‘El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie’ Finds Another Chapter Worth Exploring

El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie • Poster

What life has taught me is that doing a series finale to an acclaimed television show, let alone any television show, can be a truly thankless task. Wrapping up everything in a nice bow after years of following a group of characters throughout their lives typically leaves fans infinitely frustrated as they always expect something far more epic than they are given. Seriously, just ask the fans of “Game of Thrones” and “Dexter,” as the utter disappointment from those finales remains never ending. With “Breaking Bad,” however, Vince Gilligan managed to wrap up Walter White’s (Bryan Cranston) criminal saga in a way which seemed perfect and totally fulfilling to everyone. No need to go any further with the story, right?

Well, Gilligan has continued to tap into the “Breaking Bad” well with “Better Call Saul” which started off as a prequel, but which may eventually turn into a sequel. And now Netflix has just dropped “El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie” which follows the show’s other main character, Jesse Pinkman, who is once again played by Aaron Paul. It turns out there is a bit more story than what we were led to believe, and while the end result might seem unnecessary to some, it results in an exciting motion picture which proves to be as good as the average “Breaking Bad” episode.

“El Camino” starts at the exact point “Breaking Bad” ended, with Jesse driving like hell in the car this movie takes its title from. While reveling in having escaped from his cruel and sadistic Neo-Nazi captors, he also realizes he is not out of the woods just yet as the police are looking for him here, there and everywhere. After meeting up with his friends Skinny Pete (Charles Baker) and Badger (Matt Jones) to get some rest and gather his thoughts, he plots his next move which will hopefully lead him away from the long arm of the law.

The movie’s opening scene serves as a flashback to what is about to transpire, and it sets down the gauntlet Jesse wonders if he can pull off. During a friendly conversation with Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks), Jesse asks him where he will go once he gets out of the drug dealing business. Mike says he will go to Alaska as he sees it as “the final frontier” and a place where one can do anything. Jesse sees the appeal to Mike’s plan, but he also wonders if he can get out of the drug game and manage to make things right for those he has hurt or wronged. Mike tells him he can never make things right, but with this scene, Gilligan leaves us wondering if Jesse can do both as the look on his face shows a wealth of guilt which needs to be dealt with.

There have been countless movies which deal with characters who are caught up in the drug trade and looking to retire from it, or they are trying to atone for a brutal past which continues to hover over them despite their best efforts to go straight. The ones which quickly come to mind include “Carlito’s Way” and “Light Sleeper,” and those two had their main characters facing consequences which karma was not done with them yet. Gilligan plays around with our knowledge of these movies as we wonder if Jesse will ever be able to escape his crimes and atone for them in some way, or if karma has something in store for him which he cannot see coming.

Having a “Breaking Bad” movie centered around Jesse Pinkman feels more than appropriate as Paul has proven to be every bit the actor Cranston had been on the show. Jesse was not even supposed to survive the first season, and it is a testament to Paul’s portrayal that he made it all the way to the end as he gave us a character who was not necessarily a bad person, but one who had made foolish decisions in life and was now being thrust into devilish situations he never intended to get into. When we meet up with Jesse again in “El Camino,” he is a broken man, picking up the pieces of a life which has been forever shattered while living in fear of being apprehended by the law. And in today’s technologically driven society, one can only hide from the law for so long, if at all.

Paul is outstanding as always as he continues to take Jesse from one extreme to the next. His attempts to escape his scary predicament result in him enduring a tremendous level of unease and anxiety as he puts in Jesse’s shoes to where we feel as helpless as he does. The world is on his tail, and one can only be so lucky in escaping their past deeds. Paul is superb in portraying Jesse’s mindset without ever having to overdo it, and his performance is another example of an actor who inhabits their character instead of acting it.

Gilligan returns to write and direct “El Camino,” and he has melded it into a non-linear journey as it shifts from past to present. What results adds more weight to what we have already seen previously, and it makes Jesse’s predicament all the rawer and more unsettling. He also reminds you of how, when it comes to “Breaking Bad,” you need to expect the unexpected. The show was always about playing with your expectations to where you had no idea of what would come next. This movie keeps this tradition going as Jesse tries various methods to make it out of New Mexico in one piece even as some nasty road bumps are constantly being placed in his path.

Now I am writing this review of “El Camino” some time after its release, so many of you may already know about the various cameos by “Breaking Bad” characters who appear here. All the same, I will not spoil any of them for you as audiences deserve to discover them on their own. Still, I have to point out the one made by Robert Forster as the actor, in a sad and cruel irony, passed away on the day this movie was released. Forster returns as Ed Galbraith, the vacuum cleaner salesman who also relocates people who are running from the law and gives them new identities, and his performance is a reminder of what a priceless character actor he was. His inscrutable poker face shows how close Ed keeps his cards to his chest as he is not about to expose himself to outsiders. Forster was always great at taking every character he ever played and gave them an added dimension which may or may not have been in the screenplay. The same goes with his performance here as he shows Ed to have just a bit of vulnerability in him to give the character a conscience we were never sure he had.

Does Jesse escape his fate and make things right? Well, “El Camino” keeps you wondering about this all the way up to its closing credits, and it proves to be an engrossing ride for “Breaking Bad” fans who still get enough of what Gilligan has up in that head of his. While seeing Jesse burn rubber in the series finale as he escaped his imprisonment served as an excellent end for the character, there were still many who wondered where he could have gone from there. Whether or not you believe “El Camino” ranks alongside “Breaking Bad’s” best episodes, it is a thrilling ride which kept me engaged right to its final moments, and it is a fitting epilogue for a character who proved to be more complex than we initially realized.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

All-Time Favorite Trailers: ‘Naked Lunch’

William S. Burroughs’ “Naked Lunch” is a novel you may not have read, but you have definitely heard of it. Due to its subject matter which involves drug addiction (be it heroin, morphine or hashish) and obscene language which people back in 1959 had yet to become numbed to, it was banned in the American states of Boston and Los Angeles. Still, the more people tried to suppress the novel’s existence, the more people came to discover it. Eventually, filmmakers became keen to adapt this controversial novel into a motion picture, and it makes perfect sense David Cronenberg would be the one to successfully do so.

I love how this movie trailer starts off with black and white footage of Burroughs back in the 1950’s as we hear him (his voice was done by an impersonator) talking about how “Naked Lunch” was described by critics as being “disgusting,” “pornographic” and “un-American trash.” Upon its publication, it became a subject for discussion at town hall meetings and book burnings, the latter which is in itself deeply un-American. Burroughs in his impersonated laconic voice, revels at how big a mark his novel made on the American public, and I loved how he talked about how Hollywood in its “infinite wisdom” decided to make a movie out of it 30 years later.

From there, the trailer shifts into color mode as we watch scenes from Cronenberg’s movie which feature Peter Weller, who turned down “Robocop 3” to do this, Judy Davis, Roy Scheider and Julian Sands among others. The visuals Cronenberg gives us here make this motion picture seem wonderfully unique among so many others released back in the 1990’s, and the Canadian filmmaker was still riding high on the success of his remake of “The Fly” which led him to make this and the deeply unsettling “Dead Ringers” with Jeremy Irons.

Why is this movie trailer among my favorites? Well, it makes “Naked Lunch” out to be a unique motion picture like no other, and it revels at how such a controversial novel could still be made into a movie even when so many tried to squash its existence from our collective consciousness. Plus, you don’t see trailers like this anymore as Hollywood is playing it safe now more than ever. Studio executives would not be quick to green light such a controversial tale in a time when superheroes continue to reign supreme at the local multiplex. Then again, the sight of Burroughs wearing a cape would be a fascinating sight in this day and age.

Sadly, Cronenberg’s “Naked Lunch” was a box office bomb as it grossed only $2.6 million against a budget of around $18 million. Then again, it didn’t help that 20th Century Fox put it out in a limited release and put little effort in expanding it beyond five theaters. Regardless, it has since become a cult film and garnered a special release on DVD and Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection. After all these years, many continue to empower what they do their damndest to resist.

Naked Lunch movie poster

‘Enter the Void’ is Mind-Blowing and Unique in a Way Few Movies Are

Enter the Void movie poster

WRITER’S NOTE: This review was written back in 2010.

Gaspar Noe’s “Enter the Void,” his first feature length film since the highly controversial “Irreversible,” is one of the craziest and hypnotic cinematic experiences I have ever sat through. A hallucinogenic kaleidoscope of colors, some of which looked like they were taken from Dario Argento’s “Suspiria,” it’s a surreal out of body experience and the kind you do not see today in American cinema today. In a time of soulless remakes and films which shamelessly manipulate our emotions, this is a one of kind motion picture as it breaks boundaries to create something unlike anything we have seen before. Like Noe’s previous films, it is destined to have sharply polarized reactions. Some will admire it, and others will find it excruciating to sit through. As for myself, I was mesmerized from beginning to end, thankful I got to take in something not bound by your typical Hollywood formula.

Straight after the IFC Films logo appears, Noe propels us into this visionary experience by beginning with the end credits, just as he did with “Irreversible,” racing through them at warp speed. Watching this, I was reminded of what Homer Simpson said during the end credits of “The Simpsons Movie:”

“A lot of people worked hard on this film, and all they ask is for you to memorize their names!”

Then the movie goes from there into the opening titles which themselves are exhilaratingly creative and makes you feel like you’re at a rave party in Tokyo. Crazy visuals done to the song “Freak” by LFO, they alone were worth the price of admission and got applause from the audience I saw it with at the Lamelle Sunset 5 in Los Angeles.

The word “enter” gets blasted onto the screen, and we then make it to the seamier side of Tokyo as seen through the eyes of the main character, Oscar (Nathaniel Brown). Just like in the opening sequence of Kathryn Bigelow’s “Strange Days,” we see everything from his perspective as he talks with his sister Linda (Paz de la Huerta) who lives with him in a small apartment, and as he smokes some Dimethyltryptamine (DMT) which provides him with the ultimate high, filled with amazingly beautiful colors. During this time, we see Oscar is reading a book his friend Alex (Cyril Roy) gave him called the “Tibetan Book of the Dead.” Alex describes the book as one person’s experience after death, and of how it eventually leads to rebirth. From there, you get a good idea of where “Enter the Void” is going as Oscar later gets shot dead by police while attempting to flush his drugs down the toilet.

At this point, “Enter the Void” becomes a literal out of body experience as Oscar dies and his soul, no longer caged in its human form, rises from his lifeless body. From there, he floats through the darker sections of Tokyo as he watches over his sister as she moves on with life, devastated she can no longer spend it with her dear brother. Throughout, Noe goes back and forth in time as we come to see the connection Oscar and Linda developed in their youth, and how their promise of always being together is strong even as tragedy threatens to tear them apart.

Many will probably see “Enter the Void” as being a pro-drug movie, but I will leave this up to you, the viewer to decide. This is a movie meant for an adult crowd anyway, not for pre-teens. With drug trips, or so I am told, you are lifted high into a state of euphoria which seems untouchable in our everyday lives, but you are also brought down to emotionally shattering lows you will be desperate to look away from, but you won’t be able to tear your eyes away from what you will soon wish you’d forget. Your mind may be freed up in this state, but don’t ever expect to have any control.

Look, I’m not saying drugs are right, but if we’re not taking something illegal and very dangerous, then we are probably relying on something pharmaceutical. Anyway, this is not a movie to get all political about.

When the movie veers into Oscar’s youth, we get to see the close relationship he and his sister have with their ever-loving parents, and the times we see them together are very sweet and captured with a strong sense of innocence. But this later turns out to be a setup for when the parents are killed in horrific fashion after a truck going in the wrong direction smashes into their car, killing them instantly. It’s impossible not to feel the shattered emotions of the children as their lives are irrevocably altered in ways which rob them of a childhood they deserved to have.

Noe does manage to counter many of the disturbing moments of the movie with scenes of innocence and sweetness, and this is an aspect of his filmmaking people don’t often give him credit for. In the midst of shocking scenes filmed in all their psychologically damaging glory, he does capture intimate moments between which I rarely seen in movies being released these days. This was even the case in “Irreversible” when we watched Vincent Cassel and Monica Bellucci frolicking with one another in their apartment, and the fact the two were married in real life at the time makes those scenes feel more emotionally honest as a result.

As with your typical Noe motion picture, “Enter the Void” is not the kind which can be easily recommended to those interested in mainstream fare. In fact, is as far from mainstream cinema as you can get these days, and those who are easily offended would do their best to keep a marathon-like distance away from it. There’s even a scene where we watch helplessly as Linda gets an abortion, and although I was afraid it would be a much harder to sit through than it was, it is bound shake up a lot of the audience members’ emotions.

The acting for the most part is good. Special praise goes to Paz de la Huerta whose character of Linda has to go through the film’s most viscerally emotional moments, and she portrays them without a hint of simply playing the emotion. I also liked Cyril Roy as Oscar’s mentor Alex and found him to be an enjoyable presence even in the film’s more damning  moments of despair. But let’s be honest here, this is a director’s movie more than anything else, and it is easy to believe this was Noe’s dream project for years. It’s a movie for visual and sound designers to go nuts on, and they must have had a blast trying to bring the director’s own psychedelic visions to the silver screen.

At two and a half hours long, “Enter The Void” does get a bit tedious at times. When the movie ended and the lights came up, I heard one guy say, “So at what point did you fall asleep? For some, this movie will be a lot longer than it should. The only time I got a bit restless was during the hotel orgy scene which overstays its welcome after not too long. Noe uses this scene to make clear the difference of having sex and making love, but he spends far too much energy filming this moment instead of just cutting down to its bare essence. I started to feel like Sean Young at the DGA awards when she told “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” director Julian Schnabel to “get on with it.”

In spite of this, I was completely mesmerized by “Enter the Void” from start to finish as it took me on a cinematic journey far different than most I have sat through this past year. It will surely go down as one of the definitive love-it or hate-it movies of 2010, but I have no problem sticking up for what Noe has accomplished even if it became a bit overindulgent.

Personally, I’m glad we have directors like Gaspar Noe around because it feels like cinema worldwide is lacking filmmakers who take risks and challenge the conventional structure of your typical corporate product posing as a movie. We need more directors like him now because it has become increasingly understandable as to why many no longer go out to the movies like they once used to.

* * * * out of * * * *

 

Gaspar Noe’s ‘Climax’ is a Hypnotic Descent Into Hell

Climax movie poster

I will never forget when I first watched Terry Gilliam’s cinematic adaptation of “Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas.” Seeing the main characters played by Johnny Depp and Benicio Del Toro descend into a drug-fueled inferno proved to be one of the most insane and chaotic cinematic experiences I’ve ever had to where I felt like a hammer was constantly bashing at my head. I was in college at the time, and I described it to my friends as being one long acid-trip nightmare. One friend, her name Wendy, looked at me and said, “Oh yeah, like you would know!” This led to another person, Matthew, across the table laughing and responding, “Hey Wendy, he’s right.”

Seriously, you don’t need to have any experience with drugs of any kind to call “Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas” an acid-trip nightmare, and the same goes for “Climax,” the latest cinematic opus from Gaspar Noe. Like the majority of his films, it proves to be exhilarating, hypnotic and gloriously out of control as we watch a group of dancers try to get a hold of their sanity after they discover the sangria they have been drinking has been spiked with LSD. Whether or not you have had any experience with this drug, you will agree the trip these characters go on is not the least bit pleasant.

“Climax” takes us back to the winter of 1996 and opens with a series of audition tapes featuring dancers who are being considered for a French dance troupe being created by Selva (Sofia Boutella) and DJ Daddy (Kiddy Smile). Each dancer makes clear how intense their passion is for this particular artform and what they will do to make a career out of it. What’s interesting about this opening we are watching them on an old-style tube television which is surrounded by VHS tapes and books, all of which have influenced Noe’s filmmaking and personal beliefs. This includes such cinematic escapades like “Suspiria,” “Salo,” “Hara-Kiri” and “Possession,” and among the books are one by Romanian philosopher Emil Cioran, famous for his ultra-negative views on life and humanity, “Junkie” by William S. Burroughs, “LSD Psychotherapy” by Stanislav Grof, and “Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo” (“We Children of Bahnhof Zoo”) by Christiane F. Seeing these materials around the TV set should make it clear that Noe is not about to play it safe for anybody.

Following this comes one of the most exhilarating dance sequences I have in a movie in a long time as we watch a five-minute-long scene in which characters perform with utter abandon as they contort their bodies in ways which amazed me to no end. As the camera swoops over the performers, we are sucked into their dance space to where I wanted to feel the passion they felt. Seeing this reminded me of when I first watched the music video to Madonna’s “Lucky Star” on MTV, back when they actually showed music videos, and of how I wanted to experience the same level of joy she was having.

Noe is up to his old tricks again as he starts “Climax” with the end credits first and then give us the opening credits about 45 minutes later. As for the title, it appears exactly where it should. It does take a while for things to get crazy as Noe takes his time introducing us to these dancers as they discuss the sexual conquests and/or the future they hope to have sooner rather than later. As this goes on, the techno music plays non-stop, and once you notice it slowing down all of a sudden, you know this shit is about to get real.

Once the characters begin to realize they are under the influence of a psychedelic substance they were not planning on ingesting before their performance, the movie becomes a slow descent into chaos, and I could not take my eyes off the screen for one second. Even as the events became more and more horrifically chaotic, I was sucked into the madness everyone was trapped in, and I had no idea of where the story was going. This kind of unpredictability is very rare in movies today.

It’s especially impressive to learn that “Climax” was shot in just 15 days and with a script only five pages long. Learning of this made me believe this film could have been an enormous mess were it in the hands of another filmmaker, but Noe gives this sheer chaos a structure even as the performers let themselves run wild with the material. Some will complain this movie has no real story or plot, but I am certain anyone who has taken LSD can assure us how most psychedelic trips do not come with a three-act structure.

Once again, Noe employs his and Harmony Korine’s favorite cinematographer, Benoît Debie, who gives us such striking and absorbing colors throughout. Whether the lighting is dark green or blindingly red, Debie captures the insane madness in all its visual beauty, and when the white of the snow appears it feels like such a relief. This makes me look forward to Korine’s upcoming movie “The Beach Bum” all the more as Debie is the cinematographer on it too.

Noe has gone on record in saying the production of “Climax” was the most peaceful he ever had as a director, and this is regardless of the movie’s content. Apparently, there were no arguments on set, and no drugs or alcohol were used by anyone during filming. The latter is worth pointing out as the cast does an excellent job of looking like they are being ravaged by a narcotic they didn’t plan on taking. They could have easily looked ridiculous to where the movie could have been laughable, but everyone looks to be on their game here.

The cast is made of both professional and non-professional actors, and the one who stands out the most is Sofia Boutella. The French-Algerian actress has long since made a name for herself with such memorable performances in “Kingsman: The Secret Service,” “Star Trek Beyond” and “Atomic Blonde,” and watching her here is mesmerizing as she takes her character of Selva from a place of sanity to the polar opposite of it. She could have easily fallen into the trap of emoting here, but she never does as she makes Selva’s helpless predicament all the more frightening as this trip she is forced to take offers no easy escape for her or anyone else.

“Climax” may not reach the nightmarish heights of “Requiem for a Dream,” but it stands out as one of Noe’s strongest efforts. It doesn’t reach of what I feel is his masterpiece, “Enter the Void,” but it is stronger than his last movie, “Love 3D” which many were quick to dismiss as just another porno flick (I disagree). I for one am glad such daring filmmakers are still working in a time where superhero movies continue to dominate everything in the cinematic landscape. We need at least one filmmaker to break the rules, and Noe is no doubt one of them.

Again, I don’t think you need any experience with psychedelic substances to realize “Climax” is one long acid-trip nightmare. While the late Steve Jobs found an amazing level of creativity after experimenting with LSD, I don’t think the characters here will be anywhere as lucky, assuming they survive.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Ben and Josh Safdie Discuss the Making of ‘Heaven Knows What’

Heaven Knows What movie poster

Heaven Knows What” is a movie which takes us into a landscape alien to many of us: the world of a drug addict. Arielle Holmes stars in a riveting performance as Harley, a homeless addict on the streets of New York who has two passionate yet volatile loves in her life: her boyfriend Ilya and heroin. We watch as they struggle to survive one day after another on the mean streets of New York, struggling with addiction and each other as Harley attempts to prove her love to Ilya in the most passionate and dangerous way possible.

The movie was directed by brother filmmakers Josh and Ben Safdie whose previous credits include the comedy drama “Daddy Longlegs,” the documentary “Lenny Cooke,” and the crime-drama “Good Time” starring Robert Pattinson. I got to speak with them while they were in Los Angeles, and they described the various elements behind this movie’s making in great detail.

“Heaven Knows What” is based on the memoir “Mad Love in New York City” written by Holmes. I was eager to read it after watching the movie, but it hasn’t been published yet. Josh explained why.

Ben and Josh Safdie photo

Josh Safdie: She has a few publishers who want to do it, but she’s like rethinking about how she wants to release it now that she’s done these two other movies and is now in the responsible world.

Ben Safdie: There’s a beautiful rawness to it. If you were to read the pages, it really feels like you were right there sitting next to her all the time and it’s beautiful. That kind of immediacy is also what really attracted me to it because first you hear about, oh, homeless person addicted to drugs. We’ve heard that story a million times. How do you tell that story in a new and different way? Her voice was that new way.

I came into this movie not knowing anything about its backstory, and I honestly thought Holmes was a highly trained actress as her performance is brilliant and mesmerizing. This, however, is not the case as she is not all that far removed from the addict we see on screen. She was a homeless addict for years but has managed to get herself cleaned up, and her performance in “Heaven Knows What” has earned her attention from many who want to make her a star. Both Josh and Ben described what it was like working with her.

JS: Her performance is incredible. You have to remember when you live on the street you’re performing on an everyday level. Whether you’re hustling this person or trying to get this thing out of that person, it’s a performance and a performative life. She was also moonlighting as a dominatrix where she literally was performing as a different character.

BS: One of the most difficult performances you can give is as yourself because you need to be able to understand what makes you tick and then be able to put that out there without any inhibition. And then that’s how you build other performances because if you can get at your core in its ugliest form, or whatever its form, you can build from there.

JS: Acting is just painting your personality a different color. I really was amazed. When I watch the movie now, as I get more and more distance from it just in terms of just having filmed it with a sense of making it, I watch Ari’s performance and I’m really in shock about it. It would take like six or seven takes to get the performative level because it would often start out with her enthusiasm level and how enthused she was to do the scene. Sometimes she was really in it and she would give us this incredible performance. Other times it would take 12 takes to get it out of her. It’s really a beautiful performance from her. And the guy, Caleb (Landry Jones, who plays Ilya), is an actor in Hollywood movies. That’s like the craziest performance because people don’t even realize that it’s a performance and they learn his real story that he is a Texan and that he was in “X-Men: First Class,” he was in “Contraband,” he was in “Antiviral,” he lives in Los Angeles. This is not him at all. Maybe there are traces of him in Ilia, but no, that’s not him.

What’s fascinating about “Heaven Knows What” is how it combines fiction with a raw cinema verite. It’s essentially a fictionalized version of true events, and yet it feels like we’re watching real life unfold right before our eyes. I asked the directors what it was like balancing out the fictional elements with the real-life ones while making this movie.

BS: I think it was about putting them in a blender and not knowing where that line was because that was the only way to make it successful. We made a documentary before this, and that was a documentary. That was a real person and we were trying to tell his real story, but in order to tell his story most effectively we had to use techniques from fiction filmmaking, reenactment and changing the timeline. We were fictionalizing reality there to get the point across. So here we are making a fiction film with a kind of documentary base, and again we had to employ the same kind of tools. You have to make things up to really get at the true emotional core of things. (Werner) Herzog says it’s like the ecstatic truth once you get there.

The movie also features a brilliant electronic score which serves to illustrate just how alien the world drug addicts inhabit is to the rest of us. Along with movies like “The Guest,” “It Follows” and “Ex Machina,” electronic film scores are making a big comeback. Josh and Ben talked about the movie’s composers and why they chose that kind of music.

JS: There’s a bunch of things that are happening in music in the movie. For the most part, we feature the work of Isao Tomita and his renditions of Debussy. We really wanted to have a romantic score, but this movie is like a time squared, nighttime vibe. It’s like electrified and it’s kind of seedy, and it’s an alien landscape almost. We like to say the movie takes place on Mars which is where an addict’s brain goes in a weird way. Debussy music is some of the most romantic music ever composed, but when it’s done through this Japanese mind from the 70’s it’s different. It’s reinterpreted. It’s no longer really romantic but it has its core in romanticism.

BS: There’s other music that we use throughout the movie. There’s some original music by Paul Grimstad in the hospital sequence, and then there’s Ariel Pink who’s a Los Angeles guy who wrote a song for the movie called “I Need a Minute.” It’s electrified as well, and he wanted it to be a love song to the locked bathroom, being able to lock your own bathroom and needing another minute while people are banging on the door.

Watching “Heaven Knows What” brings to mind movies like “Kids” and “Requiem for a Dream” which dealt with lifestyles which were unnerving and at times horrifying to witness. We want to look away and these films dare us to, but in the end we can’t avoid the reality of what people do to each other and themselves.

“Heaven Knows What” is now available to own and rent on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital.

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.