Movie Review ~ The Tax Collector


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A “tax collector” for a crime lord finds his family’s safety compromised when his boss’s old rival shows up in LA and upends his business.

Stars: Bobby Soto, Cinthya Carmona, Shia LaBeouf, Jose Conejo Martin, Cheyenne Rae Hernandez, Lana Parrilla, Elpidia Carrillo, George Lopez, Jimmy Smits

Director: David Ayer

Rated: R

Running Length:

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review:  For a while there, it seemed like David Ayer was going to make a nice name for himself as the go-to guy for macho man filmmaking that had a rare crossover appeal to a larger audience.  Beginning as the screenwriter of U-571 and the original The Fast and The Furious before hitting the A-list scripting Denzel Washington’s Oscar-winning Training Day, Ayer directed two under the radar features before scoring big in 2012.  That’s the year End of Watch debuted and it gave Ayer the chance to marry his hard-nosed storylines with a superior ability for creating high tension sequences.   His follow-ups, both released in 2014, were was the lesser but still strong Arnold Schwarzenegger starrer Sabotage and Fury, the Brad Pitt tank film that should have garnered more acclaim than it did.

So you’d understand why it was with more than a modicum of excitement that I began to look forward to Ayer taking the reins of the newest DC Comics adaptation, Suicide Squad in 2018.  A darker version of The Avengers (another comic book team I had no real knowledge of before their big screen debut), this was a star-studded film set to be a franchise starting blockbuster.  Understanding what little I did about the Suicide Squad, it seemed like a perfect fit for Ayer’s grimier aesthetics which led to genuine interest that soon turned to fear when it was announced the film would be rated PG-13 instead of the assumed R.  When it was released, it was, as feared, a neutered piece of gaudy garbage that didn’t resemble anything Ayer had done before and what I’d hope he never do again.  Aside from 2017’s Bright, another critically lambasted film released on Netflix that still managed to get the service to sign Ayer to a sequel that’s in development (Suicide Squad was so bad Warner Brothers is already rebooting it as The Suicide Squad in 2021), the director has been largely silent since his Squad goals were squandered away.

I was hesitant at first to get my hopes up that Ayer’s latest feature would be the kind of true return to form the writer/director sorely needed to get himself back into the game.  After all, The Tax Collector sort of snuck up on everyone and is arriving in the middle of this pandemic crisis which hasn’t afforded it much in the way of publicity aside.  In fact, aside from a few mentions in the gossip blogs about co-star Shia LaBeouf getting a rather large tattoo on his chest in preparation for the film, I didn’t even know this movie existed before the link came my way to watch.  While it’s nice to report that his new film returns Ayer to a space that he feels more comfort in and characters that could almost in habit the same universe as those in his previous features, it’s ultimately a too-familiar retread that wallows in its gratuitous violence.

The urban streets of L.A. are the main stage of Ayer’s action in The Tax Collector, which focuses on David Cuevas (Bobby Soto, The Quarry) and his extended family and associates who are caught up in the violent sprawl of a criminal organization teetering on the brink of upheaval.   David and his partner Creeper (Le Beouf, The Peanut Butter Falcon) are responsible for making sure the streets gangs in their neighborhood are staying up to date on their “taxes” which are owed to Wizard, the jailed crime lord that keeps them safe.  Those that fail to pay or are delinquent have to answer to Creeper, a cauliflower-eared, easily-angered powder keg of a live wire that contrasts nicely with David’s more serene yet still serious de facto leader.

When Conejo, (Jose Conejo Martin) an enemy from Wizard’s past, returns and tests David’s allegiance, it sets off a series of bloody events which play out with frightening clarity under the cinematography of Salvatore Totino.  As Conejo continues to apply pressure to David and Creeper via various horrific methods, it forces the men into a corner where they’ll have to either join him or fight him and there can only be one survivor in the end.  No one is ever safe in Ayer’s films and The Tax Collector is no different; characters are brutally dispatched, many of whom would normally survive in typically Hollywood-happy style films.  For that, you have to admire Ayer’s willingness to buck trends but the film is so grotesquely violent that the longer the movie runs the less you want to watch because it becomes so unpleasant.

Part of me wonders if that’s sort of the point Ayer is trying to make.  Maybe that we care when certain characters die is a good thing because either he’s done his job or the actor has done their job…or both.  If you felt nothing toward the person and their part of the story, you would have little reaction to their fateful demise and while that may be letting Ayer’s bloodlust off with a slight tap on the wrist it’s an angle to at least be examined.  On the other hand, a movie that spirals into something as troubling as this does begins to work against itself by alienating its audience away, possibly inspiring them to stop watching all together.  No bones about it, this is a hard one to get through and you’ll have to gird your loins to maneuver through Ayer’s hellish final reel that pulls all the disgusting stops out and takes no prisoners.

Though LeBeouf is featured heavily in the trailer and marketing materials, he’s predominately a supporting character with the lead role tipping in favor of Soto.  Soto is cast well and while it takes him a bit to get going (same goes for the movie) by the time he’s educating a new gang leader on the procedure of what he does and what his expectations are, you’re bound to be paying attention.  His descent from provider/family man to man on a hell-bent mission is a believable journey and he draws energy from LeBeouf who also is largely on target as a right-hand man that’s OK with getting his hands dirty.  Though the role could be seen as problematic as the only white person in a cast of Latino/Latinx actors, he hasn’t been cast against race so that issue is moot.  (It should be noted that the infamous tattoo is seen for a split second…was it really worth it, Shia?) Newcomer Conejo Martin is totally terrifying as the demonic psychopath after David and his organization, as is Cheyenne Rae Hernandez as a female version of LeBeaouf’s character that works for the enemy.  The only actor that struggles to convince is Cinthya Carmona as David’s wife which is too bad because she’s such a pivotal role as the movie progresses.

Bound to be seen as another minor entry in Ayer’s directorial career, The Tax Collector at least earns him back some street cred that he lost when he made Suicide Squad.  I know much of the failure of that film was the result of the studio meddling with the final cut but you can’t completely excuse Ayer for how that turned out.  While this isn’t a great film or even a really good one if I’m being completely honest, there are enough intriguing pieces one can gather to make the viewing experience not a complete waste of time if you have the nerves to get through it.

Movie Review ~ Rio 2

rio_two_ver6

The Facts:

Synopsis: It’s a jungle out there for Blu, Jewel and their three kids after they’re hurtled Rio de Janeiro to the wilds of the Amazon.

Stars: Anne Hathaway, Jesse Eisenberg, will.i.am, Jemaine Clement, Tracy Morgan, George Lopez, Leslie Mann, Rodrigo Santoro, Jamie Foxx, Andy Garcia, Rita Moreno, Bruno Mars, Kristin Chenoweth

Director: Carlos Saldanha

Rated: G

Running Length: 101 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: I’m fighting against the grain and resisting the urge to heed the old adage that there comes a time to put away childish things. For me, that means not seeing every single animated film released in theaters. For a time, the market was on an even keel of producing one stellar film after another…until lesser studios took it upon themselves to insert themselves into the market, sullying it with cheap looking entries that shouldn’t be mentioned in the same breath as something coming from Pixar or Dreamworks Animation. See The Nut Job if you don’t believe me…or better yet, don’t.

I think we’re nudging into a new standard of animation and audiences are starting to convey that message with their money if you look at the diminishing returns on lackluster sequels (Monsters University) and the popularity of new specimens like The LEGO Movie. Also, you can’t just tack “in 3D” on to any old film because people don’t want to pay for something that won’t give them their money’s worth.

So where does that leave a sequel like Rio 2? A continuation of the story that started in 2011 right as the animation horizon was starting to shift, this is an overall workmanlike second chapter of a novel that wasn’t that original to begin with. It is, however, better than the first film and works a kind of magic that turns an entire cast of usually obnoxious performers into an appealing band of colorful characters by letting us only hear them, not see them.

It helped me in some small way to have watched the first Rio in the wee hours of the Saturday I caught an early morning screening of Rio 2. Picking up shortly after the first film ended, Blu (Jesse Eisenberg, Now You See Me) and Jewel (Anne Hathaway, Les Miserables) are still in Rio with their three growing chirpers living the laid-back life that only animated birds could make acceptable. Originally thought to be the last group of blue macaws, when Blu’s owner (Leslie Mann, This is 40) finds a flock of macaws on an Amazon research trip the family packs up for a vacation to meet more of their kind.

Meanwhile, the now flightless Shakespearian bad bird from the first film (Jemaine Clement, Men in Black III) toils away the day as a pier side show attraction. A chance glimpse of Blu and Co. on the wing to the Amazon boils his bad blood and before you can say “extraneous subplot #1” he breaks free of the chains that bind him, taking a mute anteater and operatic poisonous frog (Kristin Chenoweth, Hit and Run) in his pursuit of revenge.

What Blu and Jewel find in the depths of the Amazon will feel mighty familiar and truth be told the entire film suffers from the same lack of originality that plagued the first one. Still, something about the earnestness of the performances, the tuneful music (I enjoyed Chenoweth’s goofy aria about Poisonous Love), and the eye-popping visuals won me over more than I thought it ever would.

Though the film does delve into more blatant themes of conservationism (ala Ferngully: The Last Rainforest), the message isn’t delivered with any real agenda so it remains benign. Returning director Carlos Saldanha keeps things moving even though the film stretches past 100 minutes, further making my point that no animated film should keep you in the theater for over an hour and a half. If there is to be a Rio 3, let’s hope the filmmakers push things forward so this pleasant series doesn’t turn into a turkey.

Down From the Shelf ~ Rio

rio_ver3

The Facts:

Synopsis: When Blu, a domesticated macaw from small-town Minnesota, meets the fiercely independent Jewel, he takes off on an adventure to Rio de Janeiro with this bird of his dreams.

Stars: Anne Hathaway, Jesse Eisenberg, George Lopez, Tracy Morgan, Jemaine Clement, Leslie Mann, will.i.am, Jamie Foxx

Director: Carlos Saldanha

Rated: G

Running Length: 96 minutes

TMMM Score: (5.5/10)

Review: I had some homework to do where Rio was concerned. Though there was a time when I wouldn’t say no to the next animated film that came down the pike, back in 2011 when Rio was released I was at my limit for colorful films featuring talking animals going on grand adventures…in 3D no less. I took a (brief) stand against what I thought was the enemy…the cash grabbing studio machine that seemed to pick the central species by way of dart board.

With the sequel coming out and on my schedule of screenings I realized that I had to get cracking with watching the original adventure featuring a blue macaw that travels from chilly Minnesota to balmy Rio de Janeiro. Blu (voiced by Jesse Eisenberg, Now You See Me) is the last male of his species and he’s escorted by his caring owner (Leslie Mann, This is 40) to be mated with feisty female Jewel (Anne Hathaway, The Dark Knight Rises). Originally earning a PG for its mating conceit, rest assured this eventually got knocked back to the family friendly G it deserves.

For all the colorful scenes and pleasant musical numbers, Rio never really soars thanks to an also-ran plot filled with the standard baddies that aren’t so much out to hurt the birds as make a buck off of their beaks. Pursued not only by oafish swindlers that want to sell the birds to exotic pet stores but a puffy blow-hard bird (Jermaine Clement, Muppets Most Wanted) that comes off a little too much like Scar from The Lion King, Blu and Jewel team up with a host of other feathered friends and one dog to reunite with Blu’s owner…all during Rio’s annual Carnaval.

I get the feeling the movie probably played better on the big screen and with the addition of 3D to give some depth to the overwhelming amount of color and tropical city lushness on display. Longer than it has to be (does any animated movie need to be longer than 80 minutes?), there are occasional fun moments mostly tied to Sergio Mendes’s musical score and non-obnoxious performances from normally obnoxious talent like George Lopez, Tracy Morgan, will.i.am, & Jamie Foxx.

All in all, Rio is a harmless flight of fancy that has enough going on to distract the kids while the adults sitting through it may find themselves tapping their toes to the bossa nova beats. Not a must see, but not a total waste of time or effort.