Sicario: Day of the Soldado


Hispanics with guns: Donald Trump’s nightmare.

(2018) Action (Columbia) Benicio del Toro, Josh Brolin, Isabela Moner, Jeffrey Donovan, Manuel Garcia-Ruffo, Catherine Keener, Matthew Modine, Shea Whigham, Elijah Rodriguez, Howard Ferguson Jr., David Castañeda, Jacqueline Torres, Raoul Trujillo, Bruno Bichir, Jake Picking, Tenzin Marco-Taylor, Alfredo Quinoz, Nick Shakoour, Lourdes del Rio Garcia. Directed by Stefano Sollima

 

Our Southern border has been a hot button item for those on the left and on the right. Blue staters tend to look at the issue as a humanitarian crisis born largely of our own policies in Latin America while red staters see it as an invasion of criminals, layabouts and terrorists.

Following the destruction of a Kansas City big box store by suicide bombers, the U.S. Government has had more than enough. They bring in “consultant” Matt Graver (Brolin) and his nearly indestructible assassin Alejandro (del Toro) to ferment war among the Mexican cartels who were responsible for smuggling the bombers across the border. To do that, Alejandro kidnaps the daughter (Moner) of a particularly vicious cartel boss. This predictably stirs up a hornet’s nest and while it gets the desired results, the conscience of Alejandro – whose family was wiped out by drug lords like the girl’s father – doesn’t go unscathed.

The movie sorely misses Denis Villaneuve who directed the first one; his sure hand could have made this a better film. Italian television director Sollima, best known for the ultra-violent Gomorrah series, does pretty well with the action series and keeps the pacing of the film up to snuff. He has more trouble with character development as other than the three characters mentioned above, nearly all the characters get lost in the shuffle, including a young Mexican-American boy in McAllen, Texas played by Rodriguez who falls into working for the cartels and ends up in a violent confrontation with Alejandro. A little more depth of character there might have given the film some oomph.

Del Toro and Brolin are both outstanding and are the real reason to see the film. I understand that this is meant to be the middle chapter in a proposed trilogy and although the box office numbers don’t really seem to point the way for a third installment, I nonetheless wouldn’t mind seeing one.

Emily Blunt, who starred in the first film, is also sorely missed and while the filmmakers assert her story had gone full circle, it still leaves the film without much of a moral center and I suppose that is merely appropriate. When one considers that in many ways this movie is making the case for the right’s take on the border, it’s hard to justify it in the face of children who continue to be separated from their parents at the border. But then, that’s just my own personal bias rearing its head. I guess it is fairer to say that Sicario: Day of the Soldado is a solid action film that has political elements that makes it very relevant to what’s going on at our border. If you leave the theater chanting “Build that wall” though, it’s on you.

REASONS TO SEE: Brolin and del Toro make an excellent team.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little less focused and a little more cliché than the first film.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a surfeit of violence and profanity as well as some fairly bloody images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Denis Villaneuve, who directed Sicario, was unable to commit to the sequel due to scheduling conflicts.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Starz, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/20/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 63% positive reviews: Metacritic: 61/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Miss Bala
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Tomorrow, Maybe?

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Cartel Land


Dominion over all he surveys.

Dominion over all he surveys.

(2015) Documentary (The Orchard) Jose Manuel Mireles, Tim “Nailer” Foley, Paco Valencia, Nicolas “El Gordo” Santana, Estanislao Beltran, Janet Fields, Ana Delia Valencia, Maria Imilse. Directed by Matthew Heineman

Florida Film Festival 2015

It is no secret that the drug wars on the Colombian cartels have led to the rise of the equally vicious Mexican cartels. They have become so arrogant and so untouchable in their own country that they have brought their violence and presence into ours. There are those on both sides of the border who would put a stop to them.

In Arizona, former Iraq War veteran Tim “Nailer” Foley leads a group of irregulars in nightly border patrols. Goaded into action when he lost his construction job during the economic collapse of 2008 and then watched as the same companies paid illegal aliens far less under the table for the work he had been doing, Foley’s mission was initially to assist the Border Patrol in rounding up illegals.

That changed when he began to witness firsthand the violence and incursions into U.S. territory of the Cartels. He speaks disparagingly of Mexican illegal aliens and one might guess that he is a racist in an area where that isn’t as uncommon as we might like. Nailer himself claims he’s not a racist, but there is a likelihood that there are those in his group that are; these sorts of vigilante groups tend to attract them. However, the more that his group is observed, they become less intolerant rednecks playing at toy soldier and more men who are frustrated by a situation that is spiraling out of control with the appearance that nothing is being done about it.

Nailer is plain-spoken and a bit rough around the edges but there’s no doubting his patriotism nor his resolve. He’s not out there shooting at anything brown-skinned that moves; he’s looking for scouts for the Cartels with the intention of holding them until the Border Patrol can arrive and arrest them. It is somewhat ingenious that Heineman sets up this segment for the audience to dislike Nailer and his group but eventually sympathize with them, and maybe even respect them the longer the film goes on.

On the other side of the border are the Autodefensas, a group of citizen vigilantes in the Michoacán state of Mexico where the Knights Templar cartel reigns supreme. Sick of their families, neighbors and friends being butchered with impunity as the corrupt police and political arms of the state do nothing to protect them, they form their own paramilitary group led by the charismatic doctor Jose Manuel Mireles. As he goes from town to town, garnering recruits and cleaning out elements of the cartel, he becomes something of a folk hero much like Pancho Villa.

Surrounded by a loyal inner circle, he seems poised to make a real difference in the life of his community but things go terribly, incredibly wrong. Mireles becomes something of a rock star and the fame begins to interfere with his ability to administrate his group. Soon they begin torturing suspected cartel members and when Mireles is shot and steps down to recuperate, it becomes clear that the agenda of the Autodefensas is not what it first appeared to be.

The movie is brilliantly edited, taking the audience places it doesn’t expect to go. It is also beautifully shot, with the desolation of the Altar Valley in Arizona contrasting with the poverty-stricken towns and villages of Michoacán. Likewise, the rough-hewn personality of Nailer contrasts mightily with the charismatic and flamboyant personality of Mireles, whose fall from grace is absolutely heartbreaking.

The movie begins with shots of masked cartel members cooking meth in the desert. One of them, surprisingly articulate, talks about how the recipe was learned from an American father and son, and that he is fully aware that the drugs going into the United States are doing damage there, but he shrugs off any sort of guilt. This is the way it is and he didn’t set things up that way; he’s just playing the cards he was dealt. Later on we return to that scene and the movie is tied together nicely as we learn the identity of the masked man.

The Michoacán portion of the movie with street battles, a more immediate sense of danger and maybe the most emotionally wrenching part of the movie, is far more effective on the surface than the Arizona segments which are less exciting, but the skillful way Heineman edits his film allows Arizona to have an equal amount of power, albeit much more subtle. However, the issue of racism in American border vigilante groups that I brought up earlier in the review really isn’t discussed in much more than an arbitrary fashion; I think the movie would have benefitted from a little more focus on the subject.

Nailer says early on that vigilantes are given a bad name by the press, but he’s not entirely accurate on that score. The fall of the Autodefensas shows why those who take the law into their own hands are liable to create their own laws – which subverts the good work they set out to do. The Arizona group, who changed from a group keeping illegal aliens out and unintentionally became crime fighters assisting the border patrol, show that the opposite can be true as well.

REASONS TO GO: About as intense as it gets. Changes direction unexpectedly. Michoacán segments far more effective than the ones shot in Arizona.
REASONS TO STAY: Way too long. Doesn’t really explore the issue of racism in the Arizona segment.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of adult language and themes and some disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Throughout the shoot, Heineman often acted as his own cinematographer and as a result came under fire several times.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/2/15: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cocaine Cowboys
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Tomorrowland

Due Date


Due Date

Apparently these guys got no further than "speak no evil."

(2010) Comedy (Warner Brothers) Robert Downey Jr., Zach Galifianakis, Michelle Monaghan, Jamie Foxx, Juliet Lewis, RZA, Danny McBride, Matt Walsh, Brody Stevens, Marco Rodriguez, Paul Renteria, Mimi Kennedy, Charlie Sheen, Jon Cryer. Directed by Todd Phillips

The best part of any trip is coming home. There comes a point when the weary traveler just wants to get back to their own bed, by any means necessary. Sometimes fate intervenes in this worthy endeavor however.

Peter Highman (Downey) has more reason than most to want to get back. His wife Sarah (Monaghan) is due to give birth and a date has been set to give her a Caesarian. He is leaving Atlanta in plenty of time…until he meets Ethan Tremblay (Galifianakis).

Actually he pretty much literally runs into him, Ethan does and in the confusion, Ethan and Peter pick up each other’s similar-looking bags. It turns out that Ethan is sitting behind Peter in first class. It turns out Ethan gets Peter shot by an Air Marshal. Both men are tossed off the plane, with Peter leaving his wallet on board. Worse, he’s on a no-fly list now because of the incident.

Without a wallet, Peter has no way of renting a car but Ethan does and reluctantly Peter agrees to accompany Ethan on his way to Los Angeles; Ethan is an aspiring actor, bringing along with him on his journey his dog and his father’s ashes in a coffee can. Does that man know how to travel or what?

Of course, the eccentric Ethan gets the uptight Peter into all sorts of trouble, from getting them into an accident when he falls asleep at the wheel to abandoning Peter to get arrested for possession of marijuana at a border crossing. With the clock ticking and Sarah’s due date nearing, can Peter and Ethan manage to make it across the country in time or will Peter miss the birth of his first child?

If you thought “Wasn’t there a movie a lot like that?” you’d probably agree with the critics who dissed this movie for being too similar to Planes, Trains and Automobiles, the 1987 John Hughes film with Steve Martin and John Candy in a more or less similar plot. They aren’t exactly alike and there are no trains in this movie but the spirit is pretty much the same.

Peter is ramrod straight here and that’s supposed to be the joke, but that becomes a double edged sword because the movie then isn’t able to make use of Downey’s comic skills which are considerable. He becomes a glorified straight man to Galifianakis’ antics and quite frankly, the movie would have been better served to allow Peter to be not quite so uptight.

Galifianakis is one of the most popular comic actors today but this seems to be more or less a parody of his role in the two Hangover movies. He was far better in those, as well as his more serious role in It’s Kind of a Funny Story. Here, he is eccentric for its own sake. The real trick to making a role of this sort funny is that it kind of has to be believable. There’s nothing believable about Ethan. He does things no rational human being would ever do. And as for Peter, there’s no way anybody sticks around Ethan after he causes Peter multiple injuries.

There are some good gags here and a enough laughs that I can at least promise a certain amount of entertainment if you choose to rent this. However, while it did good box office, it isn’t really the kind of movie you’re going to remember with a great deal of fondness, nor is it one you’re going to want to watch over and over again. It’s just diversion enough to make you smile and maybe laugh a little bit for an hour and a half, which is a pretty noble result in and of itself.

WHY RENT THIS: There are enough funny moments to make this worth your while.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: There are not enough funny moments to make this a classic.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of foul language, a teensy bit of drug use and some comic violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Alan Arkin filmed some scenes as Peter’s father but these were left on the cutting room floor.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a gag reel and the full scene shown at the end of the movie of “Two and a Half Men.”

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $211.8M on a $65M production budget; the movie was a genuine hit.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Martha Marcy May Marlene

Babel


 

Babel

The desolation of the Moroccan landscape is reflected in Cate Blanchett's eyes.

(2006) Ensemble Drama (Paramount Vantage) Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Gael Garcia Bernal, .Rinko Kikuchi, Adrianna Barraza, Michael Pena, Koji Yakusho, Elle Fanning, Clifton Collins Jr., Mohammed Akhzam, Boubker Ait El Caid, Said Tarchani, Mustapha Rachidi, Nathan Gamble, Satoshi Nikaido. Directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu.

In our multi-cultural society, conversation has become almost white noise as we try to make some sense out of what is being said. It is not by accident that “Babel” and “Babble” are homonyms.

Two young goatherds (Caid, Tarchani) in Morocco are testing their new rifle to see if the claims that it could shoot a bullet three kilometers is true by firing it at moving vehicles on a nearby road. Instead, they hit a tour bus and wind up shooting Susan, an American tourist (Blanchett). The wound is serious, and it forces the tour bus to divert to the village of the tour guide (Akhzam) which is where the nearest doctor is (the nearest hospital is far enough away that she might bleed to death before they get there). This causes an international incident when the United States government blames the act on terrorists. Her husband Richard (Pitt) is more concerned with getting her to a proper hospital but they are stuck in a small village in the interior of Morocco with no doctor, no medicine and a wound from which her lifeblood is slowly seeping away. The governments posture and issue press statements while the anxious passengers wonder if they aren’t vulnerable to another terrorist attack. Their desire to leave is met with Richard’s insistence that they stay until help arrives.

That’s not all. Her children (Fanning and Gamble) whom she thought were safe at home, were taken by their housekeeper/nanny Amelia (Barraza) and her unreliable nephew Santiago (Bernal) to the wedding of her son in Mexico, necessitated when she cannot find anyone to watch her charges while she’s gone. When they return home in the wee hours of the morning, an overzealous border guard (Collins) causes the inebriated Santiago to panic and run the border. Chased by the Border Patrol, he leaves the children and his aunt stranded in the desert, promising to lose the patrol and come back for them. Dawn comes and they are still alone in the heat of the desert with no water and little shade.

Meanwhile in Japan, Chieko, a young deaf-mute girl (Kikuchi) struggles to cope with the suicide of her mother and her own budding sexuality. She wanders around the crowded, pulsating streets of Tokyo, flirting with guys in J-Pop clubs, and gossiping with her teammates on the volleyball team. She shuts out her father (Yakusho) who is puzzled at his daughter’s hostility towards him. When a handsome detective (Nikaido) comes to their apartment while her father is at work, Chieko sees an opportunity. All of these stories are related in one way or another, and the effects of a single bullet will have repercussions in every one of their lives.

Like last year’s Oscar-winner Crash, the four main stories are told simultaneously with one another with characters from each story running like threads through the others. The stories aren’t told chronologically, so there is some overlap and information from one storyline is received in another, even though those events haven’t happened in the first storyline yet. That serves to lessen the dramatic tension some (for instance, a very important aspect of Susan’s medical condition is revealed very early on in the Mexican portion of the film, even though in the Moroccan portion she hasn’t been shot yet). While I admire Inarritu’s boldness in altering the paradigm of storytelling, it just isn’t executed as well as it could have been. 

There are some excellent acting performances here, particularly from Pitt who turns in the most complete performance of his career to date. As the anguished husband who is already having marital problems with his wife (they go to Morocco ostensibly to work out their problems alone, but as she acidly points out, they are with a tour group and consequently are almost never alone), Pitt displays frustration, despair and fear with much more emotional openness than we’re used to seeing from him. He looks much older in the movie than what he usually plays, which I think makes the role a bit more believable. 

Kikuchi also does a really fine job in a role in which she has no dialogue except for grunts and moans. She has to spend much of her performance naked and displaying her sexuality in ways that many actresses might find uncomfortable (although fans of Basic Instinct might find the performance intriguing). Inarritu has a tendency to use non-actors in some his movies (as he does here particularly in the Moroccan sequence) and they come through nicely.

I like the look into the various cultures that Inarritu provides, particularly the Moroccan and Japanese aspects (which are less familiar to those of us in the States, where the Mexican culture is much more prevalent). I was fascinated particularly by the desolation of Morocco and the North American desert; both are desolate and empty, which contrasts nicely with the lively crowds in Tokyo.

The problem here is that there is too much storyline going on. The Japanese sequence is not really necessary to the movie and quite frankly, the Mexican sequence probably isn’t either. The movie runs at 2 1/2 hours long and is a good half hour too long for my taste. This could have been trimmed without diluting the message or the power of the performance overly much. 

Inarritu is a real talent (he already has Amores Perros and 21 Grams under his belt) and will undoubtedly turn out movies that are going to be classics in the very near future. This, unfortunately, isn’t one of them, although it is good enough to recommend unreservedly. I can recommend it on the basis of some of the performances, and because of the glimpses into different cultures. However, if you’re going to do a movie based on how our lack of communication as a species leads to terrible problems, the least you can do is not keep talking so long that the listener tunes you out.

WHY RENT THIS: Well directed and beautifully filmed. Pitt turns in his finest performance to date. Blanchett and Kikuchi are also solid.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A good half hour too long, could have done without the Japanese and Mexican segments of the film.

FAMILY MATTERS: There is some violent content, graphic nudity and sexuality and a little bit of drug use. Definitely not for the kids.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: Nothing listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $135.3M on an unreported production budget; undoubtedly the movie was a blockbuster!

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: The Lincoln Lawyer

Machete


Machete

Is this the face only a mother could love?

(20th Century Fox) Danny Trejo, Jessica Biel, Michelle Rodriguez, Jeff Fahey, Robert de Niro, Cheech Marin, Lindsay Lohan, Don Johnson, Steven Seagal, Tom Savini, Daryl Sabara, Alicia Marek, Gilbert Trejo, Cheryl Chin, Shea Whigham.  Directed by Robert Rodriguez and Ethan Maniquis

Injustice requires a hero, someone to stand up and defy those who perpetrate it. However, some injustice is so grave, so reprehensible it requires more than a hero: it requires a legend.

Machete (Trejo) is a Mexican federale who is a bit of a maverick and a lone wolf. While his partner pleads with him to back off of a kidnapping case, Machete refuses. He only knows one direction – forward – and one way – the hard one. Unfortunately, this turns out to be a trap set by a drug lord named Torrez (Seagal) who butchers Machete’s family. Since Machete’s boss is in Torrez’ pocket, his career as a federale is over.

Flash forward three years. Machete is working as a day laborer in Texas, where corrupt State Senator McLaughlin (De Niro) holds sway on a fire-eating anti-immigration platform. However, the good Senator’s re-election campaign isn’t going particularly well. It seems that he’s made some powerful enemies, including a snake oil businessman named Booth (Fahey) who hires Machete to execute the Senator with a high-powered rifle from the state capitol in Austin. However, the whole thing turns out to be yet another set-up.

It seems that Booth is actually McLaughlin’s aide. It turns out both of ‘em are also in Torrez’ pocket. It also turns out that a paramilitary vigilante border patrol, led by Lt. Von Stillman (Johnson) are in McLaughlin’s pocket; as a matter of fact, McLaughlin went on a little ride-along with the boys and shot him some Mescans, including a pregnant woman right in the belly.

However, they’ve messed with the wrong Mescan, as Machete slices and dices his way through every slick-haired, black-suited henchman this quartet of baddies can throw at him. He has allies of his own, however, to aid him in the slicing and dicing; Luz (Rodriguez), a revolutionary whose Underground Railroad-like organization for illegals operates out of her taco truck; Sartana (Alba), an ambitious immigration officer who falls for Machete; Padre (Marin), a priest who packs a little bit of lead along with his crucifix and Julio (Sabara), a vato with a heart bigger than all of Mexico.  

Along the way they’ll run into April (Lohan), a drugged-out wannabe-model whose father wants to make her daddy’s girl, Osiris Ampanpour (Savini), an Assyrian assassin with a sadistic streak and Sniper (Whigham), Booth’s right hand man. The odds are stacked against Machete, but Machete doesn’t care about odds, not as long as he has a razor sharp blade at his disposal.

This has all the elements of 70s blacksploitation (i.e. movies like Superfly and Shaft), Asian chop sockey (the films of the Shaw brothers and some of Bruce Lee’s early stuff), spaghetti westerns and even the slasher flicks of the 80s. All of this has been filtered through Robert Rodriguez’ Cuisinart of influences to create something unique and refreshing, even as it is also at once familiar.

It’s no secret that this was born from a faux trailer that appeared as part of the 2007 B-movie homage Grindhouse that Rodriguez did with fellow trash movie aficionado Quentin Tarantino (it is said that another fake trailer from that movie, Thanksgiving is on the fast track for development as well). However, the real genesis for this character and this project took place back in 1994 when Rodriguez was finishing El Mariachi when Rodriguez began writing a script about a disgraced ex-federale with a penchant for blades.

This is so over-the-top that NASA has it studying planets. Every swing of Machete’s weapon generates a fountain of blood and a limb, head or other body part parting rather gruesomely from the original owners. Machete also gets to use his other weapon plenty of times as nearly every woman in the movie gets a sex scene with him, all to the beat of ‘70s porn movie. Wackada wacka wacka boom chicka boom, baby! Of course, it’s a little difficult to picture Danny Trejo, who’s pushing 70 but still in awesome shape, as anything of a sex symbol. To each their own.

Still, this is the role Trejo was born to play. With his hard scowl, stringy hair, Fu Manchu moustache, angry demeanor and a slathering of tattoos, he has played murderers, rapists and thieves in countless movies over the years. Here, he is the kind of anti-hero that the audiences of the ‘70s embraced. There’s something vicariously thrilling about sticking it to the man, y’know.

De Niro is clearly having a great time here. His character is a combination of Byron de la Beckwith, Arizona state senator Russell Pearce and Foghorn Leghorn and De Niro hams it up like he’s working a middle school talent show. In fact, one gets the impression that Rodriguez told all his actors to “let her rip!” and the only instructions they received from him thereafter were “More!”

Certainly modern audiences aren’t used to this much gratuitous sex and overt, bloody violence but that’s okay; those of us who remember Times Square before the chain restaurants, Starbucks and tourist-friendly shopping when just walking into the area made you want to shower and then dry off with sandpaper will embrace Machete with both arms. Okay, not literally; giving Machete a hug will probably lose you the use of both your arms unless you’re a naked chick with big bazoombas. And that’s the way it should be.

REASONS TO GO: It’s social commentary disguised as a cheesy 70s action flick wrapped in satire. The movie is so preposterous you have to love it.

REASONS TO STAY: Those who are faint of heart when it comes to sex and violence should steer clear.

FAMILY VALUES: Lots of gratuitous sex and lots of gratuitous violence to go with lots of gratuitous language. Who says they don’t make ‘em like this anymore?

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: After Rodriguez told Trejo about the role of Machete and the film he intended to make, Trejo called Rodriguez regularly at varying times of the day to pitch himself for the role. Finally, when an exasperated Rodriguez asked Trejo why he didn’t just text him, Trejo replied “Machete don’t text” and Rodriguez liked the line so much he used it in the movie.

HOME OR THEATER: Oh, home viewing for this one, definitely. Preferably with a six pack of cheap beer, a bagful of pork rinds and a taco or two.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Fifty Dead Men Walking