Movie Recommendations – Volume II

  1. The Mule (2018)

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A normal man of the middle class is pushed to his limits and takes serious risks that could backfire on him. This is essentially the premise of legendary actor and director Clint Eastwood’s latest film in which he stars and directs as an octogenarian horticulturist turned drug mule named Earl Stone. Based on true events, this unreliable family man and an even worse husband, Earl has sacrificed his love of flowers for the love of his daughter and wife. More at home on the road with his drinking buddies and colleagues than with his own family members, Earl has spent over thirty years doing what he does best much to the chagrin of those who care about him including his soon to be wed granddaughter.

Earl is faced with the unsettling reality of the crippling economic recession beginning in 2008 and the subsequent rise of eCommerce outlets when his horticulture lifestyle and flower gardens go out of business. All Earl has left is his love of the road, his ability to never get a speeding ticket, and a lot of debt that he’s not sure how to get out of. Earl has the utter misfortune to run into people who are shady yet loaded with cash and Earl, being as desperate as he is to stay afloat economically goes ahead and trusts them anyway despite not knowing about the illicit cargo, he is transporting around the country for them.

You are left feeling bad for Earl because despite putting work first all those years and missing time with his loved ones, he partly did it to feed his family and give them a good life even if he was away most of the time. Eastwood who plays Earl in the film is not an innocent lamb and deserves punishment for what he did, but he is simply a manipulated fall guy and another casualty to the endless ‘war on drugs.’ Pursued by federal agents and cartel criminals, Earl ends up between a rock and a hard place and you have to wonder how we can live in a society where an old man such as himself has to resort to be a drug mule in order to get by financially and create a good life for himself and those close to him.

Overall, this is a good movie that I would recommend for its questions about morality, family, and the consequences economic hard times can have and are still a reality for so many people who choose to take illegal means or are forced to do so in order to survive or get by. It’s clear from the movie that crime doesn’t pay but we are left to reckon with the absurdity of an eighty plus year old man needing to work for the cartels in order to thrive economically.

  1. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019)

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It may not be Tarantino’s best but it’s certainly not his worst. With a stellar cast of characters including Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Al Pacino, etc., This film does a great job of invoking the nostalgia and uniqueness of Hollywood in its heyday during the late 1960’s. Set in a time when hitchhiking was normal to partake in, hippies were hanging out in ranches, and the Manson family was beginning its reign of terror, Tarantino has an uncanny ability to bring those cultural tenets together to produce a satisfying film.

Between the cars, the outfits, the egos of the actors, you get a real sense of what it must have been like to be in Hollywood during that golden era. Even still, Tarantino as in his other films, likes to put his own spin on history and without revealing too much, the last thirty minutes of this film are among the most satisfying that he has put to the big screen.

It would not be a Tarantino movie without some craziness and shocking moments occurring. One of the best parts of ‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’ is the chemistry between Brad Pitt’s character, Cliff Booth, a stuntman who does all the dirty work with a smile on his face and Leo DiCaprio’s character, Rick Dalton, an actor who is struggling with the notion that his career may be on the downslope.

While the film gets off to a slow start and certain scenes are drawn out way too long, the writing is well-done, the characters are interesting to see develop, and the payoff of the ending is way too satisfying to not recommend this film. Especially if you are a fan of Hollywood history and the era of the 1960’s, you’ll definitely enjoy this one.

  1. Blinded by The Light (2019)

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Brrrrrruuuuucccceeeeee! Springsteen fans are going to love this film. I know I did and it’s for a couple of reasons. The actors are really likable in this one and the story they’re telling is one as old as time but in a setting and an era that I found pretty compelling. There are some similarities between the coming of age of someone like a Bruce Springsteen and the film’s main character, Javed Khan (played by Viveik Kalra). Even though they are from different countries, different races, and different religious beliefs, there is a universal truth that underlies what Javed and Bruce went through as younger men. Dealing with overprotective or absent fathers, searching for one’s own identity, trying to find true love, and figuring out how to make their dreams come true These are the powerful themes of the film that are timelines across cultures and across borders.

Also timeless is the fight against hatred, bigotry, and intolerance among those who don’t accept others who are different living in their communities. The film is not just about Springsteen’s music and how it relates to a young man’s search for his place in the world but also about a family’s immigrant dream to create a better life for themselves in a community that can be rather cruel and mean at times. Not only is Javed trying to make his dreams come true but his family are also trying to fit in to a town, Luton, where they are minorities, and are discriminated against.

I particularly like how ‘Blinded by The Light’, while it followed the formulaic story of similar films, it has its own identity and its own unique setting and characters that make it a rewarding watch. There are some lessons to be taken from this film beyond just enjoying the music of the Boss. It’s about balancing family responsibilities and your own independence and desires, and also about what your priorities are in life.

Music isn’t everything but it’s the sweet, fulfilling topping that will get you through hard times when things look bleak. That is part of the appeal of Bruce Springsteen’s music and it’s why his music is so powerful and resonant from Asbury Park to Luton and from New York City to London. If you get the chance, see this film even if you don’t like Springsteen. It is more than just a musical and at its core, it’s about the triumph of love over hate and of dreams over despair.

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‘Limitless’ – Film Review and Analysis

What if there was a special pill out there that you could take once a day that would suddenly allow you to tap into all your brain’s potential? What if you were able to recall everything you had ever learned, every language you had ever studied, and every fight move you ever watched? How would your life change if you able to fully actualize your abilities to your full potential, both physically and mentally? Now, you may think of these as silly questions but Limitless as a film does so in an entertaining and thought-provoking manner.

Instead of working hard, taking risks, and pushing ourselves to be better people, Limitless proposes a fictional scenario where a special pill, taken just once a day, can make all the difference. You don’t have to do any heavy lifting as the pill you take while unlock all your hidden potential allowing you to be free to pursue your dreams and goals. Sounds too good to be true, doesn’t it? Well, Limitless lets the audience decides if this illustrious pill is worth the risk involved and whether you would even truly need a pill to become the best version of yourself.

Released in 2011 by Director Neil Burger, Limitless is a mixture of genres blending together to be quite a unique concoction including science fiction, drama, and even some action. The star actor in the film, Bradley Cooper, plays Eddie Morra, who is a struggling author living in New York City who is going through a serious case of writer’s block. Eddie is your typical Average Joe kind of character struggling to make his dreams and goals a reality. The viewer of the film is meant to feel a bit bad for Eddie’s situation since he seems to be doing his best to become a successful author.

However, from Eddie’s unkempt appearance including shaggy hair and heavy bags under his eyes, one’s sympathy for Eddie is undermined by the fact that he can’t even take care of himself physically let alone his apartment, which is a mess filled with strewn about clothes and dirty dishes. The main problem that we learn about Eddie is that he is a well-meaning guy, but he looks for shortcuts and is undisciplined to the point where he is behind on rent payments and his girlfriend is about to leave him.

Instead of changing his ways internally by looking at ways to make himself have more self-discipline and willpower, he instead looks for a shortcut to get himself out of his career, relationship, and financial woes. Eddie runs into Vernon, the brother of his ex-wife, who deals him a strange, new nootropic drug named NZT-48, which Vernon says will help Eddie unlock his brain’s capacity at 100%. Eddie is skeptical at first until he takes one pill and realizes that it is not just a joke and that he is now able to remember everything through enhanced memory and is able to write for hours without losing his concentration. He can also clean his messy apartment, befriend the landlord’s wife, and start to get his life in order.

Because of what this one pill did for him, Eddie goes back to Vernon for more NZT to keep his peak mental capacity going. Horrifically, he discovers Vernon murdered by people also looking for the NZT as well. Eddie is able to find Vernon’s secret stash, which allows him to keep using the nootropic drug to make his life bigger and better. While concerned about what just happened, Eddie becomes addicted to the NZT because of how effortlessly it improves his life and how much more successful he can be without really putting hard work into it.

The old adage of ‘Be careful what you wish for’ is prevalent throughout Limitless as Eddie increasingly puts himself and his girlfriend, Lindy (Abbie Cornish), into greater and greater danger. By needing to use more and more of the drug, Eddie gets addicted to both the potential and the power he gains from enhancing his mental abilities. He become stubborn enough to put himself in harm’s way all to risk it for a chance to becoming a powerful, successful, and wealthy man. Despite being at odds with an finance and investment tycoon, Carl van Loon (played by the legendary Robert De Niro), and being chased around New York City by loan sharks affiliated with the Russian mafia, Eddie’s life is doing a complete 360.

Because of the NZT, he has no shyness or doubts in his interpersonal skills. He gets Lindy, his girlfriend back into his life, he picks up multiple foreign languages including Italian and Mandarin Chinese, and he is able to build up his body through working out and martial arts. In addition, he can concentrate for hours on end and remembers everything he’s ever read, seen, or heard making him a mathematics whiz and an investment genius overnight.

The accumulation of wealth, power, and status can take a lifetime for some people with most never achieving the level that Eddie does in the film. NZT allows him to do it overnight but at a seemingly great risk to his health and survival. The NZT pill is wanted by van Loon and the Russian mafia with Eddie standing in their way. The climax of the film focuses on whether he will be able to use the pill and its abilities to outsmart those around him who would take it from him and leave him to die.

Eddie Mora is a flawed character who is seduced by a powerful nootropic that slowly but surely takes over his life. Actions have consequences and Eddie started mixing with the wrong people. Due to his frustrations with his life and not wanting to suffer to reach his goals, you could argue that he took the easy way out and it could cost him dearly. Had he persevered with his writing and started to take personal responsibility for where he was in life, perhaps he would have never gone to a drug dealer for the NZT in the first place.

This movie may not be one of the best movies of all-time but it is entertaining and carries a few nuggets regarding how any of us should not look for shortcuts in life when things get hard. Taking the easy way out comes with unintended consequences that may be more severe than we realize even when the payoff is really tempting. Eddie, instead of doubling down on his goals and becoming more disciplined and utilizing greater willpower in order to better his life, took the easy way out because he was not built of strong moral fiber. As a result, Eddie gets mixed in with the wrong people and risks his life for a drug that he can not live without.

Any of us, if we are not careful, can be seduced by quick wins and five-minute solutions when true personal development, both mentally and physically, takes years and even decades to get to a high level. While luck can help us along the way to shorten the road to success, it is perseverance, willpower, and the right mindset that can take us further in the long run.

You don’t need any kind of pill to produce a novel (strong shots of espresso maybe), to learn multiple languages, or to get into great physical shape. What’s holding you back are your excuses and your lack of action. With consistent effort and hard work, the goals that Eddie achieves because of NZT in this film can be achieved by the average person without needing what he needed. First, you need to believe in yourself and then you need to write down your goals and come with a plan of action to become successful. As mentioned earlier, true progress in personal development does not happen overnight but can take months and even years. With sustained effort and hard work, you’ll reach your goals and you’ll do it in the right way.

While far from a perfect film, Limitless is entertaining and thought-provoking regarding human nature and what the average person will do to change their lives by taking the easy way out. The story of ‘Limitless’ is a referendum on hoping for a magic pill to solve your problems rather than working through them by your own grit, sweat, and toughness.

The character of Eddie Morra fell to his own short-sighted belief in wanting success by any means necessary but I hope you, if you watch this film realize that it’s far more satisfying to achieve your dreams and your goals through your own hard work rather than looking for an easy fix in the form of a magic solution peddled by others, which may not work or get you into trouble.

I do want to recommend Limitless for the impressive visuals, the acting by Bradley Cooper and Robert De Niro, and the important life lessons that it imparts on the audience by the time the final credits of the film begin to roll.

‘The Grey’ – Film Review and Analysis

The actor Liam Neeson has become one of the main action figures in Hollywood, starring in such popular films as ‘Taken’, ‘Batman Begins’, and ‘Gangs of New York.’ However, while these roles were a bit one-dimensional or short lived in terms of his supporting role, you get to see the full scope of his talents in a powerful and dramatic role in the 2012 film, ‘The Grey.’ In this fictional drama, we get to see a man pushed to his mental and physical limits and how he is able to come to grips with such weighty topics such as his own mortality and his religious beliefs.

Not only is ‘The Grey’ a great film when it comes to its views on mortality, religion, and the depths of human nature when pushed to its limits. The cinematography, direction, pacing and setting in the film help make it stand out. There’s something in this film for everybody who is a fan of serious cinema especially when it comes to character backstory, action scenes, and touching moments of vulnerability and camaraderie. ‘The Grey’ doesn’t sugarcoat anything as well and does not shy away from addressing real life struggles such as depression, a search for meaning, and the futility of having bad luck run roughshod over one’s life.

Man can only control so much in his life and that includes what happens to those who he loves, how he adapts and survives when it exposed to the worst elements of nature and of the animal kingdom. Sometimes, the only choice that you have is to fight, persevere, and struggle to the last breath even when things look bleak. Neeson and the other men in the film have to grapple with a lot of bad events that make it a hopeless situation to get out of. There is no choice though and all of them have to do their best to make it out alive especially to the ones they love.

John Ottway, the main character in the film played by Liam Neeson, is a guy you want with you in the oil fields of Alaska. We know little about his backstory in the film, but it is revealed that he struggles with depression, meaning, and his faith in a higher power. He dreams of a woman who is his wife and the audience are not sure if he is still with her or if they divorced or each other or if something fatal has befallen her.

We assume that he is in Alaska working as a marksman protecting oil workers from the wolves and that he is doing this job for lack of better options and to preserve some remaining meaning in his life. Part of the brilliance of this film is that it doesn’t reveal everything too quickly about why Ottway is in Alaska or what happened to his wife. ‘The Grey’ does not ignore the great sense of suspense that can be built up over the course of the film to make a true compelling drama that captures and holds your attention until the end.

Ottway and the other men are facing grey wolves who see them as a threat and it’s not possible for the men to communicate to these wolves that they are friends and not foes. The animal kingdom suffers no man especially when he is in their territory. They can’t communicate with each other so it’s a battle for survival between man and wolf. While the grey wolves in real life are harmless and do not hunt humans, ‘The Grey’ takes some creative liberties with this fact in order to have a compelling film. Despite the criticism from animal rights groups, if you enter the area of a wolf’s pack den, you are likely asking for trouble regardless if you didn’t mean to do so, man or animal alike.

After a freak plane crash, Ottway and the other oilmen must fend for survival in harsh conditions while they are stalked by wolves including its alpha leader who see the men as threats to be reckoned with. Ottway has killed wolves before to protect the oilmen when they’re working in the fields and he knows what they are like. Against ever increasing odds of survival, he proves to be a great example of how to lead men in times of crisis and peril. His leadership, throughout the film, proves pivotal in giving the men a shot to get out of the Alaskan wilderness and back to their families. Even though it seems at the beginning of the film that Ottway has lost his will to live due to the situation with his wife, the freak plane crash and his survival from it propels him to try and save the men and outwit the wolves if possible.

Still though, ‘The Grey’ is a serious and realistic film about how far faith will carry you out of a real crisis. There is an underlying atheistic outlook of the movie that may rub some people the wrong way, but I found it to be needed. In life, when you face a tragedy, a crisis, or a perilous event, faith can only do so much, and you have to claw and fight your way out of it. I think ‘The Grey’ does a great job of showing how important it is to confront your fears, show true leadership, and fight as hard as possible against the odds to make it out alive of a bad and deteriorating situation.

Ottway’s character and his fight against the Alaskan wilderness and the wild wolves is a great metaphor of how each of us is fighting against our own personal demons and against events that are beyond our control in life. We each have a struggle to face and we have to do it on our own. If we have a wife or a crew by our side, that’s a great thing to have but that’s not always the case as it is in ‘The Grey.’ When you’re put into a bad situation and all hope is lost, you have to truly fight for survival and live like it’s your last day because it might just be it.

There’s an excellent quote from ‘The Grey’ that has a lot of resonance for how true it is regarding life’s fragility and how you have to live like it’s your last day and to do the best you can to survive against the odds. “Once more into the fray…into the last good fight I’ll ever know. Live and die on this day…live and die on this day.” This quote that Liam Neeson’s character recites throughout the film is not only a metaphor for his fight against the wolves and nature but his fight against depression and to make it through the day when all hope seems lost.

‘The Grey’ is a true survival film and it is excellently directed with a great starring performance by Liam Neeson. I believe it is an extremely underrated film and does a good job of bringing up various themes surrounding hope, faith, loss, and about life’s injustices. If you can check it out, I highly recommend giving ‘The Grey’ a view. It will be well worth your time.

‘There Will Be Blood’ – Film Review and Analysis

‘There Will Be Blood’ is a masterful, enticing film about how greed, corruption, and arrogance can destroy a man’s soul. Definitely one of the best films of this young 21st century, There Will Be Blood will be remembered for generations to come for its’ acting, cinematography, and direction. There are a number of things that make this film memorable including its’ cast, director, and musical composition.

In addition to all of that, the plot is written well, the characters are intriguing, and themes are still timely when compared to the modern era. While not the most popular film when it was first released, ‘There Will Be Blood’ has become a bit of a cult classic since it came out in 2007, over ten years ago. The film was nominated for eight Academy Awards and won two of them for ‘Best Cinematography’ and ‘Best Actor’ for Daniel Day-Lewis.

Considered the best Actor of his generation, Day-Lewis is a unique talent who can transform him into vastly different performing roles and deliver outstanding and award-winning performances. In addition to winning the Best Actor award for ‘There Will Be Blood’, Day-Lewis also won Academy awards for the films ‘Lincoln’ and ‘My Left Foot’, which were the exact opposite kind of roles to play as an actor.

Daniel Day-Lewis is able to stay in character for months or years on end to totally immerse him in both the story and the lines that he memorizes. It’s a truly impressive accomplishment to win one Academy Award but Day-Lewis was able to win three and is nominated for a 4th award for his most recent role in ‘Phantom Thread.’ Other noteworthy aspects of this film is the directing by Paul Thomas Anderson and the musical score by Jonny Greenwood who both set the tone for this movie’s themes and plot line.

Unbeknownst to most, the film’s screenplay and overall plot was adapted from American novelist Upton Sinclair’s novel Oil! Which focuses on the oil boom in the western United States during the late 19th to early 20th centuries, and the men who made themselves wealthy from the discovery. Instead of covering a topic as deep and complicated about the oil rush over a few decades in a dramatic film, Paul Thomas Anderson chooses a protagonist named Daniel Plainview (played by Daniel Day-Lewis) to be the lens through which the audience witnesses the birth of the lifeblood for the modern American economy.

Anderson’s goals for this film in my opinion were to show how the U.S. and its’ oilmen were not so innocent when it came to the pursuit of wealth. In the quest to reap the profits of the oil boom, there was a lot of backstabbing, double-crossing, and short-shrifting between different competing companies. This film takes a hard look at how the protagonist Daniel Plainview loses his soul in the pursuit of wealth and prestige. In addition, There Will Be Blood is an examination of the push – pull relationship between capitalism and religion and how they are often linked together to pursue their goals.

There Will Be Blood’s setting takes place at the turn of the 20th century. Daniel Plainview, the main protagonist starts out as an ordinary silver miner looking to become wealthy from that pursuit. However, this changes in 1902 when he discovers oil near Los Angeles, California, and decides to create his own drilling company. At the beginning of the film, Daniel can seem to be like any normal prospector of that era and also selfless in the fact that he adopts the son of a fellow co-worker who was killed in an accident. The boy is named H.W. and Daniel seems to care and cherish the child. However, the audience soon finds out that it is not love that Daniel strives to have in his life but rather wealth and influence in the oil industry.

Daniel promotes himself as a ‘family man’ largely in order to curry favor with other businessmen and potential employees of his company. The main antagonist to Daniel is Eli Sunday, a preacher in nearby Little Boston, California, who wishes to get a good sum of money from Plainview in order to build his church. In exchange, Daniel gets access to all of the land under the town in order to build wells to drill for oil where there is a vast amount underneath their feet. Despite the fact that they have an agreement in the exchange of land for money, Daniel betrays the deal and berates Eli for his religious beliefs and the exploitation of his son’s deafness for his own financial gain. It is clear to the audience that both men are out for themselves but need each other in order to acquire wealth or a religious following.

Such as has been the case at times throughout history, religion and capitalism have been intertwined in an unholy marriage leading to disastrous results. Daniel uses Eli in order to get all of the oil wealth from under the town while lying about the amount of money he would give Eli or the town itself to build up their infrastructure. Eli uses Daniel’s money to build his mega-church but exploits H.W.’s misfortune of becoming deaf as a means to accuse Daniel of being a ‘bad father’ and a ‘sinner’ even though the freak accident was out of his control.

If I had to highlight two example scenes for somebody to check out before watching this movie, it would be the ‘I’m an oil man’ speech by Daniel Plainview to the townsfolk of Little Boston. You can see from this speech and from the overall scene that he does not care so much for the people in the town or what he can do to help them. The music combined with his lying through the teeth boasts show that he is not being genuine and is in this pursuit of oil for himself and himself alone.

“I’m an oil man speech”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AHz-zZoBnbc

The other scene to highlight from this film is known as the ‘Fire’ scene, which is a brilliantly shot and executed scene. It’s amazing in its’ portrayal of the discovery of mass amounts of oil under a well indicating that Daniel Plainview is to become a very wealthy man. However, it’s at the same point in this scene where he realizes that his son, H.W. is to become deaf due to an accident near the well. At this scene, you can see Daniel change as a person to become more focused on his future as a ‘oilman’ than one as a ‘family man’ to H.W., his adopted son.

‘There Will Be Blood’ Fire scene: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GKJAH-XBNNs&t=240s

Throughout the film’s events, you can see that Daniel does not care about family or religion at all. While he enjoys the company of H.W., he holds over the fact that he is not his biological son and does not want to give him any financial support to strike it out on his own. Daniel has no care for organized religion besides getting permission to gain workers and oil from underneath the town’s feet while contributing the bare minimum to Eli’s church or the rest of the town. As his last name reveals, ‘Plainview’ has a plain view about human nature that is very pessimistic and jaded.

Daniel only cares to get as much out of people as to benefit himself and his company personally. You wonder though by the end of the film what is in it for Daniel besides money and alcohol. He may have become a wildly successful prospector and oilman but what does it all mean if he is left alone and friendless. If you’re going to go into business, why not do it for the benefit of others and not just yourself? However, the view of Daniel Plainview is that life is a zero-sum game and that you can’t trust anybody but yourself.

Eli Sunday, while a pragmatic preacher and someone who seems to care about the townsfolk of which who are part of his church, still does a deal gone south with Daniel Plainview in the pursuit of easy money. Eli is easily bullied by Daniel but still goes around trying to convince him to change his ways and repent as a sinner. While Eli means well and wants the best for the church and his town, he does not go about it in the right way leaving him at the mercy of Plainview.

While Eli Sunday and Daniel Plainview are both excellent at what they do, you have to consider that they are both very flawed human beings. They may have built a popular church to preach in (Sunday) or massive oil wells to enrich themselves (Plainview) but life will still be lacking for them if they have no love and compassion surrounding those achievements. That may be the main message for the person viewing this film. Wealth, notoriety, and personal prestige are not everything in life and that there are other things that you should focus on that really touch your soul as a human being.

“There’s a whole ocean of oil under our feet, and nobody can get at it except for me!” There Will Be Blood is an excellent story about extreme capitalism and religion gone wrong. Both protagonists pursuit of their own selfish goals hurts the other characters in this film. However, what would modern America be like without the preachers and the oilmen? While not as dramatic as this fictional movie, the discovery of oil and the spread of the gospel are intertwined with American history.

‘Training Day’ – Film Review and Analysis

‘Training Day’ is the kind of movie that highlights two people who somehow cross paths as they are on opposite sides of morality. The men are shown to be both flawed in their own ways but still have a direct impact on each other as they spend more time together. Throughout this film, both men are trying to outwit each other in the hopes that they’ll come out on top. Because of this gamesmanship, this is no simple training day but rather a series of events that end up changing both of their lives for better and for worse.

The two main characters, one of them who could be considered a youthful idealist, is trying to better his community and his city by enforcing the law by the book. The other man has been around the block and knows about the grittiness of the job more so than his impressionable, younger rookie partner. He is a pessimist who discards the idealism that he likely brought with him when he originally joined the police force. He has abused his power as a law enforcement agent, is looking to maintain his authority and grow his wealth through intimidation and threats.

“It takes a wolf to catch a wolf” is a powerful quote from ‘Training Day’ that shows that in order to bring somebody down, you have to act and imitate who they are. The problem with this attitude is that sometimes you end up becoming your own worst enemy. However, to simply be a sheep is leading yourself to the slaughter as well especially when you’re dealing with the criminal underworld.

In order to survive as a detective, both men know that you need to be confident in yourself, steadfast in your beliefs, and willing to confront ‘the wolves’ out there if you want to catch one. It could be argued that the protagonist of this film starts out as a sheep and ends up becoming a wolf in order to catch the antagonist, a true wolf who has caught the wolves for many years. This kind of symbolism embedded within ‘Training Day’ makes it a classic film worthy of repeated viewings.

‘Training Day’, released in 2001 is a crime drama / thriller directed by Antoine Fuqua which follows two LAPD detectives who patrol and fight crime in gang-heavy neighborhoods. The film stars Denzel Washington as Alonzo Harris, a veteran detective and police officer who prefers wearing street clothes over a formal uniform and a badge. Ethan Hawke, who plays Jake Hoyt, a new detective and Alonso’s new partner who is entrusted in learning from Alonzo on his first day of detective training.

This film has earned excellent reviews over the years and is considered one of the best movies of the 2000’s. It achieved critical acclaim and success in theaters as Denzel Washington earned a Best Actor award for his role as Alonzo Harris. Truly, one of the best parts of the film is Washington’s acting and how he brings the corrupt yet smooth talking cop character to life. Det. Harris is a classic villain who ranks as one of the best antagonists in film history for his duplicity to others and displaying his indefatigable charisma while doing it.

From the opening scene of the movie, you can tell that Jake Hoyt is out of his league when it comes to matching up against Alonzo Harris. Unfortunately, not much of Alonso or Jake’s backstory is given in the film as well as how they came to become partners together. However, you can see early they are both polar opposites of each other in terms of their ideals, morals, and overall character. Jake is a young guy who’s trying to make his mark as a police officer and trying to do everything by the book as instructed by his superiors at the academy.

He is idealistic, fair-minded, and perhaps a bit naïve to the murky shades of gray that make up the world. Meanwhile, the audience can tell that Alonso has been on the wrong side of the streets for a while and has become purely jaded by his work as a narcotics detective. Instead of serving and protecting the people in his community and city, he cares only about his image, the reach of his authority, and the ability to make illegal money without compromising his career. What once was left of the idealism and the drive to do good by becoming a police officer has long been washed away. You could argue that Jake is a sheep while Alonso is a wolf who is going to prey on him.

The ultimate goal of Alonso is to bend Jake to his will by manipulating his moral code and his willingness to stay clean as a police officer. While Jake starts out the film as being a bit reticent, gullible, and naïve to what Alonso is doing to him, he is able to change over the course of the film to fight for his future, his career, and his life. The transformation of Jake Hoyt from a ‘sheep’ to a ‘wolf’ able to stand up to Alonso is one of the greatest displays of character development in film.

The great drama of ‘Training Day’ is to see both men push each other to the limits both mentally and physically to see who will be left standing after the training day and night is over. While Alonso lost his soul and is trying to corrupt those around him, Det. Jake Hoyt needs to harness his strengths, moral fiber, and intelligence to best Alonso at his own game.

At first, Alonso seems like an ideal partner to be with if you are in the police force. However, Jake and the audience find out that he is anti-social, manipulative, and willing to take what he wants without remorse. The challenge throughout the film for Jake is how does he change into a ‘wolf’ without losing his own moral code. Complicating matters for Detective Hoyt is the fact that Alonso isn’t the only corrupt police officer to deal with and that it goes to higher levels in both local and state government who know what Alonso is up to.

While some officials turn a blind eye to Alonso’s money-grabbing, wrongful beatings and killings, and others in the police force actually join in on it, Jake takes a moral stand and wants to bring Alonso to justice. However, we find out that Alonso is in fact his own worst enemy and the bad karma that he’s acquired over his years of corrupt wheeling and dealing will come back to haunt him.

Everyone’s luck eventually runs out and Alonso finds himself on the wrong end of a bad gambling streak with organized crime. For all of his manipulation, wrongdoing, and anti-social behavior, its’ Alonso’s desire for control over others including Jake that leads himself to ruin. To the opposite, Jake becomes a stronger person and a more effective police officer as the film progresses. He stops two men on the street from physically abusing a high school girl, which pays off for him later after he faces another near fatal betrayal from Alonso.

The concept of karma plays out for Jake, as he is able to resist the corrupting influence of Alonso and remain on the right side of the law by doing his job even under great personal pressure. Instead of letting the power and authority entrusted in him get to his head, Jake is able to become not just a better police officer than Alonso by the end of the film but a better human being.

While Alonso wasn’t always a corrupt cop, ‘Training Day’ makes you wonder what could have happened to this man to turn him into what he was originally fighting against. Overall, this movie is a morality tale of two men who have different intentions when it comes to being a police officer, which puts them at odds with each other. Their impression of the other man continually changes as they learn more about who exactly is the ‘sheep’ and who is the ‘wolf’ as their training day plays out.

‘Traffic’ – Film Review and Analysis

‘Traffic’ (2000) is one of those films that was way ahead of its’ time when it was first released over a decade and a half ago. It is a film that makes you think deeply hours or even days after you first watch it. ‘Traffic’ should be viewed more than once to really understand all of the nuances and subtleties embedded in its’ individual stories underneath its’ overarching central themes.

When compared to most other movies of the crime drama genre, ‘Traffic’ gained a lot of particular praise for the way its’ director and screenwriter were able to successfully weave multiple plotlines, characters, and settings together that slightly overlap with each other but are seamless enough as to not overburden the viewer with unrealistic connections.

‘Traffic’ is a movie that respects the intelligence of its’ audience and isn’t afraid to tackle the controversial topic of the ‘War on Drugs.’ It’s quite surprising when you think about how this movie was released back in 2000, but is still just as relevant and timely of an issue today as it was back when it was first released to the public. When ‘Traffic’ came out, it gained universal recognition and critical acclaim, and after viewing it for the first time, it’s easy to see why it was so noteworthy.

Steven Soderbergh directed ‘Traffic’, and Stephen Gaghan wrote its screenplay. Mr. Gaghan, who was responsible for another multi-layered film with multiple plotlines in ‘Syriana’ (2005), which also starred an ensemble cast of actors dealing with a different timely issue of oil and geopolitics in the Middle East. Unbeknownst to most people, ‘Traffic’ won numerous awards including for Oscar awards for Best Director, Best Supporting Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Film Editing. This ensemble cast of actors for ‘Traffic’ is very impressive and includes star names such as Michael Douglas, Don Cheadle, Benicio del Toro, Dennis Quaid, and Catherine Zeta Jones.

At its’ core, ‘Traffic’ focuses on the illegal drug trade going on in both the United States and Mexico. One of the brilliant things about this film is the fact that each character in the movie represents a different perspective on the drug war whether they are a user, enforcer, trafficker, lawyer, or politician. It’s unlikely that a film like ‘Traffic’ would be made today but it’s distinctive editing, multi-use of colors depending on which of the three stories are being highlighted, and the political relevance of its’ themes could keep a lot of viewers away these days.

Its’ importance and timeliness today can’t be overstated as this film doesn’t try to impose a point of view on the audience. ‘Traffic’ would rather cause the individual viewer to ask questions, seek out more knowledge about the issue, and weigh the different opinions expressed by the characters throughout the movie. The three-color grades that are used for the three different stories are probably one of the most interesting things that I’ve ever seen when it comes to film editing. Each story in ‘Traffic’ could be its’ own movie in its’ own right, and the film is lengthier than most in terms of run time at two hours and twenty minutes total.

To briefly highlight the substance of the three stories without spoiling the whole movie, let’s go over each one to introduce the arch of the overall plot to prospective viewers out there. The first story is mainly set in Mexico City and other parts of the country, which highlights the efforts of two Mexican police officers that are trying to do their job as enforcers of the law under difficult circumstances. While trying to bring down local cartels in the easiest way possible, the two officers, one of them, Javier Rodriquez (played by Benicio del Toro) come up against corruption, and crime within their own ranks, which makes their ability as officers to keep their areas safe difficult with money and influence blurring the line between the good guys and bad guys.

Officer Rodriguez (del Toro) wants to do his best to keep his job, but to also hold his fellow policemen and elements of the Mexican army accountable for their actions without compromising his safety. He knows that ending the drug war is futile but he wants to keep his immediate community safe and that of its’ inhabitants. This is especially true if it means that the local kids in his neighborhood can play baseball at night with new stadium lights and not be at risk of joining gangs instead in their free time.

The second storyline in ‘Traffic’ takes place between the nexus of small town Ohio and the capital city of Washington, DC in the United States. A conservative judge, Robert Wakefield (played by Michael Douglas), is appointed to head the President’s Office of National Drug Control Policy, and he becomes an unofficial ‘drug czar.’ Mr. Wakefield doesn’t seem to be enthused with the new position he’s been given due to the long hours, lack of support, and political skepticism from the official circles within Washington. He tries to make the most of fighting the ‘war on drugs’ even if he knows deep down that it is truly unwinnable. Because he is away from his family for long periods of time, he is unaware that his daughter in high school has developed a drug problem over the past six months and is struggling with a heroin addiction now.

On top of dealing with being a father and the leader of a national drug control policy effort, he struggles to be a open and forthcoming husband to his wife. Compared to other characters in the film, Wakefield changes the most in his views on the ‘war on drugs’ as the audience can see that his mindset changes when this issue becomes personal and not just professional. With his daughter’s future and life at stake, the ‘war on drugs’ becomes less of an abstract war and more of a battle to save his family from falling apart.

The third and last storyline takes place mostly in southern California in the San Diego area where two DEA agents are conducting an underground investigation. The investigation, led by Agents Ray Castro and Montel Gordon (played by Don Cheadle), eventually leads to the successful capture and arrest of a top drug dealer, Eduardo Ruiz, who pretends to be a fisherman as his cover.

This arrest is instrumental in helping along the trial of suspected drug lord, Carl Ayala, who is thought to be the leading distributor of illegal drugs for one of the biggest cartels in the world. Ruiz is important to be kept alive and in good shape so that he can testify to the illegal activities of Ayala and his empire, but that is harder for the DEA than they ever imagined. With Ayala’s possible imprisonment and/or cooperation, the DEA agents are hoping to bring down this cartel, once and for all.

However, since Ayala and his wife, Helen (played by Catherine Zeta Jones), have a lot of wealth and influence still, they are able to put a damper on the DEA’s plans with the help of the shady family lawyer, Arnie Metzger (played by Dennis Quaid). DEA Agent Gordon and his partner are unable throughout the film to cope with the long tentacles of the drug cartels, and the amount of money and hit men the Ayala’s are able to use to threaten the safety of the DEA’s witness and the potential success of the prosecution against Ayala. You could imagine that this particular story in the film does not come with a happy ending.

Any of the three unique yet intertwined storylines of ‘Traffic’ could be ripped from newspaper headlines from over the past forty years. Ever since the beginning of the ‘war on drugs’ back in the 1970’s, there has been endless debate about whether there have been any successes or mainly just the upholding of the status quo. ‘Traffic’ doesn’t try to impose a simple yes or no answer to the ‘war on drugs’ question.

Rather, this film intelligently asks its’ audience to weigh the outcomes of these different stories that are affected by the drug trade, and the viewer is supposed to make that decision for themselves. When it comes to special movies like ‘Traffic’, there are no simple black and white solutions. There are many shades of grey in all of these human stories, and it takes deep insight, critical thinking, and analysis in order for slow changes of the status quo to actually occur.

While this is a fictional movie, it is made clear by the film itself that a lot of these characters are based off of actual people who make up all sides of the ‘war on drugs.’ Overall, the one key thing that the ending of this film makes clear to the audience is that there are no winners in the drug war, only losers, and it takes an impactful movie like ‘Traffic’ to make that fact absolutely clear.

‘Lord of War’ – Film Review and Analysis

Arguably one of the best movies of the 2000’s and Nicholas Cage’s best performance as a lead actor, The film ‘Lord of War’, released in 2005, is a realistic and unfiltered take in the role of illegal arms dealers, who facilitate the sale and transfer of arms trafficking throughout the international arms industry, which continues to be one of the world’s most profitable endeavors. ‘Lord of War’, while nonfictional in its’ story is actually based off of the lives and exploits of different real-life arms smugglers. ‘Lord of War’ is directed by Andrew Niccol, and stars a cast of Nicholas Cage, Jared Leto, Ethan Hawke, and Bridget Moynahan.

Nicholas Cage plays Yuri Orlov, the son of Ukrainian refugees from the Soviet Union, where he and his brother, Vitaly, help their parents out in their Ukrainian restaurant as cooks and helpers. While Vitaly is somewhat satisfied with this simple life of cooking borscht and washing dishes, Yuri wants to achieve the ‘American Dream’ and get out of Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, where he grew up after leaving Ukraine. He struggles to grasp at any real business opportunity in order to get out of the shadow of his ordinary life in Brooklyn.

However, one day when he is dining at a restaurant in Brighton Beach, the business idea he needs comes to life for Yuri in the form of a Russian mobster killing two would-be assassins and fending off their attack with AK-47 Kalashnikov rifles. Yuri believes that there is a lot of money to made in international arms sales and decides to go into business despite the protests of his brother, Vitaly, and the fact that his parents don’t know what he’s up to.

One scene in particular that stands out in Yuri’s beginning as an illegal arms dealer is when he tells his brother that since there are so many McDonald’s and gun stores in America already, he needs his business to be international in its’ focus. At first, Yuri feels that dealing arms is comparable to serving food at a restaurant. He justifies his nefarious business by narrating to the audience that its’ providing for a part of human nature in his opinion, the instinct to kill and harm others, as documented by the “earliest human skeletons who had spears in their heads and ribcages.”

While Vitaly, Yuri’s brother has moral reservations about what Yuri is doing, he decides to join him later on as they crisscross the globe during the late 1980’s and into the 1990’s dealing with corrupt governments, genocidal dictators, and other more ruthless arms dealers as their competition. As Yuri becomes more popular and wealthy with the illegal arms business, he runs up against a by-the-book, incorruptible, and idealistic Interpol agent, Jack Valentine (Ethan Hawke), who tries unsuccessfully to track Yuri’s business dealings down by air and by sea.

Despite the fact that his brother, Vitaly, becomes a drug addict, and is an unreliable business partner, Yuri continues to run his illegal arms business as a one-man show. While a fictional story, ‘Lord of War’ is based off of real life conflicts and real life people who were involved in the illegal arms trade. These conflicts include the 1982 Lebanon War, the Soviet Union’s War in Afghanistan against the Mujahedeen, the civil war in Liberia during the 1990’s, etc. The movie does not gloss over the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the impact that the end of this cold war conflict had on the rest of the world in terms of arms sales. Yuri is able to become a very wealthy and powerful arms dealer in the film due to his family connections in Ukraine and the sheer weaponry, and arsenal that the Soviet military left unused.

Like his arms business, which is run under false pretenses, he does the same with his love life as he falls for a fashion model and childhood crush, Ava Fontaine (Bridget Moynahan), who he sets himself up with under the guise of a false photo shoot. Despite the fact that his parents don’t know about his illegal dealings, he lies to his new wife regularly, and his brother ends up in a drug rehabilitation center, Yuri does not give up on the arms business because he likes it, is good at it and is unable to go straight in legal business endeavors. Howver, in the wake of all of his ‘success’, innocent men, women, and children get killed by the guns, bombs, ammunition, tanks, planes, etc. that he sells and profits off of. As the film progresses, the director makes clear that Yuri has sold his soul in this dirty trade and it may cost him his life or the lives of others close to him if he doesn’t stop.

In a way, the audience who watches ‘Lord of War’ could be most closely aligned with the perspective of the Interpol agent, Jack Valentine. He knows that Yuri is a bad person and he wants to bring him down, but will it make any difference to bring one sole arms dealer down when billions of dollars are exchanged around the world each year through both legal and illegal arms sales. Like Jack, the audience may question the nobility of bringing down one arms sales dealer like Yuri when there are dozens of them out there, and Presidents / Prime Ministers of the major countries are the biggest arms dealers of them all.

Yuri never takes full responsibility for his business dealings during the film even if the sale of his arms causes bloodshed and death. He remarks bluntly to his brother, Vitaly during one scene: We don’t talk about it. How many car salesmen talk about their work? How many cigarette salesmen talk about their work? Both their products kill more people every year than mine, at least mine comes with a safety switch. Those guys can leave their work at the office, so can I.”

In Yuri’s opinion, he may be evil, but he’s ‘necessary evil’ because there are other people or governments out there like him involved in the business, but sometimes they ‘can’t have their fingerprints on the gun.’ Despite the pressures placed on him by family, friends, and the law, Yuri is committed to doing what he does best without having the moral imperative to stop. As I don’t want to reveal the ending, the first time you see it, you may be shocked but this film doesn’t deal in black and white, and that’s what I love about it.

There are numerous shades of grey that go along with the black and white, and the ending of ‘Lord of War’ falls within those shades of gray. ‘Lord of War’ doesn’t have your typical Hollywood ending, and that’s partly what it makes it such an alluring film. On top of the exquisite directing, acting by Nicholas Cage, Jared Leto, Ethan Hawke, etc. and the deep political and philosophical themes behind this film, I highly recommend it.

I’ll leave you with a quote from the film that is very poignant and is still true twelve years after ‘Lord of War’ was released in movie theaters. “While private gunrunners continue to thrive, the world’s biggest arms suppliers are the U.S., the U.K., Russia, France, and China…they are also the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council.”