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Cartel Land

So many 2015 films still to cover, but I figured I’d give you my fifth and final Oscar nominee for Best Documentary Feature, from the 88th Annual Academy Awards. There’s not a bad one among the quintet, and Matthew Heineman’s “Cartel Land” is no exception. “Amy”, the eventual winner (as well as a fine film) was decidedly the safest way to go. “Cartel Land” is brutal, and challenging, and nasty–but music and/or uplift has been taking this prize mostly of late (“20 Feet from Stardom”, “Searching for Sugar Man”, “Undefeated”). However, this chronicle of the ongoing Mexican Drug War is a great one for education on a difficult topic, even if at times it seems a little bit too polished, as well as ends up being dominated by a focus on just one man. That choice centers its narrative, but also ends up diluting its impact. That man is Jose Manuel Mireles Valverde, and his character arc ends up being the most interesting thing about this documentary feature. As a physician, and leader of the Autodefensas that battles the Knights Templar Cartel, its mesmerizing to witness the respect he acquires, and then realize how he slowly starts to abuse it. Tim “Nailer” Foley, of the Arizona Border Recon gets ample screen time too, but its Dr. Mireles who dominates. The both-sides-of-the-border dichotomy is spelled out nicely. So, the locations are strong, but the position and point-of-view is often hazy. That could have been the intention, but the ambiguity isn’t always welcome. But the subject matter concerning vigilante efforts on each side is impossible to turn away from, and completely exciting and compelling. Very good stuff, that falls short of greatness by occasionally playing it safe. Oscar winner Kathryn Bigelow is one of the film’s producers.

Grade:  B+

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