Sicario

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The macabre opening to Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario (2015) establishes a grim, unsettling mood that will overwhelm the life of the young FBI agent leading the investigation. Still recoiling from the grisly find and images burned into her consciousness, Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) is specifically targeted for a new assignment under the care of task force leader Matt (Josh Brolin). Head still spinning she’s recruited to assist in the agency’s bloody, never ending battle with the Mexican drug cartels. Hovering close by at all times is Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), his mostly silent, disconcerting presence barely acknowledged, and his status never qualified.

The world Kate becomes immersed in is confusing and disorienting. We see everything through her eyes and so must surrender to her distorted perspective through which motives are unspecified. She probes tentatively, intimidated by her junior status, but we share her sense of the truth being camouflaged behind the blurred lines of an indefinable moral code or method of operation. All her new cohorts are strangers – and male too, only exacerbating the alienation of her inclusion amongst their ranks.

Will the true nature Kate’s role resolve itself in tandem with clues to the bigger picture? Or is she merely a pawn in some strange, systematic manipulation from on high? For a long time Villenueve and his screenwriter Taylor Sheridan keep the horizon darkened with a range of potential outcomes. The set pieces are genuinely tense and superbly handled. In between, stillness is as vital a part of their storytelling means as chaotic motion. The suspense is stretched taut, creating a void of expectation, an immobility pregnant with possibilities.

The wavering figure in the margins, Alejandro, is an intimidating, mysterious figure whose past and present are being reconfigured in some vaguely illegitimate way it seems to Kate. Given half a chance to glower and speak without ever using words, Del Toro naturally exudes an impenetrability that can be as frustrating as it is magnetic. Blunt continues to bloom as an actress regardless of genre. This is a physically demanding role but full of grit and she makes Kate believable on every level. Brolin is strong too; Matt’s ambiguity makes him another fascinating figure, either a bastard conniving success to sweeten his own slice of the pie or a hard taskmaster protecting his taskforce’s most unlikely valuable asset. Another real asset is the animalistic menace of Johann Johannsson’s score which is used to brilliant effect in the set-pieces especially.

This is another superb addition to Villenueve’s impressive body of work. The French-Canadian director won international acclaim for his harrowing drama Incendies back in 2010. More recently he’s worked at an unflagging pace, delivering the gripping Prisoners (2013) and the equally compelling, creepily intimate Enemy (2013) in quick succession. With Sicario, his reputation as a meticulous craftsman is only enhanced. Though this is more about the truths between the lines and the machinations of a morally recast world of crime detection than deep characterisation, there’s genuine mastery in his handling of all the elements.

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Everest

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Only the most minimal amount of acting is required to sustain this latest encounter with Everest. Though purportedly centred on the epic human endeavour of conquering the world’s most fearsome icy mountain peak, this is a film that’s almost entirely about the spectacle, the awe-inspiring scenic vistas and, most significant of all, the series of disaster scenarios that hope to create tension and drama. Recounting the trek of a group of tourists being led up the mountain in 1996 by trailblazing New Zealand businessman Rob Hall (Jason Clarke), Everest (2015) offers scant character sketches by way of introduction to the men who’ll partake in this adventure of a lifetime.

Other than Hall, these include Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin), a Texan – damned if that isn’t the only fact I can immediately recall about him; Doug Hansen (John Hawkes), whose health is an issue and who will clearly be pushing himself to the limit one last time, God help him, for Everest glory. Sam Worthington and Martin Henderson appear and disappear like ghosts, while Jake Gyllenhaal’s Scott Fischer is a young upstart, the laid-back leader of another tourist venture who Hall would like to join forces with.

Then there are the haplessly marginalised female characters, the tortured wives doomed to suffering ‘back home’ and given the skimpiest of material to work with. Keira Knightley, dodgy New Zealand accent and all, is Hall’s pregnant partner, whilst Robin Wright is handed the equally onerous task of breathing life into a faded sketch as Beck’s wife Peach back in the States. Closer to the action, at base camp, is Emily Watson’s hen mother Helen Wilton, providing the line of communication between the front line and the anxiously awaiting womenfolk.

Other shortcomings in William Nicholson and Simon Beaufoy’s painfully hollow screenplay draw attention to their virtual non-presence. Even more skimpily depicted than the females are the all-important Sherpas whose back-breaking, integral participation is reduced to a couple of perfunctory scenes, references and mediocre jokes to show that they’re nothing if not a slap-happy bunch whose amiability seemingly negates any tiresome need to reveal any human depths they might possess. Soon to be seen on our cinema screens is Jennifer Peedom’s glorious Sherpa (2015), a film that, beyond its visual grandeur, dignifies and illuminates the extraordinary breadth of the Sherpas grit and courage in the face of elemental forces and economic calamity.

Baltasar Kormakur’s film is a far less interesting cinematic proposition; in fact it’s possibly the most deadly dull ‘epic adventure’ in recent studio history. With its wind-strewn, comprehension-disabled dialogue, stumbling men rendered anonymous under layers of face-contorting clothing, cringeworthy collection of fake Kiwi accents, and depressingly perfunctory dialogue, Everest stumbles into each murky crevice of cliché armed with well credentialed actors who surely signed on the dotted line for the promise of a getaway and a well paid fitness regime. Tension and drama are absent from every threat posed by the falling, collapsing, clamouring icy chunks and boulders. Even worse, a woeful sense of familiarity has its own sweet way with the entire production, making the ascent to and descent down Everest’s peak as torturous for the audience as it is for the players.

Is there anything more depressing than seeing genuinely fine actors, best known for a series of genuinely interesting creative choices partaking of something so awful, so blatantly commercial and allowing themselves to be made into a cardboard cut-out of a human being, an imposter whose part is either marginal at best or whittled away to noting in the editing room? Is this really the same John Hawkes who has forged and truly earned his reputation as one of American independent cinemas finest actors in recent times thanks to his unforgettable roles in Winter’s Bone (2010), Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011) and The Sessions (2012)? Fair to say Everest won’t be a film he’ll use to highlight his talents to his succeeding generations or even prospective employers from this day onwards.

Inherent Vice

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With his latest, director Paul Thomas Anderson, one of the most unique and lauded voices in modern American cinema, has really gone out on a limb. It’s some undertaking to tackle the sprawling, rarely coherent Thomas Pynchon whose work has never been previously converted to the big screen for good reason. ‘Untranslatable’ is the most often cited reason for the absence, but Anderson, ever seeking to expand his range as an artist, has taken a shot at delving into Pynchon’s supposedly most accessible world, that of early 1970’s LA in his more recent novel Inherent Vice.

That the director sought to continue this next leg of his filmic odyssey with Joaquin Phoenix – so stunning in The Master (2012) – is no bad thing at all. Phoenix took Freddie Quell, an inherently, compellingly flawed character in that film and turned him into a monstrous, frail being full of raging complexities. Here, tapping into the retro slacker spirit of the apathetically doom-laden, he effortlessly embodies Larry ‘Doc’ Sportello, a laid back hippie private eye whose ex-girlfriend Shasta (Katherine Waterston) lands on his doorstep one night to ask a favour. Soon Doc is chasing his tail through a labyrinth of possible corruption of all sorts as people go walkabout and bodies turn up. Doc’s nemesis, as he navigates the city’s sleazy, tripped-out late night underbelly, is a lumbering detective, Christian ‘Bigfoot’ Bjornsen (played with utter relish by Josh Brolin, in possibly his finest hour to date).

Brimming with cartoonish, eccentric characters and a shape-shifting mystery plot to which Anderson is sometimes a little too betrothed, the film proves to be a sprawling, colourful jaunt via a time machine to an era preoccupied with chemically enhanced consciousness and far less with logic and coherence. The mechanics of the ever-percolating plot work both for and against the film’s overall impact. It often feels like becoming a random, incoherent trawl through L.A. with a plethora of diversions to keep Doc guessing at the fleeting, mysterious impunities of life. And yet as a representative glimpse into the jumbled mind of its main character and his associates, it works wonderfully well.

Sometimes, however, you just wish Anderson had let himself completely off the leash and thrown Pynchon’s source –as quote-worthy as some of his best dialogue is – into a waste bin. So many outstanding moments – many in which Doc and Bigfoot are brought together – hint at the further hilarity that might have been explored. A phone call scene in which Bigfoot’s berating wife runs rough-shod over her physically imposing husband is just one classic case-in-point. Somehow, despite being somewhat stymied by Pychon’s overactive narrative doodling, Anderson is able to burrow beneath the smokescreens to uncover the unlikely heart and soul of the story, often employing his deceptively long takes to give his actors manoeuvring room.

Perhaps the pacing will be too leisurely for some and the ride over-crammed with inconsequential ramblings, but there’s an offbeat love story to be treasured here and another of Anderson’s flawlessly assembled casts to breathe life into it all. Many well-known faces, like Benecio Del Toro and Reece Witherspoon, vanish as quickly as they appear. Phoenix and Brolin are the standouts, though the intermittent presence and voiceover of Joanna Newson as Doc’s subtly incisive muse and spirit guide deserves special mention. Inherent Vice (2014) may not come close to Anderson’s finest work – in fact it may be close to his most minor effort to date – yet most directors would kill to produce something of this quality in their careers.