Dia de los Muertos

Sicario: Day of the Soldado

by Hope Madden

How’s your summer going?

It may be good, but I bet it’s not Josh Brolin good.

He’s having a one-of-a-kind summer. The kind that follows blockbuster Avengers: Infinity War and Deadpool 2 with the sequel to the film that should have earned him his second Oscar nomination. (It also should have won Benicio Del Toro his second Oscar.)

But can Sicario: Day of the Soldado accomplish as much insightful commentary, intimate drama and visceral action as Denis Villeneuve’s riveting 2015 peek behind the curtains of the drug war?

The first piece of great news: writer Taylor Sheridan returns, scripting another border war with the cartels, this time focused less on drugs, more on smuggling terrorists across to the US.

Now for the bad news. Visionary director Villeneuve does not return, nor does legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins. Or Emily Blunt.

Dude, that hurts.

But del Toro and Brolin are back, and they were so fun last time. Brolin’s brash, deceptively easygoing Matt Graver has another mission requiring that he get dirty, which means more work for his favorite operative, played with shadowy precision by del Toro.

Cleveland’s own Isabela Moner joins the cast as a kingpin’s daughter, and for a moment you might think that the hole Blunt left has been filled. Defiant and solitary, Moner’s Isabella Reyes quickly becomes an enigmatic character you long to get to know better.

Unfortunately, we don’t. Equally underused is the great Catherine Keener, playing the administrator who holds Graver’s leash.

Dariusz Wolski is a gifted cinematographer, but he’s no Roger Deakins, whose brutal cinematic lyricism gave Sicario its arresting beauty. That fluidity is missing from the sequel, along with the fierce idealism that so perfectly balanced the cynical nature of the story.

Gone, too, are Graver’s eccentricities. Though Brolin’s performance is strong, the character himself has become little more than the traditional conflicted mercenary.

Likewise, del Toro is given a more ordinary man’s role. Not entirely ordinary, but that enigma that haunted Sicario serves more to keep the story moving forward, his time on screen rarely allowing a glimpse at who he is or, more frustratingly, how he and Moner’s Isabella respond to each other.

It sounds like it’s all bad news, and it’s not. Director Stefano Sollima serves up a fine, edgy piece of action for the summer. It’s just that I’d hoped for more.

Dead Again

Deadpool 2

by Hope Madden

Machine gun fire gags, self-referential comments, foul language, meta laughs, gore for the sake of comedy and fourth-wall bursting—it appears the sequel to 2016’s surprise blockbuster Deadpool cometh.

Since we left Wade/Deadpool (Ryan Reynolds), the avocado-faced super-anti-hero spends his days dispatching international criminals and his nights snuggling tight with his beloved Vanessa (Morena Baccarin). When tragedy strikes, Wade spirals into suicidal depression and finds himself in the titanium arms of X-Man Colossus (voiced by Stefan Kapicic), by the side of troubled adolescent mutant Russell (Julian Dennison, Hunt for the Wilderpeople), and then in the path of time-traveling mercenary Cable (Josh Brolin, having a good year).

In the midst of all this, Reynolds never stops cracking wise on every comic book or pop cultural reference that can be squeezed into two hours. Bursts of laughter pepper the film’s landscape like mines. It’s fun. Hollow, but fun.

Origin stories are tough, but following a fresh, irreverent surprise of an origin story might be even tougher. Deadpool’s laughs came often at the expense of the gold-hearted, furrow-browed, money-soaked superhero franchises that came before it. Now a cash machine of a franchise itself, riffing on that same bit is a difficult sell. Deadpool 2 has essentially become the butt of that very joke.

Writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick return, sharing the pen with Reynolds this go-round. Atomic Blonde director David Leitch takes the helm, promising the inspired action that made his Charlize Theron spy thriller so very thrilling.

But Leitch’s action feels saddled and uninspired, and Reese and Wernick’s screenplay is basically a reimagining of a truly excellent time-travel flick from a few years back (that will remain nameless to avoid spoilers).

Deadpool 2 is very funny, often quite clever, and sometimes wrong-minded in the best way. An Act 2 parachuting adventure feels magical, and the new blood brings fresh instinct to the mix. Dennison straddles humor and angst amazingly well, and Zazie Beetz brings a fun energy to the film as the heroically lucky Domino.

Brolin, for the second time in a month, commands the screen with a performance that has no right to be as nuanced and effecting as it is.

Ryan Reynolds is Ryan Reynolds, but he’s just so good at it.

The film’s cynical, hard-candy shell makes way for a super-gooey inside that Reynolds doesn’t have the capacity to carry off. Worse still, it undermines the biting sensibility that made the first Deadpool such an antidote for the summer blockbuster.

But I guess that’s what happens when you become the thing you mock.

We Won’t Tell You Who Dies

Avengers: Infinity War

by Hope Madden and George Wolf

Let’s say you recently penned Captain America: Civil War, an exceedingly successful comic book franchise effort weighed down by the mushrooming of heroes. So. Many. Heroes.

And let’s say it went so well that you are now tasked with the new Avengers movie—the film that takes very nearly every hero from your last effort and tacks on, say, 7 or 8 more. You would almost have to immediately think about thinning the herd, right?

Yes.

Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (who’ve penned all three Captain America films) weave a Marvel Universe-spanning tale that asks whether or not things would work out better if we had about half as many people to deal with. That seems like writerly self-reflection right there.

Thanos (Josh Brolin, who villains it up for Deadpool 2 next) believes in balance. He’s been collecting Infinity Stones across all the different Marvel movies so he can create this Justice Friends adventure and rid the universe of half its inhabitants.

Wait, Thanos is a Guardians of the Galaxy villain, right? Does that mean Starlord’s entire rag-tag crew will join the Avengers (and Dr. Strange and Black Panther and Spiderman and on and on)? So, Chris Pratt, Chris Evans and Chris Hemsworth?

Correct.

All we need to defeat Thanos is Chris Pine. No way six Infinity Stones can outshine the wattage of all the Chrisses!

The screenplay offers smart comic moments that suit individual characters (Drax! Teenaged Groot!) and never undermine the drama, of which there is plenty. And balance is clearly on the minds of the writers as well as directors Anthony and Joe Russo (who helmed the last two Captain American films and love Cleveland). The storyline divides up nicely to allow the plethora of personalities to shine, each in their own way.

Though the film runs a full 2 ½ hours with the end-of-credits stinger, it never drags. Plenty happens, all of it rooted in character and held together by Brolin, who gives the film a layered epicenter through his memorable CGI/voice performance.

The Thanos facial effects rank somewhere between Planet of the Apes and Superman’s mustache, while the outlying worlds and creatures sport satisfactory shine.

But we cannot get behind what they’re doing with Hulk. Not digging it.

The very best films in the Marvel universe excel in nuanced big thinking (Black Panther, Winter Soldier) or bullseye tonality (Spider-Man: Homecoming). Infinity War gets close on both battlegrounds, but lays up to bet on its own long game.

True, that sounds like cliched word salad, but we’re steering clear of planet spoiler.

Infinity War tackles some big ideas and makes some brave choices that may cause you to reassess the entire Marvel franchise.

Not everyone will be pleased.

But props to Markus, McFeely and the Russos, for being unmoved by the Last Jedi fanboy uproar and following an ambitious vision. And their film does entertain. There’s not a minute of bloat and there is plenty of thought-provoking story likely to make this a movie earning more respect through time and space.

The Fire Inside

Only the Brave

by George Wolf

As wildfires continue to devastate areas of California, it seems incredibly timely for the debut of a populist firefighter tribute full of bombast and manipulation.

Thankfully, Only the Brave is not that movie.

Director Joseph Kosinski seems well aware of overwrought pitfalls so easily indulged, taking care to deepen our connection to major players as events build to a terrifying, true-life conclusion.

Based on the GQ article “No Exit,” co-writers Ken Nolan and Eric Warren Singer deftly adapt the story of Arizona’s Granite Mountain Hotshots, the first group of municipal firefighters to achieve elite “Hotshot” status.

Josh Brolin stars as supervisor Eric Marsh, a firefighting vet trying to ready his seasoned pros and new recruits for both the upcoming season and the essential state evaluations. Rookie Brendan McDonough (Miles Teller) is the team’s biggest question mark, a recovering drug addict and new father who’s determined to turn his life around.

While filmmaker Peter Berg has perfected a successful formula of quick character intros, then frenetic action for his “unsung hero” films (Deepwater Horizon, Patriots Day), Kosinski (Oblivion) is committed to a separate but equally effective path.

There are cliches here, such as a frequent “lost cause” metaphor and the obligatory stoic women standing by their men, but Kosinki and his writers are able to keep them in the background through an emphasis on intimate storytelling. We see the fires battled in often spectacular fashion, but we also come to feel the toll the job takes on family life. We learn firefighting tactics along with the newbies, and as Brendan fights to prove his worth to the mother of his child (Natalie Hall), Teller finds a nicely subtle groove to get us on Brendan’s side as well.

Even better are Brolin’s scenes with Jennifer Connelly as Marsh’s wife Amanda. Through these two skilled actors and some pointed dialogue, a couple’s fight to hold on to each other feels authentic, and the film finds an emotional core that will pay later dividends.

Often powerfully gripping and thrilling to watch, Only the Brave is a fitting salute to real people that deserve one.

 

 

 

It’s Only Make Believe

Hail, Caesar!

by George Wolf

Coen Brothers films can be brilliant (No Country for Old Men, A Serious Man), or not (The Ladykillers, The Hudsucker Proxy), but they’re always crafted with interesting ideas. Hail, Caesar! offers a few too many of those ideas and not enough places for them to fully take root.

The setting is Hollywood’s “Golden Age” of the 1950s, when Hail, Caesar! is the new “story of the Christ” epic being produced by Capitol pictures, and starring their biggest asset, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney).

Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) is the square-jawed, no nonsense Capitol studio “fixer,” which means he’s the one dealing with kidnappers who are demanding 100,000 dollars for Whitlock’s safe return.

But there’s more.

Swimming-pool starlet DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johannson) is facing a scandalous pregnancy, singing cowboy Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) is having trouble adjusting to his new image makeover, and communists may have infiltrated the studio!

Looks like Eddie picked a bad week to quit smoking! No, really, he promised his wife he would quit, and his tobacco guilt is just one of the issues that makes a regular in the confession booth.

Crisscrossing situations combine for a madcap romp that homages various classics of the era, including musical numbers recalling Gene Kelly, Esther Williams and Roy Rogers. The Coens’ writing is as witty and eccentric as ever, but save for two specific bits, rarely more than amusing.

Eddie’s consultation with a roomful of religious elders about the studio’s depiction of Jesus leads to some nice one-liners, while Hobie’s struggle to wrap his cowboy drawl around more refined dialogue finally turns funny after how-long-can-this-go-on repetition and the growing disgust of Hobie’s proper English director (Ralph Fiennes).

Like Fiennes, more famous faces (Channing Tatum, Tilda Swinton, Jonah Hill) come and go quickly, all beautifully framed by esteemed cinematographer Roger Deakins, but the parade of glorified cameos only makes the film’s eccentricities seem more disconnected.

Still, Hail, Caesar! is a fine looking swing that just misses. Beneath all the old Hollywood glamour is familiar Coen territory: faith, folly, finding your purpose and just trying to live a good life.

They’ve done it worse, but they’ve done it better.

Verdict-3-0-Stars

 

Effective Blunt Instrument

Sicario

by Hope Madden

How versatile is Emily Blunt?

Who’d have thought, back when she caught our attention in Devil Wears Prada or The Young Victoria that she’d step so easily into the role of badass? But between her shotgun-wielding protector in Looper and her Sigourney Weaver-esque role in Edge of Tomorrow, she’s proven as compelling a figure in action as she is in comedy and drama. She proves her mettle again in Denis Villeneuve’s take on the drug war, Sicario.

Blunt plays Kate Macer, a determined cop working hostage crises who’s promoted to a vaguely defined drug taskforce. She will find that her desire to make an impact and her hunger for justice do not always gel. It’s a flawed character who struggles against her naiveté while battling to keep her idealism intact in an operation that vividly encapsulates the murky, complex, and unwholesome battle at our Southern border.

As wonderful as Blunt is, she’s matched step for step by Josh Brolin, as a flippant senior officer who finds humor where most of us would not, and a breathtaking Benicio Del Toro.

Del Toro is at his best as a haunted, mysterious consultant on the case, and his relationship with Blunt’s character is equally menacing and tender.

Villeneuve’s films are dark and challenging, which is certainly the case with Sicario – his most satisfying film to date.

By focusing as intimately as he does on three or four characters, the global picture he paints is anchored, becoming more relevant and comprehensible. Roger Deakins’s weirdly beautiful cinematography mimics the rising panic of Kate’s attempt to soak in every piece of information in her new surroundings, generating an awestruck and terrified depiction of the escalating action.

Villeneuve walks a line between thoughtful drama and all out action film, never abandoning character while still creating arresting, unforgettable action sequences. The opening scene will stay with you, while two different visits to the border – one above ground, one below – are pure cinematic genius.

A tourism advertisement it is not, but Sicario offers an insightful, thrilling glimpse into a possibly unsolvable riddle.

Verdict-4-0-Stars

The Master Returns

Inherent Vice

by Hope Madden

Where Inherent Vice most succeeds is in proving that both Joaquin Phoenix and filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson can do anything.

Phoenix and Anderson collaborated on their 2012 masterpiece The Master, but the spawn of their latest partnership couldn’t be any more different. You know Phoenix – brooding, troubled, powerful – but comedic? Likeable? Sort of weirdly adorable, even?

That’s what you’ll find in this film.

Phoenix plays Larry “Doc” Sportello, an inebriated private detective working LA in 1970. Sweeter than Hunter S. Thompson, edgier than Dude Lebowski, Doc swims in the vaporous haze of every drug he can grab while he muddles through a series of interconnected and apparently non-paying cases.

Though the screen mostly brims with light hearted debauchery, expect a handful of truly powerful, even difficult scenes. Such tonal shifts can become cinematic weaknesses, but in hands like Anderson’s they pull in the darkness that underlies the choice or circumstances that delivers a person to this life on the fringes.

It comes as no surprise that Anderson can work magic where other directors might falter; the man’s a flawless filmmaker. He’s never made a film that was anything shy of brilliant. Even the Coen brothers made a handful of only-adequate films (The Hudsucker Proxy, The Ladykillers, Intolerable Cruelty). Not Anderson.

Not only can he direct, he can cast. Inherent Vice is an ensemble piece boasting a host of memorable if often tiny (and in some cases possibly imaginary) roles. Reese Witherspoon is a stitch as a straight laced assistant DA. She has a soft spot for loopy hippie PI’s, but draws the line at dirty feet.

Equally fun are Owen Wilson, Benicio Del Toro, Jena Malone and Martin Short. (Martin Short!) But Josh Brolin steals the show.

What each is doing can be a bit fuzzy, but then Doc’s usually a bit fuzzy, and therein lies the genius of this film. It opens, hardboiled noir-style, with a dame from the past showing up on this dick’s doormat with a story to peddle and a request to make.

But from there, puzzling out the details and conspiracies becomes as tough for the viewer as it is for the detective because Doc is as high as a kite.

Rather than a true mystery, the film offers a wonderful image of the political, social and cultural tensions of an era without pointing out that intention. It’s nutty, brilliant stuff.

Verdict-4-0-Stars

What Gives?

 

by George Wolf

Walking out of the preview screening for Labor Day, a woman behind me remarked, “I don’t know..I need action, a hook in the back or something!”

So, while the film won’t please the “hook in back” demographic, it will also let down fans of writer/director Jason Reitman, who makes a curious left turn into overcooked melodrama.

Adapted from the source novel by Joyce Maynard, it is a story told in flashback narration by Henry (Tobey Maquire), recalling one memorable Labor Day weekend from his youth.

While shopping with his mother Adele (Kate Winslet), young Henry is approached by Frank (Josh Brolin), an escaped convict on the run.  Quietly forcing his will upon them, Frank takes refuge in their New Hampshire home, nursing the wounds from his jailbreak and slowly becoming a savior to both mother and son.

The breakdown of her marriage has left Adele constantly depressed, and left Henry without a strong male role model. How fortunate that Frank cooks, fixes most anything, knows baseball, swears he’s not the monster the papers say he is, and oh, yeah, simmers with sexuality.

As does most of the film, juxtaposing Adele’s clear ache for a man with young Henry’s exploding hormones. It’s all very earnest and obvious, miles away from the brilliant edge Reitman brought to every other feature he’s done (Thank You for Smoking, Juno, Up in the Air, Young Adult).

It makes you wonder just what inspired Reitman to film this story, one that is equal parts Douglas Sirk and Nicholas Sparks. Perhaps it was just the challenge of elevating it, to see if his talents, combined with those of strong actors, could give it resonance.

While Labor Day is indeed better for all of their efforts, the air of disappointment lingers.

 

Verdict-2-5-Stars

 

 

 

Why Do New?

Oldboy

by Hope Madden

When contemplating Spike Lee’s new film Oldboy, don’t ask yourself why central character Joe Doucett  was set free. It’s pointless to even ask why he was imprisoned in the first place. The real question is: why remake this movie?

Seriously, what was it about the experience of watching Chan-wook Park’s 2003 masterpiece of punishment that made Spike Lee want to make his own version? Did he see things he thought needed improvement? Thought the US audience wouldn’t sit through subtitles? Or more likely, thought we needed a watered down, moralistic version?

The thing about the original Oldboy it that you just can’t unsee that film. There’s no way to watch the reboot without comparing. If you haven’t seen the original, then you still have the fresh perspective on the mystery unraveling, as Joe finds himself strangely incarcerated for 20 years, then even more mysteriously set free.

But if you have seen the original, then you, like me, may have wailed aloud the first time you heard someone planned to make an English language version, certain as you were that they would gut the tale, sterilize it, tidy it up, give it heart.

But then you saw the first couple ads for Lee’s version, and you thought – well, good cast (Josh Brolin, Sam Jackson, Elizabeth Olsen, Sharlto Copley). And the ads suggested a very close approximation to the original. But in your heart you knew Brolin was no Min-sik Choi and Lee is no Chan-wook Park.

Obviously, both are extremely talented, but the film is a mismatch to their particular gifts. Lee struggles to find a tone, and while Brolin’s transformation impresses, it feels stale and safe when compared to the mania Choi brought to the role.

Most damagingly, screenwriter Mark Protosevich is not up to the task of adapting the original screenplay, or the manga that spawned it.

No, apparently we need a heart. We need a hero. We need a straightforward story where, though details are lurid, lessons are learned. Tidied where it shouldn’t be, sloppy elsewhere (Copley could really have dialed down the Dr. Evil), Oldboy has trouble on every front.

Plot summary for a review of Oldboy will not stand. Even a neutered, disappointing retread deserves to keep all its secrets intact. But Lee and Protosevich pull punch after punch that Park landed with relish, and their reigned-in, moralistic mess of a film won’t satisfy newcomers or fans.

Verdict-2-0-Stars

 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vd20pywMXuY