THE MULE (2018)

January 5, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. When a film is inspired by a true story detailed in a 2014 New York Times article entitled “The Sinoloa Cartel’s 90 Year Old Drug Mule” written by Sam Dolnick, we should expect a message delivered with a certain amount of tension. Unfortunately, tension is somehow lacking throughout, and the only real message delivered is the same of most every elderly person (even those who aren’t drug runners) – they regret not spending more time with family. That’s not to say the movie doesn’t have its moments (it does), but know going in that the terrific ensemble cast is given little to do in a script painted with such broad strokes that no other message or image ever emerges.

Clint Eastwood directs his second movie of the year (THE 15:17 TO PARIS being the other) and stars in his first acting role since TROUBLE WITH THE CURVE in 2012. Here he plays Earl Stone, a popular horticulturalist who admittedly devoted more time and love to his prize-winning daylilies than to his family. A flashback to 2005 shows us Earl in his element at a convention where he is treated as a celebrity, and as a man who would rather buy a round of drinks at the hotel bar than show up to his daughter’s wedding and walk her down the aisle. The family has grown weary of and accustomed to his no-shows, and Earl displays little remorse.

Pushing forward twelve years, we find Earl’s house and farm in foreclosure – and him blaming the internet (just one of many ‘good old days’ syndrome bits). When his appearance at his granddaughter Ginny’s (Taissa Farmiga) engagement party causes turmoil with his ex-wife (Dianne Wiest) and daughter (the aptly named) Lilly (Alison Eastwood), he is approached by one of the attendees who tells him he can make money ‘just driving’.

Being hard up for cash, Earl takes the job driving his truck and dropping off his unknown cargo. In one of numerous convoluted moments we are supposed to accept, Earl is shocked when he discovers the cargo he’s been toting is bags of illegal drugs. Now mind you, this is a Korean War veteran who has spent his life on the road running his own business. The naivety is a bit too much for us to swallow. Comparisons are expected to Eastwood’s turn as Walt in GRAN TORINO (2008), but here his being an off-the-cuff racist is seemingly excused by his age and generation … plus it’s meant as comic relief quite often. Earl becomes a trusted mule for the cartel led by a kingpin played by Andy Garcia, and transports record amounts of drugs valued at millions. Still, Earl is a cranky old geezer who does things his own way, whether that’s stopping for the world’s best pulled pork sandwich or helping a stranded family change a tire. He’s also a 90 year old with the libido of a 28 year old gigolo (which given Eastwood’s real life track record, may or may not be fiction).

While Earl makes his commutes through the picturesque Midwest (including White Sands National Park) singing classic country songs and ballads, the Chicago DEA is busy tracking the cartel. Two partner agents (Bradley Cooper and Michael Pena) report to the Station Chief (Laurence Fishburne) and are under pressure for drug “busts”. It’s this segment that truly causes the story structure to crumble. Cooper, Pena and Fishburne are all excellent actors and it’s a bit embarrassing to see them with such limited and basic roles. Fishburne especially seems relegated to intricate dialogue such as “get it done” and “do it”. There is also a Waffle House scene shared by Cooper and Eastwood that so unreasonably requires us to suspend all disbelief that it ends up just being an eye-roller.

One’s expectation for the film should be tempered by the knowledge that Earl’s line, “For what it’s worth, I’m sorry for everything”, is really the crux of the film. An elderly drug runner’s life regrets and attempts to make amends and re-connect with his family somehow plays like a disjointed soap opera than a real life drama. That said, even at age 88, Mr. Eastwood still has a strong screen presence, and we can’t help but find it interesting that both he and Robert Redford (THE OLD MAN AND THE GUN) had roles this year as criminals with a certain appeal.

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January 4, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness.  Two men are kidnapped, bound and gagged, and dragged into a secure basement. Soon enough, the disoriented men (and we as viewers) realize this is to be a trial conducted via social media – and the stakes are very real. Writer-Director Wilson Coneybeare presents the kidnapper as a quiet dude with an intricately well-designed, though quite demented, set-up.

Ron (Paul Braunstein) and the ironically named Judge Straight (Donald Sutherland) are the two men held captive, while Henry David Cole (Vincent Kartheiser, “Mad Men”) is their captor. Ron is the high strung type who constantly threatens Cole despite being handcuffed and otherwise tortured. The Judge, on the other hand, remains calm and composed as he tries to reason with his captor … and even talk some sense into Ron. Despite the circumstances, we find a bit of humor in Ron’s bull-headedness and his frantic comparisons to the movie SAW, which of course the Judge has never seen. On a side note, Paul Braunstein actually appeared in JIGSAW (one of the SAW sequels).

Cole begins the live broadcast via social media and we periodically see the graphics for time (go live at 1:11pm) and counter of viewers tuned in. Also tuning in are the local cops led by a retiring police lieutenant (Oliver Dennis) and a detective (Joanne Boland), and a top notch hacker (Jess Salguiero). Cole’s basement set up includes numerous computers and cameras strategically placed around the room. His own moves are choreographed in a manner that keeps his face from being seen on social media. The Judge and Ron see him (and his awful haircut), as do we as viewers.

An ambitious news reporter is working her own contacts, but much of the suspense occurs inside the basement. It takes a while to unfold, but we soon understand Cole’s thought process and why he believes a publicly broadcast trial makes sense. Some of the issues touched upon include a justice system that is “ignorant, corrupt and blood thirsty”, as well as the power and peril of the news media and social media. As the public “votes” online for guilt or innocence, all parties end up in full-throttle CYA mode by the end of the film … and that may be the biggest statement here. It’s a decent little thriller that surprisingly generates some thought.

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SHOPLIFTERS (2018, Manbiki kazoku, Japan)

January 3, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. We typically think of family as blood relatives, those affiliated by marriage or adoption, and those funky cousins (sometimes ‘removed’) that, according to the family tree, are supposedly related to us. Expert Japanese filmmaker Hirokazu Kore-eda (LIKE FATHER LIKE SON, 2013) presents a story that will have you questioning whether the strongest connection is blood, heart, or money.

We first witness ‘father’ Osamu Shibata (played by Lily Franky) and adolescent ‘son’ Shota (Jyo Kairi) in a well-coordinated shoplifting maneuver at the local grocery store. On the way home they stumble across a shivering child, maybe 4 or 5 years old, who has been seemingly abandoned by her parents. They take her home to warm her up and feed her, and it’s here we discover the multi-generational family living in a tiny apartment. This family also consists of ‘grandmother’ Hatsue (an excellent Kirin Kiki), ‘mother/wife’ Nobuyo (Sakura Ando), and teenage daughter Aki (rising star Mayu Matsuoka).

When the family discovers signs of abuse on the little girl Yuri (Miyu Sasaki), they decide to keep her – less an informal adoption than an admission to the club. See, this family lives in poverty, and finds comfort in working odd jobs and shoplifting. They do bad things out of necessity, in a kind of twisted ‘honor among thieves’. Each person, regardless of age is expected to contribute to the team. The eldest provides a steady income through her deceased ex-husband’s pension, and by scamming mercy money from his second family. Osamu and Nobuyo have regular part time jobs, while Aki works in a sexy chat room. Shota polishes his shoplifting skills and even tiny Yuri begins to learn by watching him. Everyone contributes in what can be described as a pyramid scheme of petty cons.

As the film progresses, we get to know each of the characters and begin to care about them … rooting for them to find success. Writer-Director Kore-eda draws us in with subtle scenes of interaction between the characters, each willing to sacrifice for the other. He raises the question on whether choosing one’s family might create a stronger bond than those blood ties. What really seems to matter is where we feel we belong, and where are accepted.

The film won the Palme d’Or at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival, and it’s likely due to the devastating and expert final act. In a dramatic shift in tone, true character is revealed – it’s a shocking revelation on some fronts, and fully expected on others. Each family member has a backstory that slowly unfolds through the first two acts, and then abruptly slaps us upside the head as the film nears conclusion. There are many social aspects to be discussed after this one, including how the child welfare system (seemingly regardless of country) sometimes works against a child’s best interest, even with the best intentions. This is one that will grab your heart and then stick with you for a while.

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COLD WAR (2018, Zimna wojna, Poland)

January 2, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Who doesn’t enjoy a good love story? The wonderfully talented filmmaker Pawel Pawlikowski proves to us the massive difference between a story of ‘good love’ and a ‘good story’ of love. With two lead characters based (somewhat) on his own parents (and named after them), we witness how two people can be simultaneously meant for each other AND not meant to be together. It’s the story of a man and woman forever connected, yet painfully mismatched.

Director Pawlikowski’s extraordinary last film, IDA (2013) won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language film, and this time he starts us off with a curious montage of Polish folk musicians (including bagpipes and violins) performing their songs … each in stark and static close-ups. This strange opening only makes sense to us much later, as we realize what a key element music plays in the numerous shifts in tone – the chapters – of the story.

Former lovers Wiktor (Polish star Tomasz Kot) and Irena (Agata Kulesza, IDA) are co-directors of a Polish song and dance performance team, and as they are conducting auditions, Wiktor is immediately drawn to Zula (Joanna Kulig), one who has a pure singing voice but a questionable past to go with no previous dancing experience. Irena recognizes lust when she sees it, but Wiktor stands firm that he perceives Zula’s stage presence as something special. The film covers the period of 1949 through 1964, and in that time we watch as Wiktor and Irena are both proven right. Mr. Kot and especially Ms. Kulig deliver extraordinary performances … truly captivating.

Director Pawlikowski offers up a love story unlike anything we’ve ever seen on the big screen. Wiktor and Zula experience the most tumultuous and romantic ride through Poland (the company first performs in Warsaw), East Berlin, Paris, Yugoslavia, back to Paris, and back to Poland. There were likely some other stops along the way, but those are the ones I made note of. Sometimes they are together, other times they are separated. It’s 1952 East Berlin where they formulate a plan to defect … only Zula is a no show, and they don’t meet up again for a couple of years. In one Paris rendezvous a few years later, Zula explains to Wiktor that she married another man “for us”. Somehow this makes sense.

It’s best to know no other specifics of this relationship. Star-crossed lovers is not a phrase used much these days, and perhaps even that description falls short. What causes someone to sell their soul for another – or sacrifice so much? How can so much pain and humiliation be accompanied by so much longing and yearning? What’s fascinating is that the film’s music styles shift in tone right along with their relationship. Sometimes the music is political (with a Stalin poster) – as that is the wall between them, and then later Zula is dancing totally free to “Rock Around the Clock”.

There are no wasted words here. The black and white images of cinematographer Lukasz Zal complements each segment with the appropriate softness or harshness depending on the characters’ emotions of the moment. Certainly at the heart of this story is the role of memories … how snapshots in time can impact our feelings, at times causing us to be oblivious to rational thought. As viewers, we experience a constant feeling of impending doom – even during the good times for Wiktor and Zula. The unusual editing style of extended cuts to black signal shifts in time … the blackness held for an extra beat or two, allowing us to brace for the next chapter. Polish jazz pianist Marcin Masecki scored the film – a crucial element not just because our two main characters are musicians, but because the music guides us through the lives we see. The film recalls the crown jewel of mismatched lovers in CASABLANCA as two lovers apparently meant to be together, but real life circumstances prove too much. Yet another excellent film from Pawel Pawlikowski.

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December 23, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Humiliation and disgust register when we acknowledge that James Baldwin’s 1974 book is as relevant today as it was when published. Though the book hardly lends itself to a big screen presentation, writer-director Barry Jenkins (Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar winner for last year’s Best Picture winner MOONLIGHT) brings his cinematic artistry and deft touch to a story that is a touching love story wrapped in a tale of social injustice.

Filmmaker Jenkins has succeeded in delivering the rare film that is filled with both tender, warm, smile-inducing moments and moments of absolute frustration that fill us with outrage. It’s a beautiful film with a sweet story of love between two soul mates, and it’s also a story of race, class, and Harlem in the 70’s. The film begins with a Baldwin quote informing us that “Beale Street” is born from black roots – it’s not geographical, but rather cultural. He’s certainly not referring to today’s tourist destination in Memphis.

Tish (terrific newcomer Kiki Lane) and Fonny (Stephan James, played Jesse Owens in RACE) have been best friends since early childhood. They are now ages 19 and 22 respectively, and that friendship has blossomed into romantic attraction. Their fairy tale love story is shattered when a racist cop (Ed Skrein) falsely accuses Fonny of rape, and Fonny goes to prison. And if that’s not enough, we witness the scene where Tish and her family invite Fonny’s family over to announce she is carrying his baby. Fonny’s judgmental and religious zealot of a mother reacts with indignation and is beyond cruel to Tish. It’s one of the most emotionally explosive scenes of any movie all year. Regina King gives a powerhouse performance as Tish’s mom, and she goes toe-to-toe with Fonny’s mom played by Aunjunae Ellis (Yula Mae from THE HELP). Fonny’s dad (Michael Beach, AQUAMAN) and Tish’s dad (Colman Domingo, SELMA) are stunned by the situation, and wisely take their discussions to the corner bar.

That incredible scene of families clashing is offset by the tenderness and soulfulness of the scenes showing Fonny and Tish together … whether on the neighborhood streets, in their apartment, or talking with a glass barrier between them. As the timeline gets bounced around, we see Fonny and his old buddy Daniel (Byron Tyree Henry) in one exceptional scene, and we also see the bond between Fonny and his café manager friend played by Diego Luna. The depth of these scenes is difficult to relay, and the film acts as both a character study and social commentary relevant to today’s issues. There is so much precision and attention to detail in the story-telling and acting. The color palettes transition depending on the mood of the scene, as does the music – the strings used by composer Nicholas Britell are very much a part of the Tish-Fonny love story, and the brassy jazz music cover the rest.

We get to know Fonny as an artist and charming young man smitten with Tish, who is a gentle and angelic soul. We see his changes while in prison, and we see how others react to her (based on their race, gender and age) as she works the perfume counter at a department story. Baldwin’s writing is spot on as Tish (in her role as narrator) says “I hope that nobody has ever had to look at anybody they love through glass.”

Director Jenkins has delivered a special movie that is brilliantly constructed. It’s a story of love and family and the impact of racism without any of the preachiness we often get. Cinematographer James Laxton expertly captures the tone changes, and having the actors periodically look directly into the camera (at the viewer) proves quite powerful. This is romanticism vs. reality, and speaks to the power and beauty of love … and the strength to carry through even in an unjust situation brought on by a fractured society. It’s a beautiful film.

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VICE (2018)

December 23, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. While it’s happening, we don’t always recognize life in terms of future historical merit. Time passes and perspective becomes possible. It’s at this point when we can reevaluate the actions and results of those involved. One might call this the benefit of hindsight, but philosopher George Santayana is credited with saying “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Filmmaker Adam McKay has moved on from his sophomoric comedies (STEP BROTHERS, ANCHORMAN: THE LEGEND OF RON BURGANDY) to full bore political satire, first with his “Funny or Die” videos (co-produced with Will Ferrell), then to his searing look at the financial crisis of the mortgage market with THE BIG SHORT (for which he won an Oscar for adapted screenplay), and now to the power dynamics within the Bush-Cheney administration … and how a quiet, unassuming insider became the most powerful man in America.

In one of the biggest casting head-scratchers of all-time, Christian Bale takes on the role of Dick Cheney. We are barely one scene in before all doubts are assuaged, and we are reminded yet again why Mr. Bale is one of the most talented and fascinating actors in cinematic history. With the weight gain, the hair, the growling voice (not unlike Bale’s Batman), the asymmetrical smirk – Bale becomes Cheney on screen and that allows us to focus on the manner in which filmmaker McKay unfolds the events – many of which we remember, even if we were blissfully unaware of the backstory.

Cheney is first seen in 1963 Wyoming as a drunk and somewhat rowdy youngster. The film then bounces the timeline to key events such as Cheney’s time as Donald Rumsfeld’s (Steve Carell) intern/lackey and the 1970’s (Bethesda, his being named youngest White House Chief of Staff, Ford’s loss to Carter, and the campaign for Wyoming Congressman). Cheney’s wife Lynne (played by Amy Adams) is portrayed as more ambitious than her husband (at least early on), and in one searing scene, yanks a young Cheney out of his funk and onto the upwardly mobile track. Were the timing 15 years forward, it’s not difficult to imagine Lynne as the rising political star.

The story really gets interesting once George HW Bush is elected and Cheney is brought back to D.C. as Secretary of Defense. From this point on, his near subversive quest for power is in overdrive. There are many quotes cautioning to ‘beware the quiet man’, and most fit the Cheney on display here. You’ve likely seen in the trailer where a finger-lickin’ George W Bush (Sam Rockwell) chows on barbeque as he offers the VP job to Cheney. Surprisingly, this is one of only two scenes where McKay makes Bush look like a buffoon. If you haven’t figured it out by now, it should be clear that McKay is not one to give the benefit of the doubt here … his mission is to highlight all ludicrous actions of our nation’s leaders during this time.

Supporting work is provided by a deep cast including Lilly Rabe and Allison Pill as the Cheney daughters (Liz and Mary), Justin Kirk as Scooter Libby, Bill Camp as Gerald Ford, LisaGay Hamilton as Condoleezza Rice, Tyler Perry as Colin Powell, Eddie Marsan as Paul Wolfowitz, and Don McManus as David Addington. There is also Bob Stephenson as Rush Limbaugh, cameos from Naomi Watts and Alfred Molina, and Jesse Plemons as the narrator whose true role is held at bay until near the film’s end.

September 11, 2001 brings on a very interesting segment when there is an emergency White House evacuation, and Cheney is whisked into a secure room and appears to overstep his authority … at least that’s how it appears to everyone other than Cheney. He is described as having power “like a ghost”, and it’s this scene and the follow-up discussions about Afghanistan, that McKay believes best exemplifies Cheney’s lust for power, and how ‘right and wrong’ are secondary to him.

Actual clips of Nixon, Reagan, bin Laden, Carter, and Obama are dropped into segments providing a quasi-documentary feel at times. Cheney’s heart issues, the political quandary resulting from his daughter coming out as gay, and the involvement of Americans for Tax Reform (ATR) and the Koch brothers all play a role here, as does the Unitary Executive Theory and the legal specifics that cause much debate. Also on display is some of the least complementary eyeglass fashion across 3 decades.

Even though his approach leans pretty far left, filmmaker McKay is to be applauded for a most entertaining look at how our government officials can manipulate policy and public statements, and may even stoop to focus groups in better understanding the views of the American people. Editor Hank Corwin (Oscar nominated for THE BIG SHORT) is a big part of maintaining the quick pace of the film, and the use of fishing as a metaphor somehow works.  “America” from WEST SIDE STORY is a fitting song to end the clever, funny and thought-provoking film and our look at the rare politician who amassed power while mostly avoiding the publicity that other politicians seek. Watch at your own risk – depending on your politics.

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SCIENCE FAIR (2018, doc)

December 23, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Welcome to the island of misfit High School geeks. Co-directors Cristina Constantini and Darren Foster introduce us to a few of the kids from around the globe who are striving to compete in the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair. More than 1500 students from dozens of countries qualify each year to present their ideas for a $75,000 grand prize. There are many rules, but the key is that the project must have “global impact”. Does this sound more important than a football game?  Well, not in South Dakota!

The film opens with the viral clip of a previous winner who literally ran onstage screaming and crying when his name was announced as a winner. We then meet Jack Andraka today, and in his interview, he explains his guttural response and the impact of the fair both for individuals and idea advancement. Jack, now in his 20’s, works as a researcher. We follow 9 students from various parts of the world – each with different backgrounds, interests, expertise, and motivations. The support they receive from parents, teachers and schools also varies, as do the resources available.

Students being followed are from a Kentucky, South Dakota, Brazil, West Virginia, Germany and New York state. The systems range from a magnet school to a public school without a science lab. In South Dakota, a Muslim girl named Kashfia bluntly states that athletics are the focus of her school (their football team went 0-9), and her science teachers had no interest in being her faculty sponsor … so the football coach agreed to fill the role. This is contrasted to a New York teacher who commits her off-hours to mentor and push students to participate and compete, and she regularly sends multiple students to the fair. In West Virginia, a frustrated math teacher discusses how one student had no interest in homework or tests, then we hear the student explain his advancements in artificial intelligence. A German student diligently works on improving the aeronautics on single wing aircraft. Other projects include detecting arsenic in water, the effects of drug and alcohol abuse, and preventing cancer rather than curing it. It’s an impressive lot.

Quite a few of the students hail from immigrant families, and each student is inspiring, intelligent and ambitious. Given the political climate in the U.S. these days, it is heart-warming to see so many youngsters who want to make the world a better place. The directors also interview past winners, but are not allowed in the exhibit hall once the judging begins. National Geographic has sponsored this documentary which won the Audience award at both Sundance and SXSW. These students are the ones that give us hope for the future, and remind us that sports are a nice pastime, but it is intelligence and technical advancements that will sustain the species. The film should be used to recruit more students into working towards the Olympics of Science Fairs!

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