‘Sicario: Day of the Soldado’ Proves to Be a Powerful and Worthy Sequel

Sicario Day of the Soldado movie poster

Sicario” was one of the most intense cinematic experiences I have had in the past few years, and it was one of the best movies of 2015. When I heard a sequel was being made, I was excited but also a bit reserved as I soon learned Emily Blunt, Denis Villeneuve, Roger Deakins and the late Johann Johannsson would not be returning for it. Sure, Benicio Del Toro, Josh Brolin and screenwriter Taylor Sheridan were back for another round, but would this be enough? Sequels at times have an immense power to sully their predecessors in an unforgivable way, and I was praying this one would not be a mere cash in.

Well, “Sicario: Day of the Soldado” (soldado is Spanish for soldier) doesn’t quite equal the brute force and honesty of its predecessor, but it does prove to be a very strong sequel. It also turns out there was a good reason to continue the stories of Alejandro Gillick (Benicio Del Toro) and Matt Graver (Josh Brolin). Whereas “Sicario” was about the militarization of the police, this sequel removes the policing aspect from it to reveal an even darker and more cynical take on the war on drugs and illegal immigration.

“Soldado” gets off to a brutal start as we watch three men enter a grocery store in Kansas City and blow themselves up. The way this scene is set up quickly reminded me of the take no prisoners attitude Villeneuve brought to “Sicario,” and this is made even clearer when one suicide bomber looks to spare a mother and child from certain death, and then does not. Like the original, “Soldado” is not about to offer its audience an easy way out of the harsh reality it presents here.

To combat this terrorism, which Secretary of Defense James Riley (Matthew Modine) defines as “violence used to achieve a political goal,” the United States government gives Graver permission to use extreme measures in combating the Mexican cartels as they are believed to have smuggled Islamic terrorists across the U.S./Mexican border. Graver makes it clear he will need to get “dirty” in order to achieve the goals laid out to him, and considering what we have seen Graver pull off previously, we know things will get dirtier than ever. Seeing Riley tell Graver “dirty is exactly why you are here” makes this scene more chilling as it shows how complicit the U.S. government is prepared to be in bending the rules, and we also know they will be quick to deny any culpability just like the IMF does in “Mission: Impossible.”

Graver decides the best course of action is to start a war between the two drug cartels, and this involves the kidnapping of Isabela Reyes (Isabela Moner), the daughter of one of the cartel’s kingpins. To pull this off, Graver enlists the sicario (Spanish for hitman) Alejandro Gillick, who still hungers for revenge against those who murdered his family. The way these two handle this kidnapping is insidiously clever as they make Isabela believe they did not abduct her in an effort to mess with her head and keep the cartels fighting amongst themselves. Of course, the best laid plans are usually thwarted at the most unexpected moment.

I first off have to say how glad I am to see Del Toro and Brolin back for this sequel. Both actors have cracked and weathered faces which help to do a good portion of the acting for them as their characters have endured endless moral crises which more than shows on the surface of their skin. While many actors are desperate to look younger than their actual age, it’s a nice to see a pair who are not afraid to show the lines in their face. Besides, does it make sense to cast baby-faced models as characters who have seen more than they should in a lifetime? I think not.

In “Sicario,” we were reminded of how brilliant an actor Del Toro can be as he made Alejandro Gillick into a complex character whose soul is deeply wounded, but who still seeks vengeance on those who wronged him. Never does Del Toro have to raise his voice to show the power Alejandro has over others, and seeing him fire a dozen bullets into a cartel lawyer is a fascinating sight as he may seem calm on the surface, but there is still a seething rage which cannot be contained. Besides, when it comes to revenge, one bullet is never enough.

With Brolin, we know he can portray Matt Graver in a way few other actors can as his character interrogates suspects almost effortlessly and carries out secret missions with surgical precision. The Oscar-nominated actor continues to play Graver as a man who has long accepted the fact he has become a lot like the enemies he hunts down, and it marks another great performance from him in a year which has seen him dominate the screen in “Avengers: Infinity War” and “Deadpool 2.”

What I found especially fascinating about “Soldado” is how it examines a particular moral conundrum both Matt and Alejandro find themselves in. When their mission suddenly goes awry, the U.S. government cancels it and orders them ro erase all proof of their involvement in Mexican internal affairs. Of course, this also means assasinating Isabela Reyes, but while Matt is intent on cleaning up the mess he and his team have been caught up in, Alejandro is not about to murder her. Having seen many, many movies throughout my life, I have long since become familiar with the characters in them who are determined to do the right thing and yet end up paying a high price for this as their sins have yet to be paid off. Knowing this makes “Soldado” even more intense as I began to wonder how these characters would suffer before they would be freed from the damage they have wrought.

Speaking of Isabela, I was really impressed with the performance of Isabela Moner who makes this drug kingpin daughter a tough cookie right from the start. When we first meet her, she is fighting a fellow classmate and leaves her bloody and bruised. During a meeting with the principal, she knows he is in no position to expel her because of who she is, and that vicious look in her eyes is all you need to see who has the most power in that situation. When kidnapped, however, Moner makes her character’s predicament all the more palpable as she gets thrust into a violent situation beyond her control, and her reaction to it all feels unmistakably real. And like all my favorite young adult characters in movies, she comes to see through the bullshit adults are dishing out to her.

Directing “Soldado” is Italian filmmaker Stefano Sollima, best known for directing gritty crime movies like “ACAB – All Cops Are Bastards” and “Suburra” as well as episodes of the critically acclaimed television show “Gomorrah.” While Sollima is unable to match the existential dread Villeneuve brought to “Sicario,” he succeeds in grounding the story in the same brutal reality we were introduced to previously. Even when Sheridan’s screenplay looks to strand us in formulaic territory, Sollima makes seemingly predictable scenes especially intense as even he knows how brutal the war on drugs can be.

Taking over cinematography duties is Dariusz Wolski who is known for his work on the “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies, and who gave a very special look to Alex Proyas’ “The Crow” and “Dark City.” It’s near impossible to match the unique look Deakins gave “Sicario,” but Wolski manages to equal the brutal visuals and stark landscapes to where we cannot deny this movie takes place in a reality we like to keep a safe distance from.

Then there is the film score which is composed by Hildur Guðnadóttir, a classically trained Icelandic cellist who collaborated with Johannsson on “Sicario.” Suffice to say, the music ended up in good hands as Guðnadóttir’s has created themes which match the ominous power Johannsson gave us back in 2015, and he brings back “The Beast” theme with tremendous gusto as the harsh realism shown here feels more brutal and chaotic than ever before.

“Sicario: Day of the Soldado” had no real chance of equaling the original, and I accepted this fact as I walked into the theater. But in the end it doesn’t matter because what we got here is a really strong sequel which captures a great deal of the original’s intensity and blunt truths, and it makes for a compelling motion picture. There is already talk of a third “Sicario” movie, so here’s hoping this one does well at the box office to ensure this will happen. And if they can get Emily Blunt to appear in it, that would be great as well.

Granted, this sequel is coming out at an interesting time as politicians are calling for increased security at the border, and immigrants are either being denied entry to the United States because of the country they are coming from, or their children are being separated from them for political leverage. While many may point to one group of people or another as being the biggest problem America has to deal with, the “Sicario” movies show how widespread corruption is and how far it has spread. One key scene to remember in “Soldado” comes when Miguel (Elijah Rodriguez), a Mexican-American teenager and aspiring hitman, gets a ride back across the border, and his driver turns out to be a Caucasian woman with a baby in the backseat. As Miguel pays her, she is quick to tell him, “Give me a job that pays better and I’ll do it.”

In this day and age, it is not so much the truth which matters, but of who controls the narrative.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

The filmmakers dedicated this movie to memory of Johann Johannsson who died on February 9, 2018 at the age of 48. It is a real shame we lost him so soon as his work on “Sicario,” “Arrival” and “The Theory of Everything” was remarkable, and it would have been great to see what themes he would have continued composing had he lived. Rest in peace Johann.

‘Incredibles 2’ Was Well Worth the Wait

Incredibles 2 movie poster

I was beginning to think Pixar had made one too many sequels to their biggest hits, but now we have “Incredibles 2” which brings writer and director Brad Bird back into the Pixar fold as he continues the fantastic adventures of Bob and Helen Parr who try to balance out their crime-fighting ways with raising three kids, each who has their own unique super powers they are ever so eager to use. It is no surprise how this sequel is not as fresh or as inventive as its predecessor, but I am thrilled to say “Incredibles 2” proves to be just as much fun as the original, and it is a blast from start to finish.

It has been 14 years since “The Incredibles” was unleashed on us, but “Incredibles 2” begins just mere seconds after it ended with the Parr family doing battle with the Underminer who lays waste to their town while robbing the Metroville bank. They manage to thwart the Underminer’s dastardly plans, but in the process they leave a tremendous amount of damage in their path. Despite their goodwill in preventing many citizens from getting hurt, the police do not even try to contain their fury at these supers to where they flat out tell them it would have been better to let the bad guy get away as the bank are insured. Hmm, it kind of makes you think how the story might just reflect the state of our society today…

While attempting to do the right thing, the Parrs forgot that, in spite of their victories, supers are still illegal and have long since been forced to adhere to their secret identities. With this latest incident, the family has been forced to say at a motel as their home was destroyed, and they are informed by government agent and friend Rick Dicker (Jonathan Banks) that the “Super Relocation” program is being shut down permanently. Bob and Helen now have two weeks to figure out what they can do to support their family before they find themselves homeless and out on the street.

Their savior comes in the form of Winston Deavor (Bob Odenkirk), a telecommunications tycoon who has been a big fan of superheroes since he was a child. Winston is intent on changing the public’s perception of supers with the help of his tech savvy sister Evelyn Deavor (Catherine Keener), and he chooses Helen to revive her superhero alter-ego of Elastigirl to make this happen. However, this leaves Bob, better known as Mr. Incredible, at a loss as he feels he should be the one to start things off, but Winston feels Elastigirl is a better choice as she does not leave the same path of destruction Mr. Incredible does on a regular basis. This ended up reminding me of what Al Powell told John McClane in “Die Hard 2” after McClane said he had a feeling about something:

“Ouch! When you get those feelings insurance companies start to go bankrupt!”

Seeing Helen/Elastigirl take center stage as the main superhero in “Incredibles 2” is a wonderful twist on the original when Bob/Mr. Incredible did his superhero thing while Helen stayed at home to look after the kids. With “Wonder Woman” having been a critical and commercial smash hit, lord knows we have been long overdue for female superheroes to take charge as this genre can no longer be considered a male dominated club. Holly Hunter returns to her role with great relish as she makes Helen/Elastigirl into a wonderfully realized human being who runs the gamut of emotions throughout, and the action sequences she is featured in puts those in so many live action movies rendered in this past year to utter shame.

It’s also great to have Craig T. Nelson back voicing Bob/Mr. Incredible, and hearing him here reminded me of the welcome presence he gave us in movies like “Poltergeist,” “All the Right Moves” and on the television series “Parenthood.” He does great work in making Bob’s heroic efforts in caring for his children by himself all the more palpable as he experiences sleep exhaustion any parent can relate to. Whether its desperately trying to understand how Dash’s teachers want him to do math in a completely different way from what he as taught or dealing with Violet’s descent into adolescence, Bob has more to deal with than any parent could ever expect, and having to handle so many real-life obstacles on your own has to be admired more than criticized.

This is Brad Bird’s first movie since “Tomorrowland” which proved to be a critical and commercial disappointment. After his phenomenal success with “The Incredibles,” “Ratatouille” and “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol,” “Tomorrowland” was greeted with a lot of criticism to where it seemed like Bird lost his mojo, but every director has their failures, and we are always eager to see them make a comeback. With “Incredibles 2,” Bird shows us how quickly a filmmaker can recover from a cinematic failure as he raises the bar for the other movies to be released in the summer of 2018. When “The Incredibles” was released, the superhero genre was not at the same level of popularity it is at now, and this created challenges for any sequel destined to follow it. But Bird more than rose to the occasion as he has given us a sequel which is gloriously entertaining and full of heart.

I also have to say Jack Jack steals every scene he’s in here. Whereas we saw some of what Jack Jack was capable of in the first movie, his parents are only now discovering he has many superpowers. This makes Bob’s role as a parent more challenging as Jack Jack won’t stay still, refuses to fall asleep, and turns himself into an angry beast at the most inconvenient of moments. Even Lucius Best/Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson) cannot maintain his cool self once he sees how this baby boy can make himself invisible and not easily detectable.

And yes, Bird reprises his brilliant character of Edna Mode, fashion designer to the supers who, in her first appearance, reveals herself to be infinitely perturbed to learn Elastigirl is wearing a suit not designed by her. Still, she becomes Bob’s savior when upon agreeing to babysit Jack Jack so he can for once get a decent night’s sleep. The bond she forms with this baby boy is a hilarious sight to take in as he is quick to mimic Edna’s every move, and it makes her appearance all the more delightful to take in.

I got to see “Incredibles 2” with a nearly sold out audience, and it reminded me of how much fun it is to watch a movie with so many enthusiastic people. You could complain at length about how this sequel doesn’t have the freshness of the original, but it would just take away from the fun it contains. I had a great deal of fun watching this long-awaited motion picture, and the rest of the audience clearly felt the same all the way through the end credits. Pixar still succeeds in making movies for audiences young and old, and I eagerly await an “Incredibles 3.” Of course, it would be nice to see it come out in less than 14 years.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Exclusive Interview with Nicole Holofcener about ‘Enough Said’

Enough Said movie poster

With movies like “Lovely & Amazing,” “Friends with Money” and “Please Give,” Nicole Holofcener has firmly established herself as a filmmaker with a unique voice. In a time where romance and relationship movies are being critically and commercially crucified, her films are wonderfully refreshing as they feature characters who feel real, are remarkably down to earth and have flaws we can all understand and relate to. Even if you think her films deal with familiar subjects and situations, the attention Holofcener gives to her characters and the actors who play them make you feel like you are experiencing a story you have never watched before.

Her film “Enough Said” is no exception to this, and it stars Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Eva, a professional masseuse and single mother who is slowly getting back into the dating game. While at a party, she meets Albert (James Gandolfini, in one of his last performances), and the two find themselves forming a deep connection very quickly. Things, however, get complicated when (SPOILER ALERT) Eva discovers that one of her patients, Marianne (Catherine Keener), is actually Albert’s ex-wife. Throughout their sessions together, Marianne has been giving Eva many different examples about what a lousy husband Albert was, and this makes Eva wonder if her first impressions of Albert were the right ones to have.

I talked with Holofcener while she was doing press for the “Enough Said” digital release, and the movie itself has since received various nominations from the Golden Globes, the Independent Spirit Awards and the Screen Actors Guild Awards. During our interview, I got to find out how she comes up with such wonderfully unique characters, what it was like for her to work with the late James Gandolfini, and we also talked about Catherine Keener who has appeared in most of her films and how their creative relationship has evolved from their first film together.

Ben Kenber: “Enough Said” is fantastic and one of the best films of 2013. With this and “Please Give,” I really love how your movies deal with characters that are down to earth and have flaws like everybody else. Most romantic movies usually don’t have that, but your films are among the exceptions.

Nicole Holofcener: That’s very nice. Thank you. That’s what I’m going for.

Ben Kenber: With “Enough Said” and the other movies you have made so far, how do you come up with such unique characters?

Nicole Holofcener: I have no idea (laughs). I mean they’re kind of an amalgamation of people I know and people in my imagination. I guess, by going very specific, sometimes I’ll focus on a character’s habit or a quirk or a mannerism or something irritating or something specific. I started with the Sarah character (played by Toni Collette) in this movie with the fact that she has made problems that started with a friend of mine who said she left bracelets on the kitchen counter, and she finds them in the kitchen and how much that annoys her and why she won’t simply ask her housekeeper not to do that. Then I have Sarah, and it’s like everything kind of falls into place after that, not easily. I’m not saying it’s easy, but it informs who that person is and what her issues might be. And then all of a sudden, she had this whole story with her housekeeper and it ended up being a good scene, but it started with the bracelet on the kitchen counter. So very specific, I guess. By going very specific and individual. When I read a script, I hate it when they say things like, “Sarah, 35, driven, type A, but inside falling apart.” It’s like, well then, you don’t even have to read what happens because you’ve already been told who she is.

Ben Kenber: This looks like a movie which sticks very closely to the script you wrote, but was there any improvisation used by the actors?

Nicole Holofcener: Yeah, absolutely. The story is very much the script as written, but they (the actors) ad-libbed all over the place, and I got rid of some and I kept some. But they had the freedom to do that especially because they were so funny and smart. They changed things but not the story.

Ben Kenber: The characters are so down to earth, and everybody seemed so relaxed onscreen. How did you manage to get such naturalistic performances from your cast?

Nicole Holofcener: They were sedated. I just gave everyone a Xanax every day. If only it could be like that (laughs). Some days were more relaxed than others but, as they say, the director sets the tone. I’m pretty relaxed, and while I take directing seriously, we’re not in a war zone. I try to have a good time and help people feel safe and relaxed so that they can give vulnerable performances and trust me. I try to earn their trust, and then I try to help them feel comfortable.

Ben Kenber: Well it definitely looks like he succeeded in doing so.

Nicole Holofcener: Well that’s good.

Ben Kenber: I do have to ask you about the late James Gandolfini because this is a great role to see him in. It shows audiences there was more to him than Tony Soprano. People should’ve known this before “Enough Said” came out, but the movie makes it clear to those who couldn’t get “The Sopranos” out of their heads. What was it like to work with him?

Nicole Holofcener: It was great to work with him. It was often challenging. He asked a lot of questions. I think we were sometimes mutual pains in the asses, but in a very affectionate way. He’d look at me like, “C’mon!” I’d look at him like, “C’mon!” He was playful and very hard-working, very self-effacing and sweet, shy. The crew loved him. He was very friendly and warm toward the crew which was very nice and so was Julia (Louis-Dreyfuss). So, I had a very relaxed family kind of feeling.

Ben Kenber: Yeah, you definitely get that from watching the movie. Catherine Keener also stars in this movie as Marianne, and you’ve worked with her several times in the past. How has your working relationship with her evolved from the first time you worked with her to this one?

Nicole Holofcener: Well, the first time I worked with her I was kind of scared. She had more experience than me. It (“Walking and Talking”) was my first feature, and I was pretty intimidated by her. But she was very giving and warm, and that’s why we continue to work together. We’ve gotten to know each other so well, and discovering how wonderful she is, every part, just made me want to work with her again and again. And now that it has been so many years, it’s a short hand. Even though she’s still great, I’m not intimidated by her anymore (laughs). She can still be a little scary.

Ben Kenber: Keener is a terrific actress, and the rapport between you and her really shows with each movie you work together on.

Nicole Holofcener: Good, yeah. It’s a pretty special relationship, definitely.

Ben Kenber: Well, I really, really liked this movie a lot. I really gravitate towards movies with very down-to-earth characters. I usually avoid romantic movies like the plague, but with movies like yours where you can really relate to the characters and the problems they experience in life, they really stand out in a wonderful way. “Enough Said” is one of those movies.

Nicole Holofcener: I’m so glad. I hope that people who avoid romantic movies will watch this one for the same reason (laughs). Thanks, that’s good.

I want to thank Nicole Holofcener for taking the time to talk with me. “Enough Said” is available to own and rent on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital.

 

Get Out

Get Out movie poster

You know the main characters of this movie are in trouble once they hit a deer. Of this, I speak from my own experience as my dad drove me to the airport one time and ran over a deer which walked into his traffic lane. It was not his fault as the deer came out of nowhere, and there wasn’t any time to hit the brakes to avoid an animal oblivious to the Volvo station wagon heading straight at him (or her). Nevertheless, a week later I got laid off from my job. Looking back, hitting the deer proved to be an omen of bad things to come, and losing my job was one of them.

I was reminded of this as I watched the opening minutes of “Get Out,” an insidiously clever horror movie with the occasional dose of humor thrown in. Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) and Rose Armitage (Allison Williams) are driving up an empty stretch of road to meet her parents when they slam into a deer. There’s nothing they can do to help the animal, and the police officer who arrives at the scene asks for Chris’ license even though he wasn’t driving. Rose encourages the officer to let Chris be, and he eventually leaves the scene while advising her to fix her broken rearview mirror. But as the movie goes on, this turns out to be the least of their problems.

I should probably point out that Chris and Rose are an interracial couple, and Chris is concerned Rose’s parents have no idea her daughter is dating a black man. His nervousness is understandable, and it is elevated further when Rose’s parents, Dean (Bradley Whitford) and Missy Armitage (Catherine Keener) try to make him feel welcome by telling him they would have voted President Barack Obama for a third time if it were possible. Basically, the Armitages are well-meaning white folks who support the fight against racism, but they have yet to understand the damage, however unintentional, they are doing to African-Americans.

Things get even weirder when Chris meets two other black people who work for the Armitages, Georgina (Betty Gabriel) and Walter (Marcus Henderson). Both act very strangely and in a manner which threatens to redefine passive-aggressive, and the way they stare at Chris is unnerving as they look like snakes ready to strike at their pray without much notice. It doesn’t take long for Chris to realize something is terribly wrong, but his attempts to escape the Armitage household are not exactly successful.

There is a lot of racial tension burning right underneath the surface in “Get Out,” and this is on purpose. The movie plays on the stereotypes whites have of blacks and vice-versa. Everyone is trying to be polite, but you can sense what’s really going on by looking into the eyes of each character as they project darker intentions or sheer terror, and sometimes both. We are left in suspense as we constantly wonder what the Armitages truly have in store for the helpless Chris, and when their intentions are revealed, it makes a scary, and an oddly amusing, amount of sense.

“Get Out” marks the directorial debut of Jordan Peele, one-half of the famous comedy duo “Key & Peele,” who also wrote the screenplay. It’s a very strong debut as he takes satirical elements and places them into a story which ratchets up the intensity throughout and keeps it up to the end. But Peele doesn’t just give us a flat-out satire as he never set out to play everything just for laughs. He digs deep and touches at our own preconceptions of race in America and plays around with the unintentional ways we reveal ourselves to be more prejudice than we ever realized.

Daniel Kaluuya, whom you might remember from “Sicario” and “Kick-Ass 2,” is excellent as Chris, a young man caught up in a situation we hope he fully comprehends before it is too late. He also has good chemistry with Allison Williams to where you can’t doubt they are believable as a couple. “Get Out” also has the benefit of having two terrific actors playing Rose’s parents, Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener. Both have a warm presence here which eventually turns into something more sinister before you even know it.

I especially have to single out Keener as she remains one of the most underrated actors working today, and the scene where she hypnotizes Chris is a huge reminder of that inescapable fact. She doesn’t have to do too much to get our attention, and as Missy, she seduces us to a place we didn’t plan on going to, and it’s a place where we fear we will never rise up from.

There’s also a terrific scene-stealing performance from Lil Rel Howery as Chris’ best friend, Rod Williams, a TSA agent who has seen it all. In any other movie, Rod would be the one to overact in the most annoying way possible, but Howery turns the character into a welcome form of comic-relief the movie needs to ease the at times unbearable tension, and he is hilarious.

In many ways, “Get Out” is a clever riff on movies of the past like “The Stepford Wives” which dealt with the unusual behavior of female residents in a little Connecticut town, and Peel takes risks with the material you wish other filmmakers would take on a more regular basis. What results is a motion picture which is not perfect, but still a very good one which will stay with and unsettle you in the way a good horror movie should. It also plays with the ways white people try to show how non-racist they are and yet fall into an inescapable pit of hypocrisy before they even know it.

And for the record, I’m a white guy and I would definitely have voted for Barrack Obama for a third term as President. Think what you will of that statement. I’m just going to leave it here.

* * * ½ out of * * * *