The Infiltrator (2016)

Rated R. Running time: 2 hour 7 min.

Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 3; Language 2; Sex/Nudity 2.

Our star ratings (1-5): 5

O let the evil of the wicked come to an end, but establish the righteous, you who test the minds and hearts, O righteous God.

Psalm 7:9

Perverseness of heart shall be far from me; I will know nothing of evil.

Psalm 101:4

Do not swerve to the right or to the left; turn your foot away from evil.

Proverbs 4:27

TI_D009_LD_00053_R_CROP (l to r) Simón Andreu stars as Gonzalo Mora Sr., Rubén Ochandiano as Gonzalo Mora Jr., Joseph Gilgun as Dominic, Bryan Cranston as undercover U.S. Customs agent Robert Mazur, John Leguizamo as his partner Emir Abreu, Yul Vazquez as Javier Ospina and Xarah Xavier as Lau in THE INFILTRATOR, a Broad Green Pictures release. Credit: Liam Daniel / Broad Green Pictures

(L to r) Simón Andreu stars as Gonzalo Mora Sr., Rubén Ochandiano as Gonzalo Mora Jr., Joseph Gilgun as Dominic, Bryan Cranston as undercover U.S. Customs agent Robert Mazur, John Leguizamo as his partner Emir Abreu, Yul Vazquez as Javier Ospina and Xarah Xavier as Lau in THE INFILTRATOR, a Broad Green Pictures release. Credit: Liam Daniel / Broad Green Pictures

I couldn’t agree more with the assessment of this crime thriller by the reviewer in TIME Magazine: “This is a summer movie for grown-ups.” So intense at times is the suspense that you will even forget your popcorn, the prerequisite required to fully enjoy the other bloated and unbelievable thrillers flooding your local cinemaplex. Neither of the film’s three undercover agents are superheroes, but they are infinitely more believable and enjoyable. Nor are the drug-traffickers super villains, but you will not find any on neighboring screens both as smooth and as cold blooded as the ones in director Brad Furman’s film.

Based on former U.S. Customs agent Robert Mazur’s book of the same name, this is the five year-long story of the bringing to justice the drug cartel run by Columbia’s Pablo Escobar. It is the mid 1980s, and the US Customs unit headed by Bonni Tischler (Amy Ryan) is dedicated to stemming the flood of cocaine flowing through southern Florida from Columbia. They feel stymied, because no matter how large an amount of drugs they seize, more keep coming. Special Agent Robert Mazur, ably played by Bryan Cranston), says, “I think we’ve been doing this backward. We’ve been following the drugs to get to the bad guys. What if we chased the money?” And so begins the epic tale of Operation C-Chase, the infiltration of Pablo Escobar’s large organization, a venture that will require much ingenuity, courage, and patience—as well as Oscar-caliber acting by the agents involved.

The partner assigned to Agent Mazur is the bold and brash Puerto Rica-born Emir Abreu (John Leguizamo), so it takes a while for the calm and quiet Mazur to feel comfortable with him. They couldn’t be more different, with the older Mazur being married with two children. After careful research looking at headstones in a cemetery, Mazur adopts the identity of the deceased Robert Musella because they are about the same age, he was Italian American, and they have the same initials. With the help of the vast resources of the US Treasury Department Mazur develops the character of a rich high roller with wide-ranging banking connections. They even set up the shell of an investment company; his pitch being that investing in stock and companies is the safest way to launder dirty drug money. He is provided with a lavish mansion suitable for a rock star to add authenticity to his carefully constructed resume. When Mazur manages to capture the attention of Roberto Alcaino (Benjamin Bratt), Escobar’s top lieutenant, everything about him and his claim to be able to handle the cartel’s huge amount of cash for laundering is believable. As an added touch he even has a fake fiancée in novice agent Kathy Ertz (Diane Kruger).

There is many a danger that could lead to their certain death, a chief one being Mazur’s devotion to his wife and his moral scruple regarding betraying his vows to her. When he and Emir at a strip club are plied with prostitutes, the younger partner willingly engages in sex, but Mazur puts off his nubile partner, claiming that he wants to be faithful to his girlfriend. Later, Emir is upset by this, declaring that they have to go all the way, do anything in order to convince the criminals that they are with them. During the following weeks, as Mazur is thrown into intimate situations with faux fiancée Kathy, it is obvious that he is drawn to her and could easily bed down with her in one of the luxurious rooms they frequent during their travels.

Perhaps the most electric scene of danger is the one in which Mazur is dining out with his wife Evelyn (Juliet Aubrey) to celebrate their wedding anniversary. Suddenly one of the criminals appears at his table, obviously surprised that his “friend” is dining with a woman other than the fiancée whom he has met. Just then the waiter brings their anniversary cake, and the quick-witted Musella creates a diversion by pretending that the waiter has brought the wrong cake, not the birthday cake he had ordered. As the hapless server tries to explain that he did not mix up the order, Musella feigns anger, grabbing the man and pushing his face into cake. Evelyn, of course, is horrified by this brutal act, but the crook is duly convinced by his friend’s cover story.

During the course of the five years Mazur and partners are astonished at the willingness of so many international bankers to play along with the cartel, the profits being so great. His fancy briefcase is equipped with a tape recorder. He just has to turn sideways a decorative brass eagle near the clasp to turn on the machine, so he is able to make over a thousand recordings of officials incriminating themselves.

Mazur also becomes acquainted with Escobar’s money manager Javier Ospina (Yul Vazquez), always dressed in white, including his hat. His bizarre behavior is influenced by his penchant for drugs and his obsession with sex—he even tries to come on to “Musella”!

Mazur’s sensitive conscience becomes disturbed as he develops a liking for the cultured Roberto Alcaino and his wife Gloria (Elena Anaya). The Alcaino’s are completely taken in, Roberto declaring his trust in his new friend and bestowing an expansive gift onto Kathy when they visit his lavish penthouse in Miami. The couples visit back and forth and dine frequently together. So when at the climax of the sting operation Mazur sees that Roberto and his wife have come to the fake wedding service, there is a note of regret in his greeting to his friend, who is soon to be arrested and taken away.

This is a film made all the more powerful by the knowledge that the events portrayed actually happened. There are no special effects-enhanced fistfights and careening car chases or gun battles involving the firing of thousands of rounds of bullets. Just a suspenseful battle of wits against a brutal array of suave criminals willing to do anything to maintain their vast empire of wealth. There is bloodshed, in one scene coming so unexpectedly that it is far more shocking than those in routine thrillers involving dozens of victims. At the end we are told of the fates of the various characters involved, as well as the knowledge that the Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI), the seventh largest privately held financial institution in the world, was brought down by the sting operation.

Director Brad Furman’s film is not just a thriller, but also a character study. Bryan Cranston is outstanding as the resourceful man who does not want to compromise his marital vows but must somehow convince the bad guys that he is one of them—the last of the two Scriptures above were chosen with him and his dilema in mind. The supporting actors are equally good, John Leguizamo as the volatile Emir Abreu; Diane Kruger, one moment all business as an agent and the next the sexy fiancée Kathy Ertz; Benjamin Bratt makes us actually like Roberto Alcaino, the brutal drug lieutenant.

We might wish for larger roles for the talented Amy Ryan as Agent Bonni Tischler and Juliet Aubrey as Mazur’s wife Evelyn, but this would have made the lengthy film even longer, and would not have added to the heart of the narrative, the dangerous deception carried on by the three undercover agents in order to bring the vicious criminals to justice. As it is there are enough scenes between Mazur and Evelyn to show that his mission came close to destroying his relationship with her and the children.

This film will soon be joined by the other crime thriller for adults, Hell and High Water, the two films making it a good summer for those unimpressed by the seemingly endless Bourne series or the overcrowded superhero genre.

This review with a set of discussion questions will be in the August issue of VP.

If you find this review helpful, please consider buying an issue or taking out a year’s subscription to the journal. You will find lots more in each issue than just reviews.

The Lady in the Van (2015)

Rated PG-13. Running time: 1 hour 44 min.

Our content ratings: Violence 1; Language 2; Sex/Nudity 3.

Our star rating (1-5): 5

How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?

How long will you hide your face from me?

How long must I bear pain in my soul,

and have sorrow in my heart all day long?

How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?

Consider and answer me, O Lord my God!

Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep the sleep of death, and my enemy will say,

“I have prevailed”; my foes will rejoice because I am shaken.

Psalm 13:1-4

Shoppng

Miss Shepherd & writer Alan Bennett develop an unusual relationship over a 15 year period. (c) Sony Pictures Classics

Alan Bennett’s comedy/drama, based on his 1999 play, which grew out of his own personal experience, is a marvel to behold, a little film about a woman in spiritual anguish who impacts the lives of a number of liberal residents in London’s Camden section, Alan Bennett in particular. Maggie Smith brings to her role of bag lady, Miss Shepherd, the same hauteur that she lavishes upon that of the dowager Countess of Grantham in Downton Abbey. (She also played Miss Shepherd in the original play.) Although obviously well educated, her sense of entitlement is so strong that two phrases seem to have slipped from her vocabulary, “Thank you” and “I am sorry.”

The author, and film director Nicholas Hytner, imagines Alan Bennett as two persons internally, the “Writer” Alan Bennett and the “Life” Alan Bennett, both played by Alex Jennings. Bennett’s two halves converse and argue with each other. Their exchanges bring up the interesting issue of a writer’s exploitation of the people in his life—in this case it is not only Miss Shepherd, but his mother as well. Miss Shepherd seems delusional: in one incident she replies to a man who tells her, “Sorry, you can’t park here,” “No, I’ve had guidance. This is where it should go.” He responds, “Guidance? Who from?” She, “The Virgin Mary. I spoke to her yesterday. She was outside the post office.” The other old lady in Bennett’s life is Mum. When visiting Alan, she disdains Miss Shepherd, whom she considers a nuisance, especially taking offense at the van occupant’s body odor and the woman’s toilet habits. (There are many points in the film when we are glad that SmelloVision never got off the ground!)

At the beginning of the film Alan buys the house in Camden, a neighborhood in London inhabited by other writers and intellectuals. Looking like a disheveled refugee, dressed in an over-sized man’s coat and dirty dresses and scarves, Miss Shepherd is known up and down the street because she has been parking her live-in van there. The residents apparently tolerate her out of a sense of guilt, some even bringing her food, even though she never thanks them. During the Christmas season a kind woman and her two children bring her two small wrapped presents. Miss Shepherd’s gruff response is the order to close the door and keep the cold out.

When the Council starts imposing restricted curb parking, Alan allows Miss Shepherd to park in his driveway, not out of any desire to know her better or heart-felt charity, but seemingly because he is too timid to say No. She is supposed to stay for just the short time while she sorts herself out. This stretches out to 15 years!

In a Hollywood fictional production the two would have formed a deep friendship, Miss Shepherd mellowing into a grateful old lady who comes to regard her host as a son. But this film is based (loosely) on the author’s own life. What the film turns out to be is a biographical mystery akin to Citizen Kane in which Alan Bennett slowly adds pieces of the puzzle called Miss Shepherd. Some say that her real first name is not Mary, but Margaret. There is a strange night visitor who demands money from her. Alan wonders why she has a strong aversion to music. At first we think it is because the music is played amateurishly by children. But then she objects even to Alan’s listening to a recording of Frederic Chopin’s Piano Concerto 1—a piece that we hear several times later. He also learns that she had once been a nun who enjoyed playing music and had been cast out of the order.

Miss Shepherd still goes to church to seek absolution in the confessional booth, but her anguish does not seem to be assuaged by the rite. (One of many incidents played for comedic effect shows her leaving the booth, with the next penitent obviously upset by the odor left behind. We hear the priest, prepared by long experience with Miss Shepherd, telling the man, “There’s air freshener behind the Virgin.” Sure, enough when the man looks behind the statue outside the booth, there is the welcome bottle.) Bennett discovers his “tenant” is fluent in French, and, eventually, that she had been a talented concert pianist. So, how did such a person become a bag lady? When he learns of her brother and sister-in-law, he visits them to find another piece or two of the puzzle of her life. In a flashback to her days as a nun we see how an unfeeling superior with a twisted view of God and religion can wreak terrible harm on an impressionable young person. Still another puzzle piece that explains why she cannot rid herself of guilt in the confessional booth we learn at…well, you can see this for yourself. Alan imagines a deliciously funny end for Miss Shepherd that is foreshadowed by a brief glimpse of a wall painting—one of those cloying depictions of “The Assumption of the Virgin Mary.” Be sure to watch for it in order to enjoy all the more the hilarious special effect-enhanced scene all the more.

Helping and trying to discover Miss Shepherd’s past has more of a liberating effect on Alan Bennett than he could have surmised at the beginning of what amounts to a spiritual journey. He slowly emerges from the personal island onto which he had retreated, connecting better with the outside world because of her intrusion into his little world. There is a literally “touching” moment when he holds Miss Shepherd’s hand, and later his mother’s. Indeed, he moves beyond merely tolerating the latter, whom he had put off when she had hinted that he had room for her in his new house. Years later, slipping into dementia, Mum now lives in a care facility where he visits her. The last time we see Alan he is on stage acting in his new play. We suspect he is a far better writer and actor thanks to the lady in the van who inadvertently led him to discover a compassion that enhances both recipient and giver. This is one of those “little” films that keep me returning to the movies, despite all of the loud big budget turkeys that overshadow them.

This film with a set of discussion questions will be in the March issue of Visual Parables.

Million Dollar Arm (2014)

Rated PG. Running time: 2 hours 4 min.

Our content ratings: V 0; L 2; S/N 1.

Our star rating (-15): 3

 A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.

Ezekiel 36:26

4Guys

In J.B. , with his two pitching prospects and Indian staffer, keeps in touch with his office by cell phone. (c) 2014 Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Like most sports movies, director Craig Gillespie’s film is a tale of underdogs struggling to win. However, it is not the Big Game that is the climax, but rather the Big Try-Out, this being the “based on a true story” of how the first baseball players from India came to the Pittsburgh Pirates. Centering more on the agent who discovered them, J.B. Bernstein, it is also a redemptive character transformation tale, Bernstein not being the most wholesome human being when we first meet him. The plot is very familiar, but the story is still worth following.

Mad Men’s Jon Hamm stars as J.B. Bernstein, who in partnership with Aash (Aasif Mandvi) has left a large agency so they can set up their own. However, after a long period of wooing a Samoan NFL star named Popo (Rey Maualuga), they discover that a larger agency has snatched him away just as J.B. is about to sign him. Almost out of money, and with no prospects in mind, Aash is ready to call “Game over,” but J.B. persuades him to stay with him. Good thing, because one night J.B. indulges in late-night channel flipping between a cricket match and Susan Boyle’s “Britain’s Got Talent.” Watching the cricket player called a “bowler” throw the ball, he comes up with the idea of going to India to sign up bowlers and bring them back to the USA for training, thus opening up baseball to a new market with over a billion people. He is able to persuade the investor Mr. Chang (Tzi Ma) to bankroll his project, but the imposed time basis for the project is terribly short. Aash normally would be the one to go to India, but he is married with twin babies that are always sick, so J.B. is the one to fly to Mumbai.

He enlists a baseball fan named Amit (Pitobash a Bollywood comedy star), and together they promote the campaign by producing a Million Dollar Arm reality show that captures the attention of young Indian males. Joining the team is retired MLB scout Ray (Alan Arkin) who seems to suffer from something akin to narcolepsy—compared to this constantly napping scout Tom Hanks’ alcoholic, zombie-like manager Jimmy Dugan in A League of Their Own is a whirling dynamo. For a while it looks as if the project will fail—none of the would-be pitchers’ throws measure much more than 60 mph on a radar gun. Then at last two young men in the same city throw balls faster than the required 90 mph. Neither is a cricket player—in fact they do not even like the game. Rinku (Suraj Sharma, Life of Pi) is a javelin thrower, and Dinesh (Madhur Mittal) is a laborer alongside his father. Neither knows anything about baseball either. It is only back in L.A. that J.B. learns that they were not cricket players.

As soon as they land J.B. dumps the two youth in a hotel and leaves them, so eager is he to take up again his bedding down of hot models for an evening. His tenant in the small bungalow on his property is doctor-in-training Brenda (Lake Bell). During his stint in India the only contact he has had with a female was skyping with her about his work there and issues relating to his house. She seems to be more concerned about the boys than he. Of course, the naïve youth run afoul of things at the hotel (the film mines the humor by depicting them in America, and earlier J.B. in India, as fish out of water), so J.B. has to come and pick them up and bed them down at his house, which to his dismay puts a crimp in his nightly trysts. He sets them up with USC baseball coach Tom House (Bill Paxton), who expresses doubts that he can teach them the essentials of pitching in such a short time frame that Mr. Chang has demanded. The lads are disappointed that J.B. dashes off on other business, leaving them all day at the practice field.

Both youth prove inept at everything but throwing, not even knowing what a baseball glove is. (I write “throwing” because they are not able to control the ball, thus making their catchers scramble to retain the ball.) Day after day passes, and they show little improvement. They are homesick and frustrated by their unfamiliar surroundings, but J.B. is never there to support them. Brenda becomes their confidante, and finally their champion when she confronts J.B., as does Tom. The eventual romance that blossoms between J.B. that is part of his transformation from ambitious businessman to compassionate human being is enjoyable, but, when you think about it, distracting from the much more important story of the first Indian baseball players in the USA.

Indeed, the first part of the film, mainly set in India, is the best part of the film, lifting it above the level of predictable sports film that it sinks into during the last half. The teeming streets of India are gorgeously photographed, and what little we are shown of the family lives of Rinku and Dinesh is far more interesting than J.B.’s foibles. The family meals and the farewell ceremonies for the sons are the most moving moments in the movie, even in their truncated form. It is good to see a man change from money grubber or heel to human being, but there are lots of good films in this genre—witness The Doctor, A Civil Action, Kramer vs. Kramer, even Luke Skywalker in Star Wars. How much better this film would have been had we been allowed to spend more time with Rinku and Dinesh. The film’s scriptwriter Tom McCarthy did far better work on his The Station Agent and The Visitor, two far superior films that he also directed, but then some would add, he wasn’t beholden to the Disney film factory for them.

Captain Phillips (2013)

Rated PG-13. Running time: 2 hours 14 min.

Our Advisories (1-10): Violence 4; Language 2; Sex-Nudity 0.

Our star rating (1-5): 5

SavngLife

Capt. Phillips pleads for the life of his ship’s mate.
(c) 2013 Columbia Pictures

 Incline your ear to me;
rescue me speedily.
Be a rock of refuge for me,
a strong fortress to save me.

Psalm 31.2

“Based on a true story,” director Paul Greengrass’s film starts out calmly, but soon has us leaning forward as the suspense increases with the taut action. Screenwriter Billy Ray’s adaptation of the book by Richard Phillips and Stephen Talty, A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALs and Dangerous Days at Sea, is guaranteed to hold your interest, even though you know the ultimate outcome already. It is the battle of wits between two determined men that distinguishes this at-sea thriller.

Mr. Greenglass has said he wanted to make more than just a thriller, but also show the contrast between the haves and have-nots, To a limited degree he does at the beginning: we see Captain Phillips (Tom Hanks) on an April day in 2009 leaving a comfortable Vermont home with his wife Andrea (Catherine Keener) to go to the Burlington airport where he will take a plane to Oman to join his ship and crew. On the coast of Somalia Muse (Barkhad Abdi), a thin man clad in worn clothing, looks over a gang of Somalis eager to be chosen for his crew of pirates. He in turn is under orders from a local warlord to capture something big. Later, in a brief conversation with Phillips, Muse will explain that he switched from fishing to piracy because non-Africans had over-fished his home waters. There are virtually no legal jobs available in the failed country’s slack economy–according to a 2012 UN Development Programme the unemployment rate for men between the ages of 15 and 64 is 54%, and that for youth 14 to 29 is 67%!

In the Oman port Captain Phillips inspects his American-owned ship, a cargo container, The Maersk Alabama, and then puts out to sea, bound for Mombasa, Kenya. The ship is transporting 2400 tons of cargo, including relief supplies of food and medicines. The captain briefs his crew about the danger of the area they will traverse, about two hundred miles off the Somali coast, and puts them through a practice drill. This soon turns into the real thing when on their radar screen Phillips sees two blips heading toward them. The blips are two motorized skiffs launched from a decrepit trawler serving as the mother ship. As they speed along, the small craft are soon visible through binoculars. The chase over the next few hours is not as speedy as the careening car chases of fictional thrillers, but it is just as suspenseful, with the unarmed merchantmen at first fending off their attackers with their fire hoses. The little boats almost capsize in the large waves created by the ship, so the worried leader in one of them turns back. Muse gives up only when the old motor of his boat breaks down.

With the motor repaired back on their mother ship, Muse resumes the chase the next day, this time succeeding in boarding their prey. Capt. Phillips has ordered the crew to hide in the engine room, so he and his bridge crew wait for the arrival of their captors. The machine gun toting pirates shoot away the various locks of the doors and rush in. Muse, the only pirate speaking English, says, “Captain, relax, nobody gets hurt. No Al Qaeda here. Just business.” Thus begins the battle of wits between the older Phillips and the ex-fisherman. Keeping his calm, the Captain tries several ruses, and at one point the crew members in the engine room manage to seize one of the pirates when his bare-footed companion steps on the glass shards they have spread before the doorway and he has to retreat to the bridge for medical age. Also, Captain Phillips tries to get Muse to settle for the $30,000 stored in the safe, but the pirate refuses. The ship, cargo, and lives of the crew are worth millions, and he will settle for nothing less because he knows his warlord will punish him severely if he accepts such a paltry offer.

In all the scenes the brilliance of Tom Hanks is matched by that of the nonprofessional Barkhad Abdi, leader of the group. His looks and his voice convince us that he would do anything to get what he is after. Also quite good are the other non-professional actors, Faysal Ahmed as the hot-headed Najee, and Barkhad Abdirahman as Bilal who is the nervous driver of the enclosed lifeboat in which they hope to make it back to their home with Phillips as their hostage. (The three actors were found among the large Somali population in Minnesota.)

Compared to the sequences shot on the huge 500+ foot Alabama, those filmed in the confined space of the lifeboat are claustrophobic inducing. Muse has had to contend not only with the various lies and ruses of Captain Phillips, but the also with the aggressive Najee, who shouts and screams, often questioning his leader’s acts. The latter almost loses control of himself when a US Navy destroyer and helicopters show up.

There follows the tense negotiations with the military, the Naval captain under orders not to allow the lifeboat to reach Somalia. Captain Phillips complicates matters for his captors by managing to dive overboard. Even though he is recaptured, this no doubt affects Muse as he argues with Najee whether or not to trust the Naval negotiator who has told them that the elders of his village are aboard and want to meet with him. The intense ending induces feelings of relief mixed with sadness. Anyone with half a heart will have begun to extend at least a small measure of sympathy to the villains because the film has made it clear that they too are victims of a worldwide system of haves and have-nots. They are not the cardboard faceless stooges that audiences cheer the death of in the usual thriller. Surly there was rejoicing in heaven over the release from captivity of the American, but also there must have been some tears for those, who as Phillips in one of his pleas says (in effect, as I don’t recall the exact words), “You don’t have to die!”

As with another survival film Gravity, this film is a secular work apparently written and directed by two men who would not think of praying, even under duress. Their depiction of the Americans is understandable, with recent studies showing that up to 20% of Americans would answer a religion poll as “None of the above.” But the depiction of Somalis who do not mention the Prophet or Allah is not excusable. Of course, this is a minor qualm. What happened to Captain Phillips is not only extraordinary: he himself is extraordinary—from the calm way he handles himself on the ship trying to save the lives of his crew; to his sorrowful concern in the lifeboat that his captors were needlessly throwing their lives away; to the last scene when, safe aboard the destroyer, he lets out all the feelings he has held inside, this movie provides us with not only two hours plus of thrills, but an occasion to admire the resourcefulness of the human spirit.