HUMANITY AT ITS BEST AND WORST: Sicario and The Martian


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Warning: SPOILERS
sicarioSicario, the new thriller about the drug war written by Taylor Sheridan (a first film) and directed by French Canadian flavor of the month Denis Villeneuve (Incendies, Prisoner, Enemies), is, in many ways, two movies for the price of one.
The first is an action/adventure film full of car chases and gun battles and plot twists (many of which, if truth be told, I found just a tad tenuous at best) of the action/adventure variety.
The second is a treatise on the drug war.
The first film is often quite successful and impressive. The second is, at least from my perspective, quite shallow and unconvincing.
This means that for much of the time, Sicario is definitely and highly entertaining. Sheridan and Villeneuve, along with the incredibly soaring cinematography of Roger Deakins (one of our finest today), the film editing of Joe Walker, and the heart throbbing music of Johan Johannson, have crafted an edge of your seat story that never really stops and never really lets you stop watching.

 

sicario 3These scenes are backed by haunting images of dead, naked, tortured bodies hung cavalierly from highway overpasses; gun battles at night that one agent describes as looking like fireworks; decaying bodies covered in plastic found in a drug dealer’s house; a showdown in the midst of tourists caught in a traffic jam that is treated by the participants as if it was an everyday occurrences. And that’s to name but a few of what awaits the audience.

 

These spellbinding visuals alone say everything that probably needs to be said about the war on drugs and how helpless we seem to be at doing anything about it.

 

But then…but then…God help us, everybody starts talking. Even worse, they start speechifying.

 

And at that point, things don’t quite go so smoothly as the second film constantly forces its way in.

 

It’s one of those films in which everybody has an opinion on how to stop the cartels and the scourge of the drug trade. And in spite of everything that they say here being pretty much the same clichés you’ve heard in every drug war movie since drug war movies were made (and in prohibition films before that), at first glance (or at first hearing) they often make a good case. But the more one thinks about them, the more they start to fall apart.

 

The basic premise, when all is said and done, is that the only way to stop a psychotic head of a cartel is a psychotic ex-head of a cartel bent on revenge being manipulated by the CIA (or is he manipulating the CIA—either way, the result is the same). It takes a criminal to catch a criminal in other words.

 

And how do we know this?

 

Well, there’s this key scene between our central character, Kate, a naïve and innocent FBI agent specializing in hostage recovery, and her new boss, Dave, who is a go between for her and the CIA. When she proposes a legal way to try to take down our bad guy, he says that it won’t work. That that’s what they’ve been doing all this time and nothing has changed. To paraphrase dear Dave, he asks her if her way has gotten the job done, is that the vibe she feels on the street?

 

And her response, in many ways quite logical, is no, her way hasn’t. The conclusion being that maybe the CIA’s illegal approach is the way to go.

 

But what a minute, wait a gosh darn minute.

 

Either the events of the movie are based on something that really happened or it’s a complete fiction. If it really happened, then I could ask the same question: has their way gotten the job done, is that the vibe you feel on the street?

 

Well, no. If what is happening in the movie is something the CIA is doing, based on this street vibey thing, their way isn’t working either. Thing are as bad, or worse, than they’ve ever been.

 

If it’s a complete fiction, then it’s a fairy tale, and because of that you can’t come to any conclusion about how well that approach works since it hasn’t been tried yet.

 

In other words, I call Shenanigans.

 

As for the movie as a whole, Emily Blunt, who has become quite an action star lately (The Edge of Tomorrow) plays Kate with a constant look of puzzlement and frustration on her face. She has nice chemistry with the other characters, especially her partner Reggie (Daniel Kaluuya; these scenes are her strongest), but she also seems a bit too winsome for the role.

 

sicario 2She’s also held back by the fact that her character actually has very little to do. If she weren’t in the movie, the plot would pretty much work out exactly the way it does now. She’s not there to effect anything, but to be a stand in for the audience. But since what is going on, from a philosophical point a view, is, again, Shenanigans, that pretty much leaves her at sea as far as I’m concerned.

 

The strongest performances are given by the supporting cast: Kaluuya as her partner; Victor Garber, with his enticingly smooth and soothing voice, as her boss (you really can’t go wrong with casting Garber as the voice of the devil if you want someone to sell their soul); Josh Brolin, as an asshole CIA agent who doesn’t like to wear shoes; and Benicio del Toro as the psychotic title character.

 

 

martianOkay, I’m sorry, but I loved The Martian.

 

No, wait, you know what? I’m not sorry. I not only loved The Martian, I luuuuuuuuuuuuved The Martian, the new semi-sci-fi movie in which the greatest botanist on Mars Mark Watney (Matt Damon) gets stuck on the fourth planet from the sun and has to be rescued (or as a very funny meme making its way across social media has said: Between Saving Private Ryan, Interstellar, and now this, the U.S. has spent an awful lot of money bringing Mssr. Damon home).

 

The Martian has issues, yes. The ping pong back and forth tongue in cheek dialog of the space crew, trying so hard to sound like characters in a Howard Hawks film, feels flat and forced at times (though even these scenes have their moments, especially one in which a crew member has to tell Mark how much they hate him in order to tell him how much they love him).

 

It also is not always as scientifically accurate as it may suggest (even Andy Weir, the author of the original book, admits that Mars doesn’t have dust storms, but that this was a conscious choice to get the story going).

 

There’s also the suspicion, whether true or not, that the scenes taking place in China, as wonderful as they are, are more there for marketing purposes than anything else.

 

And, oh, my Lord, yes, it is at times cloying and overly sentimental.

 

But it’s also the sort of movie where eventually these issues don’t really matter. It’s a movie that’s almost beyond criticism. It’s a movie where whether it is great or even good in many ways is irrelevant.

 

It’s not a movie that one thinks about from the view point of film aesthetics or its place in world cinema.

 

It’s a movie where from the moment when Mark decides not to give up, you get tears in your eyes that won’t go away. It’s a movie where the moment anyone in the movie has a break through or does something right over what is expedient, you feel a lump in your throat. It’s a movie where your spirit soars as the whole world stops whatever they are doing to see if Mark will be saved.

 

And it’s a movie where the closer the arrival of the film’s climax and the story becomes overly plotted and manipulative and formulaic and conventional, you just don’t give a shit.

 

In other words, it’s a movie you luuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuve.

 

Yeah, that’s right. You want to make something of it?

 

martian fourIt’s a movie that sings with the best of what makes us human: our refusal to give up and our need to fight to the end in trying to survive; our ability at times to put aside differences when the situation requires it (in many ways, there’s basically little difference thematic wise between this movie and one about a little girl trapped in a well); our ability to look beyond ourselves and see that something more in humanity.

 

In other words, it’s one of those movies that just makes you feel great for being alive.

 

The screenplay is what is called very intelligent, so I suppose it should be no surprise that it was written by Drew Goddard who contributed to such films as World War Z, The Cabin in the Woods and Cloverfield. One of Goddard’s most striking abilities as a writer is to take a genre movie and bring a great deal of intelligence to it.

 

Though he isn’t able to do much with the hip banter of the crew members (always the hardest part of a movie like this to write, though it must be said it’s much better than the hip banter of the overaged college students in Cabin…), his real intelligence comes through when the characters (both on earth and on Mars) are totally focused on what to do next. With more than a bit of help by source author Weir, I’m sure, Goddard has a sharp ear for how bureaucrats, scientists, politicians and nerds interact.

 

These people don’t banter. These people are trying to get things done. And it’s these scenes that really score.

 

Ironically, the more earth and Marsbound the story is, the less the characters and their dialog are.

 

The direction is by Ridley Scott and he certainly does just that. With the help of Goddard, cinematographer Darius Wolski, editor Pietro Scalia, composer Harry Gregson-Williams, as well as numerous people in the technical departments, he has created a deeply moving and highly entertaining evening in the theaters that probably won’t be soon forgot.

 

As has been stated, Matt Damon plays the lead. I have to be honest. I’m not sure that I’ve ever thought of Damon as a great actor. He never remotely seems to be anybody but who he is.

 

At the same time, I always love watching him on the screen. There’s just something about his ability to seem every day and one of us or to just relax into a role, all the while doing so with a twinkle in his eye, that makes him so ingratiating.

 

Mark Watney is probably a perfect role for him. Since Watney immediately interacts very little with other characters, the role needs to be played by someone we just like watching, someone we just like keeping company with, someone we can see as one of us.

 

martian threeJessica Chastain, Michael Pena, Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan, Aksel Hennie are the crew. They do the best they can with what they are given.

 

The ground crew are the ones who steal the movie, especially Jeff Daniels, who is settling comfortably into playing the aging conservative curmudgeon, as the head of NASA; Sean Bean, as the earth head of the crew; Chiwetel Ejiofor as the one in charge of the rescue; and Kristen Wiig, who seems tonally miscast, but gets her laughs as the head of NASA public relations.

 

Go. See it. You’ll luuuuuuuuuve it.

 

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3 Comments

  1. So then is every film about the war or wars attempting to stop the flow of drugs fictitious or shenanigans? The drugs come in and the money is spent.

    Yes some people will overcome their need to take drugs no matter what the G or 5-O does. And many will not be able to overcome their addiction no matter if the war is righteous, noble, successful or something else as in a waste of time, money, and effort.

    What ever Sheridan and Villeneuve intended, I don’t think it was intended as a solution. I don’t think Del Toro’s Alejandro is intended to be thought of as a hero, Neither was Brolin’s Matt. As for Blunt’s Kate – you got that right – she represents the rest of us – the audience, ands the general population as we go about our business with or without drugs. And as we do, we are just as helpless as Kate was.

    What was intended was an entertaining movie.

  2. Thank you for the time to respond. I find I must strongly disagree. The people involved, I believe and I stand by my review, were very much trying to do far more than just be a piece of entertainment. I think all the “speechifying” on what to do about the drug war is very evident of that. The people have something to say and they very clearly say it. I think it’s bullshit, what they have to say, but I think they are very clearly saying it. I never claimed that del Toro was represented as a hero, more as a evil necessity. I never claimed that Brolin’s character was a hero, just an asshole who doesn’t like to wear shoes. Traffic, both the TV series and the movie, and Narcos, are stories that are probably far more accurate when it comes to what is happening in the drug war, yet are both fictitious.

    • Yes they made speeches, and we’ve all heard these speeches whether they are in the movies, or the newspapers, or spoken by real people in law enforcement/politics. Surely, to justify what they do they must say something. So Sheridan and Villeneuve put those words into their movie.

      My point is that if what we saw in the film can be called shenanigans, then what do we call the war on drugs that is played out on the actual streets.

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