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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MA MA (Spain, 2016)

May 7, 2016

Dallas International Film Festival 2016

ma ma Greetings again from the darkness. It’s usually easy to bash the movies that go heavy on sentimentality. It’s possible that even Steve Goodman would agree that this latest from writer/director Julio Medem (Sex and Lucia, 2000) could be the outline for a perfect country song: Mama’s husband leaves her for a younger woman/student; Mama loses her teaching job; Mama gets breast cancer; Mama’s new friend experiences a life tragedy; Mama and her new friend fall in love; Mama gets more bad news; Mama gets some good and unexpected news; things don’t end well for Mama. Mix in a train, a truck and prison, and there would be no argument.

Penelope Cruz produces and stars as Magda, the titular Ma Ma whose singing gynecologist breaks the news that her breast cancer will require chemotherapy followed by a mastectomy. What follows could be called a whirlwind of tragedies involving Magda, her son Dani (Teo Plannel) and the soccer scout Arturo (Luis Tosar) and the aforementioned doctor (Asier Etxeandia).

The fine performance of Penelope Cruz keeps the film moving through the first two acts, and she is just so darn likable that we find ourselves really pulling for her. The strength and spirit of this woman has a positive influence on all who come in contact with her. She has an odd impact on the doctor who is clearly attracted to her, and they share a most awkward and unnecessary running dialogue about a young Siberian girl that he and his wife are considering adopting.

The third act quite simply pushes the film over-the-top, as it goes beyond sentimentality and into pure Lifetime channel mush. The film is probably a bit too slick and stylized, given the real struggles of battling cancer; however, the point of female strength is not lost … though the “save the nipple” and “the soul doesn’t die” discussions deliver a few eye rolls.

watch the trailer:

 

 


ZOOLANDER 2 (2016)

February 12, 2016

zoolander2 Greetings again from the darkness. Here comes yet another write up where I am out of step with the majority of film critics. While most are heaping hatred on it for idiocy and self-obsession, my response is … isn’t that the point of a sequel to Zoolander, itself a tribute to idiocy and self-obsession? Maybe the difference stems from my not being a big fan of the 2001 original. Granted, the sub-plot of child labor from the original was (and remains) a real world issue, while this one is fuzzy-focused on a plot to kill the beautiful people in hopes of finding the fountain of youth … less real world tragedy and more like holding a mirror up to society’s insecurities.

The fashion industry was skewered in the original, but couldn’t wait to embrace this sequel. In the 15 years since that first Zoolander, a symbiotic relationship has formed between TV – Movies – Music – Fashion. The lines are blurred now that actors have become models and models are acting. TV shows are built around fashion and fashion shows boost music. And all of these elements are tied into the explosion of social media outlets. The greatest impact yet is probably the fact that most every person has a camera (phone) attached to them at all times and in every environment … we have a citizenry of selfie-taking models.

What can’t be denied is that the sequel is a smorgasbord of celebrity cameos (some might call it overkill). There are times the cameos pop up so fast that it’s challenging to keep up. Spotting the celebs, following the sight gags and catching the one-liners … that’s the tripod on which writer/director/star Ben Stiller has built his Zoolander second home. Though it’s not as quotable as the original, the production value is much improved. Never is this more evident than the slick looking opening chase scene that sets the stage for national narcissism being attacked for the next 90 minutes.

Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson return as male models Derek Zoolander and Hansel, though when we first see them, they have been in years-long hiding … Derek claiming to live as a “hermit crab”. The film begins by catching us up on why they are in hiding (it’s related to Derek’s Center for Kids Who Can’t Read Good), and what’s up with others like Mugatu (Will Ferrell), Derek’s wife Matilda (Christine Taylor), and Billy Zane (Billy Zane). The gag is that Derek and Hansel are now “old and lame” … literally out of fashion in fashion.

As with most comedies, it’s best to avoid the trailer and any details or punchlines before walking into the theatre. You need only know that the old favorite characters are still here and an army of new ones (including Penelope Cruz and Kristen Wiig) arrive – some for a few scenes, others for only a few seconds. Satire is still the name of the game and the biggest fashion icons are front and center: Marc Jacobs, Tommy Hilfiger, Valentino, Anna Wintour and “both Wangs”. A big assist goes to Kiefer Sutherland who joins in the fun of poking fun at his own image. There’s even a jab at celebrity political endorsements with the line “She’s hot. I trust her.”

Justin Theroux is back as Stiller’s co-writer and also plays a role in the sub-plot involving Derek’s son, and the script proudly plays homage to the original (as it should) while still moving into contemporary themes (as it should). So “Relax” (nod to Frankie) and take in the fun. It’s the type of fun akin to riding a roller coaster … fun while it lasts, and over when it’s over. To paraphrase Derek, it’s a ‘really really ridiculously’ good time.

No trailer posted (it’s for your own good!)

 

 


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 ROME WITH LOVE (2012)

July 22, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. I certainly consider myself a fan of Woody Allen‘s films and am in awe of his prolific ability to write and direct a new movie most every year since 1969. With so many films to his credit, it’s expected that a few will be clunkers. After a pretty nice run of non-New York based films, his love letter to Rome falls short … not from lack of ambition, but rather from a feeling that these stories have been on his “to do” list for too many years. They feel mostly stale and dated.

With one of the world’s most beautiful and interesting cities as a backdrop, Mr. Allen delivers four stories – none of which intersect with the others. There are some similar shared themes, but mostly what the four stories have in common is mass overacting by all involved. Surprisingly, the one exception might be Alec Baldwin, whose wise-cracking lines are played pretty close to the vest. Unfortunately, all of the other key actors seem to think they are onstage at a dinner theatre and that hyper-activity and bellowing one’s lines are required.

In one story, Woody Allen (his first acting gig since Scoop) and Judy Davis head to Rome to meet their daughter’s (Alison Pill) fiancé (Flavio Parenti). Allen overhears the mortician father singing in the shower and works out a scheme to get him an audition that could lead to a career. The father is played by famed Opera tenor Fabio Armiliato and this story is so goofy, it could easily fit into Allen’s “early funny ones”.

Another story has newlyweds played by Alessandro Tiberi and Alessandro Mastronardi in a series of innocent happenstance that leads to some not so innocent events that include her favorite actor (Antonio Albanes) and high-priced call girl (Penelope Cruz). Most of this has the feel of a Benny Hill skit.

Jesse Eisenberg and his girlfriend Greta Gerwig share time with her visiting friend played by Ellen Page. This is the Alec Baldwin sequence, and he is a near-ghost-like entity who pops in to provide obvious advice or warning to the players so they don’t make the same mistakes he made as a younger man. This sequence had potential, but never amounted to much.

The fourth story is just an absurd commentary on reality TV and instant fame. Roberto Begnini plays a normal Italian citizen and family man who one day gets thrust into the world of celebrity for no apparent reason. See, that’s the joke. Probably ten years past the time when this was relevant.

Bashing Woody Allen is not my intent here. Simply pointing out that there are four stories and numerous actors and none of it struck a chord with me. Not to say there weren’t a few well written lines and a couple of terrific shots of Rome … just not enough to keep me going for two hours.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you need your annual Woody Allen fix, even if it’s not up to the level of last year’s Midnight in Paris OR you just want to see Penelope Cruz in a red dress that’s probably two sizes too small for her.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: catching a few glimpses of the amazing sites in Rome is not enough reason for you to sit through some of Woody Allen’s worst written dialogue in years.

watch the trailer:


PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: ON STRANGER TIDES

May 21, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. I will make no apology for being a fan of the “Pirates” series. This is the fourth film and the best since the first. Though I liked them enough, I felt the second and third depended too much on special effects and the need to overwhelm, whereas this one concentrates more on the colorful characters. This latest entry is also directed by Rob Marshall (Chicago) rather than Gore Verbinski, who directed the first three.

 Of course, what really matters is that Johnny Depp is back as Captain Jack Sparrow. And in fine form, I might add. He comes across more clever, witty and less buffoonish  than in the previous two. His character is much better as a worthy adversary than a clown prince. In this one, he alternates between matching wits and swords with no less than three characters. First, Geoffrey Rush is back as Barbossa. Only this time, he seems to have gone legit with the King’s navy. Next we have Sparrow’s long-lost love from Seville played by Penelope Cruz. They also match wits and swords (and facial hair). Lastly, we have the legendary pirate Blackbeard, played with full force by Ian McShane. Were it not a Disney movie, McShane could have made his Blackbeard one of the most frightening characters ever seen on screen. Even with the limitations, he performs exceedingly well.

 The “plot” of the film involves the search for Ponce de Leon’s ship and the much desired Fountain of Youth. The race is on between Sparrow, Blackbeard, the Spainiards and Barbossa who is acting on behalf of King George (a wonderful Richard Griffiths). As always, it’s not always easy to tell which characters are partners and which are adversaries. That’s half the fun! An interesting twist is that in order to have the desired results from the infamous fountain, one must drink from a specific chalice and include a single mermaid tear. Of course, everlasting youth shouldn’t be too easy to achieve. The mermaid sequences are fascinating, though we really only get to know one of them – Syrena played with soulful eyes by Astrid Berges-Frisbey.

Thankfully, two long time characters are absent from this film – Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley. Both were dead-weight that caused major drag in the two most recent Pirates films. Cruz and McShane are infinitely more interesting and entertaining and play off of Captain Jack much better.  I did enjoy seeing Keith Richards reprise his role as Sparrow’s father.  Their scene together produces the best line in the film.

 Speaking of Depp’s Jack Sparrow, I would make the argument that this character has entered the rarefied air of film comedy icon. I would put him at or near the level of the all-time best recurring comic characters: Inspector Clouseau (Peter Sellers, NOT Steve Martin), Austin Powers (Mike Myers) and the Little Tramp (Charlie Chaplin). Of course, there are loads of others that have made a name for themselves but are a step below: Ernest (Jim Varney), Fletch (Chevy Chase), Wayne and Garth (Wayne’s World), Riggs and Murtaugh (Lethal Weapon), etc. I could go on and on, but you get the idea.

As I have stated many times, comedy is such a personal taste that it’s always difficult to review. What sets the Pirate’s films apart (especially one and four) are the characters combined with action and witty banter. No, it’s not for everyone, but if you like this style, it’s difficult to beat.  YO-HO, YO-HO …

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you have been hoping this franchise would go back to featuring Depp’s Sparrow OR you somehow missed the first three but are in the mood for a rollicking good time

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you didn’t like the first one OR seeing Keith Richards causes nightmares


BROKEN EMBRACES (2009)

January 3, 2010

 (12-26-09) Greetings again from the darkness. I have no qualms in admitting that I worship Pedro Almodovar as a filmmaker. His films have made me laugh (Volver), think (Talk to Her) and have yanked me out of my comfort zone (Bad Education). With Broken Embraces, the maestro has so many nuances and details brewing below his always stunning surface that I found myself really working to assemble the pieces as the film went along.

His fabulous muse, Penelope Cruz, is back and in full splendor. Pedro has always had a talent for exciting and fully developed female characters and here, both Ms. Cruz and Blanca Portillo are absolutely fascinating. The male lead is Mateo, a film director played by Lluis Homar (Bad Education). I won’t try to simplify the multi-faceted relationship and story lines other than to say this is a touch noir, with revenge, jealousy, obsession and of course, love – both full display and unrequited.

Sadly, many Americans will skip this one because of subtitles, but I hope it finds an audience on DVD. From a visual perspective, the color red abounds here … passion or blood? That’s the big question. There are many wonderful scenes that feature beautiful shots from Pedro, as well as some of the best dialogue he has ever written. From a film-making perspective, this one deserves multiple viewings – and will get it from me!