Sicario 2: Soldado

Cast: Benicio del Toro, Josh Brolin, Isabela Moner, Jeffrey Donovan, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Catherine Kenner

Director: Stefano Sollima

Writer: Taylor Sheridan


For those who go to the movies for escapism, Soldado is probably the last film they want to watch. Focusing largely on the tumultuous issues of the US-Mexico border, the film taps into many of the fears and disputes plaguing the US at this time. On the outset we are treated to charged depictions of suicide bombings which rank among the most agonising moments I’ve ever seen in a film. One attack occurs in a Kansas City supermarket where we see an unbroken take of a mother pleading for her young daughter’s life as she slowly edges their way towards the exit only for the both of them to be mercilessly blown to bits. It is a deeply horrifying scene and some would probably argue that it crosses the line into gratuitous brutality and unwarranted fear mongering but if there is a more harrowing and powerful portrayal of the true horror of modern-day terrorism in cinema, then I haven’t seen it. With imagery this daring and provocative, Soldado holds itself like a movie that has something urgent and important it wants to say. However, after having watched it, I’m still not sure what that is.

It is assumed that these attacks were carried out by foreign terrorists who were smuggled into the country via the Mexican border with some help from the local crime bosses. The US government responds by officially relabeling the cartels as terrorist organisations, giving their secret services the authority they need to fight back with unorthodox methods. Secretary of Defence James Riley (Matthew Modine) tasks Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) with stirring up some chaos in Mexico by pitting the cartels against each other and instigating a war that will disrupt their operations and keep everybody in check. Matt hatches a plan to kidnap one of the leading cartel kingpin’s daughters, a girl called Isabel Reyes (Isabela Moner), whose father just so happens to be the man responsible for the deaths of Alejandro’s (Benicio del Toro) wife and daughter, and convincing him that a rival cartel has taken her captive. Matt enlists Alejandro to get it done and assures him that there are “no rules this time”.

Those familiar with the original 2015 film will notice four significant absences in the sequel. Firstly is Emily Blunt as the smart but naïve protagonist who had served as the viewer’s proxy in the story (although, given how her introduction to this complex and dirty business turned out, I doubt there is anything on Earth that could have convinced this character to return). Secondly and thirdly are director Denis Villeneuve and cinematographer Roger Deakins who both did such a great job of finding the beauty and darkness in the US-Mexican landscape and in crafting some nail-bitingly tense sequences. Fourthly is the late composer Jóhann Jóhannsson whose hypnotic score was crucial in constructing the film’s intense and morally ambiguous tone. All four are masters at their crafts and it would be a big ask for any replacement to live up to their examples. Yet Soldado devotes so much effort towards trying to mimic the original film’s style that the comparisons are unavoidable. I do think Sollima does a commendable job in the director’s chair, but at every turn I am reminded that nearly every element of this film was done better the first time around and with greater artistry.

Returning to author the screenplay is Taylor Sheridan, a writer who isn’t one to back away from complex political realities plagued by conflicting ideologies and nihilistic tenacity. In Sicario he led us down a rabbit hole into the tumultuous war on drugs where the cartels and US forces are as brutal and greedy as each other and are trapped in an endless cycle of violence that brings nothing but a fractured order and ruined lives with no reason or hope in sight. The film was clear in what it was criticising and part of the tragedy was that it couldn’t find any clear solution to the pandemonium, leaving the Emily Blunt character totally broken and defeated. Here he moves on beyond the drug war to American border security and Mexican migrant smuggling, a controversial enough subject made all the more complicated by the depiction of Islamic terrorism. Soldado hits the ground running in its provocative opening minutes with its images of migrants running across the border in the dead of night and of suicide bombers murdering American civilians in domestic settings, seemingly confirming every xenophobic Trumpian nightmare. The film then proceeds to try and challenge the mindset it has established but doesn’t do so nearly as powerfully.

There are certainly some strong performances and tremendous scenes (such as an ambush on a military convoy) along the way. Sheridan has always been a fan of the machismo of the Old West and here he has Brolin and del Toro to play the part. Brolin has just the right kind of face and physique to play these hard-boiled military men but here he adds in a strong unruly edge. He’s that kind of soldier who has to be kept on a leash by his superiors so that he doesn’t cause too much trouble, only now they’re letting him loose to do things his way. It’s a stock character, but its one that Brolin plays well. del Toro however is the star of the show. As the stonefaced, seemingly indestructible Alejandro, del Toro continues to find depth and nuance beyond what he’s given. His pairing with Moner allows for a compelling dynamic as the soldado who has previously had no aversion towards murdering children starts to see some of his own daughter in the child of the man responsible for her death. Thank goodness for their duel act because that’s really the only trace of humanity I found in a film that desperately needed more.

At first glance Soldado would appear to be a match for the first Sicario film. It has the same look and tone, the characters, the same themes, the same amount of violence and the same moral greyness. It walks the same walk and talks the same talk. What’s missing is the humanity and the introspection. We start off with two male antiheroes who have resigned themselves to their Sisyphean callings, and that’s pretty much what we end with. In the time between we never get any kind of meaningful reckoning with what it really means to live that kind of life. The question of whether justice and morality can exist in this kind of world is a fascinating one and this movie has either already decided that they can’t or it has no interest in finding out. Thus we are treated to two hours of blood and terror, often impressively and compellingly done, and in the end we have nothing to show for it. This isn’t to say that every movie has to have something important or meaningful to say, but if a movie acts like it does then it damn well better say something.

★★★

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Ocean’s 8

Cast: Sandra Bullock, Cate Blanchett, Anne Hathaway, Mindy Kaling, Sarah Paulson, Awkwafina, Rihanna, Helena Bonham Carter

Director: Gary Ross

Writers: Gary Ross, Olivia Milch


After 2016’s Ghostbusters, an uneven film that was neither good nor bad enough to be worth the substantial negative attention it received, Ocean’s 8 is the second major Hollywood blockbuster featuring a gender-reversed rendition of a popular male-dominated property to be given a wide release. With more gender-flipped titles in the works, including female-led remakes of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and Lord of the Flies, it looks like this is set to become a major trend in Hollywood. On one hand this means more opportunities for more women to star in more movies with greater exposure, on the other it means doing so in the shadow of men. Even though attaching themselves to a recognised property does increase the likelihood of getting a green light, it means that films like Ocean’s 8 are inevitably disadvantaged by the burden of distinguishing themselves in comparison to their male counterparts. Even if Ghostbusters had ended up being the greatest comedy movie there ever was or ever will be, it still would have had to face an uphill battle just to be accepted as the original’s peer. It isn’t fair, not by a long shot, but that doesn’t make it any less disappointing when a film with this distinguished a cast and this promising a premise turns out so unspectacularly average.

For fans of the original Soderbergh films, the set-up is familiar enough. The cool, calm and collected Debbie Ocean (Sandra Bullock), sister of the dearly departed Danny Ocean, is released on parole after a five-year stint in prison and is ready to get straight back to what she does best. She reaches out to her best friend and longtime partner in crime Lou (Cate Blanchett) and reveals her plan to infiltrate the Met Gala in a few weeks time and steal the Toussaint, an ornate $150 million necklace, from the event’s host, Hollywood superstar Daphne Kluger (Anne Hathaway). To pull this job off, Debbie and Lou will need some help from the best and part of the fun is watching them assemble their team out of a handpicked group of ne’er do wells who each bring their own personality and talents into the mix. Together they recruit Amita (Mindy Kaling), a jeweller eager for any excuse to get away from her controlling mother, Nine Ball (Rihanna), a laid-backed and tight-lipped computer hacker, Constance (Awkwafina), a young, streetwise hustler and pickpocket, Tammy (Sarah Paulson), a fence who left this life behind to become a suburban mom, and Rose Weil (Helena Bonham Carter), a disgraced fashion designer with the profile they need to get into this exclusive, star-studded event.

Between these eight leading ladies there is more screentime to go around than with Clooney and Pitt’s male ensemble, which in theory ought to mean more room for the characters to shine and their chemistry to ignite. There are for sure some instances where this pays off. Bullock and Blanchett are great together as two seasoned cons who share an affectionate yet prickly sort of rapport. Their back-and-forths are smart and slick and there is an interesting dynamic between them where the hip and eccentric Lou is the one who has to rein Debbie in and try to keep her ambition and recklessness in check. Their prominence comes at the expense of the supporting players who aren’t as fleshed out as the actresses portraying them deserve. Carter gets to stretch her acting muscles a bit playing a rather melodramatic character (of course) and Rihanna gets some good lines but Kaling, Awkwafina and particularly Paulson, one of the most versatile actresses working today, are woefully underused in their roles. The movie pretty much belongs to Bullock and Blanchett right until the halfway point where Hathaway pulls out an intriguing twist on a role we thought we had figured out and runs away with the show. Playing a character whom we at first glance take to be a one-dimensional, air-headed showbiz narcissist, Hathaway peels away the layers to reveal surprising levels of vulnerability with some intriguing insights into modern-day femininity.

The cast is really the film’s saving grace because everything else about it feels mostly standard and safe. This is one of the points where the film might have been better off trying to be its own thing rather than attaching itself to a famous pre-existing title because, compared to Soderbergh’s idiosyncratic rhythm, visual flourish and stylised editing, Ross’ efforts cannot help but come across as tame. There are some moments that stick in the brain like when the team is gathered together on the subway and we see each member’s profile pop up on the screen like panels in a comic book before being united in the same frame, but they are few and far in between. Mostly the film unfolds in a fairly ordinary fashion with little of the panache that elevated Ocean’s Eleven beyond your typical caper flick. The planning and execution of the job doesn’t feel as slick, the dialogue doesn’t snap in the same way and that clicking sensation we get the moment when all the pieces come together and we learn that there was more going on in the picture than we were led to believe isn’t as strong or as satisfying.

Ocean’s 8 is a perfectly serviceable heist movie but, after the standard set by Soderbergh (in the first movie, I’m not going to pretend that Twelve and Thirteen were anything special) as well as the promise for the opportunity to watch badass women take Hollywood by storm, I wanted something a little more than serviceable. With such a formidable cast and a timely message to tell, I wanted to see something more surprising, more daring, and more distinctive. There is a statement the film is trying to convey about women’s place in society and what is expected of them, female camaraderie, and how the time has come for women to band together in order to assert their power and potential. Bullock says at one point, “A ‘him’ gets noticed. A ‘her’ gets ignored.”. This is a message that needs to be proclaimed loudly, unapologetically and with a distinctly female voice. Instead this feels like a movie that could have been made by anybody at any time. Sure, there’s probably a case to be made for mindless entertainment for mindless entertainment’s sake and the movie does deliver on that but I don’t think that’s all it was trying to be.

★★★

Hereditary

Cast: Toni Collette, Alex Wolff, Milly Shapiro, Ann Dowd, Gabriel Byrne

Director: Ari Aster

Writer: Ari Aster


One thing that sets horror apart from other genres is its willingness to directly confront the most dreaded and tragic aspects of reality. It asks us to look into the darkest corners of our minds and to bear witness to those ideas that distress, disturb, and dishearten us the most. Nowadays it is only horror that consistently has us fear the worst case scenario only to then unravel it before our very eyes. The barn burns down, the mother kills her children, the villain wins, and all we can do is sit there helplessly and watch, unable to alter the outcome. One thing I’ve learnt in the last couple of years from watching films like The Witch and Get Out is that judging a horror movie by how much it ‘scares’ you is the most useless way to appreciate the genre, especially historically. True horror is about how horrified and discomforted you are by what is depicted, how much you fear for the fate of the characters, and how dark and oppressive the world where it all takes place feels. For all of these reasons, Hereditary is a great horror film.

The movie opens with a family struggling with a recent loss. Annie Graham (Toni Collette) has lost her mother and speaks at the funeral about the complicated feelings her death has inspired. We learn that the deceased Ellen was a difficult woman to have any kind of affectionate relationship with and that her influence has resulted in a family that is highly uncomfortable with emotional gestures and frank, open conversations about thoughts and feelings. Annie’s husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne) is a well-meaning man who just wants everybody to be normal and happy, their son Peter (Alex Wolff) uses pot as an anaesthetic to the world around him, and their daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro) is a disturbed preteen girl with a haunting stare who is mostly quiet save the odd, unsettling click of her tongue (her performance is so intense and disconcerting, it’s almost impossible to believe that this same girl used to play Matilda on stage). And that’s about as much as I can reveal. The terror that befalls this family over the subsequent hours is so shocking and unbelievable that words cannot really do it justice; it is something that has to be lived.

Broadly speaking Hereditary is about a couple of different things. One recurring theme is this question of how much control we actually have over who we are and what we do. In the opening shot we are led into a dollhouse which takes the form of the family’s home, creating this ominous suggestion that there is some ethereal force manipulating the action. On one level this is to give the impression that something supernatural may be at work but, as the title suggests, much of this also has to do with our families and the demons that get passed along through the bloodline. Each member of this unfortunate family is severely dejected in their own way and one of the great fears the film is able to tap into is this overwhelming dread that being born into the wrong family means being doomed to live a life of inconsolable misery. The family in this case is one haunted by misfortune at every turn and all the more troubled and wretched for their shared inability to connect with one another on an emotional level.

Thus the film also delves into the subjects of trauma and grief and how people deal with them. With their deep-rooted anxieties and withdrawn temperaments, the family is plagued by sombre silences and melancholic dormancy brought about by a dreadful incapacity for vulnerability and openness with each other. Everybody tries to deal with their grief in their own incompatible ways and, as is often the case when a group of unhinged people in great pain remain in close proximity to one another, they lash out when confronted and forced to address the issues they are trying to hide from head on. There is a tragic irony in the way that these family members cannot help but bring out the worst in each other, leading them to hurt each other in fits of rage that are as painful to watch as even the most gruesome scenes (of which there are many). What makes Hereditary such a powerful movie is the way it is able to take what are already these intense, harrowing feelings and heighten them even further with the visceral, horrific nightmare that the characters are forced to live.

Hereditary is a difficult film to endure not because it is so violent and gruesome but because it is so harshly nihilistic. Anytime you find yourself sitting there in the dark wondering how things could possibly get worse for this desolate family, the movie finds a way and it is more terrible than you could have imagined. The Grahams are met with calamity after affliction after tragedy and the damage they suffer is so unbearable you can hardly bring yourself to look (but you also cannot look away). The horror comes not just from the sheer dreadfulness of what is happening but also from not quite knowing the nature of the threat lurking beneath it all or whose view we can trust. Although Annie is the character we follow the most closely and thus is the one whose feelings we understand the most clearly, her perception (as well as those of her husband and children) are so skewed by grief and pain and so deranged by uncertainty and anxiety that we never know for sure in any given moment who the voice of reason is and how much of what we see is actually happening. The film is less interested in scaring you than it is in breaking any sense of hope or certainty in your soul, and on that front it never lets up.

In making Hereditary, it’s quite clear that Aster was heavily influenced by an entire litany of horror classics including but not limited to Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, Carrie and Don’t Look Now. All of these films feature horrific portrayals of parenthood and of violence inflicted on families in one way or another and are all masterclasses in how to establish a fearful atmosphere built on such basic feelings as trauma, insanity, paranoia, oppression, defilement, and misery and Aster is able to inject their many influences into his own work to create a worthy peer. But the film is equally indebted to such tragic family dramas as A Woman Under the Influence, Ordinary People, and Secrets & Lies, films about profoundly damaged people being forced to face their deepest torments and trepidations with elaborate and raw displays of emotion that can often be as psychologically horrific and violent as anything you’ve seen in a supernatural blood-and-gore fest. The most disturbing moments in Hereditary are not just those where images of such terrible brutality and devastation occur but also where family members exchange cold looks and cutting words, the kind that cannot be taken back and that leave deep, searing wounds and scars that may well never heal.

The film’s biggest problem is that it has occasional problems with subtlety. There are a few too many instances of hints being dropped that are a little too obvious, some moments are a little too on the nose and right at the very end there is a monologue a la Psycho in that it spends far too much time explaining what had already been made clear through inference and shedding light on what would probably have been better left off as ambiguous. Foreshadowing and exposition are fine if they’re done cleverly and with little attention to drawn to themselves, otherwise they become distracting and self-defeating. It’s not a fatal problem in a film as great as this one and it never got so bad that I was completely taken out of the movie but there were certainly occasions where I felt less would have been more for a film that is so largely fascinated by the unknown and inexplicable. Still, even then, Hereditary is an astonishing cinematic debut for Aster who displays remarkable confidence and uncanny skill in his ability to construct an overwhelming aura of dread with each waking second and to execute some truly horrifying moments without overreliance on jump scares and other cheap tricks.

Grounding the extraordinary horror with authentic, shattering performances is Aster’s cast, among whom there isn’t a single weak link. Collette is devastating as a mother who grows more and more desolate the more she suffers and loses her grip on reality. Byrne has a formidable presence as a father who finds himself at the end of his tether as he loses his ability to keep the peace. Wolff has a strong turn as a son trying to daze himself into a state of such numbness that he can no longer feel anything at all and Shapiro is way more sinister than any child has any right to be as a deeply demented daughter. Between them they bring so much of the humanity that makes the family scenes so distressing to watch. There’s a delicate balance that has to be maintained when depicting the kinds of individuals who share enough of a domestic sense of familiarity that they have to stick together but are so detached from one another that any interaction is going to be fraught with tension and this ensemble nails it. There is also a good supporting performance by Esteemed Character Actress Ann Dowd who plays exactly the kind of character you want her to play in this kind of movie.

I can see Hereditary becoming quite a polarising film, but then ambitious horror movies often are. The film is largely character driven and is more interested in finding its frightfulness in the emotional turmoil that they suffer than it is in the more traditional method of physical violence and deathly spectacle even though the film does include both. For those who watch horror movies for introspective depictions of insanity, despair, and the human condition, Hereditary offers plenty to chew on. For those who want mutilated corpses, burning flesh and bloody murder, there’s that as well. In theory this ought to make for a ‘one size fits all’ kind of situation except that fans of the former might not have the patience for the latter and vice versa. While I personally tend to favour emotional horror over physical, I am certainly not above the latter when it’s done well with purpose and Hereditary definitely fits the bill. There are certain images in this film that I have no doubt will haunt me for the rest of my days.

★★★★★