Things grow murkier when Kate learns that they’re not going to El Paso as promised but to Mexico.

On the plane to Mexico, Kate meets Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), a man whose demeanor immediately raises a red flag for Kate.  She demands to know who Graver and Alejandro are working for, and she wants to know if they are, as she suspects, CIA.  Graver, in his usual relaxed, calm, confident manner, tells Kate to chill and to simply go along for the ride to observe and learn, because as he says, the battle that they’re taking to Mexico, is on its way to the States, and she’ll soon be waging a similar battle back home.

Kate relents and goes with Graver and Alejandro to Mexico, where she sees firsthand the horrors and crimes committed by the drug lord they are seeking, a man known as Fausto Alarcon.  Graver has assembled a crack team including Texas Rangers and other military types to complete their mission which is to go in and extract one of Alarcon’s cousins in order to stir things up and ruffle Alarcon’s feathers.  Kate is uncomfortable by the methods she witnesses, knowing they are illegal, but she stays with Graver and his team anyway.

They get their man, and in one of the film’s tenser sequences, attempt to bring him back across the border to the States, where Graver’s work is far from finished.  As Kate is drawn deeper into a world she wants no part of, a world where the lines between friend and foe become more and more difficult to discern, she struggles between keeping to her ideals and knowing what is right, and helping Graver, a man who’s eventual goal in spite of his off the chart methods is exactly what Kate wants to achieve.

SICARIO tells a fascinating story that works on multiple levels.  It’s written by Taylor Sheridan, who has worked more as an actor than as a writer.  Sheridan played Deputy David Hale on the TV show SONS OF ANARCHY (2008-2010). SICARIO is his debut screenplay, and it’s pretty darned impressive!

We are immediately drawn into Kate Macer’s story from the very first scene.  We share her determination to hunt down the man responsible for her team’s death, but this is no vengeance plot.  Like Kate, we become increasingly frustrated by the constant slipperiness of Matt Graver.  We are made uncomfortable by the cold presence of Alejandro.  And like Kate, we are increasingly torn between these men’s methods and their goal.

Alejandro’s story might be even more compelling.  At first, he’s this shadowy figure who we, like Kate, immediately suspect is not who he seems.  And we’re right.  But his back story explains his motivations, and as the movie goes on he becomes more of a central player.  The best part of Alejandro is his complexity. He puts Kate on edge immediately, and yet he’s the man when they’re in Mexico who seems to have her back.  She eventually trusts him, but later his actions cause her to pull a gun on him, an action he quickly makes her regret.

And the plight of the Mexican people, caught in the crossfire between the drug cartel on the one hand and the U.S. government on the other, is captured brilliantly yet simply in a touching subplot involving a corrupt Mexican police officer named Silvio (Maximiliano Hernandez) and the relationship he shares with his son.  The simple shot near the end of the movie of his son standing next to his empty bed is just one of the many powerful images captured in SICARIO and succeeds in making its point far more effectively than any long drawn out scene of dialogue.

Directed by Denis Villeneuve, SICARIO is full of potent images.  From the disturbing sight of naked mutilated bodies hanging above Mexican streets, to the more subtle scenes of Mexican children playing soccer with the sound of gun shots in the distance, to the blazing display of gunfire and explosions in the Mexican night witnessed by Kate from a distant rooftop.

Villeneuve also directed the well-received kidnapping thriller PRISONERS (2013) starring Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal.  I enjoyed SICARIO better than PRISONERS, as it tells a more complex story and it’s more of a complete package.

SICARIO also features some of the more riveting film sequences I’ve seen in a while.  The trek to extract the prisoner from Mexico, where Graver’s convoy gets stuck in traffic because of an accident, allowing drug hitmen the time they need to descend upon them, is one of the more suspenseful and exciting sequences in the film.  Likewise, later in the film a pursuit into an underground tunnel is just as exciting.  There are plenty of nail-biting moments in SICARIO.

The cast is flawless.

Emily Blunt delivers her finest performance to date in SICARIO (2015).

Emily Blunt delivers perhaps her finest performance to date in SICARIO (2015).

Emily Blunt is outstanding as Kate Macer.  She’s the perfect combination of tough-as-nails strength and later as her world crumbles around her, frightened vulnerability.  Blunt’s performance in the Tom Cruise science fiction film EDGE OF TOMORROW (2014) was one of my favorite parts of that movie.  She’s even better here in SICARIO. It’s Blunt’s best performance to date.

Even better is Benicio Del Toro as Alejandro.  He possesses such a presence in this movie that he can unnerve you just by standing there without uttering a line.  And when he gets into his adversary’s faces, and he does, up close, you can feel their trembling.  Yet, as played by Del Toro, Alejandro is not a one-note heartless robot of a killer.  He’s much more intricate than that, and while he may be one of the more cold-blooded hit men you’ll find in a movie, his backstory and its resolution, may have you shedding a tear.

Benicio Del Toro delivers yet another exceptional performance in SICARIO (2015).

Benicio Del Toro in another exceptional performance in SICARIO (2015).

Alejandro also shares a bond with Kate.  When he tells her that she reminds him of someone special from his past, it’s not a cliché set-up for a long lost love, but something deeper and more touching.

Josh Brolin is just as good as his fellow co-stars, playing the evasive and confident Matt Graver who doesn’t seem to have a straight answer for anything, and yet he often is the most honest man in the story.  And that’s because in the process of not answering Kate’s questions, he tells the truth.  It’s just not what Kate wants to hear, but the information is accurate.  If ever there was a true CIA man it’s Graver.  Brolin is perfectly cast as the relentless government agent who is so relaxed chasing mass murdering drug lords that he wears sandals during high level meetings and sleeps like a baby on flights into enemy territory.

The supporting cast is also excellent.  Daniel Kaluuya is memorable as Kate’s loyal partner Reggie Wayne.  In addition to being an FBI agent, he’s also a lawyer, and he represents law and order in this story, constantly attacking Graver and Alejandro and their methods.  He’s also loyal to a fault to Kate, and in a world where it’s difficult to know who to trust and who might shoot you in the back, it was refreshing to have a character like Daniel in the story.

Victor Garber [ARGO (2013)] makes a memorable impression as Kate’s boss Dave Jennings, and Jon Bernthal (THE WALKING DEAD) impresses in a small role as a man Kate meets in a bar for what seems like a harmless sexual encounter, except that in this story very little is as it seems.

Probably the best of the supporting roles belongs to Maximiliano Hernandez who plays the Mexican police officer Silvio.  In a series of brief scenes, we get to know him as a father to his young son, which makes his ultimate and unfortunate fate as he crosses paths with Alejandro all the more sad and touching.

SICARIO also has an effective music score by Johann Johannsson which completely captures the mood of this one and complements the edge-of-your seat suspenseful scenes.

SICARIO is the perfect combination of suspense and drama.  It’s riveting from start to finish, and it’s full of deep layers that keep this one from being superficial and trite.  It’s as complex as the multi-faceted drug world it portrays, and yet it’s never confusing.  Like Kate, we are torn by this world, are put off by the methods and partnerships embraced by our own government officials to get the job done, and yet also like Kate, at the end of the day we are not completely sure we want them to be stopped.

SICARIO is a deeply satisfying and rewarding movie that will have you on the edge of your seat throughout.  It’s one of the best films of the year.

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OLDBOY (2013) Unbelievable

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oldboy-posterStreaming Video Review: OLDBOY (2013)
by
Michael Arruda

I missed OLDBOY (2013) when it played at theaters last year— it was gone pretty quickly— but I was able to catch up with it the other day on Netflix streaming.

OLDBOY is a remake of a 2003 Korean film of the same name, a movie I have not seen, but one that is reportedly much better than this remake by director Spike Lee. OLDBOY is a tale of mystery and revenge, and it’s one that I would have liked much more had I actually believed it.

We meet Joe Doucett (Josh Brolin), a man who’s not particularly likable— in fact, he’s downright unlikable— screwing up his business meetings and his family life, as he misses his three year-old daughter’s birthday party and screams at his ex-wife on the phone. After botching an important business deal, Joe gets himself stinking drunk, and it’s in this state that he’s kidnapped, whisked away into the night from a dark rainy street.

When he awakes, he finds himself imprisoned in a hotel room. He receives food on a tray which is passed through a small opening in the door, and of course he has access to a bathroom, but he’s held in this room for twenty years. During this time, he sees on television news reports of his ex-wife’s murder, and how he has been implicated in the crime. Over the years, since the story of the murder of his ex-wife makes for sensationalistic television, especially since the chief suspect— him—has disappeared, there are follow-up reports, and during the twenty year span he gets to see reports of his daughter’s well-being.

One day, after twenty years of imprisonment, he is released without explanation. Joe makes it his mission to find out who imprisoned him for twenty years and for what reason. He receives help from his friend Chucky (Michael Imperioli) and a young nurse Marie Sebastian (Elizabeth Olsen) with troubles of her own, and she’s attracted to Joe because she sees him as a kindred spirit. Their search leads them to some unsavory characters, a man named Chaney (Samuel L. Jackson) and another man named Adrian (Sharlto Copley) who tells Joe that he’s asking the wrong question, that the question he should be asking isn’t why he was imprisoned, but why was he released?

Not that it really matters, because the answer to both these questions is so convoluted I didn’t buy any of it.

First of all, Joe Doucett is one of the least likable protagonists I’ve seen in a movie in a while, and so I didn’t care what happened to him. That being said, what he did to deserve this fate is so minor it’s ridiculous. When it was time finally for the great revelation— the reason this all came to pass— I was like— really? Are you kidding me? That’s it?

Did I believe that a guy as strong as Joe couldn’t have broken out of that hotel room? Not once in twenty years? No. I did not believe this.

Did I believe that an organization as described in the movie— the one responsible for running the hotel— exists? No. Don’t get me wrong. In real life it very well might exist, but in this movie, it came off as so fake I thought I was watching a cheesy 1980s Arnold Schwarzenegger movie. Those films were fun because Arnold was so over the top. This film is trying to be dark and serious. It doesn’t work.

Did I believe Joe could become a deadly assassin just by training all by his lonesome in his hotel room? Not really.

I’ve enjoyed Josh Brolin in such films as NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN (2007), JONAH HEX (2010), and GANGSTER SQUAD (2013), and his performance here in OLDBOY is fine, but he’s stuck playing a character I just didn’t like, and as a result, I didn’t care what really happened to him, which made for a very long 104 minutes.

Likewise, I enjoyed Elizabeth Olsen as Nurse Marie Sebastian. I always seem to like Olsen, enjoying her performances in the otherwise awful horror movie SILENT HOUSE (2011) and most recently GODZILLA (2014). That being said, she does seem to play the same part- the victim.

Sharlto Copley is always fascinating to watch but he’s somewhat less so here as the mysterious Adrian. It’s still an interesting performance, but nowhere near as powerful as his villainous turn as Kruger in the science fiction hit ELYSIUM (2013). And Samuel L. Jackson does his wise-cracking bad ass shtick as the sketchy Chaney.

I don’t really have a problem with the direction by Spike Lee, other than the big no-no that I didn’t buy the story, but I used to really enjoy Lee’s movies, films like SHE’S GOTTA HAVE IT (1986), DO THE RIGHT THING (1989) and MALCOLM X (1992). It’s been a while.

For me, the weakest part of OLDBOY was the screenplay by Mark Protosevich, based on the screenplay of the Korean movie. First off, the basic premise of the movie, the story of a man kidnapped and held against his will for twenty years only to be released without any explanation, was highly implausible.

The imprisonment scenes with Joe in the hotel room were all rather dull, and director Lee adds very little in the way of creative touches to make these mundane scenes memorable.

Things naturally pick up a bit and get more interesting once Joe is released, because then the mystery becomes the focal point of the movie: why was Joe imprisoned? As much as I didn’t like Joe as a character, I was still interested in following him on his investigation while he tried to learn what happened. By far, these scenes were the most gripping in the film but they were hardly exciting.

And then, once he starts finding answers, it doesn’t take long for the realization to set in that these answers are completely ludicrous. I just did not believe that someone would spend that much time and energy— twenty years’ worth— just to exact revenge when so many simpler options exist.

There is one final twist, and I will say, of all the plot points in the movie, this one was the most satisfying, but for me, it was too little too late.

Had this film put some effort into making the audience believe what was going on, it would have been a much more satisfying film. I didn’t believe in the forces at work here. I didn’t believe they could do what they did, and I certainly didn’t believe Joe’s “crime” was the kind of thing which would drive someone to plan out twenty years’ worth of revenge. I also didn’t like Joe as central character very much.

And for a thriller, I didn’t find OLDBOY very exciting or all that intense.

OLDBOY plays more like OLD MAN.

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