Thursday, October 8, 2015

On DVD/Blu-ray: ESCOBAR: PARADISE LOST (2015); MANGLEHORN (2015); and COP CAR (2015)

(France/Spain/Belgium - 2014; US release 2015)

Giving audiences the rare opportunity to see Benicio Del Toro in a movie about drug trafficking, ESCOBAR: PARADISE LOST grants the Oscar-winning actor a role he was seemingly born to play: infamous Medellin Cartel kingpin Pablo Escobar (1949-1993). Unfortunately, ESCOBAR: PARADISE LOST is a tedious misfire hellbent on making Pablo Escobar a supporting character, and there are long stretches where Del Toro, who gained quite a bit of weight to play the cartel head in his indulgent years just before his 1991 incarceration, is offscreen. Rather, the focus is on Nick Brady (THE HUNGER GAMES' Josh Hutcherson), a Canadian who's somehow found his way into the Escobar inner circle on the eve of the boss turning himself over to Colombian authorities. Flashbacks show Nick was a surfer spending time doing Habitat for Humanity-type charity work in Colombia in the mid '80s with his older brother Dylan (Brady Corbet) and his wife Anne (Ana Girardot). Nick meets and quickly falls in love with nurse Maria (Claudia Traisac), who happens to be the beloved niece of her protective uncle (you guessed it) Pablo Escobar. Nick is welcomed into the family and affectionately dubbed "Nico," but tries to keep a distance from knowing too much about Uncle Pablo. Escobar is lauded as a benevolent hero by the people after his 80% stake in the world's cocaine traffic has made him a multi-billionaire with some interests in legitimate businesses, like opening a hospital for his nurse niece. But Escobar is a powerful and merciless boss who doesn't like loose ends, and he wants them all tied up before he goes to prison. Nick realizes far too late that he knows too much and the lives of everyone he loves are in danger and that Uncle Pablo intends to have him killed.

The directorial debut of Italian actor Andrea Di Stefano (Dario Argento's THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, and Hollywood fare like EAT PRAY LOVE and LIFE OF PI), ESCOBAR: PARADISE LOST is plodding and sluggishly-paced, perhaps because you aren't expecting a movie alleged to be about Pablo Escobar to instead focus on Peeta Mellark and his Colombian girlfriend. Del Toro pops in and out of the story with the majesty of a slovenly Don Vito Corleone, but the bulk of the film focuses on Nick, who's based on a person who was involved with Escobar's niece, but beyond that, his story as presented here is a work of fiction, which begs the question "Who cares?" Di Stefano has essentially dropped the character of Pablo Escobar into a Josh Hutcherson movie that could just as easily be titled THE MEDELLIN GAMES. Things pick up when Nick realizes he's a target and Escobar's men start pursuing him, but then the story just becomes an excuse for Hutcherson to play a suddenly gun-toting, blood-splattered badass blasting caps into some cartel flunkies. After a deadly dull opening hour and change, it at least belatedly comes alive when it turns into a conventional chase thriller, but it's too little, too late. There's one admittedly great scene that's very well-acted by Hutcherson, when he hears an inconceivably savage act on the other end of the line during a phone call, but almost everything else is ponderous, predictable, and boring. The Weinstein Company acquired this in early 2014 and sat on it for a year and a half before releasing it on just 105 screens in June of 2015. Its Blu-ray/DVD release has been expertly timed with the wide release of SICARIO, a far superior Del Toro drug trafficking saga. The actor makes a superb Escobar, but this isn't the Escobar movie he should've done. (R, 120 mins)

(US/UK - 2015)

The third chapter in Al Pacino's back-to-basics, character-driven trifecta of low-key indie films following THE HUMBLING and DANNY COLLINS, David Gordon Green's MANGLEHORN lets the Oscar-winning screen legend be eccentric without resorting to his familiar post-SCENT OF A WOMAN histrionics. Pacino is very good here, but the film is a mixed bag, with Green too often engaging in self-indulgent asides and distracting detours into quirkiness that serve no real purpose other than establishing film festival bona fides. Pacino is A.J. Manglehorn, a sad-eyed locksmith in a smallish Texas suburb. Manglehorn works and spends most of his days alone with his beloved cat Fanny and occasionally takes his adorable granddaughter Kylie (Skyler Gasper) to the park. Divorced and mostly estranged from his high-rolling investment broker son Jacob (Chris Messina), Manglehorn laments a life wasted, spent without his lost love Clara. The proverbial "one that got away," Manglehorn pours his heart out in letters relayed in voiceover and mailed to Clara daily, and every day, there's an envelope in his mailbox stamped "Return to Sender." At first coming across like a tragic and lonely old soul, Manglehorn is soon revealed to be abrasive and a bit of an asshole who seems to sabotage his interactions, whether it's an unpleasant lunch with Jacob, where he complains about the food and how he never loved Jacob's mother because she was a poor substitute for Clara, or running into sleazy tanning salon owner/part-time pimp Gary (SPRING BREAKERS director Harmony Korine, in a role that seems like it was intended for Green pal Danny McBride), a socially inept, no-filter type prone to using words like "retard" and "mulatto" in public, but who still idolizes Manglehorn, his childhood Little League coach. Manglehorn has a friendly flirtation with bank teller Dawn (Holly Hunter) that leads to a disastrous date that goes south as soon as Manglehorn does what he always does: surely as THE BIG LEBOWSKI's Walter Sobchak made everything about Vietnam, Manglehorn steers every conversation into another rambling tale-of-woe monologue about how he let Clara slip away.

At its core, MANGLEHORN is a tale of redemption for a bitter, angry man who has some good in him, especially when it comes to his devotion to his granddaughter and his willingness to drain a good chunk of his savings on an expensive surgery for an ill Fanny. But Manglehorn wants Clara and is content to make everyone within earshot as miserable as he is about not being with her. It gets repetitive after a while (though his date with Dawn is a small masterpiece for connoisseurs of cringe), and Green's idiosyncratic digressions--a guy breaking into song in the bank and a teller responding in kind; Manglehorn encountering a multi-car pileup involving a truck full of smashed watermelons that looks like a pointless homage to Jean-Luc Godard's WEEKEND; one scene where he shows off some De Palma-style trickery that comes off like directorial wankery--just get in the way. Green also does some obvious telegraphing with the way he deliberately keeps the viewer out of a locked room that Manglehorn enters daily and emerges in a rage--of course, it's the decades-long shrine for the unattainable Clara, every returned letter filed away, every rejected bouquet of flowers wilted and rotting, which makes him look less like an unfortunate man burdened with a lifetime of sorrow and regret and more like an obsessed loon who needs a restraining order. Pacino's skills help him play a largely unplayable character, and by the time it's over, it's little more than a quirky indie version of AS GOOD AS IT GETS. Even with its many ups and downs, MANGLEHORN is still required viewing for Pacino completists, but be warned going in that it includes a feel-good ending that directly involves a mime. (PG-13, 97 mins)

(US - 2015)

Often coming off like a hastily-sketched idea that the Coen Bros. penciled into the margins of a script only to not include it, the acclaimed indie COP CAR has a solid premise that isn't quite enough to carry it to feature length. It gets a lot of mileage from a terrific, frantic performance by a Brimley-stached Kevin Bacon as Sheriff Mitch Kretzer, a suburban lawman whose day goes from bad to worse when his cruiser is stolen by a pair of grubby ten-year-old runaways who take it on a joyride. Travis (James Freedson-Jackson) and Harrison (Hays Wellford) are two of the dumbest, most obnoxious brats in cinema history, a pre-teen Beavis and Butt-Head who make one idiotic decision after another, usually involving playing with Kretzer's weapons they find in the backseat and staring down the barrel of the guns to figure out why they aren't firing. They also don't know there's a body in the trunk, the second of two that a coke-fueled, corrupt Kretzer was trying to bury in a field--he was off disposing of the first body when the idiot kids stumbled on the seemingly abandoned cop car. As the kids recklessly drive around the rural outskirts of town, plowing through fields and stopping to point automatic weapons at one another, Kretzer races around town, first on foot, then in a stolen car, then finally in his own pickup, to try and cover his tracks and locate the kids.

Directed and co-written by Jon Watts, who was rewarded (?) with the upcoming SPIDER-MAN reboot based on the festival buzz around COP CAR, the film mostly works as a thriller, but the implausibilities and the plot conveniences abound. It's never believable that Kretzer manages to misdirect all the other cops on the force and keeping them chasing their own tails all day, and it's tough to buy the way he goes about undetected all day long, even when he's pulled over by one of his own cops, calls in a fake emergency to the dispatcher on his cell phone, and manages to go unrecognized, with the now-distracted cop letting him off with the warning without really even taking a good look at him. Bacon is great as the wiry, frazzled, increasingly wigged-out Kretzer, and the child actors do a convincing job of playing--by design--a pair of stupid and truly appalling little shits, though Wellford's Harrison is slightly less loathsome than Freedson-Jackson's cocky, twerpy Travis. There's a couple of other characters--Camryn Manheim as a concerned citizen who spots the kids swerving in the cop car on a back road, and Shea Whigham ends up playing a prominent role, plus Bacon's wife Kyra Sedgwick provides the voice of the gullible dispatcher--but Bacon is the real show here. He's excellent, but the film seems ultimately too slight even for just under 90 minutes. (R, 88 mins)

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