Cartel Land: Meth, Tears and Vigilantes (Review)

It is oddly fitting that the documentary Cartel Land, directed and filmed by Matthew Heineman, should be making waves at the same time that the film Sicario has also been getting rave reviews from critics.

Poster for Michael Heineman's Cartel Land

It is oddly fitting that  the documentary Cartel Land, directed and filmed by Matthew Heineman, should be making waves at the same time that the film Sicario has also been getting rave reviews from critics. While the documentary deals with meth and vigilantes on both sides of the border and deals with the reality of cartels, both productions have one thing in common; the tears of the innocent.

Heineman, in his fourth outing as documentary director, is the cinematographer who follows the vigilantes in Mexico and the paramilitary  group through Arizona’s Altar Valley as they seek to stop drugs coming into the country.  Each group may fly similar flags of intent, but the Arizona Border Recon, headed up by Tim “Nailer” Foley (who is an American veteran) is, in reality, a thinly disguised immigration control group with little interest in stopping cartel smuggling and a intent interest in keeping  illegal aliens from taking jobs.

The documentary follows Nailer’s group somewhat, but focusses on things below the border fence. Dr. Jose Mireles, aka El Doctor,  is the charismatic, well spoken and humble leader of Autodefensas . He  heads the  armed group of vigilantes who pass out T-shirts and recruit locals from towns overrun by the cartels.

A battle between the vigilantes, the government (paid for by the local cartels) and the cartels themselves erupts. With names like Knights Templar, the drug gangs control with a mixture of fear, death, torture, bribery and intimidation.  Mireles speaks of the origins of the Templar group and rather tellingly, explains that they too began as opposition to an existing cartel, becoming corrupt as they expanded.

Heineman gets up close and personal with the main players in Autodefensas. El Doctor and his second in command “Papa Smurf” grow the organization;  increasing membership, wresting towns from the cartel and spreading the word that the bad guys can be beaten.  After what appears to be an attempt on Mireles’s life, Papa Smurf is  temporarily put in charge and the nature and structure of the vigilante group changes.

Templars infiltrate the group and complaints from villagers come rolling in.  Eventually, the ideology of the organization changes as does the leadership.

South of the border, the story feels all too familiar, power and corruption do indeed, as Heineman shows, go hand in hand. North of the border, immigrants are stopped and turned over to the authorities but no drugs are confiscated, proof that the activities of the paramilitary group are not as advertised.

Kathryn Bigelow (Oscar winning former spouse of James Cameron and director of Hurt Locker) is the executive producer of  this gritty, intimate and compelling look at vigilante justice and their goals both sides of the border.  While Cartel Land  lacks Hollywood stars and gory special effects, it does manage to disturb and ensnare the viewer.

The film itself is not just about the vigilantes who want to eliminate the cartels, it also features a close look at just why people work for the Knights Templar, or their equivalent.  The meth cooks, who are met at the start of the documentary and revisited later in the film, explain that they know laws and lives are broken by what they do.

But…

They also point out that someone will always do what they are presently doing.  It will never stop, a message also conveyed in the Denis Villeneuve film Sicario.  Bigelow and Heineman have opted to leave the “near-reality” of Breaking Badand other fictionalized visions of the drug trade,  behind and show the warts and underbelly of the drug trade and the citizens who  take the law into their own hands to stop it.

Granted, the vast majority of the tale takes place in Michoacán, Mexico; a whole world away from the US but the reach of the film surpasses this geological location.  This look at cartels and the citizen groups who “fight” them has not been commercialized in the least.  The film is a fly in the wall vision of a struggle that will never be stop and how even the “good guys”  can become seduced by power and the fight.

There are things that “clang” within the documentary. The repeated story of babies being killed by holding their feet and smashing their heads against rocks immediately rings a false note. This grisly and disturbing act has been attributed to “baddies” since the First World War, initially said of Russian soldiers and used again in WWII for the Nazis.

Some villagers sport idiotic grins during the “riot” scenes and during the funeral of a murdered family, young attractive girls in the background mug for the camera.

These jarring moments, which do intrude, do not take away from the power of the documentary, but do mar it.  Perhaps a tighter camera edit or judicious reframing could have fixed this, but overall the documentary impresses with its intimate vision of good becoming sour as it fights the villains and a government who want control.

Cartel Land has rocked the film festival world and has pulled  in seven awards and a number of nominations.  Watching the documentary, it is immediately apparent why it evokes so much excitement.  Heineman gives us a vision that upsets and contains a few twists and turns along the way. Betrayal, human weakness and loss of focus are combined with the human factor and hidden agendas that weaken the motivations of the main players.

This documentary is a must see.  Michael Heineman and Kathryn Bigelow have teamed up to produce a compelling and personal look at drugs, cartels and the real people who want change.  5 out of 5 stars.

Sneaky Pete: Amazon and Sony get Lightning in a Bottle

Giovanni Ribisi aka Sneaky Pete
Sneaky Pete the Amazon and Sony Television Pictures offering, called a TV Movie on IMDb that is, according to Amazon, a series available on Amazon Instant Video, is an almost perfect product, that illusive “lightning in a bottle” or perfect storm, if you will, of serendipitous creation. Everything about the first episode, which one can see on Amazon for free right now, clicks into place like a magnetized puzzle piece.

The storyline, the casting, the chemistry of the actors, and the inclusion of Bryan Cranston as villain, all work together so well, that director Seth Gordon and writer David Shore could give lessons on how to create the perfect pilot episode for a new series.

The appearance of Cranston toward the end of the premiere episode has the air of “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” to it. The award winning actor from Breaking Bad, has a connection with Shore via Vince Gilligan, show runner and creator of the AMC fan favorite show, as both men, Shore and Gilligan, were the creators of the short lived CBS series Battle Creek.

Horrible Bosses and Identity Thief director Seth Gordon helms the pilot episode of Sneaky Pete deftly and blends writer Shore’s comedy heavy script perfectly with the serious backstory of Marius/Pete. While the series is labeled as a Drama (dramedy might be more apt) there is enough humor to keep the show from being yet another show based upon a criminal with a heart who shines through a life full of pathos.

The pilot storyline follows Marius Josepovich (Giovanni Ribisi) a confidence man who, until very recently, has been sharing a cell with Pete. During their time together, the con man’s cellmate has talked incessantly of his almost Norman Rockwell type childhood and his grandparents. At the start of the show, Marius angrily tells Pete to stop talking about his perfect childhood. He points out to the other man that his life is far from perfect. That he committed a stupid crime and will be in prison or anther two years at least while he, Marius, will be out in a matter of hours.

After his short conversation with Pete, which ends with his being shoved up against the cell wall, he calls his little brother Eddie. He learns that things will not be too great when he gets out. There are people who want him dead. The next time we see Marius, he is pumping Pete about that perfect childhood, prompting his cellmate to reveal his grandparents address.

Marius shows up at Pete’s familial retreat claiming to be his cellmate and they accept him as the grandkid that they have not seen in two decades. Although, it looks like Grandpa does while Grandma seems to know from the get-go that Marius might just not be Pete.

Marius/Pete meets the cousins, one of whom is a cop, and joins the family business of bail bonds as a skip tracer. Cue a lot of moments of tense comedy while Julia (played by Marin Ireland), who helps Grandma at the office, learns a lot from Pete, including the fact that he is not overly courageous.

The series opener is a splendid mix of comedy and pathos, but mostly it excels at the comedy. Overt humor and sly humor sit side-by-side and each character is presented very well by the script. Little touches are interwoven in the plot to present a depth to each person in the story.

Julia turning out to be very good at “winging it” (reference the “faking their way into the award party scene”) and has bad judgement not just about the men in her life but people in general.

Marius tells the real Pete early on that his mother was an addict. Something that, as a viewer, we tend do disbelieve as he has already been identified as a confidence man. Before the show ends we learn, via the auspices of a flashback at the family meal, that his mom was an addict and that Marius looked after his baby brother Eddie.

Sneaky Pete is not the first form of fictional entertainment to focus on the world of the scam, the con, the clip, et al. Universal’s 1973 hit film The Sting starring Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid superstars Paul Newman and Robert Redford, was all about the con and the people who practice it.

There is something addictive about a confidence tale. Like a magician the con artist strives to be the “smartest person in the room.” Added to this fascination with the con are characters that the audience immediately like and care about, music that moves the story along brilliantly and a storyline that makes it clear that “Grandma did not fall off the melon truck yesterday.”

At the end of the first episode, while Grandma Audrey (Margo Martindale) is collecting eggs, she tells Marius/Pete in carefully couched terms that she knows. While it is implied that she heard his conversation just prior to coming into the barn, It was shown at the beginning of the episode (in the lemonade scene) that Audrey knows something is not right with this new version of Pete.

Sneaky Pete, which does sound a bit like a Looney Tunes character, like Speedy Gonzales, rather than a show title, is a perfect blend of comedy, information (Think Burn Notice and Michael Weston teaching viewers about being a spy but delivered via the show’s dialogue and not through a voice over narration.) and just a tiny bit of sentimentality.

This series is an epic win for all concerned. Ribisi rocks it as Marius/Pete, Ireland is perfect as cousin Julie, Martindale as the perfect all-knowing grandma and the writing brings enough to the table that the actors all have some great material to work with. Thus far, this Amazon program has no further episodes listed so it will be hard to know when episode two may show up. Till then, watch the pilot and marvel at this lightning in a bottle event. This, quite simply, smashing “television.”

Need for Speed (2014): Aaron Paul’s Video Game Film

Aaron Paul as Tobey Marshall in Need for Speed
The 2014 film Need for Speed could be seen as a film made to cash in on Aaron Paul’s Breaking Bad popularity or an effort to capitalize on the video game of the same name. While the movie did make a decent profit, production costs were $66 million and the worldwide box office came to $203 million, critics panned the movie almost universally. The film’s biggest crime seems to have been, apart from starring television actor Paul, not being 2 Fast 2 Furious or part of that long running franchise.

Directed by Scott Waugh, stunt coordinator extraordinaire turned director, and starring Aaron Paul, Brit actors Imogen Poots and Dominic Cooper (Cooper is currently working steadily as Tony Stark’s daddy in Agent Carter on ABC) along with Mr Robot‘s Rami Malik and pre – 50 Shades of Grey Dakota Johnson, the movie is an action film based, very loosely on the video game and features fast cars, a little humor, and some thrills and spills along the way. Michael Keaton has a splendid cameo as Monarch, the former Formula 1 racer with a dickey heart who sponsors the De Leon race.

Paul plays Tobey Marshall, a racer who yearns to win the De Leon and whose small cadre of friends stick by him and help out in his late father’s business. Cooper is Dino Brewster, professional race car driver, rich guy and all around heel. The two do not get on, mainly because Dino stole Tobey’s girl, Anita (Johnson) whose little brother Pete (Harrison Gilbertson) is Marshall’s best friend. After taking a contract to modify a car for Brewster, a Mustang that is later sold to Julia Maddon’s boss for a cool $2.7 million, Dino challenges Tobey and Pete to a race and the heel kills Pete with a pit maneuver during the race.

Tobey is framed for the crime and put away for manslaughter. When he gets out, Marshall vies to get Monarch’s attention and get an invite to the De Leon where he wants to beat Brewster once and for all. Maddon joins Tobey as they drive across country with a bounty placed on their heads by Dino who wants to stop Marshall from entering the race.

That Aaron Paul has got some enormous acting chops goes without question. Just the fact that he held his own against master craftsman Bryan Cranston for the whole of Breaking Bad is proof positive that the man can act. Critics who had their long knives poised to sink into Aaron’s performance in this video game action racer were doing so because he dared to leave the small box. Had they paid attention, these “experts” would have noticed that Paul gave his usual meticulous performance.

Granted the storyline itself had some pretty glaring plot holes and Poots manages to look younger each time she is on screen, and there is not nearly enough Michael Keaton, but…

Malik shows just how he got the part of Elliot in Mr Robot, Poots showed just why she should be in more films and Cooper made a impressively nasty villain. The Brit actor showed just how to make the bad guy a truly nasty bit of stuff and that, in turn, helped to make Paul’s hero look even better.

Waugh did a good job in his second feature length film as director and the film looks great. Everything felt right and while not as glossy or OTT as the 2F2F franchise films, the stunts delivered the requisite amount of oohs and ahhs and made all the scenes crackle with excitement.

Certainly Need for Speed feels a little like a red headed step child to the “Furious” saga but overall, the film delivers. This is a 4 out of 5 star film, earning an extra star for the casting of Aaron Paul and Dominic Cooper. It is Streaming on Showtime at the moment and worth watching despite its rather long runtime of over two hours.

Breaking Bad/Frozen Parody Best YouTube Viral Video Ever (Video)

Breaking Bad/Frozen Parody Best YouTube Viral Video Ever (Video)

Two days ago, on November 15, YouTube channel ANIMEME uploaded their Breaking Bad/Frozen parody and it may just be the best viral video ever on the Internet in terms of spot on parody. Disney Studios’ Frozen was a massive hit with kids young and old across the world. Halloween this year featured a load of Frozen themed costumes and this animated feature put Disney back into the number one spot for children’s films and brought a newfound popularity to the old Hans Christian Anderson tale of the Snow Queen.

Better Call Saul: Greetings From the Set Teaser (Video)

Better Call Saul: Greetings From the Set Teaser (Video)

Better Call Saul sent a greetings card of sorts from the set in the form of a video behind-the-scenes teaser and it was posted not only on AMCs Internet site but on their official YouTube channel titled, AMC. The only people who may not know who Saul Goodman is have either been hiding under a rock for the last six years or never felt the urge to watch Breaking Bad (2008 – 2013) on television or Netflix, or even iTunes. Bob Odenkirk played the savvy lawyer to Bryan Cranston’s Walter White, aka Heisenberg and Aaron Paul’s Jesse Pinkman a sort of three muskateers scenario without out the fourth unless counting Giancarlo Esposito’s Gus Fring as the temporary additional musketeer.