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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!

Featured Review

Climax ★★★★★

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Released: 21st September 2018 (UK)

Directed By: Gaspar Noé

Starring: Sofia Boutella, Romain Guillermic, Souheila Yacoub, Kiddy Smile, Claude Gajan Maull and Giselle Palmer

Reviewed By: Dion Wyn

Birth and death are extraordinary experiences. Life is a fleeting pleasure.

Master provocateur Gaspar Noé has been warping our fragile little minds for over 20 years. After the vast disappointment of Love 3D in 2015, he finally returned to Cannes this year. Where he won best picture at Director’s Fortnight; with his latest feature Climax. The win truly has reinvigorated interest and buzz of Noe’s work. The big question is does it actually live to the hype? Climax is set in the mid 1990’s, 20 French urban dancers join together for a three-day rehearsal in a closed-down boarding school located at the heart of a forest to share one last dance. They then make one last party around a large sangria bowl. Quickly, the atmosphere becomes charged and a strange madness will seize them the whole night. If it seems obvious to them that they have been drugged, they neither know by who nor why. And it’s soon impossible for them to resist to their neuroses and psychoses, numbed by the hypnotic and the increasing electric rhythm of the music. While some feel in paradise, most of them plunge into hell.

Climax grabs you and doesn’t let you go. Gaspar Noé’s fine form has returned with his sangria-soaked neon nightmare. Climax opens very subtly with interviews from the dance troop. We get a candid view into their lives and what drives their passion for dance. Noé shows the naivety of his cast before we enter the pressure cooker of the dance hall. Once the usual closing credits happen at the beginning, the true story starts to unfold. The opening dance sequence is electrifying and full of raw kinetic energy. You have succumbed to the euphoria of Noé, the camera becomes another dancer in the troop. We are witnessing the synchronicity and passion for the art of dance. You suffer from a slight come-down after the initial performance, but the depravity and relaxed inhibitions of the dancers start to flow out. There is no real script to Climax it is largely improvised, we delve into the sexual depravity of the dancers. These conversations are not for the faint of heart. You start to see where Noé is going with Climax or do we?

Once the LSD soaked sangria kicks in Noé begins his wizardry behind the lens. Distortion and blurriness are subtly put into frame. You can feel the sweat pouring through the walls. The music intensifies and the dance becomes a lot more aggressive. We have now entered the hellish nightmare we were expecting from the get go. It isn’t the drug trip we witnessed in Enter The Void either. Once the LSD has kicked in, you only see the reactions to their hallucinations. Gaspar Noé challenges you to think what is actually going on? The usual camera trickery now ensues, a classic Noé move. The journey warps your senses and you don’t always know what is going on. The crucial element in sustaining the tension is the killer soundtrack. It really is the beating heart of Climax (Vinyl has been pre-ordered all ready). After the explosion of this pressure cooker of a situation, the story goes no holds barred with scenarios of extreme violence, incest and self harm. Noé doesn’t create an in your face scenario in this instants, it is rather out of character for him.

Sofia Boutella has shed away the action star. Her raw and untameable energy is addictive. She flows so powerfully through Climax and you can feel her passion for dance. The casting of the dancers is a master stroke. They all bring a different element to the piece and the diversity of characters gives it great balance. Our inner darkest ideas and nightmares flow through Climax like a virus. You are tested from the get go and Climax is a true cinematic challenge. It is a true testament of youth and the ever flowing challenge of perfecting your artistry. Gaspar Noé’s Climax is electrifyingly abstract and a true champion of 2018.

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Movie Reviews

The Little Stranger ★★★★

Adapted from the Booker prize nominated novel by Sarah Waters, the cinematic incarnation of The Little Stranger has much to live up to.

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Released: 21st September 2018

Director: Lenny Abrahamson

Cast: Domhnall Gleeson, Ruth Wilson, Charlotte Rampling, Will Poulter, Liv Hill

Reviewed By: Sinead Beverland

Adapted from the Booker prize nominated novel by Sarah Waters, the cinematic incarnation of The Little Stranger has much to live up to. At the helm is Room Director Lenny Abrahamson, with an impressive cast including Domhnall Gleeson, Ruth Wilson and Charlotte Rampling.

Set shortly after the second world war, Doctor Faraday (Gleeson) introduces us to the faded grandeur of Hundreds Hall, a place he envied feverishly as a child. Having belonged to the Ayres family for several generations, the house is now inhabited by just Mrs Ayres (Rampling) and her two adult children, Roderick (Will Poulter) and Caroline (Wilson). When Faraday is called to the house to visit the unwell young housemaid Betty, he recollects his childhood adulation of the place. Remembering the presence of a young girl, he is told that this was Mrs Ayres first daughter, Susan, who had died as a child. It seems the spectre of Susan (affectionately known as Suki) still lays heavily over the house, as housemaid Betty tells Faraday she fears something ‘isn’t right’. As he becomes more entwined with the family and their home, strange events begin to raise concerns and individually threaten members of the family.

From the very outset, the film breeds an unsettling feeling, the house is imposing with long shots conveying the sense that the characters are being observed. The audience follows Faraday in to this fading world of status and money, sensing his childhood desire and starched formality. The family are equally intriguing and unnerving. Roderick, badly injured during the war, is now an invalid struggling to cope and disturbed by the sense that something in the house does not want him there. Matriarch Mrs Ayres seems to be doing her best to keep the past alive and daughter Caroline (the best of the bunch as attested to by a fellow doctor) seems strong yet vulnerable. When Faraday begins an intriguing friendship with Caroline, their relationship evolves to hinge the entire ethereal story together. With fantastic performances all round, the characters all emerge fully formed, conveying depth without the need for swathes of expository back story.

The terror of the film gradually reveals itself, impacting in set scenes that are truly disturbing and realistic. Director Abrahamson has a subtle touch (as seen in the Oscar Nominated Room) and these climactic scenes engulf you, whilst revealing the fate of certain characters. Abrahamson knows how to accentuate the fear for the audience and uses restraint to devastating effect. As the house leaks secrets and the memory of the deceased Susan comes to the forefront, the story is told with an intensity that uses strikingly rich music and extreme close ups to create a claustrophobic atmosphere. However, to reveal too much of the story here, would spoil the experience of discovering for yourself what is happening at Hundreds Hall.

The Little Stranger is a mature and nuanced film, layered in such a way that it address status and class alongside desire and emotion. The period setting is detailed and worn, bridging the gap between transitioning eras in Britain.  This is no straightforward horror or ghost story and the film certainly feels to have done justice to its excellent source material. Rich in theme, characters and style, I would gladly take The Little Stranger home.

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Movie Reviews

Dogman ★★★

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Released: 19th October 2018

Directed By: Matteo Garrone

Starring: Marcello Fonte

Reviewed By: Rhys Handley

Dogman is the anti-Paddington. Antithetical to the marmalade-loving bear’s enduring mantra – “if we are kind and polite, the world will be right” – dog groomer Marcello (Marcello Fonte) carves out a life in the dilapidated outskirts of Rome modestly tending to his estate’s canine residents and enjoying the respect of his neighbours.

But Marcello’s submissive, accommodating kindness is pushed closer and closer to its limit by the hulking Simone (a terrifying Edoardo Pesce, surely masked in near-mutant prosthetic), a brutish ex-boxer who stalks the estate terrorising the residents. Unable to say no to a friend, Marcello facilitates Simone’s egregious coke habit to little recompense.

When Simone’s scheme to rob a nearby jeweller’s implicates Marcello and he is apprehended by the police, the Dogman takes the fall himself and goes inside for a year for the sake of the bully who pretends to be his friend. When he comes out, something has changed.

Marcello, diminutive and always sporting a toothy grin, strikes an unimpressive, but likeable figure. He is perfectly happy with his lot as the film opens – a divorced father who takes pride in his work and loves trips to the beach with his daughter. While director Matteo Garrone makes a meal of the grim, filthy aesthetic of the film’s setting, he peppers in moments of levity and blissful tranquility to reinforce the humble satisfaction of Marcello’s daily life.

To see him repeatedly indulge the cruel, selfish whims of Simone quickly becomes a source of frustration, as the brute encourages vices in Marcello that seems entirely at odds with his persona. Marcello is swept away on break-ins and hedonistic strip club nights in jarring scenes more in keeping with Garrone’s work in the gangster canon such as 2008’s Gomorrah.

In these scenes, the toxicity fuelling Marcello reveals itself. Fonte delicately skews the kindly facade when Marcello enters Simone’s world. Behind his courteous smile is a sickening glimmer of delight – Marcello loves the thrill and decadence of life of crime. His latent desires mix with his better nature, to create something more insidious than Simone’s overt depravity.

Dogman stumbles in its closing chapter as Marcello is released from prison, returning to a community who despises him for violating their trust and chasing Simone’s false offers of brotherhood and fortune. Marcello reemerges not exactly changed, but more honest to himself about what he is. Garrone and his co-writers steer this portion of the story with a steady hand, but it is hard to shake comparisons to other established squares-gone-rogue like Walter White.

Marcello’s resolve and vengefulness is convincing thanks to Fonte, but its emergence is sudden and teeters dangerously close to cliche. His push and pull with Simone is rote, which makes its languid pace a little irritating – this has suddenly become a very different film, and it can’t carry the slower moments of contemplation as well as it could before Marcello was locked up.

An inevitable confrontation takes place, bursting with brutality and gore. But rather than a release of tension, it feels like a betrayal of the thoughtful, measured character piece Garrone set up. The violence overreaches for shock value where Garrone had before been satisfied with something more pensive and empathetic.

Luckily, he pulls back in the final moments of the film and dovetails elegantly by concluding what is essentially his thesis on ‘little guy’ psychology. He frames Marcello not as a good man pushed too far, but as someone whose better and worse natures are intrinsically tangled to create a monster very different to the bully who ultimately leads him to snap.

No matter how kind and polite the Dogman might try to be, he cannot deny the malice that festers in his heart – and Garrone artfully distills Marcello’s melancholic final moment of self-realisation in a resonant closing shot that gracefully irons out the kinks in this curious, inconsistent little film.

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