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 ~ The Judge

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Big city lawyer Hank Palmer returns to his childhood home where his father, the town’s judge, is suspected of murder. Hank sets out to discover the truth and, along the way, reconnects with his estranged family.

Stars: Robert Downey Jr., Robert Duvall, Vera Farmiga, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong, Dax Shephard, Billy Bob Thornton, Ken Howard, Emma Tremblay, Balthazar Getty, David Krumholtz, Sarah Lancaster, Grace Zabriskie, Denis O’Hare

Director: David Dobkin

Rated: R

Running Length: 141 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (2/10)

Review: I can imagine the script for The Judge came together by accident.  Perhaps a pair of screenwriters were both walking around a local coffee shop with two scripts, one was about a big city lawyer defending his estranged father on a murder charge and the other was about a hot-shot attorney who retreats home after discovering his wife was cheating on him.  Maybe the two writers stumbled into one another, sending their loose-leafed scripts up in the air in a flurry of white paper and when they picked themselves up they couldn’t discern what pages belonged to which script so they decided to just combine them and sell the unified work as The Judge.

I mean, that’s one theory right?  And it’s a lot more acceptable than knowing full well and good that The Judge was no accident, made with purpose. No amount of revisionist history can save this film from being one of the worst motion pictures in my recent memory, squandering the talents of its able-bodied cast for 141 of the most ghastly minutes you’ll spend in a theater this year.

Reminding me a lot of the equally awkward This Is Where I Leave You, The Judge miraculously ups the unpleasantness factor by offering not one moment that feels genuine; at least This Is Where I Leave You had a few redeeming qualities about it …and was forty minutes shorter.

Seeing early trailers, I thought The Judge held some promise considering the pairing of two Roberts in a courtroom drama.  Robert Downey Jr. (Iron Man, Iron Man 2, Iron Man 3) seemed like the perfect actor to be matched with Oscar winner Robert Duvall (Tender Mercies, The Paper) and sparks were expected to fly.  I’m not sure any combination of actors could have risen above the tone-deaf script that veers schizophrenically from comedy to drama, never succeeding in either arena.

Returning to his all-American hometown after his mother’s unexpected death, legal eagle Hank (Downey Jr., looking disturbingly skeletal…where’s the full faced lad from Less than Zero?) clashes with his father (Duvall), a respected town judge.  As he reconnects with his brothers (Vincent D’Onofrio and Jeremy Strong) and an old flame (Vera Farmiga, The Conjuring, totally wasted though she’s miscast in the first place), he’s drawn deeper into the unresolved past with his dad after the judge is arrested on suspicion of murder and put on trail by a vengeful prosecutor (Billy Bob Thornton, wearing a Colonel Sanders wig and flashing his receding gum line every chance he gets).

Now I’m not going to deny that there’s a good idea somewhere in the plot and perhaps if director David Dobkin wasn’t so interested in wringing the ever loving emotional life out of every single scene then The Judge may have fared better overall, serving as a minor distraction for Downey Jr. between his Marvel superhero commitments.

Nearing the end of this folly, I turned to my companion and exclaimed “There are so many emotions in this movie!” and it’s the God’s honest truth.  No emotional well is left undrained by Dobkin and co. as they move us through self-serving scene after self-serving scene.  I began to wonder if the entire movie wasn’t some elaborate prank where every acting clip shown on the Oscars wasn’t recreated in one film. There are courtroom confessions, tender moments bizarrely played out in front of masses of people, tough good-byes, difficult hellos, old wounds reopened, and healing apologies delivered as one single tear rolls down a cheek.  It’s all simply too much.

It’s an ugly film too. When the backdrops aren’t horribly digitally inserted the film takes place in houses, bars, and courtrooms that have “natural” light coming through the windows by way of 1000 watt search lights, suggesting cinematographer Janusz Kaminski (Lincoln) has shot the movie like a Christopher Nolan directed episode of Judge Judy.

Culminating in a borderline offensive finale that wears its manipulation as a badge of honor, I can’t recommend enough steering clear of this mish-mash of a missed opportunity.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Judge

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Synopsis: Big city lawyer Hank Palmer returns to his childhood home where his father, the town’s judge, is suspected of murder. Hank sets out to discover the truth and, along the way, reconnects with his estranged family.

Release Date: October 10, 2014

Thoughts: Though I’ve seen the poster and the trailer for The Judge several times now, I still fight with telling myself that it’s not the latest adaptation of a John Grisham thriller…not that the preview doesn’t suggest something similar to Grisham’s sweaty courtroom dramas that were all the rage in the mid-90s. With a nicely meaty role, star Robert Downey Jr. (The Avengers) ,may have found a nice antidote to the Iron Man/Sherlock Holmes track he’s been on for the last few years. Paired with Oscar winner Robert Duvall (Tender Mercies), I’m looking forward to seeing the two generationally different actors work alongside one another.

The Silver Bullet ~ RoboCop (2014)

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Synopsis: In 2028 Detroit, when Alex Murphy – a loving husband, father and good cop – is critically injured in the line of duty, the multinational conglomerate OmniCorp sees their chance for a part-man, part-robot police officer.

Release Date:  February 7, 2014

Thoughts: I’m not usually one to get behind remakes of films that were just fine to begin with.  My biggest problem is the more often than not these remakes/reboots do very little to make any strong case that the film needed to be revisited in the first place (case in point…2012’s Total Recall).  Still, I must admit that I was intrigued by the prospect of a re-envisioning 1987’s RoboCop.  Though by no means a classic, it’s still a genre favorite of mine thanks to its clever take on the future of law enforcement and its copious amounts of violence (that originally earned it an X rating before director Paul Verhoeven went back and made some trims).  While the just released trailer is interesting enough to not make me roll my eyes totally out of my head, it’s distressing to hear that the filmmakers are aiming for a PG-13 rating…something that just doesn’t work for this character or the series which was all about a next generation weapon being used to combat decaying violence.  Delayed for release several times doesn’t bode well but February is a long way away…I’m open to seeing where this one goes.