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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

Skyscraper ★★★★

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Released: 12th July 2018

Directed By: Rawson Marshall Thurber

Starring: Dwayne Johnson, Neve Campbell

Reviewed By: Van Connor

Be honest. Sooner or later, you knew The Rock was going to make Die Hard. It was inevitable. As he ascends higher and higher thought the upper echelons of the – increasingly spartan – Hollywood star system, this was always going to be coming. The only question really, was going to be whether or not it was going to be either any good, or even welcome in a world in which even a bonafide Die Hardsequel now typically ranks among the worst of whichever year it’s released in.

Alas, Dwayne Johnson is no Bruce Willis, and that quality control barrier could not be any clearer as Die Hard meets The Towering Inferno – with a dash of The Fugitive – for Skyscraper. Rawson Marshall Thurber’s adrenaline-fuelled ride takes DJ to China as amputee and former FBI tactical agent Will Sawyer, an American tasked with signing off on the security of The Pearl – the tallest building in the world. When terrorists seize The Pearl, however, Sawyer finds himself the subject of a Chinese manhunt and forced to find a way back into the building in order to save his wife and children from not only the terrorists seeking to fulfil their own agenda, but also to the out-of-control blaze that threatens to consume them all.

Johnson’s played in the sort of arena on more than a few occasions now, with Skyscraper arguably skewing closest to San Andreas as regards the sort of tone and polished spectacle you’re in for. There are some offhand nods to more classical genre archetypes – hell, it makes more Die Hard references than Jake Peralta – and there’s the requisite degree of fistbumping and utilisation of the term “brother”, but those still unsure of what to expect can rest easy on the promise of what’s essentially an Irwin Allen movie with a Neal Moritz sensibility. It ain’t clever, it doesn’t want to be, it just wants you to sit on the edge of your seat and then cheer afterwards. Which you will. A lot.

Neve Campbell brings an impressive amount to what’s an already impressively sketched out female supporting character in Sawyer’s wife (take notes, Bedelia – that’s how you handle hostage takers), and Pablo Schreiber (Orange is the New Black) continues to make for an engaging added value element. Roland Møller, meanwhile, makes for a decent enough villain, but lacks the charisma needed to really sell the ludicrously named Kores Botha as much of an evil mastermind. Sure, he was never going to rival Hans Gruber on the scale of action movie villains, but Botha’s so thinly devised as a villain that he’s not up to the grade of Tommy Lee Jones’ Under Siege villain either. And that’s a real detriment when your action hero lead is someone as genuinely charismatic as Dwayne Johnson. Both Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Joe Manganiello took the wrong Rock movie, would be a decent takeaway.

In lieu of a captivating villain, Thurber nonetheless ensures value for money is had with a barrage of spectacle-fuelled set-pieces the likes of which will have you squirming in your seat biting your fist for dear life – IMAX could well inspire a sense of vertigo with this one. It’s a glossy-looking actioner – thanks to some smooth production design and slick visuals from cinematographer and Mission: Impossible alum Robert Elswit – and fight choreographer Allan Poppleton goes above and beyond to stage Johnson’s antics not as the all-powerful action commando, but a credible fighter dwarfed by the spectacle of what’s up against him.

It’s a good time for all. Sure, it’s in no way destined to become an enduring classic of the action genre – though, the spoilerific marketing campaign does well and truly show off what will become one of this summer’s more memorable movie moments – but it’s Die Hard on fire. With The Rock. In 2018. And if there’s an easier sell for a good time at the movies than that, it just means Dwayne Johnson has another movie out. In which case, still see Skyscraper first.

 

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Featured Review

Mission Impossible: Fallout ★★★★★

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Released: 25th July 2018

Directed By: Christopher McQuarrie

Starring: Tom Cruise, Rebecca Ferguson, Henry Cavill, Michelle Monaghan, Simon Pegg, Ving Rhames, Sean Harris, Angela Bassett

Reviewed By: Darryl Griffiths

‘What the hell is he doing!? I find it best not to look.’

Rebecca Ferguson. You’re certainly not alone in questioning the thought process of a man seemingly gunning to be ‘The Greatest Stuntman’. Another one Mr Cruise? I imagine his reply is Never Enough. Never. Never.

22 years and six instalments in. Facing stiff competition from Bond, Bourne and a plethora of comicbook darlings along the way. This particular Tom has continued to be a marvel, risking life and limb to give us the adrenaline-pumping thrills we crave, admirably relying on old-school practicality instead of the obligatory CGI bombast we modern cinemagoers have grown accustomed to.

Previous instalment ‘Rogue Nation’ boasted an elegant operatic set-piece in Vienna, with returning (a first for the series) director Christopher McQuarrie masterfully pulling the strings in the background. Well imagine ‘Mission Impossible: Fallout’ as a grandiose death-defying symphony, that could easily leave you breathless in the front row, never mind the upper tiers of this cinematic arena.

Whilst consistent in its entertainment value. It could be argued these films haven’t dug deep enough into the psyche of IMF’s main man. McQuarrie is quick to remedy this right from the outset as a pulsating plutonium power struggle ensues, with Ethan Hunt (Cruise) still reeling from his encounters with Solomon Lane (Sean Harris), the latter a mere pawn now in the eyes of a terrorist organisation called the Apostles.

Trust in Ethan’s methods diminishing with the addition of CIA superior Erica Sloane (Angela Bassett) who compares him to a scalpel, she introduces a ‘hammer’ to the situation in the form of August Walker (Henry Cavill), who is tasked with assisting Hunt and his usual suspects Benji (Simon Pegg) and Luther (Ving Rhames) in preventing further global atrocities. Interrogation? Not for this Man Of Steel.

Intertwining plot threads left dangling by its predecessors to layer its absorbing narrative, with Michelle Monaghan’s love interest Julia a notable inclusion. McQuarrie truly allows the audience to become emotionally attached to these characters this time around beyond the wisecracks and gadgetry, which only serves to fuel the tension and raise the stakes of its balletic action choreography. Playing a lead protagonist who can easily be perceived to be indestructible up to now. The moral angst that engulfs Cruise’s Hunt is refreshing, as his unwavering loyalty to his fellow field agents is deemed a weakness in achieving their intended objective.

Only for this aspect to be amplified by the compelling complexity of Rebecca Ferguson’s Ilsa Faust who returns with her own agenda, remaining appreciative of Hunt’s relentless nature to complete a mission by any means necessary, with one particular Paris stand-off utterly engrossing. Whilst Sean Harris’ Solomon Lane continues to favour chilling prose, it’s a joy to finally see Henry Cavill utilised in a blockbuster effectively as August Walker, a bruising no-nonsense adversary whose reloading arms prove a worthy match for Hunt.

Yet for all its superior characterisation. Mission Impossible would amount to little without its enthralling stunts, with the film gleefully  looking to out-do the previous set-piece throughout its running time, only to succeed in jaw-dropping style. From heart-stopping halo jumps at 25,000 feet to a heady helicopter chase that made me audibly gasp at its sheer audacity, McQuarrie’s dizzying camerawork and respectful capture of its sleek locations as we witness Cruise’s crazy antics close-up, is as pure as popcorn cinema gets.

‘Fallout? With this franchise? I suspect that thought will self-destruct in five seconds once you clap eyes on this outing. An astonishing genre offering in its own right, in a series that continues to evolve in exhilarating fashion.

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Movie Reviews

First Reformed ★★★★★

Consider the bar raised…

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Director: Paul Schrader

Stars: Ethan Hawke, Amanda Seyfried, Cedric the Entertainer

Released: 13th July 2018 (UK)

First Reformed has been dubbed as Paul Schrader’s triumphant return to cinema. Widely praised by critics and audiences, it finally hits UK cinemas. What is First Reformed all about you ask? Reverend Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke) is a solitary parish priest at a small church in upstate New York. Now more of a tourist attraction catering to a dwindling congregation, it has long been eclipsed by its nearby parent church. When a pregnant parishioner (Amanda Seyfried) asks Reverend Toller to counsel her husband, Toller is plunged into his own tormented past and finds himself questioning his own future and where redemption might lie. With the pressure on him beginning to grow, he must do everything he can to stop events spiralling out of control.

Alienation, social decay makes First Reformed one of the most powerful self portraits in cinema. First Reformed tackles current event topics like the environment, organised religion, politics, and alcoholism as a backdrop for Reverend Toller’s  journey through despair. Hawke’s Toller establishes the key theme early in the film: we’re told that we must hold onto both despair and hope simultaneously. Toller’s efforts to live this self-contradicting life, leads him down a path of madness.We discover that existential crises and sincere Christianity make quite the self destructive couple. Toller finds he must reject the shiny glossy presentation of modern contemporary Christianity, and discover his own self belief and re-build his faith within himself. The careful logic of it draws us in; it’s difficult to see where Toller and society goes wrong.

Paul Scharder’s visuals are utterly striking, each shot is rich with balance, depth and artful symmetry; despite the fact that the film is presented in an unusual aspect ratio of 1.37: 1, it pulls its viewers in with nonstop beautiful photography, mostly high-contrast shots with a muted colour palette.The story is spiritual as you would expect but it’s surprisingly political. The pace of the film is steady and switches seamlessly between snapshots and long takes. The scoring slowly builds its ominous tone, every element of First Reformed is built with intention that serves its sobering themes.

Ethan Hawke has delivered the performance of his career as Toller. This performance is truly next-level from him, and I cannot describe enough to you about how captivating it is to watch Hawke. He is spectacular in this, and an early front runner for award season. First Reformed is quietly intense, disturbingly real with a memorable ending. Paul Schrader carefully tackles controversial topics, especially with handling the concept of Christianity. The movie is neither preachy or anti-Christian in its delivery, but rather shows religion for what it is: a reasonable release for sadness and guilt, but also a burden. First Reformed is without a doubt one of 2018’s finest films.

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