Sicario – Prisoners Part Deux

I spent a wonderful day at the movies last week. Sicario is currently playing in theaters.

Sicario

Sicario (2015) – Rated R

An idealistic FBI agent is enlisted by an elected government task force to aid in the escalating war against drugs at the border area between the U.S. and Mexico.”

I had heard a lot about director Denis Villeneuve’s Prisoners before seeing it. I had heard that it was complex, nuanced, and uncompromising among other good things. It was a pretty decent film and he did get several very good performances from his cast but I didn’t really find it hype-worthy. Basically, Villeneuve stepped a little outside of the Hollywood mold but definitely not far enough.

Later, I saw the Israeli film, Big Bad Wolves. It was everything that Prisoners should have been – uncompromising, thrilling, and thought-provoking. It is currently available on instant Netflix so go watch it now, but for goodness sakes turn off your devices and pay attention.

Emily Blunt plays FBI Agent Kate Macer. I loved her as the subversive lead in the generically titled Edge of Tomorrow (a full year before Charlize Theron pulled the same trick in Mad Max Fury Road). To digress for a moment, Edge of Tomorrow is such a generic title that not only did it do poorly at the box office but when it received a home release, they rebranded it as “Live. Die. Repeat.”. To this day, many people think that is the name of the film. After all, it is actually in larger print than the title.

Emily Blunt is just as good here. She has a wonderful ability to project toughness without having it hinder her acting. Josh Brolin plays, well, a Josh Brolin-esque government agent named Matt Graver. He is a good solid actor but lately his parts can pretty much be defined as “Texan…”. He is a Texan mountain climber in Everest. Here he is a mysterious Texan agent. Unfortunately, there is no stretching of his acting abilities.

Benicio del Toro is suitably enigmatic, charming, and menacing as Alejandro. He is another actor who can act quite well but is often cast in roles he can walk through. In Sicario, his character is given a complex backstory BUT since the story isn’t really about him, it is glossed over and mostly delivered, disappointingly, as exposition.

Herein lies the crux of Denis Villeneuve’s issues. He is a director with a lot of good ideas and able to get good performances out of actors BUT he lacks subtlety and nuance. He wants to make sure audiences get it so many things are delivered by expository dump. That said the opening sequence is a stunner. The rest of the film is quite good but definitely by-the-numbers as Agent Macer gradually realizes how in-over-her-head she is and what lengths both sides are willing to take.

 

Everest – Disaster or High Peak?

Last week I was lucky enough to get to see Everest in the theater.

Everest

On the morning of May 10, 1996, climbers (Jason Clarke, Josh Brolin) from two expeditions start their final ascent toward the summit of Mount Everest, the highest point on Earth. With little warning, a violent storm strikes the mountain, engulfing the adventurers in one of the fiercest blizzards ever encountered by man. Challenged by the harshest conditions imaginable, the teams must endure blistering winds and freezing temperatures in an epic battle to survive against nearly impossible odds.”

Everest should have been a fairly simple movie to write. There are numerous accounts of the incident in print, including several first person books from survivors. Not only do you have an easy to follow timeline but all the necessary details and a lot of sample dialogue. They hired two of the best Hollywood scriptwriters, Simon Beaufoy (Oscars for 127 Hours and Slumdog Millionaire as well as a nomination for The Full Monty) and William Nicholson (Oscar nominations for Gladiator and Shadowlands).

In spite of this, I did not find the script to be written particularly well. While it is an actual event, too much of the writing smacks of 70s disaster movies. Characters are somewhat stock and we don’t particularly care about them until disaster strikes. I mention this because the shallowness of the characters is pretty much my only complaint against the film.

Visually, Everest is an absolute marvel. I had seen the original IMAX movie taken at that time, watched interviews with a particular survivor (not spoiling it for those who somehow missed news coverage when it happened), and read Into Thin Air (the best of the books on this topic) yet it wasn’t until I saw this film in RPX that I had a real, visceral understanding of what it means to climb Everest.

Everest is directed by Baltasar Kormakur. Previously I have seen his 2 Guns and Contraband. They were okay but not impressive. Everest is absolutely riveting. The film is nicely paced and very informative without being pedantic. It was filmed in part on Everest at base camp as well as in the Italian Alps.

Yes, we are introduced to a variety of caricatures, I mean characters in the early stages. We have earnest team leader, Rob Hall (Jason Clarke) and laid back team leader, Scott Fischer (Jake Gyllenhaal). Our hopeful climbers include Texan alpha male Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin), nice guy mailman Doug Hansen (John Hawkes), journalist Jon Krakauer (Michael Kelly), and veteran female climber Yasuko Namba (Naoko Mori). The native Sherpa guides are often ignored in Everest stories but at least two are here as minor characters, Ang Dorjee (Ang Phula Sherpa) and Lopsang (Pemba Sherpa).

Performances are just fine across the board. Josh Brolin does not have to stretch to play Beck Weathers – the role seems written with the actor in mind. Jason Clarke is fabulous as Rob Hall. His performances really vary with him usually being in the background of a film and underplaying his role. While this didn’t work well with Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, here he steals the show (if steal is an accurate term for an ensemble piece).

Even though I knew the complete story, including the fates of those involved, I found the RPX presentation harrowing. Everest is definitely not a movie to see on television or even a small theater screen. Go see this on the biggest screen you can. Now.

Inherent Vice – Go see Doc, Bambi, and the Gang Get High

Inherent Vice is currently in theaters.

Inherent Vice

 

Inherent Vice (2014) – Rated R

In 1970, drug-fueled Los Angeles detective Larry “Doc” Sportello investigates the disappearance of a former girlfriend.”

Is that a swastika on that man’s face?” – “No, it isn’t. That’s an ancient Hindu symbol meaning “all is well”. It brings good fortune, luck and well-being.”

One Line Review: Ridiculously self-indulgent

Right after sitting through the execrable Taken 3, I went to see Inherent Vice. In theory, I was going from an incompetent filmmaker to an incredible one. In practice, less so. Inherent Vice appears to be a critical darling but, to me, it embodies much of what can go wrong with auteur cinema, including extreme close-ups and drug-fueled discussions that lead nowhere.

Joaquin Phoenix occasionally mumbles his dialogue. No, not in this movie – just in general. In this movie, Anderson appears to have instructed him to just go ahead and mumble ALL of his dialogue. Anderson then overlays a soundtrack that is louder in parts than the dialogue. A fascinating directorial choice but not an enjoyable one.

I’m not sure whether it is to counteract Phoenix’ mumbling or if it is directly from the novel (which I have not read), but Inherent Vice is narrated by Sortilege (Joanna Newsom) and not Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix), our protagonist. I do blame Anderson and not Phoenix as Phoenix isn’t the only one mumbling dialogue, just the worst example. This may have been taken to provide a more naturalistic flow to conversation but, again, that doesn’t make it enjoyable.

I have a hard time pinning down the tone. Many of the events and much of the dialogue appears to have a satirical edge but Anderson is so serious and self-important in his direction that almost none of it comes off as funny. Yet it is extremely difficult to take seriously a script where the characters names are Doc, Petunia, the Wolfman, Shasta, Bigfoot, Dr. Buddy Tubeside, Jade, Bambi, Sauncho Smilax Esquire, Amethyst, Agent Flatweed, Agent Borderline, and on and on and on.

Speaking of events, I defy anyone to watch this movie once and actually explain the sequence of events. No wait I don’t mean defy, I mean implore. Yes, it probably would have helped if I had read the novel but Anderson takes a leisurely two and a half hours to tell this impenetrable story. There were only nine of us in the theater and two walked out at about the halfway point.

Drugs feature in nearly every scene of the movie so obviously some of the events could be construed as hallucinations. Doc is either smoking or rolling a joint every time we see him and also indulges in nitrous, acid, tobacco, booze, and cocaine among other substances but, and this is stressed, he doesn’t do HEROIN.

There are many wonderful directorial touches. There is occasional playful interaction between our narrator and the events occurring. Bigfoot often seems like a hallucination of Doc’s, particularly in his timing, and is well-played by Josh Brolin. Costume and set design are absolutely wonderful. Dialogue between many of the characters rings true and, in general, the movie is well-acted. It is just ridiculously self-indulgent.

Guardians of the Galaxy Go Into the Storm

I was lucky enough to catch Guardians of the Galaxy and Into the Storm in the theaters recently. Here are a few thoughts:

Guardians of the Galaxy

 

Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) – Rated PG-13

Light years from Earth, 26 years after being abducted, Peter Quill finds himself the prime target of a manhunt after discovering an orb wanted by Ronan the Accuser.

Yes, this is really as fun as the buzz. No, this is not the best comic book movie this year (Captain America: Winter Soldier holds that distinction). It is certainly far better than The Amazing Spider-Man 2. I still marvel that we got four comic blockbusters this year that would have blown my mind in childhood.

Guardians of the Galaxy is not only fun but doesn’t take itself too seriously. The original Marvel characters are not very well-known, even among comic readers. This allows writer/director James Gunn to have a bit more leeway and a lot of fun with the concept. As with his much smaller scale Super, there are a lot of very funny bits.

He throws a lot of Marvel’s non-Earthbound characters into the mix. The Guardians are Peter Quill/Starlord, Gamora, Drax the Destroyer, Rocket, and Groot. Ronan the Accuser and Nebula are the villains. Thanos (Josh Brolin), Nova Prime (Glenn Close), Yondu (Michael Rooker), and The Collector (Benicio del Toro) also put in appearances. The end credits sequence features another Marvel character that may have you yelling “Noooo!” at the screen.

Into the Storm

 

Into the Storm (2014) – Rated PG-13

Storm trackers, thrill-seekers, and everyday townspeople document an unprecedented onslaught of tornadoes touching down in the town of Silverton.

I expected Into the Storm to be pretty bad. It was being dumped at the tail end of summer in direct competition with two of the last big summer films. It starred no big names. Richard Armitage is in The Hobbit movies and Sarah Wayne Callies starred in The Walking Dead but neither are really household names.

The Twister special effects in the trailer looked good. I always enjoyed the disaster genre growing up, watching Airport 75, The Towering Inferno, and Airport 77 in theaters with my mom. Newer disaster movies like Twister, Dante’s Peak, Volcano, and Daylight I either took my girls to or they became staples at home.

Rain

My eldest wanted to go to Into the Storm so we actually braved a bit of a rainstorm to go see it. Into the Storm is a WYSIWYG (What You See is What You Get) production. Do you want to see a cast of cardboard characters threatened by some rather awesome tornado effects? If the answer is yes, then Into the Storm is for you.

 

 

Oldboy is Almost Human

Almost Human, Oldboy (2013), Oldboy (2003), Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, and Lady Vengeance are all currently available on instant Netflix

Oldboy

 

Oldboy (2013) – Rated R

After being unaccountably held captive for years, Joe Doucett is suddenly released. Now, his only mission is to hunt down and punish his captors.”

One Line Review: Watch the original, not this lame remake

Wow, what a misfire. What went wrong?

Oldboy stars Josh Brolin. Brolin was nominated for an Oscar for his role as the angry Dan White in Milk. He was great playing an everyman in over his head in No Country for Old Men, albeit overshadowed by Javier Bardem. He did an uncanny impersonation of Tommy Lee Jones in Men in Black 3. Obviously, Brolin is an actor with a lot of talent and able to handle a variety of characters. Why is he so terrible in the first twenty minutes of this film?

Oldboy is directed by twice Oscar-nominated Spike Lee. Clearly, he can direct but in Oldboy, the direction is very by-the-numbers. There is plenty of graphic violence as well as a rape and a threatened rape. Some of this violence is quite comical though I am not sure that it was meant to be. The ending would have been great had the film built in power. Instead the ending is botched.

The original Oldboy is much better. If you don’t mind subtitles then you should go watch that. It is the middle part of Chan-wook Park’s Vengeance Trilogy though only the themes are related. Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002) is the starter and Lady Vengeance (2005) finishes up the trilogy. All are currently available on instant Netflix.

It is not that Lee’s Oldboy is bad, merely pointless. It says nothing new and everywhere it deviates from the original is a misstep. Elizabeth Olsen is just fine but Samuel L. Jackson is clearly collecting a paycheck (the golfing in the area must have been good) and Sharlto Copley overacts terribly.

Almost Human

Almost Human (2013) – Not rated

Two years after disappearing in a blinding flash of blue light, a young lumberjack returns to rural Maine and embarks on a murderous rampage.”

Almost Human borrows liberally from a large number of science fiction movies but boils down to “what if we filmed x as if it were an 80s slasher movie”. The x I will leave as a bit of a surprise though it is quickly obvious.

There is plenty wrong with Almost Human but for a low-budget film (with a larger advertising budget), it is entertaining. All of the many gore effects are practical, resulting in several nice setpieces. The acting ranges from okay to not so okay but if you want a low-budget horror movie, Almost Human is worth a look.

 

Mimic

Mimic is currently available on instant Netflix.

Mimic (1997) – Rated R

“Mira Sorvino stars as an entomologist whose work results in the eradication of disease-carrying cockroaches, only to create a new breed of lethal, man-sized insect in the sewer systems of New York City.”

Sometimes an insect will even mimic its predator.”

How do you make a good horror movie? It certainly helps to hire a visionary director like Guillermo del Toro. Guillermo del Toro disavowed Mimic in the end because of the monumental interference he suffered from the studio. The interference was so bad that afterwards he went back to Mexico. Still Mimic is an excellent horror movie.

Guillermo del Toro and Matthew Robbins wrote the screen story and screenplay. It is based on the short story, Mimic, by Donald A. Wollheim. The screenplay is well-plotted and very literate. It also wisely allows things to unfold over time.

Another nice ingredient in a good horror movie is to fill it with good actors. Oscar-winner Mira Sorvino is quite good as Dr. Susan Tyler. Her partner in the accidental creation of the creatures is Dr. Peter Mann, played by Jeremy Northam. Northam was recently in The Tudors as Sir Thomas More. The final member of their team is pistachio-eating Josh, amusingly played by Oscar-nominated Josh Brolin.

The supporting roles are filled by good actors as well. Dr. Tyler’s mentor is Dr. Gates, played by Oscar-winner F. Murray Abraham. Golden Globe-nominated Charles Dutton plays Leonard. Finally Oscar-nominated Giancarlo Giannini plays Manny, a father searching desperately for his lost boy.

In addition to the visionary director, good actors and literate script, Mimic also features great creature design, set design, and wonderful special effects. Backing Guillermo up was none other than Robert Rodriguez as the second unit director.

While Mimic is excellent, I would love to see what del Toro’s original vision was, especially given how fantastic Pan’s Labyrinth was. Guillermo recently released a Director’s Cut on Blu-Ray that he says he is happy with, being the best he could piece together with the elements available. Be aware that this film deals extensively with bugs, both giant and of the cockroach variety.

People Watch: Guillermo del Toro regular Doug Jones plays Long John #3 here. He played Fauno and Pale Man in Pan’s Labyrinth and Abe Sapien in the two Hellboy movies as well as Chamberlain and the Angel of Death in Hellboy II. Distinctive character actor Julian Richings, Death in Supernatural, plays a workman here. Norman (Boondock Saints) Reedus briefly plays Jeremy. Reedus is enjoying success as Daryl Dixon in The Walking Dead.

Sequel-itis: Obviously an iconic monster like the insects in Mimic have to be replicated. The straight-to-video sequels Mimic 2 (2001) and Mimic: Sentinel (2003) are quite forgettable.

Aliens Attack! Men in Black III Edition

Men in Black 3 (2012) – Rated PG-13

“Agent J travels in time to MIB’s early years in the 1960s, to stop an alien from assassinating his friend Agent K and changing history. “

“Do you know what is the most destructive power in the universe?” – “Sugar?”

A decade and a half after the very funny Men in Black and a full decade after the ‘meh’ Men in Black II, we return to very funny with Men in Black III.

The “Back in Time” tagline of Men in Black III is absolutely wonderful. It is appropriate of course because the subject matter deals with time travel. Not only that but we’re talking about the second sequel to a film made fifteen years ago. The most appropriate use of the tagline though is that Men in Black III is a complete throwback to the way the first film was made.

Honestly I just wanted to do a review that said, “If you liked Men in Black then you will like Men in Black III” but then felt that I shouldn’t give it such short shrift. Men in Black III is good but not outstanding, funny but not uproarious.

Will Smith is more firmly in control and thus receives even more of the screentime. He is looking just a little older – not quite the man who ran down an alien. He is his always likeable, wisecracking self. Tommy Lee Jones returns as the ever scowling Agent K. He does a fine job here as always.

The real star though is actually Josh Brolin. He is so good as the younger Agent K that you forget that it is Josh Brolin. It really seems as if it is a younger Tommy Lee Jones. He steals every scene away from Will Smith and that is quite a feat.

Sadly Rip Torn is not in this one as Zed. He has instead been replaced by the wonderful Emma Thompson as Agent O. She doesn’t have much screentime but is always a delight. Alice Eve plays the young Agent O.

Jemaine Clement plays our resident baddie, Boris. If you aren’t familiar with Jemaine, you will swear that it is Tim Curry from both the voice and mannerisms. The cast is rounded out by Michael Stuhlbarg as the alien Griffin but it really is just Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones in the present and Will Smith and Josh Brolin in the past.

There are plenty of good jokes (and the usual number that fall flat). Neither time period is fully fleshed out but neither does either overstay its welcome. There is an excellent “twist” towards the end which is wonderfully handled.

Once again Rick Baker has filled the screen to bursting with as many different aliens in the background as possible. He won Men in Black’s only Oscar, Best Makeup in 1998.

Sucker Note: Attention theaters – all you have to do to get my money is serve your drinks in sturdy plastic ‘souvenir’ cups. I paid a dollar extra (each) to upgrade to this ridiculously mammoth cup just because I could use it later as a popcorn server in my movie room. The two lovely Men in Black 3 cups will join my two Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides from last year.

People Watch: Look for a delightful cameo by Will Arnett as Agent AA.

A Tale of Two Grits – Wait Three Grits! And a Rooster!

I admire filmmakers who can revisit material and put their own stamp on it, making a film that has its own identity and is not simply a remake for modern audiences. Howard Hawks’ The Thing from Another World is a wonderful 50s science fiction monster movie. John Carpenter’s The Thing goes back to the original material and makes a movie where the monster is almost incidental to the paranoia at play. Sadly the modern remake/prequel The Thing (2011) was not very good but I digress.

Wonderfully Netflix streaming has both the iconic 1969 True Grit and the sardonic 2010 True Grit. How do they measure up against each other?

True Grit (1969) – Rated G

“John Wayne landed one of his last great screen roles as crusty lawman Reuben J. “Rooster” Cogburn, who reluctantly helps teenager Mattie Ross (Kim Darby) pursue her father’s killer. True Grit is more a character study than many of Wayne’s formulaic Westerns. The rousing final showdown between Wayne and the villains adds to the Duke’s long list of outstanding movie moments.”

 

True Grit (2010) – Rated PG-13

“After drifter Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin) murders her father, 14-year-old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) hires alcoholic U.S. Marshal Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) to help her exact revenge. The disreputable lawman still has grit, though, and mounts an epic search. Joining the duo on their quest is a Texas Ranger (Matt Damon) who’s also hunting for Chaney in this updated Western that received multiple Oscar nods, including Best Picture.”

Academy Awards:

1969: John Wayne won his only Oscar for his portrayal of Rooster Cogburn. The 1969 version was also nominated for Best Music, Original Song but lost to Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on my Head from Butch Cassidy.

2010: Nominated for a whopping 10 Oscars, it lost every single one: Best Actor (Jeff Bridges), Best Supporting Actress (Hailee Steinfeld), Best Picture, Writing, Directing, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing, Cinematography, Costume Design and Art Direction.

10 is a lot of Oscars to be nominated for but history only remembers the winners so point goes to True Grit 1969.

Rooster Cogburn – The Duke and The Dude: In spite of this being Wayne’s Oscar-winning performance, it is not his best work. He is having too much fun and there is little nuance to his portrayal. His performances in The Shootist, The Searchers, and The Man who Shot Liberty Valance are better. This is also not Jeff Bridges’ best performance but it is one of his better performances and is quite a bit more nuanced.

Mattie Ross: The part of the precocious yet pugnacious 14-year-old is played in 1969 by a 22-year-old Kim Darby and in 2010 by 14-year-old Hailee Steinfeld. Not just for the appropriate age but also for the intensity of the performance, this point easily goes to True Grit 2010. John Wayne himself said Kim Darby was the lousiest actress he ever worked with. Of course that may have been sour grapes as he wanted his daughter Aissa to play Mattie and after she was rejected, he wanted Karen Carpenter for the role. Kim Darby really isn’t that bad – for bad we have to go to our next category.

La Boeuf: The dandy Texas Ranger is played by singer Glen Campbell in True Grit 1969 and by Oscar-winner Matt Damon in 2010. Need you ask? Point: True Grit 2010. Glen Campbell is just awful.

Villains: Jeff Corey vs. Josh Brolin, Robert Duvall vs. Barry Pepper, a very young Dennis Hopper vs. Domhnall Gleeson. I have to give the edge to True Grit 1969.

Sequels: Yes I used the plural! You probably know that John Wayne got to reprise his role of Rooster Cogburn in Rooster Cogburn, starring opposite a wonderful Katherine Hepburn. While a very entertaining film, it was obvious that it owed a lot to The African Queen with Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn. In fact Hepburn’s character in Rooster Cogburn is not terribly different from her character in African Queen.

The part I bet you didn’t know was that there was a TV movie True Grit in 1978. It was a failed pilot starring Warren Oates as Rooster Cogburn. Neither Rooster Cogburn nor the TV True Grit are available on instant Netflix. Since Rooster Cogburn is an entertaining sequel, this point goes to True Grit 1969.

Bottom Line: You can’t really go wrong with either version of True Grit. The 1969 version is a pretty straightforward western adventure with an iconic performance by the Duke and a rousing finale. Strangely even though the 1969 version is listed as having a “G” rating, it contains plenty of gun violence, a triple hanging, a man getting his fingers cut off, a man getting stabbed, a man getting bludgeoned, alcohol use and abuse, and a fair amount of profanity. Supposedly it was an edited version that received the ‘G’ rating but I wonder how much was cut. It isn’t overly graphic but I sure can’t imagine it getting a ‘G’ rating today.

The 2010 version is better in most regards. It is however quite a bit darker even though it covers much of the same territory. While much of the dialogue is the same, Joel and Ethan Coen have given the script a verbal polishing. Much of the best dialogue is still from the original and I will say that the climactic line of “fill your hands, you son of a bitch!” packs more punch from the Duke. Cinematography is good in the 1969 version but better in the 2010 version.


People Watch:
In the 1969 version, Jay “Tonto” Silverheels plays one of the condemned men at the hanging. Wilford Brimley makes his film debut there too (though that’s just from imdb – I couldn’t spot him). In the 2010 version listen for J.K. Simmons as the voice of J. Noble Daggett