Movie Review ~ Sicario

sicario_ver8

The Facts:

Synopsis: 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.

Stars: Emily Blunt, Benicio Del Toro, Josh Brolin, Daniel Kaluuya, Victor Garber, Jon Bernthal, Jeffrey Donovan

Director: Denis Villeneuve

Rated: R

Running Length: 121 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: I can’t tell you how much fun it is to watch a movie by a filmmaker that knows how to turn the screws on an unsuspecting audience. There are moments in Sicario where Denis Villeneuve seems to be taking an almost perverse delight in extending the suspense until it becomes almost unbearable…making for refreshing and exhilarating viewing.

The Quebec born filmmaker made a splash in 2010 with the Oscar nominated drama Incendies, before turning in two very different releases in 2013.  First up was the haunting (and unjustly Oscar ignored) Prisoners, a showcase not only for Villeneuve’s flair for suspense and cinematographer Roger Deakins brilliant cinematography but for Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal’s towering lead performances.  Made before Prisoners but released after was another collaboration with Gyllenhaal, Enemy, and while it was fairly inaccessible and barely made a blip on the art-house circuit it once again demonstrated that Villeneuve knew exactly what he was doing.

Villeneuve and Deakins are matched again in Sicario (the Spanish word for hitman) and it’s yet another cinematic trophy both men can add to their growing wall of accolades.  A harrowing and terrifying look into the war on drugs, the movie pulls no punches and leaves no dark corner unexplored.

The plot of Sicario is so complex and labyrinthine that the full attention of the audience is pretty much required to keep up with Taylor Sheridan’s serpentine script, a lean and mean story that doesn’t have an ounce of excess fat on it.  You’re advised to note everything that’s said because even the smallest detail could play a factor into what will transpire when an FBI agent gets involved with a covert operation involving drug kingpins and Mexican cartels.

I’m of the mindset that every movie needs more Emily Blunt in it.  Often I’ll be watching a film and just wonder what Blunt would have done with various female (or male) roles that may not be quite up to snuff.  Easily transitioning from comedic second-fiddle (The Five-Year Engagement) to action second-fiddle (Looper) to dramatic lead (Salmon Fishing in the Yemen) before the 2014 one-two punch of Edge of Tomorrow and Into the Woods, with Sicario Blunt may just have the best performance (and first Oscar nomination) of her burgeoning career.  As principled FBI agent Kate Macer, Blunt has to show a lot of different colors throughout the film and she does so with believable skill.  When she’s offered a chance to volunteer for an undisclosed purpose on a government task force, she sees it as an opportunity for advancement and as a way to help right the wrongs she sees on a daily basis.

Lead into uncertain darkness by CIA agent Matt (Josh Brolin, Oldboy, seemingly getting most of his performance from an ever-present wad of gum), Kate finds herself traveling between Mexico and the U.S. for several nail-biting missions that blur the line between the good guys and the bad guys.  It isn’t long before she’s in over her head, but her pride keeps her treading water even while the sharks start to circle her.

One of those sharks may be Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro, Guardians of the Galaxy, in his best role since his Oscar win for Traffic), even though he’s supposedly on her side.  His motives for tagging along seem unclear and the movie never gets so far ahead of the audience that we know the answer before Kate does.  Even Kate’s partner Reggie (Daniel Kaluuya, Kick-Ass 2) has loyalty issues that are tested along the way, putting Kate on an island by herself where only she is responsible for her survival.

Sicario feels very timely, very now and its situations are ripped from the very real headlines of the war on drugs that rages on along the U.S. border.  A nerve-shredding trip to Juárez, MX finds bodies hanging from highway overpasses as both the marking of certain territory and as a warning for all who dare enter…it’s a city of horrors that are grounded in a frightening reality.

Villeneuve starts the movie with a corker of an opener and only accelerates from there.  Aided by staggering cinematography from Deakins (Skyfall, The Secret Garden) and the droning score from Jóhann Jóhannsson (The Theory of Everything), there’s a sense of dread in nearly every frame.  That can make for a solemn viewing experience but paired with an intriguing story and taut performances, it’s ultimately a thrilling thrill ride of a movie.  From start to finish, top to bottom, it’s excellent.  Sicario is why we go to movies.

Movie Review ~ The Intern

1

intern

The Facts:

Synopsis: 70-year-old widower Ben Whittaker has discovered that retirement isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Seizing an opportunity to get back in the game, he becomes a senior intern at an online fashion site, founded and run by Jules Ostin.

Stars: Robert De Niro, Robert De Niro, Anne Hathaway,Rene Russo, Anders Holm, Adam DeVine, Andrew Rannells,Linda Lavin, Christina Scherer, Celia Weston, JoJo Kushner,Zack Pearlman, Jason Orley, Nat Wolff

Director: Nancy Meyers

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 121 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review: Let’s start this review off by going the full disclosure route and saying that I’m not a huge fan of the movies that Nancy Meyers started to make after splitting with her husband, Charles Shyer.  Together, the two were responsible for films like Private Benjamin, Baby Boom, Irreconcilable Differences, and the remake of Father of the Bride and its sequel (let’s skip over their clunker I Love Trouble).  As a standalone writer/director, Meyers has been responsible for a trio of films often described as white-women fantasies: The Holiday, Something’s Gotta Give, and, most recently, It’s Complicated.  All three of these have had dynamite casts with strong female leads…but they all seemed to take place in an alternate universe where every surface is spotless, every arm is covered in taupe cashmere, and no problem can’t be solved over a glass of white whine, oops…wine.  It’s escapist entertainment, I get it, but they’re carb-free meals for this critic that craves some starch.

So I came to The Intern with some pre-conceived notions of how it would all play out.  In all honesty the film came at the right time for me and caught me in the perfect mood, it’s a guilt free bit of whimsy that wasn’t as interminable as previous Meyers outings.  Bouncing around in development hell for quite some time, it was originally imagined as a vehicle for Tina Fey and though the high-powered career woman intended for her has had a few years shaved off, it’s not hard to see how Fey would have fit into the central character now played by Anne Hathaway.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Opening with the kind of “let me bring you up to speed” monologue that Meyers excels in, Robert De Niro’s (Silver Linings Playbook) Ben details how he came to be applying for a senior internship at About the Fit.   A widower, after 40 years in working his 9-5 job the retired Ben has traveled the world, doted on his grandkids, learned a few new languages, and now doesn’t quite know what to do next.  A chance glance at an ad tacked outside his local grocery gets him in the door at the fashion start-up.

Clearly overqualified for the job, he’s matched with none other than the founder (Hathaway) of the company who, in true Driving Miss Daisy fashion, tells him he’s not needed or really wanted.  It doesn’t take a genius to see that the two will be at odds on the outset before becoming a cohesive unit so let’s focus more on where the film turns up some unexpected delights.

The good news starts at the top with De Niro and Hathaway (Interstellar) clocking in surprisingly charming performances.  De Niro doesn’t seem to be very discerning in his role selections as of late but he’s a good fit with the kindly elder who isn’t merely there to offer sage advice but to lend a hand as well as a shoulder to his young boss.  Hathaway too is downright delightful as Jules (because, of course that’s her name) and I couldn’t help but feel like the character was a more seasoned version of the one she played in The Devil Wears Prada.

Echoing Baby Boom, the main question The Intern seems to be asking is ‘Can women have it all?’  Can they have the high paying job, can they run a business, can they stand on their own two feet and still manage to keep a stable family life?  Jules’ husband (Anders Holm) is a stay-at-home dad, parenting their girl while his wife is working and Meyers illustrates often the sacrifices both are making to keep up with the daily grind.

The problem is that the question doesn’t seem to be as relevant as it was back in the late 80s and for a film set in the new millennium it feels a bit backward in its thinking.  Yes, we know that wage equality between males and females still has a long way to go and that the roles of wives and husbands have had some fluidity in the past decade.  But are we really saying that women have to choose between the two?  Alarmingly, Meyers puts her female lead to that test several times and it’s proof of Hathaway’s charisma that she’s able to overcome that dinosaur of a notion and still maintain some semblance of professionalism.

Making our way down the cast list, things get a bit rocky.  Rene Russo (Nightcrawler) is always a welcome presence and since Meyers can’t clothe Hathaway in her favorite cream colors, Russo is the model for an array of perfectly ivory and billowy beige ensembles.  She’s the company masseuse that takes a liking to De Niro and while that relationship is only explored when the movie remembers to do so, it’s a welcome reminder that age-appropriate couplings are alive and well in Meyers’ world.

It’s never quite clear what Andrew Rannells (Bachelorette) actually does at the company (is he a co-founder? is he co-owner?) but he disappears halfway through the film so it’s quite possible he was Jules’s imaginary friend.  Linda Lavin, looking positively mummified, pops up all too briefly to try and get De Niro in the sack and a trio of bro-ish, dumb-ish, co-workers of De Niro (lead by the always annoying Adam DeVine, Pitch Perfect, Pitch Perfect 2) seem to have been crafted for an ill-advised foray into slapstick comedy that occupies a labored fifteen minutes in the middle of the film.  Holm strikes out big time as the benign husband that may not be quite as content to play second fiddle as he appears to be.  Reading his lines as if he’s making fun of their supposed sincerity, he’s the one thundercloud in an otherwise sunny film.

I’ll admit that even though it has its faults, The Intern was more pleasant than it had any right to be.  It’s lead by two strong performances and, while Meyers doesn’t seem to have anything new to say about the state of affairs in business, she has produced a crisp apple of a film, tart when it has to be and juicy when called for.