Cuban heroes or traitors, a haunted Welsh vacation

PHOTOS COURTESY IMDB
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By Richard Roeper

Signal Contributing Writer

‘Wasp Network’

No rating. Running time: 128 minutes.

If you happened upon any random sequence from the Netflix film “Wasp Network” and stuck around for five or 10 minutes, you might well believe you’re looking at an awards-buzz, period-piece epic filled with big star performances, stunning visuals and elaborate production values. You’d be half-right.

Writer-director Olivier Assayas’ based-on-a-true-story political crime thriller features a big-name cast (Penelope Cruz, Edgar Ramirez, Ana de Armas, Gael Garcia Bernal) and is filled with memorable images, from prop planes flying back and forth from Havana to Miami to a horrific terrorist attack on a beach to a lavish wedding reminiscent of the opening scene of “The Godfather.”

Deadly serious people are involved in deadly serious business in “Wasp Network,” and there’s an air of importance and urgency to their every move, and we should be utterly immersed in this story — but we’re not. Not even close.

The saga of the real-life intelligence operatives known as “The Cuban Five,” who infiltrated Cuban-American
anti-Castro groups in the late 1980s and early 1990s, is an incredibly complex and dense tale, and though Assayas has masterfully handled equally challenging material, e.g., 2010’s “Carlos,” there are so many players in “Wasp Network” and so many storylines that never fully connect, we get lost in the weeds time and again. 

This is such a tangled web, it’s nearly impossible to ascertain the true motives of numerous main characters, let alone decide who’s a rogue hero freedom fighter and who’s an opportunistic criminal.

Ramirez is outstanding as Rene Gonzalez, a small-plane pilot and flight instructor living in the Havana of the late 1980s with his loving wife, Olga (Penelope Cruz), who works at a local tannery, and their young daughter. One morning, Rene finishes his espresso, kisses his wife and child, heads out to work — and steals a plane and defects to Miami. Rene says he wants to make a better life for his family, as the collapse of the Soviet Union’s economy is already having crushing effects on life in Havana. For years, Olga believes her husband is a traitor, but Gael Garcia Bernal’s Gerardo Hernandez, who heads up a Cuban spy ring known as the Wasp Network, eventually explains to her Rene is actually a great Cuban patriot gathering intel on the growing number of revolutionary terrorist groups planning and carrying out bloody attacks in the homeland.

As I said: Complicated.

Another storyline involves Wagner Moura (“Narcos”) as the movie star-like double agent Juan Pablo Roque, whose marriage in Miami to the beautiful and captivating Ana Magarita Martinez (Ana de Armas) is the social event of the year in the Cuban community. Roque had defected to the United States with a death-defying swim to Guantanamo Bay and was funding his lavish lifestyle by acting as an informant to the FBI — and getting involved in other activities, about which he tells his wife she’d be better off not knowing.

Deep into the movie, we get a split-screen montage as a previously unheard offscreen narrator tries to explain what’s happening and who’s who and where this is all going. It’s as if the filmmakers realized in post-production they had a problem.

By then it’s too late.

‘You Should Have Left’

Rated R. Running time: 93 minutes. 

I

f only this couple with the young child had seen “The Shining,” the moment they came upon the isolated and ominous-looking structure tucked far away from civilization, they would have turned the Range Rover around and headed straight for the airport. Ah, but then “You Should Have Left” would have been called, “We Left Immediately,” and it would be a 90-second video and not an effectively chilling little horror gem from writer-director David Koepp, who reunites with the ageless Kevin Bacon some 21 years after Koepp penned “Stir of Echoes.”

Although Bacon looks fantastic at 61, the age difference between his character of Theo and Theo’s actress wife, Susanna (34-year-old Amanda Seyfried), is a point of contention and conversation. When Theo visits Susanna on a movie set, the P.A. guesses, “You’re her dad?” And when the luminous Susanna emerges from the home swimming pool and kisses her husband, she says, “Old man — sunblock.”

Not that the age differential is the most scandalous element to their marriage, which has produced a precocious and adorable 6-year-old daughter named Ella (Avery Essex). Theo, a wealthy banker, was married before, and when his wife drowned in the bathtub, Theo was charged with killing her. Even though he was acquitted, a lot of people think he literally got away with murder. Apparently, folks are still buzzing about the case years later, because out of the blue one day Ella asks her mom, “Why do people hate Daddy so much?”

After a prelude in which both Theo and little Ella are haunted by horrific nightmares, the family takes leave of the states for a getaway vacation in Wales. The house they’ve chosen online is an imposing, brick-walled structure the size of a small hotel. What’s more, it has labyrinthine, narrow corridors and multiple levels, as if Frank Lloyd Wright had teamed up with the architect of the Overlook Hotel and the designer of a carnival house of mirrors.

Almost immediately after the family arrives, weird things begin to happen — and continue to happen. Ella sees shadows where there should be no shadows. There’s only one photo in the entire mansion: a creepy snapshot of an unknown person, affixed to the wall in the laundry room. Theo goes about the house, turning off the lights for the night, and somehow loses track of five hours. When Theo hears a strange sound and looks away from the mirror, his mirror image keeps staring at him. One room in the house is 5 feet longer on the inside than it is on the outside; wrap your head around that one!

Also, someone has written in Theo’s journal: YOU SHOULD LEAVE and later, YOU SHOULD HAVE LEFT.

Bacon and Seyfried are terrific together as a couple who love each other and adore their daughter, but are so caught up in their respective, selfish worlds, you often can cut the tension with a knife. The cinematography, editing, lighting and production design all feed into the increasingly creepy and chilling atmosphere inside that strange house, which seems to have a mysterious and ghostly caretaker lurking about and has a way of swallowing up its occupants. With echoes of “What Lies Beneath” and “The Others” and the aforementioned “The Shining” informing the plot, “You Should Have Left” is by no means groundbreaking or wholly original, but it produces more than enough jumps and jolts to have you jumping off the couch.

Copyright 2020 Chicago Sun Times

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