The Mule

Release: Friday, December 14, 2018

→Theater

Written by: Sam Dolnick; Nick Schenk

Directed by: Clint Eastwood

The Mule marks the 37th time Clint Eastwood has directed a movie. Remember that the next time you go out for Trivia Night. From The Eiger Sanction (1975) to his Best Picture-winning western Unforgiven (1992); Mystic River (2003) to Gran Torino (2008), the man has cemented himself as a national treasure who has done a little bit of everything — oh yes, I nearly forgot The Bridges of Madison County. How dare I? His latest effort won’t ever be mentioned in the same breath as the likes of The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976) and contemporary successes like Million Dollar Baby (2004), yet The Mule seems destined to always have a place in my heart. It’s a quietly profound drama about aging, regret and misplaced priorities that finds an ever-more introspective Eastwood returning to acting for the first time in six years.

The Mule is inspired by a true story about an 80-something-year-old horticulturalist fallen on hard times who unwittingly becomes a prolific coke smuggler for a dangerous Mexican cartel in an attempt to reclaim his home and way of life. Names and locations have been changed. His character, Earl Stone, a Korean War vet whose age, race and spotless criminal history help him maintain a low profile while doing multiple drives from the border city of El Paso, Texas to Chicago, Illinois, is based upon the real Leo Sharp, a World War II veteran who became a courier for the infamous Sinaloa Cartel and eluded capture for more than a decade.

Eastwood sets up a deliberately paced journey into the soul of a lonely man who has always put work before everything else and now finds himself having to come to terms with certain realities. The character is a perfect fit for the big screen veteran whose larger-than-life persona grafts well with Earl’s social butterfly. There is an interesting dichotomy within this man, someone who’s well-recognized around town for his gregariousness and those beautiful, award-winning (and world-renowned) hybridized lilies, all while being a complete stranger to his own family. That dynamic becomes even more pronounced as he begins making serious dough doing dirtier work and turns into this Robin Hood-esque character who funnels his ill-begotten cash into worthy causes, like renovating the facilities of the local Veterans of Foreign Wars Post.

The stakes really couldn’t be higher despite The Mule‘s lack of physicality and bloody conflict. The passing of time plays a major role in building tension. Time is Earl’s most precious resource and despite the unsavory characters he ends up getting in deep with, time is also his greatest enemy. He hasn’t spent it well and his future is as uncertain as ever, with the proliferation of internet-based floral shops making small businesses like his relics of the past. You might argue that The Mule isn’t really about the things he is doing to survive but rather the things he isn’t doing or not doing nearly well enough.

The Mule really becomes an elegy for time wasted when it comes to exploring Earl’s personal failings. His absenteeism hasn’t just affected his immediate family; it ripples across generations. His granddaughter Ginny (Taissa Farmiga) is a prime example, her naivety towards Earl and his propensity for disappointing the people who matter most setting her on a collision course with a rude awakening. Meanwhile his long-ignored wife Mary (Dianne Wiest, heartbreaking) and estranged daughter Iris (real-life daughter Alison Eastwood) have learned to adapt. Sort of.

There is a disturbing real-world parallel that is all but impossible to ignore when you consider the revelation of this past December, when Eastwood was spotted at a promotional event for the film alongside someone who had rarely been caught in photos before. This younger woman was none other than Laurie Eastwood, reportedly the daughter he had given up for adoption in 1954 and whom he had never acknowledged until now. A 1999 biography — Clint: The Life and Legend — attempted to shed light on the matter, but the book’s publishing was met with serious opposition and no other media outlet ever attempted to confirm.

Despite Earl’s initial reluctance to commit to more than one run, his stock quickly rises and his loads increase exponentially — at one point he is carting around in his truck bed something like $3 million in product. His reliability, not to mention his remarkably calm composure around his new employers, earn him the respect of low-level street dealers and big-time suppliers alike. “El Tata” eventually ingratiates himself with el jefe, Andy García’s El Chapo-like Laton and his many curvaceous mamasitas. His status amongst the cartel is challenged with the sudden and violent coup staged by the power-hungry Gustavo (Eastwood’s ex-son-in-law Clifton Collins Jr.), who seeks to put the clamps on El Tata’s liberal interpretation of the rules governing his employment (no delays, no unplanned pitstops, etc).

Tension is further amplified by the circling vultures of Chicago’s DEA agents Bates (Bradley Cooper) and Trevino (a disappointingly under-used Michael Peña). They’re seeking a number of significant busts to satiate their higher-ups, represented by Laurence Fishburne‘s Special Agent and Pete Burris’s DEA Regional Manager. Time isn’t on Earl’s side, but it isn’t exactly in favor of Bates and his partner either. Their bosses want the results Bates’ hard work simply isn’t yielding. Kilos upon kilos of white powder are flooding the city. The two narratives become increasingly interlinked, with Cooper and Eastwood getting a few interesting (if perhaps far too coincidental) moments of shared screen time as they exchange pleasantries under the canopy of well-crafted dramatic irony.

The culmination of events certainly won’t be to everyone’s satisfaction. The Mule goes out quietly but not without a sense of closure. No big shoot-outs, no grand-standing, no soap-box taking. No glorifying. No pretense of making drug running a sexy, enticing lifestyle. In short, no (or very little) Hollywood gloss. I appreciated that level of restraint. The story is familiar and riddled with cliché but I still find it hard to resist Clint Eastwood in this mode, seemingly repenting for aspects of his own life he is none too proud of.

Recommendation: As it turns out, the promotional material has been selling quite a different experience, the trailers suggesting a harder-hitting, more action-driven adventure than what you end up getting. Where there might have been action or at least more snarling intensity in an Eastwood picture some twenty years ago now there is more solemn reflection. This isn’t a bad thing, but maybe set expectations accordingly.

Rated: R

Running Time: 116 mins.

Quoted: “For what it’s worth, I’m sorry for everything.”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

The Age of Adaline

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Release: Friday, April 24, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: J. Mills Goodloe; Salvador Paskowitz

Directed by: Lee Toland Krieger

I’m a sucker for romance done right. Call me old-fashioned, laugh at my sentimentality, but The Age of Adaline fits the description, bookmarking itself as one of the first true surprises of the year.

At first glance Lee Toland Krieger’s premise promises not much beyond a good-looking actress adorned by a thick coat of hokum. Adaline Bowman (Blake Lively), who survives a most unusual car accident and is rendered unable to age beyond 29 — because, lightning and ice cold water and stuff — discovers that perpetual youth is indeed a curse. Doomed to look beautiful for the rest of her days (woe as her), there actually are practical considerations, and thanks to solid writing and terrific performances, such complications garner our sympathy.

Not only will Adaline be unable to maintain a relationship with anyone as no one is likely to share her gift of presumed immortality, but she fears that her condition will make her a target of scientific experiments. It’s a fear that’s not unfounded as one evening she is forced into a car by FBI agents that she manages to escape from quickly. From here on out she vows to take her life on the road, avoiding commitment to others and even her own identify for longer than a decade. Oh, ageless Adaline, I feel like there ought to be a song dedicated to your predicament.

Or at least your wardrobe.

A valid argument could be made in dismissing all of this as an excuse to dress up the star in a variety of get-ups dating back to the early days of the 20th Century. Seriously, the woman evolves from flapper fashionista to ’50s bombshell, perpetually enticing the camera to her stunning natural beauty revitalized by costume designer Angus Strathie’s exquisite sense of style and time. Vanity would be a legitimate complaint if this were all Krieger et al cared about, but glamour belies their calculated, collective effort.

At the heart of the film is a sublime performance from Lively who effortlessly exudes charm and loneliness. Her ability to transcend time may be due in part to the work done behind the curtains but she is equally responsible for convincing us Adaline is a woman shackled by circumstances rather than liberated by them. When she meets a dapper gentleman named Ellis Jones (Michael Huisman) at a New Year’s party Adaline rejects his many advances with a nonchalance only a woman on her way to gaining 107 years’ worth of life experience can afford. It’s one in a series of moments where Lively’s having fun with the role is palpable.

Heisman introduces a vulnerability to a story that perhaps doesn’t need any more. And despite herself, Adaline can’t help but be drawn to his genuineness. There is of course an air of predictability and sentimentality to the developments but that doesn’t detract from the overriding sense of relief we feel. Added to the supporting cast we are treated to another limited albeit touching Ellen Burstyn performance as Adaline’s daughter; Harrison Ford chimes in with a pivotal role late in the third act, giving The Age of Adaline a needed dose of gravitas. In a period where the film was starting to run out of steam, the unification feels less natural as it does necessary, but even still the moment serves as a testament to how deeply empathetic this cast, these characters are.

At the risk of sensationalizing my experience, The Age of Adaline compares favorably to the likes of David Fincher’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. In that way, both films absorb through the virtue of their length, more so the latter than the former; disarming in their lead performances (though, again, Brad Pitt perhaps being more the heartbreaker not just because of his looks); both films transporting audiences to times we can now only visit in cinema or for some in their memories. The Age of Adaline won’t be an Oscar contender for much outside its costume design and if it’s lucky a nod to production design, but that’s no small feat for a film hailing from a genre that time and again fails to produce something as rich and rewarding as Krieger’s multiple-period piece.

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3-5Recommendation: Blake Lively turns in her best work to date in the titular role of Adaline Bowman. This is a character and a performer who is difficult not to like, even despite Lively’s past role choices being. . .eh. . .less than stellar. In fact the only thing I can personally recall enjoying her in was 2006’s Accepted. That’s a film far removed from this in terms of enjoyment and maturity. It’s nice to see her rise to the occasion. And as far as romantic dramas go, you can do so much worse than the admittedly schmaltzy and scientifically questionable The Age of Adaline. A very nice surprise.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 112 mins.

Quoted: “Let go.” 

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Danny Collins

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Release: Friday, April 10, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: Dan Fogelman

Directed by: Dan Fogelman

Perspective is a tool we come to wield better with age.  As months beget years and years decades, we can look back and reconsider things we could have or shouldn’t have done. I’d like to not put too fine a point on it by calling this process regret; at a certain point all of us end up looking into a mirror and realizing that physical changes can sometimes be the least noticeable ones.

That’s a complete cliché and this blogger knows he’s used his fair share since beginning to write about movies but in this instance, where the tribulations of fictitious folk singer Danny Collins have been irrevocably affected by the 40-years-belated reception of a note penned by John Lennon, reflecting upon the past turns out to be a potent storytelling device. Al Pacino’s hard-drinking, hard-partying 60-something celebrity isn’t built completely out of fabricated material, however; he’s based upon English folk singer and songwriter Steve Tilston. The note Lennon actually wrote said something to the effect of “being rich doesn’t change your experience in the way you think.”

The letter addresses a then-21-year-old Danny who was interviewed by a magazine at the beginning of his success and reported that he was in fact terrified of what his career might bring him — fame, fortune . . . the sort of stuff many of us would drool over while fantasizing about our new wardrobes, our new social circles, our new everything. And that was his fear, how these things would affect his ability to craft quality music.

Danny Collins is the directorial debut of screenwriter Dan Fogelman (Crazy, Stupid, Love; Tangled; Cars) and features Pacino in a decidedly less destructive role but with Pacino being Pacino you are unable to dismiss the choice as wayward from the glory days (cough-cough, Robert De Niro). There I go with comparisons again. Not that they’re difficult to make as De Niro has become an easy target and Pacino is that rare kind of performer who just stays excellent (though, granted, perhaps I need to experience his Starkman before I can accurately make that statement). His charisma as a musician stagnating in his latter years, reduced to playing the same hits every night, largely defines this picture.

It’s his manager Frank Grubman (Christopher Plummer) who brings the letter to Danny’s attention. After a typical night of boozing and using Danny decides he wants to reverse the course of his self-destructive habits, start writing songs again (after a three decade hiatus) and maybe even get in touch with his son who he has never met. He moves into a random New Jersey hotel, managed by the charming but guarded Mary Sinclair (Annette Bening) who repeatedly rebuffs Danny’s offers for dinner. The first time they meet remains a highlight moment, dually serving as affirmation that Fogelman can write great dialogue. The banter between them is something that doesn’t fail, even if the film overall nearly collapses with sentimentality as a jelly doughnut does with too much filling. (Yes, I’m a firm believer doughnuts can have too much filling.)

Fogelman’s first directorial effort is undoubtedly elevated by experienced actors making mushy material work so much better than it really ought to. Predictability is a bit of an issue, as are character archetypes that are visibly influenced by script rather than the almighty charm of Pacino’s musician. Bobby Cannavale plays Danny’s son Tom. Jennifer Garner is his wife, Samantha. They’re raising what first appears to be a precocious young daughter, Hope (Giselle Eisenberg) but as time goes on she’s revealed to suffer from severe hyperactivity and has learning disabilities because of it. They’re trying to get her into an educational institution where her needs will be met. Cue Danny’s first opportunity to get back into his family’s life. It won’t take great acting for us to realize there’ll be some resistance. But Cannavale is superb and erases his character’s strictures with ease. We empathize with Tom perhaps more than we should. Garner is also solid, although she has very little to do but win the race of who’s-going-to-forgive-Danny-first.

It’s not as if it hasn’t happened before, but this is a stage far removed from the spotlights of Tony Montana and Michael Corleone. Pacino has demonstrated a capacity for tolerating questionable material — things of the Gigli and Jack & Jill variety — as well as a willingness to embrace extremes (he makes for quite a charismatic Satan in Devil’s Advocate). He’s not above anything and that kind of attitude may very well be the reason he’s regarded as one of cinema’s greatest American icons. It’s evident that being rich hasn’t changed his experience in the way he thinks.

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3-5Recommendation: Al Pacino and a talented, intensely likable supporting cast give Danny Collins‘ weaker moments a pass, though this is far and away Pacino’s film. Depending on your level of enthusiasm for the guy, this is a must-see in theaters or a rental you cannot miss. It’s a solid adult dramedy, one of an elite few so far in 2015.

Rated: R

Running Time: 106 mins.

Quoted: “Well, you look . . . slightly ridiculous . . .”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

While We’re Young

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Release: Friday, March 27, 2015

[Theater]

Written by:  Noah Baumbach

Directed by: Noah Baumbach 

As the tagline suggests, life never gets old but can the same be said for aggressively hipster, disingenuous characters and convoluted stories?

Noah Baumbach is a director I should have written off already. What I’ve been able to gather through only two films (this and 2013’s Frances Ha) is that he’s all about some hipster shit. From what I understand, his back catalog has this tendency to be a bit off-putting. If he weren’t such a brilliant writer with observations so keen on actually making me think people really can reinvent themselves from the inside out — that’s much cornier now that I say it out loud (let’s face it: most movies fail to change us in any way that’s discernible) — I probably would have given up.

Baumbach’s talent for plucking characters and situations from reality and surrounding them in a cinematic environment is on display in While We’re Young. So is his penchant for working with difficult-to-like personalities. I have to get over that. I really do. It’s either that, or I don’t have to. I could go on eager to embrace only that which makes me comfortable and engages on all levels, pretending that the world exists for my sensitivities. I’m an idealist and it kind of sucks. That goes far beyond selecting what films appeal to me and what do not. I’m a little like Ben Stiller’s documentarian Josh who demands purity and absolute truth in the films he makes. (Me, lacking his film-making ambition.)

Currently he’s in the middle of a big project and is having great difficulty keeping it going. Josh has strung together a rather paltry career as a documentary filmmaker and now he finds himself, along with wife Cornelia (Naomi Watts), in the throes of middle-age as the New York couple are seeing friends all around them growing up with their own children, an experience that Josh and Cornelia have longed to share in but haven’t been able to due to infertility. That’s something of a private matter, so where does this concern us, exactly? While We’re Young begins as an evaluation of a couple finding a surprising amount of joy in their childless adult lives, but Baumbach has grander aspirations than suggesting all people who have kids eventually lose themselves to parenting duties.

Josh finishes up another of his lectures at the local college and comes across a young couple, Jamie (Adam Driver) and his wife Darby (Amanda Seyfried), who take an immediate interest in his approach to film. They insist he and Cornelia join them for dinner. Quickly Josh and Cornelia become infatuated with the way these twentysomethings seem to be “so engaged” in everything and anything around them. They have youth on their side, sure, but soon it’s an entire lifestyle that convinces the documentarian and his producer wife they’ve been hanging out with the wrong people for awhile now.

It’s a matter of time and a few awkward scenes before they are miming Jamie and Darby’s nonchalance, shedding everything about themselves save for their few well-earned wrinkles and grey hairs. Stiller looks less silly in a pair of thick-framed glasses and a fedora than Watts does taking up hip-hop dance classes with Darby, unable to disengage the twerk wherever she is for the remainder of the film. (I’ve never been able to describe Watts as a particularly convincing actress and here she really hit some alarm buttons.)

The foursome’s lives are further intertwined when Josh, who has always preferred working by himself, eventually caves and allows Jamie to help steer his long-struggling documentary in the right direction. ‘Right’ is an extremely subjective term, as it becomes clear Jamie is more in it for being able to work his way up the ladder of prestige and success, while Josh merely wants to put out a good story, an important one. Granted, when you listen to him explain his ambition, don’t blame yourself for struggling to stay awake. I certainly don’t. While We’re Young frustratingly finds success in sending up the generational gap that exists between our principal actors while simultaneously detaching us from them with an overindulgence of technical talk about the medium of documentary film and Josh’s convoluted ideas.

As such, a final showdown (that shouldn’t really feel like a final showdown) that occurs between the idealist and opportunist behind the scenes of an award ceremony where Cornelia’s successful father (Charles Grodin) is accepting the top prize for documentary filmmaking, comes across forced and a tad goofy given all the dramatic set-up. Cornelia’s father has been at the center of Jamie’s attention for sometime. Is this why he has been interested in Josh’s work this whole time? It really doesn’t matter; we’ve tuned out for the most part and are awaiting this mid-life crisis to end.

So as I was saying, is it all the hipsters’ fault for While We’re Young not striking a match and lighting the cinematic world on fire? Of course . . . not. It’s a film that astutely observes the pains of life in its many forms — in this case, the advantages and pitfalls of aging and of youth, and how the process of discovery often is more important than the results we find in the end. But the film is unfocused and yes, okay, is made longer by characters that are tough to identify with. The latter is rendered harder to ignore when the former is the larger issue.

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2-5Recommendation: These characters and these lifestyles and these interests are certainly not my cup of tea. Maybe I’m not qualified to write a recommendation for this thing, but I did find a lot to like here. There are a number of excellently crafted and funny scenes but these feel scattershot and overwhelmed by a sea of mediocre ones. Stiller and Watts make a convincing couple, with emphasis on the former. Driver and Seyfried are excellent at the hipster thing. And Baumbach excels at nailing some truths here. It’s a decent outing, give it a go if you’re a fan of his previous work.

Rated: R

Running Time: 97 mins.

Quoted: “I remember when this song was just considered bad . . .”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com