LOVING PABLO (2018)

October 4, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. The first two seasons of the popular and critically acclaimed TV show “Narcos” focuses on the Medellin Cartel and its leader Pablo Escobar, and with multiple episodes, it was able to show immense detail in both the man and his business dealings (drug trafficking). In contrast, this feature length film from writer/director Fernando Leon de Aranoa takes more of a snapshot-in-time approach to Escobar’s rise to power and the reasons for his downfall.

Based on the memoir “Loving Pablo, Hating Pablo” by Columbian journalist and TV personality Virginia Vallejo, director de Aranoa spends quite a bit of time on the relationship between Escobar and Ms. Vallejo. The reason this works is due to the onscreen (and off) connection between lead actors Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz (a married couple in real life). We see the sparks and feel the sexual energy between them in their first meeting, and then later, both show off their acting talents as times get tough … she frightened for her life, he as defiant and cold-blooded as ever.

Javier Bardem flashes quite the pot belly for a man known as “Robin Hood” for building houses for the poor, and feared as “El Patron” (The Boss) for obvious reasons. Having grown up in poverty, it was drug trafficking which brought him such power and made him a billionaire. We see his interactions with his wife (Juliet Restrepo) and kids, as well as some glimpses of how he handled his staff and business dealings. Ruthless and intimidating are the two words that come to mind.

The film begins with a sequence from 1993, but soon flashes back to a 1981 party at Escobar’s immense compound … and yes, the zoo animals did roam on site. We are informed this is the real beginning of the Medellin Cartel, and by 1982 we learn they made it “snow cocaine in the U.S.”. Remarkably, Escobar was elected to the Chamber of Representatives of Columbia, and we watch him quote Nancy Reagan to his son (“Just say no”) as he explains cocaine to the young boy.

Ms. Cruz shines as Virginia Vallejo, who allows herself to get caught up in the power and money … foolishly thinking she can stay above the fray. Since the film is inspired by the true events recounted in Ms. Vallejo’s book, there are quite a few chilling moments – maybe none more dramatic than Escobar’s gift to her of a handgun and his corresponding monologue. The film covers New York City and then Panama, all while Peter Sarsgaard plays the DEA agent tracking Escobar’s movements.

We see 1991, when Escobar turns himself in and heads to jail – all so he can restructure his business within the confines of what might better be described as a resort … one which he presides over. After his escape from a military prison in 1992, an all-out war breaks out on the street, and we know the end is near.

Look, Pablo Escobar was a despicable man running a despicable business. He’s so mean, he even abuses a plate of spaghetti in one scene – that’s just the kind of guy he was. If you know the basics of his story, the film isn’t likely to teach you much. It’s really just a dramatization of one of the most infamous (and successful) drug traffickers we’ve seen, although the recreation of his death scene does a superb job in capturing the detail of the famous photograph. He’s not a guy we really care to learn about, however, since much of it is told through Virginia Vallejo’s eyes, we at least get somewhat of a human and personal perspective.

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A PERFECT DAY (2016)

January 14, 2016

a perfect day Greetings again from the darkness. “Somewhere in the Balkans, 1995” is the notice we receive in the opening frame, and the post Kosovo War setting is less about fighting a war and more about finding humanity in the aftermath. Based on the novel by Paula Farias and adapted by Diego Farias and director Fernando Leon de Aranoa, the film follows a group of Aid Across Borders workers as they make their way through the community, attempting to navigate the cultural and political challenges to offering assistance.

The corpse in a drinking water well is the immediate challenge facing the aid workers. Benecio Del Toro (Mambru), Tim Robbins (B), Melanie Thierry (Sophie) and their interpreter Fedja Stukan (Damir) are facing a short deadline in order to save the well from contamination for local villagers. Most of the movie revolves around their quest to find a rope so they can hoist the large corpse from the water. Searching for rope may seem a flimsy story center, but on their journey, we get to know these characters, some of the local cultural differences (in regards to dead bodies), the bureaucratic red tape faced, and the always present danger faced by do-gooders from the outside.

It’s understandable that a group in this situation would utilize humor to offset the ugliness, and there is no shortage of one-liners and wise-cracks, especially from B (Robbins). His cowboy approach is in distinct contrast to the veteran Mambru and the idealistic rookie Sophie. Soon enough they are joined by a local youngster named Nikola (Eldar Reisdovic) and an inspector Katya (Olga Kurylenko) sent to determine if the Aid program should continue. Oh yes, Katya and Mumbru are former lovers and it obviously didn’t end well.

As they work their way through the ropes challenge and the threat of land mines, we learn through the actions of Mumbru that no matter how much one wants to help, it’s only natural (and sometimes painful) to ask yourself if you are truly making a difference, or simply wasting time in a place filled with people who don’t seem to care. The specific use of multiple songs is at times distracting, and other times a perfect match (Lou Reed, The Buzzcocks). Del Toro proves yet again that he is a fascinating screen presence, and the message is strong enough to warrant a watch.

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