WASP NETWORK (2020) – Story of Cuban Spies Suffers From Horrible Pacing, Disjointed Narrative

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It’s the pacing, stupid.

I wanted to see WASP NETWORK (2020) because I enjoy most of the actors in it.

Edgar Ramirez was excellent in HANDS OF STONE (2016),  where he played boxer Roberto Durant in a movie that didn’t receive much love but I liked a lot.

Wagner Moura knocked it out of the park as Pablo Escobar on the TV show NARCOS (2015-16), and Ana de Armas has been showing up everywhere these days and making lasting impressions in nearly every film she’s in, from BLADE RUNNER 2049 (2017) to KNIVES OUT (2019). She co-starred with Edgar Ramirez in HANDS OF STONE, and with Wagner Moura in SERGIO (2020), a film I reviewed several weeks back that I liked much more than WASP NETWORK. And she was in THE NIGHT CLERK (2020) another movie I just reviewed, and she’s slated to star in the next James Bond movie NO TIME TO DIE (2020).

And the movie also stars Penelope Cruz.

WASP NETWORK actually tells a very interesting story about Cuban spies who infiltrate the United States to thwart the efforts of other Cubans in the U.S. who are working to overthrow Castro but don’t care how they do it, often dealing with drug dealers and terrorists. So, the film actually has a pro-Castro slant since the protagonists in this one are working to keep Castro in power. Which is an interesting take on the subject of Cuba-U.S. relations.

However, it is all undone by some absolutely horrible pacing and one very sloppy narrative style.

WASP NETWORK opens with Rene Gonzalez (Edgar Ramirez) defecting from Cuba to the United States, leaving his wife Olga Salanueva (Penelope Cruz) and young daughter behind. Settling in Florida, he joins a group of Cuban resistance fighters whose outward mission is to assist fellow Cubans who want to enter the United States but who are secretly working behind the scenes to end the reign of Fidel Castro. The first thirty minutes or so of the movie tell Rene’s story.

Then the action switches to Juan Pablo Roque (Wagner Moura) who also defects from Cuba and who also joins the same group Rene did. Juan Pablo also meets and falls in love with Ana Magarita Martinez (Ana de Armas) who he eventually marries. The second thirty minutes of the movie tells Juan Pablo’s story.

So, the first hour of the film, while slow, is at least coherent, as we are introduced to two similar characters in similar situations, and when they meet, the stage is set for the story to go somewhere. Unfortunately, where it goes and how it gets there is a major disappointment.

See, we are introduced to a third character, Jose Basulto (Leonardo Sbaraglia) who we learn runs a Cuban spy ring which is secretly working to thwart the efforts of the group that Rene and Juan Pablo work for, and furthermore, out of the blue we also learn that Rene and Juan Pablo are actually part of this group of spies working for Basulto.

So, as stories go, again, there’s nothing wrong with this one, but there is something very wrong with the way it unfolds. The number one problem is the pacing. The first hour of the film is exceedingly slow, but this can be forgiven because at least a couple of interesting characters are being introduced.

But during the film’s second half, the pacing issues do not improve. In fact, they get worse. Furthermore, there’s the added element of a bizarre narrative style that sinks this one long before the end credits roll, and with a running time of two hours and seven minutes, that’s a long time to sit through a film that clearly is not working.

Director Olivier Assayas can’t seem to focus on more than one character at time. The story is told in chunks, each chunk on one character, and so folks in this movie tend to disappear for long stretches. Two thirds of the way through there’s also a montage which comes out of nowhere which introduces the members of the Wasp Network. The only trouble is, we never see these folks again until we learn their fates just before the end credits roll, as the only Wasp Network members the movie focuses on are Rene, Juan Pablo, and Jose Basulto. It’s a bizarre moment that doesn’t fit at all with the rest of the movie.

Assayas also uses camera fades way too often, making for a disjointed narrative. He used them with greater success in the underrated ghost story flick PERSONAL SHOPPER (2016) starring Kristen Stewart, a film I liked a lot.

The screenplay by Assayas and Fernando Morais struggles to tell a coherent story, which is too bad because as stories go it’s an intriguing one on a subject I wanted to learn more about. But it fails on all levels. The dialogue is sleep-inducing, the narrative is poorly executed, and the characters remain low-key and lifeless throughout.

Not even a cast of actors whose talents I enjoy were able to save this one. Penelope Cruz probably fares the best as Rene’s long suffering wife who never really leaves his side, even though they spend most of the movie separated from each other. But her best scenes don’t come until the latter half of the movie.

Edgar Ramirez is fine as Rene, in what is the closest role the film has to being a lead, but it’s role that is not fleshed out satisfactorily enough. Things are even worse for Wagner Moura as Juan Pablo. His character is not developed at all, and while Moura channels charm and charisma in the role, it’s all for not.

And Ana de Armas is reduced to an unimportant supporting role, and her character pretty much disappears for the entire second half of the movie.

WASP NETWORK was filmed in 2019 by the way but was only released in June 2020.

WASP NETWORK was a major disappoint for me, mostly because I’m a story guy, and the story told here was done so very sloppily and without any sense of pacing.

Instead of watching WASP NETWORK, I suggest you defect to another movie choice.

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THE NIGHT CLERK (2020) – Drama About Murder Suspect With Asperger’s Only Mildly Entertaining

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Ana de Armas and Tye Sheridan in THE NIGHT CLERK (2020).

While THE NIGHT CLERK (2020), a tale about a young man with Asperger’s syndrome who becomes the suspect in a murder case, is being billed as a crime/drama/mystery, the emphasis here really is on drama.

The crime, a murder which occurs right at the beginning of the movie, surprisingly never becomes a driving force here, and it’s not much of a mystery.

What it is though is a vehicle to showcase the talents of actor Tye Sheridan, who does a really nice job in the lead role as Bart, the young man with Asperger’s. Sheridan is an up an coming actor who has starred in READY PLAYER ONE (2018) and played Cyclops in the two most recent X-MEN movies, but his work here in THE NIGHT CLERK is better than what he was allowed to do in those movies.

Bart (Tye Sheridan) works the night shift at the front desk of his local hotel. In an effort to learn more about people and how to interact with them, since that is something Bart struggles with because of Asperger’s, he secretly records the activities and conversations of the hotel guests in their rooms. He does this by setting up cameras in the rooms and watching from his laptop. While this is voyeuristic and creepy to the rest of us, Bart doesn’t mean any harm by this, and he innocently watches people to practice conversing with them.

But one night, he witnesses a murder in one of the rooms, and rather than call the police, he runs into the room where later one of his co-workers finds him sitting by the dead body of the murdered woman.  Police Detective Espada (John Leguizamo) questions Bart, and because there are holes in his story about his whereabouts, Espada considers Bart a person of interest in the case.

Bart lives at home with his mother Ethel (Helen Hunt) who does her best to support her son although it is difficult since her husband and Bart’s father has passed away. As Detective Espada continues to poke and prod Bart in search of answers, things become more complicated when Bart befriends another hotel guest, Andrea (Ana de Armas) a beautiful young woman with problems of her own. Bart finds himself immediately attracted to Andrea, and as he tries to get to know her better, the murder plot thickens.

Well, it doesn’t thicken that much, which is the biggest problem with THE NIGHT CLERK. If it were a stew, it’d be darned watery, that’s for sure! And that’s because the murder takes a back seat to Bart’s story and his crush on Andrea, and the mystery itself is pretty obvious. You’ll know from the get-go exactly where this one is going, in terms of who is out to get who.

The screenplay by Michael Cristofer, who also directed, works much better as a character study than as a crime drama. Bart’s character is well-written, and his observations on life as seen through his eyes are intriguing. For example, when he talks to Andrea about love, and speaks of how being in love is not really an emotion but an addiction, he’s spot-on. As is the script. When Bart struggles to be sociable, it’s refreshingly honest.

Tye Sheridan delivers a topnotch performance as Bart. He effortlessly captures what it’s like to live with Asperger’s syndrome. It’s the best I’ve seen Sheridan on screen yet.

Ana de Armas is really good as Andrea, even though her character is stuck in the lame murder mystery plot that never really gets off the ground because it’s so obvious. Her best scenes are when Andrea interacts with Bart, and they share some tender moments together.

I like Ana de Armas a lot, and she’s making movies left and right these days, which is fine by me, because she’s fascinating to watch. She was just in SERGIO (2020) which I reviewed a few weeks back. She was amazing in BLADE RUNNER 2049 (2017) and her performance was one of my favorite parts of that movie. She was also in KNIVES OUT (2019) and she is slated to star alongside Daniel Craig in the next James Bond movie, NO TIME TO DIE (2020).

Helen Hunt is solid as Bart’s mom Ethel, although it’s a small role and she ultimately doesn’t really do a whole lot. The same sadly can be said for John Leguizamo as Detective Espada. He actually has some of the best scenes in the movie, but he disappears for long stretches when the film becomes more about Bart and Andrea and less about the murder investigation. And towards the end, when you expect that things will be heating up, they simply don’t. So while Leguizamo is good, he’s not in this one enough to really make much of a difference, in the way, for example, he did with his fine supporting work in THE INFILTRATOR (2016) in which he starred with Bryan Cranston.

There are some plot holes as well. For example, Bart is suspected early on of the murder, and it comes to light that he’s been recording guests in their rooms, yet he doesn’t lose his job! He’s not even given a warning of any kind. I thought this was weird. Also, he’s a suspect at first because Espada wrongly believes Bart never left the hotel, which he did, and he had a very memorable verbal exchange with a clerk at a store. This clerk would no doubt remember Bart. Yet, we never see Espada following up this part of the story, which had me scratching my head why we saw the exchange in the first place if not to establish an alibi for Bart.

The ending is also edited strangely. It’s set up to make the audience think one thing, while something else is really happening. The problem is in terms of Bart’s character, it doesn’t make much sense for him to do what he did the way he did. He could have simply dealt with Espada directly. In other words, it comes off as a forced contrivance.

THE NIGHT CLERK works best as a character study of Bart Bromley, a young man with Asperger’s, who as a suspect in a murder case, falls for a mysterious young woman Andrea, who’s also a guest at the hotel where he works. It’s not much of a crime drama or a murder mystery, as the criminal elements are downplayed, and the mystery is way too obvious to matter all that much.

At the end of the day, THE NIGHT CLERK is a mild drama with some solid acting performances by the principal players. It’s watchable, but it certainly would have benefitted from a tighter script with more emphasis on the murder melodrama.

An Alfred Hitchcock thriller this one ain’t!

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SERGIO (2020) – Moving Bio-Pic of U.N. Diplomat Sergio de Mello Speaks to the Value of Diplomacy

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Wagner Moura and Ana de Armas in SERGIO (2020).

SERGIO (2020), a Netflix original movie, tells the story of Sergio Vieira de Mello, the Brazilian born United Nations diplomat who at the height of his career went to Iraq after the U.S. invasion in 2003 to monitor elections, an effort that unfortunately met with tragic results.

SERGIO stars Wagner Moura in the lead role as Sergio de Mello. Moura, who starred in the Netflix series NARCOS (2015-2017) as Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar, is a charismatic actor who was outstanding as Escobar. He’s similarly effective here as Sergio de Mello. He carries this movie, and his performance is one of the main reasons to see it. He plays De Mello as a career diplomat who was very good at what he did, brokering peace deals between hostile parties, and who puts his career above all else, even at the expense of missing valuable time with his two sons.

Directed by Greg Barker, a filmmaker known for his documentaries, SERGIO doesn’t tell its story in linear fashion. It jumps back and forth through time, showing different key points of de Mello’s life and career. It’s a style that ultimately works, even as the pacing sometimes lags.

When de Mello brings his team into Iraq, he is met with resistance by the United States, especially from U.S. diplomat Paul Bremer (Bradley Whitford) who warns Sergio not to stray from U.S wishes, that he’s there to support the positions of the United States. Of course, de Mello disagrees, arguing that the United Nations is an independent organization and as such is not beholden to any one country.

When a massive bomb strikes the United Nations headquarters in Iraq, de Mello finds himself trapped underneath all the rubble, and it’s here where most of the story unfolds, as he thinks back to events which brought him to this moment in time. A big part of his story is his romance with Carolina Larriera (Ana de Armas). The film chronicles how they met and shows how they eventually end up working together for the U.N., and she is there that day at the U.N. headquarters when the bomb goes off.

Ana de Armas and Wagner Moura share a wonderful chemistry together. Even though SERGIO is intended as an historical drama, really, its love story is one of the best parts of the movie. De Armas and Moura electrify the screen when they’re together, and their love story only adds to the sadness of the tragedy in Iraq.

Ana de Armas is a really good actress who has appeared in such movies as KNIVES OUT (2019), BLADE RUNNER 2049 (2017), and HANDS OF STONE (2016). She’s also slated to star in the next James Bond movie, NO TIME TO DIE (2020). For me, up until now, de Armas’ most prominent role was as the holographic Joi in BLADE RUNNER 2049, but I think she’s even better here in SERGIO.

Brian F. O’Byrne adds fine support as Sergio’s friend and right hand man Gil Loescher, who also is trapped with Sergio under the rubble of the bombed building. And Bradley Whitford in a small role is sufficiently annoying as U.S. diplomat Paul Bremer who comes off as the bully on the block, in effect saying do what the U.S. wants or else. His most telling line is when he tells Sergio “welcome to the big leagues” implying that Sergio is out of his league in Iraq and only the U.S. knows how to handle such a difficult situation.

Craig Borten wrote the screenplay, based on the book Chasing the Flame: One Man’s Fight to Save The World by Samantha Power, and for the most part it does a really good job of fleshing out Sergio’s story.  After you have watched this movie, you will have an understanding and an appreciation of who Sergio de Mello was and what he meant to the world. The film also touches upon what the absence of de Mello has meant to the world since that time. Borten also co-wrote the screenplay to DALLAS BUYERS CLUB (2013), a script which earned him an Oscar nomination.

The major drawback of SERGIO is at times with its talky scenes it plays much more like a television show than a movie. It doesn’t really have a cinematic feel to it, and while it is a Netflix original, it was intended to play at the theaters as well, plans which were changed because of COVID-19.  Last week I reviewed the Netflix original movie EXTRACTION (2020), and that film definitely had a cinematic feel which would have been right at home on the big screen. I can’t say the same for SERGIO.

And at times the pacing slows down somewhat.  But these are minor issues. Overall, SERGIO is one of the better films I’ve seen this year.

It enjoys some really powerful emotional moments. One of the best is when Sergio talks to a woman in Timor in a private meeting. It’s such an authentic yet quiet moment. It is one of the most moving sequencs in the film. The scenes in Iraq also work, recalling that chaotic volatile time. And all the scenes between Moura and Ana de Armas are lively and romantic, and really lift the story to a type of love story that I wasn’t expecting. Their scenes together are all exceptional.

SERGIO is a moving drama that tells the important story of Sergio de Mello, a story that is even more relevant today as the world continues to shift away from the value of diplomacy. Sergio’s life and sacrifice is a testament to the power of what one can achieve through diplomacy, and sadly to what happens when those efforts are stamped out by acts of violence.

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HANDS OF STONE (2016) – A Knockout of a Movie That No One Is Noticing

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Edgar Ramirez, Robert De Niro, and Ruben Blades in HANDS OF STONE (2016).

 

HANDS OF STONE (2016), the new movie about welterweight boxing champion Roberto Duran, is one of those movies that I probably liked more than I should have.  It’s not really getting great reviews, and it’s receiving zero hype, but I loved it.  For me, everyhing about this movie worked.

Maybe that means I’m just a sucker for boxing movies.  Or perhaps it’s just a really good movie.

HANDS OF STONE is told from the perspective of legendary boxing trainer Ray Arcel (Robert De Niro).  And if there’s one weakness to this movie, it’s that at times there’s a bit too much of Arcel’s voice-over narration, as it shows up in places where it’s not necessary, where standard dialogue and visual narrative would have sufficed.

And so we learn right from the get-go that Roberto Duran changed Ray Arcel’s life, as we hear it directly from Arcel’s mouth.  We meet Duran as a child in poverty-stricken Panama, and we see through his young eyes his disdain for the United States, which he views as an oppressor nation.  Amazingly, he convinces a local boxing trainer to train him, and so he’s boxing pretty much as a child.

We next see Duran (Edgar Ramirez) as a young man wooing the beautiful Felicidad Iglesias (Ana de Armas) who he’ll eventually marry.  Duran is introduced to the wealthiest man in Panama, businessman Carlos Eleta (Ruben Blades), who in turn introduces Duran to trainer Ray Arcel, knowing that Arcel has what it takes to make Duran a champion.

But their union is not an easy one.  Duran wants no part of an American trainer, and while Ray clearly recognizes Duran’s talent, he’s prohibited by the mob from ever making money off boxing again.  Years earlier, Ray tried to convince mobster Frankie Carbo (John Turturro) to loosen his grip on boxing in New York City, so they could branch out into the television market.  Carbo said no, Ray went ahead anyway, and Carbo arranged to have Ray killed.  Ray survived, but he promised never again to make money off boxing, and in return, the mob let him live.

Ray solves his own personal problem by agreeing to train Duran for free, and Duran also changes his mind, setting the stage for a championship run.  Standing in their way is American superstar boxer Sugar Ray Leonard (Usher Raymond).  Duran sees beating Leonard as his chance not only to become champion but also to earn Panama the respect of the world and to humiliate the United States in the process.

And the more success Duran achieves, the more he’s swallowed up by big money boxing, falling victim to its lure in ways he never fell in the ring, even as aging Ray Arcel continually fights to protect him.

HANDS OF STONE tells a rousing story, one that I enjoyed a lot since I didn’t know much about Roberto Duran other than the results of his two championship fights with Sugar Ray Leonard.

The cast here is wonderful.  Edgar Ramirez shines in the lead role as Roberto Duran. He makes Duran a volatile force who is as undisciplined and hotheaded as he is talented. Indeed, some of the best parts of HANDS OF STONE aren’t the boxing sequences, which certainly are done very well, but the scenes between Ramirez and De Niro in the corners of the ring.  De Niro’s Ray Arcel is constantly fighting with Ramirez’s Duran trying to get him to follow his wisdom, which Duran often sees as limiting, as he just wants to let loose and pound his opponent.  Some of these verbal spars are more intense than the physical ones in the ring.

Likewise, Ramirez also shares powerful scenes with Ruben Blades’ Carlos Eleta.  And when the three of them are on screen together, watch out.  The verbal punches fly.

Ramirez captures the energy and charm of Duran and makes him watchable throughout.  I really enjoyed Ramirez in last year’s JOY (2015) where he played Joy’s (Jennifer Lawrence) husband, in a film that also paired him with Robert De Niro.  Ramirez also played the priest in the underwhelming horror movie DELIVER US FROM EVIL (2014).  As much as I liked Ramirez in JOY, he’s even better here in HANDS OF STONE.

Robert De Niro is excellent as Ray Arcel.  It’s fun to see De Niro in a role that does not hide his age but actually makes him look older with a receding hairline and whispery white hair.  He also enjoys some of the best scenes in the movie, with riveting dialogue, as he teaches Duran his philosophy of boxing— always have a strategy and stick to it— and as he argues with Carlos Eleta.  Ray Arcel represents the pure side of boxing, the sport, while Eleta represents what Arcel sees as destroying boxing:  big money.

Ruben Blades, who plays Daniel Salazar, one of the best character on TV’s FEAR THE WALKING DEAD, is also very good as Carlos Eleta.  He brings Ray Arcel into Duran’s world not only to make Duran a champion but to give him some discipline, because Eleta is always fending off the youthful Duran who refuses to respect the rich businessman.

Ana de Armas, who we just saw in WAR DOGS (2016), is drop dead gorgeous and sexy as Duran’s wife Felicidad.  De Armas enjoys a more substantial role here in HANDS OF STONE than she had in WAR DOGS, a role that enables her to show more range and depth, and she doesn’t disappoint.

Singer Usher Raymond makes for a dashingly handsome Sugar Ray Leonard, and he displays the fleeting and fancy footwork of the boxing superstar with seeming ease.  John Turturro makes the most of his few scenes as mobster Frankie Carbo who in spite of their differences really respects and likes Ray Arcel and eventually helps him get the shunned Duran his comeback bout.  Reg E. Cathey, a talented character actor with tons of credits, recently seen as Cajun cook Freddy on the TV show HOUSE OF CARDS, plays Don King and enjoys some memorable moments in some key scenes as the legendary boxing promoter.

It was also nice to see Ellen Barkin play Ray’s wife Stephanie, in a performance that reminded me of Gena Rowlands back in the day.  And in a neat bit of casting, De Niro’s real life adopted daughter Drena De Niro plays Ray’s drug addicted daughter here.

HANDS OF STONE was written and directed by Jonathan Jakubowicz.  This is Jakubowicz’s first feature film, and it’s an impressive debut.  For my money, everything in this movie worked.

The fight sequences are well done, riveting and exciting.  The photography is lively and energetic, and the editing is quick and efficient.  The film is nearly two hours long, yet it flies by.

Even better than the fight scenes are the scenes of dialogue between Ramirez, De Niro, and Blades.  Jakubowicz also gives the movie an authentic Latin American feel, as well as capturing perfectly the time period of the 1970s and 1980s.

And Jakubowicz does a nice job with the controversial and perhaps signature moment of Duran’s career, where he infamously declared “No mas!” in the ring and walked away from boxing, words that to this day the real Duran swears he didn’t say, yet it’s what he’s most remembered for.

HANDS OF STONE is getting very little hype and meager critical recognition, which is a shame because it’s a rousing entertaining movie that tells the story of Roberto Duran, one of the most talented boxers ever to step into the boxing ring.

There’s no split decision here.  HANDS OF STONE is a clear knockout.

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