Sicario 2: Soldado (2018)

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After taking a breath and realising what a fantastically dark ride 2015’s ‘Sicario’ was, I never expected a follow up. It didn’t set one up and people weren’t calling for a sequel but here we are; without supremo director Denis Villeneuve and director of photography Roger Deakins. Does that weaken the horrendously titled Day of the Soldado or is there merit to be found?

In light of some bombers reaching American soil, the US Government employs Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) to get dirty and stop the Mexican cartels; who they believe are smuggling terrorists across the border. Matt hires black ops guy Alejandro Gillick (Benicio del Toro) to start a war between the cartel groups.

Three years ago we were presented with this boiling pot of tension and a strained political tug of war, with Emily Blunt thrust into the dangerous landscape. Now with director Stefano Sollima on board and Blunt’s Kate Macer out, the story is a different kettle of fish. What worked for the first film was Taylor Sheridan’s script, we were on side with Kate, not knowing why they needed her and her gradual understanding of the shady tactics being utilised was an interesting narrative arc. This film’s plot isn’t as neatly focused and it becomes a wider exploit on Mexico and the US Government, it’s also an odd feeling to be along for the ride with Matt and Alejandro; who weren’t exactly characters to like or trust the first time around.

In ‘Sicario’ there were indeed bloody moments but these suited Kate’s worrying immersion into a world painted as a grey area. For me I couldn’t get past the idea that a good proportion of ‘Soldado’ was bloodier and violent for the sake of violence, plus the trigger blasting sight of del Toro firing like a maniac took me right of the film because it just looks dumb. The violence generally unnerved me and felt like a visceral jolt but there wasn’t great reason behind it, mirroring the sense of this sequel being made.

On the plus side, I still think this was a good movie. There was more tension coursing through the veins of the drama compared to before, if that’s somehow possible. Hildur Guonadottir’s score picked up on the familiar sounds of the late, great Johann Johannsson and added further swells of palpable unease. A stand out sequence with a dust road convoy is expertly executed and later stages with Gillick and his journey are nicely unexpected.

There’s still a chilling aura on show, thanks to Sheridan’s handle on the returning characters and it’s clearly a film identifiable as part of the gritty, bleak ‘Sicario’ brand, but it’s let down by a looser, disappointing story and perhaps too much brutality. They’re obviously eager for a 3rd film and though I didn’t really want ‘Soldado’, I’m more than happy to see what the trilogy could end like.

6/10

Blade Runner 2049 (2017)

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Well cor blimey, this film looks delicious up on the big screen. The visuals aren’t the only delights though; storytelling, acting, music and cinematography are all excellent features of this sci-fi sequel that in my tiny insignificant opinion may be just as good if not better than the original.

Possibly a first here as I won’t go into a usual plot summary paragraph because I feel that any info on what the story serves could be, if not a spoiler at least something that ruins the element of intrigue that you should enter this movie with. Suffice to say it’s 30 years after the setting of the first one and we follow K (Ryan Gosling) in dystopian LA following a case after discovering something potentially world changing at a farm.

Even though I hadn’t seen the 1982 movie at the time, once this film was announced with details of Denis Villeneuve attached I did squeal a little. This incredible visual and smart director gave me cause for excitement and he does indeed pull off an incredibly visual and smart film again. It’s a very intelligent movie with cause for thought and the whole dystopian set up like in the first one gives amazing room for creative space and design. Villeneuve keeps the tone similar but that doesn’t stop him from expanding on ideas and updating them to fit in the mould of what 2049 could bring.

A strong theme within both movies is the notion of identity. In a way I feel this thread is felt even more within this release thanks to the character of K and the freedom movement he is tracking. What makes us human and what does that mean are two powerful questions and they course throughout the film with constant but not overbearing presence. The whole hero idea is another one played with and K is an interesting character because he’s not exactly all out nice guy but that moral code sits within him. A film is always good or great I say when it leaves you thinking about what you’ve seen and immersing yourself into that world to think on possible answers.

Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch have conducted a wonderful score that trickles along in the background adding suitable futuristic sounds and as Zimmer does best the rises and boom of music at times creates the tension within certain scenes. Better than the music though is the sublime work from director of photography Roger Deakins who deserves to finally win an Academy Award with the sheer beauty he gifted this movie. The lines and forms are stunning all the way through, for example the yellow shifting light and frames captured within Wallace’s headquarters are mesmerising.

I have to comment on the newer technological ideas implanted in the movie too; such as the memory maker aspect which was visually pleasing and a very neat idea. The ‘Her’ like sexual encounter with K and his girlfriend with help from someone else was another case of something visually different. A fight with the background holographic accompaniment of Elvis and some showgirls further boosts the creative visual flair.

This film may be a little long and at times the pacing, like in the original, feels at odds and can be a tad slow but the detective story-line and the stunning future world presented on a big screen makes this a science fiction movie to stand up on its own and not just as a follow up to the Ridley Scott outing. In fact because I got to see this in the cinema unlike the first one, that is possibly the reason I like this more, the atmosphere and scale of seeing it on the big screen is necessary for this movie.

7.5/10

Arrival (2016)

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Gladly, this is not your typical ‘alien invasion’ flick, it’s a much smarter story that totally immerses you into a situation filled with dread yet hope, understanding yet confusion. I came out of the film feeling a little lost but it’s a grower because as you think on it the whole idea becomes more interesting.

As 12 shells arrive on Earth and hover above different locations, linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is called into help the military. Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) hopes that she can understand and translate the aliens’ talking and find out why they’re here. Together with scientist and maths man Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) they start uncovering a complex world-changing language.

Coming from ‘Prisoners’ and ‘Sicario’ director Denis Villeneuve, you can surely expect tension and smart movie story-telling and you’d be right to do so, as this sci-fi release is burning with clever ideas about language, time and humanity’s fight for survival and knowledge. Villeneuve doesn’t go for any last minute twist, he keeps his film going along and through shots or blurred flashbacks we begin building a picture of what’s to come. What he does well is ensure every scene has importance or emotion and gives moments with the aliens a nervous and affecting tone as we try to grip what may happen.

Eric Heisserer gives the story no cliches or over expositional content, aside from one line near the end of the film, everything we hear sounds plausible and brings you into this alien filled drama with ease. The way he adapts the short story and ensures the Heptapods’ speech is intellectual, so much so that it befuddled my mind but not enough to make me disengage from the movie. This language is a huge factor of the script, connecting to Louise and creating a rounded story that gives ‘Arrival’ fantastic depth.

Back to help Villeneuve is composer Johann Johannsson, who has a superb skill in building tension through music. The dread mounts and through deeper reverberations in the score we feel on edge as the characters go to encounter the Heptapods. A brilliant track comes in with some narration and is used again for the credits, it’s haunting and a chorus of voices makes it more impacting.

Amy Adams in her second November outing, is much more interesting to watch in this compared to ‘Nocturnal Animals’, that’s to say she has more to do and her character is excellent. The subtle flickers of tired emotion that fill her thanks to flashes of events or the way she gleefully acts when breaking ground with the aliens communication all make Louise a captivating role. Jeremy Renner is good also, his smart mathematician role bouncing off Louise very well. Whitaker is a great choice as the military superior, his calmness a good thing as he easily could have been the villain straining for violence. Michael Stuhlbarg is a fine actor, always doing good with what he’s given and here he grows as the film progresses.

It may still have me slightly puzzling over the whole grand scope of time but this is a science fiction that dazzles and if you like a movie to make you think then this is the perfect choice. Performances, writing, directing and music create something to blow your mind like not much before.

8/10

 

Sicario (2015)

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As if coming out of the screen, this crime thriller feels gritty, real and made me as a viewer totally buy into this dangerous underworld presented throughout. The key word here would be tension which is applied generously from top to bottom and makes this story so tightly wound that you sit on the edge of the seat waiting to see when it will rip.

FBI Tactics agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) is put upon a new team and case that gives her a chance to find out more about the clean-up operations she’s been on. Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), a Department of Justice member heads this secretive mission to Mexico with Alejandro Gillick (Benicio del Toro) in tow. As they extract a prisoner from Juarez, Kate soon finds herself in a worrying circle of cover-ups and lies.

‘Prisoners’ director Denis Villeneuve brings that same dark touch to this gripping narrative. The film boils along nicely, truly exuding a sense of tension that works with this taut plot. The film has great moments, from a nervous traffic jam to a family dinner scene that shouts brilliant character and directing work. There’s also neat choices in the switch up of the world we are given. We slowly pan over surveillance screens which tell a story and near the end we find ourselves amongst a tunnel mission that flickers between usual cam, night vision and thermal imagery which makes the entire sequence feel more atmospheric. Villeneuve sure knows how to deliver in terms of thrills with smarts attached.

Taylor Sheridan does a masterful job with the screenplay, as he plants in attention grabbing scenes of explosive value but doesn’t rely on those moments to sell the story. The bubbling undercurrent is of intelligence and secrets and lies. The way in which we wonder why Kate is picked and there comes to expose a hidden exercise and then her declaration of intent to stay with them lets us in to more dangerous truths. Sheridan writes a good strong minded female protagonist that we follow and empathise with, though perhaps she really doesn’t get much win in the way of the men around her, a comment on this world maybe.

The style is present but never outdoes the substance which is great. It’s a film that makes you think and in this age of spectacle it’s brilliant to watch a movie that works on a more cranium level than CGI and green-screen. Of course in this threatening world of cartels and criminal lords there are explosions and gun fights but that works for Kate’s environment and lets us know straight away how high the stakes are for her position. Shots of Mexico are sprawling, the common long shot wide frames let us breathe in the city. A beautiful sunset is captured amazingly with shadows and light before the tunnel mission begins. It’s most defintley a Roger Deakins look and it boosts the film a lot.

Johann Johannsson returns with force after his stunning composing for ‘The Theory of Everything’. The music is packed with suspense, the foreboding sounds adding a whole weight of fear and danger. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t come with emotion too, there’s that feeling behind the score that makes you feel lost and saddened with this world also, another connective tool to Kate’s character.

The only niggle I had with this feature was with the presentation of a Mexican police officer which I guess they were trying to make us feel for and see how he gets caught up in the madness but the scenes with him weren’t engaging or long enough to make the punch near the end more satisfying. On the whole though, the little twists or real life sour ending makes this movie real and interesting.

Emily Blunt is exquisite and strong as Kate and leads through the majority of the film in her quest to uncover the reasoning behind her place on the team. The emotion she brings is great and puts us on her side from the get go. Josh Brolin steals the show in terms of lightness, there’s always something you can’t put your finger on with him but the surface layer of comedy works for that fake presentation. Benicio del Toro flat out steals the show as the mysterious Alejandro. The grimaces, the stern expressions and attitude to his job keeps you guessing and del Toro is just damn compelling. Daniel Kaluuya does a fine thing with his sidekick character and getting wrapped up in the world Kate’s invited into.

A savage watch with a constant trend of a tough and unfair world shown by direction, acting and writing talents. There’s a delightful balance of tragedy and threat throughout that keeps the thrills going through the run-time.

7.5/10