Category Archives: War

Sicario

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Director Denis Villenueve and cinematographer Roger Deakins have received monumental critical success for 2013’s realistically nightmarish Prisoners and 2014’s menacingly impenetrable Enemy, and the team are beckoned back once more for Sicario, one of Villenueve’s more accessible films, but no less intense. The film kicks off straight at the deep end, and barely even surfaces as the end credits roll. It’s that kind of film – consistently gripping, politically weighty, tension wonderfully palpable.

With the haunting thrums of Johann Johannsson’s masterful score, Sicario lurches into life; Kate Macer an FBI agent played with scintillating vulnerability by Emily Blunt, leads a SWAT mission to infiltrate a house along the USA-Mexico border with links to a drug cartel. Not everything goes to plan, and the horrifying sight of a mass of rotting bodies is uncovered, provided as the lingering image that launches Sicario’s mature, if well-worn plot. Macer is recruited into a combative border control task force, supposedly attempting to diminish a drug cartel behind the film’s shocking opener. From there, she meets the charismatic, sandal-wearing operation leader Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) and his shady, threatening partner Alejandro Gillick (Benicio del Toro). The operatives  immediately encounter danger during an astonishing bridge crossing sequence, the brimming intensity producing one of the best scenes of the year.

If the film had kept up this ferocious potency, we’d be looking at a 5-star film. Unfortunately, Taylor Sheridan’s script suffers from a dramatic lull in its second act – the film picks up again during a night-time mineshaft raid, but by then, the damage is done, the tension hasn’t been maintained. A part of the problem is that the script’s subject matter is inherently tired, and so Sheridan’s attempt to deviate and provide a fresh take on the matter has sacrificed Sicario’s clearly confused focus point. The third-act switch from Blunt’s Kate Macer to Benicio del Toro’s Alejandro Gillick is brave but jarring; instead of a smooth transition, we are thrusted into his life with little prior development of his character, and so as an audience we aren’t invested in his travails, despite his actions being crucial to the plot’s overarching themes. There is also a noticeable emphasis placed on a Mexican police officer named Silvio (Maximiliano Hernandez) and his family, which serves as a well-intended microcosm for Mexico as a whole that’s lost in the story’s main narrative. It deserves it’s place in the film, but is integrated in a way that gives it the impression of seeming irrelevant.

Denis Villenueve’s direction competently masks Sicario’s wayward plot, however. His visual chemistry and nous for generating mood is made clear in his partnership with Roger Deakins, who brings the film’s central themes and tones to life: a haunting aerial shot of Mexico that establishes the residences’ terrifying beauty, a mesmerising sunset long-take that portrays the operatives as literally disappearing into the ground, and a powerful wide shot of a family at their kitchen table all help to muster up Sicario’s terrific energy and strikingly dark attitude.

Yet the film would still fall apart without its three central performances – Emily Blunt’s aforementioned vulnerability is nuanced and displays a sense of hopelessness that is omnipresent throughout the film’s running time. Josh Brolin is physically imposing and uses charismatic quirkiness to juxtapose his fraudulent motivations, and Benicio del Toro is satisfyingly cold and calculated, his strive for revenge a far cry from his sleepy, charming introduction.

Only a competent rather than excelling script hinders Sicario’s potency. It’s shot wonderfully, acted effectively and is directed in a way that portrays its mature themes without detracting from their sociopolitical heft. Villenueve has followed up his recent success with another scorcher of a film.

-Gus Edgar

Macbeth

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“I dare do all that may become a man. Who dares do more is none.” utters Michael Fassbender’s Macbeth, in a heavy Scottish accent, in a hushed tone, amid a racketing score. Macbeth’s mantra may as well be anything else – you can’t hear the dialogue anyway. It is clear that director Justin Kurzel prioritises the visceral over the cerebral in his endeavours to display Shakespeare’s tragedy for the umpteenth time. At first, its style seems like its the right choice; this Shakespearean adaptation is not like any other. Sadly, a terrific nous for visual flair is heavily burdened by inane plot choices, poor pacing and poorer character development.

It’s a wonder how Macbeth – Shakespeare’s shortest play – somehow feels both needlessly long and clumsily rushed. There are notable omissions of the playwright, where stylistically showy battle scenes with heavy use of slow motion and colour, but poor cogency and fluency, are substituted in instead. It’s a brave choice, but a foolish one – amid the chaos of sword-wielding and slaughter, the actual action is obscured inanely by frantic camera movements and Fassbender’s increasingly-tedious piercing gaze. Oddly enough, it’s reminiscent of 300. Only a little bit more arthouse, and a little bit more precious.

The film’s quiet moments of reflection don’t fare well either, even if you do actually understand the murmured dialogue. Fassbender tries his hardest to bring life to the titular character, but his stilted delivery (Kurzel at fault, rather than Fassbender himself) and rushed descent into madness diminishes any nuances that the character could possess. The plot jumps from days to months without any indication (Unless that indication was a brief unintelligible whisper), and as such, Macbeth’s madness doesn’t have any forewarning – he is sane, and, at once, insane. Marion Cotillard’s Lady Macbeth suffers from the same pacing problems; her demise is sudden, and due to the little screen time or dialogue afforded to her, there’s no emotional attachment to give her big scene any heft. I’m a huge fan of Cotillard, but she’s disappointingly tame, appearing disinterested and straining for an accent that doesn’t exist.

It’s not all negatives, however. Kurzel makes good use of lighting and hues, and has a stylistic approach with bags of potential – though perhaps not suited to Macbeth. The score, when not shrouding the script, serves well to heighten the tension of the battle scenes. And as a Shakespearean adaptation, it’s an ambitious, admirable effort. Unfortunately, it’s not a successful one; like Macbeth himself, Kurzel dares to do all, but ends up as none.

– Gus Edgar

Beasts of No Nation – LFF 2015

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Netflix’s first foray into feature films looks to be a wise, wise choice; there’s been talk of Beasts of No Nation becoming a major Oscar contender by the end of the year, and it’s not hard to see why. The film follows Agu, a West-African child that, after being separated in vicious circumstances from his endearing family, is forcibly enlisted and raised by a ruthless yet engaging ‘Commandant’, to become a child soldier. It’s harrowing, relevant subject matter, and the film doesn’t shy away from the tragedies and awful consequences that arise with the recruitment of youngsters to fight in a savage, territorial war.

The film starts off harmlessly enough, with a smiling Agu (played terrifically by first-timer Abraham Attah) cheekily attempting to sell an ‘imagination-TV’ with his friends. The comedy and joy is quickly diminished, and the descent into ferocious, troubling war is cleverly contrasted by its jubilant epilogue. Director Cary Fukunaga, of True Detective fame, excels in crafting sequences of intense, tragic warzones; encapsulating Beast of No Nation as a whole, they’re brave, visually mesmerising and unafraid to detail the immense bloodshed. These scenes are shot by Fukunaga himself, where the camerawork is used wonderfully – particularly in an overwhelmingly powerful tracking shot – to capture both the sorrow and the survivalist instinct of the men shown on screen. It’s kinetic and stylistically superb, but doesn’t burden the terrifyingly realistic action.

Abraham Attah is a revelation as Agu – emotionally astounding and maturely performed. It’s testament to Attah that he matches – and often goes beyond – the more showy, brutal performance by Idris Elba as Agu’s commandant. Elba adds complexity to a character that wisely avoids becoming melodramatic, completely transforming into his taxing role.

Due to its subject matter, the film is unavoidably emotional and upsetting to watch, with many scenes difficult to sit through without covering your eyes at the horror of it all. Aided by Dan Romer’s unusual, effective synthetic score, there are many tearjerking moments that beautifully evoke anguish of Agu’s situation, yet it never feels like the film is manipulative or overly preachy. One scene, around halfway into the film, shows white tourists indifferently snapping photos of the war-stricken battalion as they pass by; Beasts of No Nation’s message is clear. Something needs to change.

– Gus Edgar

 

 

American Sniper

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Clint Eastwood’s critical, box office and Academy Awards juggernaut tells the tale of Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper), a prolific, er, American sniper, and his endeavours on and off the battlefield during the Iraq war. It’s a heavily lethargic adaptation of a heavily controversial book about a heavily divisive ‘American Hero’. Not to say that the flick itself is wildly patriotic – though the ending tries its best to disprove that – but nor is it an anti-war film, as director Eastwood haplessly attempts to argue. Which is where American Sniper’s greatest fault, among many faults, lies; it’s a film that is too afraid to carry any political heft, any commentary that would make the viewing experience worthwhile. As a result, the whole point of the film is rendered null.

A war film not bold enough to make a statement is playing it unforgivably safe and choosing to appease to a mass audience – as it did, generating almost $350 million in the US – at the expense of a weighty, powerful, good quality drama. With that choice made by Eastwood, any potential that American Sniper has is diminished. If you look at war classics – Saving Private Ryan, The Thin Red Line – they take a memorable, bold stance at the repercussions of war (among powerful existentialism, which American Sniper doesn’t have either). American Sniper is devoid of anything remotely satisfying to take away from the ‘experience’ it offers.

It’s reluctance to carry political weight is just one of American Sniper’s many, many problems. Clint Eastwood doesn’t deal in subtlety here; the classic advice of ‘show, don’t tell’ is completely disregarded. A doctor, informing Kyle ‘Wow, your blood pressure is really high’ is laughable in execution and an incredibly clumsy way to get the character’s PTSD across; as is a TV screen overlaid by gunfire, or Kyle’s rage at a broadcasted 9/11 attack (which almost reaches Jon Voight-levels of overblown disgust). This lack of subtlety exemplifies how poorly-written and portrayed Bradley Cooper’s character is: Cooper’s does his best to present Kyle with the script he’s been given, and he does a fine job (without ever being deserving of that Oscar nomination), but Chris Kyle is a despicable human being who felt no remorse for his actions overseas, and Eastwood chooses to neglect this fact; skirting on an ‘American Hero’ interpretation before confirming it just before the ending credits. It’s a deplorable decision from Eastwood, and one that hinders his flick immediately.

This isn’t helped by his inability to inject any life into the film: the flick is lifeless, devoid of any colour or energy; even during the action sequences, this lack of life burdens scenes that would otherwise grab attention – reducing gunfire to dull echoes. There are moments of tension – the flick’s first trailer spoiling one of them – but these moments are few and far between, and are lost amid the mass of boredom presented by a seemingly bored director himself. The film’s generic, lazy score does little to redeem the continuous lull of excitement, nor does Sienna Miller’s awful, wooden performance as Kyle’s wife. The film’s only truly enjoyable moment arrives in the form of an unintentionally funny scene involving a ridiculously fake baby.

Eastwood’s Oscar darling is an American Sniper that wildly misses the target.

– Gus Edgar

Grave of the Fireflies

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For all the praise I’ve seen Studio Ghibli receive, I’ve never been all too interested in watching their animations. Aside from Spirited Away, which I saw, enjoyed and forgot about a fair few years back, my investment in any of the studio’s films has waned. So then, I realise I’ve made a horrible mistake. Recommended to me with the confidence that it’ll be a ‘cry-fest’ (Just look at the title!), Grave of the Fireflies has assuredly reinvigorated my interest in the studio’s peculiar, heartfelt animations that have a certain type of charm to them – a charm not found in any 3D animation that Disney Pixar, Disney and DreamWorks churn out.

The film takes place in Japan during the final few months of WWII, where American air raids tore through the Japanese towns and villages. It follows Seita, a 14 year-old boy, and Setsuko, Seita’s (very) little sister, through their travails to survive bombings, poverty and malnutrition. It begins by revealing that the two protagonists die during the course of the film – portrayed as spirits shrouded by a red hue, the opening is both harrowing and visually stunning in equal measure. Which really does sum up the film – devastating, though the emotional punch not as powerful as I expected, yet exceedingly beautiful and a perfect portrayal of both the horrors and the idyllic nature of the Japanese countryside.

The score used for Grave of the Fireflies is equally powerful, tragedy conveyed by simple melodies. It’s use brings many moments of genuine joy – Setsuko running around with a group of fireflies is an exceptionally heartwarming moment – but also accentuates incredibly touching sequences – Setsuko’s tear-jerking instances of happiness particularly moving.

That’s not to say that Grave of the Fireflies is a perfect movie. While the animation is fantastic in places, it’s similarly rough and shaky in others. The voice acting feels forced (well, at least the English version) as do many of the characters’ actions (Seita’s aunt’s resentment towards the two protagonists is too drastic a shift in her feelings towards them). And while Setsuko’s death is moving, the fact that the audience expects it negates some of its intended effect.

Yet these few negatives don’t burden this sweet Japanese animation drastically – it remains a touching story with a mesmerising animation style; one that has reintroduced me into the quirky world of Studio Ghibli.

– Gus Edgar

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas

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Mark Herman’s fascinating  adaptation of this famous book is a tearful adventure of propaganda and emotion. The story is set in Germany, during the Second World War, where rich-kid Bruno (Asa Butterfield) resides with his family. Cue a sudden move to the German countryside, due to his father’s (David Thewlis) important work as a Nazi officer. Bruno is introduced to a desolate house with a peculiar “farm” across the woodland..

Not many films are as achingly depressing as The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. Not many endings will leave you as empty inside. This is the true intentions of the film; Mark Herman leads you through twists and turns, building up the sorrow, and at the finale you expect the release of all this sorrow, you expect resolution. It never arrives. Themes brought up throughout the film are developed exceedingly well. The treatment of the suffering, “inhuman” Jews is relentless, yet is contrasted by the rare moments of happiness felt; Shmual’s (Jack Scanion) laughter during a Checkers game with Bruno, separated by an electric fence surrounding the concentration camp, and Bruno’s mother’s (Vera Farmiga) thankfulness towards a helpful Jew who fixes Bruno’s knee.

Bruno’s innocence is also explored in depth during the film; he consistently refers to the Jewish prisoners as “farmers”, blissfully unaware about the harsh reality. Furthermore, his innocence is scarred when he betrays Schmaul, sending him back to his concentration camp with a black eye.

Heartfelt moments are few and far between; the friendship between Schmaul and Bruno is unorthodox, but works in the sense that it gives the audience momentary joy. Of course, that joy is interrupted during the final scene. In the case of emotions, this film commonly includes depression and anguish; the mother’s hate at the treatment of Jews, an outrageous funeral scene and a gut-wrenching finale all give this film a lack of any form of resolution.

Vera Farmiga is by far and away the most assured, confident actor. Her development throughout the film, the twist and turns she faces, her refusal to back down; she breaks out of her stereotype and into a model of commanding stature, having a great influence on the course of the film. David Thewlis plays his part consistently well, as the manipulative father who despite his sinister acts behind closed doors, is a loving family man, corrupt by hatred of the Jews. Asa Butterfield works well in his role, and although not as developed or emotionally disjointed as the other characters (which fits well with his innocence), does just enough to put in a solid performance. Jack Scanion flourishes in his role, with the use of long periods of silence, stretched scenes and heartfelt drama making him a character of sorrow. His maturity despite his age contrasts effectively with Bruno.

So then, what’s not to love about The Boy in the Striped Pajamas? It’s only a few nitpicks here and there; Bruno’s sister’s character feels forced, and as a result, undeveloped, while there are many implausibilities, such as how none of the soldiers didn’t notice the “secret” discussions going on between Bruno and his sister. Furthermore, the film totters on the edge of pretentiousness in a few scenes. All in all though, this is a solid film, an emotional rollercoaster with a fitting finale.

– Gus Edgar