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‘Sicario: Day of the Soldado’ Is a Soulless Exercise in Paranoia

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Few things are ever certain in film prognostication, but at least one thing seemed a fairly safe bet: the sequel to Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario (2015) would depart significantly from its predecessor, thanks to the absence of Villeneuve, original star Emily Blunt, cinematographer Roger Deakins, and composer Jóhann Jóhannson. Sicario: Day of the Soldado is certainly miles apart from its predecessor — in the sense that it’s an offensively terrible film searching for profundity amongst conspiracies dreamed up by your crazy uncle.

In Sicario, Emily Blunt played an FBI agent drawn into an extralegal attack on narco gangs by a deceptive CIA operative (Josh Brolin) and his assassin with a past (Benicio del Toro). Blunt served as the film’s moral compass — as well as the audience surrogate — never loses sight of the atrocities Brolin and del Toro are capable of, but her role is completely absent in Day of the Soldado. In this new film, Graver (Brolin) and Gillick (del Toro) have been redeployed following a series of terrorist attacks committed by radical Muslims, who have been smuggled into the country by unconcerned drug cartels. If that concept sounds familiar, it might be because of its proximity to a (debunked) conspiracy theory suggesting that ISIS was operating on the US-Mexico border. The conspiracy theory originated in 2014 and was given added publicity when Fox News briefly ran with it, and seems to have inspired screenwriter Taylor Sheridan, who has sadly lost his mind since the first film. Free of Blunt’s schoolmarmish concern for outdated concepts like justice and the rule of law, Graver and Gillick decide to “start a war” with “no rules.” Graver will “set [Gillick] loose” — presumably to go fight a bunch of dangerous clichés.

Sicario: Day of the Soldado

Part of Gillick’s plan is to kidnap the daughter of a powerful cartel head, in the process convincing him that a rival cartel is responsible for her abduction. He’ll lash out and they’ll fight back, ideally destroying each other in the process. Sheridan has devised a tawdry plot turn, and he and director Stefano Sollima threaten to play into racial animus when introducing Isabel Reyes (Isabela Moner). When we first see Isabel, she’s in the midst of a schoolyard fight that she has instigated among Catholic school girls, all of them wearing matching, featureless uniforms. The character threatens to paint Mexicans as bloodthirsty savages, and also seems to blame a 16-year-old girl for the sins of her father, as if she’s been made feral by his outlaw ways.

Day of the Soldado aims to reimagine its male characters as the ultimate antiheroes, but Sheridan’s screenplay and Sollima’s direction aren’t strong enough for the heavy lifting required to do that.

The kidnapping plan barely makes sense on the page, so it’s inevitable that something will go wrong. Amidst all the chaos, it’s hard work finding a reason to even care about what happens to Brolin and del Toro’s characters. Part of what worked so well in the first film was that both men were actually villains. Perhaps they intended to affect a positive change, but their warped methods only led to unnecessary death and destruction. Innocent people were wrapped up in their schemes, losing lives in the process.

Day of the Soldado aims to reimagine its male characters as the ultimate antiheroes, but Sheridan’s screenplay and Sollima’s direction aren’t strong enough for the heavy lifting required to do that. Perhaps some impressionable person who also happens to believe that dangerous criminals are infiltrating the US from south of the border will adopt Graver and Gillick as heroes, but most viewers will recognize them as amoral tempests seeding death and destruction in their wake.

It raises the question: what happened to Sheridan since the first film? Either he has been seduced by Trumpism and its libel on foreigners, or he simply fails to understand how his new work falls into their hands. Sheridan has indicated that Sicario was written years before it was finally filmed; Day of the Soldado would have been rushed by comparison. Perhaps the sequel suffers without the benefit of years of rewrites and the hands of collaborators like Villeneuve and Deakins; Dariusz Wolski’s cinematography is as flat and bland and Deakins’ is vibrant and startling. Hildur Guðnadóttir’s score also lacks the arresting cues that allowed the late Jóhann Jóhannson’s work to stick out. The best parts of Day of the Soldado’s score are when Jóhannson’s original is quoted.

Sicario: Day of the Soldado

Many viewers will identify with Moner as the kidnapped child. We get the sense that Sheridan may have meant that character to act as a replacement for Emily Blunt’s missing FBI agent, but the role doesn’t carry the same kind of power. As she demonstrated in this year’s A Quiet Place, Blunt is a master of portraying distress and despair. But her character in Sicario also had agency and purpose, whereas Moner’s character in Soldado is merely a victim. It doesn’t help that Brolin seems to just be riffing on his previous performance, and del Toro isn’t able to muster the fury that drove his grieving character in the first film. He conveyed a deep sadness there which is unfortunately missing this time around.

Perhaps the solution to Sheridan’s screenplay problems is to just hire a director with a strong enough vision to erase the more troubling aspects of his writing. It makes sense that Villeneuve wouldn’t care to return to a half-baked sequel, especially after directing the moving Arrival (2016) and the majestic Blade Runner 2049 (2017), but they might have at least hired someone with a similarly strong vision, rather than the dull Sollima. Sheridan has written (and even directed) other fine films, including Hell or High Water (2016) and Wind River (2017), but those were also based on scripts written years before. Hopefully he can rebuild his chops and return to that level of greatness, but for now his pen seems unsure of itself.

Brian Marks is Sordid Cinema's Lead Film Critic. His writing has appeared in The Village Voice, LA Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, and Ampersand. He's a graduate of USC's master's program in Specialized Arts Journalism. You can find more of his writing at InPraiseofCinema.com. Best film experience: driving halfway across the the country for a screening of Jean-Luc Godard's "King Lear." Totally worth it.

4 Comments

4 Comments

  1. John

    July 6, 2018 at 2:00 pm

    I really never got the impression that this movie is buying into the sort of xenophobia and demonizing of Mexico that has arisen in politics lately. I mean, sure, some of the characters buy into an amoral “protect America by any means necessary” stance; but I never felt that the movie condones these sentiments. I even recall (**mildest of spoilers**) a particular plot twist that seems to intentionally go against the grain of the various views on the border that the movie had already presented.

    I am a purty liberal person, whose friends regular call him a lib snowflake, and I sincerely never felt that this movie ever took a clear stance on any political or social issue. The most they did was to humanize people illegally crossing the border hoping for a better life (which is the opposite of Trump’s sentiments).

    If you loved the first movie, then just know that Emily Blunt’s character is never replaced by a similar “idealist sheep in the land of wolves” character. This chapter has abandoned all hope of idealism, and the shedding of that character is a clear indicator of this intention by the writer. And, as much as I loved Blunt’s character, we don’t need multiple movies retreading the surface-level debate of “we must be better than the enemy.” As sad as it is, I do think that a much more interesting direction to progress this franchise is to instead ask the question, “How much of a monster is it ‘OK’ to become in order to vanquish evil?” It doesn’t rationalize becoming a monster for “the greater good”, but instead just explores the pro’s and con’s of such self-delusions and actions. In this one way, the sequel is deeper IMO, and I loved it for it.

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70 Best Movie Posters of 2019

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Best Movie Posters of 2019

Deciding the best movie posters is no easy task…

I remember when I was younger, I used to head to the video store and rent movies I’d never heard of based solely on the movie poster art. This was, of course, a different time— sure, the internet was a thing, but we didn’t have countless websites, not to mention social media platforms, promoting new movies online with news stories, movie stills, featurettes, teasers, trailers and so on. Not to say that sort of marketing didn’t exist in the past, because it did, but it wasn’t always in your face. For better or for worse, the internet changed the way studios market movies, but one thing that hasn’t changed is the use of a poster to help build excitement and anticipation for an upcoming film. Most posters continue to be an important marketing tool for filmmakers worldwide and so once again, we’ve decided to collect images of our favourite movie posters revealed over the past twelve months. If you checked out our list of the best movie posters of 2018, you’ll remember it included posters for indie gems, thrillers, horror movies, foreign language films, Hollywood blockbusters and everything in between. This year is no different, although it should be said that some marketing campaigns were so good, we’ve decided to include more than one poster for a few select films. Also worth noting, we didn’t include any fan-made poster art below. That out of the way, here are the best movie posters of 2019.

Click on any one of the images to enlarge the posters.

The Best Movie Posters of 2019

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The Piercing ‘Marriage Story’ Is Noah Baumbach’s Best Film to Date

TIFF 2019

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Marriage Story

In 2010, director Noah Baumbach began divorce proceedings with his now ex-wife, Jennifer Jason Leigh. The divorce was finalized three years later, and since then Baumbach has been in a relationship with actor and director (and occasional collaborator) Greta Gerwig. It’s impossible to view his newest film, Marriage Story, without taking into account his own dissolved marriage; this is a searching, seething work of recriminations and longing that pits two all–too–human parents against each other, and invites the audience to not only imagine which bits of psychic trauma are his own, but also to consider our own relationships, successful or not.

Marriage Story stars Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver as Nicole and Charlie, a married couple living in New York City with their young son Henry. The film opens with a montage as Nicole recites the things she most loves about her husband, from the way he can cook and doesn’t mind waking up with their son, to his skill as a theater director. In turn, Charlie narrates his favorite aspects of Nicole, his regular lead actor. There are plenty of opportunities for tears here, but the unguarded emotions of these confessions might get them started right from the beginning. But just as they finish reciting these traits, we’re brought back to reality; these confessions were things that they had written down to read to each other as a kind of peace offering at the start of their mediation following a separation that has led up to their divorce. But Nicole doesn’t like what she has written — or at least doesn’t want Charlie to hear it. And if she won’t go, then it’s not really fair for him to read his. So neither tells each other what they most admire in the other, and instead stop seeing the mediator.

It’s the first strike in Nicole and Charlie’s mutually assured destruction agreement. Though they initially plan on avoiding using lawyers, Nicole gets tipped off to a well-regarded attorney (a funny and ice-cold Laura Dern) who advises her to take a maximalist position in order to ensure she gets half of everything she wants — at the very least. Once she has a lawyer, Charlie tries out a variety of legal counsels (a soothing Alan Alda and a fiery Ray Liotta), but the real conflict comes down to location; Nicole has taken Henry to Los Angeles while she films a pilot, and wants to stay even after it’s finished. Charlie, however, thought they would move back to New York. Each escalation in the feud necessitates an opposing reaction, and the two are driven further and further apart, even as they try to stay close for the sake of their son.

Marriage Story

Baumbach has admitted that some details of the film are based on his own divorce, but he’s also said he interviewed many of his friends who divorced around the same time, as well as lawyers and judges involved in divorce cases. In some ways, Marriage Story isn’t just a portrait of a couple separating, but a primer on divorce court that far surpasses something like Kramer vs. Kramer, which was out of date even in 1979. The film is also an opportunity to observe two of the best living actors at the top of their game. Johansson and Driver have a knack for finding the sweet spot between un-actorly naturalism and the stylistic ticks that we recognize as compelling acting. It gives us a sense that these people were actually a family, and really cared for each other. Baumbach’s script helps; it’s maybe his best writing ever, filled with so many painfully open moments, yet leavened with just the right amount of humor. He’s also as fair as he could be, and neither parent comes off as too saintly or self-centered.

Marriage Story ends in a circle of sorts with the discovery of Nicole’s notes about Charlie’s best qualities. Their marriage was effectively over before the film even started, but I kept thinking back to that lovely introductory scene. How might their journey to divorce progressed if they had the courage to speak openly to each other in that one moment? Perhaps something might have been better. Marriage Story doesn’t harbor any of those romantic illusions, however; once it’s over, it’s over.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on September 12, 2019, as part of our coverage of the Toronto International Film Festival.

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Don’t Be Sad ‘A Rainy Day in New York’ Never Made it to Manhattan

Spend this rainy day playing a board game or something

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Rainy Day in New York

You do not come to late-era Woody Allen for anything resembling true originality. He is the drunken piano man, riffing off the same old hits in the same old bar, hoping that nostalgia will hit a chord with somebody. As in Midnight in Paris, Blue Jasmine, or even Irrational Man, his output over the last decade can still bring up moments of true inspiration and fresh-feeling angles on the same old tales, even if the plot-lines feel somewhat familiar. In the best humanist cinema, like that of Rohmer or Ozu, this repetition can make you see the same thing in a slightly different way. The same cannot be said of A Rainy Day in New York, a film so derivative it feels like it came out of an auto-generator, making me feel nothing but contempt for the waste of so much talent. If you are an American Woody Allen fan sad that this movie never made it to Manhattan, there’s honestly no need to be.

Timotheé Chalamet stars and narrates in a performance so poor that he must be happy this film hasn’t released back in the States. He plays Gatsby Wells, a student at upstate Yardley College, a place he detests yet tolerates because his beloved girlfriend Ashleigh (Elle Fanning) — heiress to a rich banking empire in Tucson — also studies there. As a writer for the University paper, she gets the chance to interview famous director Roland Pollard (Liev Schreiber), giving them the possibility to explore New York together. Yet when they arrive there, a series of misunderstandings, mishaps, and fear of missed opportunities keeps them perpetually apart, handing them the chance to explore romance with others — including old flames, movie stars and, of course, high-priced escorts. 

Although his first name is Gatsby, Wells better resembles the other great male of 20th century American literature: Holden Caulfield. Like the protagonist of The Catcher in the Rye, he is born of massive privilege, shunning his supposedly phoney origins while still visiting the fanciest hotels and drinking in the fanciest bars. There is perhaps some kind of interesting modern portrait of New York privilege in here, but Woody Allen is simply not the right director for the material. It’s like asking a jazz pianist to bash out a techno tune. 

And just as Allen’s blinkered view of New York blinds him to the real world and its contemporary concerns, Chalamet’s nostalgia act cannot find a way to escape Woody’s wooden writing. The sensitive, pretentious, sensual young man who turned in such a deeply felt performance in Call Me By Your Name could be a natural fit for a Woody Allen character, if only he actually leaned into what makes him a great actor instead of trying his best Woody Allen imitation. While some actors can do Woody Allen well (Kenneth Branagh is uncanny in Celebrity, while Larry David is great in Whatever Works), Timotheé Chalamet has neither the studied talent to impersonate well, nor the arrogance to put his own distinctive stamp on it. Elle Fanning is similarly dire; playing both an intrepid, impetuous journalist and a thick floozy, she carries neither the charm nor the wit to make her a compelling co-lead.  

A Rainy Day in New York

I don’t blame either actor; they’re young, and there’s a feeling that they weren’t given much direction. In fact, almost every aspect of A Rainy Day in New York feels underdeveloped, underwritten, and under-thought. This is a film so lazy that it even recycles the ending of Midnight in Paris, perhaps hoping that the audience developed amnesia since 2011. Even Allen’s trademark eye for Manhattan is missing. Filming here properly for the first time since 2009, the city no longer seems like much of a character by itself, and instead comes off as it would in a generic TV Christmas Movie. 

While Allen’s early 00s work — easily his worst period — is characterised by its TV-movie lighting, his collaborations over the past ten years with cinematographers such as Darius Khondji (Midnight in Paris, To Rome With Love), Javier Aguirresarobe (Blue Jasmine), and Vittorio Stororo (Cafe Society, Wonder Wheel) elevated his films’ look considerably, even when the writing may have been lacking. Sadly here, the legendary cinematographer behind Apocalypse Now and The Conformist — despite what seems like his best efforts to light generic hotel rooms with warmth and vibrancy — cannot save A Rainy Day in New York at all, which feels even more rushed and cut-to-pieces than usual. This is really only for die-hard Woody Allen completists; casual minds need not bother.

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