Film Review: The Mule (dir by Clint Eastwood)


In The Mule, Clint Eastwood plays Earl Stone.

In some ways, Earl is typical of the characters that Eastwood has played during the latter part of his career.  He’s grouchy.  He’s alienated almost everyone who was previously close to him.  He drives an old pickup truck and he has no idea how to text and he seems to literally snarls whenever he sees anyone under the age of 60.  He served in the Korean War and he’s not scared of guns.

In other ways, Earl is not a typical Eastwood character at all.  First off, he’s on the verge of financial ruin.  Earl may not be the first Eastwood character to not know how to responsibly handle money but he is perhaps the first one to be on the verge of homelessness as a result.  (He’s perhaps the first of Eastwood’s modern character to face real-world consequences for his flaws.)  Secondly, Earl often seems to be lost in the 21st century world.  In Gran Torino and Trouble With The Curve, Eastwood played grumpy old men who could still hold their own when it came to dealing with younger people.  But, in The Mule, Earl seems to be defeated by life.  The only thing that he really has going for him is his reputation as a horticulturist and, as the film makes clear, that’s not a skill that’s going to bring in much money.

That all changes when Earl has a chance meeting with Rico (Victor Rasuk), a friend of his granddaughter’s.  Knowing that Earl is desperate for money, Rico tells him that he could make a quick payday by transporting a package for some friends.  After giving it some thought, Earl agrees.  When Earl meets Rico’s friends, everyone is shocked at how old he is.  They’re even more shocked when Earl says that he doesn’t know how to text.  Earl is given a phone and told to answer it whenever it rings but to never use it to call anyone.  A package is put in the back of Earl’s pickup truck.  It’s suggested that Earl not look in the package.

Does Earl know that he’s transporting drugs?  At first, it’s hard to say.  While it seems obvious to us, Earl is from a different time.  Still, once Earl does eventually learn that he’s being used as a drug mule, it doesn’t seem to bother him.  If nothing else, Earl actually seems to get a kick out of being a real-life outlaw.  He continues to make his runs and he continues to make money and, perhaps most importantly, he now has a purpose in life.  In a strange way, the drug runners even become his new family.  (They call him Tata, which is Spanish for grandfather.)  Of course, they’re a family that makes it cleat that they’ll kill Earl if he’s ever late delivering the package but that doesn’t seem to matter to Earl.

Meanwhile, the DEA (represented by Laurence Fishburne, Bradley Cooper, and — somewhat inevitably — Michael Pena) are hearing reports about a new drug mule who has been nicknamed Tata.  What they don’t suspect, of course, is that Tata is a 90 year-old man who has no criminal record and who is always very careful to obey all the traffic laws.  Even when Earl is pulled over by the police, he’s such a nice old man that they let him go without bothering to really search his vehicle.  It seems like Earl’s got a perfect thing going but, unfortunately, things are never as good as they seem and eventually, the reality of Earl’s situation intrudes on his fantasy….

It’s been said that The Mule is going to be Eastwood’s final film as an actor and he gives an excellent performance as Earl.  The Mule, which feels, in many ways, like a good-natured companion piece to Gran Torino, features Eastwood at both his most vulnerable and, probably not coincidentally, his most likable and sympathetic.  In this film, Eastwood makes clear that he’s no longer the righteous Dirty Harry or the mythological Man With No Name.  Now, he’s just a man nearing the end of his life and trying to come to terms with the mistakes and the decisions of the past.  Eastwood plays Earl like a man who knows that his time is limited.  Smuggling drugs gives him a chance to feel like he’s alive again but, throughout it all, there’s still a deep sadness.  Earl can use his money to pay his bills and to fix up the local VFW hall but he still can’t buy his family’s forgiveness.  Watching the film, it’s impossible not to feel for Earl.  You’re happy that he found at least a little satisfaction with his criminal career, even though you immediately suspect that things probably aren’t going to turn out well for him.

Admittedly, there is one cringe-worthy scene in which it’s suggested that the 90 year-old Earl has had a threesome with two twenty year-olds (and one gets the feeling that the scene would not have been included if not for the fact that the film’s star was also the director).  For the most part, though, this is a thoughtful film that features a poignant performance from Eastwood and which is directed in a restrained, but empathetic manner.  If this is Eastwood’s swan song as an actor, it’s a good note to go out on.

Playing Catch-Up With 6 Mini-Reviews: Amy, Gloria, Pitch Perfect 2, Sisters, Spy, Trainwreck


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Amy (dir by Asif Kapadia)

Amy opens with brilliant and, in its way, heartbreaking footage of a 14 year-old Amy Winehouse and a friend singing Happy Birthday at a party.  Even though she’s singing deliberately off-key and going over-the-top (as we all tend to do when we sing Happy Birthday), you can tell that Amy was a star from the beginning.  She’s obviously enjoying performing and being the center of attention and, try as you might, it’s impossible not to contrast the joy of her Happy Birthday with the sadness of her later life.

A star whose music touched millions (including me), Amy Winehouse was ultimately betrayed by a world that both wanted to take advantage of her talent and to revel in her subsequent notoriety.  It’s often said the Amy was self-destructive but, if anything, the world conspired to destroy her.  By focusing on footage of Amy both in public and private and eschewing the usual “talking head” format of most documentaries, Amy pays tribute to both Amy Winehouse and reminds us of what a great talent we all lost in 2011.

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Gloria (dir by Christian Keller)

The Mexican film Gloria is a musical biopic of Gloria Trevi (played by Sofia Espinosa), a singer whose subversive songs and sexual image made her a superstar in Latin America and challenged the conventional morality of Catholic-dominated establishment.  Her manager and lover was the controversial Sergio Andrade (Marco Perez).  The movie follows Gloria from her first audition for the manipulative Sergio to her arrest (along with Sergio) on charges of corrupting minors.  It’s an interesting and still controversial story and Gloria tells it well, with Espinosa and Perez both giving excellent performances.

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Pitch Perfect 2 (dir by Elizabeth Banks)

The Bellas are back!  As I think I’ve mentioned a few times on this site, I really loved the first Pitch Perfect.  In fact, I loved it so much that I was a bit concerned about the sequel.  After all, sequels are never as good as the original and I was dreading the idea of the legacy of the first film being tarnished.

But the sequel actually works pretty well.  It’s a bit more cartoonish than the first film.  After three years at reigning ICCA champions, the Bellas are expelled from competition after Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson) accidentally flashes the President.  The only way for the Bellas to get the suspension lifted is to win the World Championship of A Capella.  The plot, to be honest, really isn’t that important.  You’re watching the film for the music and the interplay of the Bellas and, on those two counts, the film totally delivers.

It should be noted that Elizabeth Banks had a great 2015.  Not only did she give a great performance in Love & Mercy but she also made a respectable feature directing debut with Pitch Perfect 2.

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Sisters (dir by Jason Moore)

It’s interesting how opinions can change.  For the longest time, I really liked Tina Fey and I thought that Amy Poehler was kind of overrated.  But, over the past two years, I’ve changed my opinion.  Now, I like Amy Poehler and Tina Fey kind of gets on my nerves.  The best way that I can explain it is to say that Tina Fey just seems like the type who would judge me for wearing a short skirt and that would get old quickly, seeing as how I happen to like showing off my legs.

Anyway, in Sisters, Tina and Amy play sisters!  (Shocking, I know.)  Amy is the responsible one who has just gotten a divorce and who wants to make everyone’s life better.  Tina is the irresponsible one who refuses to accept that she’s no longer a teenager.  When their parents announce that they’re selling the house where they grew up, Amy and Tina decide to throw one last party.  Complications ensue.

I actually had two very different reactions to Sisters.  On the one hand, as a self-declared film critic, it was easy for me to spot the obvious flaw with Sisters.  Tina and Amy should have switched roles because Tina Fey is simply not believable as someone who lives to have fun.  Sometimes, it’s smart to cast against type but it really doesn’t work here.

However, as the youngest of four sisters, there was a lot of Sisters that I related to.  I saw Sisters with my sister, the Dazzling Erin, and even if the film did not work overall, there were still a lot of little scenes that made us smile and go, “That’s just like us.”  In fact, I think they should remake Sisters and they should let me and Erin star in it.

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Spy (dir by Paul Feig)

There were a lot of very good spy films released in 2015 and SPECTRE was not one of them.  In fact, the more I think about it, the more disappointed I am with the latest Bond film.  It’s not so much that SPECTRE was terrible as there just wasn’t anything particular memorable about it.  When we watch a film about secret agents saving the world, we expect at least a few memorable lines and performances.

Now, if you want to see a memorable spy movie, I suggest seeing Spy.  Not only is Spy one of the funniest movies of the year, it’s also a pretty good espionage film.  Director Paul Feig manages to strike the perfect balance between humor and action.  One of the joys of seeing CIA employee Susan Cooper (Melissa McCarthy) finally get to enter the field and do spy stuff is the fact that there are real stakes involved.  Susan is not only saving the world but, in the film’s best scenes, she’s having a lot of fun doing it and, for that matter, McCarthy is obviously having a lot of fun playing Susan and those of us in the audience are having a lot of fun watching as well.

Spy also features Jason Statham as a more traditional action hero.  Statham is hilarious as he sends up his own macho image.  Seriously, who would have guessed that he could such a funny actor?  Here’s hoping that he, McCarthy, and Feig will all return for the inevitable sequel.

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Trainwreck (dir by Judd Apatow)

There’s a lot of great things that can be said about Trainwreck.  Not only was it the funniest film of 2015 but it also announced to the world that Amy Schumer’s a star.  It was a romantic comedy for the 21st Century, one that defied all of the conventional BS about what has to happen in a romcom.  This a film for all of us because, let’s just be honest here, we’ve all been a trainwreck at some point in our life.

But for me, the heart of the film was truly to be found in the relationship between Amy and her younger sister, Kim (Brie Larson).  Whether fighting over what to do with their irresponsible father (Colin Quinn) or insulting each other’s life choices, their relationship is the strongest part of the film.  If Brie Larson wasn’t already guaranteed an Oscar nomination for Room, I’d demand that she get one for Trainwreck.  For that matter, Amy Schumer deserves one as well.

Seriously, it’s about time the trainwrecks of the world had a film that we could truly call our own.

Embracing the Melodrama Part II #80: Bright Lights, Big City (dir by James Bridges)


Bright_Lights_Big_CityThe 1988 film Bright Lights, Big City is one of the many films from the late 80s in which Kiefer Sutherland plays a demonic character.  In this case, his character is so demonic that his name is — seriously, check this shit out — Tad Allagash.  Nobody named Tad Allagash has ever been a good guy!

Tad is the best friend of Jamie Conway (Michael J. Fox), an aspiring writer who has moved to New York City from some middle-America farm state and who now has a job as a fact checker at the New Yorker.  Jamie is still struggling to deal with both the death of his mother (played in flashbacks by Dianne Wiest) and the collapse of his marriage to Amanda (Phoebe Cates).  Tad helps out his depressed little friend by taking him out to the clubs and supplying him with so much cocaine that Jamie literally spends the entire film on the verge of having a geyser of blood shoot out from his powder-coated nostrils.

And the thing is, Tad knows that he’s not a good influence on Jamie’s life but he doesn’t care.  Whenever Jamie starts to get a little bit too wrapped up in his self-pity, Tad is there to make a tasteless joke.  Whenever Jamie tries to argue that he and Amanda aren’t really broken up, Tad is there to remind him that Amanda wants nothing to do with him.  Whenever Jamie starts to think that doing all of this cocaine is potentially ruining his life, Tad is there to cheerfully cut another line.  Tad makes no apologies for being Tad Allagash.  He’s too busy having a good time and it’s obvious that Sutherland’s having an even better time playing Tad.  As a result, Tad Allagash becomes the perfect antihero, the bad guy that you like despite yourself.

Unfortunately, Bright Lights, Big City isn’t about Tad Allagash.  You’re happy whenever Kiefer shows up but he doesn’t show up enough to actually save the film.  No, Bright Lights, Big City is the story of Jamie Conway and that’s why the film is a bit of a pain to sit through.  Despite having a great Irish name, Jamie Conway is one of the whiniest characters that I have ever seen in a film.  From the minute he first appears on screen and starts complaining about the failure of his marriage, you want someone to just tell him to shut up.  When he tells an alcoholic editor (Jason Robards) that his latest short story was autobiographical, you nod and think, “So, that’s why it hasn’t been published.”

Of course, since Jamie is the main character, everyone in the film feels sorry for him but he really is just insufferable.  There’s a lengthy scene where Jamie delivers a drunken monologue to a sympathetic coworker, Megan (played by Swoosie Kurtz).  And while Jamie goes on and on about how he first met Amanda and how their marriage fell apart (and how it was all her fault), poor Megan has to sit there and try to look sympathetic.  Personally, I would have kicked Jamie out of my apartment after the first minute of that whiny diatribe.  Megan has the patience of a saint.

There is some curiosity value to watching Michael J. Fox snort cocaine.  (I wonder if contemporary audiences shouted, “McFly!” as they watched Fox sniffing up the devil’s dandruff.)  But otherwise, Bright Lights, Big City is a relic of 80s cinema that can be safely forgotten.