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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Cartel Land


Dominion over all he surveys.

Dominion over all he surveys.

(2015) Documentary (The Orchard) Jose Manuel Mireles, Tim “Nailer” Foley, Paco Valencia, Nicolas “El Gordo” Santana, Estanislao Beltran, Janet Fields, Ana Delia Valencia, Maria Imilse. Directed by Matthew Heineman

Florida Film Festival 2015

It is no secret that the drug wars on the Colombian cartels have led to the rise of the equally vicious Mexican cartels. They have become so arrogant and so untouchable in their own country that they have brought their violence and presence into ours. There are those on both sides of the border who would put a stop to them.

In Arizona, former Iraq War veteran Tim “Nailer” Foley leads a group of irregulars in nightly border patrols. Goaded into action when he lost his construction job during the economic collapse of 2008 and then watched as the same companies paid illegal aliens far less under the table for the work he had been doing, Foley’s mission was initially to assist the Border Patrol in rounding up illegals.

That changed when he began to witness firsthand the violence and incursions into U.S. territory of the Cartels. He speaks disparagingly of Mexican illegal aliens and one might guess that he is a racist in an area where that isn’t as uncommon as we might like. Nailer himself claims he’s not a racist, but there is a likelihood that there are those in his group that are; these sorts of vigilante groups tend to attract them. However, the more that his group is observed, they become less intolerant rednecks playing at toy soldier and more men who are frustrated by a situation that is spiraling out of control with the appearance that nothing is being done about it.

Nailer is plain-spoken and a bit rough around the edges but there’s no doubting his patriotism nor his resolve. He’s not out there shooting at anything brown-skinned that moves; he’s looking for scouts for the Cartels with the intention of holding them until the Border Patrol can arrive and arrest them. It is somewhat ingenious that Heineman sets up this segment for the audience to dislike Nailer and his group but eventually sympathize with them, and maybe even respect them the longer the film goes on.

On the other side of the border are the Autodefensas, a group of citizen vigilantes in the Michoacán state of Mexico where the Knights Templar cartel reigns supreme. Sick of their families, neighbors and friends being butchered with impunity as the corrupt police and political arms of the state do nothing to protect them, they form their own paramilitary group led by the charismatic doctor Jose Manuel Mireles. As he goes from town to town, garnering recruits and cleaning out elements of the cartel, he becomes something of a folk hero much like Pancho Villa.

Surrounded by a loyal inner circle, he seems poised to make a real difference in the life of his community but things go terribly, incredibly wrong. Mireles becomes something of a rock star and the fame begins to interfere with his ability to administrate his group. Soon they begin torturing suspected cartel members and when Mireles is shot and steps down to recuperate, it becomes clear that the agenda of the Autodefensas is not what it first appeared to be.

The movie is brilliantly edited, taking the audience places it doesn’t expect to go. It is also beautifully shot, with the desolation of the Altar Valley in Arizona contrasting with the poverty-stricken towns and villages of Michoacán. Likewise, the rough-hewn personality of Nailer contrasts mightily with the charismatic and flamboyant personality of Mireles, whose fall from grace is absolutely heartbreaking.

The movie begins with shots of masked cartel members cooking meth in the desert. One of them, surprisingly articulate, talks about how the recipe was learned from an American father and son, and that he is fully aware that the drugs going into the United States are doing damage there, but he shrugs off any sort of guilt. This is the way it is and he didn’t set things up that way; he’s just playing the cards he was dealt. Later on we return to that scene and the movie is tied together nicely as we learn the identity of the masked man.

The Michoacán portion of the movie with street battles, a more immediate sense of danger and maybe the most emotionally wrenching part of the movie, is far more effective on the surface than the Arizona segments which are less exciting, but the skillful way Heineman edits his film allows Arizona to have an equal amount of power, albeit much more subtle. However, the issue of racism in American border vigilante groups that I brought up earlier in the review really isn’t discussed in much more than an arbitrary fashion; I think the movie would have benefitted from a little more focus on the subject.

Nailer says early on that vigilantes are given a bad name by the press, but he’s not entirely accurate on that score. The fall of the Autodefensas shows why those who take the law into their own hands are liable to create their own laws – which subverts the good work they set out to do. The Arizona group, who changed from a group keeping illegal aliens out and unintentionally became crime fighters assisting the border patrol, show that the opposite can be true as well.

REASONS TO GO: About as intense as it gets. Changes direction unexpectedly. Michoacán segments far more effective than the ones shot in Arizona.
REASONS TO STAY: Way too long. Doesn’t really explore the issue of racism in the Arizona segment.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of adult language and themes and some disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Throughout the shoot, Heineman often acted as his own cinematographer and as a result came under fire several times.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/2/15: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cocaine Cowboys
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Tomorrowland

A Better Life


Demian Bichir wonders if there is a better life anywhere.

Demian Bichir wonders if there is a better life anywhere.

(2011) Drama (Summit) Demian Bichir, Eddie “Piotin” Sotelo, Joaquin Cosio, Jose Julian, Nancy Lenehan, Gabriel Chavarria, Bobby Soto, Chelsea Rendon, Trampas Thompson, Tim Griffin, Valorie Hubbard, Dolores Heredia, Isabella Rae Thomas, Carlos Linares, Robert Peters, Richard Cabral, Bella Balajadia, Giselle Nieto, Rolando Molina, Taide Acosta. Directed by Chris Weitz

When we discuss the question of illegal immigration, often we tend to speak in generalities, both sides often ignoring the fact that we’re not talking about concepts or generalities but of flesh and blood. Whatever side we choose to hang our hat on, the truth is that every one of these illegal aliens are human beings with hopes, dreams, frustrations and feelings.

Carlos Galindo (Bichir) has all of these things. He has worked hard, raising his son Luis (Julian) essentially by himself after his wife walked out on him to marry a U.S. citizen and get her own slice of American pie. He works with Blasco Martinez (Cosio) who owns a landscaping business that has been successful enough that Blasco is ready to retire back to Mexico to a ranch there he has purchased. He proposes to give Carlos the business, or rather sell it to him including the pickup truck he drives them in to the various clients but Carlos is short three thousand dollars. He borrows the amount from his sister Anita (Heredia) and it looks like things are falling into place for Carlos.

Instead, things fall apart when the precious truck is stolen. Being illegal, Carlos has no drivers license and can’t get a new one, even if he could afford it. He has to get that truck back and with Luis in tow, makes a desperate jaunt into the various nooks and crannies of Hispanic L.A. to not only find the truck but to save Luis, who is edging closer and closer to joining a gang.

Weitz, who has movies as disparate as About a Boy and The Twilight Series: New Moon under his belt, continues to direct movies that are as different from one another as can be; I would challenge you to find a director with a filmography as varied as his. This is yet another notch on his belt that is different in flavor from all the others.

Weitz has an eye and ear for the immigrant experience, from the gang culture to the hard workers in kitchens and as domestics, in clubs and bars to the businesses and homes. One of his smartest moves was in casting Bichir, a veteran of Mexican telenovelas in the lead role. Bichir, who would go on to garner acclaim in the FX series The Bridge gives a career-making performance here, full of dignity and strength but with an edge of fear as well; fear not just that he will be caught and deported but that he will lose his son to the seductive siren call of thug life. Julian does solid work as does the rest of the mainly unknown supporting cast but it is Bichir who shines.

While the life of the illegal is presented in a sober and unflinching light, it is hard not to preach a little bit about the way these people are marginalized and taken for granted. The L.A. economic engine, however, would sputter and come to a screeching halt without the labor that they provide and, in a larger sense, that of nearly the entire Southwest; a sizable portion of the fresh vegetables and fruit that you eat were harvested by illegal hands.

While occasionally heavy handed, the movie remains compelling from beginning to end, largely because Bichir gives that human face depth and color. The success of the movie is that it presents Carlos as a flawed man but essentially a good one who wants nothing more than to give his child a better life than the one he has and isn’t that what most parents want for their own children?

WHY RENT THIS: Humanizes illegal aliens. Scintillating performance by Bichir.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Occasionally preachy.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some brief violence, a smattering of foul language and some drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Bichir received a Best Actor nomination at the 2012 Oscars.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is a music video from the Grammy-winning band Ozomatli.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $1.8M on a $10M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray Rental), Amazon (rent/buy), Vudu (rent/buy),  iTunes (rent/buy), Flixster (purchase only), Target Ticket (unavailable)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Bicycle Thieves
FINAL RATING: 6,5/10
NEXT: Woman in Gold

Men in Black


Koochy Koochy Koo.

Koochy Koochy Koo.

(1997) Sci-Fi Comedy (Columbia) Tommy Lee Jones, Will Smith, Linda Fiorentino, Vincent D’Onofrio, Rip Torn, Tony Shalhoub, Siobhan Fallon, Mike Nussbaum, Jon Gries, Sergio Calderon, Carel Stuycken, Fredric Lane, Richard Hamilton, Kent Faulcon, John Alexander, David Cross, Keith Campbell, Patrick Breen, Becky Ann Baker. Directed by Barry Sonnenfeld

Waiting for Oscar

1998 OSCAR NOMINATIONS
Best Musical Score – Danny Elfman
Best Set Decoration – Bo Welch, Cheryl Carasik
WINS – 1
Best Make-Up – Rick Baker, David LeRoy Anderson

Conspiracy theorists are generally certain that our planet has been visited by extraterrestrial life; some of them go so far as to say that these visitations come with government help and co-operation. There are those who think that there is an entire agency who oversees the extraterrestrial presence on Earth.

James Edwards (Smith) is a cop. He’s a very good cop; dogged, determined and a pretty smart cookie. When he runs down a suspect whose eyes blink the wrong way, he inadvertently is exposed to something that certain agencies don’t want him to see. Agent K (Jones), a man in a terribly fitting black suit, questions Detective Edwards about the affair, taking him to see Jeebs (Shalhoub), an informant of the NYPD who is also, it turns out, an informant of the Men in Black, the agency Agent K works for. When K gets what he needs, he wipes the memory of Edwards but because he’s looking for a new partner, gives him a business card. Edwards’ unorthodox way of thinking grabs the attention of K’s boss, Zed (Torn). Edwards’ identity is completely erased from existence and he becomes Agent J.

When a Bug lands on the planet and takes over the skin of Upstate New York farmer Edgar (D’Onofrio), it sets the stage for an all out catastrophe. See, the Bug kills a member of the Arquillian Royal Family in order to get a hold of an inexhaustible power supply called the Galaxy. With the Bugs at war with the Arquillians, this presents quite a dilemma; the Arquillians don’t want them to have it and are willing to destroy the Earth to make sure they don’t get it.

With the help of a New York City coroner (Fiorentino) who gets caught in the middle, the Men in Black run down the Bug but he is in the course of getting away using spacecraft hiding in plain sight of all New Yorkers. It is up to the Men in Black to save the day and protect the planet.

Based on a comic book originally published by Malibu Comics which was in turn bought by Marvel, the success of this movie would lead Marvel to go ahead and sell the rights of Spider-Man to Columbia and X-Men to Fox, leading to the explosion of comic book films that dominates the box office landscape today. It also made Smith one of the biggest stars in Hollywood where he also remains today.

The movie displayed a kind of ironic sense of humor that melded the 60s and the 90s, bringing the kitsch of that era back in a big way. The New York World’s Fair of 1964 was on display with the New York Pavilion Towers figuring prominently in the climax, but also the overall architecture of the fair which was echoed throughout the MIB headquarters in Battery Park. Well, below it actually. Strangely, it’s largely because of this era dichotomy that the movie doesn’t feel dated as we approach it’s 20th anniversary in 2017.

The chemistry between Jones and Smith was genuine and worked nicely, the laconic and humorless Jones making an able counterpoint to the ‘tude of Smith who was as modern as they get in 1997. Although they would reprise their roles in two more films to date, the first movie was really the magical one in this regard.

In many ways this movie is to science fiction what Ghostbusters is to horror. The genre elements are as good as they get, but the humor makes this movie as much fun as a movie can be. While folks don’t really consider this an Oscar type of picture, it actually won a golden statuette and was nominated for three all told. In this case, all of the honors it got were richly deserved.

WHY RENT THIS: Incredible kitschy fun. Will Smith kicks off his film career with a classic. Quirky sense of humor.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: At times can be a little too far-out for the mainstream.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s some violence and a little bit of foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Originally, Clint Eastwood was offered the part of Agent Kay but he turned it down, preferring to concentrate on his directing career.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: All editions include a plethora of special features, including a music video, storyboard to finished product comparisons, mini-featurettes on the special effects and other technical areas of the movie and the Blu-Ray includes an “Ask Frank the Pug” feature which is a great time-waster for about 35 seconds before it gets old.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $589.4M on a $90M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray rental), Amazon (buy/rent), Vudu (buy/rent),  iTunes (buy/rent), Flixster (purchase only), Target Ticket (purchase only)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Addams Family
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: Waiting for Oscar continues!

Intermedio


While they're both pretty in pink, Molly Ringwald they're not.

While they’re both pretty in pink, Molly Ringwald they’re not.

(2005) Horror (The Asylum) Edward Furlong, Steve Railsback, Cerina Vincent, Amber Benson, Callard Harris, Paul Cram, Alejandro Samaniego, Dean Arevalo, Eric Castelton, Josef Geiger, Richard Miranda, Michael Latt, Serina Latt, Adam Gobble. Directed by Andrew Lauer

We all want to have some sort of control over our own lives. However, it is the things that we cannot control that eludes us and drives us crazy. The things we cannot explain, most of all – how can we control what we don’t understand?

Malik (Furlong) and his ex-girlfriend Gen (Vincent), her friend Barbie (Benson) who incongruously wears a t-shirt that says “Kari” and her other friend Wes (Harris) decide to take a weekend trip to a ghost town. Now this wouldn’t be bad in and of itself but they make a stop at an abandoned mining operation with miles of tunnels that are said to stretch to the Mexican border. Even though Gen and Malik’s fathers both disappeared in those self-same tunnels, the four decide to climb down and take a look for themselves. Poor decision making at its finest.

Once there they run into a couple of drug dealers – Jorge (Samaniego) and Al (Arevalo) with their mute tag-along teen friend Zee (Cram) – hauling in some contraband from Mexico. The armed dealers force the other four to accompany them. This makes no sense whatsoever – why not just shoot them and be done with it? – but fortunately, or unfortunately depending on your point of view, they are attacked by vicious ghosts. Or spirits. Or specters. Or whatever you want to call them.

This leads to much screaming, lots of running and some pretty nifty deaths. There seems to be no way out of this maze of tunnels. The criminals and the criminally stupid must join forces to survive but there are some questions to be answered – what are these ghosts and why are they so angry? Who is the mysterious old man (Railsback) and what does he have to do with any of this? And why doesn’t Zee have anything to say?

The Asylum is known for low-budget direct-to-video horror films that often crop up on premium cable movie channels and like many low-budget direct-to-video horror film studios runs the gamut in terms of quality. Certainly the special effects are none-too-special here, a combination of practical effects and CGI that aren’t terrifying at all.

Furlong, who once played John Connor in Terminator 2: Judgment Day has had a checkered career since then that has been plagued by substance abuse and legal issues stemming from domestic abuse cases. He is reasonably talented, particularly when it comes to playing characters with a dark disposition as he does here. I do hope he figures things out and gets his life in order; he’s had a rough life from day one and deserves a little happiness.

Benson, one of the mainstays of the Buffy the Vampire Slayer series is reasonably hot although Vincent isn’t hard on the eyes at all herself and essentially, they both are playing generic scream queens (heroine and victim of course). They mostly have to run through dusty tunnels and swear a lot – and I do mean a lot. People offended by bad language will feel their eardrums bursting into flames here.

I like the premise quite a bit and there was a worthwhile horror film to be made here but it’s a victim of lazy writing and a budget that didn’t match their ambitions. Horror movies get a bad rap sometimes for these same reasons; they can’t help the latter so much but the former they certainly can. Cranking out gore for gore’s sake doesn’t a good horror movie make. I hope sometime that producers of the genre will realize that a horror movie is like any other movie in that if you want to make a good movie, you need interesting characters and well-thought out plots. Just throwing a bunch of generic horror film characters into a standard situation – or even a nifty idea – doesn’t really do anything for anybody. This isn’t a total waste of time and energy (I’m an Amber Benson fan admittedly) but it could have used a bit of care and love in pre-production before any film was actually shot.

WHY RENT THIS: Nice concept.  Benson is memorable.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Poorly shot and so murky in places you can’t tell what’s going on. Sound cuts out at one point. Cheesy CGI.

FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of violence and gore and a surfeit of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Barbie is on crutches in the movie due to an injury actress Amber Benson suffered prior to filming.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not applicable.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: From Dusk Til Dawn

FINAL RATING: 4/10

NEXT: District B-13: Ultimatum

A Beautiful Life (2008)


A Beautiful Life

When Jesse Garcia tells Angela Sarafyan that he loves her for more than her body, her expression makes it clear she’s heard that one before.

(2008) Drama (New Films International) Debi Mazar, Dana Delaney, Bai Ling, Angela Sarafyan, Jesse Garcia, Jonathan LaPaglia, Walter Perez, Enrique Castillo, Ronnie Gene Blevins, Rena Owen, Meltem Cumbul, Bill Lithgow, Ho-Jung. Directed by Alejandro Chomski

 

Desperation leads people to doing things that they wouldn’t ordinarily think of doing. Sometimes, being driven to that state can be a very short trip indeed.

Maggie (Sarafyan) gets off the bus in Los Angeles underage, scared and alone. Seeing the population of hookers and junkies, she finds herself a dumpster to hide in and get some sleep. There she is found by David (Garcia), a dishwasher in a strip club. He marches her to see Esther (Ling), a stripper with an eye towards a singing career but also one with the proverbial heart of gold. She cajoles David into taking Maggie in until she can get back on her feet.

The two approach each other warily at first but Maggie eventually gets work at a Korean market while David makes steady cash at the club. However, a raid on the club leaves David without a job (did I mention he was here illegally?) and things begin to get desperate. Maggie isn’t making a lot of money at the grocery and soon is let go from that job too. Still, it is when you are in desperate straits that strong bonds are formed and Maggie and David begin to fall in love.

However, sex between them is odd. Maggie can’t do it unless David is hurting her – this stems from a trauma that caused her to run away in the first place (bet you can’t guess what it was) and this frustrates David who wants to express more tender feelings towards his girlfriend. The two, no longer able to afford rent, squat. And getting to the point where they can’t afford food, David takes to selling drugs which leads to problems of their own.

This is based on a play by Wendy Hammond called “Jersey City.” I haven’t seen the play or read it, so I must assume that based on the title the movie has been relocated on the opposite coast, perhaps to highlight an area where illegal immigration is much more of an immediate problem.

The characters here are living on the edge of society. For the most part, they are completely marginalized, although Mazar plays a sympathetic librarian who gets Maggie interested in learning and earning that G.E.D. while Delaney plays Maggie’s mom who lives conveniently nearby and comes through with timely assistance. Beyond that, this is about people who are as poor as the people in this country get, barely subsisting and never quite sure what the future holds.

The movie is mostly about Sarafyan and Garcia, and they do fairly well. Sarafyan’s character isn’t always sympathetic; she’s pretty messed up (and understandably so) but like many messed up people she lashes out at those who care about her and sometimes makes decision based on the maximum amount of harm that can befall her when she’s in a state of self-loathing. This isn’t a movie about role models necessarily, although you can make a case that their advanced survival instinct is admirable but then again most animals have a survival instinct.

The movie gets the grim reality of homelessness and poverty right but for some reason – whether scenes ended up on the cutting room floor, or because there is a lack of responsible continuity checking in the writing – characters drift in and out of the film without explanation. In fact, one of the main characters essentially disappears from the movie for the final third of it as the film focuses on David’s drug dealing. That final third almost seems like an entirely different movie.

This is one of those movies that drives me crazy. On the one hand, there are portions of it that are extremely well-written but then there are things that just seem like the screenwriters just weren’t paying attention or just didn’t care. There are moments here that shine and others that made me roll my eyes. I kind of want to recommend it – and I kind of don’t. If you do elect to see it, be prepared to be driven crazy by it – or to have it stick with you for a very long time. Maybe both.

WHY RENT THIS: Suitably grim and grimy. Reasonably well performed by the young leads.. 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The plot lacks direction and cohesion. Characters appear and disappear from the story without explanation.

FAMILY VALUES: The is some drug use, more than a little sexuality, nudity, depictions of masochistic sex, an attempted rape and a bunch of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The original play this was based on, “Jersey City,” was first produced at the Second Stage Company in New York City in 1989.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Data not available..

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Saint of Fort Washington

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: White Material

Ladron Que Roba a Ladron


Ladron Que Roba a Ladron

Danny Ocean ain't got nothin' on us.

(Lionsgate) Fernando Colunga, Miguel Varoni, Julio Gonzalo, Oscar Torre, Gabriel Soto, Ivonne Montero, Saul Lisazo, Ruben Garifias, Sonya Smith. Directed by Joe Menendez

The best way to get away with something is to escape notice. The least likely suspects are the perfect cover for the perfect heist.

Alejandro Toledo (Colunga) and Emilio Lopez (Varoni) are con artists, and they’re pretty damn good. They’ve snuck into the United States to take on a target that has some particular meaning to them – Moctesuma Valdez (Lisazo), a Latino infomercial king who preys on his own community, advertising ludicrous products that purport to reverse hair loss, relieve arthritis and even cure cancer. None of them work, of course. He’s made millions but because he distrusts banks, has it all stored in a vault deep in his Los Angeles mansion. Toledo and Lopez want it all.

Part of their zeal is personal – Valdez used to be a member of their crew. However, the current members of their crew don’t want anything to do with this caper; it’s far too risky and their ploy of having the crew pose as day laborers doesn’t appeal to the professional villains. So, rather than throwing in the towel, they recruit actual day laborers with a particular set of skills; an unemployed actor and master of disguise (Torre), a sexy mechanic (Montero) and her valet father (Garifias), and a ditch digger and tunneling expert (Soto).

The two masterminds come up with a brilliant plan, but they need people who have never before committed a criminal act in their lives to be cool as cucumbers under pressure. The stakes are high, but the payoff is worth the risk.

Menendez is mostly known for his television work, both in the young adult and Latin genres but he shows a surprisingly deft touch here. The movie balances the heist elements with a light comedic touch and even a bit of social commentary, as the status of illegals and day workers as non-people in this country are aired.

This is a bit of Oceans 11 lite, albeit on a less ambitious scale – which I guess is what lite implies anyway. While Danny Ocean robbed casinos to open his ex-wife’s eyes about the man she was with (which I suppose is a cause), there is a kind of Robin Hood feel to this one as the crew are fighting to protect the exploitation of desperate Latinos.

The cast are mostly veterans of Latin American television, both here in the States and south of the border as well. Some of them are extremely well-known in the Latin community but are for the most part largely unknown to mainstream audiences. However, they acquit themselves well and several of them – particularly Montero and Colunga – could cross over to more mainstream movies very easily without missing a beat and find a lot of success in doing it.

I knew very little about the movie other than the translation of the title which is loosely “It takes a thief to steal from a thief” so I was pleasantly surprised by this one. It’s not a game-changer mind you – it’s a little bit too much of a niche film for that, but still in all it’s entertaining, packs a great deal of charm, is smartly written and well-acted. That’s the recipe for a good movie whatever the language.

WHY RENT THIS: Surprisingly charming and well-written, you find yourself drawn into the story and the characters.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The movie suffers a little bit from Oceans 11 envy.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a little bit of sexuality here and some course language but otherwise pretty well acceptable for almost every audience.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While the crew was largely English-speaking, the movie is shot entirely in Spanish and no translated scripts were provided to the crew, so they were unaware what the plot and story points were; they were also unaware of how popular the cast, largely stars from Mexican telenovelas were and they would be dumbfounded when the shoot would have large crowds of Mexican housewives trying to get glimpses of the cast.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $6.9M on an unreported production budget; judging on the way the movie looked, I’d guess it made some money.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Mister Foe