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Film Review: Sicario

January 15, 2018 Leave a comment

Sicario (2015; Directed by Denis Villeneuve)

Before it climactically but quietly unveils its limited core critique of the drug war like a slow-handed, old-fashioned magician who’s still got the touch, Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario sears its morally-ambiguous portrait of American government agents targetting the brutal Mexican drug-dealing cartels for incisive (and not entirely legal) reprisals into viewers’ visual cortex with a litany of indelible images. Villeneuve and his master cinematographer Roger Deakins (the duo collaborated on last year’s Blade Runner 2049, one of the most consistently beautiful films of the 21st Century) show us an armored police vehicle on a raid backing through the living room wall of a dealer’s house while a cartel henchman watches TV, then the same house’s walls opened up to reveal dozens of plastic-wrapped corpses. Crowds of migrants are seated on the pavement under the fluorescent glare of a bus station; U.S. law enforcement agents stand on a rooftop near the Mexican border as the sun sets ravishingly, watching the nightly inter-cartel “fireworks” of gunfire and explosions burst out on the southern side; the black silhouettes of an armed and armored Special Forces strike team stalks in front of a painted dusk-hour horizon.

There are deeper and harder questions lying behind this aestheticization of the front lines on the war on drugs, as there are in Sicario‘s ripely imagined premise in general. But we ought to reserve some initial praise for those very fine aesthetics before pulling down this silky curtain to consider what harsh things we find there. Villeneuve’s prodigious skill at orchestrating extended, absorbing sequences and Deakins’ next-level camera work come together in a scene of crescendoing tension, as our core trio of characters – FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt), information-withholding Department of Justice task force leader Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), and the mysterious, sinister Alejandro Gillick (Benicio del Toro) – ride with a highly-armed joint U.S. government/Mexican Federal Police convoy moving a high-value cartel-connected asset across the border from Ciudad Juarez to Texas. Vehicles screech through Juarez’s winding streets, past the hanging, mutilated corpses of the hot war between Mexican police and the cartels, before a traffic jam just past the border crossing erupts into a shocking bloodbath of a shootout. It’s bravado stuff, and Sicario is never better, which is not entirely a good thing as there remains a good hour in the movie once the dust settles from this incident.

Kate is offered a spot on Graver’s task force, and accepts it out of duty-bound righteousness, as well as a desire to accomplish more than the usual low-level busts of her unit’s purview, despite misgivings from her partner Reggie Wayne (Daniel Kaluuya of Get Out) about the shady extra-legal deep-state vibe of the enterprise (which turn out to be rather prescient). Without getting too deeply into the plot weeds of the mission, Graver – and especially the increasingly ruthless Alejandro, who has a personal score to settle – are pulling at cartel-woven threads and hoping one leads them to a major honcho named Fausto Alarcón (Julio Cesar Cedillo). There are more firefights with cartel triggermen along the way, along with kidnappings at gunpoint and a largely-implied prisoner interrogation utilizing torture.

In other words, in most ways, Sicario is pretty standard, vaguely-politically-charged, drug-war action-thriller genre material, despite its occasional elevation by Villeneuve and Deakins and their evolved visual sense. What this largely means is that it depicts, and at least partially valourizes, agents of American power utilizing pitilessly violent zero-tolerance tactics against squads of tattooed, menacing Mexican vatos, regardless of the rule of law or the integrity of international borders or any species of moral code. Sicario is Zero Dark Thirty for the border narcotics conflict, complete with nighttime military-equipped assassination missions and dangerous intimations of the strategic value of intelligence gained through the torture of enemy combatants. Like that similar film, the impressive hypercompetence of the filmmaking serves to obscure the cynical, fearful authoritarianism at the film’s heart, lurking in masquerade as a bloody-minded tone of clear-cut pragmatic realism. A hard approach to deal with hard men, democracy and law be damned.

The opening sequence, with Kate’s team uncovering a house literally insulated by the bodies of cartel victims that is fruther guarded with deadly, cop-slaying booby traps, stacks the deck irrevocably. When wrestling with monsters, one must needs be monstrous. Even Kate, principles aside, recognizes the limits of her by-the-book approach and finds herself going along with the extralegal operation, seemingly to see how far it can go, how much burning the rule book can ultimately accomplish. But Sicario possesses the tunnel vision of the trenches, and cannot see far beyond the barrel of a gun to the wider causes and consequences of the drug war.

The script is by Taylor Sheridan, who also penned the far-superior Hell or High Water, which invokes genre conventions and a far cleverer premise to deliver a deeper and more potent critique of the widespread damages touched off by American capitalism. Sicario does hold a deep-cut twist at its core: Alejandro, who in del Toro’s seasoned and forever-unpredictable hands emerges as the film’s defining problematic badass antihero, is not only settling a grudge but acting as the agent of a rival criminal empire’s power grab. A sequel, out this summer from a script by Sheridan but without the direct involvement of Villeneuve or Deakins, will focus on Alejandro, exactly the sort of figure of gangland funhouse-mirror romance whose acts of cool-headed vengeful violence excite throngs of aggro young men to wish-fulfillment adulation (and holy hell, does its premise sound deeply politically problematic, if not outright terrible).

To given Sheridan a bit of credit, he does intend to question the premises of the drug war more than glorify the deadly ballet of amoral shadow men, and it’s hard to say that Villeneuve and Deakins, for all of their technical prowess and superb aesthetic summoning, glorify it either. Sicario does have a certain point to make about the capitalist superstructure standing behind (and choosing sides in) the drug war, but it tends to lose that point in the masculinized reification of tactical aggression that is (usually) sadly unavoidable in its genre of choice. Sheridan and Villeneuve alike (the former with Hell or High Water, the latter with Arrival) moved on from Sicario to more deconstructive takes on the masculine imperatives of law enforcement and the military. Let’s take Sicario‘s stronger elements as stepping stones to better visions, and hope to leave its more reactionary features out in the inhospitable desert to waste away.

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Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: Concussion

January 10, 2018 Leave a comment

Concussion (2015; Directed by Peter Landesman)

Football is America’s most popular and grandest sport, and, in many ways, its best ideological, cultural, and psychological allegory. Especially in its professional form as packaged and presented by the National Football League (NFL), American football is a living metaphor for the dominant themes of American life: the rampant aspirational consumerism and capitalist expansion and exploitation of its economy, the racial hierarchy of its society, the belligerent parochial conservatism of its politics, the aggressive militarism of its foreign policy, and the cross-cultural tension between the ruling national mythos of heroic, trailblazing individualism (see the hagiographic glorification of the quarterback position, especially if filled by a white man) and the more pragmatic reality of a collective, diverse effort at progress (it is a team game, after all).

Concussion suggests that the cultural and economic juggernaut of pro football closely reflects another feature of American life: namely, the redirecting and compromising of medical practice, treatment, and research by big-money corporate interests. The film is based on the troubling medical science revelations around chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in former NFL players and the league’s attempts to suppress and discredit the findings that the sport can cause serious brain damage and corresponding, catastrophic psychological effects in those players. It renders the issue in biopic form with Dr. Bennet Omalu (Will Smith) as its focal point. As a forensic pathologist in Pittsburgh, the highly-educated, Nigerian-born Dr. Omalu performs autopsies with a touch both highly personal (he respectfully addresses cadavers by name and asks politely for their aid in uncovering their cause of death before cutting them open) and highly exacting.

Defended and semi-mentored by Allegheny County Coroner Cyril Wecht (Albert Brooks), Omalu claims a central role in the debate about brain injury in pro football after he performs an autopsy on former Pittsburgh Steelers all-star offensive lineman “Iron” Mike Webster (David Morse). A civic sports hero, Webster found his mental faculties and life fortunes deteriorating rapidly post-retirement, suffering through homelessness, substance abuse, and self-mutilation before dying in 2002 of a heart attack, aged 50. Over the objections of his Steelers-fan colleagues (Omalu himself, no football watcher, doesn’t even know who Webster is before he was laid on a slab in the morgue in front of him), Omalu delves deep into Webster’s body and especially his brain, which is atrophied on a microscopic but vital level undetectable on CT scans.

Shocked at the level of brain degeneration in a man of only 50, Omalu concludes that repeated blows to the head, a cascading series of “micro-concussions”, during Webster’s football career were ultimately responsible for the destruction of his brain and thus his premature death. Omalu convinces eminent local colleagues and publishes his findings, but finds the NFL’s response distinctly muted. Omalu’s conclusions about CTE become more widely known as several more prominent former players died while displaying similar symptoms of the condition, and the NFL and the football-loving public alike begin to strike back at his disturbing and sport-threatening science with a definite mob mentality. Targetted as much as a foreign outsider threatening America’s game as a doomsaying scientific Cassandra, Omalu is supported in his crusade for truth by former Steelers team doctor Julian Bailes (Alec Baldwin), and together they raise awareness of the risks of CTE in football while never quite denting the gleaming chrome facade of the NFL’s blithe corporate edifice of profit-driven unconcern.

Concussion, written and directed by Peter Landesman, does not honestly strengthen this public affairs story by running it through the Hollywood biopic alteration gauntlet. Far better for you, if interested, to seek out either of the far superior documentary films on the subject: Michael Kirk’s League of Denial for PBS’ Frontline series, or Steve James’ Head Games. Concussion dedicates more subplot time to Omalu’s personal life (especially his courtship with and marriage to Kenyan immigrant and registered nurse Prema Mutiso, played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw), but somehow leaves the viewer with a less-formed idea of the man’s peculiar personality, mind, and singular determination than do intermittent talking-head interview appearances in the aforementioned documentaries.

Smith approximates his subject’s African English accent and indeed seems initially to be on the same wavelength to the real Omalu’s slightly eccentric and flinty volubility; his introductory appearance, good-naturedly interrupting prosecutors to list off his numerous, diverse degrees while offering expert testimony in court, makes keen use of Smith’s boundless natural charisma to sketch Omalu’s own particular charm. But as is too often the case with Will Smith movies, the needs of the drama damp down his light, and his talents are hidden in a bushel of the serious and the grave. Other performances seek not to upstage the star (though who doesn’t love even a middling Albert Brooks turn, truly?), with the exception of Morse as the wildly troubled Webster, but even his steely commitment to portraying the man’s psychological and behavioural nadir without a hint of artifice or vanity unfortunately smacks of hammy scenery-chewing.

Landesman’s film in general hits the key points of the CTE public exposure narrative without any special power or productive artistic risk-taking. It displays a tendency towards compromised safety that might lengthen some ex-players’ lives, if emulated by the NFL, but does it no favours as a public-issue film. Its depiction of the stealthily-beautiful city of Pittsburgh as a depressed post-industrial Rust Belt centre enervated only by its winning football team (Pittsburgh Penguin fans must feel like chopped liver, although to be fair, most of the film’s events take place in the Pens’ pre-Sidney Crosby fallow period), driven home by numerous shots of steel skies and ore-like river waters by cinematographer Salvatore Totino, seems like a dull oversimplification, too. Yet one recurring visual motif does land with impact. Recurrent shots of the Steelers’ enormous home stadium, Heinz Field, squatting on the banks of the Ohio River like a recumbent titan, haunt the film’s canvas. During Omalu’s vital meeting with the prominent local neurologist (Eddie Marsan) with whom he will publish his explosive findings, the yellow-emblazoned stadium is loomingly ever-present in the window of the doctor’s office, as if observing and pre-emptorily judging their insights and finding them wanting when compared to its spatial and popular dominance.

A huge shrine to a beloved sport built with public funds, the stadium is a dismissive spectre that hangs over Omalu’s conclusions, no matter how scientifically provable they may be. It is a concrete embodiment of the NFL’s considerable, unchallengeable economic and cultural capital, which likewise dominates American sports and society, replacing God as holder of dominion over an entire day of the week during its season. Omalu, an immigrant and outsider, comes to conceive of his quest for truth about CTE as a righteous effort to hold his adopted country to the high standards to which it claims to hold itself, standards which drew he and his wife to its teeming shores in the first place. But the NFL’s corporate whitewash of his explosive findings, the leveraging of its power in denial of their factual and scientific basis as a matter of cynical, greedy survivalism, demonstrates different and less-lofty standards for the capitalist exploitation of America’s underclass as quickly-discarded gridiron gladiators. Concussion decides to lean into the inspiration implications of Omalu’s story rather than the hot sociopolitical outrage at the heart of the NFL’s actions. This is a mistake, and it means that the film misses out on a shot at a stronger critique of America’s core metaphorical sport.

Categories: Film, Reviews, Sports

Film Review: Spotlight

January 6, 2018 Leave a comment

Spotlight (2015; Directed by Tom McCarthy)

A crisply-written and -acted retelling of the Boston Globe’s 2001-2002 investigation into the endemic sexual abuse of children by clergy of the Catholic Church in Boston and the systematic covering-up of those abuses by the Church hierarchy, Spotlight is sturdy, solid, and sometimes earnestly powerful. But the scope and conviction of its belief in the exposure of institutional wrongs, even when encompassing the mistakes of its own crusading newspaper reporter heroes, can’t entirely capture the full faith-shaking dimensions of the church abuse scandal.

This is not to say that the film, directed by Tom McCarthy and co-written by McCarthy and Josh Singer, intends to reach for such ambitious and sweeping observations and critiques. Spotlight holds its focus on its titular investigative team at the Globe, their editors, and the various Church officials and employees, abuse victims and whistleblowers, and lawyers involved in litigation and counter-litigation regarding the scandal. It considers, in specific, the struggles of the Spotlight reporters with their lapsed faith, their family connections to the Church, and their relations towards their community in light of the abuses that they uncover. But the enormity and immutability of their gigantic target is encapsulated in the film’s thesis statement shot: one reporter interviews a local Bostonian about the story on the stoop of their walk-up apartment while the towering spires of a Catholic cathedral loom behind them with majestic, unshakeable (and not entirely non-ominous) permanence.

Spotlight is canny and penetrating about the difficulty of puncturing that permanence in its iteration of the classic Hollywood journalism narrative of the white-knight quest for truth. This difficulty is made particularly apparent in the case of the film’s setting in highly Catholic-integrated Boston and its collaborationist seats of political and economic power. The Spotlight team’s investigation – touched off by new editor Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), who feels a deeper story lies behind a recent editorial criticizing a Catholic priest accused of molestation – is shown to not be the first story in the Globe about such abuse in the Church, and Spotlight comes around to allowing the newspaper team to grapple with their guilt and complicity in not delving deeper into reports from a decade or two decades earlier. It also shows other figures, particularly prominent lawyers hired by the Church to scrub away the stain of abuse cases before the wider extent of the taint became publically known, struggling with and, in some cases, finally overcoming their own qualms about their past actions.

What Spotlight is not is knee-jerk anti-Catholic or even especially sceptical of religion. There is no reporter character in the movie that glories in the fall from grace of the high-and-mighty Church; they uniformly react to the expanding scope of abuse (from less than a dozen accusations against priests, the number of confirmed cases rises to nearly 100 in the Boston area alone) with shock, even incredulity; one, played by Rachel McAdams, was even a dutiful church-goer (albeit more in devotion to her faithful grandmother) until the investigation shook her convictions. Spotlight is a fine (and no doubt slightly polished) demonstration of the core of doubt and rigour of confirmation and re-confirmation fundamental to establishing credibility in serious print journalism. With our contemporary public discourse about media bias and responsibility – not to mention blanket epithets of “fake news” that greet any unfavourable report in some circles – the principled thoroughness on display in Spotlight stands as a useful counter.

Spotlight is scrupulously fair to the Catholic Church even as it systematically, and with no lack of self-righteous emotion, details its unspeakable abuses. Compare it, for example, to the Netflix documentary series The Keepers, about the suspicious murder of a Catholic nun who intended to expose the sexual misconduct of a priest at a Baltimore girls’ school. An absorbing if sometimes speculative true crime whodunit, The Keepers leans nonetheless on a venerable anti-papist picture of Catholicism: sly, manipulative, and corrupt clergy exploiting the unquestioning dyed-in-wool obedience and trust of their sheep-like flock (although, if the cassock fits…). Spotlight shows the Globe team treating the Church like any other corrupt institution abusing its power and influence in a self-serving manner, albeit an institution with outsized claims to moral superiority that renders its hypocrisy that much more glaring.

Indeed, the Church’s reaction to Spotlight was muted at worst and guardedly positive at best, its general acceptance of the film’s message about the institution’s deep-seated brokenness (and its evidence-based claims about that brokenness) couched as part of a PR campaign to reform the Church’s stained image. Word even has it that recommendations to see the film and considers its lessons were pinballing around the Vatican in the wake of its release. Not that such professions of soul-searching self-regard on the part of the hierarchy from the Vatican on down can do much to sway religious sceptics. Eager for the barest and easiest fodder to discredit true believers and the churches that loom behind them, they would seize upon the unforgivable actions of priests and bishops in the abuse scandal as proof positive of organized religion’s deep, hypocritical rot.

But Spotlight understands, even if it cannot quite fully capture, that a deep betrayal of trust on the scale of what the Globe team undercovers is a broad and profound tragedy, an agonizing blow to not only the victims of the abuse (and their trauma is placed at the forefront, without a doubt) but also to those for whom the Church is central to their understanding of their community, their family, and themselves. Institutional abuse of all kinds, which a free press represented by the likes of the Boston Globe‘s Spotlight reporters work to drag into the light, can have that effect; so much of our lives reside under the aegis of institutions that even the true anti-establishment ilk cannot help but place some tacit confidence in their good intentions. But the Catholic Church is not only an institution but a whole cosmos, a moral and spiritual edifice housing millions. Spotlight recognizes that digging into the misdeeds (indeed, terrible crimes) of such institutions and exposing them to the light of public scrutiny, and doing so with even-handed intelligence and thorough, professional impassiveness, is the responsibility of a free press. But it also registers that doing this is not without cost or consequence, and that this makes it even more vitally important to get it right. Spotlight gets it right, which is all that citizens of a purported democracy can ask for.

Categories: Film, Religion, Reviews

TV Quickshots #36

January 3, 2018 Leave a comment

Halt and Catch Fire (AMC; 2014-2017)

A frothy, semi-desperate attempt to replicate the critical and cultural success of AMC’s acclaimed drama Mad Men when its first season aired in 2014, Halt and Catch Fire lost its network predecessor’s relatively robust audience in its early, imitative days but responded in its final three seasons by becoming one of American television’s finest, truest, and most emotionally well-tuned dramas of the social connectivity consequences of our modern technological reality.

Opening in the early 1980s in Dallas, Texas’ Silicon Prairie and running through the mid-1990s internet explosion in the San Francisco Bay Area, Halt and Catch Fire follows five primary core characters as they navigate the computer boom, forever chasing the next big frontier of development while struggling through office politics, life struggles, and relationships romantic and platonic. Husband-and-wife engineers and on-again/off-again tech entrepreneurs Gordon (Scoot McNairy) and Donna Clark (Kerry Bishé) open the series toiling as lower-mid-level cogs in corporate machines. Donna balances subordinate tasks at Texas Instruments with motherhood (their two daughters, Joanie and Haley, are background children for the first two-plus seasons but move closer to the core of the cast as teenagers in the closing act), while Gordon nurses the disappointment of his fallen ambitions (he and Donna designed a computer together that failed to win investment or distribution) at a company called Cardiff Electric under Texan good-old-boy senior VP John Bosworth (Toby Huss).

The Clarks’ fortunes change (though not immediately or even entirely for the better) when Bosworth hires a hot-shot former IBM sales exec named Joe MacMillan (Lee Pace). A hyper-driven, semi-sociopathic maverick with a closet full of secrets from his past, Joe is (at first, anyway) a microchip-age Don Draper who manipulates Cardiff’s product development direction with passion, vision, and frequent dishonesty and bullying, elevating Gordon to the lead on a team aiming to produce a portable IBM clone personal computer. He brings in Cameron Howe (Mackenzie Davis), a brilliant programmer with a prickly personality and punk-rock anti-establishment attitude, to program the operating system as well, though that is partly because they’re sleeping together.

As mentioned, the initial period-specific, workplace-focused, anti-hero-driven focus of Halt and Catch Fire faded after its first season, as Joe’s self-destructive, edge-seeking behaviour and principles alienated prior collaborators and burned previous professional bridges. Pace is superb at registering how Joe’s brush-torching actions, and the connections he builds with Cameron, Bos, and the Clarks despite them, exact a real and permanent toll. While it’s reductive to pigeonhole Jon Hamm’s excellent work in Mad Men this way, his Don Draper was allowed to reset the board time and again, suggesting that none of the pain he caused or felt stayed with him or changed him fundamentally in any way, even in the end (this was also a result of the general character philosophy of Matthew Weiner and his writers on the show: people do not change). Pace’s Joe becomes more fragile, more fallible, more human, just as his fellow cast members do, despite the stock-figure nature their characters begin with. This is especially true of Davis and Huss, who craft one of the most endearing relationships in recent television. Bishé was doing surprisingly nuanced work from the get-go and soon enough takes over a great swath of the show from the inside, and although McNairy’s Gordon goes through long arcs of being a pathetic twit, even he rallies near the conclusion.

Ultimately, Halt and Catch Fire became, prior to its perfectly-pitched and subtly moving finale which aired last year, a more endearing and humane take on the themes of David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin’s The Social Network. It leaps off from the core irony of that film – that technology brings us closer together while holding us inherently apart – but takes its time drawing out those themes while treating them with none of the smugly superior boomer-generation disdain that creeps into Sorkin’s script. Halt and Catch Fire is about the relentless, unforgiving bleeding-edge forward momentum of American capitalism and its human costs, yes. But it is also about connecting with others (and breaking with them) via technology and in person, and how similar and different, how satisfying and insufficient, each of those scenarios can be.

 

The Night Of (HBO; 2016)

Based on the 2008-2009 BBC crime drama Criminal Justice, HBO’s The Night Of follows a single defendant through the American criminal justice system, from arrest and police investigation to incarceration and trial. The defendant is Nasir “Naz” Khan (Riz Ahmed, who won an Emmy for his performance), a college student and son of a Pakistani-American cab driver whose abortive attempt to attend a Manhattan party lands him instead in a desultory drugs-and-sex evening with a free-spirited young woman (Sofia Black-D’Elia). When Naz awakes to find her dead but with no recollection of what happened, the wheels of justice begin to turn, providing Naz (and the audience) with a detailed (if hyper-dramatized) view of the inner workings of the interlinked system including the police, the courts, and the prison.

Written by Richard Price and Steve Zaillian and directed by Zaillian and James Marsh, The Night Of is superbly crafted and incorporates examinations and critiques of not only the criminal justice machine but also peeks into other American pathologies, from media fervour to economic discrimination to anti-Muslim sentiment. Many of these perspectives come via Naz’s on-and-off again lawyer John Stone (a wonderful John Turturro), an exzcema-afflicted low-rate huckster barrister who customarily makes a living on plea deals for hopeless offenders. He’s well over his head in a high-profile, complex, politically touchy, and increasingly ambiguous murder trial, as is big-firm junior associate Chandra Kapoor (Amara Karan), who takes the lead in court after her boss unexpectedly drops out of a publicity-minded handling of the case.

Through Stone as well as through soon-to-be-retiring investigating detective Dennis Box (Bill Camp), who leaps on the surplus of evidence pointing in Khan’s direction at first but begins to entertain doubts as to his guilt, The Night Of delves more deeply and more ambiguously into American justice than is usual on television, with the forensics-and-profiling-heavy moral certainties of its big-ratings police procedurals. It even outflanks the increasingly common, superficially grey-zoned, moody neo-noir troubled-detective genre springing up on channels and streaming services around the globe (largely influenced by detective noirs of Scandinavian television).

Ahmed is a huge part of the show’s success; Naz is physically transformed by his ordeal, gaining muscled bulk, tattoos, and a shaven head while in prison, but Ahmed holds himself differently, walks and speaks with subtle gradations of hardness, as experiences work themselves upon him. Even so, when put on the stand in the trial (usually a huge defense no-no that Stone hasn’t the power to talk Kapoor out of), Ahmed summons the essentially decent and frightened young man trapped in a whirlpool that threatens to drag him down. Like The Wire (which it resembles in a more limited way and, like many HBO productions, shares a few cast members with), but perhaps more so, The Night Of couches its depiction of systemic machinations in bare human drama, grounds its sociological observations in expressions of empathy.

Categories: Reviews, Television