Sicario 2: Soldado (2018)

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I could throw a stick across the river and hit fifty grieving fathers.  Following an Isis suicide bombing in a Kansas supermarket FBI agent Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) calls on undercover operative Alejandro Gillick (Benicio del Toro) as Mexican drug cartels are starting to smuggle terrorists across the U.S. border. The war escalates when Matt and Alejandro kidnap a drug kingpin’s thirteen-year old daughter Isabel Reyes (Isabela Moner) to deliberately increase the tensions. When the young girl is seen as collateral damage, the two men will determine her fate as they question everything that they are fighting for, with Alejandro and the girl left on the wrong side of the border when the corrupt Mexican police upset the staged return of Isabel.  At the same time a teenaged Mexican in Texas Miguel (Elijah Rodriguez) is recruited to move people illegally and the Government drop Alejandro in it  … Sicario was my top film of 2015 and I was pretty surprised that it would become a victim of sequelitis. This is  a far more conventional action outing but steadily winds itself around you with a vise-like grip even if it entirely lacks the deep pulsating strangeness of the original and its fabulously formal widescreen compositions by director Denis Villeneuve and DoP Roger Deakins and the amazing, visceral score of the late great Jóhann Jóhansson, to whom this is dedicated. Crucially it also lacks Emily Blunt’s character, something of a passive protagonist who also functioned as moral compass. What an unusual setup that was! It punched you in the solar plexus, kicked you in the abdomen and grabbed you by the throat. And all the time you wondered who everyone really was. The formerly silent and mysterious Alejandro has achieved his revenge so why does this even exist? Better ask Taylor Sheridan, who is revisiting the border territory he seems to have made his own, writing some of the best screenplays of recent years. There has been a lot of guff about the timing of this and the fact that there’s a girl ‘separated’ from her (lovely!) family here but this is a film that shows us exactly why the US or the POTUS at least wants a wall:  it’s a portrait of ruthless people trafficking poor people with the resultant evolution of drug lords, gangs and murderers. You can leave the pity party at the door especially when you look at the murder rates in Mexico last year alone. Chaos streams from that part of the world, lest we forget. And the answer is a slew of dirty tricks and disavowed ops.  Alejandro is almost forced to question his actions, with Isabel figuring out his relationship with her father:  he’s the attorney whose wife and kids Daddy had murdered. Moner is fantastic, a real find. She is extraordinarily self-possessed as the narco whore! administering beatings in the school yard where the principal is shit-scared of expelling her for fear of reprisals. Brolin returns to the fray dealing out fear in Somalia trying to trace the Isis loonies but back on US soil he’s dealing with the Secretary of State (Matthew Modine) and his immediate superior Cynthia Foards (Catherine Keener) who wants everything off the books when two dozen Mexican cops are killed (they unleash the firepower first) and the Oval Office can no longer be officially seen to sanction any cross-border activities. The clever aspect is parallel teenage stories – the Tex-Mex boy killer and the kingpin’s girl even if they are rather replete with clichés, no matter the shock value. The conclusion has been set up to deliver another movie with del Toro – a long way from the money laundering (literally) in Licence to Kill – still in the druggie violent territory to which he so frequently returns. Directed by Stefano Sollima. 

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Trumbo (2015)

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You talk like a radical but you live like a rich guy.  In the early Forties in Hollywood Dalton Trumbo (Bryan Cranston) is the highest paid scriptwriter but he’s also a member of the Communist Party. In a 1947 purge led by gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren) and John Wayne (David James Elliott) Trumbo and several of his fellow writers are hounded into appearing before the House Un-American Activities Committee in Washington where they go off-script and ten of them wind up being imprisoned and their careers are ruined. When they get out they have to rebuild and face down their betrayers as they scrabble to write for the black market … Adapted from Bruce Cook’s biography of the blacklisted screenwriter, this is so good on so many levels. It takes a relatively complex history of the Hollywood anti-communist campaign and makes it understandable and it comprehensively names all the people who were behind it as well as communicating the terrible fear that descended upon the creative industries when what America was really fighting was creeping liberalism (which it learned decades later and which was also feared by the communists). It accurately portrays the documented differences among the Hollywood Ten and how they were perceived by their peers (not entirely positively especially following their self-aggrandising performances at the HUAC hearings) and the terrible compromises and betrayals between friends:  Edward G. Robinson (Michael Stuhlbarg) didn’t work for a year and gave names of those men already behind bars. How to win against the oppressive Hollywood machine drives so much of their post-prison experience – sue them like the composite figure of Arlen Hird (Louis CK) wants to do? or do what they’re good at and beat the bastards at their own game? like Trumbo does – and how apposite that Trumbo was selected to rewrite Spartacus after winning the Oscar for both Roman Holiday and The Brave One under a front and then a pseudonym. What raises this again above other films dramatising the same situation is the sheer wit and brio with which it is written and performed – which you’d frankly expect of anything with Trumbo’s name attached:  kudos to John McNamara. It also clarifies the extent to which this was a self-administered situation – these guys were screwed over by the studios voluntarily, not Government decree. Cranston is perfect in the role which is suffused with sadness and smarts and he embodies the writer we all really want to be – smoking like a train, drinking like a fish, tranked up on benzedrine and writing in the bathtub. A wonderfully ironic touch for a man who didn’t wallow. It’s wonderful to watch him deal with his daughter Nicola (Elle Fanning) become as politicised as him and he must assume a different parental role as she matures:  he admires her but he can’t be disturbed to get out of the tub and celebrate her birthday because he’s got a deadline.  There are great scenes:  when Trumbo notices that Robinson sold a Van Gogh to pay for the writers’ legal defence;  the writing of the cheapie scripts for the King Brothers. This is a complicated portrait of a fascinating and contradictory individual. Diane Lane has a thankless and almost dialogue-free part as his brilliant wife Cleo but her charismatic presence transforms her scenes:  she is duly thanked by Trumbo in the film’s final scene in 1970 during a Writers Guild ceremony. John Goodman is fantastic as the Poverty Row producer Frank King who meets a Motion Picture Alliance thug with a baseball bat and leaves him in no doubt as to what will happen if he gets the way of his hiring Trumbo because he’s in the business for money and pussy and doesn’t care about politics.  There’s a fantastic scene sequence that illustrates the different working methodologies of Kirk Douglas and Otto Preminger:  Trumbo played them off one against the other to get his credits restored. The best tragicomic moment is perhaps in the clink when Trumbo encounters his nemesis J. Parnell Thomas who’s been imprisoned for a real crime – tax evasion. Trumbo was however convicted of one thing – contempt. He was a card-carrying member of the Communist Party and this film does not shirk from that fact.  Directed sensitively and with panache by Jay Roach who has made a film that is literate, eloquent and humane. I am Spartacus.

Cromwell (1970)

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Put your trust in God – and keep your powder dry! In 1640s England, King Charles I (Alec Guinness) is engaged in a power struggle with Parliament, and civil war seems imminent to House of Commons member Oliver Cromwell (Richard Harris), who’s preparing to depart for the American colonies. When he’s asked to stay to fight for the Parliamentary cause, however, Cromwell agrees and proves himself a brilliant leader of the Roundhead army and determines to rid England of its king and install Parliament as the ruler of the people. Soon, it’s up to him to lead his army to victory over the king’s Cavaliers … With Robert Morley as the Earl of Manchester, Guinness as the quietly steely Charles and Harris giving it large as Cromwell, this is a study in contrasting performing styles if nothing else. As an historical drama and despite a plethora of inaccuracies (wrong dates, wrong about the armies and their respective numbers, etc etc) it goes a way to delineate the pernicious Puritanism at its heart (has everyone forgotten that Martin Luther was a vile anti-Semite?!) not to mention the genocidal policies executed in Ireland in a power grab. It’s well staged with some nice touches particularly among the exchanges involving family members and children of both protagonists but it’s tilted in odd ways dramatically speaking. However Harris does well in a typically bombastic creation – tracing the rise of a man who believes himself to be godly but is at heart a destructive, ruthless, hypocritical dictator in waiting. Written and directed by Ken Hughes.

Miss Sloane (2017)

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Lobbying is about foresight. About anticipating your opponent’s moves and devising counter measures. The winner plots one step ahead of the opposition. And plays her trump card just after they play theirs. It’s about making sure you surprise them. And they don’t surprise you.  Elizabeth Sloane (Jessica Chastain) remains one of the most sought-after lobbyists in Washington, D.C. She will do or say anything to get ahead of the competition. When asked to help oppose a bill that imposes regulations on firearms, she instead joins a scrappy boutique firm led by Rodolfo Schmidt (Mark Strong) that represents the backers of the law. Her defiant stance and determination to win now makes her the target of powerful new enemies who threaten her career. We find her facing a congressional hearing headed up by Senator Ronald Sperling (John Lithgow) where the needling gets to her and she breaks legal advice to plead the Fifth to respond to a petty point about Indonesia and opens the door to an onslaught of past crimes in the name of getting ahead on Capitol Hill … This wordy worthy drama is hard to take:  Chastain is as we have come to expect – technically adept, capable of delivering very prolix speeches but essentially unsympathetic (not that she cares) in spite of this being about a very current hot button topic – gun control and the powerful lobby that comes out to vote no matter what. Written by Jonathan Perera and directed by John Madden, this is literate, middle of the road social consciousness drama only rendered tolerable by performance and ultimately some finessed construction and screw-tightening towards the conclusion. But like Chastain’s other film this year, Molly’s Game, the stakes aren’t high enough to make us do anything more than yawn at these horrible people.

Marathon Man (1976)

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How am I to fathom your mind if you continue to hide it from me?  Thomas ‘Babe’ Levy (Dustin Hoffman) is a Columbia graduate student and long-distance runner who has just enrolled in a doctoral seminar with Prof. Biesenthal (Fritz Weaver) where his focus will be the fate of his father a fellow historian driven to suicide in the McCarthy era purely on the grounds of his Judaism.  He is oblivious to the fact that his older brother, Doc (Roy Scheider), is not in fact an oil executive but a government agent chasing down a Nazi war criminal Christian Szell (Laurence Olivier) and who is almost murdered by a blue-eyed Asian hitman in a Paris hotel. Doc visits Babe in NYC and meets his girlfriend the allegedly Swiss Elsa Opel (Marthe Keller) whom he figures out immediately as one of Szell’s couriers. Babe doesn’t believe there’s a bad bone in her body.  Doc is murdered and his colleague Janeway (William Devane) tells Babe the muggers who ambushed him in Central Park are Szell’s henchmen but they won’t come for him tonight – but they do, and Babe is held at the end of Szell’s dentist’s drill constantly being asked Is it safe?  He is caught in the middle of a transaction being expedited by The Division who clean up matters arising from disagreements between Washington and the CIA ...  Director John Schlesinger reunited with his Midnight Cowboy star Hoffman to make this iconic paranoid thriller adaptation by William Goldman of his 1974 novel which invokes all sorts of historic nightmares not to mention the fear of unnecessary dental surgery. For a liberal pacifist you have some sense of vengeance Doc tells Babe when he realises he still has the gun their father used to blow his brains out. The last time I saw this was in the middle of another sleepless night during a three-month bout of glandular fever and the words Is it safe? made it impossible for me to recover, for, oh, probably another month at that point. There might be plotholes you could drive a truck through that not even Robert Towne’s putative and uncredited rewrite fixed but even fully conscious and in broad daylight it remains a transfixing piece of work whose echoes are still felt. The schematic structure is emblematic of a film whose many well-constructed sequences take place in famous locations – Columbia, Central Park, the diamond district, where Szell is recognised by two of his victims. Szell! Der Weisse Engel! shrieks a camp survivor as the old Nazi is ironically forced to get a price for his diamonds from the very race he tortured and executed with extreme prejudice thirty years earlier. The entire text is replete with such irony, expressed by Janeway in the line Everything we do cuts both ways after he supposedly rescues Babe only to deliver him back to the Nazi. The dialogue is biting and great:  I believe in my country/So did we all. Michael Small’s score is superb with a real feel for the emotive fraternal and familial issues underlying the narrative action whose logic turns on the notion of history itself and the versions of truth which we tell ourselves and in turn are told to keep us happy.  He did much the same job on The Parallax View, another paranoid conspiracy thriller whose similarly allusive style (and on which Towne also did some controversial rewrite work during a writers’ strike) makes it the best political film of its time. It looks incredible, thanks to Conrad Hall. Oh the Seventies really had great films. Nowadays they’d probably give Szell a sympathetic backstory. Not so much in real life for Keller whose father actually was a Nazi. History is all around us in this persistent, resonant film. Pauline Kael called it a Jewish revenge fantasy. Goy veh.

The Shape of Water (2017)

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I would say take care of your teeth and fuck a lot more. Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) is a mute, isolated woman who works as a cleaning lady in a hidden, high-security top secret government research laboratory in 1962 Baltimore. Her life changes when she discovers the lab’s classified asset – a mysterious, scaled amphibian creature (Doug Jones) from South America that lives in a water tank. As Elisa develops a unique bond with her new friend, she soon learns that its fate and very survival lies in the hands of a hostile and violently sadistic government agent Strickland (Michael Shannon) and a marine biologist Dimitri (Michael Stuhlbarg) who is actually a Russian spy. With the help of her co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer) and her next door neighbour Giles (Richard Jenkins) a gay out of work commercial illustrator, she finds a way to save him and alter her own reality … It all seems so very unlikely – plagiarism suits notwithstanding – Guillermo Del Toro’s homage to his 50s childhood fave, Creature from the Black Lagoon. However this moves like the clappers with just enough time for the very mannered Hawkins to find an appropriate character to suit her mobile features. Tonally it sits somewhere amid the work of Jean-Pierre Jeunet with added masturbation and violence, and the creature – except for one appalling scene which as a cat-lover I can’t even bring myself to recall – is remarkably sympathetic. You might call it a politically correct fairytale about interracial sex (it’s a pretty crass allegory) for the snowflake generation – me, I liked it anywho because it portrays a yearning and an empathy that is very appealing and well played. Co-written with Vanessa Taylor.

Saigon: Year of the Cat (1983) (TVM)

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I’d left it too late. That’s the funny thing – everyone thinks they’re exempt. It’s 1974, and Barbara Dean (Judi Dench) is a British assistant manager and loan officer in a foreign bank in Saigon.  She’s something of a depressive and has to ward off the advances of her co-worker Donald (Roger Rees) while her narration informs us she has been a woman of secrets ever since having an affair with a friend of her father’s at a very young age. She meets an American Bob Chesneau (Frederic Forrest) at the end of a party one night when she’s waiting for a taxi home. She has fended off the interest of Frank (Wallace Shawn), a US Embassy officer with whom she plays bridge. She and Bob begin a relationship and she realises that he’s not a cultural attaché but he works for the CIA and knows that the fall of South Vietnam is very near because sources suggest the North Vietnamese are stepping up plans to take Saigon. Things are heating up at the bank when a member of the public comes in armed with a gun demanding all his money. Barbara delays planning her departure even when she’s helping the locals get passports for their own hasty exits. Bob tries to persuade his boss Jack Ockham (Josef Sommer) and the US Ambassador (E.G. Marshall) to evacuate the South Vietnamese who have been working for them but the Ambassador wants to appease President Thieu’s regime. Bob and Barbara’s relationship suffers under the strain …  Made for Thames TV, this is a real auteur work – an original teleplay by theatrical giant David Hare and directed by Stephen Frears the year before he made The Hit. Dench was likewise a lady of the theatre albeit with some TV in the bag but it was a long time before America discovered her properly in Goldeneye. If the direction feels a little clunky at times, and perhaps it’s due to both the low budget and the schematic constraints of Hare’s writing, there are some good elements. There’s a nice juxtaposition when the Jolly Green Giants swoop into the city and White Christmas is on the soundtrack – as Bob has said, When the radio stations play all Bing Crosby Americans know it’s the end.  This is a rather obvious trope but is used to signify that the US military are really out of their depth. There’s a nicely mounted tension and the intermittent meetings between the US Ambassador and the nervy hard-drinking Ockham, with Shawn’s character providing a kind of Greek chorus, add to the sense of fear. Spooky to think that of the cast it’s Judi Dench who went from strength to strength while the marvellous Forrest has been more or less retired for decades. I haven’t seen him since he played in John Frankenheimer’s last movie 16 years ago, coincidentally another TV movie about Nam, Path to War. Now that is a real injustice. I miss him. George Fenton’s score is nicely understated.

 

The Invasion (2007)

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Civilisation crumbles whenever we need it most. In the right situation, we are all capable of the most terrible crimes. To imagine a world where this was not so, where every crisis did not result in new atrocities, where every newspaper is not full of war and violence. Well, this is to imagine a world where human beings cease to be human.  In Washington, D.C. psychologist Dr. Carol Bennell (Nicole Kidman) and her colleague Dr. Ben Driscoll (Daniel Craig) are the only two people who are aware of an epidemic running rampant through the city. They discover an alien virus aboard a space shuttle that crashed during an unscheduled landing attempt that transforms anyone who comes into contact with it into unfeeling drones while they sleep. The government is calling it a flu virus. Carol realises her son Oliver’s (Jackson Bond) immune system holds the key to stopping the spread of the plague and she races to find him before it is too late but his father, politician ex-husband Tucker Kaufman (Jeremy Northam) has taken him out of state … The late great Jack Finney wrote some indelible sci fi that could be used to anatomise and exemplify social forces – so The Body Snatchers has had meaning for generation after generation, commencing with its first (quite brilliant) movie adaptation Invasion of the Body Snatchers. This is the fourth effort and its muddled birth in some ways tarnished its critical reputation.  Written variously by David Kajganich and the uncredited Wachowski brothers/sisters and directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel with uncredited reshoots by James McTeigue, the original story’s clarity is both lost and highlighted in its city setting:  the quick slide into conformity is more obvious than in the 1956 classic simply because there are so many more people whose transformation is visible on the streets.  The central irony – that a woman controlling her patients’ minds and feelings with pharmaceuticals is now objecting to a world in which by the icky expedient of vomiting on someone’s face or into their coffee (nice) everyone can live in peace minus their individuality or expressivity – is straightforwardly verbalised by Carol’s ex. But the quick running time and the conclusion – collective amnesia, luckily administered Governmentally with yet another vaccine – means the bigger picture of mind control by Big Pharma and Bigger Government (a nasty coinciding of socio-financial interests since, oh, the 1990s?) is sort of lost in a mish-mash of action with awkward acting compounding the stiff plotting. There is one really silly flash forward. Metaphor? Metonymy? How would I know? I am on Day 30 of Aussie flu and can’t get a shot to save my sniffles. But if I said I was depressed they’d be racing to inoculate, n’est-ce pas???…!!! Uneven, but relevant.

 

Viceroy’s House (2017)

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History is written by the victors. The final Viceroy of India, Lord Mountbatten (Hugh Bonneville) arrives with his wife Edwina (Gillian Anderson) and daughter Pamela (Lily Travers) in 1947 British India where he is tasked with overseeing the transition to independence, but meets with conflict as different sides clash in the face of monumental change. In this vast house, new valet Jeet (Manish Dayal) a former prison officer who left due to his political leanings meets beautiful Alia (Human Qureshi) whom he knew beforehand. She tries to ignore him because he is Hindu and she is Muslim and doesn’t wish to disappoint her invalided father Ali (Om Puri). While Mountbatten tries to balance the arguments about what to do regarding the various parties’ demands – hearing out Jinnah (Denzil Smith), Nehru (Tanveer Ghani) and Gandhi (Neeraj Kabi) – and Edwina causes consternation among the staff by insisting on diverse meal preparation, Mountbatten realises that Lord Ismay (Michael Gambon) has been carrying out covert work to use partition to create a buffer state between India and the Soviet Union … This was gutted by some commentators and you can see why:  a project that was years in development, culled from several books of differing provenance with a foot in both camps as it were – a heritage romance that deals sharp lessons in politicking culminating in the greatest human migration in history with a million casualties. There are two books credited as the basis for the screenplay and a few writers: the principal source was Narendra Singh Saril’s The Shadow of the Great Game: The Untold Story of India’s Partition which was based on secret documents discovered in the British Library;  Paul Mayeda Berges, Moira Buffini and director Gurinder Chadha are credited as screenwriters. History does not look kindly on Louis Mountbatten, who was, as this film clarifies, something of a stooge for a plan that had been in the London Government’s works for some time. (Maybe). His intentions were good, his overlords’ were anything but, is the arc here. You divided India for oil. Nonetheless the (heavily beautified) portrait of the Mountbatten marriage (no hint of Edwina’s affair with Nehru) with all the attractions of soft power being exercised within and without the household plus the subplot of the below stairs romance which is the only kind of happy ending possible here, is meticulously made. It’s nicely performed, beautifully photographed by Ben Smithard, integrating some great newsreels (real and faux) and sympathetically scored by A.R. Rahman.  Chadha’s personal relationship with the material is clarified in the end credits. As you can see, there are no straight lines in India. MM #1600.

Our Man in Havana (1959)

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Everything’s legal in Havana. Jim Wormold (Alec Guinness) is an English ex-pat living in pre-revolutionary Havana with his vain teenage daughter Milly (Jo Morrow). He owns a vacuum cleaner shop but isn’t very successful and Milly is annoyed he’s unable to fulfill his promise of a horse and country club membership, so he accepts an offer from Hawthorne (Noel Coward) of the British Secret Service to recruit a network of spies in Cuba. Wormold hasn’t got a clue where to start but when his friend Dr. Hasselbacher (Burl Ives) suggests that the best secrets are known to no one, he decides to manufacture a list of agents from people he only knows by sight and provides fictional tales for the benefit of his paymasters in London. He is soon seen as the best agent in the Western hemisphere and is particularly happy with his new friend, the beautiful spy Beatrice Severn (Maureen O’Hara) but it all unravels when the local police decode his cables and everything he has invented bizarrely begins to come true when they start rounding up his network and he learns that he is the target of a group out to kill him… This film is, rather like North by Northwest, a taste of things to come:  an irreverent picture of the Cold War, the assumptions of the West and of course a picture of Cuba on the verge of a revolutionary breakdown (it was shot immediately after the Batista regime was overthrown). Graham Greene was reluctant to let anyone film his novels following the near-desecration of The Quiet American but this novel (the last he would term an entertainment and based on his WW2 experiences in Portugal) survives pretty unscathed with its comic tone evident throughout the cast (albeit Greene hated Maureen O’Hara). Who doesn’t love Ernie Kovacs? Or Guinness, for that matter, who perfectly inhabits this hapless effortful beast Wormold. I particularly liked his take on a game of checkers. Beautifully photographed by the great Oswald Morris  – but in black and white – in Havana?! Why?!  Directed, not by Hitchcock, who had tried to acquire the rights from Greene, but by Carol Reed. It was their third collaboration following The Fallen Idol and The Third ManOne never tortures except by a kind of mutual agreement.