Sicario: Day of the Soldado

Sicario: Day of the Soldado

By: Kevin Jordan

Whistling at dogs.

Note to readers: I have tried to keep politics out of my movie reviews, but when viewing Sicario: Day of the Soldado, the film’s politics are impossible to ignore given recent events.  Thus, it is impossible not to write about politics here.

A list of current events in the United States includes: (1) the White House, Justice Department, and Department of Homeland Security directing Border Patrol and ICE to commit human rights violations by separating migrant children from their families and then, losing track of those children (more than 2,000); (2) the Supreme Court upholding a travel ban that discriminates based on religious beliefs (despite the fully debunked national security claims, despite Trump’s own words and previous attempts that clearly show the ban is solely based on banning Muslims, and despite every lower court ruling the ban unconstitutional and lacking evidence supporting a national defense claim); and (3) Trump calling for ending due process rights for immigrants – another example of Trump attacking constitutional rights.  Enter the new film Sicario: Day of the Soldado, which puts those issues into its mouth, chews them up, and spits the resulting ball into your hand like a five-year old who mistakenly thinks the resulting wad is awesome.

Maybe we should try manning border checkpoints to process immigrants.

(SPOILERS to discuss plot points because the First Amendment is still a thing.)

Right off the bat, the film rubbed me (and my friend) the wrong way.  The film opens by depicting myths that insist countless terrorists are entering the United States illegally via the Mexican border, which serves to demonize both Mexicans and Muslims in one fell swoop.  This myth has been thoroughly and repeatedly debunked (for details, you can start here, here, or here), and, while the idea should be a concern when vetting immigrants (illegal or otherwise), the number of immigrants discovered with suspected terrorist ties over the past several decades is infinitesimal.  Put another way, crossing illegally via the US-Mexico border is arguably the worst way to get into the United States.

The opening sequence of the film depicts suicide bombers detonating themselves in a Kansas City grocery store and another bomber detonating himself at the border rather than be captured by ICE.  Cut to agent Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) interrogating a just-captured Somali pirate, demanding to know who helped smuggle the terrorists through Mexico and into the United States.  Addressing the due process rights issue, Graver threatens to call in an air strike on the pirate’s home (noting that the pirate’s brother is there) if the pirate does not answer Graver’s question.  The pirate tells Graver he thinks Graver is bluffing and Graver responds with “we are in Africa.  I can do whatever the fuck I want,” then, proves it by ordering the strike.  Not only did Graver piss all over due process for everyone killed in the strike, but he committed a war crime.  After threatening more of the pirate’s family members, the pirate reveals that a Mexican drug cartel leader, Carlos Reyes, is responsible for the smuggling.  The New York Times addressed why this is not a thing, but this movie is committed to depicting fairy tales.  So, the next logical question is – is there a princess involved?

Do people really believe that I, a 13-year old girl, am a rapist? Seriously?

Funny you should ask that.  Not only is there a princess, Graver literally uses the terms “king” and “prince” when describing his plan to attack the cartels to the Secretary of Defense (Matthew Modine).  He wants to kidnap Reyes’ daughter, Isabela (Isabela Moner), but make it look like a rival cartel kidnapped her in order to start a war between the cartels.  Since this plan is obviously wildly illegal, it must be done off the books and fits perfectly into what this movie is selling.  Mythical problems require drastic solutions.

Putting the political stuff aside for the moment, the plot and premise are solid for a fictional movie and are executed well for the first two acts of the movie.  Graver is menacing and soulless in the execution of his duty as a soldier and Brolin nails this role.  His superior, Cynthia Foards (Catherine Keener), is also a soulless government ghoul, one-upping Graver by ordering him to kill Isabela after the mission goes awry (not a spoiler; this is literally shown in the previews).  Alejandro Gillick (Benicio del Toro) is there as well because this is a sequel to Sicario, not Pacific Rim, and working with Graver until Gillick’s murder is also ordered by Foards.  Moner does a good job making scared faces and screaming, but Isabela is given no character development and is little more than a prop, both literally and figuratively.

By the end of the second act, the movie had mostly removed the bitter political taste, but then the third act happens.  As mentioned earlier, Graver’s plan is wrecked when their Mexican military escort turns their guns on the Americans in the convoy.  The Americans kill all of the Mexicans and escape back to the US, but Gillick remains behind to track down Isabela, who ran off during the fight.  Gillick finds her, calls Graver for an extraction plan, but learns about Foards order to kill them (still no spoilers because whomever made and approved the preview are jerks).  You would be forgiven for thinking this sets up a showdown between Graver and Gillick.  It does not.  At this point, the film just quits on itself.

Did we lose another kid?

My friend summed it up nicely, saying “it came off like they had no idea how to end the story.”  For starters, the order to kill Isabela and Gillick only makes sense if you turn off your brain.  Isabela only knows that she was kidnapped and rescued, which was completely by design, and Gillick is as trustworthy as Graver.  Why not just send Isabela home and bring in Gillick?  Second, no kind of showdown ever happens, which is maddening because that is the main hook in the preview.  Finally, none of the plot lines are closed out, leaving the audience completely unsatisfied and with plenty of unanswered questions.  Did the two cartels go to war?  Are there repercussions for the botched plan that left a lot of dead Mexicans, including soldiers and police?  Are terrorists still being smuggled across the border by the cartels?  Did DHS and ICE really lose more than 2,000 children and have to be shamed into giving a shit?  So.  Many.  Questions.

As a whole, Day of the Soldado is an uneven film with good acting, mediocre writing, and bad politics.  To be fair, the film tosses a bone to the left when the President is referred to as a coward, but this film is largely an anti-immigration, propaganda wet-dream, complete with a child being forcibly separated from her parents by American officials (quite the accidental coincidence).  Her father may be a drug-lord, and if the President is to be believed, all Mexicans are drug-lords (or something), so everything is okay.  Also, this is not okay.

Rating: Ask for six dollars back and tune out the dog-whistles.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

By: Kevin Jordan

I’m not sure either side should win.

As much as I look forward to many movies every year, none of them do I anticipate as much as Star Wars.  Since writing movie reviews does not pay the bills (or anything but movie admissions, for that matter) and advanced screenings of Star Wars flicks are always in the middle of a weekday, I’m forced to decide whether or not to take a day off to see the movie.  Since my dream of being a professional baseball player died a long time ago, the decision to ditch a day of work for Star Wars is easy.  The only down-side is I have to hold my tongue the next day or two so as not to spoil the movie for anyone within hearing distance of my cubicle.  And for Star Wars, we at the screening got an extra reminder that we shouldn’t ruin the movie for others with spoilers.  But, you know how I feel about spoilers in reviews.  Reviews are spoilers by their very nature.  If you don’t have some level of spoilers, it’s not a real review.  Hence, the obligatory spoiler warning I always include.  So, to meet my extra obligation for Star Wars, here is your warning.

(SPOILER ALERT)

………

(EXTRA SPOILER ALERT)

………

(Seriously.  I’m going to include a few SPOILERS.)

………

(Are you still with me?)

………

(Are you sure you want to keep reading?)

………

(Last chance.  SPOILER ALERT)

………

(There’s no turning back now.)

………

(Okay.  I think I’ve made my point.  Here we go.  SPOILER ALERT, but nothing huge.)

This picture contains zero spoilers.

The Last Jedi picks up where we left Rey (Daisy Ridley) standing on an island facing Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill).  But, really it picks up showing us the Resistance fleeing their base before the First Order shows up to destroy them.  Apparently, there were a whole lot more First Order guys than were on the destroyed Starkiller Base.  General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson), commanding a fleet of star destroyers, shows up at the Resistance’s planet to kill them all and we are treated to a scene straight out of The Avengers.  I think Joss Whedon snuck into the writer’s room to add a can-you-hear-me-now gag in the opening space battle scene and I’m still conflicted on if it works in a Star Wars film.  It’s not that I didn’t laugh (I did), but that exchange turns the EVIL FIRST ORDER and General Hux into the silly first order and General doofus.  Do you know how hard it is to believe that the First Order was able to take over the entire galaxy after watching them fall for a crank call to their battlecruiser?

The opening space battle also made me realize how terrible every faction in this universe is at military strategy and tactics.  On the First Order side, they have a dozen star destroyers that never fire a single shot at the fleeing force or the planet below them, opting to wait for a dreadnaught to show up that carries four gigantic guns.  Incidentally, this was exactly how the Empire lost in Return of the Jedi.  The Empire had a whole fleet of star destroyers that never fired a single shot because they were waiting for the Death Star, even after the rebels began to specifically target the star destroyers.  Anyway, on the Resistance side, they’ve hatched a plan to take out the dreadnaught, led by Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), despite Leia (Carrie Fisher) verbalizing the cost wasn’t worth the mission.  Not only does she okay an obviously tiny-odds mission, she tries to back out of it when all the assets are already well past committed, then lays all the blame on Dameron for disobeying a retreat order that was nonsensical.  It’s no wonder the wars never end in the Star Wars universe.  Both sides are militarily dumb.

(Side note: The star destroyer thing is really nagging at my brain.  Seriously, what exactly are they for, if not triangle shaped transports?  Their name implies they can actually destroy things, yet we rarely ever see them fire a shot at anything in any movie.  But, they sure do crash a lot.)

Nobody in the galaxy can actually read that map.

After this, the movie spends time jumping back and forth between the First Order fleet pursuing the remaining Resistance ships and Rey trying to convince Luke to rejoin the Resistance and train her to be a Jedi.  If this sounds an awful like Empire, at least no one gets frozen in carbonite.  Though, speaking of frozen (and here’s the one sorta-real SPOILER), Leia survives being blown up and blasted into space without a spacesuit.  Remember in Guardians of the Galaxy when Gamora and Star-Lord both survive being in space without a spacesuit?  Yeah, it sucked in that movie too.  Watching frozen Leia open her eyes and magic herself back to the ship was possibly the worst moment in the entire franchise, and this franchise includes Jar-Jar Binks.  I get that it can be explained away by the Force and Skywalker DNA, but it undercuts any danger she is in, will be in, or has ever been in.  We all know that Jedi are not invincible and most definitely cannot survive space.  Plus, Leia isn’t even a trained Jedi, making this scene even more ridiculous in the context of this universe.  She should have just been found in the wreckage of the area of the ship that was blasted and nobody would have questioned her survival.

How about a little positivity, since I liked this movie despite its flaws?  The scenes with Luke and Rey are easily the highlight of the movie because we get to learn a bunch of stuff about the past and reunite with one of the all-time movie heroes.  Hamill plays a grumpy old Luke as if he’s been practicing 35 years for exactly this moment.  He’s surly and cynical and you are screaming at Rey to whack him over the head with her staff because we want to see some Jedi stuff, dammit!  Ridley slips effortlessly back into Rey, delivering a character that grows exponentially while on the island, despite Luke’s efforts to drive her away.  There are also some really cool new Force concepts that we get to watch develop, not the least because these scenes involve Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and his current mindset.  Speaking of Kylo Ren, man is that guy a mental wreck.  Losing a fight to Rey has caused Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) to lose faith in his apprentice and Kylo is trying desperately to prove his worth.  I love that Hux keeps poking at him, despite the fact that Kylo is an unstable bomb that could kill Hux with a thought.  This plotline is the heart of the movie and the space chase is just a distracting side story meant to give screen time to Dameron, Leia, and Finn (John Boyega), and deliver most of the action we all want to see.

Can’t you train me just a little you old crank?

This brings us to Finn and a bunch of extraneous stories that end up muddling the film.  If writer/director Rian Johnson had stuck with just those two story threads, the movie would have been far tighter.  Instead, a third story is tossed in where Finn and fellow space janitor Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) embark on a desperate mission to a super-rich city to find a guy who might be able to help them save the fleet from annihilation.  This sub-plot is far more social commentary on income inequality, child slave labor, and the military industrial complex than fantasy space opera with laser swords.  It’s preachy in a way that brings the movie to a screeching halt rather than delivering a subtle, but powerful message dressed in droids and blasters.  I really love Finn as a character, but he felt almost forgotten in this film.

But, oh, that action and special effects.  Mmmmmmmmm.  I know film snobs love to criticize the very existence of CGI, but CGI has allowed us to see things beyond our wildest imaginations.  Everything is this movie was visually stunning (with the exception of the stupid little porgs – penguin-like creatures on Luke’s island that exist solely for Disney to sell merchandise to children.  I’m not exaggerating, these things literally do nothing in the movie outside of being on the Millenium Falcon in some poorly conceived homage to the rightly-derided tribbles of Star Trek fame).  One shot in particular near the end of the film was spectacular to behold (which I won’t spoil) and made even the porgs worth putting up with.  Oh oh oh, and the last planet we see them on?  Just, oh wow.  Even if I did try to describe it (which I won’t), you’d have to see it to understand.  I know I’m big on providing evidence to support a claim (hence the entire reason SPOILERS are necessary in a review), but on this one I’m just going to ask you to trust me.

Gorgeous. Just gorgeous.

If you’ve stuck with me through the previous 1500 words, let me reward you with the answer to the question you really want to know.  How good is The Last Jedi compared to the last two Star Wars movies?  For starters, it definitely has way too much crammed into it (while the other two are very streamlined), but I can’t get enough Star Wars so I’m not really complaining.  I wish they had made some different decisions with a couple of the minor subplots and characters (like with Laura Dern’s vice admiral Holdo, for one).  I wish Finn wasn’t quite so slap-sticky, or the rest of the movie, for that matter, but at least there weren’t any fart jokes.  On the flip side, spending time with Luke was fantastic, Rey and Kylo’s connection is developed sublimely, and the crescendo at the end of the film makes up for all of the minor problems in the film.  All in all, it’s not as good as the previous two films, but it’s still a pretty good Star Wars film.  In other words, we still win.

Rating: Don’t ask for any money back, but I’m saying that far less emphatically than the last two movies.

Guardians of the Galaxy

By: Kevin Jordan (Number9)

Nothing can stop Marvel.

Guardians

Back when I wrote about Edge of Tomorrow, I casually commented that one of the most anticipated movies of the summer was Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy and that I had no idea why it was so anticipated.  I’ve read approximately one comic book in my entire life, but I’m aware that they exist and have at least heard of most the titles of most of them.  But, Guardians of the Galaxy?  Up until a couple of years ago, virtually nobody had heard of that one, including me.  I also joked that the only thing revealed in the trailers were the five guardians, a spaceship, a bunch of jokes, and a whole lot of action and I can honestly tell you that all of those things exist in this movie.  My big fear was that the plot was either going to not exist or be a complete mess since the previews didn’t show a peep of it.  Well, to answer your question, yes – I’ve only ever read one comic book.

Last week, after seeing Lucy, my friend opined that Lucy is fine as long as you don’t think about it.  That very well might be the most backhanded compliment one can give to a movie.  Essentially, what that statement means is that the film is a flaming turd disguised by an element or two that makes the film tolerable.  In the case of Lucy, those elements are good action scenes and Scarlett Johansson walking around in a tight, black dress causing half the audience to drool and the other half to edge ever-so-slightly towards bulimia.  But, when you start to think about the plot, the character development, or the various character motivations, you realize you can smell the turd and it’s not pleasant.

The interesting thing about said compliment is it is used almost exclusively by people to sugarcoat their real opinion for a certain audience or because they secretly liked the movie and don’t want to admit they have no idea what a well-written story/screenplay looks like (note: my friend is one of the former).  Personally, I use that statement as a veiled insult directed at people who openly like movies that fit the compliment or the people who actually wrote/made the movie.  In other words, when I say that Lucy is a tolerable action movie if you turn your brain off, I’m saying Luc Besson – and anyone who claims Lucy is more than a big, dumb action flick – is a moron.  I’m not saying you can’t like the film or enjoy it (hell, I enjoyed the shit out of Battleship); I’m just saying don’t make it more than it is.  For me, there aren’t many things funnier than people trying to explain the depth and gravitas of poorly written movies like Maleficent.

The converse to said compliment is that it is possible to make big, action flicks that are both fun and non-dumb, which brings me to Guardians of the Galaxy.  Based on the previews, I fully expected that I would have to turn off my brain to enjoy the film.  If you are in the majority of folks, the only thing you know about the film is that a tree, a raccoon, a green-chick, and two dudes come together on a spaceship to crack jokes and shoot people.  That is not exactly the formula for a well-written movie; in fact, it’s essentially Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, but with intentional comedy.

(Side note: how hard are you trying to match up those characters right now?  There is no way you are sleeping tonight without figuring that out.)

Where Guardians succeeds and so many others fail is that it delivers a very simple, straight-forward plot, focuses a lot on character development while using it to advance the story, and doesn’t use action just for the sake of action.  The entire plot of the film, as you may have guessed, is that the five characters shown in the previews will save the galaxy from something.  In this case, they have to save the galaxy from a villain named Ronan (Lee Pace) who is trying to get his hands on an Infinity Stone, which will give him the power to destroy entire planets.  Simple, right?  The plot advances through various events, bringing the characters together while also telling us more about the characters themselves, including their back stories and motivations for the actions they have taken and the actions they are going to take.  There are a couple of minor, unanswered questions like – who is the collector (Benicio del Toro) and why have we now seen him in two different movies? – but those questions don’t make the plot harder to understand or outright nonsensical.  In the context of the film, the collector is the guy who promised to pay Gamora (Zoe Saldana) a ton of money for the sphere containing the stone and that’s it.  Simple, right?

On top of all that, there are smaller things that make the movie more entertaining than just about any movie this summer.  For one thing, the movie is aware of itself.  Another thing you hear people sometimes say is that a movie took itself too seriously or isn’t aware of itself.  What that usually means is that the mood of the movie does not match the content of the movie.  Not to harp too much on Lucy, but it definitely takes itself too seriously (after the first half, that is) in that it treats its own premise with far too much weight.  The idea that a human gains multiple superpowers through expanded brain capacity by ingesting a large quantity of a drugs sewn into her stomach is absurd and should be treated as such (obviously, this is not how Lucy handled its own premise).  Guardians is a comic book movie in which one of its characters is a genetically engineered, sarcastic raccoon named Rocket (Bradley Cooper) and another is a tree named Groot (Vin Diesel).  The mood you would expect is fun action and comedy dressed in special effects and that’s exactly what you get.  That’s how you know Guardians is aware of itself.

Of course, the movie isn’t without its flaws.  Chris Pratt gives an uneven performance – sometimes he’s really good and sometimes he’s soap opera bad.  There are a bunch of thieves led by Yondu (Michael Rooker) that are superfluous and could easily be lifted from the movie without impacting the story.  There are some really bad performances put forth by Karen Gillan as Nebula – who spends the entire movie screeching – and Pace, who over-delivers nearly every line he utters.  Perhaps the most glaring flaw is best put like this – what the hell is Glenn Close doing in this movie?

The point I’m trying to make is that the movie doesn’t ask you turn off your brain, but also doesn’t ask you to think about anything either.  It’s simply asking you to come along for a fun ride for a couple of hours and enjoy yourself.  I’m not saying Guardians of the Galaxy is the best movie of the summer, but it might just be the most entertaining.

Rating: Don’t ask for any money back.  This movie turned out far better than even Marvel could have predicted.