Movie Reviews - 2015 postsMonday December 14, 2015
Movie Review: Sicario (2015)
We get quiet interludes throughout, otherworldly, overhead shots that make the desert landscape around the U.S.-Mexican border seem like the moon. It seems like another world. Which it is. That’s the point that director Denis Villeneuve (“Incendies”) and cinematographer Roger Deakins (everything) seem to be making. That’s what FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) is finding out. She’s not in Kansas anymore.
Kate is our eyes and ears here. She’s our main character, the most important person to the story—or so we assume in the beginning. But “Sicario” is good at upending tropes. We may, for example, be learning everything along with Kate, and rooting for her, but she’s not the most important person to the story. You could argue she’s not even our main character.
You could argue she’s the least important person to the story.
In the dark
The movie opens in Chandler, Ariz., as an FBI SWAT team, led by Kate and Reggie Wayne (Daniel Kaluuya), crash through the wall of a bleached-out house in their armor-plated HUMVEE, sending sprawling a Mexican dude watching TV. For a second you think, “Wow, that’s excessive.” Then Kate and Reggie are shot at. They discover bodies in the wall, 41 total, heads wrapped in smeared, bloodied plastic. In a shed out back, an IED is tripped and two officers die. It’s a warning from the filmmakers: our notion of “excessive” will keep changing.
In a conference room, we meet Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), the man heading a task force to take down cartel leader Manuel Diaz (Bernardo P. Saracino). Wearing flip flops, Matt sizes up Kate and Reggie and ultimately opts to put Kate on his team. He seems pleased with her background and gumption. Too pleased? There’s something off about his reaction. He seems effusive and dismissive at the same time.
So Kate goes from the smartest in the class to the dumbest, with the teacher showing no interest in helping her catch up. Why is she there? What’s her purpose? Who’s running things anyway? DOD? CIA? The men around her are Delta Force, brawny, bearded combat veterans who share a history, a shorthand, a breezy, ball-busting attitude. The two outsiders are Kate and Alejandro (Benicio del Toro), a quiet Columbian who has nightmares, cold eyes, and a tragic past.
The first op is an incursion into Juarez, Mexico, just across the border from El Paso, to extract Diaz’s brother, Guillermo (Edgar Arreola), from prison. The team has a fleet of black SUVs and cooperation from the Juarez police—as much as it can be trusted. Juarez, we find, is virtually lawless. Mutilated bodies hang from overpasses and sporadic automatic weapons fire is heard in the distance. The difficulty with the extradition, Kate is told, is on the way back, at the border-crossing; and indeed, instead of the clear path they’ve been given throughout, they’re stuck in traffic on the bridge. Everyone’s suddenly alert, wary. A gunfight breaks out, but we never really know if the gangbangers were gunning for Matt’s team or each other. We remain, like Kate, in the dark.
She’s interested in process, in building a case, and objects to Matt’s extralegal methods. Guillermo is tortured by Alejandro, laundered money is seized, a corrupt American cop beaten. “This is the future, Kate,” Matt says to her. At one point, he and Reggie have this exchange:
Reggie (to Kate): You OK?
Matt: She’s alright.
Reggie: I didn’t ask you.
Matt: And yet I answered.
What’s Matt’s goal? To make enough noise on the U.S. side so Diaz will go see his boss on the Mexican side. “Then we’ll know where his boss is,” he says.
But it’s more than He’s playing the long game. He’s doing with the drug trade what we did in Iran in 1953, Guatemala in ’54 and Chile in ’73.
In the beginning, we’re told that “sicario” means hitman in Mexico, so throughout we’re wondering who the title character is. Kate? Or the Mexican cop with the wife and kid and drinking problem that we keep cutting back to? Do their paths cross? Does he take her out or she him?
Neither. It’s after a tunnel between Mexico and the U.S. is found (so much for your giant wall, Mr. Trump), during an op in the dark with night goggles, that all of our tropes are upended.
Kate and Reggie, bringing up the rear, exchange gunfire with a narco, and Kate takes him down. She’s pissed. You finally feel she’s fed up and taking control of a chaotic, lawless situation. On the Mexican side, she finds Alejandro with a gun on our Mexican cop, who’s delivering drugs, and she yells at Alejandro, “Move away from him right now!”
And Alejandro shoots her in the chest.
She’s wearing body armor so she doesn’t die. But as he stands over her, he says, with a modicum of heat, “Don’t ever point a weapon at me again.” Then he moves forward with Silvio to take out the cartel leader, while she returns to the U.S., where the rest of the team is waiting. In her anger, she attacks Matt.
And he decks her.
That’s when we get the rest of the story.
Why is she along? Because any CIA operation on U.S. soil needs FBI cover. What is the mission? To send Alejandro through the tunnel to get the leader of the cartel, who killed his wife and daughter. He’s the sicario. More, he’s part of the Medellin cartel that held power in the early 1990s. The CIA is working with him to restore the Columbians to power, so they can return some sense of order to the border. It’s “providing a measure of order that we can control,” Matt says. It regime change.
And Kate? Our hero? She’s a dupe, a stooge. There’s hardly a moment in the movie where she’s not out of her element. She goes into the bank when she shouldn’t, takes home a local corrupt cop who tries to kill her, and winds up signing an exonerating paper for the CIA at gunpoint. “You look like a little girl when you’re scared,” Alejandro tells her at the end. He urges her to leave the area. “You are not a wolf. And this is the land of wolves now.”
“Sicario” is a stunning movie: visually, dramatically, ethically. How true is it? I’m sure liberties were taken. The larger truth is about how thin our veneer of civilization is, and how brutal things can be—and are, somewhere, right now. Most movies are wish-fulfillment fantasy. We leave the theater thinking we’re stronger, braver, better-looking than we are. Not here. I left thinking I was like Kate, and the world was full of wolves.
Movie Review: Magic Mike XXL (2015)
Did you like that, ladies? Was it good for you? Well, just so you know, my name is Erik, and I'm your movie reviewer today. Ladies, do you mind if I refer to y'all as queens? Because every last one of you out there is a queen, and don't you ever forget it. Now ... are you ready to be disappointed? Are you ready to be bored out of your skull ? Are you ready to meet that special kind of beast that makes you feel trapped and lost and hopeless? That makes you check your cellphone every five minutes for something, god, something ELSE? Then get yourself ready for “Magic Mike! X! X! L!”
Seriously. This movie is a mix of indie films and exploitation flicks but the duller aspects of each. It’s hard bodies performing simulated sex acts (mostly on stage, but also in workshops and convenience stores) interrupted by conversations so boring they seem improvised by actors with no training whatsoever in improv.
And it wasn't just me. I didn’t see the first movie, but Patricia did, and liked it. This one, not so much. She missed Matthew McConaughey. She wanted less talk and more dancing. And by dancing, she means dancing, not dudes giving lap dances.
The first dance we see is actually good. It’s three years later, and Magic Mike (Channing Tatum) runs a small, struggling carpentry business. He’s in his workshop late one night when a song comes on, and he busts a move. Several moves. It’s impressive. His whole body is as slippery as a wet bar of soap. It's like Yuen Biao combined with John Travolta. So he decides to join the old gang—Ken, Tito, Tarzan, and Big Dick Richie—for one last fling: a roadtrip to a stripper convention in Atlanta.
Then the conversations begin. Dear god. You know how in “Star Trek” movies all the minor players have to have their scene? Here's one with Chekov, Sulu, Uhura; here's Trois, Dr. Crusher, Geordi, Worf? Well, the road trip is like that. Everyone has to have their heart-to-heart, their makeup chat, their bromance, with Mike. They quote Oprah, meditate, admit their failings. They come clean. Here's Mike (I think) to Ken (I think):
If there's anybody that was jealous, it was me. Every time I would come
over to your apartment... remember? I'd put on your Tide commercial. That shit was dope.
They also decide to abandon the old stale numbers (fireman, cop) for something new and exciting: Just being themselves: Male entertainers, bro. They’re celebrating this decision when Tobias (Gabriel Iglesias) crashes the van, leaving them without an MC or transportation.
Ah, but Mike has a friend nearby! OK, an ex: Rome (Jada Pinkett Smith), who now runs a swanky, exclusive stripclub for wealthy Georgian ladies, which seems just a G-string away from being a brothel. She’s a little pissed off at the Double-M for ditching her way back when, so she strings him along, makes him dance, makes all the boys dance, and then says no to being their MC anyway. But she loans them her car and driver, Andre (Donald Glover), who’s a rapper and self-important. He carries with him a quiet assuredness that is more annoying for being quiet. Not sure how that works.
Where does he drive them? Some mansion. Why do they go there? I forget. Who’s there? More wealthy, attractive older women, including Nancy (Andie MacDowell), whose daughter—and here’s the thing—just happens to be the hot chick Mike met on the beach a few days earlier: Zoe (Amber Heard). So is it a giant coincidence they wind up at Nancy’s mansion where Zoe also lives? If so, that's one gigantic mother of a coincidence.
Anyway, Elizabeth Banks, with a way-too-thick Georgian accent, shows up as the stripper-convention gatekeeper, but it’s Rome to the 11th-hour rescue. She shows up, gets the boys in, MCs for them (parodied above), and they all do their new, non-fireman routines, most of which are various forms of simulated sex acts. Then, in the afterglow, they watch fireworks. Then mercy.
Movie Review: Trumbo (2015)
“Trumbo” is the fourth Hollywood feature film to tackle the Hollywood blacklist—after “The Front” (great), “Guilty by Suspicion” (meh) and “The Majestic” (blah). It’s also, ironically, the first to use the real names of the blacklisted.
John McNamara’s script is witty, director Jay Roach’s direction is zippy, but do we have too much fun? We're dealing with a dark moment in American history, after all; a kind that, growing up, I thought we’d grown past; a kind that, I’ve found, never goes away. Too many people are too willing to demonize others for power and advantage; too many of us are too frightened to do anything about it.
But I am grateful for the perspective “Trumbo” gives. This is from the first 10 minutes alone:
- Many Americans became communists because of the Great Depression.
- The Soviet Union was our ally during World War II.
- While the U.S.S.R. fought the Nazis, guess who didn’t? John Fucking Wayne.
That said, I would’ve begun later, with the 1957 Academy Awards ceremony, in which Deborah Kerr announces the nominees for Best Motion Picture Story, then the winner: Robert Rich for “The Brave One.” At the actual ceremony, Jesse Lasky, Jr., the vice president of the screenwriters guild, who had also written the screenplay for “The Ten Commandments,” immediately bounded to the stage to accept the award on Rich’s behalf, but in my version of “Trumbo” I would have left Ms. Kerr up there to act flummoxed, to hem and haw, and to suggest the Hollywood machinery grinding to a halt. The Academy, after all, had just given one of its major awards to a man who didn’t exist—or who only existed because of right-wing pressure and various forms of industry cowardice, and I would’ve augmented that fact. Robert Rich? Robert Rich? Robert Rich?
From there, I’d flash back to whatever year you’d begin. Maybe 1943 when Dalton Trumbo (Bryan Cranston) joined the American Communist Party.
The movie actually begins around 1947, when various post-war pressures, augmented by HUAC, the FBI and the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals (MPA), are coming down upon the Hollywood community like an iron curtain.
At the time, Trumbo was one of the most successful screenwriters in Hollywood. Also one of the wealthiest. His friend, Arlen Hird, a more committed communist, and a composite of several blacklisted writers (played in no-nonsense manner by Louis C.K.), comments upon this:
Hird: You talk like a radical but you live like a rich guy. .... I don’t think you’re willing to lose all of this just to do the right thing.
Trumbo: Well, I despise martyrdom, and I won’t fight for a lost cause. So you’re right. I’m not willing to lose it all, certainly not to them. But I am willing to risk it all. That’s where the radical and the rich guy make a perfect combination. The radical may fight with the purity of Jesus, but the rich guy wins with the cunning of Satan.
Cranston practically twirls his moustache with delight with these lines but Hird gets the last word: “Just please shut up.”
That’s really Hird’s role: keeping honest a man who is: 1) too in love with his own voice, and 2) not a committed leftist, in Hird’s view. Those two factors also make Trumbo’s downfall tragic in our eyes. His bombastic voice is stilled for no real reason. His life is upended by pro-capitalist forces via anti-capitalist methods. They don’t let the free market work. More irony.
Actually, it gets worse, and this bears repeating: Under the banner of anti-communism, conservative Republicans attacked American movies, a massively successful capitalist enterprise. Hollywood was a brand that not only dominated the world but spoke almost completely to conservative values: family, democracy, cowboys, justice, happy endings. It was about absolutes (good and evil) over relativism. In its wildest dreams, the MPA could hardly come up with a better program than what Hollywood delivered 99.99% of the time. Yet MPA and others were stuck on that .01%. They couldn’t see the forest for that twig over there. No, not that one. The other one.
So after testifying before Congress as one of the Hollywood 10, Trumbo goes to jail, then can’t get work; then he works undercover, and cheaply, for Frank King (John Goodman), who runs his own B-movie operation, and who doesn’t give a crap for the MPA and HUAC. Goodman portrays him as a bat-wielding iconoclast, but I’m curious: Why couldn’t HUAC simply call him to testify? And do to him what they did to everyone else? I’m also curious why Trumbo didn’t try to write novels again, like “Johnny Got His Gun.” Not lucrative enough? Were screenplays his medium? Were novels too difficult?
The Trumbo/Hird relationship is the best in the movie, but when Hird dies, the chief internal conflict for Trumbo is within the family. It's not particularly satisfying. He’s breaking his back, almost literally, to provide for them under the worst circumstances, but eventually his teenage daughter, Niki (Elle Fanning), revolts because he’s not paying enough attention to her. I think we’re supposed to sympathize with her, but, given the circumstances, she comes off as a spoiled child.
From there, we get: Robert Rich, the battle between Kirk Douglas and Otto Preminger over who will first give Trumbo screen credit, the end of the blacklist.
Moguls and shtetls
It’s a great supporting cast: Michael Stuhlbarg as Edward G. Robinson, Alan Tudyk as Ian McKellan Hunter, Helen Mirren chewing scenery as former starlet and gossip columnist Hedda Hopper. She brings to heel the studio bosses—all East European Jews—by suggesting that the shtetl, and anti-Semitism, isn’t so far in the past, particularly for powerful Jews who have corrupted gentile starlets.
“Trumbo” doesn't quite sing the way it should, but it's a good history lesson for those who need it. These days, sadly, many people seem to.
Movie Review: It Follows (2015)
It’s a metaphor for STDs, as well as time and death. It’s a warning against sex and a warning to have sex. It’s also a horror version of the relentlessness of the Terminator—as if the Terminator weren’t horror enough.
“It”is the it of “It Follows,” which turns out to be a great title. Because we don’t know enough about “It” to call it anything more than “It”—that most open-ended of pronouns. About all we know is what the title tells us: It follows. And It kills.
I’m not a horror fan but I like some high-end horror: “The Babadook,” “The Others,” “El Orfanato,” “The Conjuring,” “The Changeling.” This fits with those. It’s quiet, moody, beautifully photographed, nightmarish. It lets the horror come to us.
Smell ya later
Writer-director David Robert Mitchell (“The Myth of the American Sleepover”) shows us the consequences in a kind of cold open. A barefoot teenage girl runs screaming from her house as if pursued, is persuaded back inside the house, then bolts. She peels out in her car. The next morning we see her by the beach, dead. The bottom half of one leg is twisted toward her head; the bottom half of the other leg is missing. Consequences.
At which point we begin to follow Jay (Maika Monroe), a pretty blonde teenager in various stages of legginess (shorts, swimsuit, underwear), hanging with friends and family in a suburb of Detroit. It’s mostly friends. Are adults around? I don’t remember them much. Jay’s coterie, including sister Kelly (Lili Sepe), smart girl Yara (Olivia Luccardi, the Velma of the group), and nerdy boy Paul (Keir Gilchrist, mooning after Jay), watch bad 1950s horror/monster movies on TV while she goes on a date with a new guy, Hugh (Jake Weary). They seem stuck and purposeless. It kind of reminds me of summers after fifth or sixth grade, when all the kids in the neighborhood would watch “Andy Griffith” reruns, stupid game shows, and play cards like “War.” Before sex kicked in.
Here, sex kicks in. Jay and Hugh have the classic teenage kind—in the backseat of a big American car—before he administers the classic postcoital chloroform. When Jay wakes, she’s tied to a chair in the sketchy area under a bridge, and Hugh is trying to explain all about “It.”
Because Hugh was infected, and she had sex with him, she’s now infected; and It, who was pursuing him, is now pursuing her. It walks, It doesn’t run, and only the infected can see It. It also changes form. It can be anything: man, woman, white, black, young, old. You won’t know it’s It until It gets you. And the only way to get rid of It is to pay it forward: have sex with someone else. But if It catches and kills that someone else, then It’ll come back for you.
Those are the rules. Smell ya later.
It seems awful, what Hugh does to Jay, but it turns out to be a masterstroke of strategy compared with what Jay and her friends wind up doing. Hugh is Eisenhower at D-Day in comparison.
The friends initially don’t know whether to believe Jay or not—since they can’t see It—but at a beach they flee to, It grabs Jay by the hair, and they fight it off and flee again. They keep fleeing and returning. They keep going out to come back. Kind of the cycle the girl in the beginning took—serpentine. The older neighbor boy with the hot rod, Greg (Daniel Zovatto), joins them, and ends up having sex with Jay, but doesn’t seem to realize the gravity of the situation. He’s young, and stupid with youth, and you look at him and go, “Yeah, he’s dead.” Which he is. Which means It’s going after Jay again.
Why do they set up the final confrontation in the swimming pool? When did they figure out It doesn’t swim? And why did they think they could electrocute It? It’s really one of the worst strategies ever. Sit Jay in the middle of a pool, surrounded by appliances, and wait for It to show up. When It does, It’s the first to use the appliances—throwing them at Jay helpless in the pool. After Paul shoots, It falls in the pool, but grabs a fleeing Jay. She escapes with bruises around her ankle after Paul keeps shooting It. Is It dead? She crawls forward to peer into the pool. You half-expect It to leap out again, per every horror film ever, but Mitchell is made of better stuff. Instead, he shows us the pool filling with blood.
Except the nightmare doesn’t go away. Jay finally has sex with Paul, then Paul visits some prostitutes, and that’s how they pay it forward; that’s how they get rid of It—if It still lives. But it’s a bad strategy. Sure, the prostitute will have sex with John, and John with his wife (maybe), and she with ... ? Who? Won’t It get her, then him, then the prostitute, and Paul and Jay will be running again?
That’s the fear. So the movie ends with Paul and Jay walking in the neighborhood, holding hands less from love than fear, while someone walks behind them. Is it It? Who knows?
Great ending. It doesn’t let us know. It doesn’t let us out.
I have so many questions:
- What about condoms? Is it the sex act itself that leaves its calling card or something else?
- Is there any way to put a tracking device on It?
- Who discovered all this intel in the first place?
- If It can only walk, and not use transportation, then why not lure It to L.A. and go live in New York? Walking that, according to Google, would take 909 hours, or 37.8 days, assuming an entity that never gets tired. That’s some breathing room. After 30 days, say, then fly back to L.A. And so on. Or would It wise up eventually and be waiting for you in one or the other places?
- What if you moved to Europe? Or Taiwan? It’s an island nation. Can It even get there?
- What if one link in the chain is already dead? Would It skip it or come to a halt?
I have so many questions, David Robert Mitchell. I’m glad you answered none of them.
Movie Review: Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films (2015)
The story of Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, the Israeli Go-Go Boys of Cannon Films, who were responsible for some of the worst movies of the 1980s (“Invasion U.S.A.,” “Bolero,” “Hercules,” “Going Bananas”), turns out to be much more interesting than any of the stories they produced. Low bar, yes.
A key, early line in Mark Hartley’s zippy documentary comes from Mark Rosenthal, the screenwriter for “Superman IV: The Quest for Peace,” the final, awful nail in that revered superhero franchise:
I hold them in huge affection even though they ruined our movie.
That’s the dichotomy of the documentary. Golan and Globus made shitty movies but were fun guys. People who worked with them liked them. They certainly imitated them. All of the talking heads here trot out their hellbent, gesticulating Israeli Jew.
But then the movies. Holy crap, the movies.
Boobs watching boobs
It was partly a result of economics. Cannon pre-sold the international distribution rights to movies based upon the poster; then they’d make the movie with that money. It was a kind of Ponzi scheme. It was a juggling act. They had 10 to 15 balls in the air at the same time. If they were low-budget balls, they could continue to juggle pretty easily. Once they became big-budget balls (signing Sylvester Stallone to a two-picture $25 million deal), things began to drop.
But their shitty movies were also a matter of taste—in that they didn’t have any. They sincerely thought, for example, that Brooke Shields would win an Oscar for “Sahara.” At which point Hartley cuts to Shields delivering one of the worst line readings ever: “I wish we could stay here forever. But we risked our lives taking this short cut.” Cannon wound up killing her career, such as it was.
Sure, they dabbled in A-list talent. They produced John Cassavetes’ “Love Streams,” Andrei Konchalovsky’s “Maria’s Lovers” and “Runaway Train,” Franco Zeffirelli’s “Otello” with Placido Domingo.
But mostly Cannon Films went all in with lowest-common denominator crap: strong men and naked women. Think of it as boobs watching boobs. Worse, some of the most gratuitous, graphic rape scenes in the history of cinema belong to them, since they kept hiring director Michael Winner (“Death Wish II” and “3,” “The Wicked Lady”), who is described by both Marina Siritis and Alex Winter as a virtual sadist on the set. “They put a stamp on pop culture,” says “American Ninja” star Michael Dudikoff of Golan and Globus. Yes, sadly.
Does Hartley have a little too much fun with all of this? The documentary is boom boom boom. We barely hold on anything or anyone for more than 10 seconds. It’s a documentary cut the way that Cannon made movies: without looking back.
Meanwhile the doc glosses over the following:
- Cannon’s place in the history of exploitation cinema (they didn’t operate in a vaccum)
- Cannon’s negative impact on the culture
- Box office
Box office is mentioned only in general terms—whether a movie was a hit or a flop. It would have been interesting to know, for example, that “Breakin’,” the 1984 quickie on the urban dance craze, starring Adolfo “Shabba-Doo” Quinones, Michael “Boogaloo Shrimp” Chambers and Lucinda Dickey—the “Solid Gold” dancer that Golan was determinded to make a big, big star—grossed $38 million in 1984. That made it the 18th biggest hit of the year, ahead of “The Terminator,” “All of Me,” and “The Killing Fields.” But then they made the quickier sequel, whose absurd subtitle became the title of this doc, and released it (absurdly) the week before Christmas 1984. And that was that.
They lacked even a modicum of patience. One of the more telling lines is from Stephen Tokin, who wrote the screenplay for the 1990 straight-to-video “Captain America” for Golan after the two Israeli cousins went separate ways. He says:
The problem is they loved cinema in the abstract. I don’t think, in my experience, that they really knew what it was like to love something so much that you were patient, and took the time, and went through the pain of seeing it through draft after draft after draft—admitting to yourself that it might not be right yet.
“He’s no ninja!”
“Electric Boogaloo” gives us great tales from the trenches of low-budget filmmaking. On location in the Philippines, for example, they lost their lead for the first “American Ninja” movie, but happened to find spaghetti western star Franco Nero in a nearby Manilla restaurant and hired him. Despite the fact that he: 1) didn’t know martial arts, 2) wasn’t American, and 3) couldn’t even do a passable American accent. So he was dubbed. I also like how they had two Chuck Norris “Missing in Action” movies in the can—one good, one bad. The good one was the second one, chronologically, so they released it first, so it wouldn’t damage the brand. Then they released the other as a prequel: “Missing in Action 2: The Beginning.”
This is what they did; they wheeled and dealed.
But bottom line? They made shitty movies, ruined careers, ripped off moviegoers. They added so much awfulness to a world that doesn’t need any more of it. I would've liked a mea culpa here amid the laughter.