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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Terminator Genisys


I just want to set the world on fire...

I just want to set the world on fire…

(2015) Science Fiction (Paramount) Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jason Clarke, Jai Courtney, Emilia Clarke, J.K. Simmons, Dayo Okeniyi, Matthew Smith, Courtney B. Vance, Byung-hun Lee, Michael Gladis, Sandrine Holt, Wayne Bastrup, Gregory Alan Williams, Otto Sanchez, Matty Ferraro, Griff Furst, Ian Etheridge, Nolan Gross, Seth Meriwether, Afemo Omilami, Teri Wyble. Directed by Alan Taylor

Some franchises seem to need little encouragement to be creative. Some tell a single story over the course of several films. Others essentially make the same movie over and over again.

The War Against the Machines is reaching it’s end; John Connor (J.Clarke) and his troops are storming an L.A. prison camp which hides Skynet’s secret weapon even as another brigade is storming the main server complex in Colorado. Complete victory is within their grasp; except that Skynet has sent a Terminator (Schwarzenegger) back in time to assassinate Sarah Connor (E. Clarke), his mother, before he can be born. John sends his right hand man, Kyle Reese (Courtney) back in time to stop the unstoppable cyborg.

Sounds familiar right? But this isn’t a reboot. When Reese gets there he discovers the Terminator has already been dispatched – by another Terminator, reprogrammed and sent back further in time to save Sarah – and now to save all of them from a liquid metal T-1000 (Lee) that is nearly impossible to destroy, but clever Sarah manages to find a way.

Now, they have a chance to stop Judgment Day itself but something is wrong with the timeline. Reese saw John getting attacked just before he was sent back in time and now Judgment Day isn’t in 1997 but in 2017. And the means that the nuclear holocaust will be achieved is through a new operating system, Genisys, that will link up everybody and everything – including the nukes. With the aging Terminator whom Sarah calls Pops – as he keeps insisting, he’s old not obsolete – the two will try to save the world from Skynet one last time but Skynet has an ace up it’s sleeve that nobody foresaw – except those who saw Paramount’s second trailer for the movie that spoils one of the biggest and unexpected twists that could have been this summer.

The Terminator franchise has seen better days. The first two films in the franchise were box office smashes and are beloved of science fiction and action film fans alike. The last two have done decent financial numbers but both critics and fans alike have excoriated both of them. Where in that demarcation does this one fall?

The latter, unfortunately. Critics have given this a spanking as you can see by the numbers below and fans have been essentially unimpressed. To be honest, I can’t say that this is one of the better movies in the series but it isn’t the worst either – Terminator Salvation gets that dubious honor – and quite frankly I think it holds up pretty well, despite the critical lambasting it has taken.

]Schwarzenegger, who essentially just made cameos during the last two films which were both filmed during his gubernatorial days but is fully back here and he steals the show. Arnold has never been the greatest of actors (though he has improved) but he’s always had a load of charisma. He manages to play the sympathetic Terminator nicely with genuinely horrifying attempts at a human smile, and a few unintentionally funny quips.

Too bad Arnold as a robot is more lifelike than the human characters. Jason Clarke has shown himself to be a capable lead actor in Life on Mars and in other films, but here he seems terribly lost. I’m not sure if he just required better direction, or any direction but I get the sense that he’s not sure how to play this messianic character and so plays him without much to recommend him by. At least he does a better job than Christian Bale did.

Courtney, who has been a villain in the Hunger Games movies does a mite better, but again seems a bit over his head. The same could be said for Emilia Clarke who has turned heads in Game of Thrones but seems strident and unlikable here instead of tough. Makes one wish her colleague in Thrones, Lena Headey, would have been the one asked to take the role here. She did a far better job in The Sarah Connor Chronicles.

The action sequences are better than average and the special effects likewise. Where the movie really falls down is in the story; it’s so convoluted, with parallel timelines and all sorts of techno babble which ends up slowing the momentum of the movie down at key moments (in one incredible sequence, four different characters try explain a plot point four times to a disbelieving character which is just beyond comprehension why anyone writing a major summer movie would do that. I think they should have simplified things a little or just didn’t explain anything and let the audience just go with it. They would have been better off in the long run. However, fans of the series might be interested to know that there will be at least two more movies made; Paramount has already greenlit them because the rights to the franchise revoke back to James Cameron in 2019 so the studio intends to get as much return from their investment as possible. I hope that the audience does, too.

REASONS TO GO: Some fine summer entertainment and eye candy. Schwarzenegger is clearly having fun.
REASONS TO STAY: Convoluted plot. A little too much like previous entries in the franchise.
FAMILY VALUES: A good deal of sci-fi violence and gun fighting, some partial nudity and a few choice words here and there.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Jason Clarke is the fifth actor to play John Connor. Rusty Griswold of the Vacation series has also had five actors in the same role, the only characters known to have that many different actors playing them.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/12/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 27% positive reviews. Metacritic: 38/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: I, Robot
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Desire for Beauty

My Country, My Country


Dr. Riyadh works both sides of the fence.

Dr. Riyadh works both sides of the fence.

(2006) Documentary (Zeitgeist) Dr. Riyadh al-Adhadh, David Brancaccio, Carlos Valenzuela, Aaron Castle, Kristopher Scarcliff, Maria Hinojosa, Andre Remmers, Richard Armitage, Edward Wong, Scott Farren-Price, Peter Towndrow, Edward Robertson, Renato Gonclaves. Directed by Laura Poitras

There are many reasons to be against having our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. Here in the United States, we tend to look at it from the standpoint of the safety of our soldiers and that is certainly valid. We want the brave men and women of our armed forces home safe. In a perfect world, they wouldn’t need to be in harm’s way.

We don’t, however, generally look at it from the viewpoint of the occupied territory. One award-winning filmmaker, Laura Poitras (whose Flag Wars won a Peabody Award in 2003) spent nine months on her own in Iraq during the height of our presence there in 2005. She followed Dr. Riyadh al-Adhadh, a physician who runs a free clinic in Baghdad, a father of six and an activist in the Iraqi Muslim party and a devout Sunni.

He is running for public office during Iraq’s first democratic elections since the fall of Saddam Hussein but has an uphill climb on that score – many of his fellow Sunnis are boycotting the election, believing them to be a sham and an American manipulation. While Dr. Riyadh is an outspoken critic of the American occupation (we see him visit the notorious Abu Gharib prison and interview some of the inmates through the barbed wire fence), he believes in democracy for the Iraqi people as being the best outcome possible for them.

Poitras also spent time with a team of Australian security contractors whose job turned out to be a lot more than insuring the delivery of ballots to and from the polling systems – at one point they make a weapon buying run to northern Iraq. She was also allowed to attend American military briefings, getting the point of view of the occupiers who were fully aware that the elections would provide the perfect opportunity for dissidents to kill lots of people and wanted to insure the safety of those wishing to vote.

We get a sense of the deep division within the Islamic community of Iraq, as moderates and extremists vie for control of the country. We also get a sense of the utter chaos that this great country has descended to, at least as of 2005. I certainly hope that things have improved there since then although I have to be honest – my gut feeling is that they haven’t, at least more than negligibly.

I wound up truly admiring Dr. Riyadh; he is a man committed to the betterment of his community and his country. He was fully aware that his positions which he was unafraid to make public put a target squarely on his back and on that of his family (they joke about it near the end of the film). Poitras also had a target on her back but surprisingly it was from her own government; she was observed filming from a rooftop during an ambush sequence (which she denied at the time and later admitted to); detractors claimed she had prior knowledge of the attack and since the filming she has been put on a Homeland Security watchlist as a terrorist sympathizer, which is absolute bollocks in my opinion but then, it’s not backed on anything concrete other than my belief that her status is more of a knee-jerk reaction on the part of the HSA. I would assume if they had any concrete evidence that she was supporting anti-American behavior that she’d have been arrested by now.

In any case, I found the film to be an objective look at the occupation from the viewpoint of the occupied, one which we should be considering. I got the sense that Dr. Riyadh and other Iraqis are not so much anti-American but anti-occupation; they want their country back and who could blame them? It’s sad however that Poitras has been regarded with suspicion and harassment for presenting these views; perhaps while we are so concerned with attacks on the Second Amendment, we might also take a look at attacks on the First as well.

WHY RENT THIS: A look at occupied Iraq in as an objective a fashion as you’re likely to ever see.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: I found it hard to follow in places and at times wasn’t sure what was going on.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some disturbing images and a little bit of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: First aired as a part of the prestigious PBS P.O.V. documentary series, this was an Oscar nominee for best documentary feature in 2007 although it didn’t win.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There is 15 minutes of additional footage shot at Abu Gharib.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $33,620 on an unreported production budget; I’m guessing the movie probably broke even.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Ghosts of Abu Gharib

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Accidents Happen