Monday, January 04, 2016

SICARIO: MOVIE REVIEW

Cast: Emily Blunt, Benicio Del Toro, Josh Brolin, Daniel Kaluuya, Victor Garber, Maximiliano Hernández
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Runtime: 121 min.
Verdict: The most formally accomplished American film of its year. A textbook for genre filmmaking. And I very much want to agree with its politics.
Genre: Thriller, Drama, Action

Spoilers below!

              Before we go into the politics of it all, which frankly could be that it is not a country for women, and which unfortunately will send the PC police into throwing hissy fits, it is worthwhile to look at the technique employed here from an academic perspective. Mr. Villeneuve looks to be an expert director-for-hire, and Sicario is one of those rare films from around now which can be visited and revisited just to study how to capture conversations or movements. It is always fun to break down a scene, to understand why it works the way it works, so that it can be repeated. You see, capturing drama is quite similar to capturing a process – the accumulation of details – and it is satisfying (academically) when a scene can be explained not on the basis of performances but on the basis of its editing (an elitist sentiment, I suppose, or maybe a pretension of analytical prowess). A scene that is simply a sum of its parts is for me a reason for comfort, and the one I would have a jab at breaking down occurs early in the film, after an FBI SWAT raid led by Kate Mercer (Ms. Blunt) on a suspect kidnap house controlled by drug cartels ends up in an explosion killing two of her team members. She is sitting in an office along with her partner Reggie Wayne (Mr. Kaluuya), outside of a meeting room where several older men (the youngest must be only around 40) are having some sort of discussion. The office is wall-to-wall glass see-through partitioning, and we enter this setting via a news report of the explosion on a television screen hanging on one of the walls. We hear the news report, and just as it is about to end, we cut to a POV (over-the-shoulder) shot of Kate looking at the screen, and we now hear no audio.

The glass partitioning might offer “transparency” but it sure as hell isn’t revealing a great deal of information. If you see in the POV shot, there is one glass partitioning in the foreground too, and Mr. Villeneuve provides the next cut looking at Kate and Reggie in a two-shot from within their enclosure. The meeting room is behind them and they cannot hear a word of what is being said. I would want to extend you the liberty of extrapolating this whole glass setting as something of a metaphor for what happens in the film, especially from Kate’s perspective. She sees everything and understands nothing, and just as that is intended to be the disposition of the office, that is probably the objective of the smoke-and-mirrors mission she is about to get into.
We cut back again to the POV shot, but this time around we hear the discussion happening within the room, which Kate obviously cannot hear. All of this happens over a quick 25-30 second period, establishing the setting, which after the prologue-serving explosion, functions as the set-up for the whole narrative. Let us just say that Mr. Tarantino would either have Chapter 1 here, or after the intermission have a Chapter 5, attached to this, and accordingly either label it The Glass Partitioned Office or The Operation of the Glass Partitioned Office.
              Kate is called in and introduced and interviewed over a quick couple of minutes and that is not the conversation I am interested in, leaving you to discover it. She comes out and sits beside Reggie, does a quick survey of she still has no idea, and that is when the discussion is done and folks move out, and one of them asks Kate to come in. It is a terribly efficient moment, all built on following the eye-line movements from Kate, and accordingly cutting the room into close-ups (thus revealing the inherent inconsistencies), or aligning them all together (the authority v/s Kate).

Here is the video, and allow this moment to remind you of a conversation with an interview panel, or better still, when you were up for promotion (or you had the technical information required that was needed to make a decision) and you were called in to an executive meeting, where you never felt you were supposed to have a seat:

video
              
Now the first thing to notice is the layout of the panel and how Mr. Villeneuve uses Kate’s head to set up the power dynamic within it. There’s three on the left, and one to her right, sitting alone (who has had the benefit of Kate’s curious glance at his flip-flops as opposed to everybody in suits and ties, thus his complete distinction and an escalation in his authority), and just as soon the grand old man in the room Dave Jennings (Mr. Garber), her boss, introduces the purpose while the final person takes his seat towards his left, he introduces Matt Graver (Mr. Brolin) while everybody looks at him (nobody else is introduced).


 Essentially, just through precise composition, Matt’s been served something of a primer for a close-up, without explicitly doing so, and he remains the power center. Not surprisingly, Kate senses this dynamic and asks a pointed question about the identity of this operation, i.e. whether is it still this (Phoenix) office that is in authority, and we don’t see her face, and thus we have no idea whom the question has been addressed to. The familiar face is that of her boss, but everybody to her left immediately looks in Matt’s general direction, while he doesn’t bat an eyelid before answering.
This is pretty much the film’s core idea that addresses and motivates its examination of motion. The explosive opening, which literally has the narrative hit the ground running, has the SWAT team move-in towards a target, which exists within a suburban set-up with something of a compound wall – a representation of jurisdictional space.  

Later on, in the film’s best sequence and one of the year’s highlights, the movement is freer, smoother and expansive. A convoy glides thorough border checkpoints travelling at a breakneck speed and the mobility here – as a representation/display of power (and old-world power dynamics) – is exhilarating. It is pure cinema.


Mr. Villeneuve hints the arrival of this overdramatic display couple of times, most notably when Kate gets on Matt’s chartered plane on her visit to “El Paso” area, where the plane seems to leave the jurisdictional disciplined and dare I say liberal urban space behind. A space where the neighborhood as all the symptoms of utter peace, and its dark underbelly (the walls of the house) is where the unsociable is repressed to. As the plane takes off, we see the topography change, and as opposed to the cut-and-dried version of demarcated boundaries – walls and fences – what we seem to have is something of a delimited zone up for grabs and where Kate’s liberal idealistic tendencies will probably be as effective as a knife in a gunfight.  
              Trivializing Kate’s idealistic politics as a variation of Winston Churchill’s or whosoever’s quote (“If you're not a liberal at twenty you have no heart, if you're not a conservative at forty you have no brain”) is not the point here, and it is not what Sicario is doing. There’s another story from Mexico – of a cop Silvio (Mr. Hernández) his soccer loving kid and his pure domestic no-nonsense wife – and Mr. Villeneuve is using to suggest what a war almost always is – our way of life versus theirs – and the inherent self-righteousness of it. A victory is not merely a territorial or a political grab, and is often a justification of an ideology. More so here, the urban disciplined space v/s the absolute anarchy of Juarez, the liberal America v/s the conservative Mexico, highlighted by a minor moment where one of the men on the mission ask Kate to finish her cigarette before presenting herself before a bunch of Mexican immigrants at a border patrol station. Needless to say, when she presents herself, all eyes are on her – an American woman amongst the authority.   To navigate this region of expanded and ambiguous boundaries, Sicario chooses the best perspective to narrate itself, that of Kate, who is like a fresher on a job, and has next to no idea what’s going on (the comic version of this scenario is how Danny Ocean and Rusty deal with Linus’ ambitions in Ocean’s Twelve).
And it is this perspective that is established here in this short conversation we are discussing, with her head (and her eyes) navigating this room and trying to make sense out of it, or at least draw some sort of narrative. The others take their cue from Matt’s succinct description of who’s in charge, and everybody else pitches in essentially reiterating that she will be acting under Matt. The script distributes them one line each, the chorus to Matt’s lead if you will, before cutting to Kate’s close-up.




              The next instruction set comes from one of the chorus members ending with a question to Matt about the rendezvous point, and Mr. Villeneuve instead of giving us a reverse shot of this, follows Kate’s eyes and her further realization of the power dynamic. Her eyes traverse the heads from her left to right and halts in the general direction of Matt’s.


Kate asks him another question before Matt tells her whom they are going to meet, which is not so much the point as much as it aligns them in a shot. Here is a shift in the dynamic, and a realization on Kate’s part where the brains behind the mission lay. The others are near to being unnecessary.
              And here’s when Kate instinctively asks him a pointed question (almost out of some sort of distrust) seemingly to test the waters – about where Guillermo is – which doesn’t make Matt uneasy but does make him spin a little web, and for which he looks at his chorus members. The next cut, which draws the first confirmation of the chasms in the panel, is to Kate’s boss Dave (he alone in the frame) and he has some sort of a disappointed blink, which is immediately caught by Kate, and which is established by an eye-line-match-cut.


                
Which immediately draws Kate to ask the next pointed question.
           
              The first cut is to a close-up of the guy to Dave’s right, but it is only to serve him as a reference point (if there were numbering, this guy would most probably be second-in-command) for Matt to spin his web, because just as soon the cut points to him he looks at Matt and we have an eye-line match and a wry smile before the big punchline comes –



              At which point, a completely new angle is chosen for Kate, a little more removed causing a medium rather than a close-up and a few degrees towards the middle from the earlier angle which aligned her from the farthest guy on her left so that we follow her gaze, and now which aligns on the straight line between her and Dave. Now, I might be guilty of reading too much into these lines or attributing them with too much weight, but Sicario is nothing if not bothering itself with a woman in an essentially man’s world. The narrative does seem to be about Kate’s dynamic with the men around her with the drug war providing the backdrop, which in the case of Alejandro (Mr. Del Toro) is almost a stand-in for a relationship.
              So before we go to what Dave has to say, let me make a few politically incorrect statements and which might cause me the dreaded foot-in-the-mouth disease. The thing with Sicario is it is more or less a narrative about Kate’s domestication (she’s divorced). We’ve Reggie, who serves the archetype of a girl’s best friend who has ambitions to be her one true soulmate and who is liberal enough to never outright propose her, or shall we sway her, but make gentle jabs at her personal life so as inch his way close to her, probably because he is too proud to be crass. But then, he is pretty much consumed by the state of her personal life and I wouldn’t be surprised if he were secretly spending a few tissues on her now and then. He questions her about her bra (in his mind, he is the closest to her) which she shrugs off, but he is too eager to get the conversation around her personal life (this is the Hannibal Lecter syndrome, if you will, where you gets aroused from knowing a person’s personal secrets and which becomes a substitute for plain sex) and later in the bar continues to go on about it.

With Alejandro though, it is Kate who is drawn towards him and the mysterious air around him. It is an extremely conservative view of things (there is a reaction shot for Reggie just as soon as Alejandro asks Kate about her well-being after the attempt on her life was made), but then Sicario is something of a Stanley Milgram obedience experiment, by the end of which Kate has been systemically broken into submission. It is a complex character, an idealist without a hook half-understanding the pragmatism the authority claims, and this is a great performance from Ms. Blunt whose mere reactions are one of the highlights/pleasures of the year gone by. The authorities, in their part, are not husbands or boyfriends but straight up father figures, none more so than Mr. Del Toro’s Alejandro, who at the end asks her to leave and make herself anonymous, just like her counterpart – Silvio’s widowed wife. The point is that this is not an ideological war and that their way of life isn’t too different from ours, and when Alejandro leaves Kate in her balcony, she is an almost helpless captive – to her own fascination directed towards him, and that her idealistic tendencies is what ultimately tie in with her domestic tendencies. She is a little girl, and if we come back to the line, Dave demonstrates his protective instincts first right after Matt’s punchline.

 To which Kate responds in atypical fashion, i.e. breaking away from the umbrella of paternal protection and seizing control by asking a question (mostly rhetorical, from a obedience perspective), underlined yet again by her moving gaze, which starts from Dave and ends with who else but Matt.

And here, we see for the first time the camera up-close with Matt, and the negative space around him vastly reduced. He is committed, so to speak, and the contrast between his laidback attitude up until now to the solemn response here is a pretty good example of the kind of kitsch authority employs.


              No wonder Kate volunteers, for she now feels in control, and I am reminded of Elizabeth Swann from Mr. Verbinski’s Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy. Here is an equally strong character, living under her father’s protective umbrella and curious about another world so as to provide a series its narrative perspective. Those films were Liz’s story just as this is Kate’s, but between travelling with the left (pirates) to eventually becoming a lord and marrying one, the former was essentially liberated from her conservative background. Kate, on the other hand, seems to be charting the opposite route – in Alejandro we might have somebody similar to Jack Sparrow. Which begs the question – is it so morally intellectually and emotionally crippling when one starts to see and understand the conservative perspective? Also, is there anybody who leans more heavily on the frame than Mr. Del Toro?

Friday, January 01, 2016

THE HATEFUL EIGHT: MOVIE REVIEW


Cast: Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Michael Madsen, Tim Roth, Walton Goggins, Bruce Dern, Channing Tatum, Demián Bichir
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Runtime: 167 min.
Verdict: A lazily structured first-draft. A chore to get through.
Genre: Drama, Western, Mystery

(Spoilers below!)

              The overriding feeling at the end of it is of being unsatisfied. A lack of closure, maybe, because every time a secret is revealed in any mystery the relationship the viewer (or reader) shares with the people in the narrative becomes the primary factor. If a detective were to find a killer in a room full of people, there better be enough people in the first place, because they serve as the audience for whom the secret is being unraveled. If there were none, and if the detective were to simply turn towards us and indulge himself in a monologue detailing his methods and discoveries, I’m not sure we will be half as satisfied. Why? Because the percolation of the information serves as some sort of justice, an identity that has been revealed, and rightly so. That everybody in the audience knows isn’t enough, but what is important is that everybody in there knows and we have the closure that justice has prevailed. We cannot affect that world in there, except for instance, when Robert Langdon learns the true location of Mary Magdalene’s sarcophagus, and it is something of an interesting scenario because at that moment it (the illusion of the narrative) very much blurs the boundaries between fact/fiction providing for a real-life place, which serves as the bridge. So, either the mystery provides us with that bridge, an object of some sort that has travelled through time, or it provides the necessary proxy.
              That is a major reason Ms. Christie’s Death on the Nile has always left me cold, and feels at best to be an academic exercise in overturning an archetype – that of the innocent but sure-to-judge audience – and if everybody is either a victim or a murderer, the world becomes a pretty cynical little place, like you know No Country for Old Men. Still, and until the secret is revealed, the very prospect of a significant (subjective, and the crowd presents assurance with the potential of providing closure) audience is cause enough to be excited by the mystery at hand. Gosford Park did follow that prescription, and surprisingly (read: disappointingly) Mr. Tarantino, who has pretty much internalized the theory around shock v/s suspense, just doesn’t give us enough by way of the prospect of an audience. There is Team A, consisting of a couple of bounty hunters, one of whom is black, a sheriff-in-waiting and a woman waiting to be hanged, riding on a stagecoach. There is Team B – consisting of a Mexican running the inn, an overelaborate Englishman (I’m confused whether Mr. Roth was doing a version of his character from Four Rooms, or if Mr. Waltz simply wasn’t available because of Spectre), an overelaborate Michael Madsen lookalike, and a Confederate General – whom Team A meets once they arrive at a haberdashery. Now, one might claim that Team B isn’t really a team, and I might want to argue back saying that between the title and the laws of suspense, any collection of people is a cause to be suspicious about, especially when an outlaw is being taken to be hanged to some place (a standard trope) in a western. So essentially we have set who walks in to a bar, and a set waiting in the bar, and were Ms. Christie the writer here, I suspect she would have had folks walk in at different times. A murder mystery is never about teams and always about individuals. The very prospect of an innocent bystander unsuspectingly walk into an established scene of tension doesn’t merely align our concerns for his well-being, it relieves himself from all suspicion while also providing him the opportunity to assume the role of a moral authority (Mr. Mangold’s Identity). No such luck here in Minnie’s haberdashery, and between all the chattering and cursing Mr. Tarantino writes himself into a corner while dealing with the false identities, the reveal around which isn’t merely unremarkable it is downright lazy. This is the problem – someone from team B says they are X. Alright. It is not Mr. Pink or Mr. Yellow, but just some overelaborate name. Then in the end, they say they are Y. The audience naturally is distrustful because we have no hook to hang on to – we don’t have any clues like the bottom of a coffee mug, or clippings spread around a cop’s wall – and Mr. Tarantino simply has someone from Team A do a “Ah, yeah!” routine every time someone from Team B reveal their Y identities. It is meaningless, a confirmation and a what-if-it’s-hot at the same time, and thus a cop-out.
              So, when things reveal themselves we aren’t really surprised. We are waiting and more importantly we do not have the closure of justice being served. It is an interesting proposition at first hand, especially when the film ends with an event that serves as moral justice – the hanging of the woman. Now, before we have the PC police start frothing in their mouths, it is useful to highlight that none of these folks are really “hateful”. They are more like mildly annoying, and to be offended by their racial slurs and woman-beating is just about as kitschy a reaction as wondering how Mr. Coppola made such immensely “morally corrupt” individuals so likable, or be “horrified” at the evil that Mr. Hopkins’ Hannibal Lecter presents. It is a middlebrow reaction at best and a self-congratulatory reaction at worst, and it ignores that morality within a narrative is relative and more importantly contextual. Hateful/Despicable is that wonderful psycho in Mr. Miike’s Shield of Straw, or those serial killers in some of those Korean films. I might argue that honor overrides all other negativities, more so in a western, and one might argue then that even the hierarchy of morality has been shaped by patriarchy. I don’t know, and let us do a roll call. Major Marquis Warren (Mr. Jackson) is a bounty hunter (an anti-hero at best), and to be fair what does he do – excite a Confederate General into drawing a weapon to kill him by recounting to him how he raped the General’s son (a symbolic act more than anything, underlined by Warren’s hint towards the images being created and thus a reality, a notion that ties in with fantasy history from his previous two films), which importantly was a reaction to the righteous son’s action of trying to kill him. There’s no standalone action (cause-effect) at any level, and the Major feels morally justified, because on both the counts he has a reason – the Confederate General denying him his identity, and his son wanting to deny him his life. The bounty hunter John Ruth (Mr. Russell) punches a woman alright, but then she is a dreaded criminal (imagine a man in her place). We can go along, but the point is that nobody here is despicable, just people acting self-righteously.
              So, when the woman is hanged at the end by the two remaining folks, within the moral framework of the film, it is justified, because she has always been the antagonist – she has no stakes, and her identity is that she is merely a criminal (as opposed to say a woman who has been exploited all her life and thus been pushed to choose this life, and the expected self-congratulatory blah-blah), and she spends the narrative being the antagonist (knowing a secret and letting folks suffer and die). If you agree with me here, her hanging (an exercise designed for its theatricality) has no audience, apart from the hangmen. We have travelled a long distance for only to have her hang in private, which is just about the same as John Ruth hanging her just as soon he caught her. Not quite, as a matter of fact. You see, the two men in the end are the two who are indeed the innocent bystanders, and who represent the history/politics Mr. Tarantino is most interested in – the simple binary of the black man and the racial white man. As all binaries, it is a reductive representation of history, and under the now-annoying idea of Abraham Lincoln as a representation of all that is great about America (and world? Is this newfound fascination with Lincoln a highlight of the Obama presidency?) a simplistic fantasy. Having Lincoln treated less like a man and more like an idea (we have our own in our current Prime Minister) is just about the same as having him hunt down vampires, and I hope we get less of it in the future. Also, maybe, a little less of allusions to Jesus Christ, mostly because I’m not sure Daisy is some sort of innocent lamb slaughtered to give the folks a notion of justice.      
What bugs me though is how lazy the film feels. The entire first hour is essentially folks howling dialogues at each other and long shots of the stagecoach running through the snow serving as filler. Everybody is in the same room, and when Major Warren tells elaborate tales about “black dicks in white mouths” you wonder what everybody else is doing. Where the hell are the reaction shots? Two folks are vomiting blood right after and we have no reaction shots from Major Warren, who is quite essentially our protagonist here. Isn’t everybody sharing the same moment? It is a strange choice, and I wonder what purpose it served, because for me, it only provided a convenient mystery around who drugged the coffee. There are meaningless foreboding shots of the outhouse, couple of them in fact, and all they serve is some cheap horror movie atmosphere. And the flashback chapter? Would we have been better served with a placard instead?
Most importantly though, I wonder why I am left unimpressed with Mr. Tarantino’s scores. For e.g. the harmonica thing in Kill Bill Vol. II when she walks in the desert, and here the opening. Is it because out of several choices he simply picks the most obvious one, so that rather than being captivated by the score at hand I am reminded of the likeliness? I don’t know, but the opening horror thing felt completely disconnected from the imagery (imagine The Shining’s opening score and its synthesis with the movement on the screen), almost as if I could go ahead and score the same images with Old Turkey Buzzard and lose out on nothing. Maybe, on his eighth film, Mr. Tarantino was just plain uninspired to make one, and is rather interested in making a contribution to theatre. If he does it sometime in the future, I hope this film will serve as a first draft.  


Note: This is essentially an overelaborate MOM of a discussion I had with Gaurang Joshi.