Sicario: Day of the Soldado Review – A Victory Lap For The Bad Guys

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One of the most compelling things about Dennis Villeneuve’s Sicario is how effective it is at conveying the outsider status of Emily Blunt’s Kate Macer in the hypermasculine atmosphere of Matt Graver’s (Josh Brolin) anti-drug taskforce. The movie has gender at the forefront of its mind, with incredibly loaded imagery designed to evoke sexual domination and rape at multiple key points in the film. So, I was surprised to hear that we were leaving Emily Blunt’s character where she was the end of the last film; bullied, broken and intimidated by Benicio Del Toro’s enigmatic Alejandro and focusing on Alejandro himself as well as antagonist Matt Graver. It seems that my fears were well founded, as Sicario: Day of the Soldado is a macho affair that does very little to compliment the themes of the first movie. By the end of the film’s two hour runtime (it feels more like 3 hours, if I’m being honest) I was left wondering why this film exists at all. It’s a boring, superficial follow up to a fine movie that deserved a more worthy successor.

It would likely be as tedious for me to recap the finer points of the plot as it would be for you to read them. It is a standard modern political thriller, where every conversation is happening in either an office or a military base and every conversation is about intangible goals, details and locations in a way that it is almost impossible to pay attention to. Basically, Graver has been called in to exploit the fact that the unnamed US President is going to declare the Mexican drug cartels terrorists. For some reason, provoking a war between the various cartels will allow the CIA to capitalize on the ensuing anarchy. To do this, Graver calls in his main man Alejandro to stage the kidnapping of Isabel Reyes (Isabela Moner), daughter of an important Cartel leader.

What does successfully carry over from the first movie is the damning depiction of various arms of the United States government. The CIA of the Sicario movies – which is the most realistic version in cinema that I can think of – is comprised of cold pragmatists who even manage to perform ostensibly noble causes like combating the drug cartels and do them in the most disinterested and egoisitc way possible. There isn’t even a lone hero who swims against the tide, there is no Jack Bauer who fails to tow the line. This is a film about the same terrible people that we met in the first movie, with no fresh eyed outsider to slow them down.

This leads me to the film’s first big problem, which is that it has no real emotional center. The investment that came from taking Macer’s POV in the first movie isn’t replaced with anything worthwhile. There is an attempt made at around the one hour mark to elicit emotion when Alejandro and Reyes start going through their obligatory Logan arc and we see the more vulnerable Alejandro that we assumed had died with his cartel-victimized family. That being said, this simply doesn’t work like the filmmakers clearly wanted it to. Maybe it doesn’t quite click because Alejandro’s actions in the last film were so despicable that this movie couldn’t quite erase them or maybe it was because the film bludgeoned me with so much tediousness beforehand that I was numb to it but I found myself rolling my eyes at yet another story of a tough killer who has his emotional armor cracked by an aggressive yet vulnerable girl.

The film is as handsomely shot as its predecessor, though the sinister and thudding score of the previous movie is used with such abandon here that it starts to take on an almost comedic tone. The repetitious music makes the movie feel like an overlong sketch in the vein of Too Many Cooks, where the joke starts to be “just how much of the movie can we make punishingly dull and aggressively emotionless”. At one point two characters were flying in a helicopter together with the same foreboding music playing over the scene and I thought “This? This needs to be depressing and bleak as well”? One thing that the use of the same music in multiple scenes can do is invite comparisons between those scenes. We think of them together and compare the emotions and actions of one scene to the other. This is impossible, as the repetitious and simple score used this much creates on omnipresent mood that pervades over every inch of the movie. Imagine if 90% of The Avengers had the theme from the iconic panoramic shot of the team playing over it. That shot would probably be robbed of its iconic status because of it.

The technical filmmaking in general falls short of the original film. New director Stefano Sollima has little respect for narrative economy and there is an entire B-plot that concerns a wannabe Sicario named Miguel Hernandez (Elijah Rodriquez) that fails to meaningfully pay off. Similarly, the action is more prevalent than ever in this movie but it is all dull and boring. Tracking shot over the shoulder of a character, cut to that character firing an assault rifle and then cut to his targets falling over. Rinse and repeat, with none of the scenes having internal narratives or any sense of exciting escalation. The action doesn’t have to be exciting, mind you. It does, however, have to be memorable and useful to the overall film and unfortunately it’s just not. By the time we reach a completely useless and extended scene near the end – the details of which would be too spoilery for a general review – I was wondering if the filmmakers had any sense at all that their movie would actually be watched by an audience.

There is a certain type of person who will like Sicaro: Day of the Soldado. It has a macho uber-seriousness about it and it will likely kill with the “they don’t make movies for adults anymore” crowd but I just found it dull. I love the first movie and I wish they had furthered the narrative of that film more organically but Day of the Soldado doesn’t even work on its own terms. Let’s hope they figure out how to make the teased third movie work, because I’m not sure I can sit through another film as uninvolving and seemingly never-ending as this one.

 

 

 

The Incredibles 2 Review – Maybe Just Rewatch the First One Instead?

the-incredibles.jpgThe Incredibles 2 opens with a short introduction from multiple people involved in making of the movie. Director Brad Bird, as well as most of the main cast, assures us that they have taken their time with this film and that it will be well worth the 14 year wait since the first movie. This is a weird decision, as nobody in the theater needs to be sold on Pixar’s pedigree or the prospect of watching an Incredibles sequel. It is an even stranger thing to do when the product you have made is not particularly good, as is the case with The Incredibles 2.  Bird and Co. have made Incredibles 2: Incredibles Harder, a sequel in the repetitious and unnecessary mold of Die Hard 2. Unlike the second Die Hard film, that can’t use “we wanted to fast track this one to capitalize on the popularity of the first” as a justification for making an underwhelming retread of the first movie because, as Samuel L. Jackson told me just before the film started, it is a labour of love that has been worked on for 14 years.

The first Incredibles ends with each family member assuredly looking at one another as the Underminer (John Ratzenberger) emerges, each knowing exactly what to expect from the other. They strike a team pose while framed in a wide shot, visually conveying that they have learned to work together as a cohesive unit. This is a great ending because we see how far they have come from their frustrated squabbling and inability to get one the same page as one another early on in the film. Bafflingly, The Incredibles 2 begins by undercutting the exceptionally well realized character development that we saw in the first movie. Picking up immediately from where the last one left off, the family has instantly regressed from a functional unit back to the squabbling, perpetually frustrated individuals we met at the before they went to Syndrome’s Island.

This shift back to a familiar status quo is followed through on with tenacity, as the film has the same basic plot as the first movie. Elastigirl (Holly Hunter) and Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson) have switched places but we are nevertheless watching one of them prioritize heroism over family while doing hero work for mysterious benefactors while the other is confined to domesticity in the interim. Violet (Sarah Vowell) is once again after the affections of her generic teen heartthrob love interest from the last movie (due to a strange contrivance she is even pursuing a date with him in this movie despite getting one at the end of the last film). Of course, there is also Dash (Huck Miner) who…wait, they didn’t actually give Dash anything to do this time.

It would be one thing to do the same movie again but the shame of it is that Bird is doing everything so much worse this time around. Bird dealt with Bob’s secret superhero time with an incredibly effective montage, which served to limit the amount of time that the family spent apart and kept things moving at a steady pace. The pacing in this film is so much worse, as Bird has just opted to make two concordant movies about Elastigirl’s superheroics and the rest of the family respectively and then shuffle them together in the edit. To add insult to injury, the Mr. Incredible half of the movie ends up being hugely inconsequential in the grand scheme of things.  The movie drops his obnoxious arc about being jealous of Elastigirl with no clear resolution, so the audience can’t help but wonder why the filmmakers spent so much time on it. At least, the Elastigirl stuff fairs better, with a number of well directed action scenes injecting some much-needed life into the proceedings.

Bottom line: Incredibles 2 is bottom shelf Pixar that does nothing to justify its existence. The plotting isn’t as tight, it’s not as much fun and it mostly feels like a now-or-never cash grab on the part of the filmmakers. I rewatched the first movie immediately before seeing this one and it holds up like nobody’s business. Just go watch that movie instead, you’ll almost certainly be glad you did.

 

Book Review – Fit At Mid Life: A Feminist Fitness Journey

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I recently finished reading the excellent Fit At Mid-Life: A Feminist Fitness Journey by Samantha Brennan and Tracy Isaacs. Full disclosure, I had Samantha Brennan at a professor in a graduate seminar at Western University and, her class being one of the highlights of my university experience, my opinion on the book might be skewed slightly. That being said, one of the things I loved so much about Dr. Brennan’s class was the way that she seemed to make a conscious effort to buck some of academic philosophy’s most obnoxious trends. This class made an effort to pursue objective fact while at the same time not being presumptuous enough to think we can just fire up our armchairs and will ourselves beyond the vail of subjective experience. This trend is continued in the Fit at Mid Life, which talks data, trends and fact while telling the compelling story of two women on a personal journey to better themselves. I am happy to report that what works about Dr. Brennan’s classes also works in the book, which had me just as invested in whether or not Tracy would reach her goal of finishing an Olympic distance triathlon as I was in educating myself about the fitness facts.

Easily one of the most refreshing parts of reading this book was its emphasis on cultivating a new attitude towards fitness that’s all about function and health. For example, in one section of Fit at Mid-Life in which the authors put there philosopher’s hats on and go about defining fitness, mental health is not left out of the discussion. This inclusion may seem like a small thing but hearing people wise enough to include the other half of health in a fitness discussion read to me as nearly revelatory. This is just one of them many small delights of the book.

One other such delight was reading a discussion of health and fitness that didn’t try to reinvent the wheel. Fitness is interesting because as complex as it is, it is also simple. The never ending succession of people on the internet trying to tell you when/how/where/what to eat in ways that contradict the last thing you read by a seemingly equally qualified professional is unproductive and exhausting. You’ll find no claims like “make sure to only have sugar while standing on your head and juggling avocados, while also singing Shake it Off by Taylor Swift” in this book. Instead it approaches fitness discussion by sticking to what we know and know well, while busting some harmful myths about dieting and exercise in the process.

If I had one complaint, it would be that I wanted the philosopher’s hats to be put on a little bit more often and for slightly more lengthy durations. The fact that this doesn’t happen is by design and it’s not a flaw in the book by any means. I think I just crave a philosophical discussion of fitness and exercise that I can’t really seem to find anywhere right now. Still though, to demand that from Fit at Mid-Life would be to watch Tom Hooper’s Les Misérables and be mad that Hugh Jackman didn’t play Wolverine in it (I’m just kidding, you should never watch Tom Hooper’s Les Misérables). This book is about breaking down stereotypes about gender and age while also providing tangible, subjective stories that, on top of being compelling in their own right, ground the discussion in reality rather than pure theory.

The last thing I want to say about my experience reading the book is how much I enjoyed it despite the fact that it isn’t something many people would think of as being “for me”. I got more than a few quizzical remarks and questions about why I would read a book that seems specifically targeted at age and gender demographics that are very much not my own (male, 24). To that I say, reading books that aren’t “for you” is almost always educational and enjoyable in some way. At least, this holds true for me. There are obvious exceptions, such as movies or video games that populate their narratives with sexualized, two dimensional female characters. That’s the bad kind of “not for you” and women who avoid these stories are definitely not in the wrong. The good kind of “not for you”, however, can be transformative. This book gave me a lot of insight into what it’s like to be a woman in physical fitness spaces and this knowledge will almost surely affect how I conduct myself in these spaces in the future. I have certainly been guilty of presuming that older women in the gym are eagerly awaiting my instructions on how to properly lift weights. Hell, I bumped into at 70 year old woman in a Indigo store a couple of days ago and she was holding this book. I assumed she was hesitantly thinking about dipping a toe into the water of physical fitness but it turns out she was a marathon runner who could probably kick my ass in a great many physical activities.

Fit at Mid Life also gave me knowledge of what an active lifestyle looks like at age 50, which may not apply to me now but certainly will some day (unless scientist finally get off the couch and make putting human brains in robot bodies a reality). My assumption going into the book was that my body would slowly get slower, weaker and less effective every year after my 40th birthday. Research covered in the book that shows age isn’t the barrier to physical activity that many believe it to be was illuminating. I won’t go into the whole thing here but, suffice it to say, certain cultural preconceptions of what aging people can do end up creating a sort of feedback loop. “I know my body is going to get weaker so I’d better not run so much” is, as it turns out, something of a self fulfilling prophesy.

In a lot of ways, this book is appealing to me because of my attitude towards new and different perspectives. After all, Fit at Mid-Life is all about women doing things that aren’t deemed to be “for them” and, unlike my experience with picking up this book, this is actually an obstacle or at least a point of frustration for them. Still, I want to encourage anyone who would hesitate to read this book or any others like it because they don’t think of themselves as that book’s core demographic to check the book out anyway, as it might give you what this book gave me, a valuable new perspective and a thoroughly enjoyable reading experience.