Narcos (TV Review)

Narcos (TV Review)

Narcos is the TV series that we have all been secretly waiting for ever since Vincent Chase took the risk to make Medellin on Entourage.

Here we are provided with an excellent 10 episodes of historical drama that outlines the life and times of Pablo Escobar, perhaps the richest, and greatest, criminal of his time, if not all time, as told through the view of the DEA agent that helped play a role in his hunt and capture.

narcos4To put it mildly, Narcos is fantastic entertainment.

From the very beginning, the Netflix original show provides grit and drama, taking us from the humble beginnings of the man that would become the greatest, and most feared, man on the planet, the most wanted man on earth. It truly is an incredible story, how one man developed the idea of exporting cocaine, a relatively new drug at the time, to Miami, and how he was- for better or worse- able to change the world.

Escobar went through many changes in his life as a crime lord. He began humbly, but incredible vision allowed him to create the largest drug empire the world has ever seen, where he was making upwards of $60 million per day, actually having more money than he knew what to do with. It got to a point where he literally gave money away to the poor of Columbia, trying to improve their lives with the exorbitant amounts of cash that he knew he would be unable to launder. He even buried money all over the country, creating for himself millions of dollars in an actual treasure map, just trying to hide the endless flow of money that was coming in to him from the cocaine trafficking trade. Eventually, he craved more power, even taking a brief turn in the Colombian house of representatives as an elected official, starting off a time of butting heads with the government that would last for the rest of his life.

NARCOS S01E06 " Eplosivos"

The story of Pablo Escobar speaks for itself, and stories like that manage to just write themselves. Sometimes the truth really is more interesting than any fiction that can be invented. His story is unbelievable, but it is always thrilling to watch. We get to see as he becomes more paranoid, as the law closes in on him, yet we continually see his genius, especially when it comes to creating the deal that would lead to turning himself in. What other criminal in the history of the world got a deal where he could build his own prison for himself, and ensure that government officials weren’t allowed within three miles of the place? Only Escobar.

The story itself provides 10 hours of great entertainment.

Narcos is such a strong show, and not only for the reasons of the story that was already there, ready to be told. It is a show buoyed by strong acting performances throughout, starting with the portrayal of Escobar himself by Wagner Moura. He embodies the man, making him the likable monster that he was in real life. He manages to create a sympathetic character in Pablo, despite the numerous atrocities that he commits over the course of his life of crime. He brings out the man of the people, and the family man, behind the killer who would be willing to sacrifice hundreds of lives in blowing up a plane just to kill one man, or start an all-out civil war on the streets of Bogota, just to ensure his power is maintained, and the fear of him is constantly on the minds of all Colombians.

narcos5A successful element of Narcos is that we get to see the story from both sides. This is not a pro-American show, where the good guys from the States come riding in to save the day in a poor country gripped in the ravages of a drug war from an all-evil man. We see the views of the cops being run out of the US Embassy, the Colombian military, Escobar and his confidantes, his enemies, and his partners. Narcos provides us with many views, which helps us to understand the story that much better. It really does give us insight in to not only the characters of the story, but the story itself, by providing these alternate viewpoints.

This is a very well-written and well-directed series, from start to finish. It is also mostly in Spanish, which helps in not taking away from the dialogue by having actors struggle through a second language, or having American actors put on weak Spanish accents. It contributes to the grittiness, and the reality, of the story. And it never feels cumbersome, having to read a good portion of what is being said over the course of the series.

NARCOS S01E03 "The Men of Always"

I instantly fell in love with Narcos, and can’t wait for there to be a second season in order to conclude the story that they have started here. The story of Pablo Escobar is so unreal, that it warrants more than a fake movie from an HBO series: it warrants its own TV series, where it can take its time in developing all the intricacies of the plot, and the many characters who in reality, brought to life the story of Escobar, and his virtual ruling of the world during the 1980’s. I would say that Narcos goes beyond a strongly recommended series, to one that is basically a must see. One of the best that Netflix has produced.

The Boundless (Book Review)

The Boundless (Book Review)

The Boundless is the biggest train ever built, and it is on its maiden voyage across Canada. The beast of a machine is over 5 miles long, and contains everything from the stateliness of First Class, all the way down to the immigrant cars. It even includes its own traveling circus.

Will, son of one of the main engineers of the train, is on this first voyage across the country, a few years after he is present at the hammering of the final spike to conclude the building of the trans-national railway. When he ends up with one of the keys that opens a mysterious train car/tomb, Will must embark on an adventure that will lead him across the various sections of the epic Boundless, spend some time evading nefarious enemies in search of the key, and even join the circus, where he is helped out by characters such as Maren, and the ringmaster, Mr. Dorian.

boundIn The Boundless, Kenneth Oppel has created a very good adventure novel for the Young Adult crowd. In the novel, he seamlessly blends history with fiction, creating a novel of historical fiction that never gets too dry, or focuses too much on the history aspect of it. He blends in actual people and events into his story, and does so in a way that will keep the information interesting for the teen reader. His main focus is the adventure, and of this he manages to pack in a ton of action into the novel, which is sure to please readers of both sexes.

bound3Oppel has written a handful of very strong YA books in the past, and The Boundless belongs among them. He writes interesting characters, and is able to keep a breakneck pace through the majority of the novel. On The Boundless, he manages to create a machine of wonder and awe, mixed in with some fantastical elements that don’t take away from the interest or realism of the tale he is telling.

The Boundless is a fun read, full of twists and turns, and quirks that are fun to pour through. It is not a terribly difficult read, and could surely find itself a strong audience in the younger YA reading crowd.

For those who have enjoyed other Oppel works, specifically This Dark EndeavorThe Boundless makes for a good follow-up read by the same author, who has become pretty prolific over the past few years. The Boundless also serves as a novel that will be of interest to male readers. While it often seems like this is a dwindling crowd in the YA genre, this novel should appeal to both boys and girls. The love story aspect of the story remains subtle, never too much in your face, as the focus is consistently on the action.

The Boundless provides a strong YA read overall.

Staten Island Summer (Film Review)

Staten Island Summer (Film Review)

Man, there are a ton of films that focus on people growing up while spending their summers at pools, or water parks. They all have things in common: the glory of summer, the camaraderie of summer friends, the ending of eras, similar characters, the pursuit of girls, the coming-of-age while sitting poolside and watching over kids.

Staten Island Summer follows along with all of the cliches that have been created in this genre, as can be seen in other similar films, like The Way Way BackThe To-Do List, and Lifeguard. Honestly, there is very little that is new in this film, and much of it feels like we have seen it all before. And it feels restrained.

staten4The central aspects of the plot that are important are that this is the final summer for Danny, as he will be leaving for Harvard in the fall, and in a Superbad-esque way, he is leaving his underachieving best friend behind. Their goal is to throw the biggest end of summer party yet, and depart as friends, and as legends in their small town.

As always, the pool is full of a colourful cast of characters, including the archetypal dumb guy, fierce girl, goofy guy who is too old to be working there, and boss who serves as a primary nemesis in their plans for the party, the hot girl. There are no new characters here, and this is the main disappointment with this film. Sure, there are humourous situations, but even those are pretty much the same ones that have been shown time and again on the screen. Staten Island Summer also lacks the emotional depth of some of the other similar films, making it stuck somewhere between a teen party film, a coming-of-age-story, or a comedy. It touches on all genres, but never really develops any of them to make it fit firmly in one or the other.

staten3And this is a weakness.

It’s not emotional enough to make us really care about the characters and their struggles. It tries, at times, but never really succeeds.

It is not funny enough, and is far too restrained to be a gross out teen comedy, like American Pie, or films of that nature. They attempt to venture into this territory a couple of times, but it was as though they were trying far too hard to maintain a PG-13 rating (even though it is, of course, rated R in the US). Everything could have been taken further.

The relationships between characters have moments that can endear us, but they remain pretty superficial over the course of the film, again providing that lack of emotional depth to not only the characters, but the story as a whole.

statenStaten Island Summer is not a terrible film. It’s just that there are so many others that are similar, and much better. Viewers could do worse than watching this movie, but if you are looking for something that provides a strong coming-of-age story, watch The Way Way Back instead. If you are looking for more laughs, watch The To-Do List instead. If you want more of a drama, watch Lifeguard.

There are better options out there, and this is the simple issue with Staten Island Summer: it doesn’t distinguish itself at all from these other films that have so many identical things happening in them.

Challenger Deep (Book Review)

Challenger Deep (Book Review)

Neal Shusterman’s new Young Adult novel, Challenger Deep, tackles the intense issues of mental illness in teens, along with schizophrenia, a very complex and difficult to describe and understand illness.

And he does it extremely well, providing some insight into mental illness, and the harrowing journey that people facing it must endure.

The story focuses on Caden, a teenager who is sinking further into his own world, one where he is on a ship that is headed for the depths of the Challenger Deep, the deepest part of Earth, at the bottom of the Marianas Trench. Through alternating chapter views (one will be on the ship, one will be in the real world), Caden goes through a journey filled with a cast of characters that mostly seem intent on helping him, others who serve as mentors, and some who stand in his way of reaching his goals.

challenger3I will admit that at the beginning of the novel, everything seemed quite fractured, and the very short chapters interrupted much of the flow of the narrative. Which, I suppose, is part of the point. It just took me a while to catch on to the whole thing, but once I did, it all fell into place very nicely, and the two stories melded together seamlessly, providing more meaning to each.

What Challenger Deep offers in an insight into something that we know very little about: the problems of mental illness, and what people must go through in order to overcome their obstacles with the illness. For a good part of the novel, Caden is hospitalized, and we gain an understanding of the people that are in the hospital with him: their struggles, along with his. And we get a perspective from the patient on what it is like dealing with others, whose sole goal is to improve and steady their mental health, in order for them to be active members of society again. Shusterman also provides a very strong view of the impact on family when illness strikes, allowing us to see and understand what Caden’s parents and younger sister are going through while he is in the hospital.

challenger2Some of the more touching moments of the novel occur between Caden and his sister, as she is too young and innocent to completely understand what is happening with her brother, but old enough to share her thoughts and ask the questions that, seemingly, nobody else will ask.

While I didn’t initially love the start of the book, more based on my reading style, once everything came together, Challenger Deep became a strong, and important, YA novel. It is one that could not only have a great impact on those who suffer from mental health issues, or have in the past, but on those who need to be provided with something to help us understand what is taking place in the minds of those who suffer.

Filled with interesting characters, Challenger Deep may not be for everyone, but it is a very, very good YA novel.

Wish I Was Here (Film Review)

Wish I Was Here (Film Review)

There are those who love the work of Zach Braff, and those who don’t. From his hilarious and often heartfelt turn as JD on Scrubs, to his generally acclaimed directorial debut in Garden State, he has surprisingly divided fans and critics. Some people believe that he is able to capture emotions incredibly well, and others feel that he is too weepy and introspective.

Wish I Was Here is his second turn behind the camera, in another film that he has written. And it is excellent. Especially those who are fans of Garden StateWish I Was Here is a must see. Sure, it does not veer off the path that was set up and established in his initial film, and much of the emotional baggage that his character carries along with him is similar. But it is an honest film, and it is emotionally great.

wish2The story revolves around Aidan, an out-of-work actor trying to get any job by going to auditions for terrible roles in terrible shows and films. He lives with his wife (played incredibly well by Kate Hudson, who is calm and cool, tinged with the right amount of cynicism and emotion, that she in a way, reminds us of what a grown up and bitten by the real world Penny Lane could be like), and two children, who need to be pulled out of their private school, since his ill father can no longer afford the bill. Aidan makes the decision to home school his children for the remainder of the semester, until they can figure out what to do with them. His fears of public school has scarred him enough that he doesn’t want his own children to go through the same pain that he experienced growing up.

With his father dying, played incredibly well by Mandy Patinkin (known best from his role on Homeland), it is up to Aidan to hold his family together, and try to bring back his estranged brother to his father on his deathbed.

wish5There are so many things going on for Aidan all at once, and he is weighed down by the responsibility of so many things at the same time. The pressure of his failed dream, the financial pressures he faces with no work, the burden put on his wife as the sole breadwinner, working in a job that she can’t stand, and where she is forced to deal with sexual advances from a co-worker, the difficulty in dealing with his quirky, shut-in brother, his ailing father, trying to teach his kids something about the world, and being the one relied upon to keep it all together makes for a traumatic period in his life. It is a lot for one man, let along Aidan.

The best part of Wish I Was Here is the acting performances. They come across honestly, and believably. The film is scattered with good actors, and they all do the emotional trauma justice, and Aidan is forced to come of age, and come up with one more act of bravery for the good of his family. Across the board, including the children, offer strong and emotional performances, which better than anything, are believable.

This image released by Focus Features shows Kate Hudson, left, and Zach Braff in "Wish I Was Here." (AP Photo/Focus Features, Merie Weismiller Wallace)

As with anything involving Zach Braff, there is a strong soundtrack that goes along with the film, filled with emotional indie music from bands on the cusp of being big. Consider how popular the soundtrack was to Garden State, and you have the right idea.

Not everything works perfectly in Wish I Was Here. There were some directorial choices that could be seen as questionable, and somewhat amateurish, but in all, Braff is a steady director, and he knows what he wants in order to bring his own words and performances to life. He directs with care, and is able to encompass the emotional instability of his characters through his style.

wish4There are many small parts to the larger story line in the film, but they all work together extremely well, and they never seem like they are set up and left behind. Braff does an excellent job in his script to provide all of his characters with problems that require a solution. This is not easy to do, especially in a film that is only two hours long. But he manages to do it seamlessly, and by the end, the audience is likely to care about the plight of all the characters.

wish6Wish I Was Here is a sad film, with droplets of humour and fun, and emotional saving. It was an excellent watch, and definitely recommended for those looking for something that is eventually uplifting after a lot of struggle.

Hot Girls Wanted (Film Review)

Hot Girls Wanted (Film Review)

Netflix offers up a pretty poignant view of young girls looking to break into the massive porn industry, all starting with ads on Craigslist in the documentary, Hot Girls Wanted. The story follows a handful of young girls, mostly just 18-years-old, who have left home for Miami, to live in a house where they will go through photoshoots and the rigors of booking gigs in order to become porn stars.

hot4The documentary does an excellent job of demonstrating the harsh nature of the business, and provides a ton of stats on the sheer number of young girls who use porn as an escape from their regular lives, only to wash out of the industry in a matter of months. Hot Girls Wanted does not show the perceived glitz and glamour of the porn stars that have almost become mainstream, household names, but the struggle and work that goes in to making it in any kind of way in a brutal business.

The girls work hard, all day, in order to promote themselves. The online community plays a massive role in porn stardom, and the importance of Twitter is examined in the film. The girls, all of them, come to Miami with stars in their eyes, with the dream of being famous, of being rich, and of being stars. For the majority of them, the reality sets in awfully quick, once hte true side of the business reveals its ugly head to them.

hot2Some of the more poignant, and difficult to watch, scenes come when the girls begin to describe, and snippets are shown, of some of the brutal acts that they must endure in order to get a paycheque. Disdain with a sex scene, or the sheer aggression and brutality of some forced scenes, are difficult to watch, and to hear about. The girls are abused, but in a shocking way, they believe that doing these things are needed in order to make it in the business that has momentarily trapped them. The veneer of girls who are in it because they want to have fun, or because they love sex, is thrown out the window, and we understand that many of these stars in pro-am porn (now the most common type, as people want to see “amateurs” in semi-real situations instead of established porn stars) are just trying to pay the bills, and make it through the day. They are not becoming rich off of this job, even though the potential for big paydays is there.

hot3Hot Girls Wanted is a stark view of the porn industry, on one of its lower levels. It is not parties and limos, but a run down house with too many dogs, and too many girls living together, with their recruiter, who spends the majority of his time throwing lines in to the water to obtain new talent that will make him money.

It is very interesting to watch the quick rise, and quicker downfall that these girls go through. The feeling of fame comes quickly, buoyed by an increase in Twitter followers, and the feeling of being wanted, and desired. This evaporates suddenly, once the girls begin to feel that they are simply being used, and that the advantages of the industry are far fewer than they ever would have imagined.

hot5This is an excellent documentary, and well worth a watch, consider the size of the porn industry. Hot Girls Wanted does a very good job of putting a human face on the films that are seen and downloaded at incredible paces, but also in providing the kind of information that is not usually know. Well worth a watch.

All the Light in the Sky (Film Review)

All the Light in the Sky (Film Review)

I have come to enjoy the mumblecore films of Joe Swanberg. He has been able to develop several strong character dramas on microscopic budgets and semi-improvised dialogue, and they have been able to provide interesting journeys for characters as they face their own inner turmoil, due to one reason of another.

All the Light in the Sky focuses on Marie, an aging actress who is forced to come to terms with her getting older when she is visited at her beach house by her much younger niece, who also has aspirations of being an actress.

light3The film stars Jane Adams, who also co-wrote the movie, in the role of Marie. She is very likable in the film, shows a natural connection to the role of the actress who never quite reached the dizzying heights of fame, but was able to make a solid living off her craft, and is now faced with the idea that potential roles are drying up for her, as she heads over the wrong side of 40, in Hollywood’s views. Adams is subdued throughout the film, taking on her problems with introspective activities that calm her, such as her morning venture into the water for stand up paddle boarding. She seems to be at peace with her life, but the cracks begin to show with her views on her changing body, and her lack of love in her life.

With the arrival of her 25-year-old niece Nica (played very well by Sophia Takal, providing one of the best performances of the film- she definitely is reminiscent of another Swanberg favourite, Anna Kendrick), Marie needs to deal with being around a younger crowd, and understanding that much of her life has passed her by.

light4All the Light in the Sky is not the best film that Swanberg has made. It has moments of greatness, and it can be seen how it definitely fits in with the genre, as the majority of it takes place in the small beach house that Marie lives in. There are definitely parts of the film that lag, and even become so slow that they border on boring, and some of the secondary characters could have used a little more depth to truly fill out the story.

light2But the focus here is on Adams, and the full-on performance that she gives to the film. She truly committed to the role, exposing the subtle weakness and introspection of the character extremely well, truly exposing herself, and the character (there are several scenes of full frontal nudity in the film that actually do help to develop Marie).

For a film viewing for entertainment, All the Light in the Sky is not the right pick when scrolling through Netflix. But for a solid mumblecore movie, buoyed by two very strong female lead performances, there is definitely something worth checking out here.