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 Perfect Game


Jake Austin is still unsure what to do with the round thing while Clifton Collins Jr. looks on in frustration.

Jake Austin is still unsure what to do with the round thing while Clifton Collins Jr. looks on in frustration.

(2010) Sports Drama (Image) Clifton Collins Jr., Cheech Marin, Louis Gossett Jr., Emilie de Ravin, Bruce McGill, Patricia Manterola, David Koechner, Frances Fisher, Tracey Walter, Jansen Panettiere, Jake Austin, Moises Arias, Ryan Ochoa, Julieta Ortiz. Directed by William Dear

The mightiest heroes can sometimes come from the unlikeliest of places. You never know where inspiration is going to come from. You never know how.

Monterrey, Mexico is as impoverished as it gets in 1957. It’s an industrial community, dirt-poor and with few amenities. The kids of Monterrey don’t have a lot to do, so local priest Padre Estaban (Marin) encourages them to start playing baseball. When he discovers former major league prospect Cesar Faz (Collins) has returned home after leaving the St. Louis Cardinals organization, he enlists him to be their coach.

In fact, the only job Cesar could get with the Cardinals was  as a janitor but still he hoped he could get into their organization but soon it became clear that the ghost of Babe Ruth himself could have proclaimed him a surefire star and the Cardinals still would have turned the other way. Maybe he should have swept the floor for the Dodgers instead.

In any case, he soon realizes that Angel Macias (Austin) has an enormous amount of potential as a pitcher and he takes him under his wing. Under Cesar’s hard but compassionate coaching the Monterrey youngsters soon learn to play as a team and they begin winning. And winning. And winning some more. Soon, they qualify for the Little League World Series.

But the obstacles are many. To get to Williamsport they will need money and there isn’t a lot of that in Monterrey. Besides that even if they get there no team outside the United States had ever won the Little League World Series. How could they even hope to compete with America in their own national pastime?

Because you’ve seen this kind of movie many times before and once you figure out that this is based on a true story (more on that later), you know that Monterrey is going to overcome all those obstacles. Even though you’ll be sitting on the edge of your seat for a foregone conclusion, still you will catch plenty of that feel-good effect that so many sports underdog films bring out in you.

This is based on a true story – not the actual story itself. It is fiction, based on fact. That’s something to keep in mind. Those who want to know the real story behind the team will need to look up Los pequenos gigantes, a 1960 documentary made about that team. It’s in English, but it is extremely hard to find.

There is a bit of Bad News Bears here as well as a bit of Miracle. I don’t think there is anything here that really sets this apart from other similarly-themed movies other than that the heroes are Mexican and much of the movie is set there, and shows some of the poverty that was and continues to be an everyday reality there.

The actors playing the kids on the team do all right but they are basically given one-note characters who exist to fulfill a function either within the plot or on the field. Austin’s Angel Macias is at the heart of the film from the kid’s aspect and he does pretty well. Macias is coping with a father who is disinterested in baseball and whose harsh, critical eye drive the young boy to tears sometimes. Fathers can do that when they see their children only as they want them to be rather than as they are.

Collins does a pretty good job as Cesar who has secrets of his own to hide. Marin, who those who loved him in his heyday will have a hard time seeing him as a priest, makes for a decent one. De Ravin plays a cub reporter looking for a big story and finds one, gets a part that seems to have been lifted from a screwball comedy and transplanted here. She’s pretty and sexy in the role, but that doesn’t go well with the rest of the movie – which is a problem with the script more than with her.

Those who love those sports underdog movies will like this a lot. Those who are sick of them should probably steer clear. This is inspiring sure but not as much as the real Monterrey team whose story is Hollywoodized here.

WHY RENT THIS: Has plenty of heart.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Can be overbearing with its message in places.

FAMILY VALUES: Some of the thematic elements might be a bit over the head of the younger crowd.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Real members of both the Monterrey and La Mesa little league teams who played in that championship game can be seen in the stands as fans during the championship game sequence.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There is a kind of music video (really just a montage of clips from the movie set to music) in both Spanish and English.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $3.9M on an unreported production budget; it’s likely that the production made money.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Miracle Match

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Shrink