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Sicario: Day of the Soldado ★★★

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Reviewer: Philip Price

Director: Stefano Sollima

Stars: Benicio Del Toro, Bruno Bichir, Catherine Keener, David Castañeda, Elijah Rodriiguez,Isabela Moner, Jacqueline Torres, Jeffrey Donovan, Josh Brolin, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Matthew Modine, Shea Whigham

Released: June 29th, 2018

Denis Villeneuve Stefano Sollima is not, but that doesn’t mean the Italian-born director can’t make an entertaining if not necessarily worthy follow-up to Villeneuve’s 2015 thriller. To be fair, my memories may serve a bias against any Sicario sequel not directed by Villeneuve or one that doesn’t include Emily Blunt’s Kate Macer as it was the first film I saw at my first ever Toronto International Film Festival. That said, I haven’t re-visited that now first film since it was released on Blu-ray and so, while I remember being overcome by the tension of the piece and the fact its ideas were more prominent than its story it would seem my actual memory of the film as opposed to my fondness for the experience surrounding the film is something that shouldn’t allow me to hold that film in as high regard as I did going into this sequel. Day of the Soldado or what should have simply been titled “Soldado” is what might be referred to as a “fine enough” follow-up in that it does the best it can with the tools it was handed in order to create such a follow-up. Where Sicario was an examination of the complexities of these people who were trapped in a world convoluted beyond their ability to be able to rectify it as everything around them only continued to spin in vicious circles this sequel struggles to find anything to add to this statement. With Soldado, Taylor Sheridan (Hell or High Water, Wind River) returned to pen the screenplay, but it seems he didn’t have much more to say as Soldado more or less addresses the same themes and ideas as its predecessor while exploring them through the (much different) perspective of Benicio Del Toro’s Alejandro who was an intentionally vague supporting character the first time around. Granted, Del Toro’s performance as Alejandro was one of the most distinctive and memorable factors of that first film to the point the attention is not only warranted, but desired to a certain extent. And though Sheridan’s script along with Sollima’s direction and Dariusz Wolski’s cinematography (though it’s hard to beat Roger Deakins) all contribute to delivering an entertaining and tension-filled actioner the main issue is the shifting of perspectives as doing so makes these men who were once shrouded in mystery and their moral compasses all the more unclear less so and therefore nowhere near as interesting. It might also be that given the real-world environment Soldado has been released into that a movie with such content should be required to not be as careless with the complicated Mexico/U.S. relationship, but Soldado is ultimately too generic to leave any lasting scars.

Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) enlists his right hand man, Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro) for a new, off the books operation.

In a nice little twist, Soldado doesn’t necessarily have to be a sequel as the events depicted in the film could have taken place either before or after the original film. In fact, the big issue with there being no moral compass in this one to counter the Del Toro and Josh Brolin characters as Blunt’s Macer did in the first might allow Soldado to feel a tad bit more justified. In Sicario both Brolin’s Matt Graver and Del Toro’s Alejandro felt more ruthless, more unflinching, and meaner even and that is saying something as both exhibit some pretty strong indicators of those traits here as well. Though both of them have seemingly been through the ringer time and time again there are moments in the mission executed in Soldado that allow for these characters to show vulnerabilities they never would have allowed to seep into their facade in Sicario. Is it these events that harden them for good and turn them into these unscrupulous characters not fazed by a lack of compassion or lack of value for human life as we saw them in Sicario or is it the opposite and did coming into contact with someone as starry-eyed as Macer illustrate how it might be healthy to allow a slight amount of compassion into their lives. In all honesty, this might make just as much sense given Alejandro had no issues dispensing with people no matter their age in Sicario while the crux of Soldado deals in the fact he can’t wipe clean a slate that includes the sixteen year-old daughter of a cartel leader that is responsible for the deaths of his wife and child. Moreover, Brolin is unable to immediately own up to the commands of his superior officer (an exhausted Catherine Keener) that require him to not only wipe the sixteen year-old clean, but his right hand man in Alejandro as well. Yes, this is somewhat different in the case of Graver as the man has clearly invested a lot of time and energy in training and developing the machine that Alejandro has become, but while it’s hard to tell if Grazer is having trouble following orders due to compassion or if it is more out of frustration at the thought of having to find and train a new operative it doesn’t matter-the fact is, the air of dark majesty and mystery that surrounded these characters has largely dissipated as the two have been placed within the confines of a procedural that humanizes these heroes/anti-heroes in a way it seems they were never intended to be. The spirit of Alejandro and Graver are mostly kept intact thanks to the solid performances and genuine badass chemistry between Del Toro and Brolin, but what remains in name and face is lost in the soul that possessed the first film. It was a bleak soul, no doubt, but one that expertly illustrated the central theme and conflict of clashing ideologies whereas what Soldado is attempting to convey is questionable down to the final scene where it’s made clear the characters are no longer present to be examined or to illustrate a point, but rather to spin a franchise.

There is a line given by a team member as Graver and Alejandro escort young Isabel Reyes (Isabel Moner) back across the border that goes something along the lines of, “Beautiful day! Blue skies and large caliber weapons,” and it is in both the sentiment and reading of this dialogue that we find the attitude of these characters and largely, of the movie itself. There is a revelry to the way in which these guys bask in their ability to so quickly and effortlessly dispense of human life that feels icky even if there is no actual malice intended (there is true conviction in being able to trust they are ridding the world of some bad dudes) and the line is more about boasting a sense of security in what feels like the coolest, most acceptable way possible rather than celebrating the ability to kill. This is all symbolic of Soldado as a whole though given it didn’t need to be said at all, but even as the sentiment is proposed in the best way it can it still feels ugly and loathsome. In essence, the attitude it perpetuates and the point of view on which it actually operates are drastically different. Sheridan largely writes from the perspective of male characters who desire to take no shit and can handle themselves without question no matter the circumstances. If you’re a Taylor Sheridan character and especially a main one you can essentially count on being one of the smartest people in the room at any given time. This is what has been appealing about so many of Sheridan’s character’s in the past despite their bigger pictures-the brothers of Hell or High Water come to mind as does Jeremy Renner’s character in Wind River-but while Alejandro and Graver certainly live up to these set expectations there is something off about how far Sheridan takes it this time. This time, and there were telling aspects of Wind River as well, it feels as if the culture the white man is observing should be the ones telling the story. And sure, Del Toro’s Alejandro is a Hispanic character and essentially the lead of the film, but this should be the rule and not the exception in a film where Mexico is a main component. What about Moner’s Isabel you ask? This might be a valid point were Moner actually given anything to do, but while the young actress provides a compelling performance that shifts from a cocky and confident spoiled brat to one of someone who loses control of and is in constant fear for their life there isn’t much else left on the page other than to play the victim. It’s also problematic from a story standpoint that in order to try and “start a war” between two Mexican drug cartels that the U.S. is willing to forever traumatize an otherwise innocent sixteen year-old girl in the process. Maybe this is only a symptom of telling a story that deals in people doing ugly things for what is intended to be the greater good. It’s an interesting extension of what the first film was dealing in when exploring the clashing of new and the jaded ideals, but Soldado keeps things too much on one side of the line.

Alejandro is tasked with tracking down Isabel Reyes (Isabel Moner) and delivering her back across the border into the United States in Sicario: Day of the Soldado.

All of that taken into consideration, Soldado is still an entertaining and largely tense experience that keeps enough in line visually and tonally with its superior predecessor to leave one feeling satisfied when leaving the theater. Speaking to how this sequel compares to the original though, there is a sequence in which Graver, Alejandro, and their team-including Jeffrey Donovan-escort the young Reyes back across the border into Mexico that is as tense if not as well executed as any of the sequences in Villeneuve’s film. There is also a subplot with a teenage boy named Miguel (Elijah Rodriguez) who is shown very early on as coming from what appears to be a good, honest home if not necessarily a middle-class one. Miguel desires for more and quickly becomes entangled in some bad business as an older cousin, Hector (David Castañeda), baits him with the promise of making more money in a single day than his father makes in a year. It seems Miguel and his family live just inside the U.S. and therefore Miguel, who has a U.S. Passport is just the type of person Gallo (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo) is looking for in his business of transporting immigrants across the border. Sheridan expertly intertwines this storyline with that of the main narrative as both tend to support one another in terms of the audience understanding the dynamics of the world we’re existing within while only crossing over in key moments so as to provide a certain amount of tension in the final act when they inevitably collide. It is in this final resolution though, that we find some of the biggest qualms with Soldado as it doesn’t fully commit in its actions as it feels it should. If it wanted to keep in line with the rest of the movie it seems Soldado would have committed to a few choices that truly illustrate the gritty nature and grisly events it so excitedly documents, but instead of doing so Sheridan takes advantage of the fact these characters are in a movie and takes things one step too far to the point we, the viewers, now understand these guys we’re watching are in a movie as well when before and with the first film there was such a sting of authenticity to everything that it all stung a little harder than expected. I’m not necessarily complaining as I’ll be damned if I don’t want to see where things go from here, but here’s to hoping that when Sheridan and Del Toro…and maybe even Brolin return for the third film in this unexpected franchise that Sheridan deals better in the content he’s crafting by further exploring why the hope is ultimately that the need to live a dignified life outweighs humanity’s need and greed for money and power. Here’s to hoping the third Sicario picture also comes out at a time when, especially given the overall generic quality of the film, that the film isn’t lost to current events. Still, if you’re looking for little more than a shoot ’em up action picture that is well-acted, photographed, and scored one could do much worse than Soldado it’s simply hard to look at the movie as little more than that given the changes in our political climate from when this was produced to the time it has now been released.

I love movies, simple as that. I watch them with an intent to write about them and have always enjoyed discussing the latest news and releases with others. I received a Bachelor of Arts in Writing and Mass Communications/Digital Filmmaking and combined those interests when I began writing about cinema. Hope you enjoy the reviews, Happy reading!

Movie Reviews

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald

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Released: 16th October 2018

Directed By: David Yates

Starring: Jude Law, Johnny Depp. Also Eddie Redmayne.

Reviewed By: Van Connor

The magic’s well and truly faded with this second instalment of the erstwhile Harry Potter prequel series, as The Crimes of Grindelwald shifts the action to Paris, but its own sensibilities entirely too far into the franchise world-building spectrum that could threaten to unravel it. It never does quite unfurl from the exhaustion of it, that would, after all, suggest there were anything of note at its core. There isn’t. The Crimes of Grindelwald is precisely the patronising box-office-centric cash-grab any decent cynic’s always accused the Harry Potter series of being under the surface; all that’s changed is that, this time, they really can’t be bothered to attempt to mask it beneath any kind of fun.

One of those sequels you can rather obviously tell was never meant to exist, this very-much-a-part-two kicks off unceremoniously (it has no other setting, as you’ll discover over the course of a mind-numbing two and a quarter hours) by setting about undoing literally every closing plot mechanic of what’s come before. Did a character end up in Point A last time? Well, this time they’re going to be reintroduced via what’s either an interesting and poorly lit set-piece or clunky exposition in order to set themselves up at Point B instead, regardless of whether or not it makes sense for them to do so. Only then may the plot of The Crimes of Grindelwald begin. And plot it has. Lots of plot. Tons and tons of plot. In fact, it has very little else but plot. So, it’s somewhat mystifying that David Yates’ sixth venture into what’s evidently now branded as the Wizarding World should ultimately amount to so little.

From what little you’re able to glean of the plot, proceedings involve the immediate escape of evil wizard Gerrett Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) from the prison to where he was sent last time. On the loose once more, Grindelwald sets about exacting his master plan to ensure magical dominance over the human race, a plan that involves the formation of a dark wizarding army and the utilisation of one Credence Barebones (Ezra Miller), with the latter’s death evidently no obstacle for the likes of his contract’s sequel options. The only wizard capable of stopping Grindelwald, we’re told, is that rebellious master wizard Albus Dumbledore (now played in a younger form by Jude Law), but Dumbledore can’t, you see, because… reasons, and despatches a reluctant Newt Scamander to do so in his stead. Because, again, reasons.

Now, you can be forgiven for taking that plot in and wondering just how in the hell Eddie Redmayne’s Newt need in any way be present for any of this, and, frankly, you’d be right to do so. Certainly, Eddie Redmayne appears to be wondering the same – his contingent of the cast (essentially the main four from the last movie) each make what can charitably be described as diminishing returns, offering more outright effort in their performances to a film that really can’t be bothered to do much with them. They’re not important, you see, Dumbledore is. Grindelwald is. And creator/screenwriter/living cash hoover J.K. Rowling genuinely cannot be bothered to pretend otherwise. That movie snotty naysayers claim they always somehow see whenever there’s a new superhero movie out? The one that’s nothing but nonsense, world-building and a half-hourly set-piece? That movie actually does exist. And its title is The Crimes of Grindelwald.

Losing the magic of even its own musical arrangement, The Crimes of Grindelwald is an outright disaster not just of a seasonal tentpole release, but of a franchise picture full stop. Its script works exhaustingly to tie itself in knots to go essentially nowhere, its culmination consisting of literally nothing more than two pieces of unceremonious lore being shouted about in canon, each essentially lionised by Rowling so that at least one of them can no longer be called out as the laziest, most cynical, and ethically bankrupt product of the entire franchise. She fails in this endeavour, as, indeed, does Yates in delivering a dreary and uninvolving film to which his cast aspire to inject life, only to reanimate the narratively dead instead.

Legions of Potterites will doubtless flock to the nearest multiplex the moment the doors open, and, to be fair, that is absolutely the power the brand has and ours is not to question. If the priority of this series, though, genuinely is the continued pumping of revenue into the Rowling estate landscaping fund, would it really be too much to ask to even attempt to make it a good time? Can we not at least get some enjoyment out of this? A big ask, I know. But it’d behove Rowling, Yates, and everybody involved in this shill of a series to at least consider we might want some excitement next time around. Maybe when the second act stops dead for ten minutes to give us a canon origin story for the damned sorting hat.

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Featured Review

Hell Fest ★★★

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Released: 16th October 2018

Directed By: Gregory Plotkin

Starring: Amy Forsyth, Bex Taylor-Klaus, Reign Edwards

Reviewed By: Van Connor

In the pantheon of cinema, the slasher movie sits alongside only really Die Hard and the western as being unfathomably easy to retrofit for any occasion with “…but with this unique location instead!” Hell Fest is a textbook case of this. It has no ambition beyond merely being a slasher movie set within a specific gimmick-driven environment, no desire to offer up anything more than stock Hollywood teens being violently murdered one at a time, and is under no illusion about whether or not you’ve ever seen this movie before or even care. What it is concerned with, though, is fun. And it has that in spades.

It’s literally nothing more than “the slasher movie at an adult horror theme park”. A concept, it turns out, that you can make a fair amount of mischief with, as our group of six abhorrently gorgeous twenty-eight year-old teenagers find themselves fixated upon by a sinister figure in a wooden mask and brandishing a kitchen knife. This being the eponymous theme park, naturally there are a multitude of places for our teens to hide, but, as is par for the course in Hell Fest, where you hide could just as easily be the very means by which our masked murderer will gut you. Fun!

Though none of the cast leap out as being particularly noteworthy (Arrow’s Bex Taylor-Klaus and MacGyver’s Reign Edwards are arguably the biggest geek pulls here), each serviceably handles their limited place within the story. Amy Forsyth’s a perfectly fine Final Girl, not memorable, but likeable enough, and the rest of the cast conduct themselves to more or less the same standard. Blumhouse alum Gregory Plotkin shifts to the big chair for this one, proving he’s got pretty lively chops for a good ol’ down n’ dirty slasher flick, and Seth Sherwood and Blair Butler’s script knows just how to play with the mechanics of the formula that everyone involved can unashamedly enjoy themselves without the overwhelming need to reinvent the genre wheel.

By virtue of being set within a merchandised horror world, Hell Fest has great fun in exploiting that set up for some wonderfully cheap scares, making for an enjoyable and OTT bloody night at the pictures that will never challenge, but certainly entertain. There’s no mythology to this, no franchise being built before us, and there’s even a genre icon making an almost obligatory appearance to sanctify it all. Sure, you won’t lose your head with Hell Fest, but you will whoop and cheer. It’s just a shame it had to arrive three weeks after Halloween.

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Movie Reviews

LFF 2018 Review – Colette

Colette can feel a tad velvety at times but is lifted by Keira Knightley’s sensual performance and liberating battle that painfully resonates today.

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Director: Wash Westmoreland

Stars: Keira Knightley, Dominic West

Released: London Film Festival 2018

Born in 19th century France, Sidonie Gabrielle Colette wrote more than 80 volumes depicting her childhood, her life, her pains and pleasures. Her writings were sensual, vivid and all published under her husband name, “Willy”.

No stranger to female-centric stories, Wash Westmoreland follows up on “Still Alice” and “Echo Park, L.A.” with this dazzling period biopic starring Keira Knightley and Dominic West.

The film starts, the young country girl, Colette (Knightley), marries writer and critic Henri Gauthier-Villars (“Willy”) who introduces her to Parisian salons. Willy soon finds himself in debts and is desperate enough to seek his wife’s help. She will write. Colette writes what she knows and her first novella, “Claudine à l’école” (Claudine at school) is a success. Willy forces her to write the next ones, locked in a golden cage, to ensure his fame and success.

The settings are sumptuous and we gladly follow the camera through the stunning but confined Parisian apartments where the outside light only comes through when she feels inspired. Costumes evolve, as Colette, from heavy and restricted dresses to wild and daring clothing as if Mademoiselle Chanel had designed them herself.

Colette finally loosens from her husband and experiments with woman, society and dancing, feeding her inspiration. Forced and uncredited, Colette cannot enjoy writing and runs off to perform in the music-hall in her own name. In like most biopics, we go from one key event to another, regrettably quickly and often without knowing how we got there. Willy’s sudden appointment of his wife is left as unexplained as the abrupt ending that could have potentially seen Colette, a happy writer.

In the second part of the film Westmoreland seems more interested in looking at the awakening of a young woman rather than at the birth of an author whereas Keira Knightley shines in the lead role. Often known for playing the innocent and rebellious youth, Knightley still pulls off the young Colette in the first part of the film but is at her best when she evolves into a mature woman, aware of own desires. The best scenes of the film come when Colette is free and herself, usually in the company of other woman, particularly the terribly charming Missy (Denise Gough). Westmoreland multiplies two shots and close ups and creates impactful intimate scenes but regrettably gives up on them too fast.

It is a change to see a character such as “Willy” that is both ridiculous and loving. This duality creates, perhaps, a more truthful relationship between the two. No one is born an artist and behind every writer there is an intuitive editor (and in 20th century France, who else could it be than a man?). For Westmoreland if there is no Claudine without Colette, there would have been no Colette without Willy.

With its lavish setting and jumping plot, Colette can feel a tad velvety at times but is lifted by Keira Knightley’s sensual performance and liberating battle that painfully resonates today.

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