Oscar Watch: Dark Waters

Director Todd Haynes has guided Julianne Moore and Cate Blanchett to previous acting nominations in Far From Heaven, I’m Not There, and Carol. His latest effort is the corporate legal thriller Dark Waters, based on a true story. Mark Ruffalo stars and produces, playing a lawyer taking on the DuPont conglomerate.

Somewhat surprisingly, Waters skipped the late summer and autumn festival circuit ahead of its November 22nd release and reviews are just trickling out. They’re decent and the Rotten Tomatoes score is currently 75%.

Critics have praised Ruffalo’s work. He is thrice nominated in the Supporting Actor race for 2010’s The Kids Are All Right, 2014’s Foxcatcher, and 2015’s Spotlight. He would stand the best chance at recognition for the first time in lead – over the film itself and costars including Anne Hathaway, Tim Robbins, and Bill Pullman. Yet, as has been discussed before on the blog, Best Actor is packed. I believe there’s eight thespians at the moment with legit shots at nods. Ruffalo isn’t in that mix.

Bottom line: chances for Dark Waters in the awards conversation are murky at best.

Big Game Movie Review

“Say cheese” is the final line of Jelmari Helander’s Big Game and it’s an appropriate one because this Finnish director knows he’s paying homage to 80s/90s style PG-13 adventure in a tongue and cheek way. The result is a fast paced experience that doesn’t always transcend the cliches of the kind of pics it admires, but has some fun moments along the way.

The concept is of the highest order. The President of the United States Bill Moore (Samuel L. Jackson) is aboard Air Force One flying over Finland (though it was filmed in Germany) when it’s shot down by terrorists. The POTUS gets out through an escape pod, landing in the wilderness. Lucky for him, young Oskari (Onni Tommila) is on a hunting trip in the barren land. He’s about to turn 13 and it’s tradition in his family to show their manhood by bagging a bear or deer… or in this case, corrupt Secret Service agents and Middle Eastern looking baddies. The two team up to outrun their hunters, led by Ray Stevenson’s head agent gone rogue (think James Woods in White House Down). We also see the confusion happening in Washington D.C. as the VP (Victor Garber), an expert CIA man (Jim Broadbent, having a good time), and others including Felicity Huffman and Ted Levine try to save their leader.

Somewhat surprisingly, Helander’s screenplay doesn’t turn President Moore into a secret ass kicker like this material frequently does (think ID4’s Bill Pullman or Air Force One’s Harrison Ford). He’s a bit of a weakling (his approval rating is apparently upside down as well) and young Oskari is also trying to live up to his father’s legendary huntsman status. Moore’s survival skills are questionable as is his teenage companion’s bow and arrow abilities. In a role where one might think Jackson would overact, he gives an often tender performance, when he’s not trying to work a machine gun.

Action sequences are certainly not of the huge budget order, but they’re passable enough. The villains are pretty dull and non descript. For a quick fix of playful and knowingly ridiculous entertainment, Big Game isn’t bad even if its concept can’t completely sustain itself through the Finnish line. What I came away thinking the most is that director Helander could be a natural choice to helm a throwback genre that’s been rebooted or is currently producing sequels. With his clear admiration of the time period, he might do something worthwhile with Jurassic dinos or Goonies.

**1/2 (out of four)

Sicario Movie Review

Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario gives us a trifecta of characters who firmly believe they are doing what is right when it comes to our country’s war on drugs. They are frequently diverging opinions yet this is a picture smart enough to let the audience decide who is right. It’s also a technical masterpiece with its direction and screenplay sometimes reaching close to that level.

Meaning “hitman” in Spanish, Sicario plucks FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) from her current stateside activities to teaming with shadowy government officials (CIA?) to combat the brutal Mexican drug cartels. She believes her work in our borders isn’t making much of a difference and the prospect of this new venture is enticing. Kate is soon introduced to the cocky Matt (Josh Brolin) and Alejandro (Benicio del Toro), who head up a squad that also consists of military operatives who’ve seen action in the Middle East. The team is tasked with obtaining results and Kate and her partner Reggie (Daniel Kaluuya) soon learn just how far they’ll go to get them. Kate serves as the film’s moral compass in many ways, but Matt and Alejandro’s reasonings are not without merit. As they see it, nothing they do can possibly compare to the vicious acts of those they hunt and the end justifies the means.

As Sicario unfolds, we are witness to some brutal violence that is quick, realistic, and not at all glamorized. Viewers who have watched Villeneuve’s previous effort, 2013’s Prisoners, should know what they’re in for. With much credit to cinematographer Roger Deakins, this includes some startling set pieces including a showdown at the US/Mexican border that is intensely breathtaking. Even a convoy ride through Juarez is hair raising. There’s another sequence in an underground tunnel that is a triumph of camera work and lighting.

Taylor Sheridan’s script is not overly concerned with character development and we don’t know much about its lead subjects. Blunt is able to fashion her determined and lonely agent into a fascinating individual. We may have some trouble at first accepting the notion that her character would be placed in the situation she’s in, but this material is solid enough that I quickly forgave that. del Toro elevates his role into something even more special. His mysterious character’s motivations are revealed slowly to the audience and the screenplay smartly develops him this way to maximum effect. He’s not a man who wastes words and you hang on the ones he expresses. In many ways, Brolin has the least to work with but his swagger along with occasionally needed humor provide a bit of levity.

We have seen Steven Soderbergh’s 2000 pic Traffic take a more expansive look at this subject (it also earned Mr. del Toro a Supporting Actor Oscar). Sicario is more limited in its approach, but that does not take away from its power. Villeneuve and company know this war on drugs is complex at best and not winnable at worst. The primary trio here are working their way through it. Some have their tunnel vision set while another is attempting to make sense of it all.

***1/2 (out of four)