Saturday, January 16, 2016

Movie Reviews: Sicario, What Love Is, Crime Story

directed by Denis Villeneuve
Denis Villeneuve also directed Prisoners. And Sicario has more than a few of the same questions about moral lines being crossed or even drawn that were posed in that film. Both because of space and spoiler concerns this review of Sicario needs to be shorter than normal. I will say that although the marketing may have led one to believe that this film is yet another entry in the now overdone trope category of "slight woman beats up or intimidates men twice her size" that is quite deliberate misdirection. And that's no spoiler. This is a very serious movie with a lot of moving parts and gray areas. As we have discussed before there are a few people who will not let moral concerns get in the way of what they think needs to be done. Although many of us describe those people as "evil" it's not always that simple. If for example you are on a secret military mission to kill or capture say Osama Bin Laden and a child sees your team approaching the compound what is the correct decision to take regarding that child's life? Do you let that child survive and give a warning which will result in the slaughter of your team? Decisions, decisions.

The film's initial "heroine"and arguably its moral center is FBI SWAT team leader Kate Macer (Emily Blunt). You could use the cliche that Macer is tough as nails but that's not quite true. She's as tough as she needs to be but like most people she has bosses to whom she has to answer, people who could easily destroy her career with the click of a mouse. She's not so tough with them. Macer does believe in doing things by the book, a characteristic that is not necessarily shared by anyone in the FBI hierarchy besides her partner and second-in-command Reggie Wayne (Daniel Kaluuya). Both Macer and Wayne are gung-ho for their work but are young and considered idealistic by their bosses. We open the movie with Macer leading a SWAT takedown of what she believes to be a kidnapping situation. It turns out to be something much much worse. Afterwards, Macer is picked by her boss Jennings (Victor Garber) and a happy-go-lucky Department of Defense official named Graver (Josh Brolin) to assist in an interagency takedown of the people responsible for the atrocity that Macer discovered. 
And those responsible people are the bosses of the Juarez Cartel in Mexico. The cartels are not only transferring drugs to the US; they're setting up shop. Graver is a real jokester and rarely seems to take anything too seriously. But like some people I've known with that persona you wonder if he's just throwing the jokes out there to see who laughs because he's a boss and who is smart enough to know why he's telling bad jokes. I liked what Brolin did with this role. It could have been very heavy-handed but Brolin keeps it light. You never know right where he's coming from until the movie smacks you in the mouth with it. Graver wants Macer for this job. He doesn't want Wayne, although eventually Macer brings Wayne in on the action. The stated goal is to arrest big shots of the Juarez Cartel and use the resulting disruption to move up the chain and get the real leaders. However Macer soon realizes that the mission statement of the task force isn't reflected in what's actually happening on the street. How she deals with this is an important theme throughout the film.
One person who isn't shocked by the chasm between goals and actions is Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), a dilatory cipher of a man who doesn't seem to report to anyone on the task force, sleeps through status meetings and is very sparing in his speech. When challenged as to what he actually does or who he works for he responds "That would be like trying to explain to you how a watch works. For now let's just look at the time." And that statement could well be a motto for this entire film. There's a shift about two-thirds of the way thru which alters the viewer's perspective and places a new person at the film's center. It's a measure of the film's skill that it's able to pull off this shift in perspective with grace. Let's be clear here without spoiling anything. This is a dark dramatic film. The violence, although rarely as explicit as Tarantino's work, is never far from the narrative. Even things that happen offscreen or are only shown in brief moments have huge impacts on the story and the viewer.  

If you're someone who prefers films about bunnies, strawberries and butterflies, this is just not the film for you. Del Toro did wonderful work in this movie and may have stolen it. Winston Churchill said that "In wartime truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies." Nietschze wrote that "He who fights monsters might take care lest he thereby become a monster. And if you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you." Both of those quotes were quite relevant to this film and to the larger War on Drugs which this film examines. You could make an argument that everyone in this film acts in accordance with their training and experiences. You could also say that Macer represents the American people. It's ironic because both Blunt and Kaluuya are British.

What Love Is
directed by Mars Callahan
What Love Is is an older silly romantic comedy directed by someone who at one point was going to be the next big thing in Hollywood. Unfortunately he ran into health problems and had to do other things besides directing films. Stuff happens. This is an ok film. Although it has a very limited setting, (most of it takes place in one home) it still has some interesting things to say about men and women and relationships. Actually, since one of the characters is gay, I suppose that the film's insights are not necessarily limited strictly to heterosexual duos.  The writing doesn't quite live up to the cast but again this isn't really a movie that you're supposed to think too deeply about. Because the settings don't change and the director is also the writer, this film feels like a play. People speak very quickly and always have rejoinders. Maybe you're in the mood for this sort of thing and maybe you're not. Tom (Cuba Gooding Jr.) is a successful man who is, after a great deal of time and supposed passive-aggressive actions from his girlfriend Sarah (Victoria Pratt), finally ready to settle down and pop the big question to the love of his life. He thinks the timing is perfect. He's happy in his career and guess what it's Valentine's Day. What better day to propose? Tom has thoughtfully invited over several of his and his soon-to-be-wife's friends to enjoy the big moment. Tom is just bursting with love! He's got the world on a string pal! He's ready to give sweets to the sweet

There's just one problem. Tom gets home to discover that his girlfriend has gotten tired of waiting for him to commit. She doesn't love him anymore. She tells him just that in the letter she has ever so thoughtfully left behind. She's already moved out all of her stuff but will be back later that evening to pick up the last two suitcases. Tom is devastated. When the party guests arrive they initially try to cheer up Tom but of course this doesn't really work. Many of the men and women have different ideas on what Tom did or didn't do wrong, what his next moves should be and who really has the upper hand in the eternal war of the sexes.  After some initial interaction both gender groups retreat to separate sections of the home and share war stories about the other gender. 

Some of the party guests are unattached or like to pretend that they are. Some of them show some interest in each other. Supposedly some guests want to wait until Tom's girlfriend returns just to give Tom emotional support while others want to give the girlfriend a piece of their mind. This is a very explicit movie in terms of subject matter and language. The actors/actresses featured include Anne Heche, Sean Astin, Mars Callahan, Andrew Daly, Gina Gershon, Matthew Lillard, Tamala Jones, T.C. Carson, Shiri Appleby and Jud Tylor. This is a decent film with a well hidden sweetness but not necessarily worth going out of your way to watch. There's too much dialogue. I liked Anne Heche's character. You'll laugh but this is not a super memorable film.

Crime Story
created by Michael Mann
This mid eighties television series was created by Michael Mann, who also created Miami Vice. While Miami Vice became a fixture in American culture and spawned a film of the same name, Crime Story has not at this point inspired a movie. Nor has it as far as I can see become part of the American zeitgeist.  It only lasted two seasons, in part because NBC made the mistake of scheduling it against ABC's Moonlighting.  Each season ended on a cliffhanger. However Crime Story did provide a springboard for the great character actor and former Chicago police officer Dennis Farina to go on to bigger and better things. Crime Story was set in early sixties Chicago. Given Farina's strong Windy City accent it's inconceivable that the series could have been set anywhere else. Crime Story was one of Farina's first long running lead roles. You could see him grow into it. Of course given Farina's previous job, you also wonder if playing an irascible police officer occasionally struggling to contain his worst impulses was that much of a stretch. Farina's Lieutenant Mike Torello was very comfortable intimidating bad guys, lying on the witness stand or pointing a baseball bat at a sensitive part of someone's anatomy.  With what we know about the Chicago Police Department I am sure that Farina could have told some stories. And I'm equally sure I probably wouldn't have wanted to hear some of them. 

However if you're flying straight Mike Torello is on your side, no matter your race, creed or nationality. But if you're crooked, God help you because you'll need God's help once Torello takes a negative interest in you. Torello is head of Chicago's Major Crime Unit (or MCU), sort of a mini Untouchables/FBI within the CPD. As its name suggests MCU is the organization designed to deal with the worst criminals in Chicago, psychopathic killers and Outfit hoodlums.

Torello becomes aware of a rising force on the street and within the Outfit. That force is Ray Luca (Anthony Denison-seen here with a pompadour that makes Elvis and Ike Turner look bald). Luca is Torello's evil twin. Like Torello, Ray Luca is Italian and grew up rough in The Patch. Like Torello, Ray Luca doesn't suffer fools gladly and occasionally loses himself in temper tantrums. Like Torello he doesn't back down from confrontation. Like Torello, Luca can be singleminded and ruthless in pursuit of what he considers to be a worthwhile goal. Unlike Torello, though Ray Luca has no problem with murder, or a whole host of other scummy behaviors. Torello has trouble pinning anything that will stick on Luca even as Luca transforms from street thug to mob member to mob leader, casino mogul and international criminal with connections in the US Federal government. Torello's obsession with Luca will cost him his marriage, friendships and more.  Crime Story used a number of actors who were relatively well-known at the time but also obviously used up and comers who would go on to greater fame and fortune, including but not limited to Ving Rhames, Julia Roberts, David Caruso,  Kevin Spacey, David Hyde Pierce, Christian Slater, Michael Madsen, Michael Rooker, Lorraine Bracco, Gary Sinise, and many many more. 

Pam Grier had a recurring role as did Stephen Lang. Jazz legends Dexter Gordon and Miles Davis had cameos. John Santucci, a real life mob associated thief who played Ray Luca's number two, Paulie, had actually been arrested by Farina. This series was one of the first police procedurals to use recurring storylines, show the costs of police work and ponder that there might be more similarities between cops and criminals than either side would like to admit. It was a little before its time but was also harmed by not being on cable, where it could have pushed the envelope like its descendants The Wire and The SopranosIf nothing else I enjoy this show for the clothes and cars. Everyone here is just as cool as they can be. And all the girls are crazy for a sharp dressed man.
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