The Infiltrator

July 15, 2016 by  
Filed under Cody, Reviews

Starring: Bryan Cranston, John Leguizamo, Diane Kruger
Directed by: Brad Furman (“The Lincoln Lawyer”)
Written by: Ellen Sue Brown (debut)

Colombian cartel kingpin Pablo Escobar has always been a source of great fascination. Even still, there seems to be a resurgence in the interest of him as a subject, as seen in recent projects like Netflix’s “Narcos,” “Escobar: Paradise Lost” and various other documentaries. As a look at a different perspective “The Infiltrator” tells the story about how a U.S. Customs agent took down the cartel’s money laundering system in America.

Based on a true story, “The Infiltrator” tells the story of how U.S. Customs agent Robert Mazur (Bryan Cranston) assumed the role of Bob Musella and infiltrated the deadly Escobar-led Medillin cartel. Posing as an accountant of sorts, Musella offers to help launder cocaine money while getting close to higher ups of the organization. As Mazur goes deeper and deeper, his relationships become more complex and the danger grows.

It is no secret that Cranston is one of the most lauded television actors of all time. Since the end of “Breaking Bad,” where Cranston won four Emmys (including a record tying three in a row) playing chemistry teacher turned drug lord Walter White, Cranston has had mixed results in film projects. Last year’s “Trumbo,” a role which found Cranston nominated for an Oscar, may have been the turning point, however. His performance in “The Infiltrator” is no different. Cranston is easily the best thing on screen, as he begins to blur his way into his new role as Musella. Cranston has always played vulnerable well, and to watch him sink into the role while using his expressive face to show the difficult of taking down people you’ve grown close to is something to behold. The supporting cast is OK, with John Leguizamo getting the brunt of the work. It’s a slightly hammy performance. As a comedian, it’s almost as if Leguizamo couldn’t help but throw in jokes in times where they don’t work as well.

The best thing “The Infiltrator” has working for it is its sense of tension. Musella is constantly put in situations where he’s given pressure to break, as he works his way into the cartel. It’s a bloody and scary business and watching even the most seasoned pro like Musella be so deeply affected by the brutality of the industry is a credit to Cranston’s performance and good tension building.

When the film is tense and unpredictable, it’s edge-of-your-seat stuff. When it isn’t, however, it becomes a little dull and plodding. Tension between Leguizamo and Cranston feels a little forced and ineffective, while elements of Mazur/Musella’s home life are nothing special.

There’s a bit of cartel fatigue going around, especially with the Escobar story being told so many times. “The Infiltrator” does a good enough job of telling another side of the story that makes it a worthwhile endeavor. It’s a touch generic and retreaded ground (if you’ve seen any cartel movie, you should be able to figure out where the plot is going), but when it dials up the tension, Cranston’s sheer power takes over and elevates the material exponentially.

John Leguizamo – Fulgy! (VOD)

February 19, 2015 by  
Filed under Chaléwood, Interviews

During an interview with The Hollywood Reporter at the Sundance Film Festival last month, actor John Leguizamo, 50, didn’t pull any punches. When asked about the lack of diversity in this year’s Oscar-nominated actors, Leguizamo described the field as “bleached out.”

It’s an issue he isn’t afraid to talk about and one he delves into with his new anti-romantic comedy “Fugly!,” which screens at the 37th Annual CineFestival on February 28. Leguizamo shared a piece of his mind in an exclusive interview with me this month.

What do you think a film festival like CineFestival, which focuses on a specific part of the industry like Latino films, has to do to stay competitive and relevant?

I think running a film festival is one of the most difficult jobs because you have to make it work on so many levels. You have to try to get funding to get great prizes and fly people in from all over the world. You have to be incredibly aggressive to find these filmmakers.

There is a scene in “Fugly!” where Rosie Perez’s character asks your character, who is an actor, if he was cast for the part of the rapist or the mugger. Have you had that conversation in real life in some form or another?

Of course, man! At the beginning of my career, those are the only auditions I would get! Whatever you saw in the news, those were the roles (Latinos) were playing. We were playing drug dealers, rapists and murderers. (Laughs) And we would die pretty early in the movie.

Do you think enough Latinos speak out on the diversity issue in Hollywood like you do?

A lot of people don’t want to rock the boat. But I want to rock the boat. I want to rock it and tip it over. I want to cause waves. I want to see reactions. You have to speak up for change. It can happen slowly, but you still have to speak up. It makes a difference.

In that Sundance interview you said you didn’t want to play a “drug dealer and a murderer for the rest of your life.” Is it tough to think about passing on those kind of roles knowing dozens of others are standing by ready to take them?

It’s the quality of our representation that’s the problem. There will always be someone there to take your part. That happens in every role. (Laughs) If you don’t take the part, there’s always going to be someone there to take whatever part. I don’t mind playing the drug dealer or a gangster if it’s the lead role or second lead role. But that’s not the only thing I want to do. That’s not the only thing Latin people want to see. They want to see the whole spectrum of Latin culture.

Do you think there is anyone to blame for the lack of diversity? Do you blame the Academy for not nominating any minorities or do you blame studios which green-light films for not creating Oscar-worthy content for Latinos?

Both. I think the TV industry is definitely aware that [Latinos] have a huge buying power and they want to tap into that. TV is being very aggressive. They want to get Latin talent on the air because they realize we’re a huge audience and we love our entertainment. J-Lo knows that. Who keeps her in fur? (Laughs) It’s Latin people. The film industry has to add more Latin people to the roster. There should be a Latin person in every goddamn movie that’s in Hollywood.

Personally, I don’t blame the Academy. I blame the studios. It’s easy enough to say, “There weren’t any Latino actors nominated for an Oscar this year,” but who did those people honestly think should be nominated? This year, there weren’t any Oscar-worthy performances by Latinos. So, it goes back to the lack of stories and roles being written.

You know, you’re right. It’s definitely much more a studio, producer and director issue. I think directors should also be blamed. There just aren’t enough Latin people in movies. There are a lot of directors out there who can make a huge difference and they’re not. c Put a Latin person in your movie, man. Let’s make it a T-shirt: “Put a Latin person in your damn movie” or “Cast a Latin person, save a life.”

Well, at least you’re staying busy. I see you have eight movies coming out this year.

That’s right. (Laughs) I guess that makes me the one Latin person in every movie.


May 23, 2014 by  
Filed under Kiko, Reviews

Starring: Jon Favreau, John Leguizamo, Sofia Vergara
Directed by: Jon Favreau (“Made”)
Written by: Jon Favreau (“Swingers”)

If the effectiveness of a food-based film is based on how much said movie makes your mouth water for the dishes cooked on screen, rank director/actor/writer/produer John Favreau’s new comedy among the finest dining experiences at the theater in recent years. It may not make you have a food orgasm like in “Like Water for Chocolate,” but Favreau definitely teases the tastebuds.

It all starts with Favreau’s spirited and realistic script that allows his actors to play their roles without any artifice. In the film, Favreau takes on the lead role of Carl Casper, a chef of an upscale restaurant in Los Angeles where he has built a solid following cooking really good food. But Carl wants to do more than play it safe in the kitchen. He wants to experiment and take risks. Restaurant owner Riva (Dustin Hoffman), however, wants him to stick to the menu and cook the dishes he’s been making for the last five years. After a nasty war of words on social media with high-profile food critic Ramsey Michel (Oliver Platt), who lambasts Carl’s latest effort in the kitchen, Carl sees no other choice but to pack his knives and find a new start in the culinary world. Taking advice from his ex-wife (Sofia Vergara), he heads east with her and their son Percy (Emjay Anthony) for the summer to Miami where Carl starts a food truck business.

While the film isn’t breaking any new ground thematically, Favreau seems dead set on making “Chef” seem as true to life as possible. Much of this comes through the dialogue and interaction between characters, specifically Carl and Percy whose father/son relationship is sweet, but never cloying. Favreau also finds a natural give-and-take rapport with actors Bobby Cannavale and John Leguizamo, who play support staff in his kitchen. The latter finds his way to Miami later in the film to lend Carl a hand with his new endeavor. Also joining the cast for bit parts are Black Widow and Iron Man themselves, Scarlett Johansson and Robert Downey Jr., both of whom give the film a little more star power for those moviegoers who will more than likely overlook an indie gem like this and settle for superhero fare this summer.

After mixed results with the blockbuster projects he’s directed in the last few years (“Iron Man” good, “Cowboys & Aliens,” not so much), it’s refreshing to see Favreau find his way back to a more intimate story where character development and smart dialogue trump everything else. There is a lot of cooking going on in “Chef,” but it’s easy to see the main course in this film is about Carl’s shortcomings as a father. Favreau is able to balance this narrative well, especially with the effortless performance he gets from his costar Anthony. It’s a great pairing that’ll make both your stomach and your heart expand.

“Chef” was seen at SXSW 2014. For more SXSW 2014 coverage, click here.

John Leguizamo – Chef

May 23, 2014 by  
Filed under Chaléwood, Interviews

When it comes to food, actor John Leguizamo considers himself a pretty adventurous guy. It’s easy to be when you live in New York City and can order in just about anything you want from any country in the world.

“New York is the mecca of ordering out,” Leguizamo, 49, told me at the South by Southwest Film Festival this past March where he was promoting his new indie film “Chef,” directed and written by and starring Jon Favreau. “You can order Latin, Puerto Rican, Mexican, Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Vietnamese, Thai, Ethiopian, Afghani, Jamaican. It’s all great. It’s all quick. It’s ridiculous.”

Food plays a major role in “Chef” where Leguizamo portrays a line cook named Martin who helps a down-on-his-luck chef (Favreau) start a food truck business after he loses his position at a trendy restaurant.

During our interview, Leguizamo and I talked about how he handles himself in the kitchen and how he thinks Favreau did behind the camera of an indie film after making blockbuster-type movies over the last few years.

How are you in the kitchen? Are you a good cook?

I’m not a bad cook. I’m a functional, common sense kind of cook. I can do the basics. I can make a burger. I can definitely make coffee; nice, simple stuff. I do one great dish, which is a Latin roasted chicken. That’s my secret weapon. My wife loves that.

Did “Chef” make you a better cook?

This movie definitely taught me how to cook a lot better. I have mad respect for chefs now. You can’t get those kind of results in the kitchen without a few years of training. You have to know how to cook meat to the exact, perfect temperature. All that stuff is precise, man. I worked in a lot of kitchens to prepare for this. What I loved about it was the respect and camaraderie [the kitchen staff] has for each other. These chefs have mad respect for their crew, which is mostly Latino. They even said, “No one works as hard and is as loyal as my Latino cooks.” It was a beautiful relationship.

That’s not what we see on reality TV cooking shows. You always see the hard-nosed chef yelling at his staff. That doesn’t seem to be true at all in your experience.

Well, I mean, there are always yellers. There are directors, producers, actors who are yellers. So, there are also chefs who are yellers. But a lot of them aren’t. When you work with [directors] Baz Luhrmann or Jon Favreau, they don’t yell. They don’t get angry. They just ask more of you, but they do it in more of a coach-like way. I mean, there are coaches that are yellers, so I guess it just all depends.

Who have you worked with that is a yeller?

I’ve worked with a lot of yellers.

I mean, being a yeller doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing. Some coaches who yell also inspire their players.

Yeah, but I’m not going to name names. (Laughs) I don’t think they want to see themselves in that light.

What cuisine do you resonate with the most, especially since your Latino ethnic background is so varied?

Oh, I love Puerto Rican food. But I love all Latin food, whether it’s Dominican or Puerto Rican. It’s my soul food. I really love world food. I love Ethiopian food, man. You eat it with your fingers. You get sourdough pancakes. It’s like Indian food, but not a greasy. I love Indian food, too, man.

With “Chef,” director Jon Favreau is returning to a more independent film like he directed in 2001 with “Made.” This is far from the giant tent-pole projects he’s done in the past few years like the first two “Iron Man” movies and “Cowboys & Aliens.” How do you think he did on set going back to a more intimate film?

I think the budget [on “Chef”] was big enough for him to play with. All the money went into the production. None of it went into the actors’ pockets. (Laughs) But, yeah, he did a fantastic job. He’s used to the big budgets, but he still knows how to operate a smaller one. A lot of directors lose that ability because they’re so used to having everything they want. When it’s a smaller movie, you don’t have those opportunities all the time.

Is that easy for you to do as an actor – go from something as grand in scale as, say, “Moulin Rouge!” to a smaller film like “Empire?”

You know, you forget. I just went and did a whole bunch of smaller films and you forget how many pages of dialogue you have to do a day. You really have to be prepared for the smaller movies because there is no time for overtime. You have to get the coverage when you’re there. You have to work a lot harder on an independent film, but you’re never bored.

Something we see in the film is how much the food-truck industry has blown up in the past few years. If you ever go to a food truck to eat, do you go for the quick and easy stuff or are you the kind of guy that only wants food from the gourmet food trucks?

I like more of the fun stuff in a food truck. If I want fancy, I’ll go to a restaurant. (Laughs) My son and I always go eat these Swedish waffles that have speculaas and all these amazing toppings on it.

Well, in New York City, you’ve always had hotdog carts, but now they have gourmet hotdog vendors that are piling on more than just sauerkraut and mustard on their hotdogs. It’s easy to pay $12 for a hotdog now.

Oh, yeah. They have every kind of food truck in New York now. They have coffee trucks and Mexican food trucks. In New York you can always do international because you have everyone there from every part of the world.

What about shady food trucks? Are you brave enough to try food from a food truck that has a little less upkeep than the average one? I mean, it might look a little unsanitary, but the cooks are really working hard in the back.

Uhhhhh. (Laughs) I gotta be told [a food truck] is good. If I don’t hear about it, if there’s no word of mouth, I’m not going. I’m not adventurous like that. I mean, I’m adventurous with the type of food, but I’m not adventurous with the quality of food.

For more SXSW 2014 coverage, click here.

Ride Along

January 17, 2014 by  
Filed under Jerrod, Reviews

Starring: Ice Cube, Kevin Hart, John Leguizamo
Directed by: Tim Story (“Barbershop,” “Fantastic Four”)
Written by:  Greg Coolidge (“Employee of the Month”), Phil Hay (“Clash of the Titans”), Matt Manfredi (“R.I.P.D.”) and Jason Mantzoukas (debut)

The romantic haze of filmmaking, of actually producing a movie that will be projected in theaters across the world to the potential delight of millions, often muddies the outlook on what real fate a film faces: the way people are going to be watching this in their living rooms for the rest of eternity. Children’s movies from your Pixars, your Disneys, your Dreamworks Animation tend to live on as both genuine entertainment for families and parent-initiated distractions for kids too young to be in school. Sci-fi and superhero movies are revered by nerds and their ilk, dissected and discussed across basements and the internet forever. And so-so, mostly-inoffensive comedies like “Ride Along” are condemned to walk the earth as a constant Saturday afternoon staples on cable networks like TBS.

“Ride Along” finds Ben (Kevin Hart), a mouthy security guard about to join the police academy, preparing to propose to his fiancée Angela (Tika Sumpter). Getting the blessing of Angela’s tough police officer brother James (Ice Cube) will be difficult, Ben realizes, so he joins James on a police ride-along to prove his worth. While James plans to shake Ben from both his marriage plans and his dream of entering the police academy by taking him along on a slew of annoying calls that come across the scanner, the duo stumble into the middle of a weapons-smuggling ring led by the mysterious Omar, a kingpin looking to take over the streets of Atlanta.

Despite the comedic chops of both Hart and Cube, “Ride Along” just isn’t that funny, and the cop movie clichés strung together aren’t enough to hold the movie up as anything more than a mild distraction. Sure, there are funny moments and good laughs to be had, like a scene where Hart passes himself off as an unknown criminal, but everything else is just so forgettable. Director Tim Story, of “Barbershop” and “Fantastic Four” fame, seems content on letting the well-honed personalities of his leads carry the film. Sure, Hart plays a great small-statured motor mouth while Cube has the role of the put-upon hard ass down pat—parts they were both born to play—but that’s really all there is to the movie. So here’s what I want you to do: wait two years, then turn on your TV. Use your DVR’s search function to find “Ride Along” playing somewhere on basic cable and leave it on in the background while you’re cleaning the house or something. You won’t be disappointed.

John Leguizamo – Walking with Dinosaurs 3D

December 17, 2013 by  
Filed under Chaléwood, Interviews

In the new animated family movie “Walking with Dinosaurs 3D,” actor John Leguizamo (“Nothing Like the Holidays”) gives voice to the character Alex, a feisty prehistoric bird and the film’s narrator who tells the story of Patchi, a dinosaur known as the Pachyrhinosaurus, who helps his herd migrate their way through a terrain filled with dangerous predators.

Alex is a pretty outspoken bird. What did you want to bring to this role through your voice work?

I like my voice to really disappear into the character. I don’t want people to think about John. I want them to think about the character. These are newly discovered dinosaurs. This Alexornis bird (Alex) was just found in Mexico, so we gave it this Spanish flavor.

I’m actually going to see the film tomorrow with a paleontologist. What do you think will impress him the most about the science behind the film?

You know, the BBC, who is producing this, quadruple fact checked everything. All the facts are up to date. The technology is also cutting edge. It is really photorealistic. I think he’s going to be really impressed by it. The studio designed the movie’s characters based on real information and real behaviors. I’m interested to see if he thinks we accomplished that.

Would you go to a zoo that featured dinosaurs if scientists figured out how to bring them back one day?

Who wouldn’t?! I mean, I’d go with some serious Taser guns, but I’d like to go.

I heard a story on NPR the other day that said bringing dinosaurs back probably couldn’t happen in real life, but science is close to bringing back other extinct animals like the dodo bird.

Yeah, I read that article. I thought they just couldn’t find any viable dinosaur DNA. I think that’s the problem. They just can’t find it. They’d be able to do it if they could find it.

I think I’d like to see the dodo. What about you?

Yeah, the dodo and the Tasmanian tiger. There are a lot of creatures I’d want to see.

The Sabre-tooth tiger?

That might be too old. I don’t think they can bring that one back.

Something I found interesting about the film is that all these computer generated characters are set on the backdrops of real environments. What do you think that does for the film?

You’re going to hear a lot of oohs and aahs. That’s what it does. It ups the whole “wow” factor. You’re watching it thinking, “This is real! This isn’t made up!” It’s crazy how it messes with your mind.

You’ve done voice work in animated films before. How was this one different for you compared to something like “Ice Age?”

In this one, they animated it first because they wanted it to be true to the dinosaurs’ behaviors. Then we did the voices.  In “Ice Age,” they animated to our voices. In “Walking with Dinosaurs,” they animated it first and then we had to study the footage a lot and then put our voices to it.

What did you think when you first saw what Alex was going to look like? He has some pretty crazy feathers.

Yeah, he’s like the first parrot. It’s pretty cool. There were a lot of feathered dinosaurs back in the day.

How much of this prehistoric era do you actually have to learn about before going into a project like this?

The producers were meticulous about all the details, so I didn’t have to do that much research – just about my character. I just had to bring humor and personality to Alex.

Ice Age 3

July 2, 2009 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Ray Romano, John Leguizamo, Queen Latifah
Directed by: Carlos Saldanha (“Ice Age: The Meltdown”) and Mike Thurmeier (debut)
Written by: Michael Berg (“Ice Age”), Peter Ackeman (“Ice Age”), Mike Reiss (“The Simpsons Movie”), and Yoni Brenner (“Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs”)

Even in a technologically-advanced age in cinema, watching an animated movie in 3-D is never enough if there isn’t an interesting story to match its computer-generated imagery. For every “Coraline” there’s always a “Chicken Little” or “Fly Me to the Moon” that will have you wondering if studios are depending on audiences to simply visit the theater for the free plastic glasses or if there’s an actual narrative moviegoers over the age of nine can also enjoy.

With “Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs,” the third installment of the prehistoric series, you don’t have to speculate on the intentions of 20th Century Fox. While 2002’s original movie seemed insignificant in the midst of Pixar’s “Monster’s Inc.” and “Finding Nemo,” and 2006’s “Ice Age: The Meltdown” tied in too bizarrely with Al Gore’s global warming documentary “An Inconvenient Truth” and the Hurricane Katrina tragedy the year before, “Dawn of the Dinosaurs” comes with no strings attached and a whole lot of solid humor.

Unlike the first two films, you won’t have to wait around for Scrat, the half-squirrel, half-rat hybrid who is always in pursuit of an ever-elusive nut, to be entertained. In “Dawn of the Dinosaurs,” Scrat is back, of course, this time with an eyelash-fluttering female rival who also craves an icy acorn snack. However, Scrat’s antics, again presented in short interludes throughout the film, are only part of the delightful animation.

Returning to form the awkward-looking herd of mammals are Manny (Ray Romano) and Ellie (Queen Latifah), a wooly mammoth couple now expecting their first furry baby, Diego (Dennis Leary), a saber-toothed tiger who is going through a mid-life crisis, and Sid (John Leguizamo, who should be given some kind of award for his voice work in all three films), a lovable sloth hoping to start his own family like his tusked friends.

Sid gets his chance to prove he would make a good father when he stumbles upon three dinosaur eggs. Not knowing there are dinosaurs inside, he takes responsibility for the brood by drawing faces on their shells and appropriately names them Eggbert, Shelley, and Yoko. When they hatch, however, they’re Tyrannosaurus-like appearance isn’t the only thing that gives them away. Mama T-Rex shows up looking for her newborns much to the chagrin of Sid.

With more baby species in “Dawn of the Dinosaurs,” you’d think that the sequel might rely on the cuteness of its new characters to carry the load. But others including Sean William Scott and Josh Peck, who return as the comedy relief possum duo Crash and Eddie (far less annoying than they were in “Meltdown”), and newcomer Simon Pegg (“Shaun of the Dead”) as an adventurous, eye-patch wearing weasel, contribute to the comedy. Even SNLer Bill Hader makes a memorable voice cameo as a gazelle that mocks a predator after he outruns him in an open field. (Definitely a part of the natural world National Geographic doesn’t show you).

Overall, “Dawn of the Dinosaurs” is the best of the trilogy and should entertain both children and adults alike. But let’s be honest; 20th Century Fox needs to quit while they’re ahead with this specific adventure.

Nothing Like the Holidays

December 2, 2008 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Freddy Rodriguez, John Leguizamo, Alfred Molina
Directed by: Alfred De Villa (“ Washington Heights ”)
Written by: Alison Swan (debut) and Rick Najera (debut)

While the number of slapstick Christmas comedies usually go off the charts this time of year as much as Santa’s cholesterol, the Christmas family dramedy is the other holiday sub-genre that usually demands screen time in December.

Last year, “This Christmas” featured an African American family reuniting for the holidays after four years. In 2005, Sarah Jessica Parker met “The Family Stone” and experienced all their dysfunctional love. This year, Christmas gets a little Latin flare Puerto Rican-style with “Nothing Like the Holidays.” The film follows the Rodriguez family from the Humboldt Park area in Chicago as they come together in what might be the final Christmas they spend together as a family.

The reason: Anna Rodriguez (Elizabeth Pena) has announced over dinner that she has decided to divorce her children’s father Edy (Alfred Molina) after 36 years of marriage. She has reason to believe he has been having an affair. No one takes the news lightly including Mauricio (John Leguizamo), one of the Rodriguez boys, who has become a successful lawyer in New York, and his sister Roxanna (Vanessa Ferlito), a struggling actress living in Los Angeles.

Freddy Rodriguez (“Grindhouse”) plays Jesse, another Rodriguez brother, back home from Iraq. He thinks his parents are adult enough to make their own decisions. His mind isn’t really focused on his mom and dad’s problems, especially since he has a handful of his own. He has returned home to find his ex-girlfriend Marissa (Melonie Diaz), whom he still loves, has moved on with her life. He is also still haunted by the death of one of his friends in the military.

It’s not only Jesse, however, who has issues. Everyone has something going on in his or her trying life and debut screenwriters Alison Swan and Rick Najera tangle it all together in a cinematic version of stale fruitcake. While storylines that focus on Jesse and his hardships give the film a more serious tone than your average family head-butting session, there’s not much time to build on his character since the script seems sculpted from the blueprint of a tiresome telenovela. Instead, secondary stories like Maruicio and his wife Sarah (Debra Messing) arguing about the best time to have a baby, and issues that revolve around Ozzy (Jay Hernandez), a family friend and ex-gang member who is bothered that the guy who killed his brother years ago has been released from prison and is now hanging out in the old neighborhood.

The scene-stealer of the film is Luis Guzman (“Waiting”), who plays the family’s kooky electronics-loving uncle, but he and Freddy Rodriguez (one of the most talented young Latino actors working today) can’t raise the film above the usual stereotypical family dramedy we get every year. It might be in different packaging this time around, but a pair of socks is a pair of socks no matter how colorful the gift-wrapping.

The Happening

June 15, 2008 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Mark Walhberg, Zooey Deschanel, John Leguizamo
Directed by: M. Night Shyamalan (“Lady in the Water”)
Written by: M. Night Shyamalan (“The Sixth Sense”)

Forget about hating Mel Gibson for his off-screen shenanigans. It’s now hip to ridicule director M. Night Shyamalan for his actual work in Hollywood. Since he shocked audiences with “The Sixth Sense” in 1999, which earned him two Academy Award nominations (one as director and one as screenwriter), Shyamalan has failed to reach that same level of success with his last four films (although the first two-thirds of “Signs” was suspenseful and smart before the final act).

Now, Shyamalan attempts to redeem himself for “The Village,” “Lady in the Water,” and the overrated “Unbreakable” with “The Happening,” a film being marketed as his first R-rated film ever.

A little extra blood and disturbing images don’t help the director’s cause, however. “The Happening” is still a lankly-written film at best, although the first few scenes will have you wondering if Shyamalan might really be able to break out of his deep rut.

In “The Happening,” we are quickly tossed right in the middle of an unexplainable occurrence that is taking place all over the East Coast. For some unknown reason, people are committing suicide within seconds of each other. It’s chilling in the first few minutes to watch as construction workers heave themselves off buildings. Later in the film you see a group of tree trimmers who have hanged themselves with their own equipment, which is rather jolting.

The tone of the movie quickly plunges when we are introduced to Philadelphia high school science teacher Elliot Moore (Mark Wahlberg), his wife Alma (Zooey Deschanel) and Elliot’s best friend Julian (John Leguizamo) and his daughter Jess (Ashlyn Sanchez). The group decides the safest thing to do would be to take a train as far away as they can from the incidences.

But with the mysterious behavior spreading quickly from town to town and no ideas why it’s happening (some think it’s a biological terrorist attack, others believe the plants are emitting a toxic chemical), Elliot, Alma and others find themselves trapped in small town America trying to survive whatever it is that is making people kill themselves.

Shyamalan had a unique idea and desperately wants it to work. But once you get passed the eerie concept, there’s not much left in his screenplay to build on the paranoia. It’s not entirely Shyamalan’s fault, however. Wahlberg and Deschanel give some mediocre performances as a husband and wife going through some minor marriage problems. Their conflict a mild second storyline that is unimaginative, unnecessary, and completely annoying. There is also a lack of chemistry between Wahlberg and Deschanel. They would be worse off if this was a love story, but even in a thriller you would like your leading man and woman not to come off like oil and water or novice actors. Here, they’re a terrible mix.

It’s another strike for Shyamalan, who should think about trying to direct someone else’s work rather than write his own. If “The Sixth Sense” was his one-hit wonder, he should accept that and move on. Trying to relive those moments when his stock was so high seems more desperate than ambitious and it’s just not going to happen if he keeps doing it the same way he has been for the last nine years.

John Leguizamo – Nothing Like the Holidays

June 6, 2008 by  
Filed under Chaléwood, Interviews

If you want to stay warm during Chicago’s chilly winter months, snuggle up with a bunch of Latinos. At least that’s sort of what actor John Leguizamo did in his new movie “Nothing Like the Holidays.” In the film Leguizamo, 44, plays Mauricio Rodriguez, one of the members of a Puerto Rican family from the Humboldt Park area, who returns home for a lively Christmas reunion. The film also stars Freddy Rodriguez, Elizabeth Peña, Jay Hernandez, Debra Messing and Alfredo Molina.

During an interview with me, Leguizamo, who was born in Bogotá, Colombia, talked about what it was like to make his first film in Chicago, his own family’s Christmas traditions, and how the cozy cast of “Nothing Like the Holidays” spent their time when the workday was complete.

“Nothing Like the Holidays” is the first film you’ve ever made in Chicago. What was the experience like shooting in the Windy City?

It was great. Chicago is my second favorite city in America only after New York. It was a lot of fun to be there with the cast. I’ve known the cast my whole life. Chicago is always one of the first places where I would go to try out all my new [stand-up] shows because the crowds are amazing. I did the shows “Freak” and “Sexaholics” there. It’s such a great theater town. There’s a great mix of Latino people. There’s lots of Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, Cubans, Colombians.

Since Freddy [Rodriguez] is from Chicago I’m sure he showed you around the city, right?

Well, the whole cast is like family. We spent almost every hour together. We never went back to our trailers. In a lot of movies, you just go back to your trailer when you’re done. But we went to lunch together, to dinner. (Laughs).

Is that how it usually is when you shoot a film where the majority of the cast is Latino? Was it the same when you shot “Love in the Time of Cholera” and “Paraiso Travel?”

You know, Latin people are much cozier. We like to hang out. We like to talk. We like life. “Love in the Time of Cholera” with Benjamin Bratt and Catalina [Sandino Moreno] was the same thing. We would work out together. We would go to breakfast together. (Laughs).

So, on the set of “Holidays,” there was always someone to cuddle up with in the 25 below zero degree weather?

Yeah, there was always someone to go get a coquito (eggnog-like alcoholic beverage traditionally served in Puerto Rico) with and someone to go get White Castle burgers with at 3 a.m. (Laughs).

In “Holidays,” Humboldt Park is such an important part of this Puerto Rican family’s story. As an actor, does it feel more genuine for you when you actually shoot on location and not at some Hollywood studio?

Yes, because it forms the movie completely. You get to talk to so many people that are actually like the characters in your movie. You get the flavor and the life. It might be more comfortable to shoot on a set, but it’s not conducive to naturalistic work.

We learn a lot about Puerto Rican Christmas traditions in the film like the paranda (a 3-day house-to-house celebration filled with music, dancing and food). Are there any Colombian holiday traditions you’ve kept over the years?

My mom makes her famous arroz con pollo (rice with chicken) like nobody else’s business. My aunt makes arroz con gandules. (rice with pigeon peas). When we’re done eating, we’ll roll up the carpet and have our own “Soul Train” line.

Speaking of food, I saw Debra Messing on “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” talking about how everyone gained weight because of all the Puerto Rican food you all had to eat during production.

Especially Jay Hernandez. (Laughs). He gained a ton of weight, man. We went to [the Borinquen Restaurant] that makes the jibarito sandwich, which was invented in Chicago. It’s a sandwich made with plantains instead of bread. It was amazing!

Did you have to loosen up a few notches on your belt, too?

I was eating like a pig, but I was also working out so I didn’t gain weight. (Laughs).

I read the scene where the entire family is eating dinner took 18 hours to film. How do you keep the same energy from the first hour to the last?

It was a tough shoot. Luckily, I do a lot of theater so I knowhow to motivate myself. You have to be caffeinated. You have to jump around every now and then. I did some push-ups to wake up my body again because it’s grueling. In filmmaking you have to [shoot scenes] over and over again until they’re perfect. It’s the most incredible medium for someone who has OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder).

Are there any Christmas classics you like watching as the holiday season rolls around?

I love that “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer” claymation. That’s always a classic. I liked Burl Ives as Frosty the Snowman. I like [“How the Grinch Stole Christmas!”] with Boris Karloff. I can sit with my kids and watch those over and over again.

How has Christmas changed for you over the years – from when you were a kid to having children of your own?

Christmas used to be much more materialistic for me. When you have kids, it’s all about creating an event with a sense of family. It’s about uniting your family to the world. It’s more about spirituality than anything else. I try to reintroduce myself to my Indian ancestry. I try to give my kids a little bit of all the things that have been whitewashed over the centuries.

What’s the best gift you got when you were a kid?

It was this bike that I wanted when I was seven, but my parents made me read all these books in Spanish to get it. My parents would always get me books when I was a kid, they never gave me toys. So, this bike meant everything to me.