Identifying Features (Sin señas particulares)


For those trying to cross the border from Mexico to the United States, the trip can be hell.

(2020) Drama (Kino LorberMercedes Hernåndez, David Illescas, Juan Jesus Virela, Ana Laura Rodriguez, Armando Garcia, Laura Elena Ibarra, Juan Pablo Acevedo, Xicoténcati Ulloa, Jessica Martinez Garcia, Maria Luisa Juårez, Ricardo Luna, Juliéta Rodriguez, Iker Valadez Urtaza, Susan Korda, Jorge Escalante, Cynthia Franco, Carlos Valenzuela, Bertha Denton Casillas.  Directed by Fernanda Valadez

 

Immigrants from south of the border have been demonized to the point of ridiculousness; not everyone who comes into the country from Mexico is illegal, not everyone that comes into this country is a criminal, not everyone who comes is illiterate. Most are just ordinary folks trying to make a better life for themselves and their families. I don’t think anyone could possibly disagree with that instinct.

But this isn’t a film about them. It’s not easy or dangerous to migrate from Mexico’s interior to the United States, and uncounted numbers of those who try to get to our border never arrive. They are kidnapped, robbed, raped and often murdered. For their families, it is as if they disappeared off the face of the earth.

Magdalena (Hernandez) had bid goodbye to her teenage son Jesus (Varela) and his best friend Rigo (A. Garcia) who were heading to Arizona where they hoped to find work. But months have gone by and no word from either boy, nothing to say they’d arrived, nor a sign that they had returned. Magdalena and Rigo’s mother Chuya (Ibarra) go to the authorities hoping to get some word, but the authorities either can’t or won’t help. Finally, begrudgingly, they are shown a book full of pictures of corpses that have been recovered – and to the horror of both women, there is Rigo. However, there’s no certain proof that Jesus shared the same fate as Rigo. So as any good mother would do, Magdalena goes off in search of her son, trying to retrace his steps.

It is a dangerous journey, with corrupt officials, cartel killers and unscrupulous coyotes who would murder her in a heartbeat, but doggedly she tries. She gets some help along the way; a sympathetic receptionist at a hostel for migrants; another mother named Olivia (A.L. Rodriguez) who had been searching for her missing son for four years without any sort of word, and lastly from Miguel (Illescas) who had made it to the promised land and spent several years there, only to be captured and deported back to Mexico. Now he’s hoping to reunite with his own mother, but there is no guarantees he will find her.

This is a unique look at the issues facing Mexican migrant workers; the looming threat of violence that hangs over every step of their journey and in fact has insinuated itself into all avenues of Mexican life, as well as the inability of those sources that would ordinarily aid them to provide any sort of protection or assistance. Valadez tells her story simply and starkly, without a lot of frills although there are a few and when they show up they are kind of jarring.

One thing Valadez and cinematographer Claudia Becerril have is a good eye; the shots are exquisitely framed and photographic effects are often utilized to illustrate subtle points (a flashback of the day Jesus informed Magdalena he was leaving is shot through a dirty glass window, giving a kind of faded patina to everything – but Jesus himself remains in sharp form, as if Magdalena’s memory is beginning to fade). There is a little bit of Catholic mysticism here as well that shows very late in the movie and almost comes out of a different movie into this one.

The performances are naturalistic. Most of the cast and crew here are women, which is something to celebrate; this is definitely a mom-centric film and any mother’s heart is going to ache for the women here as they wait interminably for word of their missing loved ones. Despite a modest budget, the technical proficiency of the movie stands out. The movie is often gripping and while it never has the emotional catharsis an American version might make of it, there is a quiet dignity that may change a few viewpoints about the Mexican people…in a perfect world. In the world we live in, however, stories like this are all too commonplace and too many Americans seem to think that those who disappear deserved what they got. That’s the truly messed-up aspect of all of this.

REASONS TO SEE: Quietly suspenseful. Very powerful in places.
REASONS TO AVOID: The ending is a bit jarring.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence, profanity and some disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was the directing debut for Valadez.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Virtual Cinema
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/16/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews, Metacritic: 85/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: El Norte
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Willy’s Wonderland

Narco Soldiers


(2019) Crime (GravitasRafael Amaya, Carolina Guerra, Octavio Pizano, Ricardo Chavira, Ivo Canelas, Cody Kasch, Roger Cross, Carlos Naveo, Hector Anibal, Omar Patin, Axel Mansilla, Iban Marrero, Anika Lehmann. Directed by Felix Limardo

 

The world is often a strange place, particularly now. Movies reflect that, particularly now. How else do you explain Narco Soldiers? It is, in fact, a movie about how drug cartels can contribute to national pride.

Danny (Amaya) is a hired killer for a cartel run out of Puerto Rico by The Sarge (Cross). Now a free agent, he hooks up with Don Toribio (Chavira) to become a middle man in the Mexican and Colombian cartels. But Danny’s buddy Teo (Pizano), has a different idea; to create a cartel right there in the Dominican Republic. As his high-end girlfriend Marisela (Guerra) puts it, the Dominican has long been a place where other nations came to exploit with no benefit at all to the Dominicans. The cartels are just the latest in the long line.

As it turns out, Marisela is the brains behind the operation and she’s as ruthless as they come. Together, Teo, Marisela and Danny become a force to be reckoned with and build a cartel of their own. However, along the way they make enemies and you know what they say; the bigger you are, the harder you fall.

I like the Latin point of view here; most times, we get a more European look at the cartels, an American infiltrator or some such. Here, we see the bosses at the top. The problem is that they don’t really give them characters so much as roles; one is the muscle, one is the brains, one is the heart. We never get a sense of complete human beings behind the parts.

The script is also deeply predictable and even the action scenes don’t really add very much. That’s not to say that the action is done badly – it’s not – but there just isn’t anything that stands out. The plot is somewhat convoluted, but again, there’s a very “been there, done that” feeling to it. In fact, that could be the film’s epitaph; it’s okay, but nothing special. And it could have been.

REASONS TO SEE: Comes with a Latin point of view that is refreshing.
REASONS TO AVOID: Very basic and workmanlike.
FAMILY VALUES: There is lots of violence and profanity, drug references, sex and nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Amaya is best known for his work in the Mexican TV show Lord of the Skies.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/10/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Scarface (1983)
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
The Mothman Legacy

Sicario


Josh Brolin is just happy he's not on Mt. Everest right now.

Josh Brolin is just happy he’s not on Mt. Everest right now.

(2015) Drama (Lionsgate) Emily Blunt, Josh Brolin, Benicio del Toro, Victor Garber, Jon Bernthal, Daniel Kaluuya, Jeffrey Donovan, Raoul Trujillo, Julio Cedillo, Hank Rogerson, Bernardo P. Saracino, Maximilliano Hernandez, Kevin Wiggins, Edgar Arreola, Kim Larrichio, Jesus Nevarez-Castillo, Dylan Kenin, John Trejo, Marty Lindsey, Alex Knight, Sarah Minnich. Directed by Denis Villeneuve

One of the casualties of any war is human decency and nowhere is that more apparent than in America’s war on drugs. Of course, the enemy that’s being battled – the Latin American drug cartels – are particularly vicious. How do you fight an enemy who will go to any lengths to win – beyond the pale of anything that could even be called human?

FBI agent Kate Macer (Blunt) leads a raid on a home that may be owned by a high ranking member of a Mexican cartel in Arizona. There she, her partner Reggie (Kaluuya) and her boss Dave Jennings (Garber) discover horrors that boggle the imagination, as well as a nasty surprise. Her work on this raid gets the attention of Matt Graver (Brolin), a breezy government agent theoretically with the Department of Justice but that part is pretty murky. He’s putting together a cross-organizational team to take down one of the cartels that’s been making lethal inroads to American cities and he wants Kate on it.

Also on the team is Alejandro (del Toro), a mysterious figure whose allegiance could be to anybody on either side of the conflict. In going after Manuel Diaz (Saracino) whose brother Silvio (Hernandez) runs the cartel, they’ll have to make a dangerous prisoner transfer from Mexico to the U.S. that will lead to a deadly shootout, traverse a drug runner tunnel with numerous gunmen guarding its secrets, and eventually lead to the discovery that neither side in this war has clean hands – and maybe that’s the only way to fight it.

Villeneuve, who is probably best known in this country for Prisoners (although Incendies is in my opinion a much better film) is enormously talented and has nearly unlimited potential. Every film he makes is at least interesting, and a few are stellar. This is one of the latter; he has an economy of camera movement as well as of image; everything is important and nothing goes to waste. He knows also how to use silence; some of the best moments in the film have little or no dialogue.

Blunt who has been on the radar since Edge of Tomorrow further cements her standing as the thinking person’s action star. She isn’t the invincible killing machine that is a Schwarzenegger or a side-of-the-mouth quipster that is a Willis; instead, she’s a little vulnerable (being nearly strangled by Jon Bernthal as a corrupt cop midway through the film) and a little fragile (there are times that she literally is shaking after things go south), yet she’s as tough as nails and at the end of the film has a moment in which she asserts that she does have control – and chooses to go her own way. It is one of those silent moments I spoke of earlier that is used to great effect.

Del Toro, who often gets slotted behind Javier Bardem when it comes to Latin actors, is magnificent here, a brooding presence whose gentle voice belies an inner rage which is kept under wraps until the very end. His motivations also remain murky until we discover what is driving him late in the film. Brolin, who has been appearing in supporting roles in some very good films lately, adds another solid performance to his resume.

This is one of the better-written films of the year, one in which Villeneuve is able to thrive with. He creates a tension that begins from the amazing and shocking opening sequence and never lets up until the final frames. Sicario defines intensity pretty much, from the actions of the onscreen characters to the offscreen political aspect.

The war on drugs continues apace in a non-fiction world where bad things happen to good people and those who dare to stand up to the cartels are made gruesome examples of – wee see some of that here. It is a world that those in the Southwest are terrified might make its way up into the Estados Unidos and with good reason. Walls may make it difficult for illegals to emigrate here but it won’t keep the cartels out.

This is part political thriller, part police procedural and part action movie. There is likely to be some Oscar consideration for it down the line but to what degree remains to be seen. It wouldn’t surprise me if it gets some Best Picture consideration come February. There are a lot of movies to come out before anyone hands out statuettes but one thing is for certain; this is a feature worthy of any serious filmgoers attention.

REASONS TO GO: Intense and riveting. Extremely well-written. Strong performances from Blunt, Brolin and del Toro.
REASONS TO STAY: The pacing feels a bit jumpy.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of violence, some fairly gruesome images and a whole lot of expletives.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The thermal vision scenes were actually shot with a thermal vision camera and the optics were not added in post-production.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/12/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 81/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Traffic
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: He Named Me Malala