Sunday, October 25, 2015


“Prisoners” director Denis Villeneuve’s menacing manhunt melodrama “Sicario” (**** OUT OF ****) treats the war against drug cartels and their smuggling operations with even greater cynicism than even the recent David Ayer’s opus “Sabotage” with Arnold Schwarzenegger.  Imagine combining “Silence of the Lambs” with “Zero Dark Thirty,” and you’ve got the essence of this no-nonsense, atmospheric epic that boasts more shades of gray than black and white.  Emily Blunt plays a by-the-book FBI agent who wades into the murky depths of corruption and evil that threaten to undermine her sanity.  Josh Brolin and Oscar winner Benicio Del Toro co-star as the hardcases who need her shield so their shady business doesn’t violate the letter of the law.  “Sicario” isn’t a slick, superficial, standard-issue, shoot’em up with sensational stunts.  Primarily, “Sicario” argues that the best way to eliminate drug cartels is to fight fire with fire.  Similarly, “Sabotage” appropriated that attitude toward the cartels, but it lacked the credibility that “Sicario” delivers.  The good guys don’t wear white hats in “Sicario.”  They display the same conspicuous lack of regard for human life that their adversaries espouse.  You don’t walk out of “Sicario” feeling relieved so much as horrified by what it takes to conquer the evil that cartels do.  This spartan crime thriller features enough twists and turns to keep you guessing right up to its ending that may abrade your sense of moral rectitude.

“Sicario” opens with a bang as FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt of “Edge of Tomorrow”), her partner Reggie (Daniel Kaluuya), and the Bureau’s Kidnap Response Team smash into a residence in a sleepy little subdivision in sunny Arizona and discover the cartel has been using it as stash house.  They scramble inside to rescue hostages, but they find the walls of the house conceal 42 corpses like a contemporary catacomb.  Two agents tamper with a booby-trapped outside tool shed, and the explosion shreds them and flattens everybody else.  Afterward, a nonchalant guy in flip-flops, Matt Graver (Josh Brolin of “Gangster Squad”), schedules a meeting with Macer’s superior, Dave Jennings (Victor Gaber of “Argo”), and invites Kate to accompany an inter-agency task force bound for Mexico to pick up a cartel informant.  Macer signs up.  Later, she watches in horror as Graver and a convoy of black government SUVs careen into Juárez, Mexico.  Graver’s tight-lipped, second-in-command, Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro of “Savages”), warns Kate not to trust their Mexican Federal Police escort.  The naked bodies of dangling corpses garnish the perimeter of this eerie setting.  Everything boils down to pulling one individual, Guillermo Diaz (Edgar Arreola of “Machete”), out of a safe house and hauling him back across the border for interrogation.  Not surprisingly, the trip into Mexico is a picnic compared with the trip out.  The Task Force finds themselves snarled up in a traffic jam at the border crossing.  They aren’t entirely surprised when they spot cartel gunmen itching to waste them, and an inevitable shootout ensues.  Just as Alejandro warned Kate, the corrupt Mexican Federal Police side with the cartel gunmen and our anxious heroine takes out an MFP officer with well-aimed shots.  As suddenly as the shootout erupted, it concludes.
All is not what it appears, and Kate suspects that Graver is a really a CIA agent and Alejandro is a freelance enforcer.  “Nothing will make sense to your American ears,” Alejandro assures Kate. “And you will doubt everything that we do. But in the end you will understand.” Eventually, she realizes she is being used to lend Graver’s operation a semblance of legality.  When she confides her fears to his superior, Dave reassures Kate that everything is above-aboard and Graver’s mission has the blessings of highly placed elected officials.  Graver explains that Alejandro and he aim to create so much chaos within cartel ranks that the Mexicans will turn on themselves and start killing their own men. This strategy is designed to flush out an anonymous cartel chief whose identity remains a closely guarded secret. Alejandro promises Kate that exposure of this figure will prove catastrophic for this coldblooded criminal organization.  The biggest action scene in “Sicario” has Kate and company entering a covert cartel tunnel, shades of the Vin Diesel thriller “Fast Five,” and wiping out cartel henchmen in those subterranean depths with a clandestine army of SWAT shooters equipped with night vision technology.

“Sicario” qualifies as an impressive, but cynical crime movie.  Apart from the heroine and her partner, the protagonists are as unscrupulous as the villains that they keep in their gun sights.  Meantime, Kate Macer cannot believe that she has gotten herself trapped in this web of amorality.  As idealistic as she is, Kate believes in the rule of law, but she emerges tarnished mentally if not physically by the experience with Graver and Alejandro.  Although the talented Emily Blunt toplines this law & order saga, an unshaven Benicio Del Toro claims top honors as a PTSD-afflicted gunman.  He plays a former Mexican prosecutor who has suffered more than anybody.  The cartel decapitated his wife and drowned his young daughter in a vat of acid, so he shoots first unless he has to ask questions before he obliterates his enemies with lead.  Del Toro gives a smoldering performance.  Josh Brolin isn’t far behind as an enigmatic CIA agent who deals with every encounter with his adversaries as if he were a surfer gauging waves at the beach.  Nothing in “Sicario” comes off feeling contrived, glamour, and formulaic.  Canadian director Denis Villeneuve stages the action scenes at the border crossing and the tunnel with an impersonal air of solemnity.  British cinematographer Roger Deakins of “No Country for Old Men” depicts these escapades in dark, muted colors reminiscent of the classic Dutch painter Rembrandt that effectively captures the moral depravity perpetrated by the principals.  Watching a movie like “Sicario,” you have to wonder whether the wholesale legalization of narcotics—repellent as a solution might seem--wouldn’t offer greater salvation as a whole for everybody rather than futile free-for-all combat. 


Whether on the big-screen or the small screen, the media has venerated Scottish writer J.M. Barrie’s classic 1904 play and 1911 novel about a rambunctious boy who refused to grow up.  Paramount Pictures produced the first and only silent movie about Peter Pan in 1924 with Barrie’s approval and cast Betty Bronson as the adolescent hellion.  About 29 years later, Walt Disney appropriated the property and produced an animated epic with a 15-year old boy voicing Peter Pan.  In the 1954 telecast of “Producers' Showcase: Peter Pan,” actress Mary Martin impersonated Peter.   This broadcast was aired again in 1963, then again in both 1966 and 1973.    NBC broadcast the Hallmark Hall of Fame television adaptation in 1976 with Mia Farrow as the eternal youth.   In 1987, Soviet television aired its own unauthorized adaptation, while in 1988 the Australians rendered their own unauthorized direct-to-video version.   Steven Spielberg cast Robin Williams as a grown-up Peter Pan in “Hook” (1991) with Julia Roberts as Tinker Bell.   Captain Hook kidnaps Peter’s two children to lure a reluctant Peter back to Neverland.  About ten years later, Disney released an animated sequel “Return to Never Land” (2002) to its 1953 original.”  “Return to Never Land” occurs during World War II, and dastardly Captain Hook battles British fighter aircraft over London when he invades air space with his pirate-ship that he flies by means of pixie-dust.  In 2003, P.J. Hogan helmed a traditional version of Barrie’s “Peter Pan” with a boy playing the protagonist, unlike a girl in two earlier versions.  Indie film director Damion Dietz reimagined Barrie’s play in “Neverland” (2003) with Peter as an older teen confused about his gender, while Captain Hook was a homosexual, and Tiger Lily was a cross-dresser.  More recently, the SyFy Channel produced its own mini-series “Neverland” (2011) with Peter Pan and the Lost Boys as thieves picking pockets galore in England around 1906 in a Charles Dickins spin on their footloose shenanigans. 

“Atonement” director Joe Wright and “Ice Age: Continental Drift” scenarist Jason Fuchs have borrowed more from Charles Dickens than James Barrie for their ‘origins’ epic “Pan” (** OUT OF ****) that looks like it was designed to fuel a franchise.  Basically, Wright and Fuchs introduce us to Peter before the boy could fly.  The action unfolds in the late 1920s as Peter’s mother Mary (Amanda Seyfried of “Gone”) abandons her infant child mysteriously on the doorstep of an oppressive Catholic orphanage.  Presided over by the corrupt, gluttonous Mother Barnabas (Kathy Burke), the Sisters of Eternal Prudence rule the Lambeth School for Boys as harshly as a penitentiary.  Inexorably, time elapses, and the year is now 1939.  World War II has erupted, and the Nazis have embarked on a massive aerial bombing campaign against the British.  The Sisters horde food and conceal more treasure than you could find at the end of a rainbow.  Ironically, Mother Barnabas keeps a statue of Mary in her room.  All she has to do is twist Mary’s delicate snout, and a partition in the floor opens to reveal everything that the sisters have hidden.  Furthermore, the good Mother has been selling orphans to pirates passing in the night.  Twelve- year old Peter (newcomer Levi Miller) has become such a thorn in the Mother’s side that she sells him to those pirates.  Specifically, the pirate passing in the night is the infamous Blackbeard (Hugh Jackman of “Wolverine”) and he cruises in on an 18th century sailing ship that charts its path through the stars.  In other words, he flies his ship across the same skies that Hitler’s Luftwaffe uses to bomb London.  Blackbeard’s men descend through the orphanage skylights in the dead of night and snatch the boys Mother Barnabas has sold him.  Imagine bungee-cording into a building and bouncing back aboard a ship in the sky, and you’ve got an idea how Blackbeard stages these abductions.

Blackbeard escapes the British RAF fighter pilots prowling the night skies, ascends above the clouds, and wings his way back to Neverland.  He employs these poor youngsters as slaves to mine for pixim.  Essentially, pixim is ‘fairy dust,’ and the villainous Blackbeard uses it keep his ships aloft.  The first time we are shown Blackbeard’s kingdom with its massive quarries where the mining is done, the premises resemble the citadel in the fourth Mad Max movie “Mad Max: Fury Road.”  Incredibly, after Blackbeard arrives with his latest conscripts, the children that he has already imprisoned serenade them with the Nirvana song “Smells like Teen Spirit.” When he isn’t conscripting lads for labor, Blackbeard has to contend with the quarrelsome natives who look nothing like Barrie’s “redskins” but more like Pacific Island natives.  Later, Peter accuses an older miner of stealing the pixim that our hero has chiseled out of the quarry. The guards take him before Blackbeard and Peter finds himself poised on a plank sticking out of Blackbeard’s ship high above the quarry.  During this sequence, Wright has the slave children warbling the Ramones’ song “Blitzkrieg Bop.” Miraculously, Peter doesn’t plunge to his death, and this impossibility bothers Blackbeard because he fears the youth may be ‘the chosen one’ sent to topple him.  While Peter toils in the mines, he meets James Hook (Garrett Hedlund of “TRON: Legacy”), and this time around Hook is a good guy.  Hook and Peter manage to escape from Blackbeard and lead an uprising that eventually deposes Blackbeard.

Anybody familiar with Barrie’s “Peter Pan” will wince at the liberties that “Pan” takes.  Wright and Fuchs have omitted ninety percent of Barrie’s book.  Wendy, John, and Michael Darling who flew out the window with Peter in Barrie’s book have been left out of this cinematic version as have their bereft parents.  Hook’s only close encounter with a crocodile occurs when one leaps over the raft that Peter and he share with Tiger Lily.  Furthermore, Hook isn’t even a pirate.  He looks more like Indiana Jones than a miner. If you’re wondering about Blackbeard’s presence, Barrie mentioned him only once in his novel.  Meantime, Wright and Fuchs have expanded his minor role considerably.  Hugh Jackson is horribly miscast as the notorious pirate.  He looks like a refugee from the 1970s’ disco group The Village People.  Mysteriously enough, in one scene, we see Blackbeard inhaling an enigmatic gas to keep from growing old.  Worse, compared with most fantasy villains, Jackman’s Blackbeard isn’t particularly treacherous.  Rooney Mara of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” looks just as ridiculous as Tiger Lily.  The people who produced “Pan” have spared no expense with their lavish $150 million budget.  Nothing about “Pan” looks cheap.  The computer-generated special effects are flawless, and the 3-D version will knock your eyes out.  Additionally, composer John Powell has contributed an exhilarating orchestral theme, but nothing can compensate for the hopelessly predictable plot.  Nevertheless, the less you know about the literary “Peter Pan,” the more you may enjoy this outlandish half-baked hokum. 


"Four Guns to the Border" director Richard Carlson helmed this thoroughly lackluster Louis L'Amour western "Kid Rodelo,"(** OUT OF ****) with Don Murray, Janet Leigh, and Oscar-winner Broderick Crawford.  This straightforward, humorless horse opera concerns survival of the fittest on the frontier.  Appropriately enough, lean, handsome Murray is cast as the virtuous hero, while burly, gravel-voiced Crawford plays a treacherous outlaw with an itchy trigger finger.  Eventually, these two wind up on a rugged desert trail transporting $50-thousand in gold with remorseless Yaqui Indians shadowing them like vultures. The prison hires Yaquis to bring back the escaped prisoners, and the Yaquis usually bring them back face down across their horses.  Unlike the Rangers, the Yaquis need not bother with the same pesky jurisdictional issues that the Rangers must contend with when crossing the border into Mexico.  These Yaquis are particularly proficient at what they do, and their leader, Cavalry Hat (José Villasante of “Django the Condemned”), covets the hero's boots.  The only thing that distinguishes this western is the eponymous hero’s knowledge of desert plants, specifically cholla cactus with their poisonous spines which can lame a horse.

Kid Rodelo (Don Murray of "From Hell to Texas") has been released after serving a year inside Yuma Territorial Prison, while villainous Joe Harbin (Broderick Crawford of "All the King's Men") sweats out a life sentence because he shot his partner. Meantime, Harbin's accomplice, Thomas Reese (José Nieto of "Dr. Zhivago"), hatches a plan to break out of Yuma. He has stolen two wooden matches from the kitchen. Harbin and he toil in the stone quarry where they hammer holes into the rocks with a drill to insert dynamite to blast the formation. They plant some extra sticks of dynamite and all hell cuts loose. In the novel, Joe's accomplice is named Tom Badger and he survives until the finale, whereas Reese dies not long after they break out of prison. Anyway, Harbin and Reese take the Warden (Emilio Rodríguez) as a hostage to make good their escape. They shoot their way out of Yuma using the Warden as a shield and dump him once they have gotten away.

Now, they light out in hot pursuit of the Kid who has caught a ride with another some other suspicious characters who are conveniently watching for him to show up.  Link (Richard Carlson of "Creature from the Black Lagoon") and his girlfriend Nora (Janet Leigh of "Psycho") are waiting for the Kid as he trudges on foot along the trail from the prison.  Link wants the money, too, and he has hired another gunslinger, sleazy Balas (Julio Peña), to help him.  After they reach a largely abandoned town, Link and Balas enter a house and find a box concealed beneath the wooden floorboards.  They get into an argument over Balas' percentage of the loot.  The greedy Balas insists on a greater share and guns down Link without a qualm.  Later, Balas joins Joe after he guns down Reese, but they don’t trust each other.  Gopher (Alfonso Sanfélix) dies later after they have crossed the border.  Balas takes the gold piece that Joe gave Gopher after he made him a partner.  Balas suggests that they flip for the coin, and Joe grabs the coin before it hits the ground and appropriates it as his coin.  Eventually, Cavalry Hat picks off Joe as he is about to gun down Rodelo.

This threadbare oater was lensed on location in rugged Spain.  Strangely enough, the pinch-penny producers filmed this outdoors yarn in black & white.  This Paramount Pictures release seems unusual because most westerns by that time were photographed in color, even those old timer oaters that producer A.C. Lyles made.  "Badman's Territory" scenarist Jack Natteford departs drastically from the source material in at least one crucial respect, and this change might upset hardcore, morally rigidly, L’Amour fans.  For example, Link is named Jake, and Balas is named Clint.  Nevertheless, this is nothing compared with the outcome of the action and the disposal of the gold.  The characters amount largely to stereotypes as they did in the novel.  Like most L'Amour heroes, Kid Rodelo knows his way around the desert like an expert, particularly the whereabouts of water holes.  Carlson and Natteford exploit Rodelo’s environmental familiarity, such as knowing about the flora and fauna to keep them alive.  The performances are okay, while Leigh appears as little more than window dressing.  She does do one important thing at the end. This gritty western tries to imitate the Spaghetti westerns, but Carlson imparts little color or charisma.  The villains are cutthroat dastards, willing to kill anybody to keep from sharing the loot.  The simple Johnny Douglas orchestral score represents an exercise in minimalism.  The finale on the shore of the Gulf of Baja differs from most westerns because you don’t often see the action end on a beach.  Altogether, as a film, “Kid Rodelo” doesn’t surpass the L’Amour novel despite the scenic splendor of the Spanish landscape and the obvious amoral Spaghetti western influence on the ending.  The chief difference between the novel and the film is Rodelo planned to return the gold to the authorities to clear his name for his supposed part in the robbery.  In the novel, he was arrested because he was caught riding with Joe, but Rodelo didn’t know anything about the robbery. The film concludes with Rodelo and Nora bathing in the surf then walking off as permanent partners.