Cartel Land Poster
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“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

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“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

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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.

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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.

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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

Star Trek: Into Darkness Review. Spectacle is Irrelevant

I’ve seen the latest installment of the Star Trek franchise and, to my surprise, I found it quite enjoyable. It’s a good movie. Not a great movie, but a good movie. Star Trek is the hot thing again. But what’s most important to me is that it shows signs that J.J. Abrams and his producers might be taking Star Trek a bit more seriously, and trying to make the franchise mean something more than dollar signs.

For the most part, Into Darkness is a typical summer action blockbuster that plays it safe and hits all the right money-making notes. It’s good old-fashioned, adrenaline-invoking, explosion-laden fun. It’s an enjoyable movie, and even more enjoyable if you check your brain at the door and don’t question the numerous things that just don’t hold up to logical scrutiny (the same method was required to get the most enjoyment out of the first movie). But, unlike its predecessor, Into Darkness goes a little further in trying to make this new generation of Star Trek more solidly connected to the wonderful material that made this franchise worth rebooting in the first place. Most of all, and I think this is key, there are signs that Abrams and his cohorts took some of their past criticisms to heart, and actually tried to add story elements that went beyond the pretty graphics and constant action.

I like the Star Trek franchise…well “like” may not be a good enough word; perhaps “venerate” is more accurate, but still inadequate. Let’s just say that I’m quite familiar with Star Trek lore going all the way back to the original 60s pilot episode, and I credit the series with spurring my interest in engineering, science, and science fiction. So I’m a tough, but fair, critic when it comes to new material in the franchise.

One of my favorite aspects of Star Trek was that, although it featured a futuristic military organization, it wasn’t really about the military. It was about exploration; it was about pushing and exceeding the boundaries of the human experience. It was about asking tough moral questions and painting a vision of a fantastic future that made our present seem juvenile and petty. Gene Roddenberry created an egalitarian and peaceful future Earth in a time when the real Earth was mired in racism, sexism, poverty, and war. Star Trek meant something. It stood for something. It told stories that mattered, and it never dumbed down for anybody.

The Abrams version of Star Trek has eschewed much of that philosophy, and instead Abrams (who admits he was never a fan of the franchise’s various series and movies) capitalized on the circumstances of Starfleet as a peaceful-but-militaristic-when-it-has-to-be entity. Abrams used the military aspect as a good reason to create pretty explosions and grand fight scenes in space. I can’t blame Abrams for that; this method is bankable, and his job is to sell tickets after all. But there was much anger and consternation among the longtime Trek fans. They felt that Abrams didn’t “get” Star Trek; they believed he’d made a shallow, meaningless movie that was aimed at the lowest common denominator and only good for cheap thrills. Add to that the hasty ending of the first movie, and Kirk’s hurried promotion to captain after literally just graduating from the academy, and critics had plenty of justification for saying the movie was short on artistic ambition. The movie was fun, but it had little regard for the art of storytelling. It was cinematic junk food; popular, easy, and profitable…but ultimately unhealthy and a poor substitute for more artisanal fare.

But there’s something different about the sequel. It has a more mature prevailing theme: Starfleet can’t be a ruthless military organization. That’s not what it was founded on, and it’s not the right direction for its future. It’s the great realization that Kirk comes to during the course of the film, and it’s the main theme of his speech at the end of the movie. It’s all very “meta”, because it’s almost like the movie is talking to itself; Star Trek films can’t be all explosions and phaser fights and horrible, horrible lens flare. It has to be something more than that. I think Abrams realized this, and he tried to change. It didn’t quite work out this time, but there’s definitely effort.

Right before Into Darkness was released, Abrams had an interview with the L.A. Times, in which he said:

“There was never going to be any shortage of spectacle, but the thing is, spectacle is irrelevant. The big, giant special-effects stuff, as much fun as it is and as cool as it can be in a movie, it never matters if you’re not loving, caring, relating to the dynamics of the characters that are in that spectacle.”

That’s exactly want you want any director to say, especially one charged with one of the most beloved and influential franchises in history. And Into Darkness really does try to get past the spectacle. It is emotional in ways that are quite effective, and there are glimpses of a story that could be there in the future — the story of an Enterprise whose primary mission is to explore, not make things explode.

And the character development is there. Kirk faces tremendous personal questions after Admiral Pike, the closest thing he has to a father, admonishes him for being reckless and thinking that he’s hot shit. Pike tells Kirk the truth; he’s been the beneficiary of “blind luck” and he’s just not ready to be a captain. That hasty promotion at the end of the first movie proves to be as foolhardy as many fans thought it was. Spock also goes through a bit of transformation as he realizes how strong of a friendship he actually has with Kirk, and for the first time in this reboot we truly see the legendary “bromance” that existed long before bromances were even a thing.

This stuff is great, but it relies heavily on what came before it; it relies on the decades of lore and emotional investment that people have with these characters because, frankly, Abrams isn’t a good enough director and Lindelof isn’t a good enough screenwriter to create that kind of character bond on their own in a two-hour movie. Therein lies the problem, because it’s a battle of two competing goals: to implement J.J’s vision while staying true to the franchise’s ideals. In that aforementioned LA Times article, Abrams also said:

“I was never a fan of “Star Trek,” […] I knew that when we started doing work on the first movie, we needed to come up with a way that this wasn’t just a “Star Trek” movie, meaning we couldn’t make it for fans of “Star Trek.” I’m not saying it might not have been better if that had been the case, but I couldn’t do that. It would have been disingenuous.”

This is where Abrams’ lack of connection with the source material really shows. It’s great that Abrams realizes that the movie needs to be more than just spectacle, but he doesn’t have the background to know what really works for this franchise and these characters because he doesn’t “get” what makes Star Trek special. This is ironic because a lot of the movie’s best scenes rely heavily upon knowledge of the franchise lore since there’s no on-screen explanation to help the uninitiated. There’s a tribble in this movie, and there’s no explanation of what it is. You have to be a fan of the show to get that. The movie’s antagonist has much more weight and effect if you get the references and hints that are never explained in the movie itself. Even the most emotional moment between Kirk and Spock only really hits home if you know the history of that scene, and how poetically different it is in this version. Into Darkness succeeds most when it borrows from what came before it, but Abrams doesn’t always do it effectively. I suspect his co-producers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman are the ones really responsible for keeping this movie true to its roots, or as true as it can be while still implementing Abrams’ vision.

The movie ends with the famous speech that preceded the opening credits of each episode of the original Star Trek series and The Next Generation.

“These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.”

I sincerely hope that the creative team behind the third rebooted Trek movie take these words to heart, and give us something bolder, more inspirational, and more enterprising.