“Sicario” and “The Martian” – Two film reviews by Gary Chew
Baseball season is just ending, but I’ve got a doubleheader on my hands here. Movie number one …
What it is about films set on either side of our southern border that often makes them worth your time? How about drugs, the clash of cultures and extreme poverty … coupled with an almost total absence of humanity? John Sayles’ Lone Star was one of those; more recently: Ridley Scott’s The Counselor and the Coen Brothers extraordinary No Country For Old Men. (The poetic nihilism of Cormac McCarthy may have had something to do with the latter two.)
French Canandian director Denis Villeneuve‘s Sicario packs as much punch. It’s the same familiar genre, but Sicario — just opening — adds curious new elements to movies that focus on the perpetual war on drugs.
First, it’s a war movie. I kept comparing Sicario’s depicted police procedural in Juarez with present day Baghdad and Damascus. Automatic weapons fire sounds the same in Mexico as it does in Iraq and Syria. But there are moments when I’d swear Taylor Sheridan’s script for Sicario makes it a horror picture, especially the sequence showing black SUVs “parading” down a Juarez avenue lined with naked dead bodies … hanging … toes up. Happily, the camera shot of the victims is taken from a lengthy distance.
Later, Sicario looks like animated CGI as U-S agents slog though an El Chapo-like tunnel that burrows beneath the border of the United States of America and the sovereign nation of Mexico. Not to worry, it’s just the night vision glasses viewpoint experienced by our people fanning “flames” that drug lords will clamor to extinguish — but it looks like a spooky video game one might enjoy with a pal.
Emily Blunt plays Kate, a rather butch FBI agent who’s chosen to take part in a bigger mission than the grisly gig she’s onto as the the film opens wherein members of a Mexican cartel have lined the inner walls of their shoddy hideout house with plastic-wrapped rotting corpses. All of the bodies are cartel kidnapping victims and assorted enemies. It will get your attention. I suggest not eating any of your popcorn before this scene plays out.
Kate moves on to join with two men for the real action ahead. She’s not sure whom the pair work for, but suspects them as CIA or DEA. The moviegoer is also suspicious since these two guys are played by Josh Brolin and Benico Del Toro … Matt and Alejandro. They couldn’t be less similar. Matt is on the causal side and works for laughs, while Alejandro is filled with dark issues that Kate can’t quite decipher. To travel to their first destination, Kate and the men board a private passenger jet. The name Trump isn’t painted on the fuselage. What’s up?
Sicario reveals what’s up at its own pace, although it is quick and always taut. Brolin’s character gives hints hidden in his dialogue as he dresses down Blunt’s character when she freaks out about legalities of their actions at Juarez. She has yet to learn there are more things a real pro in her line of work must do.
Villaneuve has embellished his picture with startling vistas and authentic lightening strikes streaking from the faces of giant thunderheads as I recall in No Country For Old Men. Slow-motion aerial shots with ominous soundtrack music allow for transitions that are similar to those over used in the second season of HBO’s True Detective. These aren’t L A flyovers … the camera gazes, instead, straight down on the stark beauty of the barren southern borders of Arizona, New Mexico and Texas.
“Sicario” is Spanish for hit man. I’ll bet some dinero it’s one we’ll be reckoning with for a while. Now, comments on a film just as new as Sicario but much more distant from home plate, if you will. (See movie trailer below.) Here’s movie number two …
NASA informed us Monday that there’s salt water on Mars. Then on Friday, we have Matt Damon there too. In fact, Damon may have the most miles traveling in space as a movie star since he was, just a year ago, also on another planet other than Earth along with Matthew McConaughey in Interstellar.
Damon, as Mark, is now left alone due to the rest of the on board NASA crew believing he’s been killed in a violent dust storm on the surface of Mars from which they blast off to safety for the mother ship called Hermes. Melissa (Jessica Chastain), as commander of the NASA visit to Mars, gives the order to leave Mark behind.
But Mark is alive. He must use his intelligence and talents to stay that way on the barren orb. That’s most of what The Martian is. Any insurmountable problem he’s confronted with is not insurmountable. Every issue solved for Mark comes around in what you could call a deus ex machina mode. All are amazing. Most of the solutions are Mark’s, like growing his own food. After he figures out how to talk with his NASA colleagues back on Earth, some of the deus ex machina machinations are theirs.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m a big Damon fan. I’m a big Chastain fan, too. But The Martian is a two hour, entertainment commercial for NASA. I further hasten to add: I’m a fan of NASA. I believe exploring space is something our nation should fund. On the other hand, had Drew Goddard’s script been more subtle, I would have been more comfortable with the stranding of an American on the red planet.
Visually, Ridley Scott’s film is striking. All the recent photos taken on Mars by NASA are what you see as Mark won’t give up on saving his own butt 50 million miles from home. Inside the giant Hermes ship, all looks authentic, and space flight scenes are awesomely believable. Stanley Kubrick got all of that nailed nearly a half century ago with his odyssey in space.
What gave me discomfort was the script’s need to end so many scenes with a goofy punch line. Yes, folks in the military and the space program do such on occasion, but most of those in The Martian are silly and hang heavy. There’s a running joke about Melissa’s penchant for disco music; too many times going to that one.
Jeff Daniels plays the NASA head decision maker. He does Teddy in The Martian precisely the same as he does Will in HBO’s The Newsroom. In fact, I kept thinking about The Newsroom as I watched Scott’s film. I couldn’t put it out of my mind that The Martian might be The Newsroom, only in space.
Former SNL cast member Kristen Wiig, along with Kate Mara and Chiwetel Ejiofor are not given any depth of character in the roles they play to make it possible say much about their performances. All are fine actors who, like Damon, Chastain and Daniels, have shown their talent in much better movies.
That said, lets hope anti-space program politicians don’t try to cut the NASA budget further even if The Martian doesn’t hit it out of the park.