Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Film Review: Sicario (2015)

Major spoilers ahead, so consider yourself warned. First off, I'll acknowledge that Sicario looks great, has an inventive, tension-inducing musical score, and has some action set pieces that are really, really well choreographed. That's where the good news ends. Sicario is also the most badly-plotted film I've seen in a very long time. Some of the Roger Moore James Bond films have more logical and believable plots. The few reviews I've read of Sicario (all laudatory) have apparently been blind to this titanic flaw, apparently fooled by the film's muscular realism and energy. This is a film that skips merrily from one bit of plot inanity to another without catching its breath. And that's not the worst thing about Sicario.

The first scene in the film has FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) leading a raid on a suburban house in Arizona that we assume is a drug den or something of that ilk. She kills one of the men guarding the house and then finds that the ranch bungalow's walls are stuffed with bodies, victims, presumably, of a Mexican drug cartel. Why the cartel would go to all this bother rather than burying people in the surrounding empty desert isn't explained, nor why a cartel henchman would fire at Kate when it's a clear he has no chance to avoid arrest. I'll give the scriptwriter a pass on this one, as the real purpose of the scene is to show us that Kate isn't reluctant to shoot people and that the cartel does some really bad things. Shortly after this raid, Kate is asked to volunteer for a special task force that's targeting the head of one of the Mexican cartels. The task force is led by Matt (Josh Brolin), who commands a small force of ex-Navy Seals(?), and one scary dude named Alejandro played by Benicio del Toro.

From here on, the plot get worse. The film's main action sequence involves the transfer of a prisoner from a jail in Juarez to the American side of the border just a few miles away. It's great cinema, but it has no internal logic. Why ferry the prisoner out of Juarez in a convoy of SUVs (they're ambushed, naturally) when a chopper ride would be easier? Even more ridiculously, the convoy has a cleared road and Mexican police escorts from the border to the prison, but then when they get back to the border the convoy vehicles have to line up with all the other daytrippers going to the U.S. They couldn't get a special lane to themselves for the return journey? Was U.S. Customs afraid the Seals might bring back some undeclared booze? An ambush takes place that's notable for continuing the cinematic trope of henchman being more than willing to give up their lives in a lost cause.

The film's big plot reveal comes past the halfway mark when Matt tells Kate that the only reason she was asked to volunteer for the group is so the CIA could operate on U.S. soil. Evidently the law dictates that the CIA can't operate domestically unless it's allied with a law enforcement agency. So Kate's role is purely symbolic. And why the CIA, you ask? Because they want to wipe out the Mexican cartels and replace them with the Medellin cartel from Colombia. According to Matt, things were better for everyone when only one cartel was in charge of things. All I can say is that a CIA plot this stupid belongs in a Steven Seagal movie.

And that brings me to the film's biggest problem: Kate isn't just a footnote to the CIA's operation, she's a footnote in the film. Take Kate out of the film and absolutely nothing about the story changes. The CIA operation goes as planned, the same people end up dead, and the same final result is achieved. Kate is entirely superfluous. If that wasn't bad enough, the film also goes whole hog on the sexism and misogyny. Kate might be brave, good with guns, and able to kill ruthlessly when necessary, but that's only the script paying lip service to the idea of gender equality. What the story has her mostly doing is fulfilling the traditional role of women in issue-oriented action films; she acts as the scold and nag, the voice of conscience. Poor Emily Blunt has to spend the entirety of the film whining and complaining about "following procedure", and generally being the finger-wagging schoolmarm/mom/wife while Josh Brolin and Benicio del Toro get to act cool, look cool, and talk cool. The film then doubles down on the sexism with some bonus misogyny; to wit, Kate is held down and choked by a corrupt cop (and rescued by Alejandro); shot in her bulletproof vest by Alejandro; and then knocked to the ground and pinned there like an unruly puppy or disobedient child by Matt. What all three scenes have in common is that she's assaulted by these men after she dares to interfere with or criticize their respective schemes. And the film's penultimate scene has Kate crying when Alejandro forces her to sign an incriminating document, because, well, girls always cry under pressure, don't they?

With a 93% approval rating on, it's clear that Sicario's technical excellence and sharp action sequences have acted as a smokescreen to a more critical examination of its script. Take away Denis Villeneuve's slick direction and Roger Deakins' wonderful cinematography and you have a film that feels like a sequel to Lone Wolf McQuade, a Chuck Norris vehicle from the 1980s. The plot is an unholy mess, its sexual politics are reprehensible, and the politics of the drug trade are ignored in favour of random scenes that reassure we northerners that Mexico is just as big a hellhole as we imagine it to be.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Book Review: Brodeck (2007) by Philippe Claudel and Eat Him if You Like (2009) by Jean Teule

The French know a thing or two about mobs. In fact, they pretty much invented the modern mob back in 1789, and since then they've stayed in game shape with major mob events in 1830 (the July Revolution), 1870 (the Commune), 1968 (the May riots) and, most recently, the 2005 riots in the country's banlieues. It comes as no surprise, then, that a couple of French authors should write novels that dissect the psychology of mob activity.

Brodeck is set in an alternate reality Europe that mostly resembles Austria or Germany in the 1930s. The title character lives in a small village high in the mountains where he works as a low-level government functionary. As the novel begins, Brodeck is summoned to the town's inn where he learns that almost all the men in the village have murdered a man know only as the Outsider. The men ask Brodeck to write a report on what happened in the town that led to the killing of the Outsider. The narrative now skips back and forth between Brodeck's investigation and flashbacks to his grim and tortured life before arriving in the village.

Claudel's novel is a slightly surreal, fable-like meditation on all the ways people can find to despise and persecute those unlike themselves. The Outsider who ends up being killed is emphatically more symbol (a saint? a holy fool? God?) than a character. He's odd and eccentric, mostly silent, and it feels like he's dropped into the village after an adventure in one of Italo Calvino's fabulist novels. The slightly whimsical nature of the Outsider is offset by Brodeck's back story, which is a litany of some of the 20th century's showcase atrocities--concentrations camps, pogroms, persecution, and total war. Claudel's novel veers towards the didactic from time to time, but he more than makes up for it with some wonderful world-building. His alternative Europe is artfully done, and his detailed descriptions of the village and its citizens are beautifully realized.

Eat Him if You Want is the nasty, brutish and short take on mob behavior. It's actually an almost blow for blow recounting of a true event in French history that took place in 1870. The setting is a small village during a summer fair. Word has come from the north that the war with Prussia, only a few weeks old, is going badly for France, which is simply more bad news on top of the drought which is gripping the region. A local haute bourgeoisie man, Alain de Moneys, comes to the fair to conduct some business and a few members of a semi-drunken crowd think (wrongly) that they hear him say something pro-Prussian. What starts as anger among a few drunks metastasizes into an orgy of violence directed against Moneys. For over two hours he's beaten and tortured in ways only French peasants could dream up, culminating in his being burnt alive and, yes, partially eaten. His death was the definition of senseless, and many of his attackers were later arrested and executed or sent to penal colonies.

No gruesome detail is spared in Teule's novella, but the blood and horror is leavened with black humor and a tone of ironic detachment that makes the savagery and madness on display all the more affecting. Teule doesn't ask us to draw lessons from this historical incident, or even try to understand more than the simplest of motivations behind the attack. He simply shows in clinical detail how a mass of people can turn into not just killers, but brutal architects of pain.The worst thing about the crime is that it reveals how imaginatively cruel the average person can be and how willing they are to put their sickening fantasies into action.

Both novels are in the Premier League of harrowing, and not to be read on a crowded subway train where people are likely to be testy and react badly if you bump into them while your nose is buried in one of these books. And kudos to Gallic Books for bringing out Eat Him if You Like and a raft of other French novels in translation which I'm slowly working my through. Allons-y!

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Film Review: Black Mass (2015)

If Black Mass was a pizza it would only have one topping; if it was a car it would be a base model Toyota Corolla; and if it was a day of the week it would be Wednesday. Black Mass is the blandest gangster film that's ever been made. It's not dull, it's not bad, but it leaves absolutely no impression on your cinematic palate. The film tells the true story of Whitey Bulger, a small-time Boston gangster who became a big-time gangster in the 1980s thanks to the tacit support of the FBI, who were relying on Bulger to give them intel on Boston's sole mafia family. Bulger gave them very little real info, but the protection and tips he got from the FBI (and one agent in particular) let him rule Boston's underworld for more than a decade.

Where Black Mass goes wrong is in concentrating on the FBI's involvement with Bulger. It's true that this is what makes the Bulger case of news interest, but it has very little cinematic value. The appeal of gangster films lies in the gangster lifestyle. Goodfellas is a masterpiece because it shows the visceral appeal of life in the mob, especially how that life was for street-level hoods. The Godfather also shows us a gangster lifestyle, albeit one that's built around an operatic plot and an acidic attack on the myth of the American Dream. Black Mass goes through the motions of showing Bulger whacking some people, beating up others, and generally being feral and threatening, but we don't get any clear idea of what his criminal empire was built on. His downfall began with his involvement with jai alai games in Florida. The film does a terrible job of telling us what jai alai is and how Bulger profits from it. And Bulger's underlings are barely developed. We register their presence, but they might as well be nameless extras for all the impact they have. Instead of describing the gangster life, the film gives us scene after scene of guys sitting around tables in homes and offices doing nothing but talk, talk, talk. At the halfway point in the film I began to feel I was watching some kind of dramatic re-enactment show on the History Channel.

The actors all turn in capable performances, but they're held back by a script that lacks wit and energy. All the salient points in Bulger's career are covered, which is fine for an essay, but not so charming in a film. And one odd thing I noticed is that either the actors or the scriptwriter have no ear for swearing. Everyone curses up a storm, but it always sounds awkward and forced. Goodfellas evidently holds the record for sweariest film of all time but in that film the expletives felt natural and almost poetic. In Black Mass the curses are there to enliven otherwise dreary dialogue sequences.