Saturday, October 31, 2015

Favorite Films: "The Fly" (1986)

No, director David Cronenberg has said, his disquieting, compulsively watchable remake of The Fly isn't about the AIDS crisis that was at its height in 1986, when he made the film.  It was intended, Cronenberg said, to be about the horrors of disease in general.

Yet nearly 30 years later, it's almost impossible to watch The Fly and not think of how terrified the world was of that particular disease and the way, before science learned how it could be controlled, ravaged both body and mind with staggering swiftness.

With movies like Rabid and Videodrome, Cronenberg had already become well-known for his mastery of the sub-genre of "body horror," movies that showcased the singular fright that comes with recognizing human biology is all too frequently out of our control.

Although The Fly is a movie based on a science-fiction concept, it's not strictly a sci-fi film, and there's something shockingly relatable about what happens both to scientist Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum) and journalist Veronica "Ronnie" Quaife (Geena Davis).  Brundle has been working in secret on a project to teleport items 15 feet across a room, from one sleekly designed pod to another.  Ronnie is stunned by what she sees, and wants to write a book about Brundle's work.  They fall in love.  When Brundle successfully teleports a baboon, they celebrate.  Then, in the moment that makes The Fly work so well, Ronnie leaves him.

Her old boyfriend is trying to cause trouble.  She wants to make him go away.  Brundle is jealous and worried.  She tells him not to be.  "I do have the residue of a former life, you know," she tells him.

Angry, scared, afraid to be lonely, Brundle gets drunk and impulsively tests the teleportation device on himself.  A fly gets into his pod.  The computer doesn't know what to do with two pieces of material to teleport, so it fuses them together and turns Seth Brundle into Brundlefly.

The change doesn't happen all at once.  It begins with a small mark on Brundle's body, a hair growing out of his back.  Ronnie notices it when she comes back to him -- which is what she promised he would do  But Brundle is just a man like any other.  He doubted her, and in a moment of weakness and fear, he did something he comes to regret -- an indiscretion that comes with a huge price.

In those terms, The Fly does very much feel like a direct commentary on AIDS. Notably, the film doesn't pass judgment on Brundle's transgression; it goes out of its way to use it as a way to humanize this odd, off-putting scientist.

As Brundlefly grows, Ronnie notices, and she wants to help him -- but he pushes her away, he wants to deteriorate in isolation.  And then, as things get worse, he needs her back.  She is the only person who knows what he is going through.

Ronnie returns to Brundle's lab and sees the frightful, horrific monster he has become.  Pieces of his body are falling off.  Tumors grow everywhere on his body.  He can barely walk.  His discolored body is filled with ticks and twitches.  Brundle admits that calling Ronnie was a mistake.  He thinks she should leave.  Instead, she hugs him.

It's a beautiful act of humanity.  Ronnie is not afraid of Brundlefly.  That hug takes The Fly into territory most horror films never attempt: The monster is still human, and is filled all-consuming fear, self-loathing and regret.

The relationship between Brundle(fly) and Ronnie keeps The Fly focused and weirdly believable, and it's impossible not to regard it as a touching commentary on exactly the sort of relationship that people really found themselves in during the 1980s -- one partner dying at an alarming speed, another refusing to walk away, even when the rest of the world refused to even acknowledge (much less sanctify) their relationship.

No matter how well the "body horror" aspects work (and almost all of the scenes with Brundlefly retain an alarming ability to shock, disgust and frighten even today -- The Fly that has lost none of its horror or its entertainment value since it was made), it's the refusal of Ronnie to give up on Brundlefly that sends the film into the stratosphere in its Grand Guignol final act.

Those last 15 minutes or so are masterful.  That The Fly always seems ready to go off the rails is just a trick; Cronenberg is in complete control.  He knows exactly where the film needs to go, which is to its harrowing final scene, which blends human drama, high emotion and just enough gore in ways most films would be afraid to try, particularly a genre-driven horror film.  (It's all backed by a massive, propulsive orchestral score by Howard Shore.)

There never really has been a film quite like The Fly.  Cronenberg's oversized vision is matched to a story so simple that the horror and dread are inherent in every scene, in every frame. It's a classic horror film, one that I think people will be watching and studying in another 30 years.  There can't be many more perfect examples of how to take a man, turn him into a hideous, deformed monster -- and yet retain his humanity, all the way until his final movement.

Brundle the man, somehow, is always in there.  And when you think about that, and the way we see people slip away from us in the throes of grave diseases that kill slowly, and how we tend to think of the illness as defining the person -- when you think about all that, it's all the more impressive that a 95-minute long horror film has so much to say about how we remain loyal to those we love, how we are committed -- even when the unthinkable happens.

Cronenberg may be right, AIDS wasn't on his mind (necessarily) when the movie was first made -- but it was on the minds of those who saw it.  For anyone who first encountered The Fly from ages, say, 15-45, it's a grim and arresting reminder of how far we've come in a short time.  Many of those body-wasting, skin-destroying symptoms have been abated -- but for those who stood by and watched or, even more, those who survived, it's difficult to forget the fear.

Let's be clear: The Fly works best as a pure, straightforward horror movie.  That's how to enjoy it the first time (or maybe even the sixth time) around.  But the more you watch it, the more you realize that between the vomiting Brundlflies, the vomiting on food to eat it, the stomach-churning makeup by Chris Walas -- despite all that, it's a love story.  It's a story of two people who are going to be committed to each other all the way to the end, if that's what it takes.

Somehow, The Fly combines disgust, horror, suspense and the grotesque, but makes it all into a story about the powerful bonds of love and commitment.  It is a shocking film; even now, you may find yourself turning away from the screen at key points.  Yet it defies expectations by generating real sympathy, maybe even a few tears, for the monster ... and for the person who can't help loving him, despite it all.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

"The Walk"

 5 / 5 

The twin towers of the World Trade Center appear within the first seconds of Robert Zemeckis's film The Walk, and when they do, there is reason to be anxious and suspicious.

They look phony. They look like the digital constructs they are. And when Joseph Gordon-Levitt appears in the same frame with them, speaking in a jarring, distracting French accent, everything seems like it's going to go wrong with The Walk.

Then, like a high-wire artist whose first step seems tentative and dangerously wrong, The Walk recovers, and as those towers appear over and over, we become used to seeing them on the screen again -- we adjust to a different reality. Then The Walk does something truly extraordinary:

It shows us a man so exuberant, so confident, so filled with an infectious happiness that he makes us recall what we were like (or, at least, what we imagine we were like) before Sept. 11, 2001, before the towers fell down and we lost our joy.  Of course, we didn't realize the towers were an embodiment of joy, which The Walk tells us they most certainly were; the only way we can know it is by looking back.  So, The Walk returns us to a time when they stood -- when, indeed, they were new -- and does it with such a heightened, almost dreamlike, sense of reality, that seeing the towers actually makes us smile.

The Walk is the story of Philippe Petit, who seems to have been born an artist, much to the chagrin of his parents, and an over-confident showman, much to the chagrin of his mentor, a Czech circus owner named Papa Rudy (Ben Kingsley).  In a story seemingly designed for Hollywood, Petit sneaks into the circus as a boy, sees the high-wire act, and is smitten.  He is sure he is meant to walk on a wire, and Petit is the kind of person who won't let go of an idea he is sure of.

The biggest idea he has comes when he sees a magazine article about the then-under-construction World Trade Center in New York City, and to him it is both simple and obvious: The 140-foot space between the two buildings is a space he needs to hang his wire and walk.

Why?  The Walk comes closer than any mainstream movie I've seen to answering the question of what motivates art, and to Petit his high-wire walking is most certainly art.  It is, in a line echoed several times throughout the movie, "something beautiful."

It's beautiful in spite of, or maybe thanks to, its flaws.  Although its opening hour is entirely engaging and efficiently told (and after a few minutes, Gordon-Levitt's French accent becomes less grating) the movie walks its own fine line between intriguing and cloying.

After that opening, The Walk becomes a giddy caper, as Petit recruits friends and strangers to help him in his quest. They find ingenious ways to sneak into the towers and make their plans.  Petit's girlfriend Annie (Charlotte Le Bon) remains steadfastly supportive throughout, and in its characterizations of everyone except Petit The Walk is about as rich and complex as, say, Titanic.  Some of the dialogue is silly, the lack of doubt for Petit's endeavors rather astonishing.  Sure, it's lighthearted fare, and it's consistently entertaining.

But much as Titanic found its surest footing -- and its heart -- in the sinking, what The Walk really cares about is, well, the walk.  Those last 20 minutes may be driven by the visuals, but there's something more, something that goes a lot deeper.

Through all of its seeming simplicity, The Walk opens a sincere and passionate argument that Petit's daring adventure -- which is also depicted in the straightforward but also stellar Man on Wire -- transcends mere stunt: It is a grand ambition undertaken with a passion and heartfelt earnestness that feels missing from our revenue-hungry culture.  Petit does what he does because he thinks he can and should.  He stands to achieve no monetary gain, he doesn't even expect to be well-liked for it.  It's just something he has to do.

Zemeckis's films are often technical marvels that lack a certain emotional spark -- let it be known I'm one of those who thinks Forrest Gump is a visual wonder that has no soul, and the director's experimentation with motion-capture animated films have been depressing and grim.  And yet, I left The Walk unexpectedly moved, feeling that I just watched, well, something beautiful.

That long and spectacularly created wire-walking sequence is exquisite.  Despite myself, and watching the film in good old-fashioned 2-D, my palms started sweating; The Walk had me utterly absorbed.  The outcome of the walk is never in doubt (after all, that's Gordon-Levitt as Petit narrating the story in retrospect), but the point isn't to generate that sort of dramatic tension: It's to generate feeling and awe, and that is something, even in spite of its wall-to-wall use of digital trickery, The Walk most certainly does.

The final shot, which echoes the first, is accompanied by a line of dialogue so wistful and pitch-perfect that The Walk, no matter what the initial hesitation, becomes a remarkable remembrance of a time, place and feeling that we might never be able to experience again.  There is loss at the core of The Walk, but not a mournful, plaintive loss, rather a romantic and lovely one, a hopeful reminder to look back at the past and remember joy, that we might someday know it again.

Viewed Oct. 17, 2015 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks


Monday, October 12, 2015

"Bridge of Spies"

 4.5 / 5 

Movies don't come more pedigreed these days than Bridge of Spies.  It's a Steven Spielberg film written by Joel and Ethan Coen, starring Tom Hanks.  Its poster depicts an earnest-looking Hanks wedged between the Stars and Stripes and the hammer and sickle with a tagline that touts that the movie will show the world what America stands for.

Ignore all that.

Bridge of Spies isn't the awards-season message movie that it might have you believe.  Instead, it's the closest Spielberg has come to matching the kind of filmmaking that labeled him a genius, a movie that seeks first and foremost to entertain, and to do it with sleek storytelling, luscious visuals and the kind of cinematic set-pieces that put him into the same league as Alfred Hitchcock.

This is the kind of film Hitchcock might have loved to have made, a movie that begins with an ordinary guy -- James Donovan, a high-priced lawyer, true, but one whose specialty is about as mundane as you can get: He represents insurance companies in accident claims.  He is that Hitchcokian "every man," a guy so non-descript you wouldn't look at him twice if you saw him on the train during his commute from Brooklyn.

There's another guy you wouldn't look at twice in Bridge of Spies.  His name is Rudolf Abel, and he's a Soviet spy.  He's supposed to be nondescript, and achieves his goal so well that even when the Feds run right into him during a chase, he tips his hat, apologizes and walks on his way.  They catch up to him, though, and Abel is arrested for spying.  It's 1957, and Cold War tensions are mounting.  The Soviets believe the U.S. is preparing for a nuclear attack.  The Soviets believe the Americans are getting their nukes ready.  The world is at a standoff.

The capture of Abel (played with understated humor and dour resignation by Mark Rylance) could be a turning point.   Donovan's bosses want to follow the letter of the law, so they appoint Donovan to provide a "competent" defense of the accused.  The case against Abel has been decided even before he sets foot in the courtroom, and when the guilty verdict is handed down, Donovan uses his actuarial-table mind to make one last-ditch appeal to the judge.

It's a war, he reasons, and we've got one of theirs.  Sooner or later, they'll have one of ours, and when they do, we'll need their guy for leverage.

Later never happens, because Capt. Francis Gary Powers has been recruited for a top-secret spying mission (it's so much more polite to be called a "photo reconnaissance" mission), and he doesn't make it far.  He's captured by the Soviets.

Neither government can get involved.  And that's where Donovan comes in to play.  He's needed as the go-between, to negotiate with the enemy -- and a married father of three who has spent most of his days analyzing liability in car crashes finds himself playing a potentially deadly game of espionage in the war-torn no-man's-land of East Berlin.

His mission is to negotiate the release of Powers in exchange of the release of Abel.  They'll carry out the exchange on the Glienicke Bridge -- the Bridge of Spies.

Donovan doesn't really know how he got here.  The best he can do is talk and reason and negotiate with people who don't want to talk or reason or negotiate.  The government disavows knowledge of his activities (they're good at that, it seems) and he mostly on his own to figure it all out.

The stakes are high, and Spielberg does a masterful job of depicting Berlin in flux, as Communist Russia built its wall to keep "their" Germans from escaping to the free West.  It's a dangerous place in a dangerous world, and for long stretches Bridge of Spies takes on both the physical appearance and the pacing of a 1940s noir thriller, played halfway in light with exquisitely long two shots that allow the two sides to go head to head on screen.

Spielberg brings many of his signature visual touches to Bridge of Spies, but those compositions, framings and shots only enhance the film -- they don't detract the way they have in movies like Minority Report and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, when Spielberg seemed to be mimicking himself.

Here, he finds new life in his classic style, and the movie benefits.  Bridge of Spies tells a massive story, spanning half the globe at times, and Spielberg's unmatched expertise keeps it simultaneously contained moving forward at a brisk speed, keeping the tension high with the confidence of a true master.

There's a lot of exposition at the start, and even throughout, but it's never dull and it's all important (except, perhaps, for a couple of odd scenes played mostly for laughs, like one involving Abel's alleged family).  There's hardly an ounce of fat on the movie, and because Spielberg knows exactly what he's doing, watching Bridge of Spies really is like watching a master craftsman at work, blending his scenes; counterbalancing intensity with softness; knowing exactly when to ratchet up the tension and when to let it go slack for just a moment.  The result is free from excess, yet not so lean as to be tasteless -- it sizzles and crackles and all looks and feels exactly right.

Save a few extraneous, softly patriotic scenes at the end, Bridge of Spies is also not a movie trying to make a grand political statement, or even to warm our hearts -- it wants to engage our minds, and thrill us the way a good thriller should, by getting our brains working.

Bridge of Spies is Spielberg's best movie since his 1994 one-two punch of Jurassic Park and Schindler's List.  He's made some fine films since then, and some that were, generously, less successful.  But Bridge of Spies is a solid reminder, as if we ever really needed one, that when Steven Spielberg is at his best, there is no American director finer, more solidly in control of his craft.

Bridge of Spies a great spy thriller, a tense drama, a fascinating historical story.  More than all those things, though, and most importantly for moviegoers in need of solid entertainment, it's one truly terrific film.

Viewed Oct. 12, 2015 -- DGA Theater


Sunday, October 11, 2015

"The Martian"

 4 / 5 

The Martian taps into a deep need to feel good about human achievement.  We live in mean, sarcastic, pessimistic times, but there's not a mean, sarcastic or pessimistic moment in the movie, which is bent on reminding us of the virtues of stick-to-it-iveness, perseverance and (scientific) creativity.

It wouldn't at all be surprising to hear astronaut Mark Watney, played by Matt Damon, burst into song, like Yankee Doodle Dandy on Mars.  The movie pulls off this cheery optimism so well that there's really no point in finding fault.  The Martian works, and it works well, even though it lacks a little bit of passion and zest, and you have to wonder if, except for one moment when he bangs on the steering wheel of his high-tech rover, Watney ever feels downright angry about being the only guy on an entire planet.

Andy Weir's novel, on which it's based, is itself the sort of man-against-the-machine story that the movie tells; when no one wanted to publish his novel, Weir did it himself, to great success.  The movie had no such problems, and in some ways it feels a little too worked-on and too polished.  It could have used some of Weir's nerdish ambition and roughness.

Still, for all the seen-it-all grumbling that a middle-aged moviegoer can bring to it, The Martian works.  It puts a grin on your face and a tear in your eye, and that's due in no small part to Damon's darn-it-all pluckiness.  Sure, he drops the F-bomb a few times, but so did John Glenn in The Right Stuff.

Watney is one of six crew members on a mission to Mars that gets caught up in a big storm.  He's injured and, when his fellow explorers skedaddle out of the way (and off the planet), he's left behind and presumed dead.  Except he's not.

Occasionally, during the movie's 2½-hour running time, which never feels long or excessive, those other astronauts show up, and the story weaves in the saga of NASA and JPL scientists back on the Earth trying to figure out a way to rescue him.

Neither the movie nor the book ever questions whether Watney should be saved, whether that's the right use of resources and time -- though, in one of the few scenes that isn't driven by urgent action, Watney himself acknowledges that if he dies it's for a greater good.  Even though it's all told in voice-over, with Damon offering faraway, wistful looks through his space helmet, it's one of the best moments in the movie, one of the few times The Martian pauses to consider the (pardon the cinematic pun) gravity of the situation.

Largely, The Martian is a grand and elaborate procedural, depicting with some impressive believability how a guy could make it on his own some 34 million miles away.  On that point, the movie says Mars is 50 million miles away, the movie's tagline says it's 140 million miles away; I know it's all a matter of space and physics and things I don't even pretend to understand, but it's also a good example of the sort of stuff the movie doesn't take the time to explain.

Alone in his Martian hab, the novel's version of Watney had nothing but time to explain almost everything to readers of The Martian.  Want to know just how and why vacuum-packed poop can be mixed with Martian soil to grow potatoes?  How to make water when none exists?  How to properly wrap some plutonium to turn it into a heating source?  It's all there in the book, and then some.  You know exactly what he's doing and why, even if the math goes over your head.

I got a C in biology and a C-minus in chemistry, so I was mostly lost while reading the book -- but once I got the hang of it, I found Watney's ingenious solutions to be fascinating.  Weir may be a relatively simple writer, but he possesses a remarkable gift for filtering incredibly complex concepts down to a level that people like me can understand them.

Many of the same moments happen in the movie version, but they lack the explicit descriptions. The movie shows what Weir could only write about, and offers little if any explanation why or how things are being done.  That decision by director Ridley Scott and screenwriter Drew Goddard keeps things moving, no doubt, but in trade we lose a little of the key moments that made Mark feel genuine: when his efforts failed, when even he didn't understand what he was trying to do, when he was trying to wrap his big brain around an impossible problem.

Those helpless but hopeful moves made the book work despite the scientific inaccessibility for many mainstream readers.  The big, exciting set pieces were less well realized in print.

On screen, The Martian combines the best of both worlds -- and may actually be enjoyed most fully by both seeing the movie and reading the book.

Nonethless, the movie does stand alone.  It is less a glorification of science and intelligence than it is a fantastic adventure movie, a grand and altogether fulfilling epic, and at its core is a smart, fully realized, downright Everyman-style hero in Mark Watney.  The final 20 minutes of the movie are particularly superb, when the crew that abandoned him returns and gets as close to him as they're ever going to get.  They're riveting.  They're completely believable.  And they get to the heart of what makes The Martian work so well: We've never seen this movie before.  It's really something new.

And that, more than anything else, makes The Martian succeed beyond its flaws.  It's helped further by a touching coda in which Watney tries to explain to some young kids what it means to be in crisis, how the point of it (and, hence, he seems to be saying, the point of life) is to just get through one problem at a time.  There are going to be others. Fix this one.  Then worry about the next.

The Martian gives us a story that feels new, combines it with a messages of hope and optimism, of determination and the refusal to accept failure.  So, while it might not be a perfect movie (when does Jessica Chastain have time to style her hair in space, is one of the distractions I had while watching it; did Kristin Wiig know she was getting six lines when she signed up for this?), it's a darn good movie. A fun movie.  A movie that reminds us that good people doing good things will make life good for everyone.

There's nothing at all wrong with that.  If we could find the same renewed sense of hope and ambition by flying ourselves 50 million miles -- or 34 or 140 or whatever -- to Mars, I'd be all for it.  The Martian left me feeling good, feeling that maybe if and when we get into another crisis, we'll know how to get out of it.  Or at least we'll figure out the way.  As long, that is, as there's a guy like Mark Watney around.

Mostly, The Martian made me think of that old tagline from That's Entertainment! in the 1970s: "Boy, do we need it now."  The Martian is, unexpectedly, exactly the movie we need now.

Viewed Oct. 11, 2015 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks


Sunday, October 4, 2015


 5 / 5 

Sicario opens with a scene of deeply unsettling intensity, then refuses to let up.  It's a movie of startling complexity, violence and disillusionment, an angry and cynical movie that marries story, acting, image and sound with assured command.  It's hard to imagine there will be a better or more bracingly original movie this year.

The opening scene takes place in suburban Phoenix.  FBI agents are raiding a tract home.  What they find there defies logic and humanity.  Nothing could be worse than what they see.  Except, things get worse.

One of the FBI agents is Kate Macer (Emily Blunt), who is tough as nails and battle ready.  Or so she thinks.  Her bosses are so impressed by her ability to keep her head about her in the chaos and carnage of what happens in that house that they single her out for a new assignment.

She doesn't understand what it is, only that it involves a massive drug cartel that is responsible for the mayhem, which kills two of her co-workers.  Loyal to a fault, with a strong need for vengeance, she doesn't hesitate to volunteer for the assignment, though she isn't entirely clear why her partner, Reggie (Daniel Kaluuya), is excluded from selection, or why  her FBI boss (Victor Garber) or the other senior-level government agent in the room (Josh Brolin) seem so cavalier about the proceedings -- Brolin's character wears flip-flops instead of a suit and tie.

Kate hasn't had a chance to think about any of this before she's whisked off to an Air Force Base and taken on board a private jet to fly, she thinks, to El Paso.  That's not where they're heading.  They're going south of the border, flying over the chain-link fence that separates the U.S. from Mexico, and they're going to find Guillermo, the man responsible for what happened in Arizona.

But Kate has her doubts.  Just one man couldn't do all that -- and she's right.  They want to cut the head off the monster, and they know that in the drug world, a mythological creature like the Hydra still exists -- once they take down Guillermo, more heads will pop up in unexpected locations.

This is a war.  Call it the "war on drugs" if you want, but it doesn't involve Nancy Reagan and Barack Obama spouting homilies or SWAT teams invading homes in the Hollywood Hills.  This is military-grade war, and on more than one occasion Kate reminds Matt Graver (Brolin), the man without a department -- or maybe with too many departments -- that she doesn't have to do this.

But she will, of course.  She's too far in now.  Down in Ciudad Juarez, they extricate Guillermo, and just as they're all about to get away, the border checkpoint erupts in gunfire.  Kate's killing people.  People she doesn't know.  For a project she's not sure about.

And like this, Sicario just keeps moving forward, occasionally pausing for some observations by Alejndro (Matt's partner, played by Benecio del Toro), which just seem to get more and more ominous.

Surveillance and some really questionable torture techniques have uncovered a tunnel between the U.S and Mexico, and they're going to go in it and see where it leads them.  It won't be anyplace good, for sure.

Kate, particularly, takes a wrong turn in one of those tunnels and in an instant she sees the true plan being executed by someone she thought was an ally.  She is alone, has no idea what to do about this information, no one to report it to.  Just how corrupt is the group assigned to prevent corruption?  Just how drug-addled its the group assigned to prevent drugs from entering the United States?  Kate begins to find out the answers to those questions.

Kate finds every moral compass she's ever used fluctuating wildly.  Here in the netherworld between America and Mexico, between murder and death, between diplomacy and destruction, the compass only spins wildly out of control.

Throughout most of Sicario, even the most astute audiences will be perplexed.  With rare exceptions, we know only as much as Kate knows, which isn't a lot -- but by the time the movie ends it will be more than we care to know.

Sicario is a movie that plays right into Donald Trump's worst nightmares of life in Mexico; he could well use this movie as a political ad.  But it's not at all a political thriller.  It's a hard-hearted, cold-faced crime-thriller that bears the hallmarks of a lot of time spent by its French-Canadian director, Dennis Villeneuve, researching just how crazily off the rails the "good guys" have careened to reach the bad ones. Its nearest cinematic cousin can be found in the off-putting, chaos-on-a-hot-night depravity of Orson Welles' Touch of Evil, but Sicario might well be even more assured and finely crafted than that masterpiece.

Propelled by a pulsating, visceral score by Jóhan Jóhannson, which infuses every moment with dread, Sicario refuses to let its intensity flag even through the final few minutes, a terrifying, nail-biting scene between Kate and one of the men she thought she could trust.

Kate is a modern-day Clarice Starling, sure that her calm demeanor and fierce intelligence will propel her to safety just like it always had.  Sicario offers this observation: An FBI agent against a single serial murderer was a cake-walk compared to what's going on here, when the good guys fight even dirtier, with even less humanity, than the "bad" ones.

Sicario is a remarkable movie.  I went into it serenely unaware of to expect -- and left both energized by a genuinely great film and yet feeling some of Kate's numb hopelessness, resigned to the reality of what happens when 20% of the population still wants these drugs and wants them now, and will tacitly fund and support these horrors as long as they get their fix.  The movie doesn't make a big point of preaching; it just insists on telling its labyrinthine story at full speed and with unflinching calm.

By subsuming the trappings of an old western (lots of gruff older men, Texas twangs, flat and bleached-out vistas of the uncompromising desert), Sicario creates something urgent and new: a crime drama that can't quite get us to figure out who exactly is the bad guy (at least, not thematically).  Sicario dares you to think to fill in the blanks and make the conncetions yourself -- because the bad guy may not be so bad, or he may be the devil himself.  There's really no way to know, and there's no time to care, because the drugs just keep flowing and flowing and flowing.  No way to stop them.  No time to stop trying.  No matter the casualties along the way.

Impossibly tense, meticulously crafted, with enough quiet spaces to give you just a moment to think about what's gone before, Sicario succeeds on every level.  It's one of the very best movies of the year.

Viewed Oct. 3, 2015 - Pacific The Grove