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.

Horror Film Review: The Final Girls (dir by Todd Strauss-Schulson)


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Would you believe that there’s a film that not only brilliantly satirizes and pays homage to the old slasher films of 80s but which also possesses the type of emotional depth that can bring very real tears to your eyes as you watch?

Well, there is and the name of that film is The Final Girls.

In the 1980s, a struggling actress named Amanda Cartwright (played by the always-wonderful Malin Akerman) found a certain amount of cult fame by appearing as a doomed camp counselor named Nancy in the slasher film, Camp Bloodbath.  However, as often happens, playing an iconic role in a horror film has turned out to be as much of a curse as a blessing.  As The Final Girls opens, Amanda has just finished yet another audition.  As she drives home, she tells her teenage daughter, Max (Taissa Farmiga) that she will never escape being typecast as Nancy.  Suddenly. they are blindsided by another car.  Max is the only survivor.

Three years later, Max reluctantly agrees to attend a showing of Camp Bloodbath and Camp Bloodbath II: Cruel Summer.  It’s not something that she wants to do but she’s talked into it by Duncan (Thomas Middleditch), the geeky stepbrother of her best friend Gertie (Alia Shawkat).  Also attending the showing is Chris (Alexander Ludwig), who Max has a crush on, and Chris’s ex-girlfriend and self-described “mean girl,” Vicki (Nina Dobrev).

Some of the best scenes in The Final Girls occur while Max watches Camp Bloodbath.  Not only is Camp Bloodbath a perfectly pitched homage/satire of old school slasher films (like Friday the 13th, to cite an obvious example) but Farmiga perfectly plays Max’s reaction to seeing her mother on screen.  Max watches Camp Bloodbath with a heartfelt mix of sadness, pride, and eventual horror.  (One of the film’s best moments is the way that Max slowly sinks down in her chair while watching her mother make out with another actor on the big screen.  It’s a very human moment, one that is both poignant and funny at the same time.)

However, during the showing, a fire breaks out.  In their efforts to escape the theater, Max and her friends find themselves literally sucked into the movie.  That’s right — they are now inside the world of Camp Bloodbath.  And though they can interact with the film’s characters (and, for that matter, with the film’s killer, Billy), they find it’s much more difficult to keep those characters from playing out their pre-ordained roles.  Even after explaining to the camp counselors that doing anything the least bit sexual will cause Billy to come out of the woods and kill everyone, the counselors still find themselves incapable of changing their stereotypical slasher film behavior.  It’s not really their fault, of course.  As Duncan mentions, they’re just “badly written.”

While the rest of her friends simply want to survive the movie and somehow get back home, Max wants to spend time with her mom.  (Except, of course, Nancy isn’t really her mom.  Instead, Nancy is a character that her mom played in a movie that made before Max was even born.)  And you know what?  The scenes between Taissa Farmiga and Malin Akerman brought very real tears to my eyes.  The scenes between Max and Nancy (and Max and Amanda) are so heartfelt and so full of sincere emotion that they elevate the entire film.

Without the relationship between Max and Amanda, The Final Girls would be a very clever homage to the old slasher movies.  But what that relationship, The Final Girls becomes one of the best films of the year.

On November 3rd, The Final Girls will be released on DVD and Blu-ray.  Be sure to keep an eye out for it.

P.S. When I grow up, I want to be Malin Akerman.

6 More Film Reviews From 2014: At Middleton, Barefoot, Divergent, Gimme Shelter, The Other Woman, and more!


Let’s continue to get caught up with 6 more reviews of 6 more films that I saw in 2014!

At Middleton (dir by Adam Rodgers)

“Charming, but slight.”  I’ve always liked that term and I think it’s the perfect description for At Middleton, a dramedy that came out in January and did not really get that much attention.  Vera Farmiga is a businesswoman who is touring colleges with her daughter (Taissa Farmiga, who is actually Vera’s younger sister).  Andy Garcia is a surgeon who is doing the same thing with his son.  All four of them end up touring Middleton College at the same time.  While their respective children tour the school, Vera and Andy end up walking around the campus and talking.  And that’s pretty much the entire film!

But you know what?  Vera Farmiga and Andy Garcia are both such good performers and have such a strong chemistry that it doesn’t matter that not much happens.  Or, at the very least, it doesn’t matter was much as you might think it would.

Hence, charming but slight.

Barefoot (dir by Andrew Fleming)

Well, fuck it.

Sorry, I know that’s not the best way to start a review but Barefoot really bothered me.  In Barefoot, Scott Speedman plays a guy who invites Evan Rachel Wood to his brother’s wedding.  The twist is that Wood has spent most of her life in a mental institution.  Originally, Speedman only invites her so that he can trick his father (Treat Williams) into believing that Speedman has finally become a responsible adult.  But, of course, he ends up falling in love with her and Wood’s simple, mentally unbalanced charm brings delight to everyone who meets her.  I wanted to like this film because I love both Scott Speedman and Evan Rachel Wood but, ultimately, it’s all rather condescending and insulting.  Yes, the film may be saying, mental illness is difficult but at least it helped Scott Speedman find love…

On the plus side, the always great J.K. Simmons shows up, playing a psychiatrist.  At no point does he say, “Not my tempo” but he was probably thinking it.

Divergent (dir by Neil Burger)

There’s a lot of good things that can be said about Divergent.  Shailene Woodley is a likable heroine.  The film’s depiction of a dystopian future is well-done. Kate Winslet has fun playing a villain.  Miles Teller and Ansel Elgort are well-cast.  But, ultimately, Divergent suffers from the same problem as The Maze Runner and countless other YA adaptations.  The film never escapes from the shadow of the far superior Hunger Games franchise.  Perhaps, if Divergent had been released first, we’d be referring to the Hunger Games as being a Divergent rip-off.

However, I kind of doubt it.  The Hunger Games works on so many levels.  Divergent is an entertaining adventure film that features a good performance from Shailene Woodley but it’s never anything more than that.  Considering that director Neil Burger previously gave us Interview with the Assassin and Limitless, it’s hard not to be disappointed that there’s not more to Divergent.

Gimme Shelter (dir by Ron Krauss)

Gimme Shelter, which is apparently based on a true story, is about a teenage girl named Apple (Vanessa Hudgens) who flees her abusive, drug addicted mother (Rosario Dawson).  She eventually tracks down her wealthy father (Brendan Fraser), who at first takes Apple in.  However, when he discovers that she’s pregnant, he demands that she get an abortion.  When Apple refuses, he kicks her out of the house.  Apple eventually meets a kindly priest (James Earl Jones) and moves into a shelter that’s run by the tough Kathy (Ann Dowd).

Gimme Shelter came out in January and it was briefly controversial because a lot of critics felt that, by celebrating Apple’s decision not to abort her baby, the movie was pushing an overly pro-life message.  Interestingly enough, a lot of those outraged critics were men and, as I read their angry reviews, it was hard not to feel that they were more concerned with showing off their political bona fides than with reviewing the actual film.  Yes, the film does celebrate Apple’s decision to keep her baby but the film also emphasizes that it was Apple’s decision to make, just as surely as it would have been her decision to make if she had chosen to have an abortion.

To be honest, the worst thing about Gimme Shelter is that it doesn’t take advantage of the fact that it shares its name with a great song by the Rolling Stones.  Otherwise, it’s a well-done (if rather uneven) look at life on the margins.  Yes, the script and the direction are heavy-handed but the film is redeemed by a strong performance from Vanessa Hudgens, who deserves to be known for more than just being “that girl from High School Musical.”

Heaven is For Real (dir by Randall Wallace)

You can tell that Heaven is For Real is supposed to be based on a true story by the fact that the main character is named Todd Burpo.  Todd Burpo is one of those names that’s just so ripe for ridicule that you know he has to be a real person.

Anyway, Heaven Is For Real is based on a book of the same name.  Todd Burpo (Greg Kinnear) is the pastor of a small church in Nebraska.  After Todd’s son, Colton, has a near death experience, he claims to have visited Heaven where he not only met a sister who died before he was born but also had a conversation with Jesus.  As Colton’s story starts to get national attention, Todd struggles to determine whether Colton actually went to Heaven or if he was just having a hallucination.

You can probably guess which side the movie comes down on.

Usually, as a self-described heathen, I watch about zero faith-based movies a year.  For some reason, I ended up watching three over the course of 2014: Left Behind, Rumors of War, and this one.  Heaven is For Real is not as preachy (or terrible) as Left Behind but it’s also not as much fun as Rumors of War.  (Rumors of War, after all, featured Eric Roberts.)  Instead, Heaven Is For Real is probably as close to mainstream as a faith-based movie can get.  I doubt that the film changed anyone’s opinion regarding whether or not heaven is for real but it’s still well-done in a made-for-TV sort of way.

The Other Woman (dir by Nick Cassavetes)

According to my BFF Evelyn, we really liked The Other Woman when we saw it earlier this year.  And, despite how bored I was with the film when I recently tired to rewatch it, we probably did enjoy it that first time.  It’s a girlfriend film, the type of movie that’s enjoyable as long as you’re seeing it for the first time and you’re seeing it with your best girlfriends.  It’s a lot of fun the first time you see it but since the entire film is on the surface, there’s nothing left to discover on repeat viewings.  Instead, you just find yourself very aware of the fact that the film often substitutes easy shock for genuine comedy. (To be honest, I think that — even with the recent missteps of Labor Day and Men, Women, and Children — Jason Reitman could have done wonders with this material.  Nick Cassavetes however…)   Leslie Mann gives a good performance and the scenes where she bonds with Cameron Diaz are a lot of fun but otherwise, it’s the type of film that you enjoy when you see it and then you forget about it.

Film Review: Anna (dir by Jorge Dorado)


AnnaI just finished watching Anna, a Spanish thriller that was briefly given an American release way back in June.  Anna (which was produced under the title Mindscape) got fairly bad reviews, with many critics dismissing it as being a weak imitation of Inception.

Having now seen the film, I can say that, once again, the critics were wrong.

Oh, don’t get me wrong.  It’s obvious that without Inception, there never would have been an Anna.  But, as any fan of old school Italian horror can tell you, imitation is not necessarily a bad thing.  Anna may start out as a low-budget take on Inception but, by the end of the film, it has established its own unique identity.

Anna tells the story of John (Mark Strong), a “memory detective.”  John has the power to enter into people’s memories, where he can search for clues to help people deal with psychological trauma and to occasionally help the police solve crimes.  At the start of the film, John is recovering from a trauma of his own.  After their son dies, his wife — who is also a memory detective — retreats so deeply into her memories that she can’t come back.  (Yes, I know.  It’s exactly like Inception.  Just be patient…)  While exploring the memories of an assault victim, John’s own memories start to intrude on the victim’s memories, leading to John having a stroke.

After John recovers from the stroke, he finds himself both financially destitute and emotionally unstable.  His boss (Brian Cox) takes sympathy on John and assigns him to what should be an easy case.  16 year-old Anna (Taissa Farmiga) is refusing to eat and her extremely wealthy parents want to know why.

John meets Anna and discovers that she’s a sarcastic, intelligent, and withdrawn teenager.  When John enters into her mind, he discovers memories of neglect and abuse.  The night after John first enters Anna’s memories, her nurse is pushed down a flight of stairs.  The nurse claims that Anna pushed her while Anna swears that she’s being framed.  Anna’s parents, meanwhile, have signed papers to have her committed, giving John just a few days to determine what’s behind Anna’s behavior.

Convinced that she’s innocent, John enters into Anna’s memories and searches for clues that will answer the question of whether Anna is a victim or a sociopath.  As he does so, he finds more and more evidence that Anna was abused.  However, he also starts to discover hints that there may be more to Anna’s memories than he originally realized.

Anna is a good and entertaining mystery of a film, one that takes its time telling its multi-layered story.  Jorge Dorado makes his directorial debut with Anna and he wisely emphasizes characterization and atmosphere above all else.  There’s a dream-like sense of menace that fills every frame of the film, casting a palpable feeling of unease over both John and the audience.  As a result of his work here, I’m definitely looking forward to seeing what Dorado does in the future.

Mark Strong is a talented and intelligent actor who has gotten typecast as a villain.  As such, it’s nice to see him actually get a chance to be the star for once.  Strong gives a sympathetic performance while adding just enough instability that the audience is never totally at ease with John.  The same can also be said of Taissa Farmiga, who gives a wonderfully ambiguous performance that makes Anna both innocent and destructive at the same time.  Anna keeps both John and the audience guessing until the very end of the film.

Anna is currently making the rounds on cable.  I would recommend keeping an eye out for it.

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Back to School #76: The Bling Ring (dir by Sofia Coppola)


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The Bling Ring was one of the more divisive films of 2013.  As often seems to happen with the work of Sofia Coppola, viewers either loved it as a stylish look at America’s self-destructive love affair with fame or else they felt that it was a shallow celebration of the very lifestyle that it claimed to be satirizing.  Personally, I felt it was both, which is one reason why I enjoyed The Bling Ring.

The Bling Ring is based on the true story of a bunch of California teenagers who made headlines by breaking into the mansions of their idols.  Over the course of several months, they burglarized everyone from Paris Hilton to Lindsay Lohan to Orlando Bloom.  While they may have been smart enough to use social media to discover when their targets would be out of town, they weren’t smart enough to not use social media to brag about their crimes.  Eventually, they were arrested and, for a brief period of time, they were as famous as the people they robbed.  One of them even got her own reality show out of the whole thing.  I watched an episode or two.  It wasn’t very good.

Though the names have been changed, Coppola pretty much tells the story as it happened.  New kid in school Marc (Israel Broussard) meets Rebecca (Kate Chang), who is obsessed with celebrities.  Rebecca is also something of an obsessive thief and soon, she and Marc are breaking into the houses of their rich neighbors and acquaintances, stealing money, and going on shopping sprees.  Their thievery allows them to leave a lifestyle where every day is just another makeover montage from a romantic comedy.  Eventually, they are joined by Nicki (Emma Watson), Sam (Taissa Farmiga), and Chloe (Claire Julien).

One thing that quickly becomes clear is that the members of the Bling Ring are not exactly the smartest group of thieves around.  Along with getting increasingly reckless while committing their crimes, they also make the mistake of showing off stolen jewelry at parties and posting pictures of Facebook.  When the police eventually do track them down, Marc is a convenient scapegoat, Rebecca is hiding out in Las Vegas with her father, and Nicki becomes a minor celebrity as she and her mother exploit her newfound notoriety for all the publicity that they can get.

I liked The Bling Ring.  It’s stylish, all of the actors look good and they’re all wearing beautiful outfits, and I loved seeing all of the houses that they broke into.  (Some of the film was shot in the actual residences that were burglarized.)  On the one hand, it doesn’t really dig too deeply into the nature of fame in America but, on the other hand, does it really need to?  We all know the culture that we live in and, at its best, The Bling Ring forces us to ask whether we would rather be one of the people on the outside looking in or if we would want to be one of the people who broke in by any means necessary.

Add to that, it has a great soundtrack!

(Now, as I said, not everyone agrees with me about The Bling Ring.  For an opposite reaction to The Bling Ring, check out Ryan The Trash Film Guru’s review.)

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