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The Infiltrator

The Medellin drug cartel (helmed by notorious kingpin Pablo Escobar) at its pique flooded the U.S. with approximately half a billion dollars worth of cocaine per week in the mid 1980s, under the approving eye of the American government. This was all very clandestine at the time, but in recent years it has become accepted political history rather than mere fodder for conspiracy theorists. Television shows like Netflix’s Narcos and films like last year’s Kill the Messenger have pulled back the curtain on Escobar’s notorious exploits and the subsequent fallout, respectively. The Infiltrator, starring Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad), offers a unique glimpse into the American effort to bring down Escobar’s empire.

If you’ve seen The Wire, you will recall that Detective Lester Freamon made a breakthrough in his drug case against Stringer Bell and Avon Barksdale after he stopped following the drugs and started following the money. U.S. Customs Agent Robert Mazur (Cranston) applies the same logic to bringing down Escobar. After his undercover efforts yield middling results, he switches his strategy, making inroads with perimeter players in Escobar’s network, particularly those who launder the ill-gotten proceeds of his trade. He goes undercover using the alias Bob Musella, operating as money launderer between Escobar’s associates and foreign financial institutions.

Fellow agent Amir Abreu (John Leguizamo, Ice Age: Collision Course) makes the appropriate introductions, and soon “Musella” is in. Their circle includes informants, criminals, and assorted lowlifes, and the stakes for Mazur could not be higher. He could’ve opted for retirement, but instead he dives even deeper into the underworld. A devoted family man, he maintains his integrity at the expense of his operation, while his marriage becomes increasingly strained. Slowly, methodically Mazur works his way up the food chain, with each new player getting him closer and closer to Escobar’s principal launderers. Cranston and director Brad Furman (Runner Runner, The Lincoln Lawyer) perfectly capture the tortuous duality of the undercover agent’s double life and its attendant betrayal.

Cranston does an outstanding job, infusing Mazur with dogged tenacity masking an omnipresent air of frustration and guilt. However, the most subtly revelatory performance might have come from John Leguizamo in his supporting role as the cocksure Abreu. I always appreciate the little non-verbal nuances actors bring to their roles, and Leguizamo did not disappoint. Whether a slight flicker in the eyes or a nearly imperceptible shudder, his performance bubbled with realism. Both he and Cranston shone brightest when their humanity conflicted with the tasks at hand, whether it was complicity in a murder or the need to befriend and then betray. I appreciated the film for its excellent performances and original perspective on a familiar story. The Infiltrator does not disappoint. Grade: A-

Gone Girl

Movies provide a familiar comfort for me, even if the subject matter isn’t warm and fuzzy. Thrillers in particular give me a nice buzz of excitement, and they’re my favorite. When I saw the trailer for Gone Girl, I was drawn in by the promise of a suspenseful thriller and thought: my kind of movie. David Fincher has been one of my favorite directors for a long time. From Se7en and Panic Room to his remake of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Fincher has proven time and again that he’s a 21st century master of suspense – no disrespect to the late great Alfred Hitchcock. With Gone Girl, he’s simply outdone himself.

I hadn’t read Gillian Flynn’s novel of the same name, and I went in to the movie ‘cold.’ My opinions are solely based on Fincher’s dramatic interpretation and Flynn’s adapted screenplay. Fincher masterfully manipulated the viewer’s emotions by crafting a very specific perception of the main characters and in the sequential narrative he wanted to tell. The movie opens with no pretense, quickly establishing the essential plot. It’s the day after Independence Day, and Nick Dunne’s wife Amy (Rosamund Pike, The World’s End) has gone missing. Nick (Ben Affleck, Runner Runner) and his twin sister Margo (Carrie Coon, The Leftovers) don’t seem too broken up about her disappearance, though people admittedly express grief and anxiety in different ways. Nick does the “right” things after noticing signs of a struggle at their home by informing the authorities, and he co-operates with their investigation, at least initially.

As the film unfolds, my opinion of Nick began to shift – and this was a testament to an outstanding screenplay from Flynn and flawless direction from Fincher. While people grieve differently, at some point the shock wears off and real emotions come out. That never happened with Nick, and I assumed that he must’ve had something to do with his wife’s disappearance. Circumstantial evidence mounted, and it was apparent from minute one that Nick and Amy weren’t happy. Juxtaposed with current happenings were narrative excerpts from Amy’s diary, and these musings were dramatized through flashbacks. We see how Nick and Amy first met, and witness the undeniable chemistry they once shared. We know that something changed along the way, but for the longest time we don’t know how or when. Nick sure looks guilty, but things aren’t always what they seem.

A movie rife with mystery and twists such as this needn’t be spoiled, so I’ll leave the plot synopsis where it stands. I’ve lauded the writing and direction, but the performances were similarly excellent. For whatever reason (maybe it’s the memory of J. Lo and Gigli), most people don’t think much of Ben Affleck. But I think he’s extremely talented behind the camera (The Town) and in front of it as well. His initial aloofness was contemptible, but as the plot unfolded he became a sympathetic character, and his performance was unwavering. But the real linchpin of this movie was Pike, whose veneer of warmth belied an icy core. Her versatility and depth were impeccably nuanced, and she was a revelation. Even Tyler Perry was impressive as Nick’s shrewd defense attorney. Carrie Coon also made the most of her supporting role, and the entire cast was perfect, from top to bottom. I’ve talked to a couple of people who didn’t like the ending, but for me – a resolution doesn’t have to be popular to be effective. What more can I say? Make this the next movie you see. Grade: A