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

30-for-30: Trojan War

30 for 30 Trojan War

Release: Tuesday, October 13, 2015

[Netflix]

Directed by: Aaron Rahsaan Thomas

Another story lamenting how the mighty have fallen. That’s how Trojan War will look to anyone not familiar with the University of Southern California, Pete Carroll, the Seattle Seahawks . . . or really American football in general.

Carroll and his Seahawks have long been associated with some of the sport’s most recognizable brands, yet all this attention hasn’t always benefitted them. To a certain extent, that fall-from-grace trajectory is the genesis for the drama herein, although its exposure of infamous personnel (as well as famous personalities) is where the film sets itself apart.

Aaron Rahsaan Thomas, who brings much experience writing and producing popular television series such as Southland, CSI: New York and Sleepy Hollow, turns the spotlight on the former head coach of the USC Trojans, rewinding the tape to reveal what events precipitated his jump back into the NFL after nearly a decade of coaching inspiring college athletes in a part of the country where stardom isn’t exactly hard to come by. (The campus is but a stone’s throw away from the entertainment capital of the world.)

The Carroll era kicked off in 2001 and ended in 2009. In that time, he resuscitated a program that found itself on life support having struggled through one of the worst four-year stretches in USC history, a period in which the Trojans were essentially cropped out of the national collegiate football picture, failing to crack the top 20 in the national rankings from 1996 until 2000. Trojan War rushes through backstory, hastily developing the environment into which the new head coach would be stepping before slowing down to catch its breath and focusing on what happened in the early 2000s.

The 2004 and 2005 seasons are of particular interest, for these were the years during which Carroll and quarterback Matt “Lion Heart” Leinart led USC to 34 consecutive victories, tying the fifth longest winning streak in Division I football history. Consequently they’re also the years upon which current and past USC players and alums reflect with deep-seated bitterness. In the interviews with former players like LenDale White and Leinart, even Carroll himself, you can sense the discomfort and tension. And for good reason.

In 2010 the NCAA wrapped up a protracted investigation into violations involving star running back Reggie Bush (who played for Carroll from 2003-2005), and went on to hand down particularly harsh penalties against the school: USC was required to vacate all of its wins from the 2004 and 2005 seasons, including Bowl games; they were banned from participating in postseason games for two years as of the 2010 season; Bush was stripped of his Heisman trophy and his name permanently scrubbed from the record books. The school also forfeited 30 scholarships over the next three years.

For all intents and purposes, those years of dominance ceased to exist — years during which their profile had risen so high it wasn’t unusual to brush shoulders with the likes of Snoop Dogg, Henry Winkler, Spike Lee, Flea (of course), Jake Gyllenhaal and Andre 3000, just to name a few celebrities, at any given game. Blame it on Carroll, said the NCAA; he was the one who had fostered an environment that was both unhealthy and unstable. The specific language cited a “lack of institutional control.”

Yet ultimately these dark days don’t represent the spirit of Trojan War. Thomas, perhaps conscious of the pain the school is still experiencing now five years after the findings, elects to spend more time backtracking down the path to greatness that the team once journeyed throughout those years, reminding skeptics just how effective Carroll’s coaching and his squad were as they met each team with ever mounting confidence and matching up against old rivalries such as UCLA and Notre Dame with a cockiness that felt earned rather than created out of spite.

He profiles a few of the star athletes — including Bush (who appears in archived footage but never in live interviews for the documentary as he’s presumably trying to put this chapter behind him) and LenDale White, who comprised the ‘thunder’ part of the USC “thunder-and-lightning” duo — while taking time to assess Carroll’s thoughts and feelings on this part of his coaching career. Actor Michael B. Jordan narrates. Yes, it is all a little generic and clichéd but it does serve at least one purpose. The NCAA can wipe clean from the slate any set of numbers and names they like but in the minds and hearts of those who paid attention to this club, this is the kind of legacy not even the slow, inevitable passing of time can render irrelevant.

Click here to read more 30 for 30 reviews.

Pete Carroll and the USC Trojans leave the field after another display of dominance

Recommendation: Trojan War will speak louder to California football fans but it should provide a sufficiently intriguing story to those who have been fascinated by Pete Carroll’s energetic personality. It could also benefit from a longer running time but I doubt a three hour feature would capture everything about this dynamic period either. This is a pretty worthwhile option for passionate followers of the sport and it’s right there on Netflix.  

Rated: TV-PG

Running Time: 77 mins.

[No trailer available; sorry everyone.]

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

Photo credits: http://www.usa.newonnetflix.info; http://www.bleacherreport.com 

Creed

Creed movie poster

Release: Wednesday, November 25, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: Ryan Coogler; Aaron Covington

Directed by: Ryan Coogler

Perhaps it’s the fact that Creed feels more akin to a warm family reunion than a cold cash grab that unnecessarily extends a beloved boxing franchise that has allowed it to curry favor with both critics and audiences alike. The end product certainly doesn’t stand on shaky legs, with early responses seeming to indicate this could be a Dark Horse for Best Picture next February.

Underdog story manifests as a reunion in more ways than one, throwing on-the-rise actor Michael B. Jordan back into Ryan Coogler’s ring for the second time following their collaboration on 2013’s emotional gut punch Fruitvale Station. Meanwhile, an aging Sly returns to Mighty Mick’s Gym for the first time since he abandoned his responsibility to maintain it; it also re-teams Jordan with his The Wire co-star Woody Harris, who plays Tony “Little Duke” Evers, one of the young boxer’s many assistant trainers. Needless to say, Creed benefits greatly from the coziness of familiarity.

This is the tale of the rise of Adonis Johnson, illegitimate son of the legendary Apollo Creed. He adopts his mother Mary Anne Johnson’s last name early in the film even after (or perhaps due to) learning that his father lost his life in the ring at the hands of Soviet brute Ivan Drago. Donnie’s introduced as a rather angry child with a knack for getting into fist fights.

We flash forward to the present where a muscular Jordan is preparing for a brawl in a hole-in-the-wall Mexican arena. He holds down a job at a securities firm in Los Angeles before up and quitting it to pursue boxing full-time, much to the dismay of Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad). It’s a matter of time before Donnie tracks Rocky down at his Italian restaurant in Philadelphia.

“Train me,” he insists. “No,” Rocky replies.

Then of course Rocky starts training him, scribbling down on a sheet of paper a series of training exercises that Donnie captures on his cell phone for later use. But you know Rocky will be drawn back to the ring, only in a different but no less effective capacity. Coogler builds the relationships in such a way that even all of these potential eye-roll-inducing developments pay great dividends. This is a massively enjoyable film, reminiscent of the pure entertainment value of Ridley Scott’s most recent effort. It remains to be seen how much pull it’s ultimately going to have down the stretch when it finds itself squaring off against the likes of Alejandro González Iñárritu’s upcoming western thriller, critically acclaimed dramas such as Brooklyn and Spotlight or the various other stand-outs from earlier this year.

Its reverence for everything that has come before is both a blessing and a curse. It means newcomers get to share in the experience fans in 1976 reveled in without really having to do any homework. Creed is Rocky VII, that much is obvious, but it also throws so many similar jabs and hooks it’s a stretch to call this a truly original work. There are moments during which we get the sense we’re walking in the shadows of a legend, yet when other sequences beget the euphoric triumphs of Gavin O’Connor’s family feud Warrior, the negatives are somehow easier to shake off. When Rocky warns Donnie that he’s “seen this fight before,” we believe him yet we still have to see it for ourselves; that terrible sinking feeling be damned.

Creed‘s soundtrack thumps with original and familiar beats alike. Its hip hop-heavy focus helps set the feature apart; these songs are all attitude. They represent the spoken portion of Donnie’s near poetic, fully meteoric rise to fame as he soon finds himself taking on the light heavyweight world champion “Pretty” Ricky Conlan (Tony Bellew) in a Liverpool-based match-up for the ages. Tessa Thompson, who inserts herself into the narrative in the form of neighbor-turned-love interest Bianca, a musically-gifted young woman, contributes her voice to a few tracks. She also is a welcomed presence though her character’s career aspirations get lost in the shuffle all too quickly.

And of course this wouldn’t be a complete review without mentioning Stallone returning to these hallowed grounds. The film finds a galvanizing power in his physically broken, emotionally burdened Rocky Balboa. I suppose if Creed stands for anything other than the mesmerizing power of professional boxing it’s the vitality of family, even if that unit has been cobbled together from undesirable (and highly unlikely) circumstance. The most potent conversations take place between trainer and boxer when they have a disagreement over whether or not they’re actually a family at all. Watch Sly struggle to hold back tears as he rattles off the losses he’s experienced in the past.

I wasn’t prepared for the gravitas this unusual acting duo offers up, but that’s what I took home with me after witnessing the reinvigoration of a franchise that once looked to be hanging lifeless on the ropes.

Rocky and his protege atop the steps in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art

Recommendation: Creed rests on tried-and-true formula but in the process it manages to focus on the emotional power of a legendary character being brought back to life by a possibly never-better Stallone. It finds new life in Jordan’s gung-ho Adonis Creed and I have to admit I wasn’t prepared to be carried so far away from the seat in which I sat over the course of this two-hour journey. The blueprint for future installments has seemingly been laid down. If you’ve been a fan of the Rocky franchise this is a must-see.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 133 mins.

Quoted: “This guy right here, that’s the toughest opponent you’re ever going to face. I believe that’s true in the ring and I believe that’s true in life. Now show me something.”

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