Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Self/less, Cartel Land

Cartel Land

Sominex sci-fi.

As Tarsem Singh's "Self/less" opens, Damian (Ben Kingsley), a phenomenally successful Wall Street executive, has been diagnosed with terminal cancer. After receiving an anonymous card suggesting he look into "shedding," he contracts with a black-market scientist named Albright (Matthew Goode) to induce his death and transplant his genius mind into a healthy young body developed at Albright's lab. He retires to his gold-lined home (which makes "The Queen of Versailles" look subtle by comparison) and arranges a farewell dinner with his lifelong friend and business partner Martin (Victor Garber), at which Damian's chicory coffee will be laced with poison. With that, Kingsley, whose New York accent comes off like a bad De Niro impression, is, as they say, finished in the picture.

Damian wakes up - in a posh New Orleans home (complete with tricked-out Italian sportscar in the porte-cochѐre) - as Edward (Ryan Reynolds), a retired jillionaire with mad basketball skills (enough to hang with Derek Luke's Anton) and no trace of Kingsley's accent. Albright warned him of (and left him medicine for) disorienting flashbacks, but Edward sees memories of experiences he's never had. If you've ever been to a movie, you may not be surprised to learn that the replacement bodies Albright uses are not new creations but cryogenically stored humans (and that he is motivated not by scientific benevolence but rapacity for wealth and power). Edward's body, it turns out, belongs to Mike, a husband, father and soldier recently killed in action. He seeks out Mike's widow (Natalie Martinez), leading to familiar is-that-really-you scenes where we in the audience wait for those onscreen to learn what we already know.

Even those are more interesting than what lies ahead, two hours of car chases, conflagrations, and a climactic shootout in a converted warehouse. Everyone in the movie's world is somehow connected to Albright's conspiracy, and will stop at nothing to maintain its secrecy. I dozed off for a good half-hour, and don't believe I missed much. Reynolds is an attractive physical specimen, but an effortful and robotic actor. When called upon to convey feeling, he perceptibly pauses, contorts his face to the applicable emotion, modulates his voice, and restarts. Nobody in the cast will put this one on his or her highlight reel, least the normally dependable Kingsley. They're just cashing paychecks in a movie with an intriguing premise but nowhere to take it, and little of the visual flair Singh showed in "The Cell."

Matthew Heineman, the director of the new documentary "Cartel Land," cannot be accused of armchair anthropology. He and his crew are smack in harm's way during extended gunfights between Mexican drug cartelists and the white-shirted, self-appointed "Autodefensas" standing up to them on behalf of their fellow citizens. These scenes - raw and immediate - are the movie's best. It also sketches a portrait of the Autodefensas' charismatic leader, small-town physician Jose Mireles, but fails to ask tough questions about his troubled personal life and the extent to which he allows fame to pull him toward demagoguery.

Heineman occasionally cross-cuts from scenes in Mireles' native Michoacán to an American veteran named Tim Mailer and his ragtag vigilante group, dubbed "Arizona Border Recon," who spend boring nights patrolling "Cocaine Alley," as hungry for excitement as a Beverly Hills cop killing time on a slow Thursday night. This material is so much less compelling than the grief and flickers of bravery from Mexicans beaten down by the cartels, Heineman should have scrapped it entirely.

The fundamental problem with "Cartel Land" is one we're seeing too frequently in documentaries now. The in thing is to throw the viewer into the soup without benefit of any relevant information. This method can be effective, as in Jason Osder's 2013 MOVE-bombing Philadelphia story "Let the Fire Burn," in which primary sources made the day's unfolding events come alive in a way no contemporary contextualization could. But some documentarians seem to think that telling us anything about what we're going to see would be cheating. That's wrong. In most cases, useful information (which can and should be artfully incorporated) enriches the viewing experience. Here, I could satisfactorily describe the Autodefensas and the Knights of Templar cartel, but have no earthly idea who "Los Viagras" are.

Little red pills in "Self/less," little blue pills in "Cartel Land." Decline both.

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