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Failed Critics Podcast: The Intern, The Martian & Sicario

sicario 1Hello and welcome to this week’s Failed Critics Podcast, released slightly earlier than usual to try and push it out just before the end of International Podcast today (that’s today for the next couple of minutes, anyway!) As such, we recommend you check out our fellow podcast comrades Wikishuffle, Black Hole Cinema and Diamond & Human; all of whom are deserving of your time during your commute or whilst peeling the spuds, or whatever you do whilst you’re listening to us.

Joining Mexican assassin Steve Norman and intergalactic failed critic Owen Hughes for this week’s episode is Andrew Brooker, undertaking his unpaid work placement, as they review three new releases. They’re so new, in fact, that they are not even out in the UK yet! First up, Owen reviews new Ridley Scott sci-fi The Martian (which doesn’t feature any aliens – xenomorphs or otherwise) before Brooker seethes over the new Anne Hathaway / Robert De Niro comedy The Intern. There’s even room for a review of the much anticipated crime-thriller Sicario, starring Emily Blunt as an FBI agent working with Josh Brolin and Benicio Del Toro on the trail of the Cartel in Mexico.

Before any of that though we have our quiz (which Steve helpfully explains in detail) and news section where the team react to Sam Smith’s Bond theme replete with improv poetry, The Simpsons opening Smithers closet, and the Prometheus sequel details. This is followed by our usual what we’ve been watching section, which sees: Owen review cult 80’s horror From Beyond as he pleads for your HP Lovecraft recommendations; Steve runs through three first watches of Beverly Hills Cop, Cooties and Cop Car; and Brooker reminds himself of a time when De Niro could do comedy well with Analyze This.

Join us again next week as we review ‘the Scottish play’, Macbeth, and have a very special guest in tow for our Scottish triple bill: It’s the acclaimed author of the Three Realistic Holes trilogy of novels, Escobar Walker!

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Sicario

“You’re asking how a clock works. For now, concentrate on the time.”

Every now and then, a director comes along that outshines most of the competition. Amongst a slew of films that all kind of meld into one giant movie when you watch as many as I do, it’s great when you find someone you can latch on to that guarantees quality, or fun, or whatever measure you use to find the ones you love. In recent years, names like Antoine Fuqua and David Ayer have risen up and given me a yardstick to measure my entertainment against. Now, following up his 2013 Jake Gyllenhaal double bill of Prisoners and Enemy, Denis Villeneuve has guaranteed himself a spot on that list for me with his latest film; drug war crime drama Sicario.

After a speedy rise through the FBI’s ranks, Emily Blunt’s bad ass door-kicker Kate Macer has made a bit of a name for herself. A tough agent who spends her days raiding drug dens and chasing the tail end of cartel bad guys trying to make even a slight dent in the war on drugs. After a particularly important raid that turns several shades of nasty, Macer and her partner are dragged in front of the director of the FBI; but instead of raking her across the coals for letting the shit hit the fan, she’s handed the opportunity to spend some time on the other side of the border with a joint task force chasing down an all but invisible drug lord buried in the war zone that is Juarez, Mexico.

Handed over to Josh Brolin’s Matt Graver, a veteran of the war on stuff you can snort and the guy in charge of this little jolly across the border; Macer joins a colourful cast of soldiers, spooks and spies as they head into Mexico to get their hands on a man that can point them in the direction of the local Pablo Escobar wannabe and get the group closer to making a big play or two in the war on the cartels. Tagging along for the ride is Graver’s adviser Alejandro Gillick; a mysteriously quiet man in a suit, quite obviously haunted by his baggage and much more dangerous than he looks. Together, the group are going to do whatever it takes to get their job done and, all things being well, get everyone home in one piece having removed a major part of the Mexican-American drug trade.

Tension is the order of the day with Sicario, Villeneuve has honed his craft over the last couple of years and this film is the culmination of all his work. I mean, if you thought Prisoners was tense and edge-of-your-seat, this flick will have you slipping off of that edge in almost every scene as this tale of bad guys being hunted down by not quite so bad guys plays out along the badlands of the Mexican border. Emily Blunt’s tough chick proving herself in a men’s world has to tow the fine lines between legitimate and illegal, between doing good and doing the right thing, all while searching within herself for the conviction still be an agent on the right side of the law.

The story unfolds at an excellent pace. No sooner are we getting over the imagery of the horrific opening scenes that we’ve been subjected to are we heading into Mexico to start the shady agency’s assault on the drug traffickers. And shady is definitely the word; between Matt Graver’s antics on each side of the fence that doesn’t so much dance along that legal line as it does conveniently forget it’s there from time to time, and Alejandro Gillick’s reserved “consultant” who talks in riddles but, when things go south, shows glimpses of just how lethal he can be; we get to ride along as these men put their lives at risk to do the right thing, whether you or Kate Macer agree with their tactics or not.

To say much more would risk spoilers for a film that should be watched with as little exposure to the story as possible. Not that this films breaks much new ground with its story, but for me to reveal the key points of what isn’t available from watching the trailer would do a real disservice to the film. I would say though, that it’s difficult to pick a stand out part of the movie. Denis Villeneuve’s direction is amazing; the imagery he puts on the screen is as awe-inspiring as it is disturbing, his pacing has the film’s two hour run-time feeling good and brisk and his choices for casting are perfect. The film’s stars do a brilliant job of bringing some of the best performances I’ve seen this year. Ok, so I think Emily Blunt should be handed every role, for every film. I think while everyone is talking about a black Bond, we should actually be talking about a woman; and I think it should be Emily Blunt. Sicario does nothing to change my mind as she pulls out a great performance as the excellent but slightly naive agent trying to understand what’s going on while beautifully side-stepping the feminist/strong woman/we don’t need men argument that so many roles like this one bring up but simply don’t need to happen (just enjoy your films for shit’s sake, not everything needs to make a statement). In perfect contrast to Blunt’s Kate Macer is Benicio Del Toro’s Alejandro Gillick; in my favourite role for Del Toro since The Usual Suspects, this man with a past is equal parts terrifying and awesome! By the end of the film I was ready to get up and cheer for this man that’d been carved out by his past and set loose on the cartels.

The bottom line, is that Sicario is a masterclass in how to build a great thriller. Every scene is oozing with tension, every performance is screaming for awards nods and every shot is beautifully directed. I went in hoping for a half decent flick to try and erase Traffic from my memory, I came out two hours later with a sure-fire top five film of 2015 for my list. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that Sicario is a close to perfect, unmissable film.

Guardians of the Galaxy

“Undeniably an origin story but it works so well I would have been happy to sit through a sequel there and then.”

by Carole Petts (@DeathByJigsaws)

gotg2I must admit to being slightly apprehensive about this film. Even Marvel Studios, the behemoth responsible for most of the box office take since 2008, seem to have got ants in their pants about this film – we’ve had a more formulaic trailer, a tagline change (from the smart-arse “You’re Welcome” to the schmaltzy “All Heroes Start Somewhere”) and tonight I’m sitting in Crawley, as part of a nationwide premiere event presumably designed to get social media buzz a-going.

They needn’t have worried. From the credits sequence (Marvel’s only to date, and therefore the best by default), it’s clear this is going to be a winner.

The film is essentially the origin story of the titular band of misfits; a thief (Chris Pratt), an Ent (voiced by Vin Diesel), a creature who looks an awful lot like a raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper), a green-skinned living weapon (Zoe Saldana), and a chap who wouldn’t look out of place in a wrestling match watched by Doctor Who (Dave Bautista). They are thrown together in the pursuit of a mysterious MacGuffin which could make them all rich. Problem is, others also want said object for nefarious reasons of their own, and the stage is set for an interstellar jousting match between good and evil.

Guardians is immediately up against it because the group are, to be frank, not Marvel’s best known commodities. It’s difficult to remember a time when the cinema-going public at large didn’t know much about Iron Man, Captain America and Thor, but they did at least have a large following devoted to their source material before laying waste to multiplexes. Guardians doesn’t really have that luxury, and also has to introduce (and make us care about) five whole characters in one film. As a result we are given crib notes on each character’s past – Peter Quill’s tenure on Earth lasts mere minutes in the film before he’s abducted, most of the other back stories are explained in a few sentences, but you still end up caring about them. (This can be said less about the antagonists of the film – we are introduced to the baddies and told they want to destroy stuff without ever really being told why.)

In a Q&A this evening, James Gunn said that Guardians of the Galaxy may be “the most James Gunn film ever”. The fact that he’s accomplished this on a major studio’s tentpole release, rather than the low-budget fare he has made his name with, is nothing short of amazing. The film looks wonderful, bringing to life alien otherworlds and star systems with the visual flair of a much more accomplished director at this level. The script zips along with Gunn’s trademark vim and vigour, albeit slightly sanitised for his newly-found PG-13 audience. Everyone involved is clearly having a lot of fun; Pratt brings his likeable everyman persona to a leading role for the first time and succeeds hugely, Saldana is quiet but pulls out some excellent fighting technique when required; Cooper channels the most smart-arse New York cab driver you could ever meet, and hits the emotional mark more frequently than you’d expect from a talking rodent. Even Diesel brings the vocal pathos he first displayed in The Iron Giant to Groot, infusing a talking tree with warmth and humour. The real revelation, however, is wrestler Bautista as Drax, a man with a sad story to tell. He takes his time but eventually becomes the source of some rich comedy (standing up to accomplished laugh merchant Pratt with ease), as well as some surprisingly emotional moments. It’s the interplay between the five characters which makes this such a fun watch. It does mean that other characters are under-served as a result of developing this chemistry – Benicio del Toro and Glenn Close are woefully underused in their roles, and Ronan the Accuser probably has a good reason for his scheme, but we never find out what it is. The biggest disappointment is probably Thanos – who seems to have been rendered with the leftover CG money that wasn’t used to make Rocket and Groot look amazing. It’s an incongruous appearance from one of the great all-time Marvel baddies and doesn’t really serve the story at all.

This is very much an origin story. I got the same feeling walking out of this film as I did walking out of X-Men – that of the start of the story being told very well, but also feeling that there were greater things to come. And despite being slightly rushed at times, this is a great origin story, setting up the group of misfits as an entity currently separate from the rest of the Marvel Universe (save a couple of Easter eggs thrown in for those who are paying attention) and thoroughly deserving of their own adventures. I would have happily sat through a sequel right then and there, I had so much fun in the universe that Gunn has created. And I can’t wait to go back.

Guardians of the Galaxy is out in cinemas nationwide on Thursday 31st July 2014.

Carole is the latest permanent edition to the Failed Critics Podcast team and can usually be found roaming the streets of London on the look out for unwanted Nic Cage DVD’s. Or on twitter.