Uncompromising, vivid art

Sicario was released September 18, and is Villeneuve's seventh full-length feature.

Sicario was released September 18, and is Villeneuve's seventh full-length feature.

There’s a point in Sicario, the latest film by director Denis Villeneuve, where Benicio Del Toro’s character Alejandro says, “Nothing will make sense to your American ears, and you will doubt everything that we do, but in the end you will understand.” Sicario presents understanding, truly knowing something, not as a revelatory moment, but a gradual resignation to bitter reality. As a film, it is a jarring experience, yet nonetheless a must-see.

Emily Blunt plays FBI agent Kate Macer, a careerist specializing in busting drug-cartel safe houses. After a terrifying shootout in an Arizona suburb, Macer is recruited by the affable Matt (Josh Brolin) to take the fight to those “really responsible.” Soon, she’s thrust into jingoistic work alongside the military, Mexico’s federal police, and Alejandro, a former lawyer now working on the darkest fringes of the war on drugs.

The cast is superb. Blunt and Brolin are like two sides of the same coin: Blunt is the judicious, by-the-books cop, while Brolin’s role echoes his tongue-in-cheek portrayal of George Bush in Oliver Stone’s W. (2008), all the time scratching a darker surface. Del Toro, meanwhile, is right at home as the silent, mysterious loner, stealing most of the scenes that Brolin doesn’t run off with. The standout, however, is Daniel Kaluuya as Reggie, Macer’s diligent partner. Kaluuya brings much-needed humanity to this film, serving as Macer’s conscience and taking others to task for their shady actions. In the film’s brief moments of levity, Kaluuya is charming and genuinely funny, a welcome change of pace.

And that’s needed in something this bleak. The revelations and truths are few and far between, and any sense of accomplishment is conditional. In many ways, Sicario is a modern Apocalypse Now, only Kurtz is nowhere in sight; there are no easy answers, no clear targets, and what little there is gives no relief to those caught between warring factions.

Simultaneously, there is beauty in this harrowing vision. Villeneuve teams here with cinematographer Roger Deakins to paint a stunning and vivid portrait of Arizona and Mexico. The film is elegantly shot. There is an attention to detail, a sense of scale, and a clear focus uncommon in modern cinema. Deakins, best known for his work with the Coen Brothers and Sam Mendes, brings cohesiveness to every image in this film; paired with Villeneuve’s eye, each frame becomes an understated portrait. There are stunning shots of Mexican landscape, but instead of long vistas, these are bird’s-eye views, adding to the observational focus of the film. The audience is almost a voyeur, peeling back the veneer of American jingoism to see the harsh truths beneath.

The script, however, does not quite stand up to the themes, images, and performances on display. This isn’t to say it’s bad; far from it, the good is excellent. The occasional line stumbles or falls flat, though the intent is always clear. Del Toro gets the worst of this. As Alejandro, his role as mysterious loner warrants a number of memorable lines. The problem is that it’s difficult to take him seriously when he’s spouting off vaguely mystical metaphors (“You’re asking me how a watch works; right now, just keep an eye on the time”). Similarly, Brolin’s swaggering act is able to sell most of his dialogue with ease, and one gets the sense that he’s ad-libbing a fair amount of it – a good decision, on his part, as when he’s required to reveal Alejandro’s mysterious past, it ends up sounding like the origin story of a comic-book villain.

Some might also take issue with the film’s conclusion. While the final shots are thought-provoking, the plot does not so much resolve as end abruptly. On the one hand, it is thematically suitable – with all that has been sacrificed, has anything truly been accomplished? – but on the other, what happens to the characters whose lives have been profoundly altered by what they’ve seen? For better or for worse, Villeneuve seems content to leave the audience with such questions.

In the end, Sicario remains a stark and uncompromising piece of art, showcasing a beautiful world populated with horrifying people. Sicario is not for the faint of heart, and deals with particularly heavy subjects, but is worth watching. Visually, it has immense respect for the audience, and is easily one of the most memorable films of the year. It might not be a comfortable experience, but it is a must-watch for any discerning cinephile.


BEN FILIPKOWSKI

Ben Filipkowski lives and breathes film, books, history, music, and TV, so it makes sense that he's an aspiring novelist. When he's not watching Seven Samurai for the seventeenth time (with commentary), he can be found rewriting the latest draft of his novel, or out exploring another side of Ottawa.

 

 

Kurosawa and Geometry

I can't un-see things.

Do you see it? Kurosawa uses clear staging and clean composition to build shapes within his shots. Wada, the character at the top of the frame, serves as a point for two triangular layouts in this shot. From The Bad Sleep Well (1960), Dir. Akira Kurosawa.

Do you see it? Kurosawa uses clear staging and clean composition to build shapes within his shots. Wada, the character at the top of the frame, serves as a point for two triangular layouts in this shot. From The Bad Sleep Well (1960), Dir. Akira Kurosawa.

This is the problem I have with my self-imposed education in film. I learn about a new technique, a new approach, something woven into the film itself that, once seen, cannot be forgotten. For example: I keep seeing shapes in Akira Kurosawa's movies.

Nowhere is this more evident than in The Bad Sleep Well, the director's 1960 film about corporate corruption and revenge. Immediately, my eye was drawn to triangles made by the blocking of the actors, their eyelines, and how they move in a frame.

Granted, I was aware of Kurosawa’s use of shapes before, but I wasn’t aware of how extensive he made use of this idea. The Bad Sleep Well opens with a wedding reception where just about everything goes wrong. The press show up, as this is a notable wedding – Nishi, played by Toshiro Mifune (big surprise there), is marrying the daughter of Iwabuchi (who also happens to be his boss), a land developer whose company is embroiled in scandal and accusations of corruption.

Nishi, on the left, and Wada, on the right, create another triangular shape with their eyelines, and the viewer's own eye is drawn to the shrine in the distance. From The Bad Sleep Well (1960) Dir. Akira Kurosawa.

Nishi, on the left, and Wada, on the right, create another triangular shape with their eyelines, and the viewer's own eye is drawn to the shrine in the distance. From The Bad Sleep Well (1960) Dir. Akira Kurosawa.

Right away, two police inspectors arrive ahead of the wedding party, followed immediately by a gang of reporters. People are taken for questioning, and as the camera moves about the reception, we continue to see triangles formed by the bodies in the room. Eyes and eyelines, too, become massively important, forming the invisible connections between characters, creating yet more shapes.

It makes for remarkable viewing. Mifune is incredibly subdued as a diligent and stoic secretarial worker, but it’s his clear glances and pointed looks that tell the story. It isn’t until a third of the movie is done that he starts to speak and we realize his role.

Explaining this is a challenge. Seeing is believing, after all, and it’s difficult to convey just how much Kurosawa adds to each scene by focusing on simple compositional tricks like these. There’s a beautiful scene (check it out below, with added commentary by Every Frame a Painting's Tony Zhou) where Mifune's eyes alone create a sense of tension.

The dramatic irony this builds works brilliantly – it’s a search for a mole, and though we know Mifune is the man the others are desperate to find, they’re sorting through the chaos of it all, and he just misses being caught red-handed.

Perhaps more so than the other Kurosawa films I’ve seen, The Bad Sleep Well has truly cemented his reputation for strong form and composition.

But now I can’t stop seeing triangles everywhere. 


ben filipkowski

Ben Filipkowski lives and breathes film, books, history, music, and TV, so it makes sense that he's an aspiring novelist. When he's not watching Seven Samurai for the seventeenth time (with commentary), he can be found rewriting the latest draft of his novel, or out exploring another side of Ottawa.

 

Kurosawa and Sequels

There’s a belief in cinema that sequels can never live up to the original film. That’s not actually wrong, but it’s an incomplete statement: sequels can never live up to the original film, so why try to make the same thing twice?

The poster for Sanjuro doesn't quite emphasize the humour and sly playfulness within in the film.

The poster for Sanjuro doesn't quite emphasize the humour and sly playfulness within in the film.

Kurosawa followed up on Yojimbo’s success a year later in 1962 with Sanjuro, a movie built around Toshiro Mifune’s character from the first film. The gallows humour from Yojimbo is swapped for lighter comedy, and the action is less frequent, and yet it’s a more engaging film for it.

It can’t be overstated just how popular the first film was in Japan, especially Mifune’s character Sanjuro. The man is electrifying in the role, so much so that it’s easy to forget he’s got nine sidekicks in this film. Maybe two of them are named – it really doesn’t matter, though, as they function quite like the Greek chorus, commenting on the action at hand. The nine sidekicks are naïve samurai trying to do the right thing by weeding out corruption – only every other player in the game is five moves ahead of them.

Enter Sanjuro, who has softened a bit since we last saw him ruthlessly slaughter a gang to liberate a town.

It’s an odd couple sort of thing, the gruff ronin leading the naïve samurai, and it works. There’s comedy here, and genuine pathos, and a true arc for the characters. The writing is top-notch, especially in how Kurosawa so expertly sets the stage for each major confrontation and the inevitable climax.

More than that, there is genuine beauty to his photography. Yojimbo was a grim picture, stark and all too real. By comparison, Sanjuro is set across a series of Samurai mansions, with manicured gardens and pristine streams and creeks. The scenery is stunning, but the way Kurosawa manipulates it visually draws the viewer in and pulls them deeper into the world.

This, I think, is a hint of the elegance so readily apparent in his later work. It’s graceful, especially in comparison to the frenetic nature of Yojimbo. In so many ways, it stands together, yet apart from its predecessor, and is a stronger film on its own as a result.

A good sequel has to be more than a follow-up. Kurosawa accomplished just that with Sanjuro. It’s clearly a similar film from the same director, a familiar character – but it’s not the same.

After all, why try to make the same thing twice? 


ben filipkowski

Ben Filipkowski lives and breathes film, books, history, music, and TV, so it makes sense that he's an aspiring novelist. When he's not watching Seven Samurai for the seventeenth time (with commentary), he can be found rewriting the latest draft of his novel, or out exploring another side of Ottawa. 

Kurosawa and Cowboys

A man wanders into a town divided by two warring gangs. Getting the lay of the land, he picks a fight with one faction, killing two men and mortally wounding another. Wandering back to the inn he’s staying at, the man off-handedly tells the cooper, “Two coffins…no, maybe three.”

This is basically Yojimbo, but without the swords and made of plastic. 

This is basically Yojimbo, but without the swords and made of plastic. 

Wait. Haven’t I seen this before?

I have – sort of. This scene is from Akira Kurosawa’s 1961 action flick Yojimbo. Italian director Sergio Leone swiped this exact scene – and indeed the whole narrative – from Kurosawa, repurposing it as A Fistful of Dollars in 1964, a spaghetti western.

Yojimbo might not have the flash of Dollars, but it’s a much stronger film. The shots are cleaner, the motion visible, the cutting and staging clear and prominent. It’s so much more cohesive, and so much more fun.

Toshiro Mifune stars as the titular yojimbo, or bodyguard. He’s a wandering swordsman named Sanjuro, selling his services at the highest price he can get. Sanjuro is also tough as nails, with gallows humour to match.

“I’m not dying yet. I have quite a few men to kill first,” he growls at one point. After the final showdown, where both gangs lie dead and bloody in the street, Sanjuro surveys the aftermath.  “Now we’ll have some peace and quiet in this town,” he deadpans. The dialogue is brilliant, to say the least.

Considering Yojimbo came out in 1961, it holds up remarkably well. It’s entertaining, and Kurosawa’s sense of space and movement really ties everything together. No matter how chaotic a fight is, you never lose that sense of space and location. There's a sense of purpose to it all. When people talk about Kurosawa’s eye, I think this is what they’re getting at.

It’s really a shame that Leone’s western overshadows this film. As great as Dollars is, it plods along, rife with false symbolism. It lacks the energy Yojimbo has, the grim and playful humour, and never improves upon its predecessor.

Kurosawa has a wicked eye for detail and story, though. I love that I can watch Yojimbo and understand everything based on body language and the blocking of the actors. It comes back to that sense of movement, and Kurosawa’s precision with it. He weaves the story into the DNA of the film.

I think that’s what’s missing from cinema these days. The focus is either on narrative content or visual showboating. No one seems to realize you can mix the two together.

Here’s hoping that changes.


Ben Filipkowski

Ben Filipkowski lives and breathes film, books, history, music, and TV, so it makes sense that he's an aspiring novelist. When he's not watching Seven Samurai for the seventeenth time (with commentary), he can be found rewriting the latest draft of his novel, or out exploring another side of Ottawa. 

Kurosawa and Obsession

I have a confession to make: I am obsessed with film.

I have what can only be described as prodigious recall when it comes to movie trivia. I’m extremely good at naming actors, directors, or films, generally when someone starts a conversation with the words, “What’s that movie with that guy?” I find it immensely satisfying to know stuff about movies. I cannot explain it.

It all began around a decade ago.

Sometimes you just need a good sword fight.

Sometimes you just need a good sword fight.

I was a movie-obsessed teenager who picked up a British film magazine during a cross-country flight. I wanted to read the story about the new Batman movie. I wound up reading every word on every page in that magazine, gleaning a lot from articles ranking “the best” directors.

It dawned on me – I didn’t know who these people were.

A resolution was made. I would teach myself all I could about “classic” cinema, and would watch all the “important” movies I could. That summer, I spent hours in my room watching Coppola, Spielberg, Welles, Wilder, and Lean. I learned everything I could. I was obsessed.

There was one name that kept popping up, though: Kurosawa.

I had no idea where to begin with Akira Kurosawa. I knew he influenced George Lucas, and the first Star Wars was essentially a loose retelling of Kurosawa’s Hidden Fortress, but that didn’t mean much when I had no idea who the guy was or what he was all about.

Thankfully, I had a solution.

Zip.ca, long forgotten with the advent of Netflix, would ship DVDs to your front door every month, for a nominal fee. When you were done with one, you slipped it in an envelope, and sent it back – and soon another would arrive to take its place.

I didn’t know where to start with Kurosawa, but everyone seemed to like Seven Samurai, so I started there. It helped that samurai were pretty cool.

I sat down with popcorn, soda, and hit play. It looked beautiful. But what was going on? Who were all these characters? Why were there only six? Where was Toshiro Mifune, the only Japanese actor I could name? I had no frame of reference, no idea of what this movie meant – but it lit a fire in me.

I’m still feeding that fire. I’ve seen Seven Samurai and his other period epics, but there’s so much more to see. Let’s get started.


BEN FILIPKOWSKI

Ben Filipkowski lives and breathes film, books, history, music, and TV, so it makes sense that he's an aspiring novelist. When he's not watching Seven Samurai for the seventeenth time (with commentary), he can be found rewriting the latest draft of his novel, or out exploring another side of Ottawa.