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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MAMMA MIA! HERE WE GO AGAIN (2018)

July 19, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. It’s been 10 years since director Phyllida Lloyd presented the crowd-pleasing MAMMA MIA! movie. It was a box office hit (over $600 million worldwide) and was, for a few years, the highest grossing musical of all-time. Most importantly, it was extremely entertaining and a joyous cinematic romp for viewers. This year’s sequel is directed by Ol Parker (THE BEST EXOTIC MARIGOLD HOTEL and husband to actress Thandie Newton), and though the melancholy is slathered on a bit too thick, it also fulfills its number one priority – entertaining the fans.

The story begins with Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) putting the final touches on the house-turned-hotel in preparation for the upcoming Grand Opening. It’s named Hotel Bella Donna in honor of Sophie’s mother (Meryl Streep). What looks to be a straight-forward story surprises us with a flashback to Donna’s 1979 graduation, which features not only the first song-and-dance number “When I Kissed the Teacher”, but also the first of two ABBA cameos … Bjorn Ulvaeus as a professor. The young Donna is played brilliantly by Lily James, and she effortlessly captures the free-spiritedness that led to the conundrum of the first movie – 3 possible dads for Sophie.

Those 3 dads return not only as Pierce Brosnan (Sam), Stellan Skarsgard (Bill), and Colin Firth (Harry), but also as Jeremy Irvine (young Sam), Josh Dylan (young Bill), and Hugh Skinner (young Harry). In fact, most of the run time is dedicated to the backstory of these characters and how they first met as youngsters. Each has a segment (and song) with young Harry featured in “Waterloo” accompanied by Benny Andersson (ABBA cameo #2) on piano. Young Bill is the charming sailor who saves the day for Donna, while young Sam assists her with saving a storm-shaken horse (kind of humorous since Mr. Irvine starred in WAR HORSE).

Also back are Dominic Cooper as Sky, Sophie’s true love, who can’t decide between romance and career, and Donna’s life-long friends Tanya (Christine Baranski) and Rosie (Julie Walters), who are also part of the flashback as Jessica Keenan Wynn (excellent as young Tanya) and Alexa Davies (as young Rosie). New to the cast are Celia Imrie in the graduation number, Andy Garcia as the hotel manager, and drawing the biggest applause of all … Cher as Sophie’s grandmother (and as my viewing partner commented, an early peek at what Lady Gaga will look like as a grandma)! It’s best if you experience Cher for yourself, and it should be noted that this is her first big screen appearance since BURLESQUE in 2010.

Of course, the songs are key and many of the ABBA numbers from the first movie are featured again this time. In particular, “Dancing Queen” is a nautical standout, and “Fernando” is a show-stopper. While it may not be quite as raucous as the first, it’s a treat watching Lily James, and there is a wonderful blending of “old” and “new” in the finale. The only real question remaining is, did the casting director do the math before casting Cher (age 72) as Meryl Streep’s (age 69) mother?

*As a special treat, there is a “most interesting” cameo near the end of the film

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KILL THE MESSENGER (2014)

October 13, 2014

kill the mesenger Greetings again from the darkness. This is one of those true stories that probably works better as a drama than as a documentary. Jeremy Renner brings passion and believability to his role as infamous journalist Gary Webb. This allows us to gain insight into Mr. Webb as a father, husband and man, rather than only as a fiery investigative reporter.

You likely recall Webb’s published story (San Jose Mercury News) from 1996, when his research uncovered the likelihood that cocaine imported into the US was sold as crack cocaine and the profits had funded arms for the Contra rebels in Nicaragua in the prior decade. The kicker being that the CIA was well aware of these activities.

The film presents Webb as an idealist, too naive to comprehend that the story would have ramifications to his employer, his family and his self. The use of actual news footage adds a dose of reality, as does the inclusion of Ronald Reagan, Oliver North, John Kerry … and even the role Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky played in outshining the ultimate redemption of Webb’s work.

The underlying message here … beyond the governmental cover-up … is the lack of a truly free press. Of course, the issue remains front and center today, but in this particular instance, it’s surprising to see the influence and pressure applied by outside forces. It’s further proof that any hope for checks and balances from our news outlets was snuffed out many years ago.

The movie is based on two books: Gary Webb’s own “Dark Alliance” and Nick Shou’s “Kill the Messenger”. The frustration as a viewer is derived from the fragmented presentation brought on by steady stream of new characters who mostly appear in only one or maybe two scenes. The list of known actors is impressive: Rosemary DeWitt, Oliver Platt, Robert Patrick, Tim Blake Nelson, Michael Sheen, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Paz Vega, Barry Pepper, Michael Kenneth Williams, Andy Garcia, Gil Bellows, Lucas Hedges, Richard Schiff, and Ray Liotta. That should help explain what I mean by fragmented.

The story is an important one and the film is worth seeing. Director Michael Cuesta’s approach makes it impossible to not think of All the President’s Men while watching. The Granddaddy of crusading journalism continues to produce heirs … those that are a black eye for the newspaper industry and our government.

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CITY ISLAND (2009)

April 4, 2010

 Greetings again from the darkness. I am always amazed, amused and somewhat satisfied when a writer gathers up multiple stereotypes, massages the conflict and dialogue, and emerges with a script that captures interest and holds attention. Writer/director Raymond De Felitta has done just that with working class Italian New Yorkers.

All story lines revolve around the secrets each of the family members keep from the others. Sure, we all understand that two-way communication and trust create a much stronger and healthier family, but sometimes, it’s just not that simple.

Andy Garcia plays the head of this secretive bunch and he sets the stage with two whoppers. The first is his slinking off to acting classes while chasing his lifelong dream of becoming an actor – like his inspiration, Marlon Brando. To cover this one up, he tells his wife (Julianna Margulies) that he is off to another poker game, unaware that she interprets this as code for his having an affair.

They have a daughter (Dominik Garcia-Lorido) who has lost her college scholarship and is saving money to re-enroll by working (secretly) as a stripper. Guess what?  Her parents don’t know.  Their odd ball son (Ezra Miller), who believes he is too smart to attend classes, develops an online fetish habit that ends up VERY close to home.  Again, his parents are oblivious.

In most films, this would be plenty of ammunition to create havoc among the players. Not here. Garcia’s second, and much larger secret, throws this dysfunctional family into a tailspin – and he somehow is the last to realize. Emily Mortimer, Steven Strait and Alan Arkin all provide strong support to the story and this “family”.

Mr. De Felitta explored some of these family topics in The Thing About My Folks, but here he is working with his own script. The balance between comedy, conflict and insight is actually very good; though, the New Yorker habit of loud mealtime conversation is somewhat discomforting for this southern boy. Still, I have nothing but positive things to say about how the stereotypes end up providing self-realization to each of the characters, and even more importantly, an understanding of what their family really is. Good stuff here.