Kingdom of Shadows


The price of recreational drug use isn't always paid just by drug users and drug dealers.

The price of recreational drug use isn’t always paid just by drug users and drug dealers.

(2015) Documentary (Participant) Sister Consuelo Morales, Oscar Hagelseib, Don Henry Ford Jr., Nik Steinberg, Diego Alonso Salazar, Auden Cabello, Leah Ford, Virginia Buenrostro, Luz Maria Duran, Joshua Ford, Dina Hagelseib, Diana Martinez. Directed by Bernardo Ruiz

It is no secret that the drug cartels have turned northern Mexico into a war zone. Violence from the cartels has escalated and in the city of Monterrey, a beautiful municipality that is the center in a war between the Zetas and the Gulf Cartel which has escalated so that innocent civilians who have no connection with the drug trade whatsoever are disappearing, murdered by one faction or the other which was unheard of just a decade ago.

Director Bernardo Ruiz looks at the problems created by this violence from three distinct viewpoints from three different people; Sister Consuelo Morales is an activist/nun who advocates for the families of those who have disappeared, acting as a liaison between the families and the police who are perceived to be (and actually are) corrupt – in fact, some of the kidnappings are performed by officers of the law, further deepening the mistrust the people of Mexico have for their own government and its institutions.

Don Henry Ford Jr. is a convicted drug smuggler from Belmont, Texas who worked on his own family farm, but deepening debt forced him into a need for quick cash and there are few instances of cash that are quicker than bringing drugs from Mexico to the United States. Although he was eventually caught and served time in prison, he was already disillusioned by what he saw as escalating violence by new players in the game who disregarded the rules and has since left the life to concentrate on his legitimate farm work.

Oscar Hagelseib grew up in Socorro, Texas, the son of illegal immigrants in a neighborhood that was infected by the drug trade. A cousin’s house was used as a stash location for the cartels and those who entered the trade were far more prosperous than those who didn’t. However, as it turned out, Oscar would go into law enforcement, first with the Border Patrol and later with the Homeland Security Agency. Once an undercover agent but now in charge of drug-related offenses in the El Paso office, he is unafraid to show his face in the media, arguing that he was in less danger than would a snitch or someone within the cartels who betrayed the cartels.

All three look at the disappearances primarily – those civilians who one day just aren’t there. More often than not they turn up in narco kitchens – mass graves. These disappearances haven’t been seen in Latin America since the days of Pinochet in Chile and those at the time were done by government military forces. The corruption is so rampant that nearly every candidate for office in Mexico has to include overhauling their local police force as part of their platform, but few ever get around to actually doing it.

The documentary suffers a little bit from a lack of focus; there is no coherent storyline here, more like a series of interviews entwined together. The statistics are sobering and so are the stories being told here, but because there really isn’t any kind of unification between those stories they are wasted somewhat, floating on the wind instead of being given a larger context. That does those stories a disservice, although they do remain powerful.

It is well-known that the cartels in Mexico are outrageously violent, but we don’t see much of the violence here except for some news footage of bodies being cut down from places where they will be seen as an example of what happens to those who cross the cartels, and one family member of a disappeared one recounts tearfully how her daughter had been raped for three days straight before being executed according to an eyewitness, although she prayed it wasn’t true – you can see in her eyes that she knows that it is.

It is in fact the faces that are the most haunting thing. The end of the movie is simply a montage of faces, faces of the victims and the faces of the families. Some can barely hold back the tears; others can barely contain their rage. Some are stoic, others expressive. Some are young, some old, some in-between. That last montage carries more meaning than almost the rest of the documentary put together; those faces connect the viewer to the story in a powerful way. If only the rest of the movie could be more like that. Still, this is the kind of story that the news agencies in the States isn’t likely to tell and when it does, only in a cursory way. This is the world these people live in, a world we are partially responsible for due to our insatiable consumption of illegal narcotics. If we want to win the war on drugs, that’s what we need to concentrate on.

REASONS TO GO: Powerful and haunting. Uses news footage effectively.
REASONS TO STAY: Unfocused and lacks flow.
FAMILY VALUES: Some mild profanity and depictions of violence, and brief partial nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The term “narco kitchen” refers to mass graves in which drug cartels bury those they’ve executed. Prior to burial the bodies are incinerated so that they cannot be positively identified.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/20/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 83% positive reviews. Metacritic: 65/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cartel Land
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: The Shameless

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Lucy


Lucy in the sky with data streams.

Lucy in the sky with data streams.

(2014) Action (Universal) Scarlett Johansson, Morgan Freeman, Min-sik Choi, Amr Waked, Julian Rhind-Tutt, Pilou Asbaek, Analeigh Tipton, Nicolas Phongpheth, Jan Oliver Schroeder, Luca Angeletti, Loic Brabant, Pierre Grammont, Pierre Poirot, Bertrand Quoniam, Pascal Loison, Claire Tran, Sifan Shou, Paul Chan, Laura D’Arista (voice). Directed by Luc Besson

What would it be like if we could be smarter? What kind of miraculous change in our lives would we be able to affect? What sort of secrets would we unlock?

The myth is that we only use 10% of our brains – according to Scientific American that’s simply not true. We actually use all of it, which debunks the science in this movie thoroughly. So, let’s play a game of “let’s pretend” that Besson’s assertion here is true, that we go through our lives only using 10% of our potential.

Hard-partying grad student Lucy (Johansson) might not even use that much. She hooks up with Richard (Asbaek), the sort of guy who would set off all sorts of alarm bells in any rational person but apparently that particular function of her brain is inactive. He is supposed to deliver a brief case to Mr. Jang (Choi) in a posh Hong Kong hotel but wants Lucy to do it instead. She is reluctant and they spend the first seven minutes of an 89 minute film arguing about it. Think of a movie starting with an old style Life cereal commercial “I’m not gonna try it you try it” “I’m not gonna try it – hey let’s get Lucy! She won’t like it! She hates everything!” “She likes it! Hey Lucy!”

 

Actually she is forced to do it when he cuffs the briefcase to her wrist and tells her that Jang is the only one who can remove it. Jang turns out to be a ruthless criminal and Richard, instead of saving his own skin, ends up being the first to exit stage left. Lucy is hustled up to a swanky suite where Jang has just finished murdering a couple of people, stepping over corpses and washing his blood soaked hands in front of an understandably panicky Lucy.

She is knocked out and when she wakes up, there is an incision in her tummy and she is told she is to be a drug mule, transporting a new drug called CPH4 which Jang’s suave English speaking flunky (Rhind-Tutt) assures her that the kids in Europe are going to love. However through a set of unforeseen circumstances, the bag of drugs begins to leak into her system. Lucy begins to learn at an amazing rate, develops powers of telekinesis and control of magnetic waves. She is able to wave her hands and have people fall asleep. The more of the drug that’s absorbed into her system, the more her powers develop. She goes from 20% to 30%, 30% to 40%.

She is easily able to escape from Jang’s thugs and makes her way to a Hong Kong hospital where she demands that the bag be removed from an astonished surgeon, doubly astonished when she shoots the patient he’s operating on dead, telling him “You couldn’t have saved him. The tumor’s already spread.” Even though there still remains about half a bag of the stuff, the damage is done. Lucy can feel her cells reproducing at an accelerated rate. She estimates she has about 24 hours before her body dies.

She flies to Paris to enlist the aid of Professor Norman (Freeman), an expert on the development of the human brain, as well as Parisian detective Del Rio (Waked) whom she brings aboard to protect her but also to nab three other drug mules sent by Jang to other European cities. She needs the drugs they are carrying to complete her work which is now essentially to download everything she knows, which is growing more considerable. As she inches towards 100% neither Professor Norman nor even Lucy herself knows exactly what’s going to happen.

Besson, who has written or directed some of the most compelling action films of the past 20 years (including The Fifth Element, District B-13 and The Professional) channels Stanley Kubrick a little bit here. He inserts mostly vintage clips of all sorts of things like animals mating, magicians creating illusions and cameras travelling through canyons and across endless oceans to denote the gradual increase in Lucy’s powers and knowledge. He is fairly liberal about it when he should have used it a bit more sparingly; it does get distracting and in a film this short feels like filler it doesn’t need, particularly when he could have used the time to build relationships.

Johansson has never been an actress who has played “smart” but this year with roles in Under the Skin as an alien with a superior intellect, and as the operating system in Her she has shown beyond a shadow of a doubt that she is more than an agent of SHIELD. The trouble is that once the drug enters Lucy’s system Johansson’s expression essentially doesn’t change and she speaks in an emotionless monotone. I’m not sure why it is that in science fiction that evolution of the human species seems to be that we move past our emotions. I would argue that our emotions would evolve along with our intellect but that’s another fight for another day.

The special effects are nifty, with Lucy able to see trees absorbing nutrients through their roots, or streams of data travelling from cell phones to the satellites above. Near the end of the movie she takes a journey backwards through time in a sequence reminiscent of the opening sequence of The Tree of Life only with a human element involved – Lucy meets the first known human ancestor, also named Lucy (not a coincidence with the names, that) – going all the way back to the Big Bang and before.

 

But for all the scientific gobbledygook, my favorite sequence in the film is the most human – a phone conversation between Lucy and her mother (D’Arista) in which Lucy tearfully tells her that she can remember everything – even things she shouldn’t have been able to, like the taste of her mother’s milk in her mouth. It is a sense of saying goodbye, and it is a poignant moment because Lucy knows that she will be evolving past the feelings shortly and not long after, departing this Earth entirely.

The movie is largely unsatisfying. We get Hong Kong-style gun battles and the car chases Besson is known for but little development in the way of the characters. Besson likes to move things along at a frenetic pace and that’s not a bad thing but we get no sense of human connection – other than that one scene I just described – between Lucy and the world so when that connection begins to drift away, there is no sense of loss. Certainly there is some fine eye candy but eye candy alone doesn’t make for a substantive and ultimately satisfying film experience. Besson is certainly capable of delivering on those sorts of films but in this instance he fell short.

REASONS TO GO: Nice premise and some nifty special effects.

REASONS TO STAY: Directing misfires. Johansson misused. Look ma, I’m directing!

FAMILY VALUES:  Violence, some of it disturbing, some drug use and sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Angelina  Jolie was originally cast in the title role but had to drop out due to directing commitments and Johansson was cast in her place.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/28/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 57% positive reviews. Metacritic: 61/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Limitless

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

NEXT: The Fluffy Movie

Miss Bala


The life of a beauty queen is harder in some places than others.

The life of a beauty queen is harder in some places than others.

(2011) Drama (Fox Searchlight) Stephanie Sigman, Irene Azuela, Miguel Coururier, Gabriel Heads, Noe Hernandez, James Russo, Jose Yenque, Juan Carlos Galvan, Lakshmi Picazo, Javier Zaragoza, Leonor Vitorica, Hugo Marquez, Eduardo Mendizabal, Sergio Gomez Padilla, Felipe Morales, Sergio Miguel Martinez, Gabriel Chavez, Leticia Huijara Cano. Directed by Gerardo Naranjo

Innocence is a commodity that falls by the wayside in a corrupt society. It is hard not to take sides when absolute power rules with brutality and intimidating force and often the side you take is not one taken of your own free will.

Laura Guerrero (Sigman) is a sweet and unassuming teenager who works selling secondhand clothes with her father (Zaragoza) and little brother (Galvan). On a whim she and her close friend Suzu (Picazo) decide to enter their names for the Miss Baja beauty pageant. That night they decide to go to a local night club and party.

During the evening, a group of thugs shoot up the club. Laura, who was in the bathroom at the time, escaped but witnessed the whole thing, being one of the few survivors. Her ordeal is just beginning; she is kidnapped the very next day and taken to Lino Valdez (Hernandez), the head of the drug cartel. Lino. Rather than executing the witness however, he uses her as a courier to ferry money across the border into the United States, bringing back arms and ammunition.

Lino and his gang use her brother and father to control her, threatening to execute them if she doesn’t do as they say and so she becomes a part of the gang. When they figure she can be useful for them as a pageant winner, they get her into the Miss Baja pageant and bribe the judges into letting her win. Her high profile allows them to use her as a means of seducing the powerful General Salomon Duarte (Couturier) and gaining control over him by that means. However, when she discovers that Suzu had not survived the shooting at the club (they assured her that she had), she realizes that nobody is getting out of this alive and she is left with a big decision to make.

As thrillers go this one is raw and gritty and sometimes not so pretty, even given the beauty pageant background. It displays the effects that intimidation, violence and brutality have on the lives of those caught in the crossfire and does so very effectively. Although it didn’t make the final short list, it was submitted as Mexico’s entry into the Best Foreign Language Film for the 2012 Academy Awards.

There’s a gritty realism that shows not only the desperation and poverty of the people who live in Baja but also the arrogance, the brutality and the opulence of those in power. The consequences of our war on drugs have never had such a human face as this.

Sigman is not well known to me as an actress; she has mainly appeared in Mexican films and since this movie was made has had a recurring role on the F/X TV series The Bridge. She certainly has the beauty and the innocent look but there isn’t a lot of emotion that we get from her other than terror which isn’t necessarily a deficiency on her part – the role doesn’t really call for much else and therein lies the main problem with the movie.

We really don’t get to know Laura at all before the massacre and kidnapping. She seems like a fairly sweet kid, a typical Mexican teenager trying to help her family make ends meet. However, the movie gets into the action so quickly (which isn’t normally an issue for me) that by the time we really know what’s happening Laura is already in victim mode, and that’s really the only way we know her throughout the film all the way to its ambiguous ending.

Sometimes the ins and outs of the politics of the movie can be a bit confusing as to who is on who’s side, who is screwing who and who is at war with who. Things do come out of left field seemingly and while that keeps us off-balance a little bit, some further explanation might have been helpful, particularly for us gringos.

Where the movie excels is in its suspense and tension. From the moment the massacre starts most viewers will be on the edge of their seats, and not really sure what’s going to come at them next. Think of it as riding a roller coaster blindfolded and never sure if you’re going to go flying out of your seat. Some might find that an unpleasant experience but for the purposes here that does satisfy the Type A personality in me.

Despite the recent upsurge in quality Mexican films, this one didn’t get a great deal of attention when it was released back in the early months of 2011 which is a bit of a shame. While it isn’t as good as, say, Y tu mama tambien or Amores perros it is as good as any thriller that has come out from Hollywood in recent years.

WHY RENT THIS: Raw and gritty. Raises the thriller bar up a notch..

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Don’t really connect with Laura as much as we should. Occasionally confusing.

FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of rough language, a goodly amount of sometimes strong and bloody violence as well as some sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Loosely based on Laura Zuniga, the former Miss Sinaloa, beauty queen and model who was arrested on December 22, 2008 for narcotics trafficking.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Unavailable.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Maria, Full of Grace

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: Being Flynn

Ondine


Ondine

Not only must Colin Farrell carry the film, he also has to carry Alison Barry without any help from Alicja Bachelda.

 

(2009) Romantic Fantasy (Magnolia) Colin Farrell, Stephen Rea, Alicja Bachelda, Tony Curran, Dervla Kirwan, Tom Archdeacon, Emil Hostina, Norma Sheahan, Alison Barry, Conor Power, Olwyn Hanley, Peter Gowen, Don Wycherley, Gertrude Montgomery, Reese O’Shea. Directed by Neil Jordan

 

The sea gives up its secrets begrudgingly, although off the Emerald coasts of Ireland there is a certain magic in those secrets. Where despair and disappointment may reign over the waves, hope can carry the day.

Syracuse (Farrell) – known as Circus to one and all in the village in which he lives – is a decidedly unsuccessful fisherman trying to eke out a living from the sea, all the while dealing with his daughter Annie’s (Barry) debilitating and serious kidney ailment (which confines her to a wheelchair), his wife Maura (Kirwan) who has taken up with another man, and his own alcoholism which he has been trying desperately to beat.

Out for another disappointing day of failure, Syracuse brings up in his nets a woman, who calls herself Ondine (Bachelda). What she was doing in the middle of the ocean she can’t or won’t say, and she begs Syracuse not to let any other souls in the village see her save himself. He is mystified but puts her up in his late mother’s cottage.

Annie, being a smart and inquisitive little girl, discovers Ondine’s existence and decides that she’s a selkie, a creature of Irish myth that is half woman, half seal. Ondine appears to have some magical properties going on – when she sings, fish almost leap into Syracuse’s net. At last he is beginning to make more than a living, helping pay for his daughter’s dialysis and treatment.

But there is a mysterious man (Hostina) searching for Ondine and when tragedy strikes, everything Syracuse knows or thinks he knows may well be put to the test.

Jordan is an Irish director with an impressive resume, including The Company of Wolves, The Crying Game, Mona Lisa, Interview with the Vampire, Michael Collins and The Brave One entered on it. He has a penchant for the fantastic and exercises it here. He also has a good eye for the Irish countryside and utilizing frequent Wong Kar Wei cinematographer Christopher Doyle, he extracts all the misty magic of a small Irish fishing village.

Farrell tends to be at his best when he’s playing ordinary Joes who are flawed. Syracuse isn’t a heroic sort; he’s just trying to do right by his daughter and often doesn’t even manage that. He’s nowhere near as smart as his daughter and often defers to her judgment which is the kind of thing that makes me want to bang my head against the nearest brick wall.

Barry may well be a terrific juvenile actress but she’s handed a part here that lands her on my list of pet peeves – the overly precocious child who is smarter and more capable than the adults around her. This serves to make Annie annoying to the point that I’d have preferred long acrylic fingernails screeching over a chalkboard than listening to her talk. That’s not the fault of the actress but of the writer. A more realistic child would have improved the movie 1000 times.

The center of the film is the romance between Syracuse and Ondine. Bachelda, a Polish actress (by way of Mexico where she grew up) is certainly beautiful and has wonderful legs which she displays regularly. She also has, more crucially, actual chemistry with Farrell so their budding romance becomes believable and even encouraged by the viewer who wants to see the together – the watermark of any romantic film.

Some may compare this conceptually to Splash and there are certainly similarities, but whereas Madison in that film was always known to be a mermaid, Ondine remains an is-she-or-isn’t-she until the very final reel which is smart filmmaking. However, the plot takes an unnecessary left turn from gentle romantic fantasy into action thriller for the last twenty minutes or so before returning for the last couple of scenes to the romantic fantasy again. Quite frankly the romantic fantasy works better.

I liked the laidback, dreamy vibe of the movie and Farrell’s IFTA-winning performance (the Irish Film and Television Awards are kind of a cross between the Oscars and Emmy’s in Ireland), as well as Bachelda’s legs and chemistry with Farrell. Kirwan also won an IFTA for her role as Farrell’s estranged wife, battling alcohol issues of her own.

This flew under the radar during an American theatrical release in art houses in the spring of 2010 but is out there on the Showtime/The Movie Channel if you want to catch it on cable, or available for streaming generally everywhere. It makes for a nice romantic evening’s viewing, especially for those who carry an affection for Ireland and all things Irish.

WHY RENT THIS: Gorgeous cinematography and a nice melding of Irish folklore and modern rural Ireland. Fine performances from Farrell, Bachelda, Kirwan and Barry.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The ending is a bit disappointing. Annie is part of a long line of precocious and annoying movie kids.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some words you might not want your kids to hear, as well as a bit of sensuality and a scene or two of violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Farrell and Bachelda

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $1.6M on a $12M production budget; it failed to recoup its production costs during its theatrical run.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Arthur (2011)