Review: “Sicario”

I’ve got it. The next big trend in physical fitness. All you need to do is watch Denis Villeneuve’s “Sicario,” once a day, every day, and the pounds will melt off in no time.  From its opening moments, depicting a raid on a drug house, the film is sweaty-palms suspenseful.

sicario poster

FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) is part of that raid.  Soon after, she’s recruited into a task force, which includes Josh Brolin’s Matt Graver and Benicio del Toro’s Alejandro Gillick.  They’re to take down a major drug kingpin in Mexico.  Kate, unsure of whom to trust even on her own team, realizes she’s swimming in dark and dangerous waters.

The main cast — Blunt, del Toro and Brolin — are really strong.  Brolin, with his wry smile and reluctance to give up information, generates a lot of nervous laughs.  But del Toro is the MVP.  In one of my favorite moments, shortly after we (and Kate) have met him, he’s sleeping on an airplane and his hand starts to twitch and then he wakes with a start.  The smallest suggestion that under the enigmatic and menacing exterior, there’s a lot of pain and sadness.

sicario-benicio

Taylor Sheridan’s screenplay doesn’t provide Blunt’s Kate with a whole lot of background or even agency, but that’s why you cast one of the best actresses of her generation.  In an early exchange, we learn that she’s divorced and doesn’t have kids.  No family attachments.  (How’s that for foreboding?)  Throughout the film, she often finds herself on the losing end of conflicts, which is a little unusual for mainstream audiences.  I didn’t mind it so much, as it felt emblematic of the drug war itself.  It’s a losing battle.

sicario-emily

The action setpieces have a real sense of presence.  Explosions aren’t accompanied with the standard fireball.  They’re concussive forces, throwing our heroes to the ground.  Kevlar vests don’t keep characters free from harm.  Bullets still knock the wind out of them, leaving them gasping for air.  Interrogations aren’t performed with a lot of flapping and yelling but cold and quiet intimidation.  I’ve never witnessed a real explosion, been shot at or interrogated — knock on wood — but these moments felt refreshingly absent any trumped up Hollywood conventions.

Indeed, the film achieves all this without resorting to cinema verite techniques (handheld camera, extensive film grain, etc.).  I’ve talked about Cinematographer Roger Deakins on the blog before, and I can’t overstate his skill and artistry behind the camera.  In what’s sure to be one of the shots of the year, a group of gunmen are preparing for a dangerous trek underground at sunset.  As they move across the barren desert landscape, their silhouettes appear against the nearly-night sky and slowly sink into the dark horizon.

sicario-roger-deakins

Deakins and Villeneuve employ a lot of helicopter shots, particularly as the task force is driving across the border into Mexico for a mission.  Being a fan of “The Shining,” I couldn’t help but think of the opening moments of Stanley Kubrick’s film as Jack Torrance drives to the film’s haunted hotel.  The effect here is similar, as we watch from on high as our characters navigate into trouble.

Due to its blistering intensity and pessimistic worldview, “Sicario” isn’t going to be a film for everyone.  But if you’re willing to take the ride, I think the craftsmanship and strong performances are definitely worth your time.

Have you seen “Sicario?”  What did you think?  Comment below and thanks for reading!

Review: “Mission Impossible – Rogue Nation”

No school like the old school.

Much has been written about Tom Cruise’s stunt work in “Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation.”  Hell, if you’ve caught the trailer or poster — or any piece of marketing, really — you’ve seen him hanging off an airplane during takeoff.  And that’s how the film opens!

Rogue poster

Director and screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie’s packs the fifth entry in the “Mission: Impossible” series with old school touches.  Beginning with the plane stunt and continuing to Joe Kraemer’s delicious big band score.  It sounds as though he took a page from John Barry’s Bond music from the 60s.  And maybe the “Mission: Impossible” TV series.  (Though aside from the main theme, I’m not especially familiar with the music for the show.)  

The movie’s standout setpiece, in a Vienna Opera House, is a loving nod to Alfred Hitchcock and “The Man Who Knew Too Much.”  I love how our understanding of the players, their motivations and allegiances develop throughout the sequence.  The power dynamics — who’s on top, who knows what —  are constantly in flux.  And it only benefits from the ongoing performance, the operatic music underscoring the action while our heroes and villains struggle to remain quiet.  It’s a marvel of suspense filmmaking.

Now you might be saying, “Okay, the action’s great, but how’s the plot?”

Well, you’ll notice I haven’t given a plot summary, and that’s because it follows a pretty well-trodden path — Ethan is looking to put a stop to an elusive criminal organization known as the Syndicate.  There are enough twists and turns (and yes, convolutions) to keep things interesting.

“And the characters?  Are they enough to sustain a full feature?”

They are.  Just enough.

Ethan is as doggedly determined as ever, which is not to say the character is without fear.  This is a critical element that gets us invested in his success.  Just because he can navigate these life threatening situations, doesn’t mean he wants to.  Simon Pegg’s Benji, an analyst, has a bit more zeal this time, as he wants to contribute beyond sitting at a desk and punching some buttons.  

simon pegg

But the MVP is newcomer Rebecca Ferguson.  She plays Ilsa Faust, an agent who might be working with the Syndicate.  Or maybe not.  Her motivations and whose side she’s on generate a lot of the movie’s non-setpiece pleasures.  And she handles the action and fights scenes with aplomb, doing a lot of her own stunts.

Seriously, if this woman isn’t the break out star of the year, I’ll strap myself to the outside of an airplane.

rebecca ferguson

A few have criticized the last act of “Rogue Nation,” calling it out for being not quite up to snuff.  When you open as spectacularly as this movie does, where do you go from there?  It’s a complaint I’m certainly sensitive to, I just don’t think it applies here.  Yes, the spectacle in the third act is dramatically reduced, but the emotional stakes are amplified. The character threads, specifically concerning Benji and Ilsa, come into play in spectacular fashion.

This film has something for all action fans.  Setpieces with enormous scale, intimate fights and riveting chases.  It’s absolutely a film to be appreciated on the big screen.  McQuarrie’s quick cutting communicates maximum velocity without ever sacrificing geography.  The stunt work, largely performed by our main cast, injects the film with authenticity and makes us root all the more for our characters. 

“Mission Impossible – Rogue Nation” is in theaters now.  Have you seen it?  What did you think?  Comment below.

My 40 Favorite Moments from “Jaws” (Part 2 of 2)

Welcome back!  If you missed the first part of my 40 favorite moments from “Jaws,” click here.  Don’t forget to check out the film on the big screen this evening, courtesy of TCM and Fathom Events.

21.) Quint’s shark shack

Quint ribs Hooper about his city hands, and the Chief can’t stomach Quint’s homemade booze.  The scene sets up a lot of the conflict to come.  These characters and their dynamic are a real strength of the film.  I could watch these guys on a road trip.

22.) “Farewell and adieu…”

Before setting out, Quint sings “Spanish Ladies.”  (It’s catchy as hell!)  I’ve always loved the smile Hooper gives him.  I like to think it’s a rare moment of camaraderie between them, Hooper perhaps recognizing a song he’s heard on the ocean.  But you could also read it as “Just nod and smile at the crazy loon.”

Farewell and adieu

23.) Genre hop

An interesting things about “Jaws” is that it changes genres halfway through.  It starts as a horror film — an unseen force preying on a white picket fence community — and then it becomes an adventure when our three heroes embark on a hunt for a killer shark.

24.) Drinking contest

One of the things that makes “Jaws” so special is its sense of humor.  It leverages the suspense and excitement, and it comes naturally from its characters.  Consider Quint and Hooper having a drink.  Quint drains his beer can and crushes it, Hooper does just the same…except his is a Styrofoam cup.

Drinking contest 1

Drinking contest 2

25.) Air tank exposition

Hooper chews Brody out for sending air tanks across the Orca’s deck.  It’s a great bit of exposition, because it accomplishes three things at once.  (1) It ups the stakes and the possibility for disaster.  (2) It reinforces that Brody is not at home on the water and isolates him from the other characters.  (3) It sets up the shark’s final scene and the climax of the film.

26.) Whose [fishing] line is it anyway?

An attempt to capture the shark involves piano wire and a fishing rod.  Brody and Hooper are busy, so only Quint notices that something seems to be nibbling on the end of his line.  The sound work is fantastic, allowing tension to build.  Click, click, click.  The line twitches in the water.  Creak.  And Quint fastens himself to his chair.

Fishing line

27.) The shark is ready for its close-up

Martin:  “I can go slow ahead.  Come on down and chum some of this shit!”

And boom, more than an hour into the film, the Great White finally gets his close-up.  Timed perfectly, I love the way Spielberg turns a laugh into a scream.

Shark's close up

28.) Shark’s limited screen time

I adore the judicious use of the shark, a strategy that would surely fall flat today.  (Remember all that bellyaching about Godzilla’s screen time in last year’s reboot?)  Still, few things take the majesty and menace out of a monster like overexposure.

29.) “You’re gonna need a bigger boat.”

C’mon, what else do I need to say!  The perfect encapsulation of an insurmountable problem.

30.) Pirate music

John Williams’s work highlights that transition from horror to sea-faring adventure.  Nowhere is that more prevalent than the first chase.  Listen to the track here.  Still gets my heart racing.

31.) Fish stories

Quint and Hooper, a little tipsy, compare scars in a game of one-upsmanship.  I got this from a bull shark.  Well, I got this from a thresher.  The Chief lifts his shirt, takes a look at his appendectomy scar, then quickly dismisses it.  The scene’s a welcome reprieve after the first thrilling chase and before…

32.) “You were on the Indianapolis?”

I love the way Hooper’s laugh deflates when he learns that Quint was on the USS Indianapolis.  It’s a great bit of acting by Dreyfuss.  If you’re not familiar with the story — I certainly wasn’t as a kid — it lets you know that you’re in for something. Also note how Brody isn’t aware of the event.  Yet again, he’s the outsider.

33.) The Indianapolis monologue 

Robert Shaw delivers the movie monologue to end all movie monologues.  The language is so evocative: “You know the thing about a shark, he’s got black eyes.  Lifeless eyes, like a doll’s eyes.  When he comes at ya, he doesn’t seem to be livin’…until he bites ya.”  Whether a conscious choice or not — Shaw was a drinker on set — I love Quint’s drunken portrayal.  As though his boat-mates wouldn’t be hearing this story if he were sober.  It also serves as a basis for some of Quint’s more questionable decisions.

Indianapolis

34.) The sound of silence

After conditioning the audience to expect the shark’s theme before an attack, Spielberg and Williams pull a great switcheroo.  When the barrels attached to the fish surface, the audience knows the threat is there.  Its attack comes out of silence.

35.) “He’s chasing us, I don’t believe it!”

I love the characterization – I’m using that word loosely — of the shark. He’s driven by more than just instinct, and, yes, there wouldn’t be much of a movie if he just moved on to another beach.  He almost mocks our heroes before bringing his full strength to bear.  The way he passes by Hooper in the cage before striking (more on that in a bit).  And the way the tables turn and he starts chasing the Orca.  The shark’s final scene is spectacular, but it’s earned.  You feel as though that’s what it’d take, nothing less, to kill this unstoppable force.

36.) Life jackets

Quint tells Brody and Hooper that he’ll never put on a life jacket again.  So when he hands each of them one, the boat hanging low in the water, it speaks volumes about their predicament.  This is as close as Quint gets to apologizing.  And I love the visual of him finding the life jackets: hanging from the ceiling, dripping with water.

Life jackets

37.) Cage match

With Hooper in the cage, we finally get our first full-body look at the Great White.  It appears out of the din, Williams’s theme chugging along in the background.  It glides by the cage, not even fitting inside the 2.35 framing.  As it disappears into the murk again, the theme fades.  So haunting!

Cage match

38.) “The ocean turns red…”

A shark attack in all its grisly horror, Quint comes face-to-face with the thing he fears most.  Shaw’s committed performance sells it and makes for one of the best movie deaths of all time.  Oh man, and the foley work — the snap-crack when the shark bites into Quint’s leg.  Ouch.

Ocean turns red

39.) The end

Martin:  “I used to hate the water.”

Hooper:  “I can’t imagine why.”

The end

40.) Source of inspiration

Okay, not really a moment from “Jaws,” but I owe my love of movies to this film.  I’ve told the story before, but when I was seven years old, I wanted to be a marine biologist.  So my mother showed me “Jaws,” and I wanted to be a filmmaker.  When you hear about all the production’s trials and tribulations — ballooning budgets and schedules, a malfunctioning shark, weather, location politics — it’s a marvel it got made at all and a testament to art coming from adversity.  That the film turned out as well as it did, well, that’s just icing on the cake.  Or chum in the water.  I liked “Jaws” as a kid, but it took getting older to appreciate how good it is.

Thanks for reading!  Do you have a favorite moment from “Jaws?”  Comment below.

My 40 Favorite Moments from “Jaws” (Part 1 of 2)

Today marks the 40th anniversary of “Jaws.”  Directed by Steven Spielberg, written by Carl Gottlieb and Peter Benchley, and starring Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw, Richard Dreyfuss.  The film changed the course of Hollywood…and it changed the course of my life.  Note the name of the blog.  In honor of its big anniversary, part one of my 40 favorite moments from “Jaws.”

1.) Duuh dunnn…duuuuh duun…

“All this machine does is swim and eat and make little sharks.”  What better way to characterize something so simple than with two notes?  Once John Williams’s theme gets going, it does indeed sound like an engine.  A big, unstoppable engine…with teeth.

2.) Peeping shark

Suspense builds as we watch an unsuspecting menu item, her feet dangling beneath the surface.

Peeping Shark

3.) The first bite is the deepest

The minimalist approach here was the way to go.  There isn’t so much as a shadow or flick of a fin.  Just violent jerking motions.  Primal and visceral.

First bite

4.) Meeting Martin Brody 

Martin:  “How come the sun didn’t used to shine in here?”

Ellen:  “We bought the house in the fall.  This is summer.”

Ellen:  “In Amity you say ‘yahd’.”

Martin:  “[The kids] are in the yahd, not too fahr from the cahr.  How’s that?”

Ellen:  “Like you’re from New York.”

In a few quick lines, we learn so much about the Brody family and Martin in particular.

5.) The ferry long take

The mayor corners the chief for a meeting about tourist season.  There’s minimal camera movement, but since we’re on a ferry, the background is spinning and Spielberg keeps the actors moving such that we don’t notice the long take.  It’s a dynamic way to deliver exposition.

ferry

6.) Brody’s POV

Spielberg places us in the shoes of the paranoid chief as he watches bathers from his chair.  Beach-goers walk in front of the camera — they wipe off Brody and wipe on what he’s looking at.  Someone will be talking to the chief, their face wedged into the corner of the frame and an expanse of ocean over their shoulder, letting us know what’s really on our his mind.

Brody POV

7.) Let’s [not] paint the town red!

Red is used so sparingly in the film that when it does appear, it pops off the screen.

Paint the town red

8.) There’s chaos in the air

“We have to talk to Mrs. Kintner, because this is going to turn into a contest.”

“I have a motel!  How do you feel about this?”  

“Go out there tomorrow and see that no one gets hurt!”  

Overlapping dialog during the town meeting accomplishes so much more than a traditional, staged approach.  It adds texture and makes Amity feel lived in.

9.) There ARE strings on me.

Brody, on the left side of the frame, talks about keeping the beaches safe.  He has no lead room — no vision or conviction.  Behind him, the mayor and his cronies watch their puppet dance.  A whole story in one shot.

Puppet dance

10.) Quint’s intro

Nails on a chalkboard rake across a shark that’s devouring a swimmer.   And so we meet the film’s most indelible character.  Quint’s entrance encompasses all the bluster that he’ll come to embody.  And yet his line, “There’s too many captains on this island,” cuts right to the heart of the problem.  Bureaucracy and commercial interests have indeed run amok on the island.

Quint intro

11.) Brody’s studies

Brody glances through a series of photographs depicting real-life shark attacks.  Reflected in his glasses, the horror on the book pages consume his vision.

Brody studies

12.) Fickle fin

Martin:  “I don’t want him on the ocean!”

Ellen:  “He’s not on the ocean, he’s in a boat!”

Fickle fin pt 1

Fickle fin pt 2

Ellen:  “Michael! Did you hear your father? Out of the water now.  Now!”

13.) Attack of the Pier!

After a bounty is placed on the shark, two fishermen attempt to catch it.  When the fish takes the bait chained to a pier, half the pier goes with it and one of the men gets dragged out to sea.  In one of my favorite gags, the pier turns around and follows him.  Shark-by-proxy, far spookier than actually seeing the creature.

14.) Brody and his son

Few and far between are the blockbusters that would make room for a scene like this.  Having been blamed for the death of Alex Kintner, the chief finds himself goofing off with his son.  The young boy mimics his father, and Martin plays along.  It aligns us firmly with our hero.

Brody and his son

15.) Ellen & Hooper

Ellen laughs just a little too hard and a little too long at some of Hooper’s jokes.  It’s a nice bit of characterization and a nice nod to Peter Benchley’s novel, which contained a subplot about an affair between the two.

16.) “Drowning”

Ellen:  “Martin sits in his car when we go on the ferry to the main land.  I guess it’s a childhood thing.  There’s a clinical name for it, isn’t there?”

Martin:  “Drowning.”

You’ve got to love Schieder’s off-handed delivery.  In a lesser film, Martin Brody would have been too broadly comic or just a wet blanket.  But Spielberg and Scheider strike the right balance.

17.) Boo!

While we ponder Hooper’s discovery of a tooth the size of a shot glass — Bam! — a pale and bloated corpse floats out to greet him.  Like a magician, Spielberg draws our gaze away before the trick.

Boo

18.) Water-level camera

One of the visual strategies Spielberg employs is a water-level camera.  This usually involves water lapping over the lens and swimmers in the background.  It amps up the tension as it feels like we, the audience, are treading shark-infested water.

Water-level camera

19.) “Michael’s in the pond!”

After a false alarm on July 4th, a woman spots the shark.  “There’s a shark in the pond!”  The camera tracks with Brody in profile as he makes his way through a crowd, faster and faster until the beach goers are blurs around him.  It’s a great means of visualizing the chief’s rising panic as his son happens to be playing in the pond.

20.) Mayor of Shark City

“I was acting in the town’s best interest.” Murray Hamilton says this to himself as much as Brody, as though he was already practicing for the media gauntlet.  By the end of the scene, he’s just a broken man: “Martin, my kids were on that beach too.”  It’s a glimmer of humanity in a character that’s otherwise pretty sleazy.

Tune in tomorrow for the second and final installment in “My 40 Favorite Moments from ‘Jaws’.”  Also tomorrow, Fathom Events will also be screening the film throughout the country.  If you’ve never seen “Jaws” on a big screen with a large audience, it’s a real treat!  Click here for location and ticket details.