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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WHAT THEY HAD (2018)

October 25, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. “Til death do us part.” Only far too often, long term marriages are not broken by death, but instead by memories being cruelly erased through disease. Alzheimer’s and Dementia are dreadful diseases, even in the early stages. Writer-Director Elizabeth Chomko uses her feature film debut not to analyze the specifics of these diseases, but instead to focus on the incredibly personal and emotional fallout they produce.

At first glance, Bridget (Hilary Swank) seems to have figured things out in life. She’s a California career woman married to a successful man (Josh Lucas), and their daughter Emma (Taissa Farmiga) is a college student. Slowly, the truth is unfurled – much of it after she receives a frantic call from her brother Nick (Michael Shannon) back home in Chicago. Their mother (Blythe Danner) is missing, having wandered out into a snow storm wearing her pajamas. Bridget and her daughter Emma hop on a plane and land in the middle of a huge family ordeal. See, Nick is exhausted from being the caregiver, and believes the best thing for their mother (and for him) is to move her into an extended care facility. Dad (Robert Forster) is adamant that she remain home with him, where she (and he) are most comfortable.

Of course, the turmoil doesn’t end there. Bridget is in a loveless marriage. Emma has been evicted from her dorm for drinking. Nick’s long-time girlfriend has booted him to the backroom of the bar he owns. Bert, the father, is unwilling to accept or even discuss surrendering the life he’s known for decades. Ruth, the mom, is as apt to make a move on her son as to remember her daughter’s name. Contrasting personalities abound in this house. Despite having power of attorney, Bridget is still intimidated by her bullying father, and seems to have no empathy for the burden carried by Nick. It’s all very messy – just like a real family, and filmmaker Chomko revels in it.

It’s so wonderful to see Robert Forster in such a hefty role. These days, he’s typically relegated to a tertiary character where he mostly frowns and grunts. Not this time. He is at once a bullying force within the family, and an elderly man treading on fragile ground. He belittles his grown kids by calling his bar owner son a “bartender”, and having coerced his daughter into marrying a man for security. Mr. Forster nails the role, as does Michael Shannon as his irksome son. Shannon is one of the best actors working today and he is mesmerizing with his snap backs – sometimes funny, sometimes mean, sometimes both.

There is some horrible relationship advice served up. The family philosophy is “pick somebody you can stand, and make a commitment”, as there’s no such thing as “bells and whistles”. It’s not the romantic chatter most movies provide, but it plays to the complicated bond between parents and kids (of all ages). Director Chomko brilliantly and accurately handles the gut-wrenching effects of Alzheimer’s. She embraces laughter as a coping mechanism, and reminds us to enjoy the rare moments of clarity – those times a parent can remember who you are. There are a few cringe-inducing moments of mushy melodrama, but for the most part, Ms. Chomko delivers.

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RULES DON’T APPLY (2016)

November 23, 2016

rules-dont-apply Greetings again from the darkness. Few films can match this one for pedigree. Actor/Director/Producer/Writer Warren Beatty is a 14-time Oscar nominee (won for Best Director, Reds, 1982) and Hollywood legend. Screenwriter Bo Goldman is a 3 time Oscar nominee, and has won twice (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Melvin and Howard). The cast includes 4-time Oscar nominee Ed Harris, 4-time Oscar nominee Annette Bening (Beatty’s wife), and other Oscar nominees: Alec Baldwin, Amy Madigan, Candice Bergen, and Steve Coogan. The all-star production also features Cinematographer Caleb Deschanel (a 5 time Oscar nominee), Co-Editors Leslie Jones and Billy Weber (both Oscar nominees), and two-time Oscar winner, Costume Designer Albert Wolsky. It’s Mr. Beatty’s first time directing since Bulworth (1998) and first time acting since Town & Country (2011). Being such a filmmaking icon, he attracts some of the most talented folks in the industry whenever he decides to work.

Of course, this isn’t a career retrospective and there are no brownie points won for surrounding yourself with the cinematically decorated elite. It still comes down to the movie, and unfortunately, this one is never as exciting, entertaining or funny as it seems to think it is.

Rumors of Warren Beatty making a Howard Hughes movie have bounced around for decades, and it appears this is as close as we’ll get. The director himself plays the billionaire, and the story mostly revolves around the time the enigmatic man (Hughes, not Beatty) was most involved with Hollywood and the movie business. Much of the dialogue and the majority of the scenes involving Hughes emphasize (and enhance?) the man’s idiosyncrasies that bordered on mental instability. Beatty mostly plays him as a mumbling and shrugging goofball who dines on TV dinners and is frightened of children.

The best parts of the movie don’t involve Hughes, and instead feature the youngsters trying to make their way in his convoluted organization. Lily Collins (Phil’s daughter) plays Marla Mabrey, a wanna-be starlet committed to her staunch religious upbringing – said beliefs incessantly reinforced by her distrusting mother (Annette Bening). Her driver is Frank Forbes played by Alden Ehrenreich (Hail, Caesar!), and his own agenda involves convincing Howard Hughes to invest in a real estate development project on Mulholland Drive. As expected, sparks fly between the young actress and the equally conservative young visionary, and we find ourselves engaged with them – in good times and bad.

The two youngsters have some nice screen chemistry that multiple times is brought to a screeching halt by the inclusion of yet another cockamamie Howard Hughes scene – most of which feel more like Beatty’s desire to be on screen rather than an extension of the story. These intrusions prevent any real flow to the film and actually bog down the most interesting aspects of the story. In fact, the disruptions cause us to spend more time “spotting the celeb” than caring about the characters. The list of familiar faces that pop up include: Ed Harris, Amy Madigan, Taissa Farmiga, Alec Baldwin, Matthew Broderick, Chase Crawford, Martin Sheen (as Noah Dietrich), Oliver Platt, Steve Coogan, Dabney Coleman, Paul Sorvino, and even Candice Bergen (as Hughes’ secretary).

It’s easy to see the nostalgia and fond memories that Mr. Beatty has of this late 50’s – early 60’s era in Hollywood. It was all about glamour and the magic of what’s on screen. The real Howard Hughes story is at least as interesting, if not more so, than the history of Hollywood, but the cartoonish aspects of the billionaire here don’t hold up to such previous works as The Aviator, or even Melvin and Howard.

These days, the Howard Hughes Hollywood legacy is barely a blip – a few recall Jane Russell’s close-up or the aerial battles of Hell’s Angels, while fewer know the RKO Studios story. Warren Beatty’s movie legacy is much more than a blip; however his latest adds little to the legend.

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