Bryan Cranston from DEA to LBJ
Owls Head — The Infiltrator (Broadgreen, Blu-ray or standard DVD, R, 127 min.). Bryan Cranston (four-time Emmy winner for "Breaking Bad") brings his intelligent, immersive brand of acting to the role of DEA Agent Robert Mazur, a family man with a kind soul who goes undercover in the mid-1980s as the money launderer for the Medellin Cartel and Pablo Escobar, after he realizes that going after the cartel's money, rather than its drug shipments, was the way to win the war on drugs. The film is based on real events and is adapted from Mazur's own memoir.
During the 1980s, the cartel smuggled 15 tons of cocaine a week, worth $400 million, into the United States, usually through Southern Florida. In the film's fine initial scene, we meet Mazur, with a huge mustache, chatting up a bowling alley waitress who is looking to score some free coke as he is conducting a sting in Tampa in 1985. During the arrest, Mazur suffers an unusual injury that would have allowed him to retire with full benefits, but despite being a devoted family man with a wife and two children, he takes on a new undercover assignment: to become a money launderer for the cartel. The initial step is to create a flamboyant alter ego, Bob Musella. We see him find the name while searching gravestones in a cemetery. Next, Mazur and his partner (John Leguizamo as Agent Emir Abreu), whom Mazur does not really like due to Abreu's more violent, unrefined behavior, have to ingratiate themselves among the cartel's operatives. First there are low-level dealers Gonzalo Mora Jr. and Sr., then mid-level Javier Ospina (Yul Vazquez), who handles Escobar's money. Ospina is particularly creepy.
Mazur also gets Dominic (Joseph Gilgun), whom he had arrested previously, out of jail to help run the money laundering. When he finally gets to meet the Colombian drug lord's lieutenant, Roberto Alcaino (a solid Benjamin Bratt), he wins Alcaino's confidence with the help of his Aunt Vicky (Olympia Dukakis), who pretends to own several high rises in New York City. The fact that Mazur uses his real aunt is part of the film's fascination as it explores the intersections of Mazur's made-up world and real world. In one memorable scene, Mazur is out at a restaurant with his wife (Juliet Aubrey as Evelyn), celebrating their anniversary, when the Gonzalos approach them. Mazur has to pretend his wife is his secretary and then ream out the poor waiter for supposedly getting the cake inscription wrong. To sell the lie, he repeatedly slams the waiter's face into the cake, and Evelyn is aghast at this new side she sees of her husband.
Because of one fabrication too many, Musella suddenly has a fiancé and Agent Kathy Ertz (Diane Kruger) is assigned that role. She helps Mazur work his way into Alcaino's life, and both agents actually start to have real feelings of friendship with Alcaino and his wife (Elena Anaya as Gloria). One thing the film does not do well is convey the passage of time; reportedly, Mazur was undercover for two-and-a-half years on this one job.
Bonus features include audio commentary by director Brad Furman ("The Lincoln Lawyer") and Cranston; five deleted scenes (8:52), including two action bits and a quiet beat between Mazur and Ertz; a look at the Bob aliases, with the real Mazur talking in silhouette (3:18); and a brief instruction video on how to infiltrate, with interview bits with the real Mazur (again hidden), and Ertz and Abrue. Grade: film 3.5 stars; extras 2.75 stars
Rating guide: 5 stars = classic; 4 stars = excellent; 3 stars = good; 2 stars = fair; dog = skip it
All the Way (HBO, Blu-ray or standard DVD, TV-14, 132 min.). Bryan Cranston is brilliant as "accidental" President Lyndon Baines Johnson in Robert Schenkkan's adaptation of his own play about Johnson's first year in office and Johnson's efforts to get the Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed. The topnotch supporting cast includes Anthony Mackie as Martin Luther King Jr., shown as more of a politician than usually depicted; Melissa Leo as Lady Bird Johnson; Bradley Whitford as Hubert Humphrey; Frank Langella as Sen. Richard Russell, LBJ's longtime mentor who leads the Dixiecrats; and Stephen Root as J. Edgar Hoover.
The telefilm starts with a shot of John F. Kennedy's blood on the rear seat of his limousine that fateful 1963 day in Dallas. It then goes inside the hospital, where many of the staff are crying, and Johnson is informed of Kennedy's death. Cranston not only looks like Johnson with some ears, nose, chin and cheeks work, as well as a receding hairline, but he also acts like Johnson. The Emmy-nominate performance is such that soon you believe you are watching Johnson, not Cranston. The movie was nominated for eight Emmys, including outstanding television movie, makeup, prosthetic makeup, hairstyling, actress (Leo), director (Jay Roach) and music (James Newton Howard). Cranston, who played LBJ on Broadway, did win a Tony Award for the role, which shows the many shades of Johnson, including some that were quite prickly.
As Johnson works to get the Civil Rights bill out of a House committee and later past filibuster, the viewer gets to see some of the inner workings of government. The voting rights portion is taken out of the bill, but Johnson assures King that he will tackle that separately the next year. Making this first year of Johnson's presidency more of a minefield is the increasing American involvement in the war against North Vietnam and the summer Democratic presidential convention, at which a black Mississippi voting group is demanding representation. King too has to do some maneuvering, as he wants Johnson's bill to pass, but he must assuage both moderate and more radical groups fighting for African-American rights. Johnson sees the bill too as a way to fight poverty, such as he experienced growing up, and we get hints of his "Great Society" efforts to come, including establishing Medicare and Medicaid.
As excellent as the movie is, the extras are weak. There are only a brief look at Cranston becoming LBJ via makeup (1:55) and a look at the historical figures (10:06). Grade: film 3.75 stars; extras 1/2 star
The Purge: Election Year (Universal, Blu-ray or standard DVD, R, 109 min.). This is a satisfying conclusion to "The Purge" trilogy, which is based upon the one night a year it is legal to commit any crime, including murder, in the United States. Except that, it now appears writer-director James DeMonaco is going to do a fourth, prequel film.
In this film, Sen. Charlie Roan (Elizabeth Mitchell), the survivor of a Purge event 18 years ago that killed everyone else in her family, is running for president against the ruling New Founding Fathers (NFFA) and her platform calls for an end to the Purge. The NFFA is unhappy with Roan and fears her chances of winning, so they rescind the rule that exempted government officials from the Purge. The NFFA sends in a strike force to capture Roan at her residence, which she refused to abandon on Purge night. Brought back from "The Purge: Anarchy" is Frank Grillo as former Secret Service Agent Leo Barnes, who was out for revenge in the previous film, but now is the head of Roan's security. A betrayal leads an injured Barnes and Road out onto the streets, where they are rescued by deli owner Joe Dixon (Mykelti Williamson) and his employee (Joseph Julian Soria as Marcos). The latter two have a friend (Betty Gabriel as Laney Rucker), who runs an emergency triage ambulance during the Purge.
The film does not go as far as it could as pure satire -- especially during the current, real-life mudslinging presidential campaign -- but it does add in "murder tourists," who come from other countries to they can participate in the Purge. There also is the fact that Dixon's Purge insurance is hiked thousands of dollars by his insurance company the day before the Purge. The film's action is steady and involving, although it is over-the-top at times, such as when two shoplifting teenage girls come back with chainsaws to destroy the deli. The only real misstep is when Barnes and foe drop their guns and have a mano-a-mano knife fight near the end. That always seems absurd to me. While the film's message is against violence, DeMonaco revels in showing it.
Extras include seven deleted scenes (8:05), including a longer Purge montage; a look inside the Purge with DeMonaco (5:31); and a spotlight on Barnes (3:34). I do like that the film opens with a Marco Bolan and T-Rex song and ends with a David Bowie-Brian Eno song. Grade: film 3 stars; extras 2 stars
Ghostbusters (Sony, Blu-ray or standard DVD, PG-13/NR, 116/133 min.). Having been letdown by other female-oriented comedies, I did not have high hopes about this female remake of the classic 1984 Ivan Reitman comedy that starred Bill Murray, Dan Akyroyd, Ernie Hudson and Harold Ramis, and had the incredibly catchy title song by Ray Parker Jr. Boy was I wrong. The film is a delight, with the humor not too forced -- even when improvised -- and an endearing performance by Chris Hemsworth as Kevin, the new Ghostbusters' receptionist.
The new quartet of Ghostbusters, who are still winging their way in terms of equipment and how they operate, are Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy), a believer in ghosts who is working with nuclear engineer Jillian Holtzmann (a terrific Kate McKinnon, who brings a little danger and a lot of edge to her character); Erin Gilbert (Kristin Wiig), who used to be friends with Yates and co-wrote the book, "Ghosts from Our Past," with Yates -- but now the laughed-at book has surfaced on the Internet and is threatening her efforts to get tenure at Columbia, where she teaches theoretical particle physics; and subway worker Patty Tolan, who is one of the first to see a ghost. In addition to Hemsworth's comic presence -- who knew? -- a less-successful ongoing comic foil is Chinese food deliveryman Bennie (Karan Soni), who is slow to deliver Yates' food, even when they move in to the upper half of the Chinatown restaurant building. (In an amusing nod to the original film, they consider renting a fire station, but the cost is too high at $21,000 a month.)
Yates, Gilbert and Hltzmann first encounter a ghost at Aldridge Mansion, then Tolan brings them into the subway tunnel for their next encounter. Soon, there are ghosts everywhere as Rowan North (Neil Casey), who works as a hotel maintenance man, has been working to free them. Eventually, North takes over Kevin's body, leading to a comedic dance sequence. Andy Garcia plays Mayor Bradley, who wants the Ghostbusters discredited, as to avoid a panic.
Part of the fun is the film's cameos, led by Murray as TV debunker Dr. Martin Heiss. Others from the 1984 film with cameos are Akyroyd, Hudson and Sigourney Weaver. (Ramis died in 2014.) Ozzy Osbourne also has a cameo, although he is not onstage when a flying demon ghost adds to the rock concert's show. The film's special effects are very good and there are many interesting ghosts, new and old, during the big, action-packed finale.
Extras include audio commentary by writer/director Paul Feig and writer Katie Dippold; audio commentary by editor Brent White, producer Jessie Henderson, production designer Jeff Sage, visual effects supervisor Pete Travers and special effects supervisor Mark Hawker; two gag reels (15:29); four deleted scenes (9:22), one scene between Gilbert and the Dean (Charles Dance) echoes an earlier scene; 11 extended scenes (21:14), four of which are very funny; a look at the special effects on the 1984 film and this one (15:16); jokes-a-plenty one-liners (34:30), including 5 more minutes of Kevin; a closer look at Kevin (7:42); a look at the four gals (8:04); how the slime was created (5:15); and a photo gallery. The extended version is 17 minutes longer; both versions are included. Grade: film 3 stars; extras 3.5 stars
R.L. Stine's Mostly Ghostly: One Night in Doom House (Universal DVD, PG, 98 min.). This is a rather weak effort, with a misleading title, as no one, in fact, spends a night in Doom House. However, Doom House, aka the Grover Murder House, is where ghost siblings Nicky and Tara's (Blake Michael and Olivia Ryan Stern) parents had their laboratory, before they were killed and sent to the Elsewhere (think Purgatory). The main, returning character is Max Doyle (Corey Fogelmanis), still doing magic shows, but generally an outcast at school, although he now has a girlfriend (Sophie Reynolds as Cammie). Only, Cammie decides to "take a break" after Max's séance to raise money for her dance competition goes awry.
Max has another problem in that his parents want to sell the house and move closer to his brother Colin's (Jedidiah Goodacre) new school, even though it is only 37 miles away. His ghostly friends would not be able to move with him. Max turns to TV ghost hunter Simon Drake (an unfunny Jamie Kennedy), who actually is a phony, for help. Over-playing their demon roles are Adam Tsekhman as Phears and Danny Trejo (more of a cameo) as his boss, Master Morgo. The film sets up a sequel. The only extra is a gag reel (2:20). Grade: film 2 stars