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Cinematically charged social drama
Whether it's the limitless expanse of the Desert Southwest or the danger-filled streets of Ciudad Juarez as captured by cinematographer Roger Deakins, "Sicario" is a film utterly attuned to the drama of its spaces - especially when, within those spaces, there is occurring an intractable drug war that threatens to lay waste to the land and the people on both sides of the U.S./Mexico border.
Directed with brio and style and an unerring instinct for visual impact by Denis Villeneuve, "Sicario" stars Emily Blunt and Daniel Kaluuya as two FBI agents brought in to lend "legitimacy" to a shady CIA operation headed by Josh Brolin. The ostensible goal is to bring to justice the head of a Mexican drug cartel, but could there be another, more personal reason for the mission, and exactly how far should two federal officers sworn to uphold the law be willing to go in overlooking some of the questionable means being used to achieve that end?
The screenplay by Taylor Sheridan takes us to a dimly-lit world of bloody cartels and government malfeasance where morality is murky and all sorts of ethical lines are crossed in pursuit of some larger goal - be it "justice" in a cosmic sense or just plain revenge for a wrong done and a personal loss suffered. Sheridan keeps not only Blunt and Kaluuya's characters in the dark much of the time but the audience as well, generating and sustaining an air of mystery and heightening the suspense.
"Sicario" features excellent performances from its cast, with a special shout-out to Benicio del Toro as an enigmatic, shadowy figure whose role in the proceedings are initially unclear but who steps forward, in sometimes shocking ways, as a major player in the series of events as they play themselves out.
"Sicario" is rare among American movies in that it refuses to provide the kind of neatly packaged conclusion we've come to expect from commercial enterprises, choosing instead to show that there are no easy solutions to complex problems and no happy endings for anyone involved in the messy, violent business we euphemistically call "the war on drugs"
45 Years (2015)
Bracingly honest look at a marriage gone bad
How would you feel if you suddenly discovered that your life partner of close to half a century had been secretly harboring a passion for someone else? That's the dilemma facing the elderly couple at the heart of "45 Years," a moody, low-keyed British drama (based on the novel by "In Another Country" by David Constantine) that focuses on a marriage that seems destined for anything but a happily-ever-after ending.
With the physical fragility and lived-in faces that come with age, two icons of British cinema, Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courteney, portray Kate and Geoff Mercer, a seemingly contented couple on the verge of celebrating their 45th wedding anniversary. A few days before the elaborately planned event, however, Geoff confesses to Kate that he was once seriously involved with a woman who died tragically in a mountain- climbing accident before he and Kate met. Despite the roughly 50 years that have elapsed since the woman's death, Kate finds herself unable to come to terms with the feeling of deceit and betrayal that gnaws at her day and night over the "infidelity" of the man she thought she knew and to whom she had fully given over her heart. Yet, Kate, perhaps cognizant of how petty she might appear making too much of something that happened so long ago, chooses to seethe pretty much in silence, venting her hurt and anger in nonverbal and largely passive aggressive ways. But for Kate, this revelation has "tainted" everything that has come before in the relationship - a strikingly sad prospect when there is so little time left to rectify the mistake or to recover what the couple once had between them.
Ascetic direction by writer Andrew Haigh - austere close-ups of the characters alternating with stark images of the largely sunless rural countryside - perfectly captures the internal drama taking place within this suddenly altered marriage. The bitterness of the tale is encapsulated most effectively in the uncompromising final shot, a brief but lucid moment that shows how the most brutal of messages can often be conveyed through the tiniest of gestures.
The 5th Wave (2016)
Fails to stand out in an already over-crowded field
"The 5th Wave" is the umpteenth version of a post-apocalyptic scenario that has all but taken over pop-culture since the turn-of-the-century (or, more specifically, the attacks on 9/11). In this case, it's a race of mysterious aliens who, in an effort to take over the planet, are eliminating humans one "wave" at a time (destroying the power grid, creating massive earthquakes and tsunamis, spreading fatal epidemics, etc.). The screenplay focuses primarily on one Ohio family, and, specifically, their teenage daughter, Cassie (Chloe Grace Moretz), who suddenly has to find ways of surviving in this new and dangerous world where everyone is out for him- or herself and, thus, no one can be trusted.
As they pass through desolate, auto-strewn landscapes that look like they came straight out of "The Walking Dead," Cassie and a caring (and dreamy) stranger (Alex Roe) - who saves her life at one point and rehabilitates her to full health - go in search of her missing little brother. And, speaking of TWD, since the movie can't fit any ACTUAL zombies into its narrative, it partially compensates by at least having a character NAMED "Zombie" (Nick Robinsons).
Ah well, after a few moments of fleeting interest in the early stages, the movie quickly settles into a predictable and boring series of teen drama, alien invasion and end-of-the-world tropes.
And with its open-ended conclusion, we're left wondering (or is it dreading?) if there will be a 6th wave in our movie-going future.
The Forest (2016)
Banal thriller with zero thrills
In "The Forest," Natalie Dormer, of "The Tudors," and "Game of Thrones" fame, finally gets a chance to doff her period garb (and dye her hair brown), playing a modern American woman who travels to Japan in search of her missing twin who was last seen entering a forest near Mount Fugi, a place, we are told, where people often go to take their own lives. Taylor Kinney ("Chicago Fire") is an American-accented Australian journalist she meets there who joins her in her endeavor. The problem is that this particular woods is rumored to have mystical powers and legend has it that anything one sees there may simply be a figment of one's overactive imagination.
It's hard to believe, but it actually took three (count, 'em, three!) writers - Nick Antosca, Sarah Cornwell and Ben Ketai - to come up with this undercooked and incoherent mash-up of "The Blair Witch Project" and "Carnival of Souls" (two certifiable classics that deserve far better respect from their imitators). Whole plot lines are left hanging at the end, while the audience scratches its collective head in bewilderment and confusion. If we're being generous in our assessment, there is one fleeting moment that might possibly qualify as "scary." The rest is just ninety minutes of atmosphere and suggestion leading to nothing even remotely resembling an explanation or payoff at the end - the unforgivable sin of any wannabe horror film.
At least there are some nice shots of the woods to help wile away the time while we're awaiting the thrills that never actually show up.
Its eclecticism ultimately becomes its downfall
The second collaborative effort for writers Neill Blomkamp (who also directed the film) and his wife, Terri Tatchell, "Chappie" draws heavily for its inspiration from such previous works as "E.T" and "Short Circuit," though it is far less playful and hopeful than either of those two films (though it also channels "RoboCop," which is a little closer in tone).
The setting is South Africa in the not-too-distant future where crime has reached epidemic proportions. The cops are currently being assisted by a fleet of mindless robots and androids in an effort to maintain law and order in the country. Deon (Dev Patel) is an inventor working for a major weapons-developer who's come up with what he thinks is the prototype of a droid with an actual consciousness, one that, for the first time in human and scientific history, can be classified as genuine "artificial intelligence." The trouble is that, before Deon can inculcate him with a strong moral code and, thus, make a model citizen of him, Chappie (voiced by Sharito Cooley) is kidnapped by a trio of street thugs who want to train him to fight against the droids the government is using against them. Soon, a struggle develops between Deon and the bad guys over what kind of moral being Chappie will turn out to be.
"Chappie" is filled with moments of dark humor, but those in search of a sophisticated, timely comedy should be forewarned that the humor in the film consists almost entirely of the naive, innocent Chappie talking and dressing like a streetwise "gangsta'."
Because it's pulling from so many disparate sources, the screenplay never establishes anything close to a consistent tone. Part kid-oriented fantasy, part urban jungle melodrama, part technology-run-amok cautionary tale, and part moral fable about what it means to be human, the film is too childish for adults and too dark and violent for children to leave it with much of an audience.
But if you feel you can somehow bridge that gap between conventions and styles, then "Chappie" just might be the movie for you.
Jurassic World (2015)
Basically a technically accomplished rehash of the original film
The characters in "Jurassic World" - which should be titled "Will Humans Never Learn?" - keep telling one another that the paying public needs ever more elaborate sensations to keep them coming back for more. Yet, it's hard at times to tell whether they're talking about the audiences at the park or the audiences for the movie.
This little bit of self-reflective self-awareness on the part of the filmmakers is one of the few interesting things about this fourth entry in a tetralogy that began with the groundbreaking "Jurassic Park" in 1993. The problem is that it's hard to break ground more than once in the same soil, and "Jurassic World" finds no real way to bring anything new to the project.
The movie just keeps playing different variations on the same theme. Thus, instead of "mere" (and, now, apparently passé) full-sized dinosaurs being regenerated out of ancient samples of preserved DNA, we've graduated to "super dinosaurs" being genetically-engineered out of a mixture of all sorts of dino types. All this gene- and species-tampering is taking place at a decade-old amusement park, an improvement, we are told, over the ill-fated one that never quite got off the ground in the 1990s. But humans are humans and playing God, especially for sensation and profit, never ends very well in these sorts of scenarios, so we're primed to buckle our seats and hang on for the ride. We aren't disappointed.
Once we get past that one slight deviation, the plot of "Jurassic World" pretty much replicates the 1993 original, right down to the "unlikely" (though, actually, quite predictable) system malfunction and two lost and imperiled kids having to be saved from becoming Dino-food by an intrepid adult at the park (Chris Pratt plays the role of trainer and dinosaur- whisperer here). In fact, virtually every scene in "Jurassic World" has a corresponding counterpart in "Jurassic Park," only what was once innovative and fresh has now become derivative and stale (apparently, none of the characters here ever seen the original "Jurassic Park" or they wouldn't keep making the exact same mistakes as the previous group).
Pratt has an easygoing, good-ole-boy charm that serves him well in his role as makeshift hero, but Bryce Dallas Howard is given the thankless task of playing a rather insultingly sexist caricature as the manager of the park who's in way over her head when it comes to running the joint, not to mention coping with a crisis of this magnitude (think Kate Capshaw in "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom") and is, thus, in constant need of rescuing by the stalwart Pratt.
Under the directorial aegis of Colin Trevorrow, the action scenes and special effects are predictably eye-popping and state-of-the-art - helping to generate the "wow factor" one minimally expects from this series - but the overall air of deja vu that permeates the film keeps this latest dino-blockbuster from being much more than an afterthought in the Jurassic universe.
Terminator Genisys (2015)
Doesn't just settle for a rehash
At the beginning of "Terminator Genisys," you might be forgiven for, momentarily at least, thinking that you've somehow stumbled into a remake of the original 1980s sci-fi classic rather than a sequel to it, mainly because the set-ups to both films are virtually identical to one another.
As with the original, we have a character (Jai Courtney) from the 21st Century traveling back to the year 1984 in order to try and alter the outcome in the future. Only here, the mission is to SAVE Sarah Connor (Emilia Clarke) - mother of future freedom fighter John Connor (Jason Clarke) - NOT to destroy her. Further complicating matters - as much for the audience as for the characters - is that, once Courtney arrives at his destination in 1984, he finds that the mission itself has greatly changed due to the fact that he has somehow entered into some kind of alternate timeline where Sarah is no longer a helpless victim but a kick-ass fighter who's been raised by a friendly Terminator guardian played by an Arnold Schwarzenegger who gets a second chance at youth courtesy of the magic of CGI (at least for part of the film). Then it's off to 2017, when the alternate-reality rise of the machines and the destruction of mankind is now set to take place (in the original tale, this epochal event occurred in 1997).
If all this sounds super confusing, don't let it get you too frustrated, for that's pretty much par for the course when it comes to these head- scratching, time-bending scenarios - though I do think the screenplay may have bitten off a bit more than it can chew here, piling up irony upon irony to the point where even die-hard "Terminator" fans may begin to feel a mite affronted and manipulated by it all (and non-fans may just throw up their hands in confusion and give up on the whole thing entirely).
All that being said, "Terminator Genisys" turns out to be a considerably better action film than the majority of critics have given it credit for. The storyline, though confusing at times, is, at least, clever and imaginative; the adventure is fast-paced and the special effects reliably state-of-the-art.
But the real reason for watching "Terminator Genisys" is that it affords us the opportunity of once again watching Arnold engaging in the kind of deadpan comic shtick he perfected in this series before he ran off to serve as governor of California for a couple of terms. It's nice to have him - and his poker-faced quips - back where they belong.
San Andreas (2015)
Eye-popping spectacle, silly drama
In "San Andreas," the world's most famous fault ruptures in so spectacular (and unlikely) a fashion that virtually the entire state of California is reduced to one heaping pile of ashes and rubble. And as dams burst and skyscrapers crumble, we're treated to a series of rescue stories involving characters that, quite frankly, we couldn't care less about.
But then, again, no one really goes to a movie like "San Andreas" for thoughtful drama or incisive characterization. It's all about the destruction and carnage, and, in that respect, at least, it delivers the goods - with hyperkinetic action scenes and impressive special effects to compensate for some of the corny dialogue, tedious plot lines and scientific illiteracy that pockmark the picture. And don't think there isn't at least a little time carved out for a burgeoning romance and a few stolen kisses amidst all the death and devastation.
Surrounded by thousands of fleeing, panic-stricken extras, the main actors, led by superhero Dwayne Johnson, include Carla Gugino, Paul Giamatti, Archie Panjabi, Ioan Gruffudd, Kylie Minogue, etc., all playing characters straight out of Stereotypes "R" US (there's even an old couple to share one last embrace before they perish together in an epic tidal wave that all but decimates San Francisco).
My favorite moment comes when a seemingly well-versed, well- travelled character describes San Francisco's landmark Coit Tower as "that tall cement nozzle thing on the hill." A few more choice lines like that one, and "San Andreas" might have been a whole lot more fun.
Inside Out (2015)
Imaginative and insightful
I may be going out on a limb here, but it's probably safe to say that "Inside Out" is the first mainstream animated feature film to be entirely centered around a seriously depressed child.
The reason Riley (Kaitlyn Dias) is so depressed is that the personified emotions - Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Fear (Bill Hader), Disgust (Mindy Kaling) and Anger (Lewis Black) - that are responsible for keeping her psyche running smoothly have been seriously flubbing up of late. So much so that Riley runs the risk of experiencing a full mental breakdown if the emotional team can't retrieve all the core happy memories from Riley's childhood that are rapidly slipping away.
Imaginatively conceived by Pete Docter, Meg Lefauve, Josh Cooley and director Ronnie del Carmen, "Inside Out" takes place in two entirely distinct realms: first, in the "real" world, where a young girl has been dragged by her well-meaning but oblivious parents (Kyle MacLachlan, Diane Lane) from Minnesota to their new home in San Francisco; and, second, in the complex inner workings of said child's brain - a place filled with personality islands and memory balls all operated by the aforementioned Emotions from a giant console.
Rare for a movie aimed primarily at children, "Inside Out" is psychologically astute in its observations about human nature while remaining fanciful and childlike in tone and attitude. It explores the things that really matter to a youngster who's suddenly been yanked from a world where everything is comfortable and familiar to one where everything is unsettling and strange. The movie also points out how even the most well-intentioned of adults often fail to take into account children's very real feelings at crucial moments in their lives.
On a technical level, "Inside Out" comes replete with all the visually stunning graphics, fast-paced storytelling, and outstanding voice work that we've long associated with any computer-animated feature produced by Pixar Studios. But it's the less tangible elements of heart and imagination that truly count in this work.
Pitch Perfect 2 (2015)
"Pitch Perfect 2" is an extraordinarily lame female-empowerment comedy that suffers greatly in comparison to the genuinely hilarious "Spy" that was released at roughly the same time as this wholly unnecessary sequel to the 2012 original.
The screenplay by Kay Cannon features one thudding line and one misguided concept after another as the girls gear up to compete in an international contest of a cappella singers.
Directed by Elizabeth Banks, this embarrassing misfire wastes the acting talents of Anna Kendrick, Rebel Wilson, Hailee Steinfeld, Brittany Snow, Skylar Astin, Katey Sagal and Anna Camp (and that's just the women in the cast).
To all those responsible for this unfunny fiasco, hang your heads in shame.