Argo

Argo movie poster

After the one-two punch of “Gone Baby Gone” and “The Town,” Ben Affleck should not have to prove what a great movie director he is. But for those who, for some utterly bizarre reason, still believe they need further evidence to support this conclusion, I give you “Argo.” His third movie as a director tells the story of how CIA specialist Tony Mendez went about trying to extract six U.S. diplomats out of Iran during the 1979 hostage crisis. It proves to be a very intense experience watching this movie, and I also got a huge kick over how it skewers Hollywood and the business of making movies as well.

I loved how Affleck really went out of his way to make “Argo” look like a 70’s movie. He even included the old Warner Brothers logo (referred to as the “Big W” logo) which preceded the studio’s movies from 1972 to 1984. I’ve really missed this logo for the longest time.

Anyway, when Iranian revolutionaries ended up storming the U.S. embassy in Tehran, six diplomats manage to evade capture and find refuge in the home of Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor (Victor Garber). Meanwhile, back in the United States, the State Department has learned of the escapees and their predicament, and they start looking for ways to get them out of Iran. It is Mendez who comes up with the idea, after watching “Battle for the Planet of the Apes” on television, to create a cover story of how the six are actually filmmakers from Canada who are scouting locations for a fake sci-fi movie called Argo. This looks to be one of those “so bad it’s good” kind of movies, and it would have been fun to watch for all the wrong reasons had it ever been made.

The scenes where Mendez goes to Hollywood are among my favorites in “Argo” as he works with movie business veterans who are keenly aware that lying to others is part of their job description. John Goodman and Alan Arkin are priceless as make-up artist John Chambers and film producer Lester Siegel, and they are given great pieces of dialogue to speak throughout. The lines Arkin is given are especially biting:

“You’re worried about the Ayatollah? Try the WGA!”

The tension is then ratcheted up tremendously when Mendez heads over to Iran to prep those six diplomats on how to get out of the country alive. You feel their collective anxiety as they become fully aware of how one little slip up will get them quickly executed in public view, and you are with them every step of the way as the walls continue to close in on them. Emotionally speaking, “Argo” is the first movie I have found myself crying after in a long time, and the tears I cried were from sheer relief.

“Argo” is based on a true story and, while this remains a serious pet peeve of mine, this is one which needed to be told. It wasn’t until 1997 that this rescue operation was declassified for all the world to know about, and it speaks a lot about how two countries can come together in a tough situation (in this case, the U.S. and Canada). Yes, portions of the story were fictionalized for dramatic purposes, but that’s always the case so just get over it.

Affleck casts a lot of great acting veterans in “Argo,” and kudos to him for doing so. I’ve already mentioned Goodman and Arkin, but you will also find Bryan Cranston, Kyle Chandler and Philip Baker Hall doing terrific work here as well. As for the diplomats, they are played by such actors as Clea DuVall and Tate Donovan among others, and they all are uniformly excellent.

In addition to directing this movie, Affleck also stars as Mendez and gives a particularly understated performance. I know we all love to pick on him as an actor, but he’s a better one than we give him credit for. Not once does Affleck try to steal the show from the actors around him, and his work is commendable as acting and directing a movie at the same time can be a real pain in the ass.

“Argo” has more than earned its place among the best movies of 2012, and it makes clear that Affleck’s success as a director is no fluke. This is a guy who has seen the heights of success and the utter embarrassment of failure, and he has come out the other side of it all proving he is a great talent whether he’s in front of or behind the camera.

Be sure to stay through the end credits as well as there is information you will need to hear about this true story.

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Exclusive Interview with Andrea Iervolino and Lady Monika Bacardi on ‘In Dubious Battle’

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James Franco steps behind the camera once again for his directorial effort, and adaptation of John Steinbeck’s novel “In Dubious Battle.” This movie takes us back to the 1930’s when a group of migratory workers rose up and began a strike against landowners who informed them their pay was being cut from $3 to $1 a day for their work. In addition to directing, Franco also stars as one of strike’s key leaders, Jim Nolan, who struggles to stay true to his idealism of having the courage never to submit or yield. Also, it features a fantastic cast of actors which include Robert Duvall, Vincent D’Onofrio, Bryan Cranston, Ed Harris, Nat Wolff, Selena Gomez, Sam Shepard, Zach Braff and Josh Hutcherson.

I got to speak with the producers of “In Dubious Battle,” Andrea Iervolino and Lady Monika Bacardi, recently at the Redbury Hotel in Hollywood, California. Iervolino is considered one of the most accomplished entrepreneurs in the movie business as he has financed and distributed over 50 films since he was 16 years old. Bacardi is an entrepreneur as well and a successful businesswoman, patron of the arts, philanthropist, and humanitarian. Together, they founded the AMBI Group, a multi-national consortium of vertically integrated film development, production, finance and distribution companies.

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Ben Kenber: I thought the movie was really good, and it was surprising to learn that this was one of John Steinbeck’s lesser-known books because, in today’s world, it is so timeless. Is that what really attracted you to producing this movie?

Andrea Iervolino: You know, two years ago, when we decided to produce this movie, we didn’t expect what is now happening in the United States.

Lady Monika Bacardi: A lot of the demonstrations that have happened after the release of the movie. The demonstrations in the film and people fighting for their rights, and now history is repeating itself.

AI: We decided to do this movie because, first of all, we’re big fans of John Steinbeck. He is the best author in American culture, and of course, we love James Franco. When we read the script, me and Monika, we were in two different countries; I was in New York and she was in Monte Carlo. We received the script and we talked for six hours about it.

LMB: And then we decided (to do the movie). It was very fast.

AI: Super-fast. And then we tried to do the maximum we can to promote the movie, and we also went to the Venice Film Festival where it received two awards (for James Franco and Andrea Iervolino). We went to the Toronto Film Festival, the Vail Film Festival, in Capri, etc. So everywhere we went, he received awards for the movie. So, we are proud of the quality in this movie is timeless. We believe today that in 10 years when you watch the movie, for sure a revolution will happen again. A protest will happen again for many individuals so you can think this can be me.

LMB: Yes. When people fight for their rights and they gather together, it’s the hope that they can help them because in their time there were a lot of revolutions that changed things and help the workers get the rights they deserved. So, it’s a message of hope.

BK: It’s interesting how you talk about history repeating itself because it’s a sad fact we can’t seem to escape.

LMB: Yes, it’s sad because we should be learning from history, and the same mistakes should not be made again. There must always be a positive revolution, but unfortunately, we see over and over again that history doesn’t change we make the same mistakes. It repeats itself.

BK: Yes, and that’s why it’s great this movie is being released now. Also, it feels like a miracle this movie got made in today’s world of superhero movies. Was it hard to get the financing for it?

AI: If you do a movie at the right budget, you can do every type of movie you want. The toughest ones to market are the most commercial ones. We believe this movie was made for the right budget and had the right cast, and we believe this movie respects the audience it was meant for.

BK: How much time did you have to shoot this movie in?

AI: The movie was shot in around five weeks.

BK: That sounds like a longer schedule than you like this tend to get these days. Also, it has quite the cast. Was it difficult getting all those actors together?

LMB: James Franco actually has a lot of friends, and he loves John Steinbeck. As a director, he called his friends, and for that reason, this is why he has all the stars together here. He’s a great director and a great actor.

BK: You can tell this is a film people got involved in because of their love and belief in the material, and it really shines through here. Also, you to have been working in the movie business for a while now. How would you say movies have evolved during your time in the business?

AI: You know, I did my first movie was when I was 15, so 14 years ago, I was doing a movie in digital. So, I was the first one in Italy to do a movie in digital because they don’t pay you a lot of money to make your first movie. I financed it by going door to door in my town to collect money, so I was forced to do my movie in digital. But then a few years later I became more powerful because I was the first one with the experience in digital, and I also started to make a movie in Italy with the same technology and distribution point of view, and that was when I was 21. Basically, in my point of view, in the way you can produce a movie there is change, but today I think there are more independent people, young people, with opportunities to produce their movies because the key is that the distribution system has changed. Before you can monetize your movie, you have to go to a local agent to bring your movie to a local cinema or in the local store to someone who can print your DVD, and then you need the agent to go speak with a company. So today, you can run content by yourself. You can do one deal worldwide, and you can add your movie directly to the internet platform. For big managers today, this is a problem because the distribution power is going down, down, down because if you do have good content, you can go for direct distribution, so from who produces and who watches the movie, it is only one step. Before it was 10 or 20 steps which is what managers took advantage of.

LMB: This distribution changed on us.

AI: Yes. And if you think about it, it is like going back. My mentor in Italy, Luciano Martino, he was doing movies in Italy in the 1950’s, 1960’s, and the 1970’s. He was telling me he was producing the movies by himself with his company, and he was going to the cinemas everywhere in Italy to position the movies, and then the movies ran the cinema for six months. So, it was one step production, and today it is again one step. So, it’s like going back. The powers coming back to the producer, not the distribution companies.

LMB: I agree with Andrea always 100%. We cannot speak at the same time, but we have the same opinions on film.

BK: With the changes in distribution, did that help “In Dubious Battle” or take away from it at all?

AI: It actually helped this movie for sure because we were going to go out with the DVD system so we will go out in the principal market, and the same time we will go out in the DVD system. A movie like this cannot make 20 million in one week; it’s too risky. But today, with this new platform, this movie can embrace this distribution concept where you can arrive to your audience and make your audience find the movie all around them without losing your investment.

BK: There is so much money put into advertising movies these days to where it costs more to promote them than to make them.

AI: Yes, sometimes more.

BK: So, it’s nice to see a movie like this can still find its audience while not having a huge budget for advertising.

LMB: Yes, absolutely.

AI: I really believe in three, four or five years, it will become more and more possible to produce a movie with a specific audience because you will know where you can find the audience that likes this movie. Before you needed to spend $10 million dollars in TV advertising in order to get to 300 million people, and in order to reach 3 million people who like your movie.

LMB: (Laughs). It’s absolutely true. Plus, the young people have a different concept that they look a lot of internet, and they go to the movies a lot less than our generation did. It depends on the country, and every country is different

BK: Was there any pressure to modernize this book at all when it came to making this movie?

LMB: We had to keep it as a true story because the message it gives is actually timeless about how history repeats itself. You have to keep it at the time and be true to the book so we cannot change it completely.

AI: Also, the love story component in the movie between Selena Gomez and Nat Wolff and the friendship story between James and Nat, these help the movie be more accessible to young people. Maybe 15, 16 or 18-year-olds, they don’t know or care about John Steinbeck.

LMB: And the love story makes it very human and very touching. It’s about the revolution, but it’s also about the human story and the human aspect.

BK: It almost would have been great to see this movie made in black and white. Was that ever a consideration?

AI: You know, it was in the beginning for about five minutes, but it was too difficult. Black-and-white in a distribution point of view can give you so many limitations. Maybe we can do a black-and-white animation movie someday.

I want to thank Andrea Iervolino and Lady Monika Bacardi for taking the time to talk with me. “In Dubious Battle” premieres in theaters and VOD on February 17, 2017.

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Godzilla (2014)

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The stench which emanated from the sheer awfulness of Roland Emmerich’s “Godzilla” has haunted me ever since I saw it on the big screen in 1998. For a time, it dampened my spirits in terms of where movies were headed as I was afraid many more of them would be dumbed down like Emmerich’s movie was. Had it been an even bigger hit, I feared more summer blockbusters would look exactly like it; filled with lame one-dimensional characters and special effects which look no different from the video games we play at home. But in the end, it was so critically reviled that even Toho, the company that owns Godzilla, looked at Emmerich’s version of the monster as a separate, stand-alone character whom they renamed Zilla. It was if they were saying, “Oh no, that was so not Godzilla. That was a cousin or a step child or maybe the product of a one-night stand.”

But now that stench has vanished as Gareth Edwards has given us his version of “Godzilla,” and it makes for one of the most entertaining movies of the 2014 summer movie season. Instead of having this enormous Japanese monster chase after characters who look like they were part of a rejected sitcom pilot, he stays true to the style of the Toho series of Godzilla films and manages to weave in some commentary about nuclear power. Just as the original “Godzilla” served as a metaphor for Hiroshima, this one doesn’t dare hide away from what happened in Fukushima where nuclear accidents occurred after the massive earthquake and tsunami which occurred there.

The movie starts off with the terrifying destruction of a nuclear power plant, one which ends up dividing a father and his son. We then move to several years later when Ford Brody (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), an explosive ordnance disposal technician in the US Navy, comes home to his wife Elle (Elizabeth Olsen) and their son after a long tour of duty. Their reunion, however, is cut short as Ford gets word his father, nuclear physicist Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston), has once again been arrested in Japan for trespassing into areas blocked off to the general public as the area surrounding the power plant isn’t all that different from Chernobyl when it suffered a meltdown.

Joe is still convinced the power plant accident was really a cover up for something, and he and Ford come to discover what’s left of it has been converted into a laboratory of sorts. Scientists led by Dr. Ishiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) and Dr. Vivienne Graham (Sally Hawkins) reveal they have been housing a MUTO (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism) and are trying to keep it contained by giving it doses of radiation. But, of course, all hell breaks loose when the MUTO breaks free of its captivity and heads out to sea, and it is then we learn another MUTO (this one a female) has been held in the United States and has also escaped and quickly laid waste to Las Vegas. Like Natasha Henstridge’s character in “Species,” she is looking to start a big family with offspring which will surely destroy all of humanity, and it’s only a matter of time before she finds her MUTO mate. Clearly, safe sex is not on their agenda.

This is where the iconic Godzilla comes in. Now in the past, this gigantic creature has been portrayed as an enemy to all of humanity and as an antihero who looks to take down any other monster who foolishly thinks it can defeat him. But in Edwards’ movie, Godzilla is really the good guy who, as Dr. Serizawa puts it, is here to “restore balance” to the world, and he doesn’t even bother the battleships which sail alongside him as he swims from one country to the next. We all know Godzilla will end up destroying a lot of expensive real estate which will cause many insurance companies to go bankrupt, but we’re still on the monster’s side as we know the military won’t have enough firepower to bring down the MUTOs.

Edwards takes his sweet time in revealing Godzilla to the audience, and we don’t really get a good look at him until almost an hour into the movie. When he does finally appear onscreen and let out the biggest of roars anyone has ever heard, the audience I saw this movie with broke into a tremendous applause. This is the fiercest Godzilla has looked in many years, and the way he towers over the tallest of buildings had me in awe. This is the way Godzilla should look and feel.

One of the many problems I had with the 1998 “Godzilla” is it never felt like I was watching a real monster on the big screen. It felt more like I was watching a big special effect to where the creature didn’t even fill the least bit threatening. But in 2014’s “Godzilla,” the creature looks and feels real to where I kept praying the human characters would keep themselves from standing underneath its feet. The thought of being crushed by a creature that big is horrifying.

As for “Godzilla’s” human element, it’s not altogether strong, but I still liked how the characters came across as relatable even if they were at times clichéd. I also have to give the screenwriters credit as the movie starts as one thing but surprisingly turns into something else. Just when I thought I knew what kind of movie this “Godzilla” was going to be, it continued to surprise me as it went along. Yes, we all know how things will end, but getting there proved to be more fun than I expected.

It also helps there is a terrific cast of actors to keep us emotionally involved in the characters before and after Godzilla makes his grand entrance. You can never go wrong with Bryan Cranston whether it’s “Breaking Bad” or anything else, and he makes his character very empathetic when he could have been easily laughable. As for Aaron Taylor-Johnson, I almost didn’t recognize him after getting so used to how he looked in those “Kick Ass” movies, and he does good work portraying the typical heroic military character we always see in “Godzilla” movies. Ken Watanabe remains a tremendously gifted actor, and even though I thought stared in horror one too many times in this movie, he is a very welcome addition to this cast. And then there’s David Strathairn who plays Admiral William Stenz, and he can always be counted on to give the military leader the gravitas and humanity a character like this deserves.

As for the female characters, their roles are a bit underwritten and I didn’t get to see as much of them as I would have liked. Still, you have actresses like Elizabeth Olsen, Juliette Binoche and Sally Hawkins making them into memorable characters when they could have been ones who were easily forgettable.

This “Godzilla” does have its problems, and there are times I wished Edwards and company had injected just a little more humor into the proceedings. Also, the big fight between Godzilla and the MUTOs never seems to come soon enough. There’s a moment where it looks like the fight will begin, but then a door closes on the characters and on our view of the monsters, and that was really frustrating. The human characters may have wanted the door shut, but everyone in the audience was clamoring for it stay open so we could see one enormous mutated creature beat the crap out of another. And yes, there probably are some plot holes and gaps in logic in the story, but I really didn’t care. You don’t always go to these movies expecting a whole lot of logic anyway.

What makes this “Godzilla” work is how it is clearly made by filmmakers who have a great love of monster movies. Edwards, whose previous directorial effort was British science fiction film “Monsters,” has talked about just how much he loves those kinds of movies, and he does an excellent job of making Godzilla a truly terrifying force of nature. After being absent from the big screen for over a decade, it is great to see this iconic monster make such a tremendous comeback.

I also got to say watching “Godzilla” makes me really happy that I do not work for an insurance company. Seeing all those destroyed buildings and roads, I can see claim adjustors going nuts as they field one phone call after another regarding totaled Hondas, decimated condos and bridges which now really lead to nowhere because they’ve been destroyed. You can bet no one’s going to take any guff from someone who tells them their insurance policy doesn’t cover attacks from giant mutated monsters!

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Exclusive Interview with Chris Hajian about his score for ‘The Infiltrator’

Chris Hajian

With “The Infiltrator,” Brad Furman’s movie about U.S. Customs special agent Robert Mazur (played by Bryan Cranston) and his attempt to bust Pablo Escobar’s money-laundering operation back in 1985, I couldn’t help but expect a film score that was inspired by Jan Hammer’s music from “Miami Vice” or a variety of electronic scores that were very popular at the time. But the film’s composer, Chris Hajian, ended up creating something much more modern, and it acts as Robert’s conscience as he sinks deeper into a world of crime he may not get out of alive.

Hajian was born and raised in Queens, New York, and his love of music began at the age of five when he started playing the trumpet. He went on to get formal training at New York’s High School of the Arts, and he later studied classical composition at the Manhattan School of Music. His credits include “Mr. Vincent,” “Inspector Gadget 2,” “Jingle All The Way 2” and the documentary “Unraveled.” “The Infiltrator” marks his latest collaboration with Furman who he worked with previously on a number of short films and “The Take.”

I spoke with Hajian over the phone recently about his music for “The Infiltrator,” and I was interested to learn how he managed to make it sound like much more than a typical 80’s synth score. It was also fascinating to hear him talk about his approach to this material and of the different elements he used to get into the psychology of the main character.

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Chris Hajian: Thank you so much for making time for me and getting to know me and my music. I really appreciate that.

Ben Kenber: You’re welcome. I was really surprised with your score because the fact that the movie takes place in the 1980’s made me expect an 80’s score, but what you manage to do was take a lot of synth elements and orchestral ones to create something that’s surprisingly modern. Was that always your intent?

CH: Thank you for noticing that. When Brad Furman and I set out to talk about this in the initial phases, we always wanted the score to have a relevance to the 80’s as the film was shot in a way that’s relevant to that decade. We focused on that sound with the textures and the synth stuff, but we never wanted it to feel like a clichéd or tongue-in-cheek or cheesy reference. I also wanted to combine it with my aesthetic of the lyricism of the strings and the kind of very ambient textures that I use to create a lot of the emotional and internal conflicts, so that was my intention. The other thing was when I studied a lot of those classic 80’s synth scores, the “Blade Runner” and Vangelis stuff and Giorgio Moroder, I started noticing how those scores used a lot less music and thank God. I think the trend now to put music everywhere is not good for storytelling personally, and I tried to capture that and use that in the film because the film is so well acted, and when you have Bryan Cranston and the level of actors on there I didn’t want to clutter it with music or overcompensate. So we tried to look at that and use music in a way they did in the 80’s as well in smaller bursts. There’s a lot of music in the film, but there’s also a lot of moments where the film breathes without score so that’s the approach we took.

BK: There are a number of intense moments throughout this movie like when Bryan Cranston’s character auditions for a meeting with a certain drug dealer, and that’s a scene which almost doesn’t need music. But the way you added music in was quite subtle. How tricky was it for you to score that moment?

CH: It went through a lot of different iterations, but Brad wanted that moment to be the most abstract and surreal. This guy is diving into this crazy world, but now he’s taken down to a foreign place and put through this ceremony or an audition. There are some synth elements but there’s much more music score design elements that are working together. We wanted to avoid a lot of the horror clichés that you could do in that scene with the high strings and all that stuff that is so easy to go to. We always tried to counter ourselves and say let’s go to something more nuanced and internal. My whole goal with this whole score was to get into the mind of Robert Mazur and how he is going to pull this off and living with the impression that at any given time he gets discovered, he and his family are dead.

BK: We really do get into the mind of Bob Mazur and the danger he is constantly under. What was the challenge of getting into that character’s mindset?

CH: Just living the double life. As a composer I am a storyteller first and foremost, but I am also always trying to check and watch from the perspective of an audience and understand what can I use to deepen a character from a storytelling or an audience point of view. So for me it was about what’s the essence of a character that is living these two lives and is constantly one move away from getting exposed. To me that all just kept pointing back to keeping the score internal and pushing into his mind, and a good moment that I think illustrates that is after that car accident where he almost dies. He climbs out of the car and the score gets super, super into his mind and almost to the point where you can just see him processing all this. To me it’s all about him having to tie up his own fears and come to grips with his own fears and mortality, so that moment has a very, very surreal quality to it. That’s a sound that I used a couple of times in the film where I felt like it was appropriate to get into the world of what he was doing and the pressures he was feeling.

BK: I’m glad you brought up the car crash scene because that just came out of nowhere, and it’s like everything else goes silent when it happens.

CH: That was the idea. I love that technique when directors will pull out the ambience and the score can have a moment. From the point that the car stops and you’re just kind of wondering if he’s alive or if he’s dead, all the ambience comes out and all you hear is the score. You can’t write too over the top. To me it does a disservice to the story and it takes you out of the moment. I just wanted this thing to evolve. How is he going to reconcile all that just happened in his mind?

BK: What specific clichés from 80s synth scores you were looking to avoid the most when composing this score?

CH: You probably noticed by listening to the score that there’s very little use of drums or percussion in the entire score. Brad and I both talked about how when you deal with thrillers on some level and action and stuff like that, it’s very easy to go to the percussion bank and a lot of composers use it and it always works, there’s no doubt about that, but we felt that would’ve taken away from the film. So all the motion and the stuff that I’m generating were emotions by and large, and there’s a few moments with some drums but very sparingly were created by synth pulses and the ambiences and reverse sounds that I have created and created loops on, and that’s really what gave it a lot of propulsion.

BK: That’s what is fascinating about this score of how you use little in the way of drums or percussion. I don’t think I even realized that as I was watching the movie.

CH: Yeah, it worked. It just felt right and it became a really good challenge. As a composer you always want to get challenged by the director in a really wonderful way, and when Brad said I just don’t hear that sound, that made me say okay, cool, now what can I do or dig into to find something that’s maybe a different take on those kind of scenes. The other thing with the clichés too is I incorporated the kind of 80’s synth with the ambient textures and the strings that created that emotional warmth. That was my goal, to have those three things all work. I didn’t want you to identify one or the other like that, and I don’t ever want the audience to feel oh here’s synth, now here’s strings, now here’s ambient textures. I had to find a way to merge them so that it’s seamless and you don’t realize that. I wanted it to feel like it’s just a wave of these different sounds and textures. One of them becomes a priority at different times depending on what the narrative is.

BK: That’s a great point because this is a score that could’ve called too much attention to itself with the 80’s synth sound. But all of them, the synth, the ambient textures and the orchestral elements, do come together in a seamless way. You could have just composed the score electronically, but an emotional component to the story could have been lost in the process.

CH: You’re totally right. You can look at the film and think this is going to be a film about a drug cartel or it’s going to be like “Narcos,” but cocaine is really the least important aspect of the film. Yes, it’s in that world and the cartel is dealt with, but it’s really about this man’s journey and his emotional connection to his family, to his own self-doubts and ultimately to that bonding he makes with Alcaino played by Benjamin Bratt and his family and the immense amount of conflict he has knowing that he’s going to ruin this guy’s life and his family after he becomes friends with him.

BK: You worked with Brad Furman previously on a number of projects including “The Take.” How has your working relationship with him evolved from “The Take” to “The Infiltrator?”

CH: I have known Brad for 21 years. He is the most generous, trusting collaborator and I think the world of his talent. We have become amazing friends and have become better collaborators the more we work. We start with a really big sense of trust, and I think for a composer that’s what you need, to really see yourself and reach for something more interesting. To work in a situation where you’re afraid you’re going to fail or you’re going to try something different and it’s going to be looked down on as you can’t do the job, then it’s going to feel like a straitjacket. To me it’s not enough to just get a score done or get the cues down. I need to put my own mark and personality on it in a way that the director wants. I really know what makes Brad tick. I know his sensibilities, I know his inherent likes and dislikes in what a score represents. I have invested a lot in this relationship and I will go to the ends of the earth for him and to stop at nothing to make him feel that I was the only person who should be scoring his films and telling the story with him. That’s what it’s about; to have somebody that really gets you and understands you creatively.

BK: I read that one of the film scores that really influenced your work on “The Infiltrator” was Giorgio Moroder’s for “Midnight Express.” What was it specifically about that score which influenced you the most?

CH: I think that was one the most landmark synth scores. Nobody really did that before Moroder, and he did it in a very serious film with a lot of intensity. You listen back on some of those synth sounds now and some of the sounds are teeny or small, but at the time that put such an incredible uniqueness onto that score and really tapped into what was relevant in its pop culture in a positive way. I just think it was highly unique and I think it opened up the door for Tangerine Dream and Vangelis and all those things that followed it.

BK: When it comes to composing the score for any project, do you find yourself running music before you watch the movie or do you have to watch the movie before you can start writing any music for it?

CH: Usually a composer is hired relatively late in the process. In this case I was on very early because of my relationship with Brad, and it was so important that we define the tone of this thing so we spent as much time as possible on it. I was writing these really global themes and even just putting sounds together just to see if Brad connected with it. Even while they were shooting I was sending Brad some ideas. It just made him think about this film sonically.

BK: Did you ever get to talk with the actors or get any ideas from them that you put into the score?

CH: Yeah. Bryan Cranston is an amazing guy and of course an incredible actor, and I was down on the set for a couple days in Tampa and he’s saying that he’s really an aficionado. So we start talking about so many electronic scores and we kind of connected with what my concept was, and he was very generous and excited about what it would sound like. I saw a lot of them at the premiere and I am very friendly with John Leguizamo who is in Brad’s circle as well. It’s been nothing but the most encouraging, really wonderful experience and I wish they could all be like this. I hope everyone is going to experience something where there is just a really big coming together of people for the right reasons. That’s a real tribute to Brad. We were in the foxhole with him.

I want to thank Chris Hajian for taking the time to talk with me about his score to “The Infiltrator.” Please feel free to visit his website at www.chrishajian.com.

The Infiltrator

The Infiltrator poster

It’s very tempting to call this movie “Breaking Bad” meets “Donnie Brasco” especially with Bryan “Heisenberg” Cranston starring in it. “The Infiltrator” is about a U.S. Customs Service special agent, Robert Mazur, who goes, as Eddie Murphy put it in “Beverly Hills Cop II,” “deep, deep, deep, deep undercover” to infiltrate one of the world’s largest drug cartels. But more importantly, getting inside this particular drug cartel leads him to the money laundering operation run by the infamous Pablo Escobar who was once called “the king of cocaine.” Yes, this movie is “based on a true story,” but don’t let that dissuade you from seeing it.

“The Infiltrator” takes us back to the year 1985 when the internet didn’t exist, “Miami Vice” was on the air and the “Just Say No” anti-drug campaign was the subject of every other commercial we watched on television. Mazur has just come off a mission where he suffered a potentially career-ending injury, but he’s invited to participate in one more mission before retiring for good. Of course, we all know that the last mission will always be the most dangerous one that will test him more than ever before, and we do get the obligatory scene of the hero washing his face and staring at himself in the mirror as he silently questions himself. Also complicating issues is the fact that Mazur has his wife Evelyn (Juliet Aubrey) and two kids waiting for him back at home, and his wife can take only so much more of her husband’s work as every time he walks out the door might be the last time she sees him.

I couldn’t help but think of “Donnie Brasco” as I watched “The Infiltrator” as both films deal with undercover officers with families of their own who get so deep into their work that they cannot help but feel for the criminals they are trying to take down as they get too close to them in the process. This movie never comes across as the kind of undercover movie we haven’t seen a number of times before, but director Brad Furman still manages to keep the intensity strong and tight as Mazur and his colleagues face life or death situations more often than not.

Furman has previously directed “The Lincoln Lawyer” which starred Matthew McConaughey as the defense attorney of many Michael Connelly novels, Mickey Haller. Now that movie managed to be a very entertaining legal thriller while bringing nothing new to genre, and Furman does the same thing here with “The Infiltrator.” There are scenes which remind us of many other movies we have seen before, but Furman manages to tweak those familiar situations to where we are forced to expect the unexpected. Just when you think you have seen everything an undercover movie has to offer, along comes this one which really fries your nerves at certain moments.

It also helps that Furman has quite the cast to work with here. Cranston has been on a roll ever since playing Walter White on “Breaking Bad,” and it is fascinating to see him play the kind of character whose mission it is to take down the Walter Whites of the world. It’s a complicated character as Mazur is dedicated to his job and his family, but not always in the same order. Cranston makes us empathize with a man whose priorities get tangled up as he descends deeper into the drug cartel world. Just watch him in the scene where he has to “audition” to meet one of the cartel’s leaders. Cranston makes you feel the frightening predicament of a man who may have gone one step too far, and he imbues the role with an integrity few other actors are capable of doing.

Cranston is also surrounded by a terrific cast of actors like John Leguizamo who brings his uncontainable energy to the role of Emir Abreu, Mazur’s partner. Leguizamo has one of the movie’s most unnerving scenes as he is forced to defend himself against another person who attempts to blow his cover, and watching the actor play it cool under such intense circumstances is thrilling to watch.

Then there’s Benjamin Bratt who plays Roberto Alcanio, Mazur’s contact and Escobar’s top lieutenant. Bratt makes Roberto into a man as charming as he is ruthless as well as someone far more interesting than the usual clichéd drug dealer we see in movies like these. You want to hate Roberto, but Bratt keeps you from doing that as you become as deeply involved in his family’s plight as he makes this character seem like a cool, down to earth dude even though he is also a vicious drug dealer.

There’s also Amy Ryan (“Gone Baby Gone”) who plays Mazur’s chief officer, Bonni Tischler. She’s a real fireball from start to finish as she barks out orders at her colleagues and has no interest in wasting time on frivolous matters. Ryan makes Bonni into a no-nonsense character who you do not want to mess with as she is not about to let those who work for her take advantage of a situation unless it is for a really, really, really good reason.

Also terrific is Diane Kruger who plays Mazur’s partner and undercover fiancée, and she really hold her own opposite Cranston as her character of Kathy plunges headlong into an assignment she initially seems fully unprepared for. Much like the German actress she played in “Inglorious Basterds,” Kruger (no relation to Freddy) shows a fearlessness as she unveils the many talents Kathy has to get close to the criminals, and she also portrays the perils of undercover work as her emotions threaten to get in the way.

“The Infiltrator” is nothing new or groundbreaking in movies, but it does get the job done thanks to terrific performances and some truly intense scenes that really leave you guessing as to what will happen. It also provides us with a main character who is as interested in taking down bankers who launder drug money as he is in going after drug dealers. With the “War on Drugs” continuing to be fought in a futile manner, watching this movie made me think of something George Carlin once said:

“Drug dealers aren’t afraid to die. They’re already killing each other every day on the streets by the hundreds. Drive-bys, gang shootings, they’re not afraid to die. Death penalty doesn’t mean anything unless you use it on people who are afraid to die. Like… THE BANKERS WHO LAUNDER THE DRUG MONEY!”

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Copyright Ben Kenber 2016.