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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JACKIE (2016)

December 10, 2016

jackie Greetings again from the darkness. There will be two distinct groups that erroneously presume this is a traditional biopic of the glamorous former first lady: those who wave it off as Lifetime Channel fare, and those who excitedly walk in thinking they are going to be swept away in the pink Chanel suit from that fateful day in November 1963. Instead, the first English language feature from director Pablo Larrain (No, 2012) offers up a what-might-have-been look behind the scenes and takes a stab at the psychological make-up of the often underestimated and complex woman known even today as simply Jackie.

The opening scene provides the first of countless close-ups of Natalie Portman as Jackie. Different than the usual movie close-ups, these are somehow closer – more intimate and more intrusive. The shots make us uncomfortable, as if we are intruding on her personal space. This is by design, as the film takes us to a surreal place where we see Jackie the person, rather than Jackie the icon. The framing device used is an interview she granted to Life Magazine reporter Thomas H White (Billy Crudup billed only as “the journalist”) at the Kennedy compound in Hyannis Port, merely a week after the assassination.

To grasp the concept here from director Larrain and writer Noah Oppenheim (in a big stretch from The Maze Runner), it’s imperative to understand that, at the time, Jackie was the personification of a nation’s grief and the ultimate example of dignity and grace (yes, Seinfeld fans, she had grace). We quickly witness the power and control she wielded. “Don’t think for a second I’m going to allow you to publish that” … she states after exposing her most vulnerable and personal thoughts. Later, she puffs on a cigarette and tells the reporter, “I don’t smoke”. It’s in these moments that we begin to realize the point – Jackie was a master at generating the “proper” public perception from even the harshest personal realities (many of which the film politely ignores).

Much of the film deals with her dogged pursuit of creating a lasting legacy for her husband. The idea of Camelot was meant to provide hope and idealism to the public who so wanted to idolize and romanticize the first couple. The symmetry with Lincoln – the portrait, the bedroom and the meticulously planned elaborate funeral procession – were meant to establish heft and substance for an all-too-brief administration that even had brother Robert (Peter Sarsgaard) lamenting how little was accomplished. These were the calculated strategies of a woman who was much more than the charming and slightly nervous host who took America on a televised tour of The White House on CBS in 1962.

The film utilizes flashbacks to the Lincoln Continental with the Texas Schoolbook Depository in the background, as well as detailed recreations of The White House, Parkland Hospital, Air Force One, St. Matthew’s Cathedral, and of course, the pink Chanel dress. That said, this is certainly not a movie designed to solve the case or disprove one of the conspiracy theories … it remains steadfast as a close-up of Jackie.

Others in supporting roles include a nearly unrecognizable (and minus her usual ticks) Greta Gerwig as Nancy Tuckerman (Jackie’s social secretary and friend), John Carroll Lynch and Beth Grant as LBJ and Lady Bird, Max Casella as Jack Valenti, stunning lookalike Caspar Phillipson as JFK, and a remarkable John Hurt as the Priest helping Jackie through her spiritual crisis. But of course this is Natalie Portman’s movie. She captures the breathy vocals and the contrasting strong directness when dealing with Bobby and Lyndon. Her movements mirror those from the actual footage of the White House tour … it’s really a performance to behold.

Many original images, videos, and clips are blended/spliced into the re-enactments to add a touch of sentimentality and prove how close to reality the film holds. One thing to brace for is the most unique score you’ll likely hear in a film this year. Mica Levi’s unusual sound brilliantly complements the many moods of Jackie, and even manages to remain strong around Richard Burton’s rousing rendition of “Camelot”. Ms. Portman’s performance and the behind-the-curtain approach work well in reminding us that these were real people … not just Kennedys.

watch the trailer:

 

 


THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (2016)

September 25, 2016

mag-7 Greetings again from the darkness. In this era of endless remakes, sequels and superheroes, I strive to keep an open mind when it comes to mainstream movies. All I ask is that the classics be left alone. Most will agree that there is no need for a new version of The Godfather, Citizen Kane or Gone with the Wind; however, disputes arise in the gray areas. An old guy like me may cringe at the thought of updating this western, though it’s easy enough to understand how Hollywood studio types view it as an opportunity to sell tickets to a younger audience. In art vs. commerce, making money usually prevails.

The 1960 original, directed by John Sturges was itself a remake/reimagining of one of the greatest films ever made: Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954). Both are must-see’s for any movie lover. Given the technical advancements in filmmaking over the past 50-60 years, it only makes sense that director Antoine Fuqua (Southpaw, Training Day) would go bigger, faster, louder. What he can’t do is match the cool factor of Steve McQueen, Yul Brenner, James Coburn, Charles Bronson, or of course, Toshiro Mifune.

Mr. Fuqua does bring a more racially diverse cast with Denzel Washington taking the lead as Chisolm, the dignified man-on-a-couple-of-missions. Chris Pratt basically buckles a holster onto his Jurassic World character and becomes Faraday, the wise-cracking sharp-shooter, who is as likely to cheat in a card game as lay his life on the line for a good cause. The “seven” are rounded out with Ethan Hawke as war hero Goodnight Robicheaux, Vincent D’Onofrio as bear-sized man Jack Horne, Byung-hun Lee as knife specialist Billy Rocks, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo as Vasquez, and Martin Sensmeier as native-American outcast Red Harvest. You might think the only thing missing from this culturally diverse group is a woman, but Haley Bennett (and her distractingly terrible hair dye) plays a key role as a recently widowed town person intent on revenge against the heartless robber-baron Bogue, played by a sneering Peter Sarsgaard.

Co-writers Nic Pizzolatto (“True Detective”) and Richard Wenk (The Expendables 2) devote so much screen time to Denzel and Pratt that we never much get a feel for what makes the other characters tick. What’s not missing is the thundering hooves of galloping horses, steely-eyed glares, and gunfire … lots and lots of gunfire. This is where today’s sound technology really adds a welcome element – the cocking of a rifle, the leather of the holster, and of course, the near-deafening chorus from the Gatling gun all benefit from Sony 4k sound.

Fuqua’s stylistic approach may have more in common with Silverado (1985) than the 1960 Sturges film, but it’s important to note that this was legendary composer James Horner’s final score before he passed away. While we hear Horner’s unique take, we can’t miss the influence of the iconic original score by Elmer Bernstein. So while Pratt’s “So far, so good” joke may be a Steve McQueen re-tread, your appreciation of this latest probably correlates to your appreciation of the 1960 version.

watch the trailer:

 


BLACK MASS (2015)

September 19, 2015

black mass Greetings again from the darkness. Movie goers tend to fall into one of two groups when it comes to Johnny Depp – big fans or denigrators. Whichever side of the line you fall, there are few actors who can claim such a diverse career of on screen characters ranging from Edward Scissorhands to Gilbert Grape; from Donnie Brasco to Captain Jack Sparrow; from Willy Wonka to Sweeney Todd; and from John Dillinger to Tonto. Depp now turns his talents towards one of the most unsympathetic real life characters imaginable … South Boston’s infamous crime lord James “Whitey” Bulger.

Director Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart, Out of the Furnace) proves yet again that he is an actor’s director, rather than a visual technician or story addict. In this adaptation of the book from “Boston Globe” reporters Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill, Cooper has Depp and Joel Edgerton as his two leads, and an incredibly deep supporting cast that provide the look and feel for this period piece dramatizing the crime and corruption during Bulger’s reign.

When one thinks of the memorable kingpins of crime/gangster movies, those that come to mind include Michael Corleone (The Godfather movies), Tony Montana (Scarface), Jimmy Conway (Goodfellas), and Frank Costello (The Departed). The Costello character was supposedly partially inspired by Bulger. What made each of these characters fascinating to watch was the insight we were given into the psychological make-up of each and the inner-workings of their organization.  And that’s the disappointment of Cooper’s film.

For the Whitey Bulger story, there are two distinct directions to explore: the building of Bulger’s criminal empire, or the motivation of the FBI Agent John Connolly (Edgerton) as he juggled his job and relationship with Bulger. Unfortunately, the approach here is to show a hand full of cold-blooded murders to prove Bulger’s management style, and a few FBI meetings that show the obvious uncertainty within the agency. Rather than a muddled mash-up, a more interesting movie would have chosen a path and dug in deeply.

Despite the story issues, it is fun to watch how Depp and Edgerton tackle their roles. Under heavy make-up (wrinkles, receding hairline, hillbilly teeth, and crazy contact lenses), Depp becomes the intimidating force of Whitey Bulger. Just as impressive is Edgerton as Agent Connolly, as we witness the Southie neighborhood boys all grown up, but still playing cops and robbers … and it remains difficult to tell who the good guys from the bad. Edgerton’s cockiness and strutting capture the ego and ambition necessary for a federal agent to bend so many rules. In fact, despite the vastly different approaches, it’s not entirely clear which of these two fellows possesses the greatest ambition.

Benedict Cumberbatch plays Billy Bulger, Whitey’s younger brother who became a State Senator. We get very few scenes featuring the brothers, and in fact, Cumberbath’s best scenes are instead shared with Edgerton. It’s difficult not to chuckle at their first meeting in a restaurant as we watch a Brit and Aussie talk it out with south Boston accents. Kevin Bacon, David Harbour and Adam Scott play Edgerton’s fellow FBI agents, while Jesse Plemons, Rory Cochrane (especially good) and W Earl Brown make terrific Bulger crew members. Peter Sarsgaard leaves quite the impression as a doped-up associate, while Julianne Nicholson, Dakota Johnson and Juno Temple provide the film’s minimal female presence. Corey Stoll storms onto the screen as a Federal Prosecutor who is not amused by the relationship between Connolly and Bulger, but this movie belongs to Depp and Edgerton.

The concern is that any viewer not already familiar with the Whitey Bulger story may find the story not overly interesting, despite the terrific performances. Fortunately, this viewer was mesmerized by last year’s exceptional documentary entitled Whitey: United States of America v James J Bulger … a must see for anyone who wants full details into the Bulger reign of crime and terror, as well as his 20 years on the lam.

watch the trailer:

 


PAWN SACRIFICE (2015)

September 17, 2015

pawn sacrifice Greetings again from the darkness. Being such a fan of the expert documentary film Bobby Fischer Against the World (2011), I found it a bit challenging to clear my head and accept a dramatized approach to the story. This was after all, one of the most fascinating reluctant public figure during one of the most energizing signature events of the Cold War between Russia and the United States … it was even described as World War III on a chess board.

Director Edward Zwick (Glory, Blood Diamond) and writer Steven Knight (Locke, “Peaky Blinders”) wisely focus the story on the infamous World Chess Championship match in 1972 between American Bobby Fischer and Russian Boris Spassky. This was 8 years prior to the “Miracle on Ice” when the USA Olympic hockey team upset the powerhouse Russian hockey team, but this chess match caused every bit as much media frenzy and national pride as that day in Lake Placid. This international attention is as important to the story as the psychological state of Bobby Fischer and his genius-level chess skill. And it’s the media and citizenry reactions that provide the contemporary comparison to what we see too often these days thanks to social media … icons are born, chewed up, and forgotten.

Tobey Maguire plays Fischer, and despite lacking the height and physical presence of the real chess champion, he expertly conveys the paranoia, fear, and arrogance that burdened the man and created even more suspense for those of us keeping a watchful eye at the time. Liev Schreiber (“Ray Donovan”) plays Boris Spassky, and even speaks his lines in Russian. Schreiber captures the iciness for which the Russians were known, but also interjects subtle personality and insight in a story where his adversary is constantly over-the-top. Chess strategy isn’t so much the story here, as are these two men from different worlds forced together on a stage in Iceland – with the full attention of the world.

Supporting work is varied, but exceptionally strong. Robin Weigert plays Bobby’s mother, and we get glimpses of why he later suffered from Mommy issues – in no small part to her intimate gatherings of Communist friends. Lily Rabe is touching as Bobby’s sister and possibly the only person who ever had his best interest at heart. However, the real intrigue comes in the form of Peter Sarsgaard as Father Bill Lombardy, and Michael Stuhlbarg as Paul Marshall. Lombardy was Fischer’s coach and confidant, and seemed to be the only one who grasped the severity of Bobby’s mental state. Marshall, a well known attorney in the Music industry, is a shady fellow who seems connected to the government, and is really the driving force behind getting Fischer to play Spassky. More background and the motivation for these two gentlemen would have been welcome and filled a gap. The soundtrack of the era compliments the tone and is used smartly throughout.

The story of the tortured genius always makes entertaining fodder – think Van Gogh, Mozart, and John Nash. Bobby Fischer certainly fits that description, but his story is frustrating because we just don’t understand the mental issues that caused him to evolve from teenage chess prodigy to World Champion to literal anti-social outcast spewing hateful words (watch the end credit film clips). This film is a worthy primer for the man and the times, and a reminder that we are always searching for the next hero … the next person to hoist up on the pedestal, only to be replaced soon after with another, and then another. Perhaps the film says as much as about us as a people, as it does about Bobby Fischer as a person.

watch the trailer:

 


DIFF 2015 – Day 3

April 13, 2015

 

DALLAS INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL

Day 3 – Sunday April 12

Below is a recap of films I watched on Day 3:

 

CARTEL LAND (2015, doc)

cartel land Greetings again from the darkness. Even in this digital age where information exists from all sides of a conflict … often with corresponding video, the general public somehow remains complacent to issues that don’t directly and obviously affect their lifestyle. Skilled documentarian Matthew Heineman ignores the rhetoric of political speeches and plops the war against drug cartels right into our lap.

This is a different approach to a topic with which we are all at least somewhat familiar. The involved parties include the affected communities (in Mexico and Arizona), the governments and affiliated agencies (DEA, Border Patrol), the ever-expanding vigilante groups of citizens (Arizona Border Recon, AutoDefensas), and of course the cartels (focus on Knights Templar).

Intimacy is the key here, as Mr. Heineman takes us inside these groups with an up-close look at leaders. Especially fascinating is Dr. Mireles who is the face of the AutoDefensas – a group he pledges will protect communities from the cartels, who clearly have no regard for human life. The film doesn’t shy away from the expected issues: citizen pushback, greed, abuse of power, and corruption. As AutoDefensas teams with the Mexican government to create the Rural Defense Force, we can’t help but wonder if the rumors of differing goals are at play in the drug battles. Citizens want safety, but what is it that the government wants? Is the goal drug-free streets or is it a cut of the action.

Learning how desperate the vigilantes are to protect their homes, turf and way of life, we are left with little doubt of their mission. It’s everyone else that we must keep questioning and holding accountable. This is not an easy documentary to watch, but it’s necessary if you have previously lost interest as the next politician proclaims he will continue “the war on drugs”.

ASCO (2015)

Greetings again from the darkness. A broken heart is one of most powerful triggers of human emotion. Clarity of thought is often lacking during this period, and mental images explode as a rational reaction is rarely able to break through the swirling alternatives.

Brazilian writer/director Alexandre Paschoalini presents the story of broken-hearted Ela (Sol Faganello) in expressionistic hyper-kinetic Black and White mode. After Ele (Guto Nogueira) crushes his emotions and attempt at connection, he begins a psychotic mission with the goal of causing her to feel the same pain that her actions brought to him.

Many of Ela’s actions are outside the boundaries of the law, but he will not be deterred. Ele’s shock of white hair adds a visual that perfectly contrasts with Ela’s dark and brooding features and moods. White hat vs Black hat – only no one told the white hat that she was in a demented duel.

With almost no dialogue, the story is told through both stark and outlandish visuals, and is often accompanied by music that harkens to 1960’s era rock music. A masked woman and a faceless man ensure that we understand just how removed from rational thought that Ela has become. It’s quite a build up with a startling climax that features a terrific last line … explaining all.

LADYGREY (2015)

Greetings again from the darkness. Alain Choquart has had a long and successful career as a top cinematographer, and though this is his first feature film as director, his eye with a camera is obvious in just how beautifully this film is shot.

Filmed and set in post-apartheid South Africa, this little village has an undercurrent of secrecy and misery. We realize that some tragic event has engulfed the citizens with a bleak perspective, and each day seems pretty much as dark as the last. Slow-witted Mattis (Jeremie Renier) brings tremendous energy and spirit to an otherwise downbeat environment. Sadly Mattis fluctuates between ecstasy, frustration and outright anger … each shift seemingly occurring over the smallest detail.

The synergy between characters played by Liam Cunningham, Emily Mortimer, Peter Sarsgaard and Sibongile Mlambo is so uncomfortable that we never know what form the next round of broken trust will take. These are not happy people and none of the relationships even border on healthy.

The beautiful Green River plays a vital role in the story, both as a carrier of secrets and a vision of hope, and the torrential rain storms tend to bring about the next infusion of misery. The excellent cast does their best to overcome a lacking script, but mostly the film is more enjoyable to look at than actually watch.

 

 


GREEN LANTERN

June 18, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. I have admitted many times that I am a sucker for Super Hero movies. There is just something really cool about an average guy falling bassackwards into super-human strength and being able to fly. With that said, I readily admit some Super Hero movies are better than others. While this one has some entertaining moments, it certainly isn’t one of the better entries in this genre.

It is difficult to know if a viewer is better off as a Green Lantern expert or novice for this adaptation. I can see both sides. The film beats us over the head with explanations, lectures and details but falls way short of the desired action sequences.

 Basic storyline has test pilot Hal Jordan (Ryan Reynolds) chosen by “the ring” to become part of the Green Lantern Corps … an intergalactic peace-keeping patrol. Yes, he would be the first human Lantern and no, he is not readily accepted by the leader Sinestro (Mark Strong). By the way, who would choose a guy named SINESTRO to be the leader of your army of good guys?

There are roughly a half million sub-stories that get a blip and then are cast aside. That’s the film’s biggest problem, next to the shortage of action sequences.  I was surprised at the lack of imagination shown for Green Lantern‘s constructs.  They were a bit cartoonish and reminded of what we saw in 1988’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit?.  On the positive side, Parallax, the evil mass that threatens earth and Oa, looks like a tentacled tumbleweed with a scary face. 

 Some stellar supporting actors here (in addition to Mark Strong) include Tim Robbins, Peter Sarsgaard, Angela Bassett, Michael Clarke Duncan and Geoffrey Rush. Duncan and Rush are voice only, but definitely have an impact. Blake Lively plays Carol Ferris, the co-pilot and would-be girlfriend of Jordan. She is also involved with her Daddy’s defense contracting firm and just doesn’t work as a high-powered exec.

 The film is directed by Martin Campbell who also gave us the near awesome re-awakening of James Bond in Casino Royale (2006). He seems to have a feel for action, but gets to use very little of that talent in this film. It really seems to me that the writing was too scattered and just generally weak for a movie of this size. I kept thinking we were going to get some real mind games between Sarsgaard’s Elephant Man with psychic abilities and Reynold’s perfect body Lantern. Instead, we get just another tease and a disappointing action sequence to end the film.  I would say Marvel has a pretty clear lead over DC Comics on film … except, of course, for Christopher Nolan‘s Batman series.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: Green is your favorite color OR you have any doubt that Ryan Reynolds has the physique of a super hero.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you never cared to see what would happen if The Elephant Man turned evil OR the recent exposure of Blake Lively has shown you enough