Sicario

Taylor Sheridan is having a pretty good run at the moment. Last year, Hell or High Water, a neo-Western crime thriller starring Chris Pine, got nominated for Best Picture. This year, he finally directed one of his own scripts in Wind River, a much darker but equally thrilling look at a series of murders on an Indian reservation. A writer making a name for himself in Hollywood is difficult these days, the only other famous one that comes to mind is Charlie Kaufman. Yet there's something so real about Sheridan's characters, and you can't help but genuinely care about them as he ramps up the tension. This all started with Sicario however, a huge and well deserved breakout for Sheridan, putting his name out there in a way that would pave the road for his later successes.

From nearly the very beginning, a sense of unease and wrongness pervades every scene. It starts with a semi-routine police bust led by Kate Mercer (Emily Blunt) that escalates quickly with the discovery of bodies and a hidden bomb in what appears to be some sort of Cartel safehouse. After this, Kate is tossed into an operation which she vaguely understands is related to the Cartel member she believes is connected to the home, and is shipped off with team members who have questionable credentials and even more questionable motives. It's at this moment, not even 30 minutes in, that things start to not feel right. Emily Blunt does a great job being the audiences vehicle, emoting exactly what we're feeling, this confused and apprehensive tone to her voice the whole time. The flow of information to her is controlled very well here by the writer to promote this sense of vague unease, as we're given enough info to understand mostly what's happening, but the details are kept hazy, and new pieces of conflicting and disquieting information keep popping up and throwing us off balance. All of this contributes to this feeling, this nagging feeling that something is wrong, something bad is happening and we can't figure out what it is. In the first big firefight of the movie, Kate at one point can't help but yell out "What the f*** are we doing?" as people are mowed down around her in full view of civilians, the exact thing that every audience member should be wondering at that exact moment.

All of these things are a part of what drives the tension in Sicario. Kate is an FBI agent, thrust into a world where the rules are less strict, the lines between good and bad much less clear, where her allies have their own agendas that don't line up with how she normally does things. She's dragged into something that begins to affect her personal life, invade every aspect of who she is, and it's unsettling. Sheridan's movies are all very good at keeping things tense, but Sicario especially has a sense of imminent danger that comes with the subject matter, and he plays it very well. Even in her downtime, even on her own home turf, Kate becomes a stranger, a pawn in a much larger game that she has no hope of controlling or understanding. This is not to say that she is a weak character, she is simply a person who is thrust into a world that is darker and more ambiguous than she is used to, who is forced at gunpoint to do things that she views as wrong. She is presented with a situation in which no rational person would know what to do. It is only these CIA agents, with years of murder, espionage, and who knows what else under their belt that can traverse this world without coming out uninjured. Kate is not one of these people, and she comes out of this film worse for wear than she started. She has seen what goes on in the shadows, what occurs in secret operations, and it has scarred her, knowing that these people will get away with what they've done. She stares institutional corruption in the face, and she gives up not because she is weak, but because her strength means nothing in the wake of such a beast.

Benicio Del Toro deserves his own little blurb as well, because his character is absolutely terrifying. From the beginning, he is always in control, always two steps ahead, and always doing whatever suits his needs best. He has a singular mission, and is simply using whoever he can to complete it. This works just fine for the CIA, as they essentially don't care what chaos he wreaks along the way as long as he completes his mission. But through the eyes of Kate, we see a man who stands for nearly the opposite of everything she does. He doesn't care about procedure, about human rights, about jurisdiction, or about collateral damage. He is the personification of this institutional corruption that Kate faces, a man who is essentially untouchable, and chooses to use this power to hurt people in the name of his own interests. There's a particular scene near the end, where all of Del Toro's face is covered in darkness except for a small part around his left eye, and you can feel the power that he wields in that moment, and you understand that whatever he wants, he will get, one way or another.

All of this is beautifully rendered on screen by Villeneuve, everything is put in exactly it's right place at the right time. Part of the fun of following Sheridan is seeing how different directors treat his scripts, and having Villeneuve direct Sicario was just brilliance. Especially the tunnel scene towards the end is shot and edited in such a great way, so many memorable images, and once they're in the tunnel, there is such a claustrophobic feeling to it, once again heightening the tension and helping the audience feel exactly as Kate does: lost, hurt, and confused. Having someone like Villeneuve direct his first major picture was an incredible opportunity for Sheridan, and one that clearly paid off. Sicario is an exciting thrill ride that will keep you tense and on the edge of your seat for it's full 2 hour runtime, and it'll leave you with images and scenes that you'll be thinking about days later.

Blade Runner 2049

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Around 2012 or 2013, news came out about Ridley Scott possibly wanting to direct a Blade Runner sequel. At the time both I and the rest of the world were, very understandably, reluctant to even consider such a thing. Blade Runner as a movie is a singular entity, there's nothing about it that suggests or demands a sequel necessarily, and at the time poorly thought out sequels to decades-old properties were becoming the new "thing" in Hollywood. Over time though, this project has changed significantly. Ridley Scott stepping down and Denis Villeneuve taking over was the first sign that perhaps there was something here, perhaps this sequel had the potential to be something more than a nostalgia-driven cashgrab and a paycheck for Harrison Ford.

After finally seeing it, I can assure you that this movie is not only a more-than-worthy successor to the original, but an absolute masterpiece in it's own right. The fact that this is the movie we ended up with is incredible. Visually, this movie is absolutely stunning, and is something that has to be seen in theaters. The grungy, dystopian Los Angeles is grey and boxy, full of noise and bright neon lights, holographic advertising all but taking over the city. The irradiated Las Vegas, silent and empty, covered in an orange haze which fills every shot and permeates the environment with a strange, alien feeling. The Wallace HQ, filled with lighting that seemingly has no source, slowly moving as if it has a will of its own, constantly alternating darkness and light in an otherworldy fashion. In one scene, a broken holographic projector is turned on, set to play performances of old rock stars like Elvis and Sinatra, but the sound and visuals are corrupted, so what we get is a hauntingly silent image of Elvis singing nothing on stage, punctuated with sudden bursts of glitchy sound that immediately fades back to silence.

I could go on and on about the brilliance of the visuals of this film and the extremely well-made set pieces, but no words I could say could do it justice. It builds on the original Blade Runner so well, creating a setting that is completely familiar, but obviously even farther in the future than the original. The world they live in is one that doesn't seem too far off from what ours could become, but is just foreign and futuristic enough to be exciting and interesting. The setting communicates the history of the world the film takes place in, every sign printing it's message in multiple languages, suggesting a much more multi-cultural world than even the one we live in now. The dreariness of every day life, the prominence of prostitution and sex, the overwhelming poverty, all of this contributes to a world that is clearly over. Off-world colonies are where everyone truly wants to be, and everyone left on Earth is suffering through what we've done to the planet. It's a disgusting, beautiful world, draped in technological advancement that proved to be completely useless when it comes to human happiness.

Spoilers Follow

Exploring this incredible world is Ryan Gosling as K, in what will undoubtedly be remembered as one of his best roles. Not too long ago, Gosling was simply another actor in the rom-com lineup, but after his breakout role in Drive, he is proving again and again to be one of the finest currently working actors. We learn very early on that his character is both a Blade Runner, and a replicant, a character cursed to be hated by both human and replicant alike. His job is to hunt down old Nexus-8 models, which Tyrell secretly built an indefinite life span into, and "retire" them. It is on his first job of the film that K discovers a secret that could cause chaos if it were to be discovered by the public. An old Nexus-8, 30 years dead at this point, somehow gave birth. A replicant was born into this world, not made. Wallace, played by Jared Leto, is the token villain of this movie, out to use this secret for his own personal gains. It's unfortunate the little screen time he gets; out of the entire 2 hour and 44 minute run time, he has a grand total of two scenes. The driving force behind our protagonist though, is not necessarily the forces of evil trying to stop him, but the desire for knowledge, so this lack of a compelling villain isn't as bad as one might think.

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Soon enough we discover through evidence that seems rock solid, that K himself is this Child. His artificial memories of childhood, that are implanted into every replicant at creation, are actually real. He carries that knowledge with him through the movie, always with a look on his face that suggests he knows more than whoever he's talking to. We as the audience feel that as well, probably having guessed that K, being the protagonist, would end up being the special character in this movie. This is a very brief summary of a very emotional journey for Gosling's character, and we are taken through several exceedingly impressive set pieces as a part of this. Several parts of this movie are just Gosling by himself (or with his holographic, AI girlfriend), and he carries these scenes expertly. Just watching his solitary actions is enough to captivate the audience.

Eventually, K must seek out Deckard (played, obviously, by Harrison Ford). It is over 2 hours into the movie when he shows up for the first time, and you can see every single one of the years has taken it's toll on him. He's old, paranoid, violent, and seemingly uncaring. It's confirmed that he is in fact the father of this child, and that he's been forced to live in seclusion in an abandoned wasteland, never to see his kid, because, as he says, "sometimes to love someone, you have to be a stranger". K comes face to face with the man who may in fact be his father, and their dynamic is great. The scenes with just Ford and Gosling in them feel so good, as new and old clash physically and ideologically. Ford is no Academy Award winning actor, but in this movie he plays Deckard exactly as he should. He is not a hero, or a savior, or a leader. He is a lonely old man who is even more of an ass than he used to be, but still underneath all of those layers, you can see the genuine goodness that he has in him.

Unfortunately before any real answers can come to light, Deckard is kidnapped by the Wallace corporation to be interrogated about his knowledge of the Child, and K is taken in by the replicant resistance movement (which is another kind of weak plot point that seems to exist only as sequel bait). They seek to take the knowledge of the Child public, so that replicants across the solar system will rise up and break their bonds of slavery. It is in this moment that we learn the most important piece of information in this film, and the entire point of this film is made. The Child is in fact, a girl. The resistance knows where the Child is, and it is not K. It's an emotional punch in the gut, as we and K attempt to reconcile what we know with what this woman is saying. "You imagined that it was you", she says sympathetically, as K comes to terms with the fact that he was wrong. The memories in his head are simply, coincidentally, the memories of the Child, implanted into him when he was made. He is not special. He is a run of the mill, mass produced, nobody.

This revelation is the genius of this movie, and what makes this the Blade Runner of our generation. All our lives, we've been told that we're special, that we are different, that we deserve everything we want. But in the end, when faced with reality, this convenient fantasy all comes crumbling down. We, like K, are unremarkable. There is no inherent meaning in our existence, we simply are, just like the other billions of people on the planet. As K walks the streets of Los Angeles, contemplating just how pointless his existence is, that he comes to the decision that reveals the philosophy of this film. Yes, K is a nobody, he is not special in any way. He is just another replicant put in a random job. But K decides that he has the chance to change that. He makes a choice to be more than his unremarkable existence suggests. We, like K, are not made special, we must make ourselves special. It is K's actions, not his mere existence, that makes him the hero of this movie, and it must be our own actions that set us apart from the rest of the world. 

So, is Blade Runner 2049 an incredible movie? Yes, by far one of the years bests. Is Blade Runner 2049 a better movie than the original? Technically, yes, it is a much better film than it's predecessor . But, is Blade Runner 2049 a better Blade Runner movie than the original? Only time will tell. The original has almost 4 decades of fan theories and analysis behind it, it's grown to live in the cultural consciousness and influence the way we view the future in so many ways. Only the passing years will show if 2049 has such an impact. But at the very least, it can be agreed upon without a doubt, that is is more than a worthy sequel to one of the most beloved science fiction films of all time.

 

 

Joint Security Area

Joint Security Area was something of a miracle for director Park Chan-wook. Nowadays, the world of cinema knows him for Oldboy and Thirst, but in the year 2000, he was a part-time movie critic with nothing but two financial and critical failures to his name. The release of Joint Security Area helped to usher in not only Park Chan-wook's career, but an entirely new era in South Korean film-making through it's ambition and craft.

As the movie opens, you can feel the inexperience in it. Basic compositions, regular shot/reverse shot setups for the early (English) conversations that help setup the plot of the rest of the film, and some poor performances from English speaking actors that serve as a lot of exposition dump. Some of this isn't really Park's fault, since film was only just now undergoing a renaissance in his country, he didn't exactly have anyone to really mentor him. But underneath the lack of polish, you can see his style starting to take shape, and you can see exactly what about this movie captured a nation. He takes what could have easily been some kind of terse political thriller, and instead turns it into a tragic, personal film driven not by political agendas, but by character and mystery. Before the first half-hour is up, the audience is already becoming aware that something more is going on than the official explanations of each country let on. Physical evidence doesn't match up to testimony, and soon enough a he said/she said border skirmish turns into a genuine mystery that threatens to escalate to a full-on war.

The futility and frustrating pointlessness of these border-related issues though, is really what's on display here. Through flashbacks, we learn that these murdered North Korean border guards actually, through strange coincidence, were friends with the South Korean border guards. There are many scenes of them all calling each other "brother!" happily, exchanging stories about their country, playing games, and waxing philosophical about "reuniting the peninsula". These moments however always have an underlying tension, and are punctuated with stark reminders that though these people have made friends, their countries have not. Both then and now, the political underpinning of this story is very relevant as we watch North and South Korea bicker back and forth, and it's easy to paint the population of each country with a large brush. But here, the message is that these are in fact, real people. These are people with lives, with loves, with histories, with desires and wants and needs, just like all of us. The soldiers in this story have more in common with schoolchildren, smiles tugging at their lips as they all share a happy secret that they know deep down could destroy them. There's a deeply tragic element in this film that the audience becomes more aware of as time goes on. Park explores these concepts much more deeply in his Vengeance trilogy (of which Oldboy is obviously the most famous), but still the pain of what happens to this group of friends gets clearer and clearer as the flashbacks get closer and closer to present day, and we begin to understand that what appeared at first to be political murders are actually the terrible, tragic ending of a friendship that could never last. The tragedy itself isn't shown until almost the very end, but we can piece together what happened far before that, and when it is finally shown, the tensions escalate sky high with any wrong move potentially setting the stage for what we as the audience already unfortunately know is the outcome. 

This to me is where this director shines. There is a feeling of inevitability to these deaths, that there was no other way that this story could have ended. Yet the scenes of the soldiers growing close to each other, learning about each other, and putting their political affiliations aside are so incredibly satisfying. We want to imagine a world where people can connect to each other like that, without their politics getting in the way. But we live in reality, and the North/South Korean relationship serves as the most extreme political difference any of us could imagine, and the consequences of these differing ideologies attempting to come together can only ever be pain. There is no evildoer in this story, there is no primary antagonistic figure that our protagonists must face. The evil that rears it's head here takes the form of the things that we are forced to do to our fellow man due to forces outside of our control.