Movie Review ~ Lucy in the Sky


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Astronaut Lucy Cola returns to Earth after a transcendent experience during a mission to space, and begins to lose touch with reality in a world that now seems too small.

Stars: Natalie Portman, Jon Hamm, Dan Stevens, Zazie Beetz, Coleman Domingo, Tig Notaro, Jeffrey Donovan, Ellen Burstyn

Director: Noah Hawley

Rated: R

Running Length: 124 minutes

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review:  It seems that in Hollywood they have a much easier time giving men kudos for taking on challenging work and, more specifically, challenging characters.  I can’t tell you how many movies I’ve seen based on buzz touting the leading man doing something extraordinary by going the extra mile for a role or disappearing deep within a character.  Hold on to your knickers if that same actor appears as someone unlikable or unrelatable because that’s where the awards chatter begins.  Even in 2019, there are several actors being mentioned for major awards that are doing good work but…work that’s awards worthy?  I’m not so sure.

Natalie Portman has always been an interesting actress to me.  Feeling wise beyond her years from a young age, she managed to bypass the teenage comedies that stunted many of her peers and graduated to adult fare and populist entertainment early in her career.  Nabbing an Oscar-nomination at 23 for Closer before winning one at 29 for Black Swan, Portman never settled into one genre or budget-range, preferring to choose projects based on the scripts and directors instead.  She didn’t get quite enough praise for the divisive Annihilation in 2018 and, well, the less said about the annoying Vox Lux, the better. I was hoping Lucy in the Sky would be a return to the kind of Portman performance I had enjoyed in the past, one that was a little more grounded and connected.

The biggest problem I found in this story loosely (very loosely, it turns out) inspired by the true-life story of a NASA astronaut that traveled thousands of miles and assaulted the mistress of her married lover and former co-worker was that it strayed so far from the truth.  I can understand changing some of the details to protect the innocent but screenwriters Brian C. Brown, Elliott DiGuiseppi, and Noah Hawley (who also directed) have made so many bone-headed changes that what remains is only a sanitized shadow of what really happened.  Also, one important (and, ok, sensationalized) detail has been completely excised.  So the story has been reduced to just another spurned lover tale we’ve seen done countless times before.

Astronaut Lucy Cola has returned to Earth after a journey to space that has left her, as it has many, a changed person.  As she shares with her fellow astronauts, things just don’t look the same on the ground once you’ve seen the entire globe from space.  Living in Texas with her husband and a niece left with them by her irresponsible brother, Lucy sets her sights on returning to space on the next mission in order to feel that same high she felt before.  During her highly competitive and intensive training, she finds a connection with Mark, another astronaut readying for his own mission and the two begin an affair that will cause Lucy to spin-out of the orbit she has set herself in.  Now, as she feels her stability going out of balance and feeling pressure from Erin, a younger recruit, just as eager as she once was, Lucy’s actions get more erratic until she makes series of decisions that will forever change the course of her life.

Always a problem inherent in movies with cheating spouses is that the cheaters face an uphill battle from the audience when they finally have the face the music.  Are we supposed to feel sorry for these characters for getting caught up in a mess of their own making?  Do we excuse Lucy (Portman) walking out on her husband (Dan Stevens, Apostle) because he’s too…nice?  What about Erin (Zazie Beetz, Joker), Lucy’s competition at work vying for a spot in the next space shuttle mission and for the attention of Mark (Jon Hamm, Million Dollar Arm)?  How much does she factor into what ultimately happens between Lucy and Mark?  Ultimately, aren’t all of these people (save for maybe the jilted husband) kind of awful in their own way?  Hawley also awkwardly places Lucy’s niece on the frontlines for much of this action, alternately as an observer and as a participant and that feels like an inconsiderate adjustment to this story.  Involving a pre-teen in this adult sphere of responsibility isn’t appropriate, no matter how out of touch Lucy begins to get.

Hawley has assembled a hard-working cast that feels like they were possibly signed up for a different kind of movie.  Though it starts with some promise, it eventually comes apart at the seams and not rapidly…it’s a slow slog to the finish line. Along the way there are some quite good scenes with Portman convincingly speaking about how much harder it is for women to get ahead in her line of work and conveying the desperation for perfection and achievement.  I also enjoyed what little we see of Ellen Burstyn (Interstellar), though Hawley seems to only want to use her for a few foul-mouthed punchlines.  The more manic the film gets in its latter half, the weirder Portman’s Texan twang gets and I have to wonder if it wasn’t almost intentional.  It’s as if she’s learned to tone down her drawl to compose herself but when she starts to unravel she reverts back to a Yosemite Sam pattern of speech.

Now, I wouldn’t go so far to say Lucy in the Sky represents the kind of performance that should get Portman the same kind of accolades she received for Jackie or her Oscar-winning turn in Black Swan but it is representative of the kind of askew work she seems inherently drawn toward.  Despite a brief foray in recent years into Marvel blockbuster territory with Thor and Thor: The Dark World, Portman has squarely appeared in harder sell pics that take some time to warm up to.  Portman can’t seem to help herself in taking on women with rough exteriors that are cool to the touch but have a fire burning inside waiting to be released.  That she’s found a way to make each one distinct in the way they go about freeing themselves from turmoil is a testament to her creative approach.  It doesn’t quite work to her advantage ultimately in Lucy in the Sky but I can’t imagine anyone else attempting it with such force.

Movie Review ~ Sicario: Day of the Soldado


The Facts
:

Synopsis: The drug war on the U.S.-Mexico border has escalated as the cartels have begun trafficking terrorists across the US border. To fight the war, federal agent Matt Graver re-teams with the mercurial Alejandro.

Stars: Benicio Del Toro, Josh Brolin, Isabela Moner, Jeffrey Donovan, Manuel Garcia Rulfo, Catherine Keener, Matthew Modine

Director: Stefano Sollima

Rated: R

Running Length: 122 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: I must say that the thought of a sequel to 2015’s rock solid Sicario turned my stomach a bit. Why sully the original thrill of that film with a follow-up that moved forward without a few key players? Gone are the star (Emily Blunt), the director (Denis Villeneuve), the cinematographer (Roger Deakins) and the composer (the late Jóhann Jóhannsson) which just left the writer (Taylor Sheridan) along with co-stars Josh Brolin and Benicio del Toro. Originally announced as Soldado before changing to Sicario 2: Soldado and ultimately landing on Sicario: Day of the Soldado…it was getting increasingly worrisome that my initial fears would be realized.

Turns out Sony Pictures and Sheridan knew what they were doing all along. Not only is Sicario: Day of the Soldado a worthy follow-up to the original, it signals the start of something I never would have expected…a franchise.

sicario m ([s̪iˈkäːr̺io]): hitman (hired killer)

soldado m, f (solˈdado): soldier (member of an army, person who fights for a cause)

Picking up several years after the events of the first film, Sheridan (Hell or High Water, Wind River) wastes no time in jolting audiences with an opening act that rockets all over the country. Those looking to turn their brains off best look elsewhere because Sheridan needs your attention from the word go. No time is wasted in his economical screenplay that shifts the focus from the efforts of operative Matt (Brolin, Avengers: Infinity War, Deadpool 2) to combat the trafficking of drugs along the Mexican border to a covert operation authorized by the CIA designed to pit rival Mexican drug carters against eachother.

To start this fire, Matt calls up his old friend Alejandro (Benicio del Toro, Inherent Vice) and the two men work in tandem on a kidnapping plot involving the daughter of a Mexican druglord. The plan goes awry, however, and soon Alejandro is tasked with protecting this valuable asset while keeping one step ahead of corrupt police and a whole host of ruthless killers out to recover the young girl or bury her in the desert.

Incoming director Stefano Sollima picks up the reins from Villeneuve with a little less style but no less intensity. This is a fairly straight-forward film that flexes its considerable muscle when it has to but also takes time for quieter moments, such as Alejandro’s conversation with a deaf farmer that reveals more about the family Alejandro lost and is still seeking some kind of vengeance for.

Composer Hildur Guðnadóttir (Prisoners) continues the work of Jóhannsson with his ominous, omnipresent score that grinds at the nerves but doesn’t overwhelm the proceedings. Running just a minute longer than Sicario, the sequel again shows Sheridan’s uncanny knack for producing a script that doesn’t feel like it has an excess material to it. There’s none of the trite padding some lesser action/military films feel the need to employ and while it has a host of characters passing through including the droll Catherine Keener, Incredibles 2, as a gruff CIA leader and Matthew Modine, 47 Meters Down, as a government official, it’s not hard to follow who is being gunned down or who is doing the shooting.

Filled with a few surprising twists and universally strong performances (including Peruvian actress Isabela Moner, impressive as the hostage) Sicario: Day of the Soldado easily justifies it existence and creates interest in seeing these characters go deeper into the dark. Here’s hoping Sheridan has a doozy of a third entry planned…but how about bringing back Blunt? Please?

Movie Review ~ Sicario

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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.