Casino Royale: Reinventing a Franchise

Hollywood loves a good franchise, but for the most part the chances of a franchise being consistently good are very slim. The Bond franchise is a prime example of this. From its humble beginnings in the 1960s, a period that saw a Scotsman in Sean Connery rise in the ranks and become one of the most recognizable faces around AND one of the highest grossing movie stars of all time, to a series of misfires and miscast names throughout the 70s and 80s, and finally to Pierce Brosnan stealing the show in GoldenEye just for his later entries in the Bond catalog to fail both critically and commercially; similarly to Batman, the James Bond franchise was on its last legs as it entered the new millennium. To everyone’s surprise Casino Royale turned out to be a major sensation. A new star was born in Daniel Craig and James Bond was alive and well, and perhaps truer to the Ian Fleming’s original character than ever before.

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The first time we see Craig as 007.

How Casino Royale, directed by Martin Campbell, changed the way we perceive and sympathize with Bond as a fleshed out character instead of a cardboard cut-out is still to this day an incredible achievement in storytelling and action filmmaking.
The most obvious aspect of Casino Royale is, of course, how blatantly indifferent it is to all the previous franchise entries. The film opens in black and white, suggesting a flashback sequence from 007’s first mission for the agency, with Bond literally smashing a guy’s face into a sink and violently shoving his face into said sink full of water until the nameless bad guy stops breathing. The scene is brutal, grim and openly demonstrative about the movie’s further intentions in establishing Bond as a atypical character.
Unlike Casino Royale’s predecessors, where the movie usually opened with an intense set-up that ultimately ended in either a sarcastic comment made by the agent himself or a funny set of circumstances that would serve to fuel the movie’s plot, Campbell’s film never attempts to emphasize humor the same way. After all, this is 2006 we’re talking about; the era of clunky one-liners and testosterone-filled actioners à la True LiesSpeed or The Rock is over, and even the most generic actions films take themselves seriously both in style and execution. Humor in Casino Royale comes at an expense and this is where things start to get interesting.

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The gruesome, black-and-white opener sets the tone for the franchise’s re-birth.

I fail to recall the last time I had seen Bond truly suffer as a human. And I don’t only mean physical pain because we all remember the fair share of painful adversities that Bond has had to face throughout the years (spiders, lasers, waterboarding, gunshot wounds, etc), I mean real, psychological pain, pain that exposes the character’s (up until then) few weaknesses. In Die Another Day, Brosnan’s last catastrophic outing as 007, Bond was indeed held prisoner by North Koreans and tortured numerous times, but the pain the character underwent was never given enough weight and was soon dismissed with Bond ultimately walking away a free man in a prisoner exchange.
In Casino Royale, however, our protagonist feels, just like anyone of us. Craig’s Bond is made of flesh and bone and is aware of his own physical limitations. M labels him a blunt instrument, a cold, calculated weapon executing the agency’s orders. But we soon learn that our protagonist, despite his best efforts to fight them, is a prisoner of his own feelings. And that is, I think, Casino Royale’s main strength: the movie is driven by our and everyone else’s preconceived idea that Bond is an emotionless machine working against the movie’s own initiative to mix things up and shape Bond into a more human version of the world famous agent with a license to kill.

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Mads Mikkelsen perfectly encapsulates a Bond villain.

Casino Royale knows what it is up against, namely a whole catalog of movies and fans of these movies that value Bond for his cartoonish appearance. And when the movie’s main plot kicks in, Royale does everything in its power to build a fun, engaging storyline that serves to de-construct and re-shape James Bond as we know him.
Rewatching the film with a friend who had not seen the movie, I noticed how she kept waiting for the eventual one night-stand or (as we like to call them) Bond girl, to come in, have sex with our protagonist and leave him in matter of nano seconds, only to be swept away by the franchise’s most real and heartbreaking romance. Because even though there is a scene where Bond, tied up and naked, gets his testicles crushed with the swing of a heavy rope (and the pain is both visible and audible) by the movie’s main antagonist, Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen, the definition of a Bond villain), the hurt that our protagonist turns out to suffer most is the feeling of pure grief, and the hopeless realization that he is forever bound to the memory of Vesper, a woman he tragically lost and who sacrificed her own life for him. Yes, him. The worthless machine serving the agency’s interests. A stone-cold killer with no sense of remorse. The blunt instrument meant to be used to bash someone’s head in.

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007 naked and exposed.

Reinventing the Bond franchise was a necessary step for mainstream, crowd-pleasing cinema and resulted in Hollywood re-establishing the importance of high quality action movies familiar with the definition of ”character development.” The Bond franchise finally moved away from conservative studio shoots and CGI effects and decided to make fight scenes practical, aggressive and turn our protagonist into an underdog with real weaknesses to be exploited by stronger enemies. Too often had we seen Bond go through enemies like papier-mâché, sometimes not even bothered to look their way before killing them. Casino Royale changed the way Bond inflicts violence upon others and the way others inflict violence upon him. All of a sudden we are watching a character whose prime interest is not getting laid, but embracing the love of a woman and considering the possibility of early retirement.
Of course, nothing is perfect and the underwhelming follow-up to Casino Royale, 2008’s Quantum of Solace proved once again how hard it is to be consistently good as a franchise. But at least we now know that Bond breathes, sweats and bleeds like any other man. He is touchable.

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Casino Royale gives Bond a reason to exist.

Bond Flop

There is something that I cannot stop thinking about and that is:

WHAT THE HELL IS WRONG WITH SPECTRE?

The anticipation for this one was huge.  At first, it was announced as the last Bond film of the epic saga that started all the way back in the 60s with Sean Connery.  After having revolutionized the franchise with a more serious approach to the series in 2006’s Casino Royale, Bond was supposedly reborn.  Casino Royale, Quantum of Solace, Skyfall and finally Spectre are the films that all gave a new feeling to the name, Bond.  Big time directors like Sam Mendes stepped up to the task and delivered. But not this time. Something about Spectre is incredibly off. It feels cartoonish, tired, pointless and utterly uninspired.

Some main points from my part;

  1. NO CHARACTER ARCH
    – what made Casino Royale, Quantum of Solace (in its mediocrity) and Skyfall special is that with the ‘reinvention’ of James Bond as a meaty, grown character was his development. Casino Royale made Bond lose everything he had, everything he loved. Quantum of Solace made him gain his strengths, while Skyfall made him come back to life, fight for what’s his and yes, lose something too.  People became fans of these ‘serious’ Bond films precisely because Bond developed and wasn’t the usual handsome ladies man that cracks a joke and kills the bad guys.  He was vulnerable, he experienced pain and loss. He was one of us.  In Spectre, yes, Bond loves, has memories, has a past, but you don’t feel it pulsating in every frame. In Casino Royale you could feel the threat of losing Vesper at all times.  In Skyfall you could sense the slow passing of M. Here, you have nothing. It’s just Bond solving what should be considered as ‘the ultimate case’, the last riddle, the last piece of the puzzle. It’s what we’ve seen a thousand times before. Same formula, over and over and over.
  2. WOODEN ACTING
    – when James Bond was getting his balls crushed with a rope in Casino Royale we suffered. When M was bleeding to death, we suffered. When Silva was aiming a flintlock pistol at an innocent woman in Skyfall, we felt the tension. What about Spectre? You can feel the actors just not giving a single crap about the movie.  It feels like a side project. You have Craig who publicly announced that he wanted to stop playing Bond after Skyfall was wrapped up, you have Monica Bellucci who probably had nothing better to do, since she is in the movie for what, 6-7 minutes? There is also Ralph Fiennes, who plays the new M this time around. After giving some great, great performances in Grand Budapest Hotel, Hail, Casesar! and A Bigger Splash I don’t blame the man for taking some time off and playing this over-used role of the boss who at first doesn’t trust his agent and then discovers that he should have trusted him from the very beginning. Then you have Christoph Waltz, who as of late has me feeling very unimpressed. It’s always the same sarcastic, sneaky character just with a different name. The only bright spot is the always reliable Léa Seydoux, who is a gem of an actress, who unfortunately is forced to play the cliché character of a Bond chick.  At least she tries to give it some depth, which leads me to….
  3. THE ATROCIOUS SCREENPLAY
    – do I really need to go over this? Look, even the Pierce Brosnan Bond movies had better screen-writing than this movie. At least they had some really funny, sarcastic lines that worked whenever they were given a try, but here… you have FOUR screenwriters working on this project. FOUR. There is no sense of time, there is no link between certain key characters, questions are left unanswered, ending is predictable and uneventful, the whole story is quite simply forced out in order to presumably end this series. It feels like it all leads up to what the writers probably considered the apex of their writing capabilities and that is: “You’re a kite dancing in a hurricane, Mr. Bond.”
  4. NO ARTISTIC FREEDOM
      – I give a big thumbs up to Sam Mendes and Hoyte van Hoytema (the cinematographer) for making that first opening sequence in Mexico City work like it does. It looks absolutely brilliant; a tracking shot that pans across a mass of people, follows characters around into elevators, passes through doorways, exits through balconies and finally reveals to us what Bond is up to.  It’s great. It’s ambitious and I wish it set the tone for the rest of the movie. It shows who is in charge of the movie. Unfortunately the directorial and cinematographic brilliance doesn’t last very long and you can almost feel the studio’s influence crawling into every frame of it.  No wonder that Mendes announced he won’t be coming back to direct Bond25, if there will ever be one. Mendes’ experimental direction and van Hoytema’s clean, neat images seem too big of a gamble for such a massive Hollywood project that cost around $250 mln. The viewer can easily see when the director is in charge and when the producers are.  Mendes directs from various interesting angles. He moves the camera step by step, he likes silences instead of cheesy soundtracks, he prefers panning rather than cutting. But then again, it’s not his movie. And we know it. The way the story is visually told is the same procedural crap we see on a daily basis.
  5. THE MOST UNUSED BOND VILLAIN
      – Okay, you cast Christoph Waltz as a Bond villain, who is supposed to incarnate the ultimate evil of the franchise. He is the man who’s taken everything from Bond. He’s the one responsible for every tragedy in Bond’s life; M, Vesper, his childhood. He is the devil in a man’s skin. He is the reason for Bond’s thirst to kill. HE IS EVIL. And what do we get? We get this guy who has no real reason for doing all the things he’s done. He had a bad childhood, that’s it. That’s his big motif. The screenwriters think that’s what they can offer us to wrap up this series. Waltz, as I said before, doesn’t do anything special. He is just Waltz playing Waltz, but come on, give this villain something to hang on. We see him for a couple of minutes at the beginning and for another few minutes at the very end. He is supposed to be this ghost who has always loomed over Bond’s life but his presence is incredibly shallow and all in all, he’s extremely uninteresting. Not that Silva in Skyfall was great, or Greene in Quantum of Solace had a haunting presence, but a guy like Le Chiffre in Casino Royale had indeed some backbone. Here, the big antagonist is nothing special. It’s just another guy who wishes to blow everything to hell. Wow.

    After finally having seen Spectre, I can honestly say: this franchise should end right now. There is nothing more to offer other than an assured box office hit. But again, you people want this, right? You’ll pay for whatever has loud explosions and characters getting their heads split wide open. Okay, then. have it your way.

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    Cuckoo.

God is Gonna Cut You Down

Remember that post I wrote a while back about Sam Peckinpah’s revolutionary Western that goes by the title The Wild Bunch? In that post right there, I talked about how Peckinpah wanted to express his anger and frustration with the world he found himself living in (late 60s, Vietnam War casualties and the whole country going crazy) by painting his film of 1969 with an excess of bloody violence. He refused to accept the old Western style. He directed one of the most hard ass movies of the century and showing who he really was as a filmmaker.
However, I have some thoughts about another one of his movies (they’re all brilliant in their own ways: Straw Dogs, Pat Garrett and Billy the KidThe GetawayCross of Iron and many more), one of his later ones and the last one starring his dear friend Warren Oates. The movie I’m talking about is Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia released in 1974, a brutal story of a man being paid to retrieve another wanted man’s head. The problem is, the wanted man is already dead. Warren Oates stars as Bennie, a lone rider, a barman and an ex con, who’ll do anything for the right amount of money.

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Warren Oates stars as Bennie the desperado.

Alfredo Garcia is Peckinpah’s meditation on the sacred and profane. You might wonder if this is true, since his movies are usually very violent and were almost always X-rated by the distributors at the time. Well, I’ll tell you what; to hell with those distributors. Peckinpah was a troubled man and during the shooting of this movie he was influenced by Warren Oates to start abusing cocaine (which later lead to his premature death). His mind wasn’t in the right places, but his heart surely was because in the midst of all the bloody chaos that engulfs the main characters of Alfredo Garcia, there is always a theme of love, regret, betrayal, motherhood and devotion hiding underneath the layers of foul language and extreme violence. Why? Because Peckinpah refused to label himself as a B-movie director. Critics hated him, the material he adapted and the stories he tried to tell. Screw them, he kept on going and his movies are still relevant today just as they were back in the day.

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There is love in this movie. Lots of it. And it’s beautiful.

In Alfredo Garcia, Peckinpah has no mercy. His characters are still filthy, sweaty and violent. Bennie is a mercenary, an angry dog looking for something that isn’t there. Bennie, if you will, in some kind of twisted way represents the director himself. Warren Oates admitted that he tried to copy Peckinpah’s walk, way of dressing and all around behavior. Bennie IS Peckinpah. He is a man forced by the higher laws, squeezed to a pulp in order to find a dead man’s head. He sacrifices everything he has just for a stupid dead man’s head. Peckinpah was known at the time as the number one enemy of Hollywood producers since he once claimed that making movies in Hollywood was a torture and preferred to move to Mexico and continue his career over there. Bennie’s story is Sam Peckinpah’s story. Digging up a grave, opening a coffin and finding a useless, lifeless body was Peckinpah’s trade. Nothing in movies is sacred. Just like a dead man’s grave. Everything ends in blood, casualties and if you’re lucky, a newborn baby. Not all masterpieces carry Oscar nominations and this movie is one of them.

So, yeah. That’s Peckinpah for you. A director who had balls made of steel and a talent that so many people tried to deny him. Good for you, Sam. Good for you.

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The man himself, Sam Peckinpah.

No Heroes

Today’s topic: the end of an era in The Wild Bunch (1969). A lot of people consider the Western genre to be boring nowadays. My own generation, the youngsters, seem to be repulsed by the boring scenery, outdated dialogue and predictable action. Sure, Westerns are predictable; the good guy wins, the bad guy dies. The special effects sure look like nothing compared to today’s fast paced action blockbusters and yet, to all the non-Western-watchers, you’re missing out. Westerns were made to enjoy, to make audiences root for the hero who who would always come out victorious, to make them boo at the ferocious indians and ugly bandits, to make them laugh whenever the clumsy old sheriff’s sidekick would come up on the screen. Western set laws that didn’t apply to any other genre in the 1940s Hollywood. As movies they always followed a certain scheme, a plan that had a prepared route of what will follow. And yes, many times Westerns would get repetitive, tackling the same subject matter – that of a glorious Wild West, a land so rich and so beautiful that only the rightful hero can have. But then again, exceptions are made. The exception here was Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch that managed to destroy the myth of the good Old West.

William Holden as the protagonist of the dying breed.
William Holden as the protagonist of the dying breed.

As some of the more seasoned movie fans may know, Peckinpah was famous for his head-on, no-brakes concept of violence (Straw Dogs, from 1971, being the prime example), which in some way revolutionized the way audiences started to adapt themselves to the violent imagery depicted in movies. Until that time, most directors chose not to show blood on screen. Blood was considered a dirty element in the golden industry of Hollywood. However, Sam Peckinpah did not care. He was a true visionary who looked at film with his own eyes and mind. The Wild Bunch was his way of depicting the reality of what people considered a fairy tale. The very Wild but pretty West. Peckinpah does not talk about a good sheriff, or a handsome rider; he does the opposite – his movie is about the cruel passing of time. Time ignores the fact if you’re rich, poor, black, white, whatever. Time is time and in The Wild Bunch, it’s ruthless. Our main protagonists are no kids; they’re seasoned veterans, real filthy bandits who in the past have killed, raped, robbed and drank every little penny they had. Their best days are way behind them. Maybe they never had them. They’re not as quick at pulling the trigger anymore, and their only reason to live is the love they have for crime. That’s their addiction, something they can’t stop themselves from doing. Time is killing them. What they once considered an easy two minute job becomes a bloodbath of a robbery. The authorities begin to outnumber them and in no time out of a whole gang, only six of them remain alive and loyal. Running.

Where are the horses? Long gone.
Where are the horses? Long gone.

As the movie progresses we notice how Peckinpah plays with time; in the shootout sequences, which for 1969 were something out of this world, he tackles time by making the most out of slow motion and fast paced intercuts. When a bounty hunter is shot dead and falls down to the ground from the top of a building, as he slowly reaches the ground, the director intercuts with the wild motions of galloping horses, symbol of progress and immediate change. Right after the bloodshed that took place in the street of a peaceful border town, Peckinpah dissolves to an image of a scorpion being eaten by thousands of ants. What happens next? Children set the insects on fire, and Peckinpah keeps the camera rolling as the flames devour what seconds before was devouring a mighty predator. We get the message. It’s time for the old timers to step away. If they stay, time will swallow them up. Even technology is subject to change and here too, the director makes the most out of the available props. Revolvers are replaced by semi-automatic pistols, bolt action rifles are left off in exchange for modern shotguns, and horses can’t outrun an automobile. It’s these simple things that make the biggest change in the gangbangers’ lives. The Wild West is filled to the brim with criminals much more skilled than these six poor old sobs.  This is no country for old men. Old men must go, but before they do, Peckinpah leads the gang into a brothel, just to show us that there is no class in being a bandit. It’s a simple reminder that makes us think about all those times we saw the hero prepare himself for his final battle by praying in a church or cleaning his weapon in a quiet hotel room. Not in this case. In this case, the brothel is the sanctuary. The holy temple.

Fairy tales do not exist.
Fairy tales do not exist.

As I mentioned before, what is so revolutionary about this movie is the use of epic violence: corpses riddled by bullets, a machine gun that rips bodies apart and grenades that destroy entire buildings. The final shootout is an example of a virtuoso working against a whole world of viewers by challenging the way they’d watch Westerns. This is a war movie. The remaining five bandits face a squadron of angry Mexican soldiers. It’s the scorpion being eaten by the never ending masses of ants. It’s five men against the inevitable passing of time. It’s the Wild West against the approaching twentieth century. It’s the beloved traditions against the modern age. The bullet-spraying machine gun, in this case, is seen as the last door to knock at. Each one of the wild bunch tries to hold the weapon for as long as he can, but in the end, they all let go, crippled by the enemy fire. Crippled by their dark past. Their mistakes. Time sinks its teeth into their lives, ending them once and for all. It’s never been about gold, silver or any of that. It was about living the fearless life no one would get to live anymore after that.

The dying breed of a dying era.

Their last walk.
Their last walk.

Hunter’s Maze

Today’s topic: sizzling energy and on-screen entertainment. When you think of entertaining, fun movies to watch, what comes to your head? Star Wars, because of the galaxy battles? Die Hard, because of the flying bullets? Something along the lines of Hellboy or even Rocky? Entertainment is the reason why so many people watch movies nowadays. In fact, the “blockbusters”, the highest grossing films of the year, are mostly action packed fantasy films, where the audience can easily sit back and enjoy a 3-dimensional CGI show that at home, well, you just can’t. We want to be entertained, but do we even care about how good the material is? An entertaining movie doesn’t have to be good. Those are called guilty-pleasures, which we watch just for the pure fun of it, ignoring the plot and characters. Personally, when it comes to entertaining movies I choose the Red series or the Ocean’s Trilogy. WhyBecause they have funny lines, likeable characters and they’re overall a simple popcorn watch. However, if I had to choose serious filmmaking entertainment, one during which the viewer must pay attention to details and actually have an eye for fine direction, then I’d say look at Michael Mann’s filmography.

One of the rare, but golden,
One of the rare, but golden, “time out” moments in Mann’s Heat.

Mann (Miami Vice, Public Enemies, Ali) can be unknown to a lot of you. He’s not a celebrity and he has the reputation of an exhausting director to work with. He was Oscar nominated for his fine work in The Insider and for co-producing The Aviator. That was a long time ago. Now, most movie critics blame him for switching from celluloid to digital filmmaking and yes, his recent movies haven’t been a success. Yet, in my mind, he stays as one of the most visually creative directors alive. His films are often centered around criminals, policemen, detectives, agents, gangsters. The streets are Mann’s territory. When writing his own screenplays, Mann – having gathered tons of research notes on law enforcement – uses police codes and street slang. His dialogue is fast and brutal, yet, somehow he manages to pack philosophical knowledge into his projects and still make it a fun ride for the viewer. Mann’s starting point was Thief  (1981), a story centered around a highly skilled jewel thief who wants out of the business at all costs. It’s an impressive first feature, and if one’s familiar with Mann’s filmography, one can immediately catch the signature details. Mann loves filming during the night, it adds to the story and action. The shadows. The darkness. The neon lights. It’s a jungle of unpredictability, a maze of dangers and surprises. By night, life is a chess game. Take a wrong turn and you’re out of the game. Make a step forward and you’re busted. That’s the truth on the streets. That’s what the thief has to deal with every night, and Mann makes the picture vibrate every time there is a glimpse of action. City lights, fire, explosions. Mann fades the viewer’s point of view to disorientate him, to make him feel insecure and put him on the spot, right in the middle of the chase. Right onto the race track, on foot.

Explosions can look beautiful.
Explosions can look beautiful.

With Mann it’s the details that count. Details sometimes might be associated with boring, unnecessary additional “stuff”, but Mann uses details to create action. Details are the basis for the ultimate climax. The first twenty minutes of Thief is just James Caan’s character drilling a precise hole into a safe vault. Mann captures every movement, every little sound, which later on makes an impact on what will follow. It all matters, so don’t blink. Mann went on and tackled the subject of criminality in a more mature, adrenaline pumping way later on in 1995, with his magnum opus – Heat. Not only does the film star the impressive duo of Al Pacino and Robert De Niro, it also contains one particular scene that will go into history as one of the most memorable action scenes in cinema. I’m talking about the heist scene, where the gang led by De Niro’s character gets caught after a nearly picture perfect bank robbery. That’s when Mann, out of what could have been a simple chase sequence, makes a spectacle for the viewer’s eye. We move from the gang’s car onto the main street, into the back of a supermarket, into a car again. All of this while switching from the police’s perspective to the gang’s. Both sides fighting for survival. One running away, the other trying to bite the other’s tail. It’s not cat and mouse. It’s more complex. It’s survival of the fittest. Bullets whistle and rattle against the car’s’ windshields. People scream in panic. Policemen fall to the ground, calling for back-up. The gang finds its way to the safety zone. Some members don’t. It’s a whole maze of brilliant ideas: Mann’s staging is a plan for the ages. Everything follows something. Every part matches. That’s entertainment.

Who's the hunter?
Who’s the hunter?

Mann didn’t stop after Heat. He made a particular comeback (after the mediocre Ali) with the exciting Collateral; the story about a cab driver (Jamie Foxx, convincing), who realizes his current fare is a hit man (Tom Cruise, untouchable) that has been having him drive around from mark to mark until the last witness to a crime is dead. What’s so revolutionary about this movie? The amazing proper (very important) use of digital cameras. Mann catches the LA nightlife just like in a documentary adding a realistic feel to the whole setting. It seems as if we’re driving along Foxx and Cruise, with Cruise’s gun pointed at the back of our head. It feels like we’re running short of ideas, trying to figure out what to do to stop the hitman’s killing spree. And again, Mann with the use of complex camera work creates a visceral storytelling action scene set in a LA nightclub. The music’s loud, the hitman is on the hunt for his next target, meanwhile the cab driver is trying to alert the police. The crowd, the heavy bumping music, the pulsating lights, yet again are all part of a maze. It all comes down to who is the first one to press the button. Who is the definitive hunter.

Thought provoking entertainment. So rare in today’s cinema, yet we learn to appreciate it more and more as the time goes by. It’s not always about packing the highest amount of action or sexuality. It’s about building up a mood, an exciting setting , a plot that actually goes places and teaches us a new way of looking at what surrounds us. A new way of grasping energy and life. Mann drives us into thinking about what amazes us, what leaves us, the common public, in awe.

If we know the answer, we shall be entertained by the right material. That’s it. No more superheroes.

A hitman that can save your life, is he still considered a hitman?
A hitman that can save your life, is he still considered a hitman?

Land of Wolves

Today’s topic: the darkness of Sicario. What an experience, sitting in an empty theater, gazing at the pulse pounding images of the recent arrival, Denis Villeneuve’s new thriller – Sicario. Villeneuve is by definition a master of depicting ominous, claustrophobic atmospheres with acclaimed previous efforts like Incendies, Enemy and the 2013 hit, Prisoners. To say that Sicario is the best movie of  the year is an understatement. It’s a film, so dark, so powerful that it will stay on as one of the finest directorial efforts, ever. But, I’m not here to make a review out of it. It’s not my job. What I intend to do, without spoiling too much, is try to go in deep and analyse the impenetrable darkness of this exquisite thriller.

Sheep can sometimes turn into wolves.
Sheep can sometimes turn into wolves.

Kate Macer (a brilliant Emily Blunt), one of the few female FBI agents in Arizona receives a top assignment and  joins a task force for the escalating war against drugs led by  government official Matt Graver (a knockout Josh Brolin) and the mysterious Colombian, Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro giving his best performance in years). The plot is all an excuse for an in-depth study of humanity and morality in today’s world: a world devastated every single minute by relentless wars. That’s why you can watch this film without the sound on and still be punched in the gut. It’s not about dialogue, it’s about images. Images flaring in front of your eyes. The task force is sent out to Juárez, possibly the most dangerous place on earth. A hornet’s nest. A sewer filled with all the earth’s rotting scum. A pit where lambs are thrown for sacrifice. A city so deeply buried in crime and violence that everyone’s already given up. No one’s fighting the real problem. Kate is optimistic. She thinks she’s out there to try and do some good for her colleagues, her friends, her nation. It’s not about that. “Welcome to Juárez” says Alejandro in a very peaceful manner while they drive by a police crime scene: mutilated corpses hanging naked from a bridge.

It is what it is. It’s no fantasy. Things happen all the time. Yet, since most of us live far, far away from all the “evil countries” we think we’re safe. We’re not. Kate’s drug war is not the same war politicians fight in Washington. It’s not about rules, treaties, agreements. It’s not about shaking hands and smiling to the camera. It’s not about giving out environmental speeches. That’s a different story. What Kate’s fighting is personal. There is no class to what happens in the border cities. There are no speeches. There are no photographers. It’s personal. It’s eye for an eye, tooth for tooth. It’s about getting so dirty, so filthy that no matter what you’ll do with your life in the future, you will always carry the past with you. The past will always be the haunting present. There’s no way to cut off the links. The connections will always stay. Blood will always be blood.

A shower won't wash away what Kate has just witnessed.
A shower won’t wash away what Kate has just witnessed.

Kate starts smoking, and she continues digging deeper and deeper into what seems to be a never ending pit. The never ending river of mysteries. She discovers things she shouldn’t have dared even to look at. A police officer tries to shoot her. That’s what it all comes to. There are no limits. Values don’t mean a thing. There is no government, there are no laws. Laws don’t apply to ganglands. Laws don’t apply to this world. At a certain point in the film, all of a sudden we switch perspectives. From Kate we move on to Del Toro’s Alejandro. A man of few words. He’s someone they call in when there is an interrogation. He’s ruthless. No mercy for anyone. When he asks questions, you better give it to him. Because he’ll ask again, in a very painful way. And never point a gun at him. You don’t to bite Alejandro because he’s got more teeth than you. He’s had a dark past that we only discover at the very end. He’s got reasons to be who he is, and do what he does. No one objects. Alejandro acts, because he has to. And now a fundamental question, which you’ll probably ask yourself: does he fight for the right side or the wrong one? Well, neither. There is no line. If there ever was one it was crossed a long time ago. By the wrong people. Now, even the right ones don’t know the difference anymore.

The man in the suit, Alejandro.
The man in the suit, Alejandro.

Even the veterans like Alejandro or Graver have lost sight of the real objective. Maybe there was one, once upon a time when people still believed in honor and justice. In a war for the common good. Not anymore. Now everyone’s covered in mud. Soldiers, officers of the law, special agents, all shoot to shoot. They shoot to kill. Kill because they’re angry, because they saw their colleagues blown to pieces by a booby trap, because they saw their mothers in a pool of blood, because they saw their homes burning, because they forgot where it all started. One of the last, mind-blowing action sequences takes place in a tunnel. Shots are fired, people are killed. But the main thing that I caught from that scene is the tunnel itself. The tunnel that for the most part of the task force operatives is nothing scary. It’s nothing new. They’ve seen worse. They go in, shoot to kill, throw in a grenade, come out smiling. But for newcomers, like Kate, there is a whole different side to it. You go in and come out a whole different person, a beast. A beast with claws and blood thirsty teeth. You lose yourself and you become something else. You step on the wrong mystery, the wrong case, and you face consequences. Consequences that will trouble you forever. Sicario means hitman. Anybody can kill for money. Anybody can hit the bottom.

Because that’s what Sicario, in my opinion, is about: a world that is considered an underworld but in fact, is much larger than what we all imagine. It’s a world that once you step inside of it, there is no coming back. You can’t spin around and leave. You stay there, screaming, but nobody can hear you. Even if you scream at the top of your lungs. Nobody can hear.

Because that’s what darkness is. The land of wolves.

Take a breath. The storm is coming.
Take a breath. The storm is coming.

Pulp It

Today’s topic: violence. Yeah, sure we can say a lot about violence. In a certain sense if violence didn’t exist cinema would be running short of movies. But by violence I don’t mean Lethal Weapon, Beverly Hills Cop or Rush Hour 2 type of violence. Why not? Well, violence has its own, specific voice and one of the most famous directors still hot in the business can be called the Godfather of violence. That man is Quentin Tarantino.

Violence can be shown on film in many different ways. Very often it’s vulgar, over the top or even madly sadistic. It can look childish like Jackie Chan swinging his fists at a pack of thugs or even Bruce Willis jumping through a window firing two revolvers and a shotgun at the same time, yet it still is the same old stupid cliché. What stands out in Tarantino’s films is the way he deals with portraying in an elegant, meaningful way the bloody art of violence. In fact, when you all hear the name, Quentin Tarantino, what do you think of? Let me guess; the bloody opening to Reservoir Dogs, or the famous quote from Pulp Fiction “Oh, man! I shot Marvin in the face!”, or the Crazy 88 stand-off in Kill Bill Vol. 1, or the Jewish scalp hunters from Inglorious Basterds, or even the monumental finale of Django Unchained? 

Can it get any more violent?
Can it get any more violent?

The point is this: Tarantino can paint with violence. He can create images so gory, so gut wrenching yet always pleasant to look at. Perhaps it’s his delicious, suspenseful dialogue that keeps us glued to the screen. Or perhaps it’s his ability to pay tribute to his favorite directors in a very fun way for the viewer to enjoy. Or perhaps it’s his memorable characters that we love and follow anywhere be it the moody Mississippi or the French farm fields. He can easily turn a scene upside down from what we’d expected and still get away with it. Remember the scene from Inglorious Basterds that takes place in a cafe called La Louisiane? The scene starts off in a very innocent manner. The Jewish rebels, dressed as Nazi officers, are supposed to meet an informant who will give them key information for their next mission. Little details, like a German soldier having a party because of his son’s birth, or the card game organized by some of the customers, or even the sawed off shotgun kept under the counter by the suspicious bartender, all of these elements manage to have an impact on what will follow. Bloodbath. That’s right. Unexpected bloodbath. But with Tarantino, the bloodbath isn’t a simple bloodbath. It’s a classical western stand-off, where two rival sides are waiting for the right moment to act and when it’s on… well, it’s ON! Guns go off, people die.

You never know what's about to happen.
You never know what’s about to happen.

But how in the world can Tarantino get away with it? Why can he create such weird, unique situations and end them the way he does? Well, I know for a fact that the writer-director doesn’t like when people go sniffing around his work, trying to crack open his words and I understand that. I do.  However, sometimes I just can’t resist.

Tarantino is known for being a strong gun-control supporter and a man who’s against drug use. You wouldn’t know that if you were basing your information on Pulp Fiction or Death Proof. But, that’s the truth. In his movies, this is how I interpret his work, Tarantino shows us that no matter how odd, how regular, how ordinary we and our lives are, anything can happen. Kill BillBride at the beginning of the movie is a simple woman who wants to get married, have a family, watch her child grow, and then what happens? Her wedding turns into a massacre and she, on the other hand, becomes a highly trained assassin who wants revenge at all costs. This is Tarantino’s trademark: life’s oddities. Violence can become anyone’s hobby. We can walk down the street, catch a bus, go to work, or– we can go to a biker club and start a brawl, ending up in the hospital at the end of the day. The titular character from Tarantino’s Jackie Brown is a working class black woman caught up between an evil arms dealer and two annoying cops. To get back at her rivals, she becomes a determined con with a plan that only she knows to perfection. That’s that. Easy, right?

Don't mess with Jackie.
Don’t mess with Jackie.

And in fact, this is what it’s all about. Violence is not supposed to be considered as a brain-dead excuse for making a movie. It’s not supposed to be treated with disgust and anger. It’s a part of life. It’s something that takes place all over the world. It’s something we can all relate to, because when it comes to what’s important and worth the struggle, we all act.

Violence is the unexpected, the great mystery that keeps poking our world. Deal with it.

Wide Eyes, Wild Places

Today’s topic: Nature. Nope, it’s not a biology lesson, I’m well aware of it. What I mean by the word ‘nature’ is the key role that nature, in this case the tall Elephant grass and the impenetrable jungle, play in Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line.

A lot of you, when you hear the words “war movie”, might immediately think of Saving Private Ryan, Full Metal Jacket or in some cases even Apocalypse Now. And of course, you have the right to. Those are iconic movies not only in their genres but well beyond that. They marked a certain kind of filmmaking and a very specific way of looking at the horror of the battlefield. A realistic perception of what used to be a movie genre that spread pro military propaganda (re: The Green Berets). However, when I must make a statement on what I consider the most monumental and in a twisted sense, beautiful film, I say The Thin Red Line (1998).

The story of the American battle against the Japanese forces on the island of Guadalcanal, a small piece of rock in the middle of the Pacific, grabs you by the legs and doesn’t let go. The men, portrayed by a wonderful cast of,  during that time,  relatively unknown actors like Jim Caviezel, Adrien Brody, Sean Penn, John Cusack, George Clooney, Woody Harrelson and many others (including veterans Nick Nolte and John Travolta), they are the main plot. Because, well, there actually isn’t one. We follow young soldiers into the unknown, where they discover, on foreign soil, who they really are or who they used to be before their lives took an abrupt turn.

The state of mind of these poor bastards is represented by the wild, dark nature that surrounds them day and night. Why? Well, isn’t the mystery of what’s about to happen our greatest fear? The fear of catching a bullet or the fear of falling into a booby trap? The fear of getting killed on an island far away from home and our beloved ones?

The Elephant grass is tall and green; its leaves are razor blades that cut deep into every soldier’s exposed body part. Its ground is made out of dirt, hiding snakes and other wild beasts awaiting the chance to kill. That’s right. Everything moves. Everything is deadly out there. The soldiers can crawl, squat, even lie down and pray and they won’t be safe. That’s Terrence Malick’s, the director’s, point. We are guests; we are vulnerable; we mean nothing; mother nature decides whether we get to live or die. Malick’s direction, the camera following every soldier from behind and from the side, is meant to hit the viewer straight to the gut with its message: you don’t get to decide. You’re not in a position to. In fact, the soldiers know it. They await, for the first 50 minutes the sound of a speeding bullet. For them it was months, since the Japanese army first of all focused on destroying the US Navy and its supplies. Only after a long, infernal span of time, did the Japanese decide to act. And with what force. What was supposed to be taken in three days, was won over in six months of bloody battles.

Malick, a well known oilman and biologist, has the eye for little details. Even the first shot of the film is a crocodile moving through the muddy water like a trained assassin. In fact, that’s it. That tells you what it’s all about. Explosions? Huge action set pieces (in some scenes up to 3000 extras)? Breathtaking POV sequences? Yes, of course, but that’s not half of it. Peace and quiet. That’s when the jungle is at its most ominous. When the birds stop their singing, when the waters calm down, and when the sound of flies vanishes. That’s when you’re ought to worry. It’s that kind of deadly silence that the soldiers have in their hearts while fighting for survival. The silence in their hearts. The memories of a lover in California, the mental pictures of mom’s apple pie, the sweet sound of children laughing. That’s all in their minds. That’s all they can think about because of the silence. Because of the sun that can’t get through the twisted branches. Because of the thick air that becomes more and more tiring. Because of the mud that keeps slowing them down. The jungle is what they live, what they breathe, what they walk, what they talk and most importantly, what they fear. It’s all their emotions packed into a big, heavy bag. Now, they have to carry it. And that’s no easy task.

Not even for a soldier.

Not even the toughest bombing can destroy mother nature.
Not even the toughest bombing can destroy mother nature.