Cartel Land Poster
Image

“Cartel Land” review. Oscar documentary series

Mexico is a hot political topic in the US these days. Illegal immigration and the drug trade are always the forces behind the conversation. Cartel Land provides us an inside look at the border conflict from the perspective of two very different vigilante groups fighting against the drug cartels that have had a huge role in creating this mess.

On one side of the border, we have an American “militia” group fighting to enforce laws that the government seemingly can’t or won’t enforce themselves. The film examines this side of the story primarily through the perspective of one man, Tim “Nailer” Foley. He and his cronies fit the stereotype of the anti-Mexican movement; angry, white, Fox News watching, gun toting men out to do their patriotic duty. But Foley is characterized as more than that; he’s also a dedicated father and a child abuse survivor who feels compelled to do the right thing even if it means risking his own life.

On the other side, in Mexico, we have Dr. Jose Manuel Mireles. He’s the leader of the Autodefensas; a paramilitary group that strives to fight the cartels by any means necessary. They are fighting for their people, their country, and their right to live in peace.

Two sides, fighting for the same thing, but never the twain shall meet.

Although the film does try to give both sides equal footing, most of the real action happens in Mexico with the Autodefensas. Their story starts out heroically; Dr. Mireles and his forces flush out cartel forces from a small town, storming in and being welcomed as liberators. Dr. Mireles is known far and wide and regarded as a hero and an icon. Things turn pretty dark from there.

After a suspicious event takes Dr. Mireles out of the picture for a while, the leadership of the Autodefensas passes to his #2 guy (known as ‘Papa Smurf’). Under his leadership, the Autodefensas adopt very questionable strong-arm tactics and start to resemble the very bad guys they’re supposedly working against.

This is also where the action in the film really kicks up. The brave cameramen capturing the footage get all up in the mix, running through the ramshackle streets of Mexican towns while gunfire peppers the air. Cartel thugs are caught, roughed up, and sometimes “disappeared”. But it’s not always clear that the victims of this violence are actually guilty of anything.

Mixed with this action are stories of the poor Mexican citizens caught up in this drug war. Through close-up interviews, we hear tale after tale of family members killed, mutilated, kidnapped, and raped. Cartel Land does a fantastic job of humanizing the injustices suffered by ordinary innocent people caught up in the drug trade. They are poor and they are helpless and they just want peace from horrors most people can’t even imagine. Is it any wonder that they’d try to escape any way they can?

There’s a classic line in Nolan’s The Dark Knight script (another story about a vigilante): “You either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” That is the perfect way to describe what we see documented in this film. The environment that our protagonists work in is toxic, permeating everything from local law enforcement to prisons to politics. They are up against insurmountable odds. And, at the end of the day, they are human. Who can stare into the heart of darkness every day and never lose faith?

Cartel Land provides more questions than answers. How did we get to this point? How can we ever fix it? Who can we ever trust to handle it? For this film, where everyone who thought they had the answers falls far short, the questions prove more enlightening.

You can watch Cartel Land on Netflix. Read my other reviews of Oscar nominated films: Amy, What Happened, Miss Simone, and Winter on Fire

winter-on-fire
Image

“Winter on Fire” review. Oscar documentary series

Winter on Fire is an incredible look at the Ukrainian protests of 2013 and 2014. For 93 days, an immense movement of Ukrainian citizens from all walks of life fought against the threat of Russian political domination. If it had been a peaceful event, perhaps it would have gone down as merely a footnote in history. But a heavy-handed government escalated the situation into a deadly brawl that is immortalized in this fearless film.

The first thing that hits you when you start watching Winter on Fire is how very personal it is. The movie uses a mix of citizen journalism via cellphones and the footage from professional journalists who were right in the thick of things, even when bullets started flying. You see everything right up close, close enough to see every facial expression, hear every yell, and experience the fear and chaos.

The first quarter of the film quickly sets the scene: the Ukrainian President makes a back-room deal with Vladimir Putin that cozies up to Russia. But a very large portion of the Ukrainian citizenry wants to join the European Union and put Russia firmly in the rear-view mirror. The events cause a surge of anti-government sentiment, protests start, and the government sends in troops and special forces to stomp on the resistance.

Those efforts backfire, as they always do eventually. But what makes the Ukrainian protests so remarkable is how swiftly and forcefully the citizenry hit back. They take over the Independence Square in Kiev, and set the stage for a brutal conflict.

Independence Square in Kiev, Ukraine before and after the conflict

Independence Square in Kiev, Ukraine before and after the conflict

As the resourceful and highly organized protesters put up barricades made of wood, wire, and anything else they can find, there’s a strong Les Miserables vibe, and even one of the protesters mentions that it feels more like an 18th century defense than a modern day one. But the thematic comparison helps connect this struggle to the French Revolution, and all the subsequent revolutions it inspired.

Despite the beautiful display of human spirit and perseverance, most of the time this is a film of ugly and uncensored brutality. The beatings of the early days of the protest give way to shootings, with snipers picking off hapless citizens armored only with flimsy metal pots and thin sheets of aluminum.

There are several scenes where the first-person footage shows us a Ukrainian citizen get shot by sniper fire, fall down, and die. The daring up close and personal camera work makes it feel like you’re right there next to the man, watching him breathe his last breaths.

Later, when the tides turn and the throng of protesters overcome the government forces, there’s a haunting shot of a citizen striking one of the cops who had lost his helmet. Blood spurts. Skull fragments fly into the air. He drops to the ground in a heap, motionless. The frantic crowd of protesters, garbed in makeshift armor and weaponry, swarms past his body, on to the next fight.

It’s so real it’s surreal. For most of us, these kinds of scenes only play out in movies and video games.

Winter on Fire unwittingly and unintentionally becomes a film about the horrors of war. No sane person can watch this movie and ever gleefully celebrate any declaration of combat. This is vibrant, hopeful human life extinguished right before our eyes in a way that the US Armed forces doesn’t allow embedded journalists to show. It is a civil war for a nation that should be unified in their culture and traditions. Instead they are fighting among themselves and wasting their most precious resource: the lives of their young people.

Those people died for the most precious of human ideals: freedom. But was that really what they accomplished in the end, or simply a brief respite?

If there is a weakness in the film, it’s the limited political context surrounding the events. There’s only a brief description of the political environment at the beginning of the film, then it’s all focused on the chaos of the protests. The Ukrainian situation was (and still is) much more complicated than a simple matter of one shady politician. More information about the political and cultural forces surrounding the world outside the protests would have been really helpful. But I think that can be forgiven since the producers wanted to have full focus on the remarkable battles between the common people and the government agents who were supposed to be protecting them.

The result is a story that could have been taken right out of the pages of the V for Vendetta graphic novel. People should not be afraid of their governments. Governments should be afraid of their people.

You can watch Winter on Fire on Netflix. For my reviews of other Oscar-nominated documentaries, check out my review of Amy, What Happened, Miss Simone, and Cartel Land

Amy movie poster
Image

“Amy” Review. Oscar-nominated documentary series.

The next entry in my series on this year’s Oscar nominees for Best Documentary feature is Amy, a well-crafted film that is like watching a beautiful Rolls Royce crash in slow motion.

If you’re reading this, you’re probably old enough to remember the meteoric rise to stardom that Amy Winehouse experienced, which makes watching this movie so surreal. It can seem like it was so long ago, when in reality it’s only been a little over a decade since her album Back to Black threw her into the global spotlight.

And it was that spotlight that killed her.

Amy is, put very simply, a movie about a troubled but extremely talented young woman with personal demons that were made infinitely worse by the pressures of stardom. You can’t come away from this movie without thinking that if only a few things had been different – if she had gotten treatment earlier or she didn’t get married or if her father hadn’t been her manager – that Amy would still be alive today. And that’s the true tragedy that this movie reveals. We all know how it ends, but it’s very sobering to see how many times it could’ve ended so differently.

The film tells the story of Amy’s life from the beginning, through a remarkable amount of video footage that spans years. It really seems like there was a documentary of her life being filmed since she was a teenager. We’ve lived in a digital age with ever-present cameras for a long time now, but no other film really drives that fact home like Amy. We get to see her grow from a plucky teenager to a worn out adult through camcorder and phone footage that is flawlessly edited together with professional shots and paparazzi snaps. The end result is as eerie as it is effective.

Music drove Amy’s life, and it drives this movie too. From her young days starting with a small label, to her explosive rise to the top of the global charts, we follow Amy as she writes her lyrics based on whatever is happening in her life at the time. All of her songs are about relationships: with her friends, with her family, with her boyfriend (and later husband), and even her relationship with drugs and alcohol. This film cleverly and carefully puts the song lyrics into the context of the story we’re seeing unfold on the screen, and that technique goes a long way towards giving us a very intimate and revealing picture of who Amy was and what her art meant to her.

But the art soon takes a back seat to the drama, and it’s almost painful to watch the last third of this film. As we witness Amy’s long battle with bulimia, drug/alcohol addiction, and a destructive relationship with her enabling husband, the story becomes less about her amazing musical talent and more about problems that could have been fixed with more consistent and stern guidance in Amy’s life. You do definitely see some of that in the movie, as record executives, Amy’s friends, and even therapists try to put her on the right path. But, as is mentioned in a very early part of the movie, Amy was the kind of person who desperately needed someone to tell her no. Her parents were never those people in her childhood, and not quite in her adulthood either.

Nobody really comes out looking good in this movie. Amy’s father comes off as a greedy opportunist, her former husband looks like an enabling self-interested d-bag, her mother comes off as loving but completely ineffectual, and Amy herself appears incapable of maturing past being the petulant young lady whose parents couldn’t control her.

But, most of all, it’s people like us that come out looking the worst. As I saw the paparazzi descend on Amy like vultures time and time again, as I watched late night talk show hosts make fun of her in front of millions, as I watched and remembered the entire world turning against this poor woman who clearly needed help, I couldn’t help but feel that we were all complicit in this. So often in our quest for idols, we lift our stars up to heaven and then tear them down and bury them when they don’t live up to our lofty ideals; offering no help or solace, just judgement. Amy shows us the other side of that experience, and it’s never flattering.

You can watch Amy for free on Amazon Prime. Check out my review of another Oscar-nominated doc, What Happened, Miss Simone

What-Happened-Miss-Simone
Image

“What happened, Miss Simone?” Review. Oscar documentary series.

I’ll admit it: I’m weird. I actually really look forward to the nominations for best documentary every year. The 2016 class is one of the best I can remember. They’re all sad stories, as documentaries often are, but each offers a compelling look at both the unique personal struggles that people face every day, and the harrowing dangers involved in movements that sweep across nations.

In this post, I review a film about an amazing, unsung titan of music history:

What Happened, Miss Simone?

Chronicling the unlikely rise, tragic fall, and comeback of singer, songwriter, pianist, and activist Nina Simone, this movie takes an unflinching look at a talented woman’s life through old footage, new interviews, and the revealing personal diaries she left behind.

I has happy to see Nina get some love here since pop history has largely forgotten her role in the music scene of the sixties and seventies. She wrote the classic, “Feeling Good”, which is one of the classic jazz/big-band songs and was more recently popularized by Michael Buble’s (capable but watered-down) cover. She influenced everyone from John Lennon to Alicia Keys to Adele. All throughout the movie, I saw shades of Lauryn Hill, and I was reminded that so much of who an artist is comes from those they idolized.

The film does a great job of chronicling her triumphs as a young black, Southern girl who wasn’t very pretty but she did have immense talent. That talent brought her out of her humble beginnings and made her a jazz legend, and the story is told through some interviews with family, but mostly in Nina’s own voice from various archival interviews she did decades ago. Everything is flawlessly edited together to create this sense that Nina’s almost talking to you, personally.

This is a documentary about a musician, so of course there’s a lot of music in it. Jazz isn’t everybody’s cup of tea, so I can’t say that everybody will love the music here. But every song is carefully chosen and timed to fit into the film’s narrative. This isn’t a fluff film about a singer’s greatest hits. This is an honest, holistic look at the life behind the music; a life that is a sad reality for so many artists.

nina-serious

The movie’s strength does not lie in how it portrays Nina’s greatness. The film really works because of how it handles the truth of her weaknesses. She could be a menacing person, both in her performances and in her personal life with her husband and her daughter. We see and hear the people who knew her talk about how challenging she could be, but through Nina’s diary entries we also see that she was very aware of a maelstrom of conflict and emotion going on inside her. Her problems led to a dramatic downturn in what was once a lauded career.

The most controversial aspect of the film is Nina’s relationship with her husband and manager. It doesn’t take long to learn that he was abusive, and the film allows him the opportunity to tell his side of the story through footage of old interviews (which don’t really paint him in any better light). But the film also very clearly states that Nina seemed to be complicit in her abuse. There’s a sense that, in some perverse way, she lived for the conflict; perhaps even needed it. It is a brutally complex story that is woven throughout the middle of the film.

Later in the movie, we get a medical explanation for all those years of sound and fury that put Nina’s family, her managers, and promoters into chaos. But it comes almost as a matter of course. By that point in the film, any viewer can come to their own conclusion that she just…wasn’t quite right.

But her diagnosis (which is revealed through an interview with her daughter), leads into the final act of the movie where we see Nina enjoy a resurgence in her career. And, for the first time, she seems really happy to perform. It’s a peaceful resolution to a film that spent so much time detailing Nina’s rocky, roller coaster life, but it does deliver something close to what you almost never see in a documentary these days: a happy ending.

You can catch What Happened, Miss Simone? for free on Netflix. For a review of another Oscar-nominated documentary about a troubled starlet, check out my review of Amy

Ida
Image

Movie Review: Ida

One of the Oscar categories that Americans routinely do not “get” is the Foreign Language film. Mainstream audiences typically hate subtitles, and they really hate stories they can’t relate to. The cinema sensibilities of Europe, South America, and Asia don’t always cleanly translate to those of us used to Hollywood structure, and Ida is sadly just the latest film fitting the trend. Ida is black and white, slow, takes place in Poland, and has very little music. For all those reasons, it was destined to be a movie not many people saw. But it is a beautiful film nonetheless, and one worth watching mainly because of its cinematography.

To be honest, I found it a little hard to watch Ida all the way through. At one hour and 22 minutes run-time it’s not even a long movie, but its slow pace makes it feel like it’s dragging along. Much of that is due to the film’s remarkable lack of sound. There’s little dialogue, and hardly any music. But this is not the kind of movie you watch for thrills and excitement.

Where Ida really shines is in its visual storytelling, but it doesn’t use expensive CGI or rich colorful landscapes. Director Pawel Pawlikowski pulls off the amazing feat of making the ordinary look stunning. He takes simple, drab settings that most of us would not pay any attention to and he puts them in a different perspective that finds astonishing beauty in mundane surroundings.

Ida GIF

I like directors who try to make their movies so beautiful that each shot is a work of art, and Ida is that kind of movie. From beginning to end, you can take a random moment in the film, print it, stick on the wall of an art exhibit, and pass it off as the work of a master photographer. That’s what makes this film truly special. The story isn’t much, and it’s certainly not going to leave you with any good feelings when the end credits roll, but you will definitely remember the images which tell a story far behind the sparse words in the script.

——————

This post is part of my Oscars 2015 series, where I review/discuss movies up for that coveted golden trophy. Check out the first post in the series, my review of Birdman

Birdman screencap
Image

Movie Review: Birdman

I finally somehow created the time to see Birdman at an odd time on a weekday. I can see why it’s getting so much recent award love. The first hour gave me a revealing and intimate perspective on the craft of acting that I haven’t seen before. The second hour focuses on flawed people trying to deal with reality; an ironic tale of what’s it like to try to have a real life when you’re a professional pretender. I can see why some critics wouldn’t be great fans of it, but I can also see why people in “the biz” love it. To really understand why the movie is suddenly gaining Oscar momentum for the coveted Best Picture award, you have to understand the interesting, insular town where all this voting is done.

I recently moved from the west side of LA to Hollywood, just a couple blocks away from the Dolby Theater where the Oscars will be held. Even before I made the move, there was a feeling that you just can’t escape the movie business here. It permeates everything. Several true stories from my time here in LA:

  • Ran into Jamie Lee Curtis at the grocery store
  • Went to my mom’s place and there was a film crew setting up shop outside
  • Overhead the manager at the Chipotle off Hollywood and Vine saying he actually went to (and finished) film school
  • Was walking home and a guy was on his cell phone encouraging the person on the other end of the line that yes, they really did have what it takes to be a showrunner

The last 3 items happened just in the past three days. This city breathes and bleeds the performing arts, and the basic building blocks of film and theater are the actors/actresses who make it all look like magic when it’s actually often incredibly difficult and draining.

Although Birdman is set in New York’s theater scene, the story has many Hollywood connections (the lead character is a former Hollywood star trying his hand at “important” work in theater, and trying to get other Hollywood actors on board but they’re too busy). Actors are actors whether they’re on a stage or a set. And the people who live and work with the actors are just as much a part of the process even though you never see them. Birdman is a genuine look at not only the process of professional make believe, but also the people who get ground up in the gears of the acting machine either directly or indirectly. Those voters at the Screen Actors Guild and Producers Guild and “The Academy” are all in “the biz”. When they see this movie they probably see a part of their own lives, and sometimes it’s in an unflattering light but it’s always genuine.

Of course, Birdman has many other things going for it. The actors are fantastic. The script is punchy and surprising. The direction is outstanding and incredibly detailed. The approach of doing the film all in one big “single shot” sequence also makes the film seem simultaneously real and also surreal. And the driving drum beat in the background of the major scenes, while jarring at first, keeps the viewer alert and in the moment.

It is a skillfully crafted film, but its greatest strength in this award season is that it is a skillfully crafted film about the craft that all the voters have committed their lives to supporting in one way or another.

A Latent Dark - Book Cover
Image

Book Review: A Latent Dark

I like it when writers blend fantasy and science into work that crosses genres. It’s a theme I incorporate in many of my own books. The premise of A Latent Dark had me ready to love the book, and initially I was intrigued by its vaguely future world where the Catholic Church has established dominance across much of the globe. I liked the steampunk-ish elements of the story too. But there were a few elements that disappointed me.

Firstly, the early pacing of the book didn’t quite grab me. I primarily read this book on subway rides where I had free time and no Internet connection, and didn’t find myself compelled to pick it up at other points in the day. I won’t say the first third of the book is boring because there’s plenty of stuff that happens, but I was always left with a sense that the things that were happening weren’t that intriguing. One of the greatest compliments a book can get is “unputdownable”, but I found myself laying this one to the side often without feeling like I was missing anything.

Then there’s our main villain, the Reverend Inspector Lyle Summers. He’s sufficiently evil in sufficiently creepy ways, but he’s also one-dimensional and a bit too cliche for my tastes. He does serve as a good example of religious extremism and pious hypocrisy, but beyond that he’s not going to be winning any villain Hall of Fame votes.

Finally, I didn’t like the final 20% of the book. As I said, I like it when fantasy and science combine, but there’s a plot twist near the end that totally jumped the shark for me and the story descended into metaphysical mumbo jumbo. I do appreciate the creativity here because it is a unique idea, but it didn’t work for me.

With all that said, reading a book isn’t necessarily about having a thrilling journey to an exciting destination. It can be a nice leisurely walk to a dead end too. I still did enjoy many of the side characters and the setting is fantastically developed. If you want something with new ideas on magic, the afterlife, and a good amount of real science thrown in for flavor, the book is definitely worth checking out at least.