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.

watch the trailer:

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mother! (2017)

September 14, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Him. Mother. Man. Woman. When those are the identifiers of the four main characters (none have a real name), one might assume that the filmmaker is lazy. However, after watching the latest from the psycho-creative force known as Darren Aronofsky, we understand that names weren’t necessary, and even if they had been, he was probably too mentally exhausted from finding ways to torture those characters and confound the viewers.

The first half of the film is discomforting and creepy while the second half is downright crazed and deranged. You won’t find many story details in this review, as the fun is in the shock. Most of the film is through the eyes of Jennifer Lawrence, and we share her confusion and disoriented state. She is married to a famous poet played by Javier Bardem (yes, the age difference is acknowledged). While she spends her days refurbishing their stunning country home, he battles severe writer’s block. Needless to say, their domestic bliss goes wrong … but it’s not the kind of wrong we’ve ever seen before.

Aronofsky and cinematographer Matthew Libatique (both Oscar nominees) confine us in excruciatingly tight shots resulting in further disorientation and claustrophobia through most of the film. By the time we get a single wide shot of the home’s exterior, we’ve just about given up hope. And once Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer show up, we kick into full ROSEMARY’S BABY mode … only more frenetic and hyper.

It should be noted that it’s not a traditional horror film – heck, it’s hardly a traditional film at all. It’s built on confusion, and metaphors abound. Aronofsky seems intent on causing endless post-viewing discussions and debate over what it “means”. A case can be made for commentary on ego, fame, Mother Nature, deity/religion, and a sign of the times – the entitled “takers” of the world. The most obvious explanation is that the price paid for creativity is quite dear, and often causes a release from reality. There is a vicious cycle occurring here and our realization happens after the crescendo of insanity that is the film’s peak.

WTF moments are too many to count, and Ms. Lawrence pulls off what has to be the roughest on screen pregnancy we’ve seen. It’s a real treat to see Michelle Pfeiffer back in form after being out of the spotlight for four years. The score from Johan Johannsson is remarkable and there are ground-breaking visual effects (easy to miss during the audacious, frenzied second half action). Aronofsky is clearly provoking us, though it’s abundantly unclear to what end. His previous twisted, mind-benders include REQUIEM FOR A DREAM and BLACK SWAN … both of which seem like mainstream family fare in comparison. This is a love it or hate it project, and most will likely fall into the latter. But for those who embrace the deranged and audacious, the love will be everlasting.

watch the trailer:

 


THE GUNMAN (2015)

March 20, 2015

gunman Greetings again from the darkness. Sean Penn becomes the latest addition to the AARP action hero club … a very crowded club these days. Unfortunately for Mr. Penn, he lacks the smirky charm of Bruce Wills, the uber-cool of Denzel Washington, and he fails to generate the empathy of Liam Neeson. He simply doesn’t come across as a very likable guy, and certainly not someone we can root for.

Based on the novel of Jean-Patrick Manchette, the movie starts out in the Democratic Republic of Congo where Penn is a mercenary disguised as part of a mining security detail. The first 20 minutes are convoluted and introduce numerous characters and sub-plots that leave us wondering if there are any good guys here … other than Penn’s idealistic doctor girlfriend played by Jasmine Trinca. A sure sign of a weak script is a film that is bookended by “newscasts” to explain both what is going to happen as well as what just happened.

Pierre Morel directed the first Taken movie, and his cast is stellar: Sean Penn, Javier Bardem, Idris Elba, Ray Winstone, and Mark Rylance. Somehow that combination delivers a hokey, over-acted, cheesy dialogue mess featuring absurd shoot-outs and action sequences that try to convince us Penn is some kind of quasi-superhero. His transformation from geopolitical hit-man to humanitarian is tough to buy, and it’s downright chuckle-inducing to see the times he manages to show off his sculpted torso. We can only assume his personal trainer received a bonus for each shirtless scene.

The story bounces from Africa to London to Barcelona to Gibraltar and back to Barcelona. It does include the best use of a live bull so far this year, though the actual bullfighting is somehow one of the least gruesome segments of the entire film. The film isn’t as sneaky as it thinks it is in making a statement about multinational corporations raiding Third World resources. Evidently, the message is that former assassins can be forgiven if they are re-born as committed to humanitarian causes, but capitalistic companies cannot possibly justify their work in impoverished areas.

All of the above could be shrugged off if so many wasted opportunities didn’t consistently frustrate. Penn has scenes with all of the other actors mentioned above, but there is almost no interaction between the others. Why no confrontations between Idris and Javier? How about one sequence with Penn, Javier and Winstone squaring off? So many fun actors, but so little cross-over. Frustration may be the best overall description for this one, and it encompasses everything from script to dialogue to camera work.

watch the trailer:

 


THE COUNSELOR (2013)

October 27, 2013

counselor Greetings again from the darkness. The best dramatic writers thrive on creating a story filled with intricacies, multi-faceted characters, mis-direction, and a complex interweaving of sub-plots. Cormac McCarthy has proved he is one of the best such writers through his highly successful novels … some of which have made the transition to the screen: All the Pretty Horses, The Road, and of course, No Country for Old Men. This, however, is his first attempt at an original screenplay. Describing it as a disappointment is a severe understatement.

The cool parts of this movie: Bruno Ganz as a diamond dealer in Amsterdam and the two live cheetahs.

counselor2 The parts of the film that could have been interesting: the wardrobes of all main characters, Javier Bardem’s Brian Grazer-inspired hairdo, the line-up of luxury vehicles (Bentley, Ferrari, etc), and the “bolito”.

The parts of this movie that were never going to work: the opening scene with Michael Fassbender and Penelope Cruz frolicking under the sheets, dialogue that is too poetic for the characters, Brad Pitt as his grown up scammer from Thelma and Louise, Fassbender’s Texas accent, and Cameron Diaz (gold tooth, silver fingernails, cheetah tats).

counselor4 The part of this movie that is an outright disgrace: Cameron Diaz doing the splits while having intimate relations with the windshield of Bardem’s Ferrari … maybe this idea came from Joe Eszterhas after being rejected as too outlandish for Showgirls.

Chances are viewers will fall into two camps: thinking this is a wild and crazy ride inside the Mexican drug cartel, OR believing this is one of 2013’s sloppiest, messiest, most pointless and confusing wastes of time in a movie theater. I am solidly in group two and can’t even recommend you see this to determine where you fall.

The cast is filled with A-listers: Javier Bardem, Brad Pitt, Michael Fassbender, Penelope Cruz, and Cameron Diaz. The writer is a renowned novelist. The director is three time Oscar nominee Ridley Scott. How could it miss? Even the best actors can counselor3sometimes be miscast. Even the best writers have work best left unpublished. Even the best directors lose control of a project. It’s a movie tragedy when all those things happen in a single film.

I guess the best running joke throughout the movie is that Fassbender’s titular character is constantly receiving counseling, rather than offering it. At its core, the story is just another drug deal gone bad (do any movie drug deals ever go “right”?). With it’s unusual visuals, unrealistic conversations, and convoluted sub-plots, this one would have played better as a slideshow. Instead, I am left with this: I’ll never look at a smudge on my windshield the same again.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: your cable system doesn’t offer the National Geographic channel and you want to see two cool cheetahs

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: just the thought of Cameron Diaz humping a windshield stimulates only nightmares for you

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zrAXTxNrsi8


TO THE WONDER (2013)

May 3, 2013

to the wonder1 Greetings again from the darkness. Director Terrence Malick makes films that typically fall into the “love it or hate it” genre. He has a very loyal group of fans (of which I am one) who appreciate the unique mental and emotional ride that his projects provide. To say that his films are not accessible to mainstream movie-goers is understandable. His objective is to challenge you to access your own beliefs and thoughts, rather connect with the characters in his movies … they are simply the tools he uses.

Less than two years ago, I was struggling to put thoughts into words after watching Malick’s The Tree of Life. Now, in record time for him, he releases another film that is even more impressionistic … actually abstract is not too strong a description. It could fairly be called a companion piece to The Tree of Life. The usual to the wonder2Malick elements are present – nature, uncomfortable relationships, minimal dialogue, breathtaking photography, and powerful music. Where The Tree of Life focused on Creation and Family, To The Wonder takes on Love and Faith.

Water imagery is a frequent key as we see the personal relationship mimic the changing of the seasons. Neil (Ben Affleck), an American visiting Paris, meets and falls for Marina (Olga Kurylenko), a free-spirited local filled with light and energy. Their love affair moves to the stunning Mont Saint-Michel before settling in the drab plains of Bartlesville, Oklahoma.

to the wonder4 It’s not surprising that the relationship suffers as the newness wears thin. The interesting part is how Malick presents it. We mostly witness bits and pieces … he shows us moments, not events. We easily see that Neil’s aloofness and sullen moods don’t jibe with Marina’s effervescence. When she returns to Paris, Neil easily falls in with an old flame played by Rachel McAdams. When she later accuses him of making what they had “nothing”, we all understand what she means … and why.

While Neil is proving what a lost soul he is, we also meet Father Quintana (Javier Bardem). He has lost the light of his faith and is in full crisis mode, even as he attempts to console and guide Marina. There is no secret that much of this film is autobiographical and that Malick is working through wounds he still carries these many years later. As a movie-goer, there is little to be gained from Alleck’s disconnected character or from Kurylenko dancing in the to the wonder3rain. The real prize is awakening the thoughts and feelings many of us probably buried over the years to hide emotional pain. Malick seems to be saying that it’s OK to acknowledge your foundation, regardless of your ability to deal with these feelings in a socially acceptable manner.

If you prefer not to dig so deep emotionally, this is a beautiful film to look at – thanks to Director of Photograpy Emmanuel Lubezki (a frequent Malick collaborator), and listen to – a blended soundtrack with many notable pieces from various composers. While this will be remembered as Roger Ebert’s final movie review (he liked it very much), it will likely have very little appeal to the average movie watcher – and I’m confident that Terrence Malick is fine with that.

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rjVDnwGsAF4


SKYFALL (2012)

November 11, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. Celebrating 50 years on film for Ian Fleming‘s creation, we get the 23rd official James Bond movie. Many critics are hailing it as the best Bond film yet, though having seen all in the series, it is difficult to understand a proper form of comparison. The Sean Connery run varies significantly from the Roger Moore period, and though Pierce Brosnan brought a touch of seriousness back to the role, it wasn’t until Daniel Craig that the character and series took on an ultra-intense structure. Clear influences are seen in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, as well as the “Bourne” series.

This latest entry has some distinct advantages. Most importantly, Sam Mendes in the director’s chair brings a love and understanding of the Bond template, and the skills to deliver both top notch action sequences as well as realistic human drama. His background includes such fine films as American Beauty and Road To Perdition (also with Daniel Craig). Mendes brought on famed Director of Photography Roger Deakins (9 Oscar nominations) who delivers a look and feel superior to any previous Bond film. Also, the villain plays a key role in determining the strength of all Bond films. Here, Javier Bardem offers up a megalomaniac bent on revenge, and his unusual approach immediately vaults his Silva into one of the top 5 all time Bond villains.

 Of course, none of that matters without a strong Bond, and it is quite clear that Daniel Craig has made the role his own. This particular script from series vets Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and John Logan demands some real acting as Bond faces his mortality as well as his childhood roots. These issues combined with the physical demands of the action and the ability to toss in a few zingers, make Mr. Craig a nice fit for the tailored suits … and the classic Aston Martin.

It wouldn’t be Bond without the Bond “women”, and while there isn’t much familiarity of Berenice Marlohe, her Severine is interesting enough to capture our attention … even with Komodo Dragons hovering nearby. We also get Naomie Harris as Field Agent Eve, and the argument can be made that she is weakest link in the film. Surprisingly, the Bond woman central to this story  is M, played once again by the great Judi Dench. Much of the story revolves around her and there is quite a bit of ageism involved. Experience does matter … unless you are speaking of the new Q, played with fascinating geekery by Ben Whishaw (Cloud Atlas).  The museum scene with Q and Bond is one for the ages.

The usual global jet-setting is on full display with Istanbul, London, Macau, Shanghai and the Scottish Highlands. The traditional opening action sequence finds Bond racing across Turkish rooftops on a motorcycle, while wearing a beautifully tailored suit. These are the same rooftops on display in Taken 2, but it’s much more fun here. Then, as if motorcycles on the roof and through the Grand Bazaar of Turkey aren’t enough, we find Bond fighting atop a fast moving train … well, until M makes a business decision that quickly changes the arc of the story. By the way, the guy Bond is chasing on rooftops and fighting on the train is played by Ola Rapace, husband of Noomi from the original Girl with the Dragon Tattoo trilogy (Daniel Craig starred in the English remake).

 When Bond finally meets Silva (Bardem), it is on the deserted Hashima Island. We quickly learn that Silva is no ordinary criminal and definitely not one to just sit and chat. His quest for revenge adds a personal touch. His personality and demeanor and background add elements previously missing from Bond films. It’s no surprise that the film’s best sequence involves Bond and Silva together and the tradition of the villain explaining what’s ruffled his feathers.

The climax of the film occurs on the hardscape of Scotland and forces Bond to come to terms with his past. There are also plenty of parental issues thanks to M and the caretaker played by Albert Finney. The personal forces at work in the script are more developed than in other Bond films, but we definitely don’t get cheated on explosions, gun play and hand-to-hand combat.

As always, music plays a vital role. Adele sings the opening title track and it plays over an unusual opening credits graphical sequence – somewhat bleaker than we are accustomed to, but no less dramatic. Also, Thomas Newman’s score is excellent and incorporates Monty Norman’s iconic Bond theme (though not often enough for my tastes).

This latest Bond film is a fine bounce back after the disappointing Quantum of Solace, and it may be the best made of all films. The idea of cyber-terrorism is very timely and a reminder that not all bad guys are trying to take over the world. Some just need revenge. Determining if it is the “best” Bond ever will be your call.

Just for old times’ sake:

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you want to judge for yourself if it’s the best Bond ever OR you want to see a blonde Javier Bardem as a creep, frightening villain.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you have never bought into the James Bond mystique OR you can’t take a blonde Bond and a blonde Bond villain

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6kw1UVovByw


BIUTIFUL

January 30, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. If anyone tells you this film is a bit of a downer, never trust them again. It may be the bleakest, most dismal film I have ever seen (and that’s saying a lot!). A bit of downer does not do it justice. Still, I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen. Javier Bardem is captivating and truly encompasses the character of Uxbal – a father of two, who has a connection to the dead, and is headed there himself (quickly).

Already I am sure many are turned off by the subject matter and the fact that it’s not an inspirational, feel-good movie. I would make the point that despite the despair, it does show the journey of a man seeking redemption and trying, with everything he has, to do right by his kids.

Director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu is a master filmmaker as evidenced by his work in 21 Grams and Babel. He gives us a real feel for the grungy and claustrophobic world that these people inhabit. We absolutely feel their pain and resolve and desperation and panic. We feel it for the entire 2 and a half hours running time.  I should also mention that the film has what may be the most unusual score/soundtrack of any film in recent memory.  There is no real continuity, it’s as if music was written for individual scenes, rather than for the entire film.  Very effective, but very non-traditional.

 If you can take the filmed depression, the pay off is watching Bardem work. I have often recommended his fascinating work in The Sea Inside, but as much as it pains me to agree with Julia Roberts, his performance here is somehow better. It’s no wonder why he felt the need to escape with Eat Pray Love after filming this one. It should be noted that Bardem is the first ever Lead Actor nominee for a full Spanish speaking role.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you want to see a masterful performance by Javier Bardem OR you thought 21 Grams and Babel were just a bit too funny and light-hearted.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you couldn’t care less about acting proficiency and just want your movies to be feel good and uplifting