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+

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Review: "Goodnight Mommy"

Director(s): Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala
Runtime: 99 minutes

The recent revival of slow-burning, atmospheric horror thrillers has been one of the most welcome trends in years. Having shrugged off the need for grotesque displays (the so called "torture porn" subgenre) indies and studios are catching on to the notion that more blood and gore is rarely needed. The horror genre thrives when it takes time to build towards bursts of violence and terror. Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala's Goodnight Mommy certainly understands these principles. It builds gradually, teasing the viewer with cryptically creepy details before segueing into the R-rated stuff. Which is why it's a shame that the film is missing something more substantive underneath the polished and menacing aesthetic.

Set in rural Austria, Goodnight Mommy opens on twins Lukas and Elias (Lukas and Elias Schwarz) as they play games in a field. The pair lead each other on journeys in and around their home, a puzzling beacon of chilly Euro modernism  surrounded by pristine landscapes. Like many kids, Lukas and Elias run to the door when they hear a car approaching. Mommy's home!

But Mommy (Susanne Wuest) is looking a little worse for wear. Having returned from extensive facial surgery, her face is almost entirely covered by bandages. She sleeps most of the day, and demands absolute silence from her two boys. And even when she wakes, Mommy's persona is hardly a warm, nurturing one (even by Austrian standards). She haunts the house while awake, drifting from room to room in loose fitting fabrics that flutter around her bony physique. Elias and Lukas grow suspicious of their mother's frosty new demeanor, and start to monitor her actions as tiny red flags start to go up.

This is the part where I wish I could talk about how Fiala and Franz successfully build up a creepy mystery, but I can't. For all of the things that Goodnight Mommy does right, it is put in danger of losing the audience within the first 10 minutes. A crucial twist (in fact, the twist) is hinted at so early that questions about where the story is headed mostly fly out of the window. One becomes fixated on whether the heavy-handed foreshadowing is a red herring, and if not, then what could be the reason for doing something so obvious? I hoped that Goodnight Mommy would find some way of justifying the inevitable turn of events, but it never does. That's not to say that the film doesn't make sense, but its climactic revelation abandons a rich set up for an obvious finale that loses impact the instant the credits appear. 

A good twist should enable the viewer to rethink everything they saw before and, on repeat viewings, pick up on details that they never knew were important to begin with. Goodnight Mommy shoots itself in the foot by providing details that never fully distract from our initial suspicions. Fiala and Franz trap themselves into choosing between two possible answers, and they pick the inferior option. Goodnight Mommy's final act is wince-inducing and quite often chilling, but it's hard to watch without sensing the missed opportunities. When narrative choices lead viewers to ponder what would have been more intellectually satisfying, it gets in the way of appreciating the good things about an artistic endeavor. 

So while we're at it, let's mention some of those good things. Despite the one note nature of the script, Fiala and Franz's work as directors is quite satisfying. Working with a team of skilled collaborators behind the camera, the duo do an excellent job of stealthily ratcheting up the tension. Even when the instructions of the page irritate, one can simply luxuriate in Goodnight Mommy's rich visuals, which have a potent mix of icy and sun-dappled imagery. 

Performances are also quite striking, which adds another layer of polish to this sophisticated effort. Young children in horror movies are never a sure bet, but the Schwarz twins are very good in their roles. Their picture-perfect Aryan innocence has a blankness that can be used for to suggest the roles of victim or aggressor. Wuest is excellent as well, and plays Mommy as an actual person rather than a domineering monster. 

In fact, just about everything in Goodnight Mommy is top notch, which makes the film's nonexistant impact all the more frustrating. Horror movies are rarely treasured for their scripts, but in character-driven work like this, the writing needs to be on the ball. There is something deeply creepy and twisted buried in the framework on Fiala and Franz's film, but it never materializes consistently. Some stunning visuals and a few jarrings scenes aren't enough. This is one of those movies where so much is done right, but ultimately so little about the final product that feels worthy of enthusiasm.  

Grade: B-/C+