The Lincoln Lawyer

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-

Magic Mike

I don’t prefer male strippers in real life, but as soon as I saw the commercial for Magic Mike, I said, “I’m in.”  What can I say? I appreciate all things aesthetically pleasing, and there was eye candy in abundance.  Unfortunately my girlfriends did not share my enthusiasm, and I could not get anyone to go see it with me.  I don’t discriminate, and there were at least three actors in this movie that I wanted to see.  That would be Joe Manganiello (True Blood), Matthew McConaughey (The Lincoln Lawyer), and Alex Pettyfer (Beastly).  Manganiello stole my heart as werewolf Alcide Herveaux on True Blood, Matthew McConaughey has been fine since A Time to Kill, and Alex Pettyfer got my attention in I Am Number Four.  Now Channing Tatum (The Vow) does nothing for me, so he’s not included in that list.  The fact that Steven Soderbergh (most recently of Haywire) directed it also lent an air of credibility to what otherwise seemed like a fluff movie.

Tatum stars as “Magic” Mike, a hard-working guy in Tampa just trying to make ends meet until he can start his own furniture business.  He’s the kind of guy who does a little bit of this and a little bit of that.  Construction by day, stripping by night.  When he arrives to work at the construction site one day he meets new guy Adam (Pettyfer), a young kid on his first day at the job.  Mike is affable and experienced, and he immediately takes Adam under his wing.  Later that night Adam runs into Mike outside of his second job, a strip club owned by McCounaghey’s character Dallas, one part cowboy, one part surfer dude.  He both owns and “dances” at the club, and if you thought Matty had fallen off, I’m here to tell you he’s still got it.  I mean you could literally wash clothes on the man’s stomach, but I digress.  Mike introduces Adam to Dallas as “the kid,” and at 19, it fits.  Adam watches Mike perform, mesmerized by the effect he has on the crowd of women tearing at his clothes.  Tatum was actually a Florida stripper before making it big, so I’m guessing this was just like old times.  Later when Dallas needs to fill dead air and none of the other guys can go on stage, The Kid is thrust into the spotlight.  He timidly inches out on the stage while the women cheer him on.  He lacks the polish and finesse of the others, but he gets a warm reception and a star is born.  Soon Adam is living a wild new lifestyle, much to the dismay of his protective older sister (Cody Horn) Brooke, with whom he lives.  Complicating things for Mike are the developing feelings he has for Brooke, and a promise that he makes to look out for her little brother – who is dangerously out of his league in the fast lane.

Magic Mike was an odd movie, to me.  Let’s start with what worked.  First of all, it was funny in a cheesy, tongue-in-cheek sort of way.  Matthew McConaughey clearly relished every moment on screen in all his bare-chested glory.  I don’t think Channing Tatum is the best actor in the world, but there is something charming and accessible about him.  His experience was obvious, as he was the only one who could really dance.  Yep, this is the guy from the corny ass Step Up movie folks.  The women in my theater were practically in heat when he and Alex Pettyfer were on screen, audibly yelping and giggling like teenagers.  Despite the eye candy, Magic Mike wasn’t perfect.  The idea of a male strip club is a little far-fetched.  Most male strippers are patronized by gay men.  The idea of a packed house full of clamoring women isn’t very realistic.  And I always say that the way you begin and end a movie are extremely key in the audience’s perception of what they’ve digested.  Magic Mike ended so abruptly that everyone was kind of like, “that’s it?”  The resolution felt rushed, and then boom – roll credits.  I thought that it could have been a little better (it was really corny sometimes), but it managed to live up to the limited expectations I had for it.  I think you either want to see this movie or you don’t, and a word from me won’t really matter.  That’s why I couldn’t convince any of my friends to go with me.  But if you don’t have enough singles for the strip club, maybe you can treat yourself to a Magic Mike movie matinee.  Say that three times fast.  Grade: B.



The Ides of March

“Beware the ides of March…”  I’ve always liked the Shakespeare quote from Caesar, an ominous warning of betrayal.  It’s appropriate that the George Clooney (The American) directed Ides of March is named for the quote, as the movie is similarly characterized by the betrayal and cold ambition found in Shakespeare’s play.

Ryan Gosling (Drive), Philip Seymour Hoffman (currently in Moneyball), Marisa Tomei (The Lincoln Lawyer), and Paul Giamatti (most recently of The Hangover II) comprise a highly-acclaimed cast that is the best collection of actors I’ve seen in a while.  Clooney is Democratic governor Mike Morris, an ambitious contender for the White House, especially if he can win the Ohio primary that looms ahead.  An integral part of Morris’ campaign is his campaign manager and aide, Stephen Meyers (Gosling).  Meyers is a sharp young gun with political savvy beyond his years.  He is calculating and shrewd, and will tell you that he’s done more at his age than most of his older counterparts.  However, it is Meyers’ strong ego that leaves him susceptible to overtures from the opposition.  Morris’ opponent is a more seasoned Democrat, a representative of the status quo, while Morris (much like President Obama) has been anointed as the symbol of hope and change.   Stephen has truly bought into Morris’ image and thinks he is backing a winner.  As he tells another character, he is “drinking the kool-aid.”  The campaign is moving in the right direction until Stephen gets a call from Tom Duffy, campaign manager for Morris’ opponent.  Duffy tells Stephen that he’d like him to switch sides and that he should attach himself to a winner and look at the big picture.  Stephen ultimately declines, but let the whole thing linger on longer than it should have.  Instead of maintaining an impenetrable silence, he allowed for the possibility of uncertainty and cast Morris in a vulnerable light at a critical hour of the campaign.

While managing the campaign, Stephen crosses paths with a young volunteer named Molly (Evan Rachel Wood, True Blood) whose father happens to be the head of the Democratic National Convention.  They begin an intimate relationship that leads Stephen to discover that he and the governor share more than a similar ideology.  Meanwhile, Stephen tells Morris’ senior campaign manager Paul (Hoffman) about his exchange with Tom Duffy.  His admission is met with an impassioned diatribe on the virtue of loyalty, after which he is quickly dismissed from the campaign.  At first blush it seems that Stephen will be a victim of his own ego, but he still has an ace up his sleeve with Molly – who is carrying a secret that could derail the entire campaign.  It’s ironic that while Paul was reminding Stephen of the importance of loyalty, he had no idea that Stephen had been displaying great loyalty to the governor by cleaning his dirty laundry even while his own position within the campaign grew more and more tenuous.

After Stephen is fired he behaves vengefully and emotionally, almost validating the overture.  But you don’t get to where Stephen has gotten without having a fighter’s mentality.  He goes into survival mode and begins to play the game from within, angling to revive his role in the campaign and to leverage what info he has against the man he once believed in.

Ides of March was a pretty good political drama.  I’ve seen better, but it was a solid movie and an impressive directorial effort from Clooney.  I really feel that he captured the idealistic buzz that hums in a Democratic campaign, the enthusiasm and liberalism.  I chuckled at the Shepard Fairey-inspired prints modeled after Obama’s iconic ‘Hope’ poster, but otherwise I thought the campaign depiction was realistic.  Ryan Gosling continues to prove that he’s one of the best young actors around.  He is earnest and real in everything I’ve ever seen him in, and I am always endeared to his characters, whether he’s a criminal in Drive, a drug addict in Half Nelson, or a lovesick suitor in The Notebook.  Clooney was effective as the duplicitous Morris and of course it’s no difficult task for him to be the charming candidate.  The supporting cast was very good, and I should mention that Jeffrey Wright (Source Code, Cadillac Records) also made an appearance.  Another great actor in a pretty good movie.  I didn’t like the very last scene of the movie, but I enjoyed it overall. 8 out 10.