Monday 5 December 2016

Cinema review: Sicario is the must-see action thriller of the year

Sicario Cert: 15A

Published 12/10/2015 | 02:30

On a mission: Emily Blunt as the by-the-book FBI agent sent to Mexico to escort a drug cartel chief back to the US.
On a mission: Emily Blunt as the by-the-book FBI agent sent to Mexico to escort a drug cartel chief back to the US.
Girl power: Natalie Press and Carey Mulligan star

Reviewed this week are Sicario, Suffragette, Red Army, Tana Bana and The Program.

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A strong female protagonist is thrown in with cocky, war-hardened marines and sent to an alien planet to fight a deadly and faceless enemy that cocoons its victims. No, we're not talking about James Cameron's 1990 sci-fi-slasher classic Aliens but the latest grim confection from the ascending genius of Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners, Incendies).

Sicario (a Mexican term for hitman) does a superb job of pairing such horror elements with the sun-baked darkness of cartel-ridden badlands. Emily Blunt is by-the-books FBI agent Kate Macer, co-opted onto a special task force to Mexico to escort a top cartel leader for questioning. Not only does the convoy have a bullseye painted on it, but Kate is also unsettled by both the movements of Josh Brolin's shifty mission leader and a smouldering Colombian consultant (Benicio Del Toro) riding alongside her.

The tension of one border-control scene is a work of art but Villeneuve and first-time scriptwriter Taylor Sheridan unsettle at seemingly banal moments too. Kate's questions are never answered properly. Moralities blur. Cinematographer Roger Deakins conjures bee-sting alarm bells with a jaundiced yellow-and-black palette. The three-way dynamic of Blunt (essentially playing one of us), Del Toro (a career high) and Brolin is delectable and full of hidden corners. Villeneuve, meanwhile, burning images into the mind through composition and light-play, ensures Sicario stays with you for days afterwards. If you only see one action thriller this year, it must be this. 5 Stars

HAW

Now showing

Suffragette

Cert: 12A

It was during the turn of the last century that the “rage” was truly put into Suffrage. Fed up with the UK government’s inaction on voting rights for women, the feminist movement radicalised and carried out violent attacks on property in order to be heard.

Coming from a country whose independence was partly founded on guerilla warfare, it would be a bit rich to decry such tactics. Sarah Gavron’s film certainly doesn’t, depicting the actions as a desperate attempt to get political validation from Lloyd George’s cabinet.

Carey Mulligan is working-class cockney Maud, who comes to notice the extracurricular pursuits of fellow laundry worker Violet (Anne-Marie Duff). These include pelting rocks through busy café windows and attending underground meetings run by the Suffragette movement. She is swept away by the coven, much to the displeasure of husband Ben Wishaw, who ends up taking sole custody of their young son in response.

This only steels Maud’s resolve to join Violet, Edith (Helena Bonham-Carter) and the rest of the soldiers in ever-more extreme measures against the establishment, all under the blessing of martyred figurehead Emmeline Pankhurst (Meryl Streep). Among the many heinous men observing all this is Brendan Gleeson’s detective, who is out to spoil the party.

Suffragette has a broad message to get across, namely that women had it tough, fought for their rights, and men were bastards back then. Any show of everyday decency by a male is lit up and lingered upon by Gavron as some kind of plot event. It ticks the requisite historical-drama boxes — a rousing score, a great sense of era – but ultimately feels like a lecture, one too preoccupied with sounding worthy and noble. 3 stars.

HAW

Opens tomorrow

Red Army

Cert: 12A

The Soviet ice hockey team wowed audiences in the US and Canada during their  Cold Warrallies, displaying a highly skilled ­‘champagne’ version of a sport more associated with ­mid-match fisticuffs. Gabe ­Polsky’s ­documentary ­harmonises nicely with such deft field play, his film a hit on the US festival ­circuit last year due to its ­playful feel and ­dexterity with a remarkable secret history.

After a giddy, explosive intro, we meet 56-year-old Viacheslav Fetisov, Russian ice hockey’s Brian O’Driscoll, who led a quintet of extraordinarily talented exponents of the game that went on to turn heads in Reagan’s America, a land ­diametrically opposed to Soviet Russia’s political principles.

Polsky’s film naturally ­concludes with today’s hordes of Russian stars currently ­plying their lucrative trade with US and Canadian teams but it is Fetisov’s story that Polsky hones in on. This is a fascinating pulling-back of the Iron Curtain done with ­candour and gaiety to show what life was like, even for national treasures. Brilliant montages of archive footage punctuate interview clips to tell a story you couldn’t make up. We hear about the team’s origins as a Soviet military propaganda tool, and meet the KGB agent who escorted them to North America to prevent them from defecting over to those ­capitalist heathens.

The story’s villain is ­Tikhonov, the sadistic state-appointed coach who cared only about ­humiliating western opposition on the ice rink. And when ­perestroika kicked in and the internationally celebrated Fetisov looked for a way out via the advances of NHL scouts, he was stonewalled by friends and beaten up by authorities.

Nightmarish as much of this may sound, Red Army is a sheer delight of a film, imbued with a magical wit that knows when to take a backseat amid the drama and poignancy.

Fetisov — who Putin ­installed as Minister for Sports until 2008 — is often ­hilariously straight-talking, but Polsky makes sure to stay on track of the vigorous human heart and dignity portrayed as well as ­politics’ mucky ­contaminating of sport. 5 stars.

HAW

IFI and selected cinemas

Tana Bana

Cert: Club

Unesco can pump resources into protecting inherited ­culture all it likes, the exercise is useless without the value of these precious traditions being transmitted around the rest of the world.

This debut ­documentary from renowned Dublin ­filmmaker and Aosdána ­member Pat Murphy (Nora, Anne Devlin) is just the kind of thing threatened culture needs more of, a journalistically ­rigorous examination of a way of life – in this case, sari-making in India’s Uttar Pradesh region – depicted via a wide-angle perspective.

Varanasi is the setting for ­Murphy’s film, a town along the ­Ganges where ­Muslim silk weavers and Hindu tradesmen have lived symbiotically for centuries. The lifeblood of the community is the production of ornate and finely-crafted saris, a treasury of knowledge which has origins right back to the age of the Silk Road. The times are very much a changin’, ­however, and Murphy’s focus is on the threats to such a ­delicately hewn ­interdependence.

Whole families are involved in the process, but while they are proud to pass on the skills to their children they also bemoan modern India’s child-labour red tape. In musty workshops, men of all ages rig-up and man elaborate, creaking looms that face extinction from whirring, automated Chinese machinery. To the side, we meet Muslim schoolgirls who trill proudly about the education they now receive, a privilege not taken lightly. Elsewhere, a teenage Hindu girl wears resentment on her face as she is married off. Murphy weaves these threads into the narrative quietly, ­involving the viewer and letting us join the dots. 3 Stars

HAW

Now showing in IFI

The Program

Cert 15A

The Lance Armstrong parable, whilst not edifying, is fascinating in lots of ways. The simple facts of the story are intriguing but the reasons behind it are equally fascinating. Stephen Frears’s take on the tale is good regarding the facts but not as strong on the reasons.

John Hodge’s screenplay is based largely on David Walsh’s book, Seven Deadly Sins: My Pursuit of Lance Armstrong and so Walsh appears early in the film played by Chris O’Dowd. It’s the early 1990s and Walsh notices something in the plucky Texan newcomer (Ben Foster). Having noted his potential, Walsh is particularly aware that, returning from testicular cancer, Armstrong is an entirely different cyclist, in build, stamina and skill. Convinced it cannot be natural, and at time when doping rumours are rife, Walsh becomes convinced that Armstrong is a cheat, particularly because he is working with Dr Michele Ferrari (Guillaume Canet). But by then Walsh is up against too many vested interests. Frears steers the film well through a complex plot although it rushes a bit at the end. Foster is uncanny and creepy as Armstrong and Jesse Plemons stands out as Floyd Landis, one time Armstrong teammate and the only character with any emotional arc. There has been a very good doc on this so the film might have added more emotion, but still it works well and has much broader appeal than just to cycling enthusiasts. 3 stars.

AO'C

Opens Oct 16

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