Birds of Passage (Pajaros de verano)


Birds in plume.

(2018) Crime Drama (The Orchard) Carmiña Martinez, Josė Acosta, Natalia Reyes, Jhon Narváez, Greider Meza, Josė Vincente Cote, Juan Bautista Martinez, Miguel Viera, Sergio Coen, Aslenis Márquez, Josė Naider, Yanker Diaz, Victor Montero, Joaquin Ramón, Jorge Lascarro, Germán Epieyu, Luisa Alfaro, Merija Uriana. Directed by Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra

 

Some movies are great because of technical achievements. Others are great because their story has universal appeal. Others achieve greatness through a combination of those elements. Rarely, a film makes greatness because of an ineffable quality all its own.

In Northern Colombia, the Wayuu people have lived speaking their own language, with their own traditions and customs for thousands of years. They do not trust Spanish speaking Colombians whose culture is as alien to them as Japan’s might be; in fact, many Colombians are unfamiliar with the Wayuu.

At the beginning of the movie (which is divided into five cantos, or songs), Zaida (Reyes), the daughter of the clan matriarch Úrsula (C. Martinez), is celebrating her coming of age. Her position makes her quite a catch for the men of the clan. One, Rapayet (Acosta) is particularly eager to claim Zaida as his bride but Úrsula is less sanguine about the idea. She gives him a ridiculously high dowry of 30 goats, 20 cows and five precious necklaces. Rapayet, who is regarded with suspicion by the clan because he has had business dealings with non-Wayuu, is nonetheless determined to make Zaida his wife. He and his partner Moisės (Narváez) have been picking coffee beans and selling them but a chance encounter with American Peace Corps volunteers leads them to a more valuable cash crop – marijuana.

With gringo pilots set to deliver the goods to market and leaving them ridiculous amounts of cash, Rapayet prevails on fellow clan member Anibal (J.B. Martinez) to use part of his ranch to grow weed for him which they sell to the Americans at a massive profit. At first the arrangement works swimmingly and both Anibal and Rapayet become wealthy with the latter able to afford the dowry and wed Zaida much to the matriarch’s dismay. However, she eventually gets with the program when she sees the money and prestige her new son-in-law is bringing to the clan.

But things aren’t ducky for long. First, Moisės proves to be something of a loose cannon. Then, the son of Úrsula proves to be even worse, a disrespectful, entitled lout whose indiscretions threaten to bring the clan to a civil war. Rapayet is only able to watch helplessly as everything he loves – his family, his clan, his culture – slowly begin to circle the drain.

This is quite simply put a masterpiece of Latin American cinema. Gallego and Guerra – who directed the Oscar-nominated Embrace of the Serpent – have outdone even that movie with a film that is lyrical in content but with elements of a tragedy as well as a crime drama all rolled into one. While not at the level of The Godfather it is still a movie that is going to make a whole lot of impact on the genre.

The cinematography is breathtaking, from the lavish luxury of Rapayet’s hacienda, the desolation of the empty plain it sits on, the simple beauty of the village, the lavish costumes of the villagers and the beauty that is Colombia. It is a gorgeous movie to watch. There are moments and images that will stay with you for a very long time.

While the movie takes place between 1968 through 1980, the timelessness of the lives of the Wayuu really doesn’t give those of us who are urbanized a sense of period. That the story is so compelling also contributes to the timelessness of the movie – greed and pride often do lead to a fall and therein lies the tragedy. One ends up wondering if the drug importing hadn’t been introduced to the clan would they have ended up being happier? Certainly, more of them would have been left alive.

Clearly the filmmakers have a great abiding respect for the Wayuu culture and just as clearly much research was done into it. The co-directors are adept at telling their story and it never seems to go in the direction you think it’s going to with few exceptions. There is a bit of an element of morality play here but at the end of the day this is masterful film making that should be at the top of every film buff’s must-see list this year.

REASONS TO SEE: The filmmakers clearly have a reverence and respect for native cultures. The cinematography is absolutely gorgeous. The story is a compelling one. This film never goes in the direction that you think it’s going to.
REASONS TO AVOID: The violence can be brutal and graphic which may offend the sensitive.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of violence and profanity, brief nudity and a scene of sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The co-directors were married but divorced during the production of the film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/20/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 94% positive reviews: Metacritic: 86/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: New Jack City
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT:
Roll Red Roll

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American Made


Tom Cruise wonders if he can call his agent collect.

(2017) Biographical Dramedy (Universal) Tom Cruise, Domhnall Gleeson, Sarah Wright, Jesse Plemmons, Caleb Landry Jones, Lola Kirke, Jayma Mays, Alejandro Edda, Benito Martinez, E. Roger Mitchell, Jed Rees, Fredy Yate Escobar, Mauricio Mejia, Robert Farrior, Morgan Hinkleman, Alberto Ospino, Daniel Lugo, Felipe Bernedette, Jayson Warner Smith, April Billingsley. Directed by Doug Liman

 

Some stories are too out there to be believed. Some stories are truths that are stranger than fiction. Some stories could only be made in America.

Barry Seal (Cruise) was one such story. A one-time TWA pilot bored with his commuter plane career, he smuggled Cuban cigars into the country to make a little extra cash, bringing him to the attention of the CIA. Not to prosecute him; to recruit him as it turned out. His handler, Monty Schafer (Gleeson) – not his real name as it turns out – wants him to take pictures of Leftist commando units in Central and South America from the air. Barry, ever the adrenaline junkie at heart, gets the best pictures imaginable.

He begins another smuggling sideline; this time bringing drugs into the country for guys like Manuel Noriega (Ospino) and Pablo Escobar (Mejia). Soon, Barry has more cash than he knows what to do with. His wife Lucy (Wright) – suspicious at first – turns a blind eye when she gets all the material goods that she ever dreamed of.

Stories like this rarely end well and Barry’s doesn’t either but while the ride is going on it’s entertaining. Liman seems to know how to get the best out of Cruise who still has that youthful smile but is beginning to show signs of middle age. Nonetheless Cruise again shows his star appeal by being likable while working for some pretty terrible people; well, onscreen anyway.

Liman gives us an almost Steven Soderbergh-like film; brash and full of itself. There is certainly a good deal of entertainment value here but in some ways it’s a cookie cutter movie. It doesn’t really rise above similar stories and nothing happens that the audience can’t see coming a mile away. Still in all, you won’t go wrong renting this puppy although I might think twice about buying it. It’s one of those movies that you see once, enjoy it at the time and promptly forget about it afterwards.

REASONS TO GO: There is an almost Soderbergh-like feel to the film.
REASONS TO STAY: This is a bit too formulaic for my own taste.
FAMILY VALUES: There is lots and lots of profanity as well as some sexuality and a bit of nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The plane that Seal used in real life was featured in the movie; tragically, it crashed on the final day of filming, causing two fatalities.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Fios, Frontier, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/4/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 87% positive reviews. Metacritic: 65/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Air America
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Django

Redemption (Hummingbird)


Don't keep Jason Statham waiting for his drink.

Don’t keep Jason Statham waiting for his drink.

(2013) Action (Roadside Attractions) Jason Statham, Agata Buzek, Vicki McClure, Benedict Wong, Ger Ryan, Youssef Kerkour, Anthony Morris, Victoria Bewick, Christian Brassington, Danny Webb, Sang Lui, Bruce Want, Dai Bradley, Siobhan Hewlett, Steven Beard, Ian Pirie, Lillie Buttery, Macey Chipping, Emily Lue Fong, Michelle Lee. Directed by Steven Knight

We all do things we’re not proud of. It’s just a part of living and learning. Sometimes we do and say things we wish we could take back. Sometimes we make decisions that upon reflection were unwise or thoughtless. Other times we do things out of self-interest that end up having unintended consequences. Still other times we do things we know are wrong but we do them anyway. The ramifications of the latter can be devastating.

Joseph Smith (Statham) – not the Mormon leader – is a British soldier in Afghanistan. He has deserted from the army and lives on the streets of London, a homeless alcoholic. He’s also suffering from major PTSD, often seeing hallucinations of hummingbirds. He shares a cardboard box with Isabel (Bewick), a drug-addicted prostitute who’s also homeless. The two are set upon one night by thugs who snatch Isabel and chase Joseph off. He finds his way into a very snazzy flat – one in which the wealthy owner will be leaving conveniently vacant for 8 months, returning on October 1st as Joseph discovers on the answering machine.

Rather than wallow in the new found luxury, Joseph decides to change his life around. He shaves, puts on a new suit and with the help of a conveniently left credit card reinvents his image. He becomes Joseph Jones and even gets a job washing dishes in the kitchen of a Chinese restaurant. When some rowdy customers need to be evicted, Joseph evicts them none too gently, catching the eye of his employer Choy (Wong) who is impressed and makes Joseph his driver/enforcer. Now known as Crazy Joey, Joseph spends a lot of his new salary on feeding the homeless, and thanking the comely Sister Cristina (Buzek) who runs the soup kitchen that fed him while he was on the streets. The two strike up one of those more-than-friendship things. He even has enough to help out the wife (McClure) and kids he left behind.

Then he finds out that Isabel was beaten to death and dumped in the Thames. Once he gets over his grief, he knows that his time in the flat is running out and Sister Cristina is off to do missionary work in Sierra Leone – coincidentally, on the same day. He has one more job to do before he returns to his homeless, drunk existence – revenge before redemption.

This is the directorial debut of Knight, best known for writing the gritty David Cronenberg film Eastern Promises and there’s a similar vibe here. The seedy side of London is filmed unapologetically and without accusation – this is just the way things are, that’s all. No pointing fingers, no sermonizing. Everyone has their story and Joseph has his (and yes, we do find out what happened in Afghanistan to drive him AWOL and to the streets of London).

Statham is the premiere action star going, even more so than Liam Neeson in that Statham is more bred for the type of role than Neeson who had a thriving dramatic career and an Oscar to his credit before changing paths into the ass-kicking one. But, like Neeson, Statham has some acting chops – perhaps not quite to the degree of Neeson – but there nonetheless. The main complaint about Statham is that he doesn’t seem to portray a lot of emotions other than anger, bonhomie and cheerfulness. It’s a fair enough criticism, but it can’t be made here as we see Statham at his most emotionally vulnerable maybe ever. He also kicks plenty of butt however, so no worries on that score.

Knight, who co-wrote the movie, gets the benefit of cinematographer Chris Menges who gives us plenty of neon-lit images, some of which are pretty scintillating. However, the thing that kind of puzzles me is that Knight, who is quite a good writer judging on his resume, put so many frankly unbelievable coincidences in the script. For example, who would leave an expensive flat vacant for eight months without someone checking on it at least periodically, or without a security system installed?

Statham’s performance thankfully elevates the movie beyond its writing flaws. This isn’t going to be the movie that elevates him beyond the typical action roles he gets, but it’s certainly another brick in that particular wall. In the meantime, we can enjoy him at his butt-kicking best.

WHY RENT THIS: Statham is always entertaining. Some pretty nifty fight scenes.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Requires too much stretching of the imagination. Been there done that plot.
FAMILY VALUES: Brutal violence, graphic nudity and lots of foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was filmed almost entirely at night in environs in London where homeless people hang out; several also served as extras in the film.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $12.7M on a $20M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD rental/Streaming), Amazon (rent/buy), Vudu (rent/buy),  iTunes (rent/buy), Flixster (rent/buy), Target Ticket (rent/buy)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Safe
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: The Search for General Tso

Mr. Nice


Mr. Nice strikes a serious pose,

Mr. Nice strikes a serious pose,

(2009) Biography (MPI) Rhys Ifans, Chloe Sevigny, David Thewlis, Luis Tosar, Crispin Glover, Omid Djalili, Christian McKay, Elsa Pataky, Jack Huston, Jamie Harris, Sara Sugarman, William Thomas, Andrew Tiernan, Kinsey Packard, Ania Sowinski, James Jagger, Howell Evans, Ken Russell, Ferdy Roberts, Nathalie Cox, Olivia Grant. Directed by Bernard Rose

The 60s and 70s were the era when drug culture became widespread and suddenly there was a worldwide demand for narcotics. It took all kinds to make sure the supply kept up with the demand – and some drug dealers were the most unlikely souls indeed.

Howard Marx (Ifans) was an honest and well-adjusted boy from Wales who managed to earn himself an education at Oxford. He’s studying alone in his room one night when exchange student Ilze Kadegis (Pataky) bursts into his room looking for a secret passageway. When she finds it, a curious Howard follows her to an old storage room where Graham Plinson (Huston), the university’s biggest dope dealer, hides his stash. Ilze seduces Howard and introduces Howard to the joys of cannabis. From that point on, Howard is hooked and becomes one of Graham’s best customers with his academics suffering predictably as a result.

When Plinson and Howard’s friends start experimenting with harder drugs, tragedy ensues and Howard vows not to touch the serious stuff ever again and rededicates himself to his studies, passing by the skin of his teeth (and with a bit of underhanded chicanery). He marries Ilze and takes a job as a teaching assistant (what they called a teacher training position back then) at the University of London. By now, the swinging ’60s were in full flower and Carnaby Street was the bloom on the rose. Howard was fully into the scene, prompting a reprimand for long hair and flashy suits.

When Plinson gets arrested after plans to transport a shipment of hashish from Germany to England go awry, Howard – his marriage on the ropes, his job rapidly going down the toilet – figures he has nothing to lose and steps in to help. Because he’s not a known drug dealer, he sails through the customs checkpoints without so much as a second glance. Howard finds that the adrenaline rush of smuggling drugs appeals to him and he decides to take it up as a vocation  He eventually becomes one of the world’s largest marijuana traffickers – at one point controlling a fairly large percentage of the world’s supply.

However, the problem with this kind of lifestyle is that eventually people start gunning for what you have, and soon Howard finds himself playing a dangerous game. It’s one that will get him arrested and dropped into one of the nastiest prisons in the United States.

This is based on the autobiography of  Howard Marks (uh huh, this is a true story) and Marks served as a consultant on the film, proclaiming it as accurate even though there were some differences between his book and the movie. One gets the sense that there are a few brain cells not functioning quite up to optimum for ol’ Howard these days.

The same might be said of the filmmakers. The movie often feels like it was written by one stoned, and directed while the same. Plenty of stoner clichés – half-naked chicks rolling around on a bed full of cash, slow-mo shots of the arrest and so on – mar the film. While I liked that the first part of the movie was shot in black and white, switching to color when Howard takes his first psychedelic, at times one gets the sense that the film is stuck in neutral waiting for the GPS to kick in and send it somewhere.

Ifans is an engaging actor and as he did in Notting Hill he does a good job of playing the stoner. Although the Nice of the title refers to the city in France, it is also apt to the demeanor of Marks as portrayed by Ifans. I’m pretty sure the intent here was to portray Marks as a counterculture Robin Hood-sort, fighting the battle of worldwide weed, but I keep getting the sense that we’re seeing very much a self-promotion more than an accurate portrayal.  While honestly I have nothing against Marks, I wonder if I wouldn’t have appreciated the movie more if he had a few more warts here.

The rest of the cast is pretty decent, although Sevigny has a truly terrible English accent. She’s a fine actress but I found the accent distracting and thought the film would have been better served if she hadn’t attempted it, or if they’d hired a British actress instead.

The era is captured nicely and we get a sense of the wide-open era that was the ’60s and ’70s. This is more of a throwback to films of that era in many ways – the drug dealer is the hero and unlike the modern version of heroic Hollywood drug dealers these days, he doesn’t have automatic rifles, machine pistols or military training. Howard is no Rambo by any stretch of the imagination.

Those who dislike movies about drugs and drug dealers should give this a wide berth. You’ll only give yourself an aneurysm. Stoners will find this to be excellent entertainment with a hero they can get behind. As for the rest of us, this doesn’t really distinguish itself much – but it doesn’t disgrace itself overly much either. A lot of how you’ll find this movie will depend on your attitudes towards cannabis to begin with. Me, I’m allergic to the stuff so that should give you some insight to where I’m coming from.

WHY RENT THIS: Pretty decent performance by Ifans. Nicely immersed in the era it’s set.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Kind of runs together and loses cohesion. Sevigny’s accent is atrocious.

FAMILY VALUES: A ton of drug use and foul language as well as some sexuality and violence (and a bit of nudity).

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In Marks’ autobiography on which the film is based, he claimed to have been betrayed to the American authorities by Lord Moynihan but that isn’t brought up in the film here for legal reasons.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Savages

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT:The Reluctant Fundamentalist

The Guard


In Ireland, fighting crime starts when they're young.

In Ireland, fighting crime starts when they’re young.

(2011) Comedy (Sony Classics) Brendan Gleeson, Don Cheadle, Mark Strong, Liam Cunningham, Fionnula Flanagan, David Wilmot, Rory Keenan, Pat Shortt, Katarina Cas, Declan Mannlen, Dominique McElligott, Owen Sharpe, David Pearce, Wale Ojo, Sarah Greene, Darren Healey, Michael Og Lane, Laurence Kinlan, Gary Lydon, Laura Hitchings. Directed by John Michael McDonagh

Offshoring

In a cop buddy film, it always helps if you get complete opposites as partners – check. There needs to be terrific chemistry between the two partners – check. They need to have some pretty nasty baddies to go up against – check. Fun to watch? Read on…

Gerry Boyle (Gleeson) is a member of the Garda (the Irish State police) in the tiny village of Connemara in County Galway. He is liable to drink on the job, spends time with hookers (Greene, McElligott) and his mom (Flanagan), dying in a senior home, in about equal quantities. He spouts off vaguely racist epithets when boozing in the pubs – which is often.

When a body is discovered (with pages of the Bible stuffed in his mouth and a message written in blood on the wall), Gerry doesn’t think too much of it. He honestly doesn’t believe he’ll ever get the resources to solve the crime – on that count he’s wrong, however.

A stick-up-his-ass FBI agent, Wendell Everett (Cheadle) is assigned to the case as it is believed that it is the work of a major drug operation working in the area. Boyle, as one of the senior Garda officers in the region, is assigned to Agent Everett because of his knowledge of the locality. Gerry reacts to this with the same enthusiasm as he might drinking a Slovakian whiskey. It might be good, but it’s not Irish.

The two bicker like an old married couple with Gerry constantly testing Agent Everett’s laid-back demeanor with outrageous statements or questions. Apparently he thinks, or at least to Agent Everett’s perspective, that because Agent Everett is an African-American that he’s an expert on all things ghetto as seen on the American television shows that have made their way to the Emerald Isle.

Still, the triad of drug runners – O’Leary (Wilmot), Sheehy-Skeffington (Cunningham) and their leader Cornell (Strong) are especially vicious and not opposed to burying an FBI agent or a Garda in a shallow unmarked grave if need be. Both men will have to learn to trust and depend on one another if they are not only to survive but to in fact solve the case.

There’s a lot to like about a film like this. McDonagh gives the movie an easygoing Irish charm. There is a lot of sniping back and forth in a way that feels familiar and comfortable, much the way barflies do “take the piss” out of each other. To that end he has done a great job in casting, starting with Gleeson, a gruff and tumble character actor who has that Irish charm that can’t be taught. Making matters even better is the addition of Cheadle, one of the more capable actors working today, who can do drama and comedy with equal precision. The two pros work exceedingly well together and create a partnership that is believable and fun to watch.

The rest of the cast is just as strong, much of it Irish and local to County Galway. There isn’t a performance wasted here and everyone not only knows what’s expected of them but delivers. This is as fluid an ensemble as you’re likely to get, with everyone working well together, even the extras.

Granted, if you’re looking for innovation in cop buddy movies, you won’t find it here. The plot is pretty standard and predictable and despite the lovely Irish edge that the production has, it doesn’t cover up that this is a pretty unremarkable story that most cop film lovers will see what’s coming in throughout. There are also a few slow spots in which not a lot happens, which could easily have been edited out.

That notwithstanding, this is still a pretty damn good film which slipped under a lot of radars here in the States, undeservedly so. If you like cop buddy films and haven’t seen this, by all means do. In fact if you haven’t seen this film, by all means do. The movie is more than entertaining enough for any audiences, but if you’re sensitive to certain words (the one that the Irish pronounce that rhymes with “kook”) be warned that the F bomb is dropped repeatedly to the point that fifteen minutes into the film you become numbed to it as it is used like Americans use “umm” or “err.” Otherwise this is one of those overlooked gems you’ll thank me for hooking you up with.

WHY RENT THIS: Excellent chemistry between Gleeson and Cheadle, and also Gleeson and Flanagan. A laconic Irish charm.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Nothing really daring or innovative plot-wise. Drags in a couple of places.

FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of foul language (nobody curses like the Irish), a little bit of violence, some drug use and a wee bit of sexuality here and there.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: McDonagh is the brother of Martin McDonagh, director of In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There are a few outtakes and the short The Second Death by McDonagh which includes several cast members from The Guard and introduces an early version of Gerry Boyle. There’s also a festival Q&A with Gleeson, Cheadle and McDonagh.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $19.6M on a $6M production budget; this constitutes a minor hit.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Hot Fuzz

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Offshoring, Day 4