Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Review: "Joy"

Director: David O. Russell
Runtime: 124 minutes

If you find it odd that Joy opens with voice over from the main character's grandmother, don't expect coherence or justification to follow. David O. Russell's new free-wheeling, rambunctious dramedy is a puzzler from start to finish, and not for the best reasons. Adapting the real-life story of Miracle Mop inventor Joy Mangano, Russell has applied the same energetic style that distinguished his last three films (The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook, and American Hustle). Yet all of the roving, dynamic camera-work and snappy music choices in Joy's 2 hour runtime are enough to give a sense of life or necessity to this rags-to-riches tale. 

That's not to say that Mangano's tale is undeserving of dramatization, but Russell's execution here doesn't do it justice. The loud, dysfunctional family that surrounds Joy (Jennifer Lawrence) feels like a watered down version of what Russell presented in both Silver Linings and The Fighter. Yelling and bickering take the place of actual character growth, as if enough familial sparring will eventually turn into quirkiness. 

And it might have, were it not for the flatness that permeates just about every performance from the ensemble. Russell has assembled a typically excellent, charismatic cast, but none of them seem terribly invested in the material. The actors glide through the dialogue as if waiting for inspiration to strike, yet it never does. At worst, everyone in Joy sounds just a bit, well, bored. Whatever your opinion on Russell's recent films, they have enough energy flowing through them to make them at least passable entertainment. Joy, however, moves along mostly on autopilot, despite the lively, in-your-face photography. 

Perhaps the lack of energy comes down to the cluttered, discordant nature of the story. Joy brings in characters and subplots, but the wider the film's scope becomes, the weaker its impact. The closest the film comes to evoking joy (or any other emotion) arrives in the midsection, when Mangano starts to plug the Miracle Mop on QVC. Whether cramming in a cameo from Joan Rivers (played by her daughter, Melissa), or showing Mangano's eventual triumph on live TV, the QVC scenes introduce a sense of coherence and purpose. 

But the drive that highlights the rise of the Miracle Mop empire is stranded in a film that never quite figures out where it's going or leading up to. Diane Ladd's voice pops up sporadically with eyeroll-worthy narration, trying to turn Joy's story into a late 20th century entrepreneurial fairy tale. But much of what transpires just happens for the sake of filling up time over the course of a plodding two hours. The worst example is when Joy's shut in of a mother (Virginia Madsen) strikes up a relationship with a repairman. It adds nothing to the narrative, and there's nothing in the material that makes the messiness of the subplot feel acceptable. Like most of the story in Joy, it's just sort of there. One great shot in the film involves Mangano confidently strutting down a street. Unlike his subject, Russell is unable to match Joy's single-minded confidence or swagger. 

Grade: C-

Monday, December 21, 2015

Review: "The Revenant"

Director: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu
Runtime: 156 minutes

So much for levity. Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, fresh off an Oscar win for Best Director is back, and unlike Birdman, his new project is very, very serious. And yet, after the emotional and technical highwire act of Birdman, something seems to have shaken loose in the director's approach to darker material. The Revenant, despite its share of heavy going and brutal events, may mark a return to expected territory for Inarritu, but it does so in a way that suggests the director's approach to straight drama may finally be evolving. By turns plodding and powerful, this bleak anti-Western has enough going for it that it manages to overcome several gaping weaknesses.

Those weaknesses take some time to become apparent, as Inarritu and co-writer Mark L. Smith waste no time in plunging the viewer into an intense, visceral story. After a quick, Malick-esque opener, The Revenant kicks off with a stunning battle made all the more immersive by Emmanuel Lubezki's roving, deep-focus photography (it plays out like a Herzog movie on steroids). As in Birdman (albeit to a lesser degree), The Revenant is mostly comprised of lengthy, unbroken shots. And, perhaps to better effect here than in Inarritu's showbiz black comedy, the camera work feels more purposeful in terms of drawing one in to a different place and time. 

Set in the first half of the 1800s, The Revenant's eventual plot concerns Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio, playing a fictionalized version of a real frontiersman), a fur trapper with some of the worst luck imaginable. The opening confrontation with a Pawnee tribe sends Glass' expedition scrambling for a new route home, and it doesn't get much better from there. Though most in the crew (including characters played by Domhnall Gleeson and Will Poulter) respect Glass' knowledge of the local terrain, there is understandable division in how to proceed. Leading the opposition is John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), driven purely by a desire to get to a trading post ASAP and collect their earnings. Everything goes (further) south when Glass has an absolutely horrific encounter with a grizzly bear, which is - like most of the setpieces in the film - presented in an unflinching shot that represents a visual endurance test. Soon Glass, with no help from Fitzgerald, is left for dead, which of course he isn't. 

It takes close to an hour for this first leg of the journey to transpire, though the constant sense of movement prevents the film from drowning in its own dour atmosphere. Inarritu's previous dramas have often been met with criticism for either being overbearingly heavy or obnoxiously contrived. With The Revenant, based in part on true events, at least now the director has found a story where his tendency towards self-important dramatics actually fits the material. 

So much of The Revenant works so well that it's not until near the finale that one of the biggest issues with the script rears its head: DiCaprio's Glass is not a terribly well-formed character. While the film's other roles allow for (admittedly straightforward) characterization, Glass himself remains a bit vacant. The decision to shoot just about the entire film on location pays off in spades from a filmmaking standpoint, but this has somehow happened at the expense of the writing. Aside from grunting in pain, DiCaprio spends most of the movie doing stunts, rather than building a character. Physicality can a be powerful component of a performance, but when the entire role is built around strenuous activity, it's hard to feel even a passing intellectual connection or sense of empathy. DiCaprio does at least get one strong moment before the final showdown, but with so much time spent just watching him survive, it feels a bit thin in retrospect. 

With Glass' characterization left out in the wilderness, the emotional core of the film resembles the frozen-over quality of the visuals. The other actors, at least, get to do something other than function as human rag dolls. Gleeson does some fine work as a co-leader of the expedition convinced that Glass is dead, while Will Poulter is excellent in his limited scenes as a crew member concealing the ugly truth. The film's emotional high points arise not from Glass' arc, but from interactions between other characters about Glass' fate. Hardy, trading in the scorched earth of Mad Max for the snow-covered American frontier, is a solid villain as well, even though much of his dialogue is difficult to decipher. 

What The Revenant lacks in in-depth character development, it oddly makes up for with broad-strokes symbolism. Inarritu's hand can be a bit too heavy to create something truly transcedant, but he manages to extract some striking moments of poetry out of all of the chaos. Dreams and flashbacks play a key role in giving the film a broader historical context, and are often more informative than what takes place in the present. Glimpses of Glass' Native American wife, as well as the rampant decimation of Native tribes at the hands of white colonizers, do a compelling job of subverting the traditional cowboys-and-indians notion of classic Westerns. 

Bridging the gap between dream and reality is a subplot centered on a group of Pawnee warriors going after a missing woman from their tribe. This narrative thread, a head-scratcher at first, ends up working in the film's favor as an inverted parallel of the central plot. Glass seeks revenge for being left for dead (as well as the murder of his mixed-race son) to try, now that he has nothing left to live for despite living in land taken by force by his fellow white explorers. The Pawnee tribe, meanwhile, is out to reclaim one of their own, taken by the same white explorers, so that they can do their best to stay united as their numbers dwindle as a result of the bloody path cut by "Manifest Destiny." Whether or not Glass gets revenge, he has the option of continuing to build a life for himself. The Pawnee, however, are faced with literal extinction. The film's final scene merges these two angles together for a disquieting end. It positions the The Revenant not as a heroic tribute to human endurance, but rather a bitter and mournful condemnation of the whitewashed, not to mention hideous, violence that formed modern America, and continues to poison its collective moral conscience to this day.

Is this slow-building symbolism enough to justify the lack of development for DiCaprio's role? Well...kind of. Actual investment in Glass as an individual would have only heightened the film's eventual message. Juxtaposing one man's suffering against the destruction of entire races is a smart idea, but it requires more than a noteworthy face to make such a conceit hit home beyond intellectual understanding. The Revenant does so much right, however, that the thinly sketched ideology is elevated above being merely serviceable. It's a oddball case of style emphasizing and fleshing out substance in ways the source can't quite grasp. It's in the periphery, not the central journey, where the The Revenant starts to thaw out and push beyond its immaculate surface. 

Grade: B+

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Review: "Star Wars: The Force Awakens"

Director: J.J. Abrams
Runtime: 135 minutes

Everyone who cares even a little about Star Wars has their own set of expectations for the next wave of films. Films 1 - 6 (technically 4-6/1-3) spawned such a vast empire of media that story options for a new trilogy seem endless. And yet, by reaching back to what made audiences flip out for A New Hope in 1977, director J.J. Abrams has taken on a herculean task and somehow delivered. The Force Awakens, despite years of expectations and millions and millions of dollars powering it, carries the same scrappy spirit of George Lucas' first journey to a galaxy far, far away. The final product, regardless of whether or not you were caught up in the hyper machine, has its flaws, mostly when it comes to balancing the old and the new. And unlike the much-maligned prequels (galactic senate meetings, midichlorians, the shadow of Jar Jar Binks), The Force Awakens is a legitimate fresh start for the series, with a speedy plot that takes audiences from planet to planet and starship to starship. Even with nods and winks to the audience, this is, finally, the 21st century Star Wars movie we both wanted and needed. 

Abrams, Disney, and Lucasfilm have tried to keep as much of The Force Awakens under wraps, and even though the movie is out now, I'll do my best to refrain from spoilers. Even so, in terms of structure, there isn't much to spoil. For better and for worse, Abrams and co-writer Michael Arndt have stuck with Lucas' concept of having the trilogies "mirror" each other in terms of plot developments and character arcs.

This concept has ups and downs, but it mostly works as a pleasing middle ground compromise. Despite the PG-13 rating, The Force Awakens doesn't try to get away with as much as it can (versus, say, The Dark Knight), as it's trying to bring in old fans and stir the imaginations of new ones who might not even be 10 yet. Diehards looking for the franchise to leap forwards and mature (in the way the Harry Potter books and then films did) might be left wanting. When making a movie that's designed to please as many people as possible while also playing to a core fanbase, it's hard to come up with something that checks off every box.

The sense of compromise (pandering seems a bit too harsh/negative) that permeates The Force Awakens might seem like a red flag, but it's far from a dealbreaker. When it comes to the "mirroring" aspect, the film's hit-to-miss ratio winds up being rather good. This is especially true of the first hour or so, which is almost entirely filled with the next generation of heroes and villains. Among the good eggs are desert scavenger Rey (the instantly-winning Daisy Ridley), AWOL stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega, a charming and bumbling accidental do-gooder), and ace pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac, cutting loose and having fun with limited material). If ever there was a sign that this Star Wars was a creation of modern times, it's the much needed diversity found among this key trio. 

Yet where there is light, there is also darkness. The Sith and the Empire may be extinct, but that hasn't stopped a new wave of devotees from arising. Most compelling is the masked and hooded Kylo Ren (Adam Driver...yes the guy from Girls), a temperamental student of the Dark Side with a Darth Vader complex. He is the film's own mirror for Rey, a mysterious loner drawn to the supernatural gifts of the Force, and his desire to hide his past is one of The Force Awakens' most compelling angles. 

And with so much going on in The Force Awakens (starting anew while also tying into the original films), the actors deserve immense praise for being so charismatic in their roles. The film hops and skips around so much, and the characters could have gotten lost in the shuffle. Yet even when Abrams pushes his young leads to go a little too broad (we get it, they're in over their heads/wide eyed with amazement), the actors still deliver. Ridley and Boyega are a great deal of fun as a pair of loners forced together by chance (or maybe fate...), and Isaac's swagger further grounds the film in a tone more in line with the adventure serials that originally inspired Star Wars. Driver is a hoot as well, especially as his mood and presence adjusts when he removes his helmet. 

So much of what's new is so invigorating that the arrival of characters from the first films throws off The Force Awakens' balance. As pure nostalgia it's bliss to see Harrison Ford back as Han Solo. But as Solo becomes integral to the plot, The Force Awakens starts sliding a little too far backwards. The new torchbearers of the franchise slip into the backseat for a while, leaving the midsection a bit rudderless. Seeing Han and Leia together is great on its own, but it's hard not to think that such scenes might have been better spent developing Rey, Finn, etc...

Despite this issue, Abrams brings it all home in the final stretch, even though the conclusion boasts the most overtly derivative moments from a structural standpoint. It takes a while to get there, but Abrams and Arndt do thankfully get around to resetting the chess board for future installments. Like any good adventure saga, The Force Awakens wraps up enough to function as a self-contained story, yet also ends in a way that begs for another chapter. In these final stages, Abrams restores the earnestness and charm of the series while also boldly positioning it for bigger and better things. And, at the very least, Abrams managed to combine a 'hello' to the next generation with a proper 'goodbye' to the old. It's hard to ask for more than that. 

Grade: B

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Review: "Macbeth"

Director: Justin Kurzel
Runtime: 120 minutes

There's rugged beauty in everything from the landscapes to the people in Macbeth, but sadly little poetry. Australian director Justin Kurzel has made a handsome and gritty adaptation of one of Shakespeare's best and most iconic plays, but never pushes beyond the surface of the Bard's language. In an odd twist, the best and most consistent aspect of this Macbeth comes from the lone non-native English-speaker among the principal players. In fleeting moments, Kurzel's stylstic ambitions find harmony with the source material, but these instance are the exception, rather than the norm.

Not much has been changed in this latest telling of the Scottish play. There are some key omissions (no "double double" chant from the witches; no "stars, hide your light" from Macbeth), but when it comes to words, Kurzel has hardly bastardized the material. At least on the page. Right from the start, this Macbeth strains for ominous atmospherics through Adam Arkapaw's rich, primordial images and Jed Kurzel's sinister, droning score. Were this an experimental, dialogue-free production, things might have turned out differently. 

Yet when the actors open their mouths to start working their way through the centuries-old dialogue, they fumble. Yes, even Michael Fassbender in the titular role. Most of the cast appear to be saying the words as if at a first glance at the script. There's some authenticity thanks to the guttural, mouth-full-of-glass accents, but no true connection. The words hang there when they should draw one in to this sordid tale as much as the visuals. Yet when Macbeth wonders aloud about whether or not he should kill King Duncan (David Thewlis), none of the source material's complexity registers. Shakespeare chose words carefully. Most of the actors here just try to get through them as if having a banal exchange over coffee.

A pity, then, that there isn't more of Lady Macbeth (Marion Cotillard) in Kurzel's film. The French actress, perhaps because she has to work harder to navigate the dialogue, ends up dominating the entire film. By the time the film is over, you'll be left wanting a revisionist take on the play that centers around Cotillard's interpretation of the character. Without even trying to put on an unnatural accent, she not only gets through the dialogue, but actually sounds as if she truly understands every little nuance of what she's saying. Though this production firmly relegates Lady Macbeth (one of theater's all-time great characters for women) to supporting status, there's no question as to who the star is here. Thankfully, one of the times in which Kurzel's direction works comes at the iconic "Out, damned spot!" sequence, a marvel of simplicity that is mostly done in a lengthy close up. Clad in white robes, illuminated by a pale shaft of wintery light, Cotillard almost makes the whole film worth it just for her work in this one scene. 

Other well-known moments from the play don't fare as well. The witches who deliver Macbeth's prophecy and Banquo's ghost are presented in visually inert scenes that do little to add mystery or distortion. Some allowance can be given to the witches, but when Macbeth addresses Banquo's ghost in a room full of people, it feels as if everyone else can see the specter as well. There's no sense of perspective, and a moment that should unsettle and haunt instead plods along. 

In trying so hard to pump up the visual component of his adaptation, Kurzel often misses the power of the dialogue. Had he stripped the text to the core and cut out as much dialogue as possible, this wouldn't have been such an issue. But in trying to keep the dialogue while also shoe-horning in visual flourishes (super slow-motion! apocalyptic red filters on the camera!), the film feels at odds with itself. Macbeth's talk of "sound and fury/signifying nothing," has, unfortunately, rarely felt more appropriate.

Grade: C+

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Review: "Brooklyn"

Director: John Crowley
Runtime: 111 minutes

As far as immigrant stories go, the one found in Brooklyn, as adapted from Colm Toibin's novel, doesn't present the most obvious obstacles. Eilis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan) goes to New York with a place to stay and a job already set up. The bulk of her stress comes not from being discriminated against or manipulated, but simply from the weight of being away from home. Without simplifying Eilis' journey, director John Crowley and writer Nick Hornby locate the source material's powerful statement about identity without becoming heavy handed. Brooklyn is, like Eilis, relatively modest in its ambitions, but there is undeniable beauty and grace in its execution.

Those qualities are expertly communicated through Ronan's central performance. With her pale skin, piercing eyes, and otherworldly features, she's an instantly watchable figure, even at her plainest. Though Eilis comes from modest means, she wants to make the most of her excursion across the Atlantic, even if it means leaving behind the only place she's ever known. When Eilis attends a local dance, we immediately get a sense that - at this point in her life - she's something of an outsider. For all of the ties she has to her native Ireland, she still feels out of place.

The question of home is the driving force of Brooklyn, and Hornby's nimble adaptation hits all of its marks effortlessly. The story is constantly moving, even when there's little that's overtly dramatic going on. There was probably room to make a much longer movie out of Brooklyn's story, but Hornby avoids the trap of trying to cram everything from the source onto the screen. Certain developments happen rather abruptly, but Crowley's sure-handed direction holds it all together. 

Ronan's aforementioned work is the other part of the equation that keeps Brooklyn from losing control of its story. With great poise and intelligence, she portrays Eilis as a hardworking, noble soul without trying to sanctify her. Though initially quite modest, she develops her own sly sense of humor, especially when she's around Tony (Emory Cohen), her charming Italian suitor. Like Brooklyn, Ronan can be wise, charming, funny, and absolutely heartbreaking. Between this and 2011's Hanna, the 21 year old continues to prove that her Oscar nomination for Atonement roughly a decade ago was no fluke. 

And even when the possibility of a love triangle emerges, Crowley and Hornby refrain from taking their focus off of Eilis' identity crisis. If anything, the hints of a love triangle are merely a red herring meant to drive the film towards its conclusion. Only in the final stretch does Brooklyn's tight pacing start to seem like less of a smart decision. Eilis' eventual return to Ireland is plowed through so efficiently that the final frames almost don't have time to fully resonate. 

But the heart of the narrative remains utterly sincere, and that's often more than enough to compensate for the sporadic instances of narrative short-cutting. Inside and out, Brooklyn is a lush, lovely story (costumes are especially striking) that beautifully externalizes a largely internal struggle. There are, obviously, more important immigrant stories out there that deserve to be told, but Brooklyn's is more than satisfying on its own terms to merit a look. 

Grade: B

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Review: "Spotlight"

Director: Tom McCarthy
Runtime: 128 minutes

A meticulous dramatization of real events, Tom McCarthy's Spotlight makes a compelling case in favor of journalism done right. Though the Catholic Church sex abuse scandals have been in the global limelight for nearly two decades, this trip back to the explosive 2002 Boston Globe story remains queasily relevant. Without giving into either lurid spectacle or a traditional white knight narrative, McCarthy's new film exhibits the very journalistic qualities that it celebrates. In Spotlight, American cinema has produced a work of cinematic journalism that deserves to sit on the same lofty shelf as All the President's Men. 

Like President's Men or Zodiac, what Spotlight does so well is fully throw itself into the tedium of the story's details without becoming tedious itself. Montages can be a cheap shortcut to cut through large amounts of time or activity, but McCarthy and editor Tom McArdle incorporate them without ever making a false move. Spotlight runs just over two hours, and every scene is carefully orchestrated to build to the next. This can make the initial set up seem a bit dry (seeing as we know that yes, the Globe's Spotlight team will eventually take on the case). But the eventual payoff is, like a great work of news writing, compelling because it keeps a level head, and lets the facts speak for themselves.

That last bit is especially important when we consider the horrific crimes at the center of the story. The rather academic tone gives enough emotional heft to the story without amping up the material to make it "juicier." The Spotlight team (played by Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Mark Ruffalo, and Brian D'Arcy James), as well as the audience, hear the disturbing details, but McCarthy and Josh Singer's script leaves enough to the imagination to avoid exploiting the situation. There are plenty of famous faces in Spotlight, but none of them are conveyed as being of equal importance to the greater impact of the story. 

But even though the film doesn't stand out as a performance showcase, McCarthy's actors bring respectable gravitas to the material. As a unit, the Spotlight team is basically different shades of a single character, and that ends up working in the film's favor. These men and women have outside lives, but those outside lives only intrude upon the central narrative when absolutely necessary. Every look we get inside the lives of these reporters adds fuel to the physical and emotional trajectory of the story. 

Beyond the performances, most of the below-the-line contributions do little to steal focus as well, which is for the best. Masanobu Takayanagi's camera frequently moves, but in a way that further draws one into the immensity of the investigation. In one of the simplest, and most expressive shots, the camera merely drifts backwards as the Spotlight team listens to a source over a speakerphone. As we learn what the characters learn, the frame widens, visually complementing the sudden expansion of the abuse scandal's scope. Spotlight may rely heavily on talking, but it still finds room for subtle (even invisible) moments of thoughtful visual composition. 

Other tech contributions, including Howard Shore's simple score, are appropriately invisible. Beyond the screenplay and direction, McArdle's deft cutting deserves the most praise for stitching together so much information all while allowing it to develop so smoothly. As it is in journalism, so it is in filmmaking: having a sharp eye in the editor's chair is crucial into shaping a well-intentioned vision into a legitimate work of impactful art. 

Grade: A-

Sunday, November 8, 2015

AFI Fest '15 Review: Mountains May Depart

Director: Jia Zhangke
Runtime: 131 minutes

There's about 40 minutes worth of a good movie in Jia Zhangke's Mountains May Depart. Sadly, it's trapped between 80 minutes of unsuccessful material that ranges from amateurish to downright dreadful. By the time the film's two hours draw to a close (with an admittedly lovely closing shot), the only thing that emerges as worthwhile is the performance from lead actress Tao Zhao.

That said, you wouldn't know based on the film's opening scenes. Jia's film is split into three distinct sections (1999/2000, then 2014, and finally 2025) and his opener isn't terribly convincing. Tao, the eventual main character (Tao), starts off as an oblivious Pollyanna who quickly slides from endearing to grating. You almost want to smack her, but then her first suitor, the aggressively capitalist Zhang Jinsheng (Yi Zhang) starts boorishly interrupting like "The Great Gatsby"'s Tom Buchanan. On the opposite end of the tolerability spectrum is coal mine worker Liangzi (Jing Dong Liang), the first act's only convincing character. 

With the tripartite structure looming over the whole enterprise, Act 1 is tasked with breezing through a love triangle that never convinces. The cup of dramatic irony runneth over, and everything is so clear as day to the viewer that what transpires on screen is tedious. Worse, Jia is unable to get his actors to push beyond their initial traits. Liangzi quickly gets pushed aside for the sake of set up, leaving us with a wide-eyed naif and her jerk-wad beau for company. When the first section ends, a title card appears, and you'd be forgiven for using this fake-out as an excuse to bolt from the theater.

But if you decide to stay, at least you'll get to take in the lovely middle section, which does a near-miraculous 180 in terms of quality. Though it opens on Liangzi and his medical woes, the focus finds its way back to Tao, and Tao Zhao suddenly makes leaps in quality. In part two, Jia gifts the viewer with a protagonist full of genuine emotional conflict, mostly stemming from her marital woes. As age creeps up on Tao, as well as those around her, a sense of emotional urgency finally appears, and the central performance soars. Finally, after almost an hour of waiting, Tao's hype from Cannes seems justified. There are individual scenes - like one between a mother and son on a train - that speak volumes in their carefully chosen words. If Act 1 was Jia operating on autopilot, Act 2 showcases the director throwing himself into his material.

After such a transcendent mid-section, Mountains seems prepared to move on to better things in its conclusion. Yet this is where the film gets horribly yanked back down to earth. The story switches locations (Melbourne) and languages (English), and neither of this shifts do any good. The leap into the near future returns to the amateurish clutter of the opening, only with even worse writing. The emotional struggles that arise in the final act range from groan-inducing (a standard "I'm not following your dream, dad!" arc) to borderline creepy. 

The introduction of so much new territory wouldn't be such a hurdle were it not for the drastic drop off in the quality of the acting. Moments that should hit hard generate uncomfortable laughter, and this isn't helped by the writing (Actual dialogue: "It's like Google Translate is your real son!"). The poignancy of the final scene, a callback to a recurring musical motif, is but a bandaid on a gaping wound that demands more intensive treatment.

Grade: C/C-

AFI Fest 15 Review: "Carol"

Director: Todd Haynes
Runtime: 118 minutes

As restrained and repressed as its time period and characters, Todd Haynes' Carol still has a beating heart at its center. You might just have to work a little harder than necessary to get to it. At times emotionally reserved to a fault, this adaptation of Patricia Highsmith's "The Price of Salt" thaws out just in time to deliver an understated wallop of an ending that catapults it from the ranks of the 'good,' and into the realm of the almost-great. 

Not counting his HBO miniseries remake of Mildred Pierce, Mr. Haynes hasn't released a narrative feature since his Bob Dylan fantasia I'm Not There, so to see him reemerge with such a beautifully controlled work might take a little getting used to. The director has returned to the relative time period of his excellent Far From Heaven, albeit from a drastically different angle. Far From Heaven sought to emulate the rich melodramas of Douglas Sirk, while Carol - despite its scenes of wealthy people in pretty clothes - brings to mind Inside Llewyn Davis. This is not the picture perfect vision of post-war America, but rather a grittier vision that further deconstructs the societal norms of the day. 

This is all evident in the Christmas-y color scheme, using rich reds and greens that are still made to look a little worn and desaturated. When young shop girl Therese (Rooney Mara) shows up for work at a pricey department store, even the showroom looks a little dingy (not to mention the staff cafeteria). It's not exactly gloomy, but rather that the artifice of everything in the store (as well as the artifice of the 1950s concept of a homogenized society) is made clear as day to Therese and the viewer. Sharing in that vision, despite belonging to the upper class, is Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett), who saunters into the store one December morning to buy a gift for her daughter. Out of a crowd of faces of parents and children, Therese and Carol's gazes meet, and very slowly, the dance begins. 

Ostensibly a story of forbidden love, Phyllis Nagy's script refuses to fall into the trap of radically altering the source material for the sake of a more conventional tale. This is a story about isolated souls finding a connection against the odds and in violation of every social more. Carol never becomes a psychological thriller, but Haynes is gifted at emphasizing small gestures in order to convey the utter seriousness of Therese and Carol's burgeoning relationship, as well as the risks of exposure. Quick glances and touches on the shoulder are stand ins for traditional romantic gestures, even when the two women are in private. It's a romantic game of cat and mouse, only with both players working together to avoid the crushing weight of "traditional values."

And, as much as my admiration for the film has grown since I saw it, it's all to easy to understand why many will find Carol a little too distant for its own good. Haynes' pacing never drags, but it does move at a steady, stately rate, without too much variation for the first half or so. Carol is all about the wind up to a purposefully muted release, and for some it will be too little and too late. But even as I can see where detractors are coming from, I continue to find little details that stand out. Carol's story is not complicated, but it is complex, and the film practically demands a second viewing just to absorb every little move involved in Therese and Carol's covert courtship.

Keeping the whole enterprise going, even when Haynes himself seems a bit unsure about how to best move it all along, are the two beautiful performances from the leads. Mara has a much more passive role, but her quietness is an asset that the film needs. She is our window into the more obvious drama of Carol's domestic woes, and she reacts accordingly. 

Meanwhile Blanchett, the actor to Mara's reactor, is nothing short of sublime in the titular role. It's a role that the actress could have done on autopilot, but instead, Blanchett invests every look and touch and vocal flutter with a lifetime of experience. Therese is still finding and shaping herself, while Carol has known for years what she truly wants and what it will cost to have it. Without ever reaching for a big moment, Blanchett captures the character's turmoil with heartbreaking restraint and intelligence. Arriving just two years after her towering work in Blue Jasmine, Carol once again asserts the otherworldly Australian as one of the leading performers of her generation. 

And even though I may have some quibbles with some of Haynes' lulls in the narrative, his overall work here is excellent. Working with a talented group of collaborators, he's created a beautiful, yet realistic-looking film every bit as refined and textured as one of Carol's pricey fur coats. Costumes, production design, and photography are all superb, without getting in the way of the film's slowly blooming emotional center. Carol favors the exploration of a human bond over the sexier details, so even when the one proper sex scene arrives, it feels not only justified, but intimate and tender. 

Yet even the consummation of Therese and Carol's affair pales in comparison to the magic trick that Haynes pulls off in the closing chapters. Carol goes in a few surprising directions, with certain events arriving in ways that don't initially appear satisfying. But the careful windup finally comes together when Haynes and Nagy take both leads through their respective low points, yet allow room for hope. There is sadness and regret in Carol, but by the end, it hardly comes off as a cinematic depressive. All of those furtive, smoldering glances and gentle touches on the hand lead to one final, wordless exchange that is nothing short of heart-stopping in its beauty, and a perfect ending to the year's most delicate, albeit chilly, romance.

Grade: B+

Saturday, November 7, 2015

AFI Fest '15 Review: "The Lobster"

Director: Yorgos Lanthimos
Runtime: 118 minutes

Without any notable visual flourishes, The Lobster does what so many films set in the near (or far) future fail to do even with massive budgets: create an instantly convincing, wholly immersive world. Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos (Dogtooth), making his English language debut, has outdone himself with his break from his homeland and native tongue. Absurd, strange, blackly funny, and even oddly touching, The Lobster will most certainly be an acquired taste. Those who can get on Lanthimos' wavelength, however, are in for one hell of a treat as the film makes the rounds at festivals ahead of its currently TBD American release next year.

The end of a relationship, especially one that lasts for more than a decade, is always painful. But there isn't much time to wallow in newfound loneliness in the world of The Lobster, as we quickly learn from following newly single David (Colin Farrell, heavily de-glammed). In accordance with current government laws (setting is undefined, though signs point to French Canadian territory), David is carted off to a sleek countryside resort, where he will be given 45 days to find a new mate. If he fails, he will be turned into an animal, albeit one of his choosing (in David's case: the film's titular crustacean). 

Unfolding with a level of deadpan that would make Wes Anderson envious, The Lobster's chief strength, among many, is how maintains its tricky tone over the course of two taut hours. From a pacing standpoint, this is easily the most polished of Lanthimos' films, which prevents one from falling out of touch with the uncompromising idiosyncrasies. The Lobster's second half breaks the narrative out of a delightfully repetitive cycle, yet manages to maintain and build upon the successes of the beginning. Just when you think that Lanthimos is getting too lost in his own vision, Yorgos Mavropsaridis' editing keeps things moving with laser-cutter precision, all without disrupting the deliberate flow of the story. All other technical aspects are similarly excellent, especially the green and beige-hued photography of Thimios Bakatakis and the discordant soundtrack that mixes pop songs with jolting string pieces.

Lanthimos reigns all of this in beautifully from the director's chair, with plenty of crisply-assembled passages composed of stealthily compelling shots with little or no camera movement. For as much time as the film spends at the singles' resort/internment camp, Lanthimos always finds new visual alleys to drag one further down the rabbit hole. Even the most mundane hotel hallway comes loaded with bizarro uncertainty in the world of The Lobster, which prides itself on subverting the ordinary by underlining it with hints of ludicrous, yet somehow plausible, extremism. In Woody Allen's Crimes & Misdemeanors, Alan Alda's character quoted Larry Gelbart's, "if it bends, it's funny; if it breaks it's not funny" remark, and that manifesto is certainly true here. Lanthimos bends The Lobster to its absolute further, keeping it on the precipice of breaking without ever going too far.

Yet for all of The Lobster's understated work in the arts/tech departments, Lanthimos' script ultimately holds the key to the aforementioned control of tone. The Lobster could have easily become a one-note joke, but Lanthimos and co-writer Efthymis Filippou dole out the bizarro details of the film's setting in carefully constructed vignettes that gradually coalesce into a spectacular whole. Some are strange, some are disturbing, and some are gut-bustingly funny in their deliberate emotional vacancy. Few scenes capture the whole of The Lobster quite like the one wherein the hotel manager (a pitch-perfect Olivia Colman) and her husband try to serenade the horde of single folk with listless performances of romantic songs and robotic dance moves. 

And as much as I lit up every time Colman appeared, the rest of the cast are all a treat to watch as well. Farrell continues to excel when given darker, off beat material, and while 'David' doesn't allow him the range of In Bruges, it demonstrates his skill as a versatile actor who should never have been propped up as a traditional leading man. Other hotel residents are marvelously filled out by the likes of Ben Whishaw, John C. Reilly, Extras's Ashley Jensen, and frequent Lanthimos collaborator Angeliki Papoulia (as an ice cold "hunter" who delivers the film's darkest joke). Later arrivals like Lea Seydoux and Rachel Weisz (the latter of whom narrates the film throughout) are welcome presences as well. 

However, these characters are ultimately pawns in Lanthimos' oddball experiment. In some ways, he's taking a page from the Coen brothers, playing a narrative god with a merciless combination of dark humor and irony. But even when the ambiguous ending arrives (he's a fan of those), Lanthimos refuses to let his detachment from his characters slip into cruelty. The characters may do horrible things (or have horrible reactions), but in the film's later stages Lanthimos subtly shifts into empathy without puncturing the carefully crafted tone and losing all thematic control. Like another film set to play at AFI Fest (Todd Haynes' Carol), The Lobster possesses an unwavering dedication to a strict code of tone and atmosphere that will strike many as redundant and exhausting. Yet for others, the relentless unwillingness to make major changes will become its main selling point, highlighting, for better or for worse, the purposeful vision at the helm. 

Grade: A

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Review: "The Assassin"

Director: Hou Hsiao-Hsien
Runtime: 107 minutes

There's nothing quite like The Assassin in the filmography of Taiwanese veteran Hou Hsiao-Hsien, and hopefully there won't be any more. Yes, Hou's film (his first in seven years) ponderous and protracted tale is awe-inspiringly beautiful. But the director's attempt to create a refined wuxia tale is so painfully restrained that everything feels thoroughly vacuum-packed. Any given still frame from The Assassin is a visual masterwork, but god at what cost?

Set in 7th century China, The Assassin's opening title cards establishes a world of warring dynasties and fragile alliances. And it's in the Weibo province that we meet Yinniang (Shu Qi), a formidable assassin sent on a mission to kill the man to whom she was once betrothed. Throw in some palace intrigue surrounding the ex and his wife, and you've got a fairly canvas to work with. And I do mean canvas, because from the opening shots, Hou makes it clear that his images, above all else, will captivate. 

But just as quickly as The Assassin announces its dedication to its imagery, it also gives away its dire lack of pacing. Hou has always been a practitioner of "slow cinema," and there's nothing wrong with that. However, as Hou defiantly refrains from melodrama, he overcorrects by a staggering margin. As beautiful as Hou's compositions are (and some are absolutely incredible), most are perilously in need of a heavy trim. 'Glacial' doesn't even begin to describe the pace, which mistakes long shots of minimal activity for atmosphere. The least Hou could have done for the audience would have been to get meta and include a scene of someone actually watching paint dry.

That would likely be preferable to the vacant performances Hou extracts from his cast. For all I know, these could be some of the best actors in the world, but you'd have no way of knowing based on how little the film actually explores them. The actors spend more time posing that crafting characters. This isn't exactly helpful, especially given the film's habit of turning the straight-forward story into a series of tenuously fragments. Did I grasp the story of The Assassin? Yes, even as I fought to stay alert. The more pressing question is, why didn't I care?

Because the great squawking albatross around The Assassin's neck is that, for all of its exquisite craftsmanship, it never delivers a real point for its existence. The themes are boilerplate, the aforementioned characters little more than sentient mannequins, and the grip on the atmosphere so limp that it all deflates within the first 20 minutes. It's appropriate that Hou repeatedly shoots scenes through layers of silk curtains: pull the fluttering fabric away, and you'll find nothing of substance on which to linger.

Grade: C

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Review: "Room"

Director: Lenny Abrahamson
Runtime: 118 minutes

Rooting an entire movie in the perspective of a 5 year old is one hell of a risk, which is why director Lenny Abrahamson and his collaborators deserve countless hosannas. Last appearing with the oddball music dramedy Frank, Abrahamson has taken a gigantic leap forward with Room, working off of Emma Donoghue's adaptation of her own novel. Both a tense psychological drama and a moving mother/son, Room finds Abrahamson graduating to a whole new level as a director.

Like most kids, 5 year old Jack (Jacob Tremblay) loves when his birthday rolls around. He eats cake, gets extra attention from his mom, and gets to feel like the center of the universe. But the center of Jack's universe is terrifyingly small. All of his life, Ma (Brie Larson) has told him that Room - a soundproofed shack with only a skylight for light - is the entire world. Outside of Room is space, and then beyond that is heaven. Dogs and cats and other people, the ones the pair see on their TV, don't really exist. Ma's behavior would sound disturbing and cult-ish were it not for the fact that her placement in Room was anything but voluntary. Her lessons about the worlds outside of Room may be lies, but they are lies told out of love, in order to keep the awful truth at bay. There isn't much in Room, but at least mother and son have each other while cramped inside their four walls.

Even with a first half set almost entirely in a single space, Abrahamson shows remarkable dexterity behind the camera. Working with cinematographer Danny Cohen, he turns Room into a visually dynamic space. The camera moves and swings, and at times captures space at angles that make everything appear much bigger. The Room may not be big to us (or to Ma), but it's literally the entire world to Jacob, and Abrahamson and Cohen do a striking job of conveying this notion. The grim reality remains at the fringes, but is only palpable when Ma is significantly present in a shot. 

Young Mr. Tremblay is effortlessly believable in his role, neither grating nor overly coached. He never hits a false note, and Abrahamson ought to be commended for guiding the young actor through some tricky material. Having the film so strictly grounded in his mindset pays off in spades. Jack is allowed to be both our window into Room's world, while also functioning as a protagonist with agency. W.C. Fields is famously quoted as saying, "Never work with children or animals," but Tremblay makes a compelling case as evidence to the contrary.

Meanwhile, Larson adds another wrenching performance to her resume as Ma. She plays the character's complexities with great restraint, keeping one on edge as to what her next move will be. Ma loves Jack, but she's also an adult who has had her life irrevocably altered, even if a day comes when she can escape from Room. Despite a few disappearances during the story, Room is just as much about Ma's shattered psyche as it is about Jack's experiences with the world (both the one he knows, and beyond). Room is about emotional imprisonment, but it spends just as much time dealing with recovery from trauma, which is hardly an easy journey.

Despite the eventual appearance of the outside world, Room remains anchored in Tremblay and Larson's beautiful performances. Under Abrahamson's watch, their story never gets lost even as the scope of the narrative widens. Room puts the bonds of mother and child through the wringer, but always with tasteful distance. Abrahamson and Donoghue present some harsh realities and harsh questions, but their concern for their characters mirrors Ma's treatment Jack: sometimes it's abrasive, but it ultimately comes from a place of profoundly moving love that refuses to be shaken.

Grade: A-

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Review: "Crimson Peak"

Director: Guillermo Del Toro
Runtime: 119 minutes

In an early flashback in Crimson Peak, a ghost whispers to young Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) that she should beware of the titular location. A similar warning should be given out to those going to see Guillermo Del Toro's latest film under the wrong impression. If you want to be either scared witless or grossed out by blood and gore, look elsewhere. But if you want to see a film that gorgeously translates the themes and tropes of gothic romance to the screen - albeit with flashes of the supernatural and R-rated content - look no further. Mr. Del Toro courted mainstream appeal with his last film, the glorified machines vs. monsters B-movie Pacific Rim. Let his newest endeavor, despite being made in English and through the studio system, sees the Mexican auteur returning to his roots, with sumptuous and haunting results.

The first ghost appears only moments into Crimson Peak, and past that point, you'd be forgiven for thinking you were in the wrong theater. The amber-tinted images the capture the hushed romance of Edith and the mysterious Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) feel more in line with The Age of Innocence than anything remotely connected to the horror or supernatural thriller dramas. Despite the increased appearance of ghouls and ghosts later, the romance portion of the film is where Mr. Del Toro's attention really lies. Wasikowska's Edith is an aspiring novelist, and in one scene she is met with confusion from an editor who tries to pigeonhole her short story as a "ghost story." "I like to think of it as a story with a ghost in it," is her reply, and the line doubles as Del Toro's mission statement for Crimson Peak as well. 

It's fitting that Wasikowska plays the story's hero, seeing as she's already proven her worth playing the eponymous role of Jane Eyre, subject of one of the most revered Gothic romances in literature. In this new venture, Wasikowska and Del Toro have created a protagonist who remains fiercely independent and inquisitive, even as her situation deteriorates. The reasons for Edith's eventual endangerment are best left unclear, but - quite obviously - they stem from the presence of Thomas and his standoffish sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain). 

Del Toro has melded a variety of influences (Jane Eyre, Hammer horror films, Rebecca) that could have proven unwieldy. But even when the influences are obvious or expected, the delivery is fresh when filtered through the director's vision. Del Toro, working with a wide range of new technical collaborators, has put his visual stamp on every inch of Crimson Peak, and it's often ravishing to behold. Even if the mix of genres fails to fully convince, you can always get lost in the immaculately designed sets. In typical Del Toro fashion, Crimson Peak's settings, clothes, and even people, are simultaneously gorgeous and grotesque.  

Equally impressive is how elegantly Del Toro and co. keep the story moving. The director's English-language films, to date, have all been his weakest from a pacing standpoint. Crimson Peak, thankfully, bucks that trend. Enough time is given to Edith and Thomas' courtship to make it convincing, yet the film is never bogged down by the period details. There are moments of visual wonderment, but they are often captured through smoothly edited passages and informative camera movements that never allow Crimson Peak's atmosphere to stagnate. 

Fantastic sets are one thing, you may ask, but what about the people inhabiting those densely designed settings? Crimson Peak's characters are largely meant to evoke other iconic roles, meaning they lack a true specificity. But that doesn't stop the cast from have a grand time vamping it up, all while staying sincere. Wasikowska does the wan intelligence bit superbly, keeping Edith sharp(e) even when she (and the audience) are left in the dark. Personally, Hiddleston is the biggest surprise of the cast. As somehow who has repeatedly left indifferent by his work, I was delighted by how well he captured Thomas' Byronic facade. The role could have called for nothing more than a handsome face, but the actor does some splendid work opposite his co-stars. And speaking of co-stars, he has two excellent ones in Wasikowska and Chastain. The latter is ultimately the film's MVP, despite a misleading one-note approach at the outset. Lucille's raven hair, like her psyche, comes unraveled over the course of the story, and to watch Chastain (affecting a mostly solid British accent) play such an overtly creepy (and later menacing) character is another testament to her range. 

The three central characters are tasked with charting a psychological game that is constantly shifting gears, and Del Toro does a marvelous job of subverting audience expectations. Crimson Peak's eventual payoff is not immediately impressive when compared to, say, The Sixth Sense. But it is a rewarding all the same. Del Toro's script prepares to go big, but then pulls the rug out from under the viewer in favor of a twist that plays more on ideas than plot developments or supernatural gotcha moments. Ghosts may be real in the world of Crimson Peak, but they, like Thomas and Lucille, a far from what they seem. The film's opening warning specifies what Edith should beware at Crimson Peak. It never specified whom...

Grade: B+/A-

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Review: "The Martian"

Director: Ridley Scott
Runtime: 141 minutes

For a movie about terrifying circumstances, Ridley Scott's The Martian has something you wouldn't normally expect: a sincere, deeply-entrenched air of optimism. Without straining too hard for 'feel-good' moments, Scott's adaptation of Andy Weir's best-selling novel is an exhilarating adventure because it refuses to get bogged down in existential crises. Seeing as how many of Scott's films are laced with either fatalism or downright nihilism, there is something truly invigorating in seeing the 77 year old make a movie that is basically a love letter to human ingenuity. 

Set several decades in the future, The Martian wastes no time in dropping us off on the Red Planet and getting the ball rolling. Hardly a few minutes have gone by before a high-spirited NASA team is forced to abandon their mission and set course for Earth. But in the chaos of their escape (the cause of which is a colossal Martian storm), astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is struck by debris, and left for dead. Which, of course, he isn't.

There are so many points in the first act of Drew Goddard's screenplay that look like gateways to despair. Will we anguish with the NASA crew over their inability to rescue their colleague before take off? Will Mark Watney spend his final days on Mars pondering the meaning of life millions of miles away from home? The answer to both prompts is a resounding and triumphant 'No.' From the moment Watney drags himself back to base camp, he's on the go, thinking of what he has to do to survive long enough for the next NASA mission to reach Mars. 

Scott -  along with editor Pietro Scalia and cinematographer Dariusz Wolski - plunges headfirst into Watney's enthusiasm, to the film's great benefit. For a director who has long been regarded as a visual craftsman, he has scaled back rather marvelously. This is not a pretty or lush film, even with all of the sleek sets. It's an immersive, get-your-hands dirty endeavor that, like Mark Watney, likes to simply get the job done. The film may lack obvious moments of cinematic innovation or poetry, but it still thrills as an expertly calibrated and engagingly old-fashioned crowdpleaser. 

Better yet, it's a crowdpleaser with actual smarts. The Martian is a tribute to human perseverance, but it's also a gushing ode to the unifying power of scientific progress. Characters throw around plenty of technical talk, but the smooth editing and dynamic performances (even the smallest roles are filled by actors who seem thrilled to be involved) erase the possibility of the film turning into a NASA training video.

First and foremost, The Martian would not work as well as it does without Damon's performance. Mark Watney can be a bit of a smart ass, but Damon keeps the character grounded, and nails all of Goddard's one-liners and off-the-cuff remarks. Even when facing life or death odds, the characters in The Martian still have room for laughter. Damon's co-stars all bring their charisma, ranging from Jessica Chastain's guilt-ridden commander to Kristen Wiig as NASA's prickly head of PR. 

Yet none of these characters are especially well-rounded, and that includes Mark. And yet The Martian proves to be such rousing entertainment because it balances a cast of one-note characters with a smart sense of its story's stakes. There isn't too much to write about any of the individuals on screen, but we can sense their intelligence, their drive, and their desire to succeed and survive. Scott's latest cinematic foray into space hasn't produced another Ellen Ripley, and that's perfectly fine. What matters is that he's assembled a cast of charismatic actors who make for solid stand-ins for humanity as a whole. The Martian may start as Mark Watney's story, but it ends as joyous statement of what humanity is capable of when the lines between individuals and entire communities vanish in the name of survival. The dangers of space are terrifying, but The Martian reminds us that in the face of overwhelming odds, sometimes the perfect antidote is just a touch of optimism.

Grade: B+

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Review: "Sicario"

Director: Denis Villeneuve
Runtime: 121 minutes

The prevailing notion is that once foreign-born filmmakers make the leap to English-language filmmaking, they get lost in the great big American studio machine. As prevalent as this issue remains, look to French-Canadian helmer Denis Villeneuve as an all-too rare exception to the rule. In 2013, he made his English debut with back to back successes in Prisoners and Enemy (the latter of which was released last year). Enemy was the artier and more thematically ambitious of the pair, but it's in Prisoners that one sees Villeneuve's potential. The man is poised to evolve into a reliable commander of mid-budget studio fare aimed at a more sophisticated base. In an age where mid-budget (let's call that between $20 and 60 million) films are increasingly difficult to finance, Villeneuve's recent hot streak is nothing to sniff at. 

Issues of financing special significance for Mr. Villeneuve's latest, the drug war drama Sicario. Despite the attachment of Emily Blunt in the lead role, the filmmakers were repeatedly told that they would get more money if Ms. Blunt's protagonist was switched to a male. So even though Sicario does little to break ground with its character archetypes or its plotting, it remains something of a marvel amid the slowly-evolving mindsets of the major studios.  

All of this would mean precious little if the film in question was a failure. Thankfully, Sicario - though not the action-thriller its marketing promises - is another victory for Villeneuve and company. Though the film, written by first-timer Taylor Sheridan, favors mood over pointed commentary, it still works rather effortlessly on its own harshly beautiful terms. 

That harsh beauty is apparent from the opening sequence, in which FBI Agent Kate Macer (Blunt) leads a raid on a drug compound that quickly spirals into tragedy. As lensed by the legendary Roger Deakins (re-teaming with Villeneuve after Prisoners), the opening is harrowing because of the way Deakins blends naturalistic images with those meant to come laced with menace. Sicario takes place in the sun-baked terrain of Arizona, Texas, and Mexico, yet its cumulative effect is to leave one shuddering. Villeneuve, Deakins, and the rest of the behind-the-camera workers get the job done with haunting results. 

So much work goes into the look and feel of Sicario, that it's understandable that the characters may prove too simple and too distant to connect with at all. Blunt and her co-stars (Josh Brolin's smarmy black-ops leader and Benicio Del Toro's gun for hire) have been given relatively simple roles that don't really demand emotional fireworks. But as Sicario winds towards its conclusion, and the focus shifts in surprising directions, the coldness of the protagonists emerges as a deliberate and intelligent choice. 

Despite taking place in a completely different world, what Sicario most strongly resembles is Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty. Sicario leans heavier on terse dialogue and ominous music cues, but there's an unsettling distance from the weightier emotional components that ultimately works in the film's favor. The War on Drugs, like the War on Terror, is filled with queasy ambiguities and moral grey zones that push people like Kate (and the audience) to question the methods and end goals of such broadly-defined, jingoistic labels. 

The journey from blunt determination to moral quagmire is superbly embodied in Blunt's performance, and comes closest to giving Sicario a heart (albeit a dark one). The British actress - seamlessly blending in with her American and Mexican co-stars, maintains a poker face early on, but doesn't fall into the trap of appearing blank. Her expression may be flat, but Kate's face is one that remains alert to the vagueness of her mission. When time comes for the steely facade to crack, Blunt keeps emotions in check, never mugging even when her character is at her most vulnerable. 

Mr. Brolin and Mr. Del Toro, meanwhile, have considerably fewer quiet notes to play, though both are convincing and have strong chemistry with Blunt. A third act shift in focus does open up more room for Del Toro, to the film's benefit. The actor's performance does not change, but the added context given to his demeanor acquires new heft, and further plunges Sicario's morality into the mud. Though I longed for more scenes between Blunt and Del Toro like the one found in the final frames, the questions left at the end prove more satisfying than additional answers. 

Because even Sicario is not a film with a big Message, what little it does whisper to the audience proves valuable, if not terribly surprising. Drug violence is bad, and people in power do shady things. Not exactly shocking in this, the year 2015. But Villeneuve and Sheridan have nonetheless created a brooding pseudo-thriller that captures the human cost of the drug war, as well as the futility of fighting it with such simplistic and aggressive means. Some films tackling contemporary issues overstate their cases and wind up saying less. Sicario, meanwhile, says very little, yet its impact lingers because of its brevity. It's a work of level-headed and purposefully de-sensationalized violence, and that's exactly why the images of dry, sun-scorched earth do nothing to counteract Sicario's blood-chilling jolts.

Grade: B+