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

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Out of the Furnace


Woody Harrelson is perfectly willing to take off his shirt for Christian Bale.

Woody Harrelson is perfectly willing to take off his shirt for Christian Bale.

(2013) Drama (Relativity) Christian Bale, Woody Harrelson, Casey Affleck, Willem Dafoe, Zoe Saldana, Forest Whitaker, Sam Shepard, Tom Bower, Bobby Wolfe, Dendrie Taylor, Carl Ciarfalio, Nancy Fosser, Bingo O’Malley, Jack Erdie, Gordon Michaels, Angela Kauffman, Charles David Richards, Tommy Lafitte, Tiffany Sander McKenzie. Directed by Scott Cooper

Times are tough. You don’t need to go to a movie to tell you that. In the Rust Belt, the manufacturing  jobs that were once the bread and butter in the region have been shrinking away, slowly disappearing from view. That leaves the residents there scrambling to find other ways to make money.

Russell Baze (Bale) is one of the lucky few who still has employment at a steel mill. He lives with a young woman named Lena (Saldana) who adores him and the two are talking about starting a family. His brother Rodney (Affleck) is back home from a tour of Iraq in the army. Sure their dad (O’Malley) is dying of cancer but they have his  brother and their Uncle Red (Shepard) to help them out. Things could certainly get a whole lot worse.

And then they do. Russell is involved in an incident not his fault that results in him getting sent to jail for a few years. Things begin to fall apart. Rodney goes back to Iraq. Their father dies. Even Lena leaves him, taking up with the chief of police Wesley (Whitaker) of their small town outside of Pittsburgh. All of a sudden things don’t make sense quite as much.

When Rodney returns and Russell finishes his time in jail, they both need to pick up the pieces. For Russell, that means obsessively stalking Lena and getting his job back at the mill while fixing up his dad’s old place. For Rodney, that means bare knuckle fights to pick up cash for a debt he owes to local bar owner and dealer of all things shady John Petty (Dafoe).

Rodney needs more money to fix up his debt however and he cajoles Petty into getting him a fight in rural New Jersey where a meth kingpin named Harlan DeGroat (Harrelson) runs things. Like any decent mountain community, they don’t cotton to no city folk telling them how to run things. When things go bad, Russell is left to pick up the pieces and do the right thing for his brother.

First of all, this is a movie that isn’t well-served by its trailer. It gives away an important plot twist and intimates that this is a different kind of movie than it is. The trailer implies that this is a thriller and quite frankly, that element of the movie only takes place over the last 20 minutes or so. The rest of the movie is more of a drama which is how I’m characterizing it now.

Cooper, whose first feature was Crazy Heart takes a completely different turn here on this his second. The milieu is much bleaker which is saying something considering that his last movie was about an alcoholic country singer whose career is fading into the twilight. Cooper has a knack at capturing working class life and working class people. As an actor himself he also manages to wring some excellent performances out of his actors.

Bale delivers just such a performance. He’s low-key and soft-spoken throughout most of the film but rage boils in him and sometimes boils over. He’s a decent man at heart but life has thrown just about everything at him he can tolerate and then some. There’s a scene with Saldana on a wooden bridge in which he tries to rekindle things after he gets out of prison that is so heartbreaking that you won’t be able to get it out of your head. In fact, it’s not just Saldana and Bale that do good work here – nearly every member of the principal leads is mesmerizing.

Harrelson is also noteworthy as the villain. When DeGroat meets Russell for the first time in Petty’s office and the two have words, Russell asks him “You got a problem with me?” and DeGroat responds “I got a problem with everybody” and that encapsulates the character. He’s as mean as a rattlesnake and prone to outbursts of violence as evidenced by the very first scene in which DeGroat beats a man half to death for intervening when DeGroat assaults his date at a drive-in. Harrelson captures that meanness and rage. There’s nothing redeeming about DeGroat, no qualities at all that make things around him better. He’s a cancer in his community that everyone is afraid to operate on.

There are a lot of good things about this movie but for some reason I couldn’t connect with it. Maybe I wasn’t ready for a movie quite as bleak as this. Perhaps it’s because it’s a little bit too long. Maybe the ending scene which didn’t ring true and was followed by an extraneous coda did me in. Or maybe it just wasn’t my cup of tea to begin with. Da Queen was very taken by the movie and would have given it a significantly higher score than I did – she was frankly surprised that I didn’t enjoy it as much as she did because normally I go for these sorts of films.

For whatever reason I didn’t here and that can be taken for whatever grain of salt you wish to give it. The elements are all here for a good movie and in fact you may well find it to be more rewarding than I did. For me there didn’t seem to be much of a point to it – unrelenting violence and despair with nothing at the end that made me think it was all worth it. Perhaps that was the point. In any case, I found this a movie in which the ingredients were superior but it didn’t add up to a gourmet dish.

REASONS TO GO: Solid performances throughout by an excellent cast.

REASONS TO STAY: Overly long. The ending was quite the letdown.

FAMILY VALUES:  Plenty of violence, some pretty strong language and some drug content.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie playing at the drive-in during the opening scene is Midnight Meat Train.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/21/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 53% positive reviews. Metacritic: 64/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Winter’s Bone

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: The Holly and the Quill Christmas movie festival begins!

Homefront (2013)


When they told Jason Statham he was getting a Mustang for this movie, this wasn't what he was expecting.

When they told Jason Statham he was getting a Mustang for this movie, this wasn’t what he was expecting.

(2013) Action (Open Road) Jason Statham, James Franco, Kate Bosworth, Winona Ryder, Frank Grillo, Izabela Vidovic, Clancy Brown, Marcus Hester, Omar Benson Miller, Rachelle Lefevre, Chuck Zito, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Linda Edwards, Austin Craig, Owen Harn, Stuart Greer, Joe Chrest, Christa Campbell, Billy Slaughter, Nicole Andrews. Directed by Gary Fleder

Small towns have a habit of being different things to different people. For some, they are an escape from city life. For others they are cherished reminders of how life used to be. For still others, they are a place where they can conduct their affairs in relative anonymity.

Phil Broker (Statham) used to be a DEA agent. He specialized in undercover operations and in his last one which was counted successful by the agency, he took down a powerful biker gang leader named Danny T (Zito) but in the process the biker’s psychotic son went down in a hail of bullets. Phil walked away from the Agency and not long afterwards, his wife passed away from an undisclosed illness. He took his precocious daughter Maddy (Vidovic) to Rayville, a small town in the Louisiana bayous not far from where Phil’s wife grew up.

At first things couldn’t be going better. Phil has found a beautiful property on the river and while the house itself is a bit of a fixer upper, there’s enough land to own horses and it’s far enough off the beaten path that he can live his life in relative peace.

Then a bully (Craig) in Maddy’s school picks a fight with her and true to her dad’s training she stands up for herself, bloodying the bully’s nose. This doesn’t sit well with the bully’s mom, the excitable meth-head Cassie (Bosworth) and she screeches at her husband Jimmy (Hester) to do something about it, so he picks a fight with Phil. Bad idea. Phil kicks Jimmy’s butt in front of Cassie and his son, putting the already irritable Cassie in a rage. Seeking revenge, she goes to her brother Gator (Franco).

Gator is the local meth dealer who has a mean streak a country mile wide. He wants to throw a scare into Phil but the plan goes awry once he breaks into Phil’s house and finds, in a kind of basement, boxes and boxes of case files from Phil’s DEA days. Now that just don’t sit right with good ol’ Gator who doesn’t want a retired DEA agent in his neighborhood – why, that will just screw up the property values something wicked but it might put a bit of a kink in his illegal drug manufacturing gig.

However, Gator discovers a way out of the situation that could wind up being enormously lucrative as well. He sees that Phil was the undercover agent on the Danny T case and lo and behold, his girlfriend Sheryl (Ryder) happens to know Danny’s lawyer. Sheryl, herself a drug addict, a prostitute and a cocktail waitress (in this economy one has to have multiple jobs) sets up a meeting with Cyrus (Grillo), Danny’s psychotic right-hand man. You just know things are going to get ugly from that point forward.

Written by Sylvester Stallone and based on a novel by Chuck Logan, Statham’s new action film follows a tried and true formula that fans of the genre will find comforting and familiar. The problem is that there isn’t much here that pushes the boundaries any from the lone highly-trained specialist trying to protect his family to the evil drug-dealing biker gang. For the record most biker gangs don’t engage in any criminal activity although if you watched Hollywood’s versions of them you probably feel uncomfortable every time you see one on the highway next to you.

Statham may well be the most consistent action star in the world. It is truly rare for him to turn in a poor performance. This is essentially his show and his fans won’t be disappointed by this effort and he may add a few more to the growing list. While there is a romantic subplot (with the comely Rachelle Lefevre), very little screen time is devoted to it and you get the sense that Statham’s Phil Broker is pretty awkward with the ladies. It also makes sense that a recent widower may not necessarily be looking for someone to fill his late wife’s pumps. In any case, Statham does well with the child actress who plays his daughter which is not always as easy as it sounds.

Franco is an Oscar nominated actor whom you might think is slumming in a role like this, a Southern-fried drug dealer with a gator tattooed on his arm but like any good actor playing a villain you get a sense he’s having a real good time with it. He also adds several layers to the role; at one point in the final reel in a conversation with Cyrus when he’s told that Cyrus must do something particularly despicable while Ryder’s Sheryl looks shocked and disgusted, Franco affects a blank expression with very haunted eyes – he knows the act is necessary but he doesn’t particularly like doing it. It’s just a little detail that takes about three seconds of screen time but it’s the kind of thing a great actor does to add depth to a part. Franco is becoming just that – a great actor.

Ryder and Bosworth are both playing drug addicted women and in their own ways add some flavors to roles that are badly under-written. Bosworth’s Cassie has to make an about-face from screeching harpy to concerned parent in a way that doesn’t make sense but whatever – she does the best she can with it. Ryder, normally a beautiful woman, allows herself to be skanky in a role that most actresses of her caliber turn their noses up at. It’s interesting to see what she does with it.

There are more than a few plot holes and contrivances here, the worst being that Gator discovers Phil’s DEA identity through finding boxes and boxes of case files  in the cellar of his home. First of all, case files for any law enforcement agency never leave the offices of said agencies and certainly not in the possession of a retired agent. He would have no reason for having them – except to reveal his identity to a drug dealer who will then in turn inform those whom he sent to jail and would like to see him and his daughter dead, preferably with brutal painful torture in the mix. That’s just lazy writing, Sly.

Still, if you can put up with a precocious kid and plot holes, this is a pretty decent action movie and Statham elevates it as he does with most of his action films. This may not be the kind of thing you want to go and see when all these blockbusters and Oscar contenders are in the theaters but if you prefer action to drama and long lines, this isn’t a bad alternative.

REASONS TO GO: Statham is solid and Ryder and Bosworth do some fine supporting work. Some nice action sequences.

REASONS TO STAY: Far too predictable. Too much precocious kid-ism. Lapses in simple logic.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s a lot of violence, some drug use, sensuality and plenty of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although based on an unrelated novel, Stallone originally envisioned this as the final Rambo movie and wrote it with John Rambo as the retired dad. However he couldn’t get the movie made and eventually it was rewritten to be closer to the original story and with Statham in mind for the lead role.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/14/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 39% positive reviews. Metacritic: 39/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Mechanic

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Delivery Man