Sicario ***½|****


By this point, it’s become quite clear that director Denis Villeneuve is a man who enjoys challenging his audience. With the constantly twisting plot lines of Prisoners to the subconscious probing head trip that is Enemy, he makes a concerted effort to keep viewers engaged on an intellectual level and more importantly, he isn’t afraid to make bold narrative choices that run the risk of potentially alienating and dividing viewers. He’s done it again with Sicario, a film that can be easily summarized as a day in the life of new DEA agent in cartel-controlled Mexico but slowly reveals itself to be a thoughtful meditation on moral compromise and human frailty.

After raiding an Arizona drug home filled with dozens of corpses linked to cartel violence, FBI agent Kate Macer (a superb Emily Blunt) rises quickly through the ranks and catches the attention of cocky DOD advisor Matt Graver (Josh Brolin). He recruits her to find the men responsible for the killings, which leads them to the threatening streets of Juarez, Mexico. With the help of Graver’s partner Alejandro Gillick (Benicio Del Toro), they must navigate the dangers of an area torn apart by drug trafficking and rampant violence.

And while there are bursts of graphic violence, most notably in a terrifically tense border crossing scene, this film is much more interested in the suggestion of violence rather than displaying the grisly details on screen. During an interrogation scene, the camera lingers on a lone floor drain while faint sounds of anguish can be heard. We can surmise that a man is being tortured but his pain isn’t made visually explicit. An even more prevalent example throughout the film is the gunshots humming in the distance, which serve as an uneasy soundtrack to the hellish cityscape.

We’re informed in the opening frame that “sicario” is Spanish for hitman, which doesn’t seem to be a fitting descriptor for the first half of this film as we follow Macer’s point of view but during a pivotal scene at her apartment, the entire focus of the film seems to shift to Gillick’s perspective. His personal mission and vendetta then start to kick in and seem to supplant the tumultuous moral dilemmas that plague Macer through most of the story. We’re trained, in a way, to root for her to triumph over the moral deficiency of her male superiors but Villeneuve doesn’t give us the satisfaction of an easy conclusion here.

First-time screenwriter Taylor Sheridan deserves ample credit as well, forgoing “message movie” cliches about the war on drugs to write a script that does justice to its characters and the world that they inhabit. Cinematopher Roger Deakins, a true master still waiting patiently for his first Oscar (he’s been nominated 12 times previously), continues his great run of work here with bold choices of camera placement and movement that make even routine scenes exhilarating. Everyone is firing creatively on all cylinders to create this subversive and enduring work.

The Martian ***½|****

Matt Damon in The Martian
Matt Damon in The Martian

Do stories of survival, bleak as their subject material may be, always have to be so serious? Over the years, we’ve seen countless iterations of characters stranded or deserted in various circumstances (Gravity and All Is Lost being recent examples), struggling mightily against the formidable forces of nature. As a storyteller, it’s important to convey the sense of desperation felt by the protagonist but does the perspective need to be drab and dour in every case? Ridley Scott’s The Martian has answered that question with a resounding “no” and in doing so, it has single-handedly reinvigorated the survival film genre and also given the science fiction genre a welcome addition of sly humor as well.

We open with astronaut and botonist Mark Watney (Matt Damon) and his crew, led by Commander Lewis (Jessica Chastain), as their mission on Mars is put into jeopardy by an intense storm that crops up unexpectedly. During an evacuation attempt, Watney is struck by a satellite antenna and presumed dead as the rest of the team reluctantly flees the planet. He wakes to find that he has been stranded with limited resources left to his disposal and with no way of communicating with NASA, he must wring every bit of scientific knowledge from his mind to endure the hostile living conditions of a foreign planet.

What’s so unique and captivating about this movie is the level of pragmatic optimism and self-aware humor that Watney is able to cull from his dire situation. Since the majority of his dialogue is presented via video journal, we not only have the practical benefits of hearing his scientific process firsthand but there also exists a kind of conversational aspect with the audience that allows for plenty of down-to-earth moments of levity that don’t feel contrived. It’s also effective in making him relatable as well; we’re not just rooting for him because he’s an anonymous man under terrible circumstances but because these things are happening to someone that we’ve grown to care about as a human being.

While there is a playfulness and wit to Watney’s narration of the proceedings, there is also a copious amount of good old-fashioned applied science that he details throughout the film. Challenges and obstacles pop up with increasing frequency during his time on the red planet but each one is met individually with a calculated and well-reasoned response. In some ways, this is the most pure form of problem solving that can be exhibited in a feature film but the tricky part is finding a way to present it in a consistently entertaining fashion while still showing respect for the scientific process.

This is where screenwriter Drew Goddard deserves so much credit in his adaptation of Andy Weir’s novel. The writing is not only superbly clever but also thoroughly engaging in following the ingenuity of its main character and the support system around him. Scott also deserves ample praise for balancing the brainy dialogue with a few well-crafted action sequences and also some moments of well-earned suspense. There’s something liberating about how purely The Martian strives for intelligent entertainment and I hope it serves as a model for more science-based movies to come.

The Walk ***|****

Joseph Gordon-Levitt in The Walk
Joseph Gordon-Levitt in The Walk
In August 1974, high-wire artist Philippe Petit stunned the world by rigging a cable between the top of the then-newly built Twin Towers in New York and performing the most daring balancing act ever committed. His remarkable story has been covered in recent years through various mediums, from the children’s picture book The Man Who Walked Between the Towers to the excellent 2008 documentary Man on Wire. Now comes a breathtaking new variation from visual effects maestro Robert Zemeckis, who makes full use of the current IMAX and 3D technologies at his disposal to create another worthy retelling with a truly unforgettable climax.

The plot leading up to the titular Walk is relatively paint-by-numbers biopic fare, with Petit (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) narrating his life’s story over flashbacks while standing atop the torch of the Statue of Liberty. We follow his humble beginnings in France as an apprentice for eccentric ringmaster Papa Rudy (Ben Kingsley) and as a street performer who wins the heart of a young musician named Annie (Charlotte Le Bon). When he happens upon a magazine ad for a gargantuan set of towers that are under construction in the United States, his entire being is immediately dedicated to the sole purpose of claiming his place between the two buildings.

Gordon-Levitt lends a welcome sense of dimension in his portrayal of Petit, fusing aspects of the man’s charm, dedication and whimsy to craft a fleshed out character instead of simply playing him as a crazed buffoon on a tightrope. He also doesn’t shy away from the more unlikeable points of Petit’s personality either, often imbuing his actions with an air of arrogance and selfishness that don’t always make him the easiest guy to root for. It’s true that we may never really know why Petit did what he did that day but Gordon-Levitt seems closest than anyone has previously come to capturing his true essence and  finding the method in his madness.

Like his protagonist, Zemeckis is performing a balancing act of his own: finding a happy medium between the heart and humanity of his characters while also providing a first-rate visual experience. The pacing involved in pulling off a story like this also requires a fair amount of tact as well, as the audience is already aware of the film’s big climax and everything leading up to it could come across as nothing more than tedious build-up. Thankfully, the director has just enough tricks up his sleeve to keep us interested in the story and invested in the characters prior to the high-wire sequence.

This feels like an appropriate time in this review to candidly reveal that I am petrified of heights (as was one of Petit’s accomplices, incidentally) and I had reservations even seeing this movie on that basis. I convinced myself that the rampant use of green screens and CG effects would generate just enough incredulity to keep my fear at bay. I was woefully mistaken. No matter how many times I told myself that this daring escapade was just an illusion, it did nothing to deter the effectiveness of this film’s great event. The audacity and the wonder of Petit’s walk is captured flawlessly in The Walk, even if there are some narrative mis-steps leading up to it.