THE INFILTRATOR (2016)

July 13, 2016

infiltrator Greetings again from the darkness. The war on drugs has become a bit of a punchline in the real world, but has proven to be fertile ground for filmmaking: Sicario (2015), American Hustle (2013), Traffic (2000). Additionally, the popular Netflix show “Narcos” takes on the same Medellin drug cartel as this latest from director Brad Furman (The Lincoln Lawyer, 2011). The movie is based on the true events of Robert Mazur’s book “The Infiltrator: My Secret Life Inside the Dirty Banks Behind Pablo Escobar’s Medellin Cartel” (a title that’s very descriptive, if a bit long).

Bryan Cranston continues his impressive Hollywood run this time as Robert Mazur, the man who goes undercover to expose the money-laundering system of the cartel. His flamboyant alter-ego is known as Bob Musella, a character that allows Mazur (and Cranston) to show a side not typically seen. His antics get him inside Columbian Drug Lord Escobar’s organization in the mid-1980’s.

When Mazur realizes the traditional method of chasing the drugs isn’t working, he decides the age-old idiom “follow the money” might be a better approach. This takes him inside the world of international money laundering, and he learns that banks and governments are quite dependent on this huge business of drug money movement.

There are specific groups of people here: the government agencies, the small task force, the corrupt (and appreciative) bankers, the various levels within the cartel, and even Mazur’s family … all these forces intertwine to make life difficult for Mazur and his team, and provide a glimpse into the complexities of undercover work.

In addition to stellar work from Cranston, the cast is terrific. John Leguizamo plays Mazur’s motivated partner Abreu; Diane Kruger plays his undercover fiancé; Juliet Aubrey is Mazur’s real life wife who doesn’t much appreciate his declining the early retirement offer; Olympia Dukakis provides a dash of comedy relief as Mazur’s Aunt; Yul Vasquez is the creepy money manager for Escobar; Benjamin Bratt plays Roberto, Escobar’s right-hand man and the key to Mazur’s case; and Elena Anaya (The Skin I Live In, 2011) is Roberto’s wife. Also present are Amy Ryan, Jason Isaacs and the always great Michael Pare.

There are a couple of standout scenes – one involving chicken and voodoo, and another with a briefcase mishap, but my favorite is the Happy Anniversary cake scene in the restaurant where Mazur flashes his alter-ego Musella for his real wife to see … and she is understandably stunned.

The movie does a nice job of capturing the look and feel of the era (30 years ago), but it’s somehow missing the elevated suspense it portends to drag us and the characters through. Some elements seemed impossible to believe – why would Mazur risk his family’s safety? The timeline was a bit muddled. We aren’t sure how much time has passed, but there certainly don’t seem to be enough interactions before Roberto is telling Mazur he is “like family”. It plays a bit like those romance movies where the two leads are head over heels in love after a conversation or two. An element is missing and it affects the level of tension throughout the film. And that’s something even a Leonard Cohen song (“Everybody Knows”) can’t fix.

watch the trailer:

 

Advertisements

CYMBELINE (2015)

March 9, 2015

cymbeline Greetings again from the darkness. The writings of Shakespeare are certainly timeless and it’s often quite fun to watch filmmakers or stage directors bring The Bard’s stories into a contemporary setting. A fine example is director Joss Whedon’s modern and quite enjoyable twist on Much Ado About Nothing a couple of years ago. Director Michael Almereyda had success with his modern day Hamlet in 2000, and here he re-teams with his Danish Prince from that one (Ethan Hawke) to bring one of Shakespeare’s lesser known “problem plays” to screen.

This modernization turns King Cymbeline into a Biker gang leader (Ed Harris) as he battles not the Romans, but rather a corrupt police force led by Vondre Curtis-Hall. As one would expect there is no shortage of deceit, violence and love of the “wrong” person. There are numerous sub-plots intertwined with the desire of the King and his Queen (Milla Jovovich) to marry her daughter (Dakota Johnson, 50 Shades of Gray) to his son (Anton Yelchin). Before your stomach turns, it should be pointed out that both kids are from previous marriages. It’s not surprising to discover that the daughter is really in love with someone of whom the Royal parents don’t approve – a brooding skateboarder (Penn Badgley).

The assembled cast is quite impressive. In addition to those previously mentioned, we also have Peter Gerety, Bill Pullman, Delroy Lindo (always great), John Leguizamo, Spencer Treat Clark (the kid from Gladiator) and Kevin Corrigan. The issue here is not the acting talent, but rather that some seem more comfortable with Shakespeare speak than others. Hawke, Yelchin and even Ms. Johnson seem to embrace the dialogue, while Leguizamo, Harris (in his shiny new leather jacket) and especially Badgley are fish out of water. And for some reason, Ms. Jovovich is mostly wasted despite adding much appreciated spirit to a couple of scenes.

Describing this as Shakespeare’s “lost masterpiece” is quite a stretch, but there is always some pleasure in hearing his words spoken. It’s just a shame when the project lacks energy and is lethargic in pacing … two elements that prevent us from ever connecting with any character. Still, any film that features a sky blue AMC Pacer can’t be all bad.

watch the trailer:

 

 


CHEF (2014)

June 16, 2014

chef Greetings again from the darkness. Sometimes it’s nice to to just sit back and enjoy a pretty simple and familiar story with (mostly) likable people and an uplifting message. Don’t worry, I’m not going soft on movies … it’s just that I found this little movie made me laugh and smile, and despite the formulaic approach (it plays like a sports movie) it made me care what happened to the characters (even though there was never any real doubt).

Jon Favreau plays Carl Casper, the chef at a swanky L.A. restaurant owned by Dustin Hoffman. When a powerful food critic (Oliver Platt) is headed their way, chef and owner butt heads like the true artist and bean-counter they are. The Chef wants to wow the critic with a unique meal, while the owner wants to stick to what’s been filling seats for a decade. Guess who wins? Once the Chef’s public berating of the critic goes viral on social media, the soul-searching begins. Our hero soon learns that all phases of life – including parenting and cooking – work out much better when passion and full attention are in place. The film is a not so subtle reminder to all of us that our attitude determines our altitude (thanks to Zig Ziglar).

This is a remarkable cast, many of which appear on screen for only a short time. The Chef’s lead assistants are comprised of Bobby Cannavale and John Leguizamo. The maitre’d is Scarlett Johansson. Chef’s ex-wife is played by Sophia Vergara, and her other ex-husband is Robert Downey Jr in a hilariously mind-muddling scene. Amy Sedaris has a funny scene as the fast-talking publicist and comedian Russell Peters plays a photo-happy Miami Beach cop. Even Emjay Anthony, as the young son Percy, has some nice moments.

Mr. Favreau has had a remarkably varied film career as a writer, director, producer and actor. He wears all of those hats here. It’s clearly a personal project for him and he wears it well, though a bit of script tightening could have elevated the film a notch. You might remember him from writing and starring in (with Vince Vaughn) Swingers in 1996, and of course, he more recently directed colossal blockbusters Iron Man and Iron Man II. It’s been quite a career, and it’s nice to see him take on the smaller, more personal projects again.

The best “foodie” movies I can recall are Mostly Martha (2001), Eat Drink Man Woman (1994) and the animated classic Ratatouille (2007). This latest culinary comedy from Favreau definitely holds it’s own, and gives us an exceptional soundtrack and road trip from Miami to New Orleans to Austin and back to LA. My only wish was that the language had been toned down for a PG-13 rating so that more families could enjoy it together.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF:  a low-budget, star-studded, charming, funny road trip foodie movie with father-son bonding is just what you need in the midst of blockbuster summer season.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF:  a fluffy comedy utilizing the gimmickry of superstars in brief roles is too lightweight for your movie tastes.

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


THE LINCOLN LAWYER

March 20, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. Major dilemma: sucker for courtroom dramas vs. no fan of Matthew McConaughey. I decided to give it a shot, and given my low expectations, found the movie to be quite entertaining – despite its numerous flaws. If you are a fan of the endless stream of John Grisham book-turned-movie, then I expect you will find this one to your taste.

Based on the Michael Connelly series of novels built around Mick Haller, this one has the look and feel of part one (and also of a TV series). Haller is the Lincoln Lawyer, so named because of his propensity to handle much of his work from the backseat of a classic Lincoln Town Car. The choice of McConaughey as Haller seemed all together wrong given his annual appearance in some lame ass Rom-Com, where he spends most of each movie shirtless and smirking. Luckily for us, Mr. McConaughey manages to re-capture some of the acting skills he flashed in A Time to Kill, so many years ago.

 In addition to his close to the vest portrayal of Haller, the movie works because of an incredibly deep cast that includes Marisa Tomei as his ex-wife and frequent courtroom adversary (she is an ADA), Ryan Phillippe as the accused rich boy, William H Macy as the long-time and streetwise private investigator, Josh Lucas as the ADA in the main case, Bryan Cranston as the detective in charge, plus Michael Pena, Bob Gunton (warden from Shawshank Redemption), John Leguizamo, Frances Fisher, Laurence Mason (Earl the driver), Shea Willingham (Boardwalk Empire), Trace Adkins (the country star as the leader of a biker gang) and Michael Pare (Eddie and the Cruisers). Seriously, this cast allows every scene to have something worth watching.

 The two things that prevent the movie from being top notch are the beyond-belief exaggerated moments (including about 3 too many endings) and the absolutely distracting camera work courtesy of director Brad Furman. In the hands of a more experienced director, many of the flaws could have been corrected.

This is not presented as an ultra serious courtroom drama in the vein of 12 Angry Men or Judgment at Nuremberg. Rather it is a character driven story with a multitude of twists … some of which work and some of which don’t. I found it to be  enjoyable despite the script issues and the hey-look-at-me direction.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you too are a sucker for courtroom dramas OR you doubt my claim that McConaughey can avoid going shirtless for 2 hours.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you demand perfection in your crime thriller scripts OR you believe the only reason to see a McConaughey movie is because he does go shirtless