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SICARIO 2: DAY OF THE SOLDADO

Three and a half Star Rating

“Sicario 2: Day of the Soldado is that rarest of beasts, a sequel that stands ably on its own two feet” – Wayward Wolf.

A series of suicide bombings in various U.S cities is growing evidence that the Mexican drug cartels have expanded their operations beyond just Class A. Their focus is now fixed upon trafficking Islamic terrorists across the U.S / Mexican border. In a risky attempt to stem this flow, the U.S government launches a sequence of covert false flag activities on Mexican soil designed to both distract and induce cartel infighting. This particular game plan will culminate with the kidnapping of the daughter of the head of one of the cartels.

The margin for error, however, is perilously thin, and sure enough it’s not long before all best laid plans turn sour. With the task complete, the U.S Government, fearing the unthinkable possibility of culpability, quickly decides that it is left with no other choice than to backtrack and ‘clean up’ all traces of its involvement.

Be they Government operatives, civilians or cartel members, regardless of their allegiances, this will not be good news for any number of the pawns involved in this particular messy game.

Call me naive, but I was actually quite surprised to see that Sicario had spawned a sequel. As excellent as it undoubtedly was, it just didn’t seem like that kind of film.

Of course, the world of big budget mainstream movie-making won’t hesitate to hang its hat off anything if sufficient moolah is waved seductively in front of its fat green-eyed face. That’s a given, Business is business after all.

Certainly any fears that an inferior second instalment would serve only to tarnish the memory of Denis Villeneuve’s gripping original, are thankfully quickly allayed.

Based once again upon a Taylor Sheridan screenplay, Sicario 2: Day of the Soldado is that rarest of beasts, a sequel that stands ably on its own two feet, confidently doing more than enough in just over two hours to be considered a worthy successor to a much respected original.

And you can pretty much count all such films on one hand.

The performances are nicely understated across the board. Benicio Del Toro and Josh Brolin revive their roles as Alejandro and Matt Graver, respectively. Isabella Moner puts in a nice turn as the sassy young abductee, Isabel Reyes, whilst Matthew Modine, in a rare big-screen appearance, portrays the U.S Secretary of Defence.

Perhaps it’s just me but try as I might to identify the man by way of something a little more current, I perpetually resign myself to that fact I will forever envisage Modine, perched on the end of a bed, Birdy-style.

Stefano Sollima’s matter-of-fact direction is visually striking, graphically brutal, and mercifully devoid of unnecessary clichés and sensationalism.

And a tip of the hat too, to the late great Jóhann Jóhannsson, whose low growling glissando sonic motif – used to such stunning effect in Sicario and seemingly ubiquitous within any number of dark Hollywood thrillers since – lives on through the sequel’s composer of choice, Hildur Guðnadóttir, once again underpinning the action with its pervading tone of menace.

As for any credence behind the notion that ‘two is enough’ – this is well and truly put to bed by way of the film’s conclusion, which, whilst being a bit of a bolted-on clunky after thought, undoubtedly leaves the door open to the prospect of a part three of this gritty franchise in which no one ever seem to come up smelling of roses.

Sequel-phobic though I may well generally be, a third instalment – whilst clearly tempting fate – in this instance I’d be so bold to suggest, is actually probably no bad thing.

 

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STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI

“It’s big, it’s bold, fairly nonsensical in places, but crucially pretty faithful to the requirements of the franchise.”

Wayward Wolf.

From informative wording rising up shakily over a star-speckled screen (you’d have thought they might have sorted all such text-related jitters by now considering today’s super slick digital technology), to the triumphant opening fanfare of John Williams’ seminal theme, it can only mean one thing, folks. That’s right, it’s time for another thinly-veiled religiously over-toned lesson in good and evil by way of everybody’s favourite intergalactic science fiction box-ticking franchise.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi (SW:TLJ from hereon in), is upon us, and receiving a considerable amount of thumbs-up activity it would appear.

But is this Rian Johnson-directed two-and-a-half-hour epic fully deserving of all such lavish praise being bestowed upon it?

First and foremost, it’s important to establish one simple truth: directing any Star Wars film is akin to wearing a strait jacket, such are the restrictions under which any director must surely operate. There is a certain level of expectancy amongst your typical Star Wars-viewing public, a formula away from which one can not veer significantly, and a check list containing  any number of core requirements that must be met before any level of personal influence and input can be injected into or stamped upon proceedings.

I’d imagine.

In fairness to Rian Johnson, his Star Wars directorial debut probably ticks enough boxes and sufficiently grooms enough executive egos to keep those that matter sufficiently happy.

There are return outings for the franchise’s two newest stars, Rey (Daisy Ridley) and  Finn (John Boyega), along with Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), who, in spite of his undoubtedly wonderful abilities as an actor, remains the worst piece of villainous casting in living memory. Just what were the Star Wars powers-that-be thinking?

We are also treated to a reclusive, grizzlier and somewhat wiser Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), and an inexplicably large amount of computer generated Carrie Fisher (Princess Leia) imagery, including an amusing incident in which, following an attack on her ship – in scenes reminiscent of the opening credit sequence of the 1960’s science fiction classic, Lost In Space – she tumbles arse-over-tit out of a spaceship into the great black beyond before being fished back in once again like some sort of cosmic carp.

Whilst it’s a nice homage to the late Carrie Fisher’s memory, quite what such an excessive amount of this CGi wizardry actually adds to the film as a whole, is debatable to say the least.

There are very limited and fairly forgettable roles for Laura Dern and Benicio Del Toro, and a predictable smattering of bizarre mechanical and other worldly entities and critters – both new and old, including an unexpected cameo from Yoda himself – to keep everyone happy.

Certainly no expense has been spared in fully furnishing this latest instalment with a wide variety and excellent quality of characters, yet once again I arrive at the conclusion that there is still yet to be a Star Wars movie that succeeds in creating and developing characters of any sufficient depth or substance, and certainly none that one can fully engage or empathise with – perhaps with the exception of Harrison Ford’s Han Solo character. Talking of which, Oscar Isaac’s portrayal of pilot Poe Dameron evokes welcome memories of Solo, and it’s no surprise therefore that Poe is easily the most convincing character in SW:TLJ.

As for the plot, it’s a fairly simple affair. Aren’t they all? Essentially it’s a tale of rebels on the run. “Tom & Jerry in Space” is one particularly harsh summary that I’ve heard, which, give or take a side story or two, is actually probably a fair assessment.

It’s big, it’s bold, fairly nonsensical in places, but crucially pretty faithful to the requirements of the franchise, and if the blue light sabre-wielding fella sat behind me – hyper-ventilating with joy like an over excited spaniel on glimpsing its favourite squeaky toy – is the measuring stick here, then it’s fair to say that SW:TLJ is nothing short of a triumph. Then again, listening to the opinions of those attending a screening on Star Wars opening night probably doesn’t guarantee the most impartial of reviews.

Balance this against my own predictable apathy towards all things Star Wars and subsequent conservative assessment of them, and the true measure of Rian Johnson’s big budget blockbuster almost certainly lies somewhere in-between.

 

 

 

 

FILM REVIEW: Sicario

Action thrillers are ten a penny out there in movie land and it takes something a little different not to mention a little special to stand out from the ever bloated crowd of contenders.

Sicario is one such film.
Director Denis Villeneuve’s tense thriller focuses on the ongoing, somewhat futile struggle faced by the American authorities to at least keep in check the murky world of drug deals and the ruthless cartels that make them their business.
Emily Blunt plays Kate, an FBI agent, who, whilst leading a mission into suburban Phoenix, Arizona, to free hostages from their cartel captors, stumbles upon a gruesome scene of death and mutilation by which she is suitably repulsed.
On the recommendation of top brass, she is encouraged to join a task force to bring those responsible to justice for which she volunteers without hesitation.
Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) and the mysterious Alejandro, (a fine turn by Benicio Del Toro), head up this group tasked with rooting out the key figures in this atrocity, or so the official line reads anyway.
It’s a whole new world for Kate, exposing her to the lawlessness of not just Mexican border towns like Suarez, where bodies hang from bridges, mutilated, the victims of ruthless gang retribution, but of her own colleagues who appear to have thrown the rule book out of the window when going about their pursuit of justice.
“…we’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto…”
Kate, like a frightened rabbit in the headlights, remains utterly bewildered by events unfolding around her, and little by little, with Alejandro taking centre stage and the true sinister nature of both his motives and those of the task force’s sorties into the Mexican badlands, revealed, the reason for Kate’s own inclusion on this mission bit by bit becomes clear.
Director Villeneuve’s use of long, atmospheric, sustained overviews of the U.S / Mexican border landscape, coupled with both the inspired notion of by and large never truly revealing a tangible enemy, combine devastatingly with Jóhann Jóhannsson’s raw and gritty soundtrack, to create a really unnerving sense of base fear.
At two hours long, Sicario is certainly not a short film and there could be a temptation to suggest that the subject matter might have been trimmed down without risk of sacrificing any of the key subject matter; but to do so would have been a big mistake.
It’s after all Villeneuve’s indulgence with time here and more importantly the protracted spaces in between the film’s key events that really make Sicario so effective. It’s a film that’s able to breathe, both allowing the viewer to wallow in and contemplate the air of trepidation that abounds, but more importantly, making the viewer experience the protracted discomfort and sense of foreboding that builds throughout.
Slick, stylish and beautifully shot, Villneuve has created an environment in which we’d most certainly never want to find ourselves and unsettling though it may be, in doing so, has created a film that stands up as one of the finest thrillers of recent times.