Movie Review ~ The Mule


The Facts
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Synopsis: A 90-year-old horticulturist and Korean War veteran is caught transporting $3 million worth of cocaine through Illinois for a Mexican drug cartel.

Stars: Clint Eastwood, Bradley Cooper, Dianne Wiest, Michael Peña, Laurence Fishburne, Taissa Farmiga

Director: Clint Eastwood

Rated: R

Running Length: 116 minutes

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review:  It’s time to put Clint Eastwood in the same bucket as Cher and Tina Turner, artists who said they were retiring from one stage of their career only to launch a comeback years later.  Now, I’m not sure if the grizzled Oscar-winning star of spaghetti Westerns and the Dirty Harry films would necessarily mind being in the company of the leggy Turner and the ageless songstress but he’s definitely said on two previous occasions that he was done acting in front of the camera (in 2008’s Gran Torino and 2012’s Trouble with the Curve) and yet here we are in 2018 talking about Eastwood’s latest acting turn in The Mule.

The arrival of The Mule came as a bit of a surprise to many, with the movie picking up late breaking steam in an already packed Oscar season.  This had Hollywood talking because the last time an Eastwood picture arrived on the scene late it was back in 2004 with Million Dollar Baby and we all know how that turned out: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor.  Many Oscar pundits suddenly were keeping a fifth slot in all categories open for The Mule on the off-chance Eastwood had another dark horse on his hands.

Well, The Mule has trotted into theaters and even if it’s not going to pose any threat to the already established Oscar contenders this year, it’s still a nice achievement for the 88 year old director who has managed to stay quite prolific over the years.  Though his early 2018 film The 15:17 to Paris was a significant critical and box office flop and his record is starting to become overly spotty (hello the horror of Jersey Boys) Eastwood knows how to construct a hit as the huge earnings of Sully and American Sniper indicate.  The evening showing of The Mule I attended was sold out and its crowd seemed comprised of Eastwood’s target audience, white late fifties Midwesterners who like their movies straightforward and not too challenging.

Written by Nick Schenk (The Judge) and inspired by Sam Dolnick’s New York Times Magazine Article “The Sinaloa Cartel’s 90-Year Old Drug Mule”, The Mule follows Earl Stone a former champion horticulturist facing foreclosure that starts to run drugs between Texas and Illinois as a way to earn money.  Well, actually Earl just drives the truck and doesn’t ask questions as to what his cargo is…he’s just happy to be making enough money to pay for his grandaughter’s wedding expenses, buy back his home, update his local VFW, and improve the lives of his family and friends in other ways.  For so many years Earl focused solely on his own needs, pushing his family aside and he begins to see in his advanced age how important making amends is.  What does he care how he makes the money as long as no one gets hurt?  As the runs get more frequent and the cargo gets bigger, the danger increases and Earl is watched not only by paranoid figures within the cartel but DEA agents tasked with bringing down the ring of drug smugglers.

While Eastwood keeps the film moving along at a good pace, there are multiple storylines he’s balancing and not all of them feel like they totally work.  The best moments are actually when Eastwood is flying solo, talking to himself on the road or singing along to oldies as he makes the trip from TX to IL.  There’s a ease the actor/director has with the camera that feels familiar and right, he’s the strongest when he’s by himself.  Awkward moments showing Earl’s inherent bigotry are played for laughs but is it really all that hilarious to laugh at or excuse away hard-wired racism in 2018?  Everyone seems willing to just brush it off as “Oh, he’s just old”…but where is the person that stands up and says “No, we don’t talk like that anymore.”  That character isn’t in this movie and it should be consider a missed opportunity that they aren’t.

Eastwood obviously called in a few favors when pulling together his supporting case.  There’s Dianne Wiest (Parenthood) acting up a storm in her cat-eye glasses as Earl’s bitter ex-wife who gradually softens the more he shows he’s not the absent husband/father he was when they were married.  Wiest and Eastwood have a good rapport, though I never in a million years believe they were ever hitched.  Taissa Farmiga (The Nun) fares poorly as Earl’s granddaughter – sure, she’s saddled with some creaky dialogue but the performance is just so weak when you compare it to who else she’s on screen with.  Laurence Fishburne (Last Flag Flying) is a DEA Special Agent obsessed with getting “busts” and tasks agent Colin Bates (Bradley Cooper, A Star is Born) in making sure he makes good on his promise to track down the mule.  It’s well known Eastwood is Cooper’s mentor and you can feel Cooper absorbing every screen trick Eastwood employs throughout the film.  I also liked Andy Garcia (Book Club) in his brief supporting turn as the flamboyant head of the Mexican drug cartel.

Even though I’d love for him to make an appearance in a movie directed by his protégé Cooper, it seems like this was the movie that Eastwood truly will call his final acting on screen – I mean why else would he include not one but two scenes of him bedding two ladies at once?  Feeling like your grandfather’s version of what a drug movie would be like (with an inordinate amount of shots of women’s butts in thongs), The Mule is a watchable film that has a surprisingly poignant climax but one that won’t go down as one of Eastwood’s most memorable.

Movie Review ~ Second Act

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A big box store worker reinvents her life and her life-story and shows Madison Avenue what street smarts can do.

Stars: Jennifer Lopez, Leah Remini, Vanessa Hudgens, Treat Williams, Milo Ventimiglia

Director: Peter Segal

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 103 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: There’s a feeling you get while watching Second Act that you’ve been magically transported back to the early 2000s when movie studios were still making mid-range comedies that weren’t based on a comic book or an established franchise.  This was a time when a 30 million-dollar movie could get greenlit on star power alone and make its money back in the opening weekend before going on to enjoy a healthy life with repeat viewings on cable or well-worn DVDs.  Alas, this is 2018 and even if Second Act isn’t the same kind of slam-dunk destined for repeat viewings guilty pleasure we want it to be, it’s certainly a nice blast of nostalgia with several modern twists that keep it interesting.

When she misses out on a big promotion at her Wal-Mart-ish job she more than deserves that coincides with a milestone birthday, Maya (Jennifer Lopex, The Boy Next Door, radiant as ever) is feeling down in the dumps.  Though comforted by her best friend Joan (Leah Remini) and boyfriend Trey (Milo Ventimiglia, Kiss of the Damned) she can’t get over the fact that just because she doesn’t have a college degree it means she can’t advance in her career even if she has earned it.  Thanks to Joan’s whiz-kid son, with a little fancy internet tweaking and resume fudging Maya lands and interview and eventual consulting job with a beauty company in New York City.

I’m going to stop right there because that’s what the previews for Second Act have told you and it’s better if I let you see for yourself how the story develops.  Let it be known that Second Act isn’t exactly the movie it has marketed itself to be (sorry ladies, an early shirtless Ventimiglia scene is the closest you’re going to get to romantic territory) and that’s not entirely a bad thing.  You can see why Lopez, who scored so many early hits in the rom-com genre got the script for this and found it to be worthy of her time and producing effort.  It’s formulaic as all get-out but it works in ways that surprised me more than I thought it would.

Playing to its target audience by sending Maya on a Cinderella-esque story from rags to riches (with stops at all the major designer stores along the way) and putting her up in a swanky NYC apartment, the only thing screenwriters Justin Zackham and Elaine Goldsmith-Thomas don’t give Maya is much of a personality.  Lopez sells the material well but Maya is often the passive viewer in her own life story, acquiescing to the wishes of others and not standing up for herself.  Case in point, though she has told him over and over again she wants to advance in her career Ventimiglia’s character keeps giving her a guilt trip about delaying starting a family — why doesn’t Maya ever say “No, dude, I don’t want to start a family…I’m 40 years old and want to be an executive!”  In all honesty, the entire Ventimiglia storyline could be excised without losing anything major…except for a small sampling of its female demographic.

Director Peter Segal (Grudge Match) doesn’t do anything special from a technical perspective but he gets the right people in the room and lets the charm of the collective hive carry the movie through some of the cheesier fare.  Aside from Lopez (who seems to change into one glorious costume/hairstyle every 30 seconds), Remini scores a win as Maya’s smart-acre sidekick (you can absolutely tell the two are besties in real life) and I got a kick out of Annaleigh Ashford (Frozen), Charlyne Yi (The Disaster Artist), and Alan Aisenberg as Maya’s coworkers who bring their own comedic oddities to their screen time.  Only Vanessa Hudgens (Journey 2: The Mysterious Island) as Maya’s corporate rival struggles to stay convincing, though Lopez tends to elevate her anytime they share a scene.

With so many movies out this holiday season, I’m guessing this isn’t going to make that big of a dent in the box office but will likely find a better audience when it’s available to watch at home.  It likely will play better on the smaller screen, too, and might have even made a bigger splash as, say, a Netflix original film.  Still, for those like me who mourn the death of these types of smaller genre films Second Act is a nice reminder that they don’t make ‘em like they used to.

Movie Review ~ Welcome to Marwen

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A victim of a brutal attack finds a unique and beautiful therapeutic outlet to help him through his recovery process.

Stars: Steve Carell, Leslie Mann, Janelle Monáe, Eiza Gonzalez, Diane Kruger, Gwendoline Christie, Merritt Weaver

Director: Robert Zemeckis

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 116 minutes

TMMM Score: (2/10)

Review: We’re often asked to provide our instant reactions to movies on our way out of advanced screenings.  This can be a good way to get some off the cuff remarks or quick takes to bring back to the studios as to what audiences felt the moment the lights come up and the credits start to roll.  I struggle in these moments to come up with two to three sentences that summarize two hours of thoughts, preferring to let the feeling marinate for a while until I can let it flow out here.  My overall opinion of the film rarely changes, it just solidifies as my mind works on detailing why I feel the way I feel.

With Welcome to Marwen, I knew leaving the theater it was one of the most troubling movies I’d seen all year but the way the movie nagged and gnawed at me in the days since I saw it was truly something to behold.  Hailing from a major studio with a well-liked star and Oscar-winning director, it’s a drastically misguided misfire that has no clue who it’s audience is or how to balance its technically impressive effects with a dramatically inert narrative.

Based on the 2010 documentary Marwencol, director Robert Zemeckis (Flight) and co-screenwriter Caroline Thompson (The Secret Garden) turn the doc into a narrative feature starring Steve Carrell (Beautiful Boy) as Matt Hoagancamp, an artist recovering from a brutal beating that has found a most unique coping outlet.  Creating a WWII-set world of his own in his backyard, he photographs dolls inhabiting his town of Marwen in various adventures featuring Cap’n Hogie, a stand in for Matt himself.  While Cap’n Hogie is the bomber jacket wearing tough guy in the group, he often needs to be saved by an assembly of leggy female figures that are modeled after various women in Matt’s own life.

This is where the movie starts to provide some extremely problematic issues it can just never recover from.  The real-life women in Matt’s world are his Russian caretaker (Gwendoline Christie, Star Wars: The Force Awakens), a war veteran we briefly see in flashbacks (Janelle Monáe, Hidden Figures), a friendly worker at his local hobby shop (Merritt Weaver, Signs, by far the best performance in the film), his co-worker at a local diner (Eiza Gonzalez, Jem and the Holograms), and most disconcerting of all, a sexy French maid inspired by a nameless woman Matt sees in an adult film (played by Leslie Zemeckis, the directors real-life wife…yuck).  In reality, the women are portrayed as normal human beings but in Matt’s fantasy world their sexuality is heightened, their cleavage is on display, their skits are hiked up to crotch level, and they exist only to serve and protect Cap’n Hoagie’s wishes.  Basically, they are sex figurines.  Which would be fine if the movie ever acknowledged that this is odd and oddly disrespectful…which it never does.

When Nicol (‘I spell it with no “E” ’) moves in across the street, Matt becomes infatuated by the woman who seems to understand his quirks, especially as it relates to his penchant for wearing women’s high heels.  That Matt has a shoe fetish is but one of several of his eccentricities the film introduces only to never fully explore to any kind of satisfactory degree.  Though not gay, Matt finds that while wearing a woman’s shoe he can more easily get at the ‘essence’ of women (or, “dames” as he calls them) and, bless her heart, Nicol barely bats at eye when he delivers this corker of a revelation.  As played by Leslie Mann (This is 40) Nicol has a restrained charm that suggests she’s put up walls to guard her own emotional sensitivities.

Aside from it’s odious devaluation of nearly every female character that walks across the screen (Christie and Monáe are barely in the film in human form), the movie also has a rather large blind spot when it comes to talking about PTSD and the lasting effects of mental illness.  Clearly, Matt is suffering from major mental health problems brought on by his vicious attack and Zemeckis and Thompson don’t seem the slightest bit interested in presenting Matt with any kind of support outside of his made-up world of Marwen.  His interactions with people outside of Marwen are either comedic fodder or humiliating emotionally – it’s no wonder he’d rather spend time all alone with his dolls.  The one solution presented is in the form of a blue pill medication that no so subtly takes the form of another “doll” named Deja (Diane Kruger) who doesn’t seem to have a real-world counterpart but obviously has a huge hold over Matt’s psyche.

I have absolutely no idea who the audience would be for this movie.  It’s not a family film, it’s not a film an older adult audience will find much value in, and it’s certainly not a movie for the mid-range crowd who have a plethora of better choices this holiday season.  It literally has no target audience and I am mystified at whoever would have thought this would have made for a good feature film.  Carrell seems uncomfortable, and not just in the heels but as this is a Zemeckis film, it’s technical merits are first-rate.  Zemeckis is like a dog with a bone where motion-capture animation is concerned but here the technology works well in making Carrell, Mann, Monáe, and company all realistically doll-like when they are in Marwen.  It’s a good-looking movie, even if it’s rather ugly on in the inside.