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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The Counselor


Michael Fassbender doesn't know what to say when Javier Bardem insists on toasting their barbers.

Michael Fassbender doesn’t know what to say when Javier Bardem insists on toasting their barbers.

(2013) Thriller (20th Century Fox) Michael Fassbender, Javier Bardem, Cameron Diaz, Penelope Cruz, Brad Pitt, Rosie Perez, Ruben Blades, Bruno Ganz, Toby Kebbell, Emma Rigby, Edgar Ramirez, Dean Norris, Natalie Dormer, Goran Visnjic, John Leguizamo, Fernando Cayo, Paris Jefferson, Andrea Deck, Giannina Facio. Directed by Ridley Scott

When we choose to abandon the straight and narrow, we do so most often because of greed. We want more than we would otherwise be entitled to by the dint of our hard work and effort, so we take the shortcut. Sometimes we escape with a tidy sum to put by for a rainy day but more often than not, we reap the consequences of what we have sewn.

The counselor (Fassbender) – he is never given a name in the film – is a sharp lawyer who must have been absent the day they were handing out a conscience. He’s all about the Benjamins, although he is madly in love with Laura (Cruz) whom he has proposed to. While his practice is making him a decent amount of money, he is raking in the cash like he’s printing it thanks to his relationship with Reiner (Bardem) who is part of the Mexican cartel, and middleman Westray (Pitt) who brokers the deals.

Reiner is arranging for the shipment of some drugs from Mexico to Chicago in a septic truck. Being the paranoid sorts that they are, the truck is only going to go as far as Arizona before finishing it’s journey. The Mexican nationals driving the truck get it to its destination, then a courier is supposed to take a kill switch needed to start the truck to the next driver who will finish the job.

Unfortunately, the courier is ambushed and killed on his way to the next driver and that courier happened to be the son of Ruth (Perez), a high-up member of a cartel family that the counselor is defending on a murder charge. To make matters worse, the counselor had sprung the courier from jail after a reckless driving and speeding arrest, which led the cartel to believe that the counselor had something to do with it.

Reiner, Westray and the lawyer are all at risk as are their immediate loved ones which in Reiner’s case is the ice-cold financier Malkina (Diaz) and in Westray’s case is nobody. Malkina, who has a soft spot for watching jaguars take down jackrabbits in the desert and knows more about what’s going on than Reiner or the counselor suspect, promises Reiner that she is going to leave at the first sign of trouble but in point of fact she’s long gone well before that.

As you would expect from a screenplay written by Cormac McCarthy, the plot is very complex and requires a good deal of attention on the audience’s part, particularly during the first few scenes of the movie where those paying close attention can pretty much garner everything they need to figure things out.

The cast is impressive as you might expect with all the A-list power behind the camera. Fassbender is a busy man these days but makes time for a role which is as much of a cipher as any he has played to date. Not only is his character given no name, he isn’t given much of a soul either. That seems to reside all in Cruz who is unaware of the depths of the double dealing her groom-to-be is sinking to.

Bardem, as always, is interesting whether he is shamelessly hamming it up (as he is here) or underplaying discretely (as he does in Skyfall). As you can see in the photo above, there is nothing subtle about Reiner and for that kind of role, Bardem is a good first choice (or fallback as the case may be). Pitt is serviceable as the wise and worldly Westray who understands exactly what sort of people they are up against.

I’ve never been particularly a Cameron Diaz fan but this might be my favorite performance of hers to date. Malkina is a manipulative predator, weaving a web of lust and betrayal and then striking as true and as deadly as a cobra. It is one of the best female villain roles since Cruella de Ville – while Charlize Theron as Aileen Wuornos in Monster did show someone who was evil, you can’t really call truly call the role that of a villain.

The movie is pretty convoluted in places and there are a lot of characters who show up, say a few lines and then disappear for good. Perhaps the audience might have appreciated combining some of these roles or at least having other characters mouth the platitudes. The bean-counters would have appreciated it as well.

McCarthy is never a particularly easy read and this screenplay, an original story by the Pulitzer Prize-winning author, isn’t always easy to watch. The sex is in your face (quite literally at times) and those who are uncomfortable with sexuality will certainly be disturbed by what they see here. There are some pretty violent moments as well with at least one beheading and a lot of bodies being shot to pieces. Those sensitive to those sorts of things should take note too.

Still, this is a solid thriller that is a little smarter than most and a bit better-written as well. It is a grim movie that just gets bleaker as the film goes on and as the Counselor and his allies realize that they are trapped in a situation that there is no escaping, try as they might. This may not end up in anyone’s top 5 Ridley Scott movie lists but it should certainly make his top ten.

REASONS TO GO: Generally smart and well-written. Fassbender, Bardem and Pitt are terrific and Diaz makes a surprisingly vicious femme fatale.

REASONS TO STAY: Convoluted and hard to follow in places. Unrelentingly grim.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is some fairly graphic violence and language, along with a few morbid images and a fairly extensive and graphic amount of sex and conversations about the same.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Production shut down for a week in August 2012 after the suicide of director Ridley Scott’s brother Tony, who was also a co-founder of their production company Scott Free. The movie is dedicated to him.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/4/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 37% positive reviews. Metacritic: 49/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Scarface (1983)

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Winged Migration

Snitch


This is NOT an expression you want to see on Dwayne Johnson's face when he's walking towards you.

This is NOT an expression you want to see on Dwayne Johnson’s face when he’s walking towards you.

(2013) Action (Summit) Dwayne Johnson, Barry Pepper, Susan Sarandon, Benjamin Bratt, Jon Bernthal, Michael Kenneth Williams, Melina Kanakaredes, Nadine Velazquez, Harold Perrineau, Lela Loren, Rafi Gavron, JD Pardo, David Harbour, Kyara Campos, Ashlynn Ross, Kym Jackson. Directed by Ric Roman Waugh

In the United States, the War on Drugs has led to harsh mandatory sentencing laws in which first time offenders with no prior record who are caught with a sufficient amount of illegal narcotics in their possession will be charged with possession with intent to distribute. In these cases, the accused can be sentenced if found guilty to minimum jail terms longer than given to those convicted of manslaughter or rape.

Jason Collins (Gavron) is Skyping with a friend who wants to send him some ecstasy to hold onto. Jason doesn’t want to do it but his friend sends them anyway. Jason foolishly accepts the shipment and immediately the DEA break down the doors and arrest his ass. His mom Sylvia (Kanakaredes) calls her ex-husband John Matthews (Johnson) and the two are pretty much left to cool their heels before anyone will even talk to them much less allow them to see their son.

They discover that Jason was set up by his friend who used the arrest of Jason as a means of getting his own sentence reduced. If Jason can supply another drug dealer for arrest, his own sentence will be reduced as well but Jason doesn’t know any other drug dealers besides the jerk who set him up and refuses to set up one of his friends in the same manner he was, even though he’s facing ten years minimum and 30 years maximum.

Frustrated and desperate, John goes to see US Attorney Joanne Keeghan (Sarandon) who is also running for Senate on an anti-crime platform. There’s really nothing she can do; the laws tie her hands, she explains. John then offers himself as a snitch; if he can find a drug dealer for his son, can his help be used to reduce Jason’s sentence?

John enlists the help of one of the employees at his trucking/construction firm, Daniel James (Bernthal) who is an ex-con with two narcotics distribution convictions on his record without telling him that the DEA is involved. Daniel introduces John to Malik (Williams) who realizes that John’s trucking company offers him a transportation means that he wouldn’t ordinarily have access to and is much safer than what he’s used to. But being a drug dealer, he is naturally suspicious so he set John up for a milk run, insisting that Daniel accompany him.

John and Daniel do their end, monitored by Agent Collins (Pepper). However when Collins overhears Malik tell them when he gets the delivery of his drugs that he wants to set up a meet with Mexican cartel head El Topo (Bratt), things are moved to another level. Daniel, who discovers what John is up to, realize that both of their families are at risk. Mexican cartels are known for their vicious approach to informants. Now John is in way over his head and pretty much no matter what happens he’s going to lose.

This is a movie that can’t make up its mind whether to be a rip-roaring action film or a serious drama examining the consequences of mandatory sentence laws. In all honesty Waugh could have taken this in either direction and made a successful film. Unfortunately he kind of dithers and tries to have it both ways and in the end the movie winds up suffering a little bit.

It’s not due to the cast however. Johnson is one of the most charismatic actors out there and continues to improve. This is one of his most dramatic roles yet and he handles it without mugging (which he sometimes does, a throwback to his wrestling days) and with a surprising amount of restraint. I don’t know that he’s ever going to win any Oscars (although I get the sense that he’s capable of accomplishing anything he sets his mind to) but he has graduated onto the Hollywood A-list and I suspect will remain on it for a long time to come.

Bernthal, an alumnus of The Walking Dead shows a whole lot of potential for big screen success. As the ex-con trying to get his life turned around he’s playing a role nearly the polar opposite of Shane, a good cop who was turning ruthless and amoral. He has tons of charisma and holds his own with Johnson which is a pretty nifty feat.

Pepper, looking like he was attending a try-out for The Mandarin in Iron Man 3 is a DEA agent with a conscience while Sarandon is a tough as nails prosecutor who doesn’t care who gets trampled in her ambitions. In fact, most of the cast here ranges from solid to spectacular. As action movies go, this is phenomenally well-acted.

The atmosphere is gritty as well; we get a sense of all the worlds from that of the successful business owner to that of the paranoid drug dealer. I was impressed by a few of the action sequences (like a gun battle at a scrap metal yard) although they were fairly sparse; the car chase that is the film’s denouement isn’t particularly noteworthy but it at least maintains our interest.

I liked this movie and thought it had a lot of potential. There were a few pathways that they didn’t choose to go down that might have warranted at least a little exploration (did Matthews’ wife suspect he was lying to her for example) and there were a few credibility stretches here and there but all in all this is a better movie than we had a right to expect. In a year when the quality of most of the major releases has been meager, that’s a blessing in and of itself.

REASONS TO GO: Johnson is a terrific performer and gets excellent support.

REASONS TO STAY: Tries to walk the tightrope between action film and true crime drama and doesn’t always succeed.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is plenty of violence and some drug content.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The writers were inspired by a Frontline documentary on mandatory sentencing laws but didn’t use any specific incidents as the basis for their film.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/21/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 56% positive reviews. Metacritic: 52/100; the reviews were pretty mediocre trending towards the negative.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Fast Five

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Radio