Movie Review ~ In the Heights

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Lights up on Washington Heights, a world very much of its place, but universal in its experience, where the streets are made of music and little dreams become big.

Stars: Anthony Ramos, Corey Hawkins, Leslie Grace, Melissa Barrera, Olga Merediz, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Gregory Diaz IV, Jimmy Smits

Director: Jon M. Chu

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 143 minutes

TMMM Score: (9.5/10)

Review:  It’s been good to get out of the house and see several movies in the theaters these past weeks.  I didn’t think I’d be able to say that as recently as a few months ago but the experience has been a welcoming one.  As much as I love going to the movies and the feeling of getting the rush of excitement as the lights go down before any expectations can be met or missed, some small part of me aches for the moments of magic that are rarely found amidst the CGI created worlds of fiction.  I used to chalk it up to childhood nostalgia for films of my youth setting an unrealistic bar no modern film could ever hope to meet, but every now and then a movie, a performance, a scene, a look, just sends this wave of, and forgive me if this is schmaltzy, serenity over me and I recognize it as a familiar emotion I felt when I was much younger. 

The film version of the Tony-award winning Broadway musical In the Heights was not the first movie I saw in theaters since they reopened and after I was fully vaccinated.  It was not a stage show I was a fan of and my coolness toward it was a chief reason I avoided Lin-Manuel Miranda’s next show, Hamilton (ever heard of it?), believing I’d again leave the theater unaffected after the massive hype. (Of course, like the rest of the world I’m a Hamil-fan)  Also, I’ll be totally honest and say that Miranda himself, pure genius and goodhearted soul though he is, had failed to win me over after all the years of his shameless mugging at awards shows.  As a fan of musicals and, of course, film musicals I was looking forward to In the Heights but it wasn’t one I was super busting down the theater door to get to.  So how is it that the feeling I described above, the movie magic moment, hit me like a ton of bricks before anyone had spoken a word?

Yes, it’s true.  The moment the Warner Brothers logo came onscreen and we see a first glimpse of NY’s Washington Heights neighborhood through the lens of cinematographer Alice Brooks (Jem and the Holograms), I felt my face flush and eyes tingle with the threat of, could it be?, actual tears.  My shoulders relaxed down and my stomach flipped over.  What exactly was happening here?  While I can attribute some of my emotions to just being a big softie in general (don’t spread that around), there was something almost imperceptibly moving about the film in its simple opening moments. That feeling remained for the rest of this captivating modern musical.  It’s warm, it’s welcoming, it’s joyous, and it’s a perfect film to see on the big screen if you can make it happen. 

Taking over the role Miranda created and played onstage, Anthony Ramos (A Star is Born) is Usnavi, the owner of a corner bodega in an ordinary neighborhood of Washington Heights with dreams of returning to the Dominican Republic and restoring the bar his father owned before immigrating to the U.S.  With no immediate family ties to keep him there, all he worries about is the elderly woman who raised him, “Abuela” Claudia (Olga Merediz, The Place Beyond the Pines), and his young cousin Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV, Vampires vs. the Bronx) who lives with his troubled father (an almost unrecognizable Marc Anthony).  Just as he makes up his mind to head back to the D.R. and bring the two with him, the chance of a relationship with hairdresser Vanessa (Melissa Barrera) whom he loved from afar for years puts all of that into question.

Over the course of several days, Usnavi is the nucleus around which numerous characters and stories circle.  We don’t see the world of Washington Heights totally through his eyes but he is the driving force of the piece, and his storyline is pivotal in the lives of many of his neighbors and close friends.  Nina (Leslie Grace), the daughter of the proprietor of a family-run cab company, has returned home from her first year at an Ivy League college with doubts on returning. As she rekindles a romance with Benny (Corey Hawkins, BlacKkKlansman) an employee of her father’s, Kevin (Jimmy Smits, The Tax Collector) tries to persuade his child to seize the opportunity she has been afforded through her hard work and his sacrifice.  The high cost of rent has forced salon owner Daniela (Daphne Rubin-Vega) to move her business to another borough, upsetting her regular clientele.  With dreams of something more than working in a salon, Vanessa is hoping to secure an apartment closer to Manhattan where she can pursue her passion in fashion design, but her current address is making this hard to achieve.

When a winning lottery ticket is sold at Usnavi’s bodega with a payout of $96,000, it changes and challenges the dreams of many of the neighborhood residents right about the time a massive blackout hits their part of the city, plunging their nights into total darkness and asking them to survive in the sweltering heat.  As the temperature rises, so do the stakes for every kind of relationship that exists in the close-knit neighborhood, leading to a cathartic finale which feels like the breath of fresh air type of release we all could use right about now.  Utilizing newly implemented bookends created for the film was a wise choice by screenwriter Quiara Alegría Hudes (who also wrote the original musical) because onstage it’s easy to just hit the audience with a wall of music right away.  Opting to ease into it instead reinforces Usnavi’s role as the narrator and removes him having to speak directly to the camera which robs some of the realism that helps propel the movie forward emotionally.

Oh, the music.  I forgot to mention the music.  I’m almost convinced that In the Heights would work just as well with the music removed (not that I’d want that) but the music is a whole other piece to dissect that I won’t delve as deep into.  I will say that Miranda had to trim or remove a number of songs and that frees the movie to open up more and thereby showcase the stronger pieces and voices.  Like onstage, the number “96,000” is an absolute showstopper and I wouldn’t be surprised if audiences in the theater or at home applaud when it’s over.  Set at a local pool (filmed on location at the Highbridge Pool in Washington Heights) it’s intricately choreographed like a Busby Berkeley musical with so much energy emanating from the screen I swear I was nearly levitating in my seat by the time it was over.

Even more than the staging, it’s one of the best sung films musicals I’ve seen in quite some time.  Barrera and Grace have fantastic voices and are pitch perfect in the acting department as well, same goes for Hawkins and the always under-utilized Smits who is so good they combined two roles in the stage musical to create this one for him.  The original Mimi in the Broadway cast of RENT, Rubin-Vega regrettably doesn’t show up in film much but is a ball of fire as the gossipy hairdresser and I loved that Hudes changed her relationship with her business partner Carla (Stephanie Beatriz, The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part) and also made them romantically involved.  You have to wait a bit for Rubin-Vega to get her moment in the spotlight due to some rearrangement of material but it’s worth it when it arrives.

The biggest names to remember associated with the movie version of In the Heights are Ramos and Merediz.  Not only are they going to nab Oscar nominations for their work but Merediz is going to be fighting off other nominees to claim her Best Supporting Actress award for the next six months.  As the kindly “abuela” to all the neighborhood in one way or another, Merediz is the only Broadway actor to recreate their role onscreen and it’s not hard to see why.  The role is played to perfection and her big number, “Paciencia y Fe (Patience and Faith)” is not only beautifully staged by director Jon M. Chu (Crazy Rich Asians) but performed with the kind of raw emotion and honesty that is next to impossible to capture without adornment on film.  For his efforts, Ramos is delivering the kind of star making performance that comes along rarely in film, perhaps he learned a trick or two from working with Lady Gaga on A Star is Born.   It only takes a few frames of film to understand he possesses the charisma and natural talent to go a long way past the highs In the Heights will surely take him.

Like the stage show, the film does feel overly episodic at times and storylines are picked up and dropped seemingly at random, but that’s a small nitpick in what is generally a free-flowing movie that doesn’t feel like it clocks in at nearly two and a half hours.  And I suppose I could mention that while it is lovely to look at in the moment, a song that defies the law of gravity feels a tad out of place and overly effects-laden when the rest of the film is largely grounded in the realism of the neighborhood…albeit with a little magic thrown in here and there. 

Delayed from its original release date of June 2020, Warner Brothers could have released this one at any time during the past year, but they decided to wait until the time was right…and the time is absolutely right for In the Heights to make its debut.  With the country experiencing a heatwave and the chill of the air-conditioned movie theaters beckoning (it will also be available on HBOMax), I can see In the Heights being a favored destination for many over the coming weeks.  Do yourself a favor, a kindness even, and see it on the big screen.

Movie Review ~ The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren fight for the soul of a young boy, taking them beyond anything they’d ever seen before and marking the first time in U.S. history that a murder suspect would claim demonic possession as a defense.

Stars: Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga, Ruairi O’Connor, Sarah Catherine Hook, Julian Hilliard, John Noble, Eugenie Bondurant, Shannon Kook, Ronnie Gene Blevins, Keith Arthur Bolden, Steve Coulter, Vince Pisani

Director: Michael Chaves

Rated: R

Running Length: 112 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: Who ever could have imagined that a scare masterpiece as impressive as 2013’s The Conjuring could have created two such unlikely super(natural)heroes like Ed and Lorraine Warren?  Nearly a decade later, the God-fearing duo based on the real-life paranormal investigators have appeared in five movies set within The Conjuring Universe, successfully kicking off a cottage industry of scares that could expand as large as their filing cabinet of cases will allow.  Going from the academic demonologists called in by a family living in a house of horrors of the first film to the ghost hunting detectives pursued by demons and the occult in The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It, the Warrens could very well be the Mr. and Mrs. Smith of the horror landscape.

It’s been five years since the Warrens have had a proper film and some changes have been made during that time.  For starters, James Wan (Insidious) took a step back from the director’s seat, allowing The Curse of La Llorona director Michael Chaves to take over and continue the franchise flagship Wan started. The Conjuring 2 screenwriter David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick (Aquaman) is back but wisely steps away from detailing another haunted house case after the overstuffed sequel from 2016 incorporated Amityville and the Enfield poltergeist — too much of a good thing.  There’s also an interesting decision to ever-so slightly side-step events for the Warrens in The Nun as well as Annabelle Comes Home, which should be called Annabelle Comes A-Conjurin’ since it is all about the Warrens and their youngest child, played there by McKenna Grace and not Sterling Jerins who has the role in all three Conjuring films. 

That brings us to the newest film, set in 1981 which pits the Warrens up against a demon that first appears in the body of a little boy during the rattling prologue and then in Arne (Ruairi O’Connor), his sister’s boyfriend, after the young man foolishly welcomes the entity in as a last ditch effort to save the tormented child.  During this climactic switcheroo, Ed (Patrick Wilson, Midway) suffers a health scare and is sidelined and unresponsive for a stretch.  This allows for enough time to pass that Arne and his girlfriend Diane (Sarah Catherine Hook, Monsterland) can get back to their normal life working for a dog kennel alongside its drunk proprietor. 

As Lorraine (Vera Farmiga, The Commuter) stands vigil for her ailing husband, Arne begins to exhibit strange visions and feels a presence not just near him but within him.  As this evil gets closer and deeper, the line between what is real to Arne and what is imagined get blurred.  Then, just as Ed is waking but before the Warrens can reach out with a warning, something takes over Arne and he winds up in jail for murder.  On trial and facing capital punishment if convicted, he seeks help from the Warrens to prove his demonic possession defense, the first of its kind.  Feeling responsible not just for the murder but the original botched exorcism that helped the demon find Arne, Ed and Lorraine launch their own investigation into the case to discover how the monster found its way into the initial host to begin with.  What they uncover involves more dead bodies, witch’s curses, human sacrifice, lots of candles, and the kind of sleuthing that wouldn’t be out of place in a Scooby-Doo mystery.

Don’t read that last statement as a dig at the screenplay from Johnson-McGoldrick.  The story that Wan provided feels like the sequel that should have come after the first film, one that truly gives the Warrens room to grow a bit more.  Whereas The Conjuring 2 was more about the traditional “bigger” sequel gains (don’t forget about that head-scratching long pause for Wilson to strum a guitar and sing ‘Can’t Help Falling in Love With You’) it didn’t move any pieces forward in as significant a way as they are here.  True, there are far more liberties taken with the story than anyone would care to admit, but the fabricated storyline pairs nicely with the real-life tale of Arne Johnson’s case.

There’s also something sort of fun about watching Wilson and Farmiga, both pushing 50, awkwardly snooping around like these types of academics-first would.  While both could easily pull off a lead in an action film, neither turn the Warrens into warriors once they launch into action.  Ed still gets winded after his illness and walks with a cane and Lorraine always wears the loudest and frilliest of blouses, boxiest of pants, and most modest of skirts.  (Side note: there are a few outfits Farmiga dons that I swear are meant to test the audience’s laugh response…but darn it if Farmiga doesn’t wear the absolute heck out of them!)  Wilson has gotten used to playing second banana in most films and that’s his sweet spot, he’s that person and he excels at it.  To try to grasp for something more would feel like he’s taking more than he needs, and Farmiga definitely doesn’t need his help commanding the screen. Arguably the central focus of all the films in one way or another, Farmiga’s character always runs the risk of coming off as insincere because she’s always so sure of herself and her intuitiveness but it’s only an actress of Farmiga’s caliber that can carry off this type of material and not have it feel goopy.

It’s nice to see carryover characters from previous films and viewers with keen eyes will spot a few familiar trinkets along the way, not to mention deep cut callbacks to preceding movies if you want to take the time to connect those dots.  Often in these mystery-oriented films I tend to find them less interesting the more we find out answers but The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It managed to get more engaging as it went along.  Helping this is Chaves who keeps the film tight and taut by not repeating the scares in similar scenes ad nauseum.  Instead of having large set-pieces that present some looming terror for the Warrens (and the audience) as they move through it (think the water-logged basement in the sequel), Chaves prefers to unleash his scares without much advance warning.  This makes for an exciting watch that’s rarely, if ever, boring, or slow.

I know the film had a post-credit scene that was removed, rumored to set the stage for additional cases to be opened.  Taking this out is a strange move to make considering the number of cases the Warrens were involved with that have yet to be told.  Even if the filmmakers wanted to make The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It the end of an unofficial (now official?) trilogy, there is still room to leave the door ajar, if not fully open.  While the movie has a satisfying ending, it does feel like something is missing…like a breath was taken but never exhaled. 

Movie Review ~ Deep Blue Sea 3


The Facts
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Synopsis: Studying the effects of climate change off the coast of Mozambique, a marine biologist and her team confront three genetically enhanced bull sharks.

Stars: Tania Raymonde, Nathaniel Buzolic, Emerson Brooks, Bren Foster, Reina Aoi, Alex Bhat

Director: John Pogue

Rated: R

Running Length: 99 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  For many, the summer of 1999 will be remembered for films like The Sixth Sense, The Blair Witch Project, Runaway Bride, and The Thomas Crown Affair.  Or maybe you heard of that reboot of The Mummy that gave Brendan Fraser a brief shot at true A-List stardom or that big-budget remake of The Haunting that sent audiences laughing instead of shrieking into the night?  It’s good to also remember that Deep Blue Sea was another strong performer that summer, surpassing expectations and mixed reviews to provide a solid return on investment and going on to have a healthy life on video.  I know I saw it five times in theaters that summer, twice in one day even!

I was surprised that it took so long for a sequel to surface and even more shocked that it was a direct to video release but was willing to give Deep Blue Sea 2 a try when it premiered back in 2018.  Yuck.  It was so bad I actually fast-forwarded through most of it and tried to get some joy out of the badly rendered shark effects which at times fared better than the live performances of the terrible actors.  All in all, it was a disaster and actually did some damage to the source property and that can be a pretty bad occurrence in the world of a franchise.  To my further amazement, a third film rose from the depths and brought with it a nice looking poster and a preview that appeared to show promise.  Yet I’ve been burned by good marketing before.  Still, you know I love a good shark movie, so even though DBS2 was a complete and utter piece of stinky chum it was a given that I’d find my way to Deep Blue Sea 3.

It’s nice to report that your critical lifeguard on duty has given the all-clear for you to take a dive into the Deep Blue Sea threequel waters because this is the kind of follow-up that feels more in line with what the original was going for.  It’s still no where near as entertaining or professionally put together as that effort with its bigger budget and larger production crew but new director John Pogue (The Quiet Ones) brings a renewed creative energy to the series that rinses out the bad taste the previous one had left.

Marine biologist Dr. Emma Collins (Tania Raymonde, Texas Chainsaw 3D) and her skeleton crew are studying the effects of climate change in an abandoned fishing village island off the coast of Africa.  The island, Little Happy, is sinking slowly back into the sea and has but two residents left who continue their lives while Emma and her team use their advances in technology to pinpoint why Great White shark numbers are dwindling.  Directly below the island, Emma has found a shark nursery that attracts various species including the Great White.  Emma films these encounters for her blog and followers back on the mainland, much the worry of new arrival Eugene Shaw (Emerson Brooks, Captain America: The Winter Soldier), an old friend of her late father’s that’s arrived to lend underwater skill to the study.  She’s even gone so far as to make nice with Sally, a Great White shark that returns regularly but prefers fish to humans…for now.

Seemingly out of the blue, her former flame Richard (Nathaniel Buzolic, Hacksaw Ridge) arrives at the island with his own set of toys to play with.  This isn’t a random visit though because we’ve already met Richard earlier in the film.  We know he’s there to track down three rogue genetically enhanced bull sharks that went missing at the end of DBS2 and whose mother he recently caught.  Flanked by muscle man Lucas (Bren Foster), Richard hopes to use Emma’s tracking system and staff to locate the sharks before their valuable property swim too far out of range and get close enough to civilization that the public starts asking questions.  The small island soon becomes a death trap once Richard and Lucas reveal their end game to Emma as the sharks close in on a signal designed to attract them.

While a marked improvement over the last film, I still moan over the lack of creativity ultimately in all of these creature features through past decades.  At some point, a decision seems to have been made that there had to be a secondary human villain in all of these movies and that’s what winds up sinking most efforts faster than anything else.  Hammy acting and unbelievable plot mechanics make these land lubbers a real drag and you just want the action to get back to whatever nasty monster is snacking on the nubile teens and old widows around town.  The same schlocky villains exist in DBS3 but thankfully screenwriter Dirk Blackman (a name I swore was a pseudonym until I verified it was real) keeps them on the periphery as much as possible and devotes a good chunk of the film to shark action.  It does take a decent amount of time for the pace to really pick up but when it does, in the final 45 minutes or so, the tension is kept on high for the duration.  It all culminates in one of the most satisfying finales I’ve seen in one of these movies in quite some time…effects and cinematography are stellar in delivering an ending everyone should be quite proud of.

Performances are really beside the point but after the debacle of DBS2 at least the cast of DBS3 are able to string phrases together and make them sound like human beings are speaking.  Raymonde takes her shark talk very very seriously and doesn’t leave a lot of room for humor…but then again so did Saffron Burrows in the first movie and look how well that turned out for her.  It’s an approach that works and, chilly though it might be, is a choice that is at least committed to and stuck with.  I only wish the other two females in the film, a tech wiz and the wife of a fisherman weren’t reduced to shrieking bystanders when the going gets tough.  Buzolic and Foster could honestly have been interchangeable, though Foster seems to enjoy playing the extra mean scenes a little more and has a nice fight scene with Brooks that’s well executed.

I found this to be a perfectly fun, respectably decent third entry in the Deep Blue Sea franchise and a sign that Warner Brothers is invested in moving the series in a better direction. For once, maybe a studio listened to the fans that were so disappointed in the sequel to a popular favorite and course-corrected on their next attempt.  If this is the creative depths to where Deep Blue Sea could go, I say let’s go for four and see what other smart sharks are swimming around out there.

Movie Review ~ Scoob!


The Facts
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Synopsis: Scooby and the gang face their most challenging mystery ever: a plot to unleash the ghost dog Cerberus upon the world. As they race to stop this dogpocalypse, the gang discovers that Scooby has an epic destiny greater than anyone imagined.

Stars: Will Forte, Gina Rodriguez, Zac Efron, Amanda Seyfried, Mark Wahlberg, Frank Welker, Jason Isaacs, Kiersey Clemons, Ken Jeong, Tracy Morgan

Director: Tony Cervone

Rated: PG

Running Length: 94 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  If there’ s one thing that’s gotten me through these past few months of uncertainty and #StayHome / #StaySafe decrees, it’s comfort food and comfort media.  While the comfort food and it’s delicious temptations has assisted in my transitioning to pajama pants exclusively, at least the TV and film that I’ve found so soothing hasn’t packed any extra pounds onto my frame.  From 80s comedies to classic nor thrillers and episodes lifted out of ABC’s TGIF line-up, I haven’t been lacking in something on the boob tube to keep me distracted/entertained.

Then there are the cartoons.  Now, normally I’m not that much of a cartoon guy and my eyebrows shoot to the skies when I hear about the whole obsession with My Little Pony but when presented with a cartoon from my youth I just can’t resist.  The nostalgia factor is so high that it almost makes up for the sad truth that many of these shows nowadays are hard to watch due to the crude animation and silly plot mechanics.  Still…back in the day there was a treasure trove of programming available to kids like me.  Could be Ducktales, could be The Jetsons, might be the Snorks, but if it showed up on a Saturday morning there was a high probability I was tuned in for it and you better believe when anything related to Scooby-Doo was airing I was not to be disturbed.

The cartoon about teen sleuths and their ever-hungry talking Great Dane had been around since 1969 but by the time I was parked in front of the TV all bleary-eyed and mussed-haired it was already in one of its numerous offshoots featuring Scooby’s wise-talking nephew Scrappy-Doo.  As I grew up, my interest in other animated weekend offerings waned but there was something about Scooby and the gang that stuck with me.   I whole-heartedly admit to owning the entire original Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! series as well as the popular but chintzy live-action films they made in the 2000s.  Sure, I’ve seen the numerous straight to video animated movies that have been released and I have a particular fondness for 1988’s Scooby-Doo and the Ghoul School as well as my all-time favorite, Scooby-Doo and the Reluctant Werewolf, released the same year.

As a fan of this franchise, I wasn’t clutching my pearls too much when I got a look at the preview for Scoob! which was originally intended to be an early summer theatrical release for Warner Brother Animation.  With the coronavirus outbreak, Warner Brothers pivoted their plans and have released the film on demand and I think they’ll see a good profit from this family friendly, colorful reboot that captures the spirit of the show while also making it accessible for a new generation.  Though it does have a few minor missteps, it avoids the outright errors from the live-action version and winds up being more pleasing than painful to fans.

Acting a bit as an origin story, the film opens with a young Shaggy meeting a pup he names Scooby Dooby Doo on a California beach.  Both loners, not necessarily by choice, the two bond over their love of food and their friendship is sealed then and there.  When they’re accosted on Halloween night by some mean bullies who steal their candy and hide it in a supposedly haunted house, who should come to the rescue but a young Fred, Daphne, and Velma.  Together, the five solve their first mystery, setting the stage for the next decade of working as a team which brings us to the present (the film is set in modern times) when the gang is deciding on how to take their business to the next level.

Following a standard outline like many of the episodes, Shaggy and Scooby are separated from the other three by a series of occurrences as they both work on disparate mysteries that eventually have a common thread.  Shaggy (Will Forte, Nebraska) and Scooby (Frank Welker, Aladdin) team up with a bumbling superhero (Mark Wahlberg, All the Money in the World) and his sidekicks (Ken Jeong, Crazy Rich Asians and Kiersey Clemons, Lady and the Tramp) while Fred (Zac Efron, The Greatest Showman), Daphne (Amanda Seyfried, Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again), and Velma (Gina Rodriguez, Annihilation) track down Dick Dasterdly (Jason Isaacs, Dragonheart) who has plans to resurrect a monster from Greek mythology.  This brings all on a globe-hopping (and time-traveling) race against time to stop Dick before he can obtain what he needs to unleash the powerful beast.

At 94 minutes, Scoob! plays like an especially long episode of the show and that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  The four screenwriters clearly have done their homework and have pulled the best of the characters through to this update, gently smoothing some of the rougher edges while still maintaining the ostensible traits that make them so unique.  As you might expect, for young audiences viewing this now the filmmakers have amped up the action so there are times when the proceedings get especially manic, with the volume on the antics turned up high.  That works for some of the more outlandish characters (like Isaacs having a field day as the villainous Dasterdly) but tends to sink secondary ones. Thankfully, while the flick does have its scary moments (this is about bringing a teeth-gnashing three headed dog back to life, after all), it’s goofy charm keeps the film on the lighter side of the PG scale, and that’s not something a number of supposedly family friendly films can claim.

It’s been a long time since a Scooby-Doo movie played in theaters and while I think Scoob! will do well in this on-demand setting, I do think this release platform will hinder chances for future theatrical offerings down the road.  Seeing that the lovable pooch and his friends have routinely turned up in direct to video mysteries for years already, it might be hard to separate this effort (which is quite entertaining) from the others which can come off as quickie money grabs (which they often are).  You can’t keep a good dog down, though, so I’m not too worried about Scooby making a nice comeback soon…besides, we still need to get re-introduced to Scrappy-Doo!

Movie Review ~ Just Mercy


The Facts
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Synopsis: After graduating from Harvard, Bryan Stevenson heads to Alabama to defend those wrongly condemned or those not afforded proper representation. One of his first cases is that of Walter McMillian, who is sentenced to die in 1987 for the murder of an 18-year-old girl, despite evidence proving his innocence.

Stars: Michael B. Jordan, Jamie Foxx, Brie Larson, Rob Morgan, Tim Blake Nelson, Rafe Spall, O’Shea Jackson Jr., Karan Kendrick

Director: Destin Daniel Cretton

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 137 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  There’s always a dilemma in missing an early screening of a movie and waiting to see it after it is released to general audiences.  I had the opportunity to see Just Mercy back in October at the Twin Cities Film Festival and again in late December for a press screening but wasn’t able to attend either showing due to other commitments. This was a disappointment because I had been looking forward to this high-profile studio film starring rising A-Lister Michael B. Jordan and Academy Award winners Jamie Foxx and Brie Larson in a true-life legal drama.  With buzz out of initial festival screenings that it could be a crowd-pleasing awards favorite, I wanted to be able to see it early, yes, but also with a packed house to get their reaction as well.

So, I couldn’t have that group experience, though I don’t think Just Mercy is meant to be one of those roof-raising stand up and applaud your noble defense attorney movies in the first place. Though it could be unfairly compared to a TV movie of the week because of its familiar story line of ambitious attorney battles Goliath bigoted legal system, it’s the small gentle touches that make it special.  You get a sense it’s wrong emerging from Destin Daniel Cretton’s fourth feature feeling entertained because there is nothing fun about its racially charged subject or the picture it paints about the conviction rates of the past, present and future.  It’s a somber and sobering look at the life of one man at the beginning of his journey in the fight for social justice and the individuals that had an impact on setting him on his path.

Harvard graduate Bryan Stevenson (Jordan, Creed) turns down offers from bigger (i.e. better paying) firms in better ports of call in favor of moving to Alabama to defend inmates wrongly convicted of crimes.  Inspired by an early meeting with a death row inmate he formed a connection with while he was still a law student, he starts the Equal Justice Initiative with Eva Ansley (Larson, Captain Marvel).  Seeking to provide a pro-bono defense for death row inmates who may not have received a fair trial due to their social class or ethnic background, Stevenson and Ansley come up against communities that sees them as nothing more than trying to free murders and rapists.  They face opposition from the start.  No one will rent them space for their office, Ansley receives bomb threats at her house, Stevenson is targeted by the local police and, in so many words, told to keep out of their business.

Marketing for Just Mercy would suggest that all of Stevenson’s time is devoted to working on overturning the conviction of Walter McMillian (Foxx, Django Unchained) who was accused of killing a teenage girl and given the death penalty despite a mountain of evidence proving he was innocent but that is a bit deceiving.  While it’s true that the bulk of the film revolves around the relationship that forms between the two men, there’s a significant amount of time spent with inmate Herbert Richardson (Rob Morgan, The Last Black Man in San Francisco) a veteran with PTSD on death row that also comes under Stevenson’s banner.  Both men have an impact on the lawyer Stevenson becomes and especially the time he spends with Richardson informs how Stevenson approaches the numerous setbacks he faces in the McMillian trial.  As Stevenson digs deeper in the McMIllian case, it opens the old wounds of a community that used the McMillian conviction as a Band-Aid to heal after the violent murder and aren’t willing to look at any evidence suggesting McMillian was innocent.

As this is based on a true story, the outcome of everything is right there for you to see if you choose to spoil things for yourself before going in, but I’d advise staving off that knowledge if possible.  I went in knowing nothing and it added to the tension of not being able to predict what would happen next and if justice would be served after being denied for so long.  The answers aren’t always what we want or how we expect to receive them but overall there’s a strength in Cretton’s script, though at 137 minutes the film is slightly circuitous in its path to get there.  What I can say is that the events in the film had a lasting impact on the lives of everyone involved and the work continues to this day — be sure to stay until the credits are fully rolling to be brought up to date with where things are presently.

Continuing to show he’s going to be one of the next generation of Movie Stars (the capital and M and S are purposeful), Jordan can come across as overly earnest as Stevenson but it’s exactly the right approach for the recent grad having his eyes opened to the certain realities.  He’s not naïve enough to think justice is always blind or that everyone is treated the same but watching his spirit get a bit broken during a cruel strip search his first-time visiting McMillian in jail is hard to watch.  With McMillian, Foxx has his best role in years and should have had an Oscar nomination to show for it.  The resolution to his situation and a body bereft of hope is evident when Stevenson first meets him, and Foxx creates a nice kind of magic letting the hope seep back into his person when the tides seem to turn in his direction.  Both men have an electric chemistry with Foxx the actor taking a fatherly role over Jordan — I can’t say for sure but it feels like the two got along like gangbusters and it shows onscreen.  Though their characters struggled to trust at first, the beauty found behind the walls eventually broken down is extraordinary.

Having worked with Cretton several times now, I’m surprised Larson didn’t have more to do.  She’s determined and confident as Ansley but goes missing for long stretches only to appear again to give Stevenson a pep talk or be a sounding board – so it winds up feeling like a utilitarian role rather than a pivotal one.  In some ways, I thought Morgan’s troubled death row veteran outshone Foxx.  He’s honestly the heart of the film and he’s got a whopper of a showcase that will easily get him work for the next several years.  Every film needs a villain or villain-adjacent and while it’s hard to cast the legal system into one person, Rafe Spall (Prometheus) as the stubborn District Attorney refusing to see the evidence presented to him fits the bill just fine.  Some may find Tim Blake Nelson (Angel Has Fallen) as a key witness to be slightly on the broad side but considering that Nelson had to add a speech disability that distorts his face, I found it to be an effective performance.   I also couldn’t write this review and not mention the enormous contribution of Karan Kendrick (The Odd Life of Timothy Green) and her solid turn as McMillian’s devoted wife who rallies her community behind Stevenson and her spouse.  There’s more to the role than simple love and support and Kendrick makes the most of her few scenes.

Plenty of movies have been made about the failure of our justice system to serve the men and women that can’t afford the kind of defense that would prove their innocence and plenty more will be made in the future.  Each has it’s own story of lines being crossed and motivations that are less than noble winning out over the quest for the truth.  All are worthy stories to tell because maybe it will prevent one more person from being wrongfully convicted of a crime.  Just Mercy may not have set out to change the way lawyers work with their clients, prosecutors pursue a conviction, juries weigh the facts, or judges deliver sentencing but it does highlight there is still work to be done to get it right.

Movie Review ~ Richard Jewell

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: American security guard, Richard Jewell, heroically saves thousands of lives from an exploding bomb at the 1996 Olympics, but is unjustly vilified by journalists and the press who falsely report that he was a terrorist.

Stars: Paul Walter Hauser, Sam Rockwell, Kathy Bates, Jon Hamm, Olivia Wilde, Nina Arianda

Director: Clint Eastwood

Rated: R

Running Length: 129 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  First off, let me say that I hope by the time I’m 89 years old I can remain as active and involved as Clint Eastwood has.  At a time when many of his contemporaries have taken their leave of Hollywood or reduced their profile, Eastwood is still going strong and managing to remain a prolific filmmaker.  Not only does he manage to keep making movies, but with a few minor exceptions they are often quite profitable at the box office.  So studios are clamoring for his time because he can do a lot with a little and actors want to work with him for his laid-back style and easy-going nature.  His time as an actor has made him a rather dependable director, even if he’s not always the most exciting or obvious choice.

Remember last year when The Mule was feared by so many awards pundits that saw it looming at the edges of the holiday release schedule?  Eastwood had been known before to swoop in at the last minute and upset a locked-in season…at least that’s what all these podcasters would have you believe.  That only happened once, with Million Dollar Baby and ever since then anytime an Eastwood movie quietly sneaks into theaters in late December without screening far in advance everyone gets worried it will be another scenario where the film will open and blow everything else out of the water.  It almost happened again with American Sniper, it definitely didn’t happen with The Mule (which was actually kind of interesting in a weird way), and it’s not likely to occur with Richard Jewell…though it’s already created a few waves.

I have to admit that while I was familiar with the name Richard Jewell, I had forgotten the actual details of the events and eventual outcome surrounding the 1996 bombing that occurred in Atlanta during their Summer Olympics.  I made a point not to refresh my memory before attending the screening so I could take the movie at narrative face value and look up the nitty gritty details later – otherwise I’d be spending the majority of my time noting the liberties screenwriter Billy Ray (Captain Phillips) took with the facts of the case.  Based in part on a Vanity Fair article by Marie Brenner with some material also culled from an investigative book, Ray appears to be simpatico with Eastwood in his desire to explore the breakdown of due process by the government and news media.

After struggling to maintain a position in local law enforcement, Richard Jewell (Paul Walter Hauser, I, Tonya) was working as a security guard in Centennial Park on July 27, 1996 when he saw a suspicious backpack left unattended.  Known for being an overzealous stickler that excites easily, his colleagues and police officers on duty don’t pay much attention until looking closer and finding Jewell’s hunch wasn’t off the mark.  An anonymous call into 911 warned of an impending detonation and though Jewell and others try to clear the area as best they can, the bomb goes off to devastating effect.

Hailed as a hero and becoming an overnight minor celebrity, the bright lights turn dark quickly for Jewell when a former employer notifies the FBI of his erratic behavior in the past.  When information on Jewell becoming a suspect is leaked by a top agent (Jon Hamm, Million Dollar Arm) to a local news reporter (Olivia Wilde, The Lazarus Effect) and she in turn runs the story on the front page, it soon becomes national news.  While his mother (Kathy Bates, A Home Of Our Own) watches helplessly, Jewell is vilified in the press and hounded by federal agents and it’s only when he calls on Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell, Vice) that he starts to find some solid ground to fight back on.

You don’t have to dig too deep into Richard Jewell to see Eastwood passing down a condemnation on the clumsy way this was handled and it’s true that Jewell was done a great disservice.  All he ever wanted to do was be in law enforcement and it’s a bit of a cruel joke that he was railroaded with no real purpose.  More than anything, Eastwood comes down like a twenty ton anvil on the news media and, in particular, the sensationalist journalism that prints first and asks questions later.  It’s a huge problem for Richard Jewell the person and it’s become a huge problem for Richard Jewell the motion picture.

The issue stems from the portrayal of Wilde’s character, Atlanta-Journal Constitution reporter Kathy Scruggs.  Scruggs is shown to be a wildcat reporter that shows up for work looking hungover and mussed, dressed like Erin Brockovich.  Standing in stark contrast to the other mumsy women that work in the office she claims are jealous of her and the stories she gets, Scruggs is later shown trading sex for stories, something her co-workers and family object strongly to.  Ray even has her indicate she’s not that good of a writer, imploring a desk reporter to do the majority of the work for her.  While Wilde turns in her best performance in years as Scruggs, it’s unfortunate she’s doing it in such a fish eye-d lens of a male gazed upon character.  Scruggs was a real person and the various men she rubs up against are fictitious creations serving as stand-in amalgams for others, so it feels a bit shameful to denigrate her by name only, especially considering the real life Scruggs passed away in 2001 and isn’t here to defend herself.

That problematic slice of the film aside, I found myself oddly compelled by Richard Jewell and I think it’s largely due to the lead performances of Hauser and Rockwell.  Both are so invested in their roles that for one of the rare times this year I was able to set aside previous roles they’ve played and let them inhabit these characters here and now.  It’s easier for Hauser to do that because he’s had less roles but that doesn’t mean he isn’t doing some complex work – while he’s done the simpleton act to perfection before there’s a graceful edge he gives Jewell that elevates this above those other roles.  Rockwell is getting good at playing fired up and Eastwood gives him a long leash to play, to often pleasing results.  Together, the two men share some well-worked scenes that have a real ring of truth.

As is the case with most Eastwood films, the supporting cast is a mixture of faces familiar and new.  I still want to go on record and say that Hamm is absolutely 100% in no way a movie star and he demonstrates here again why that is.  There’s just a limited range for him to play and even when given a role with some darker edges he can’t quite find the right shade.  The real buzz from the movie is with the performance of Bates and while I always like seeing her onscreen, like Laura Dern in Marriage Story this is one of those “It’s fine, I guess” turns that don’t seem that huge of stretch from an actress we already know can do wonders.  If anything, I liked Nina Arianda (Stan & Ollie) as Bryant’s no-nonsense secretary more than the rest.  Even saddled with a hideous wig and not much meaningful dialogue, she has a presence in every scene she turns up in.

I fully know I fell a bit under Eastwood’s “stick it to ‘em!” spell of an approach but I didn’t find myself filled with a lot of regret in the act.  Eastwood and I don’t agree on a lot of things but we seem to agree that Jewell was mightily wronged.  I can see this movie appealing to a particular crowd of folks and being considered complete troublemaking propaganda to another – but at least it creates a dialogue.  I’d rather have a movie like Richard Jewell come out with its clear message (whether you want to hear it or not) that gets people talking than something you see and forget about instantly.

The Silver Bullet ~ In the Heights



Synopsis
:  A bodega owner has mixed feelings about closing his store and retiring to the Dominican Republic after inheriting his grandmother’s fortune.

Release Date: June 26, 2020

Thoughts: By now, most fans of the musical phenomenon Hamilton are well-aware of creator Lin-Manuel Miranda’s previous Broadway success story, In the Heights.  Also a celebrated piece of theatrical entertainment and winner of multiple awards, when I saw the show in its national tour it didn’t quite land with me as much as I thought it would.  That’s why I’m especially interested to see the film adaptation arriving next summer which is getting a flashy treatment from Warner Brothers.  I think this is going to transfer well to the screen and by the looks of the first trailer of the big-time movie musical directed by Jon M. Chu (Crazy Rich Asians) and starring Anthony Ramos (A Star is Born) taking on the role Miranda (Mary Poppins Returns) originated, this could be a hot ticket come June.  While we wait for the inevitable film version of Hamilton, fingers crossed In the Heights shows how easy it is for Miranda’s work to soar in a different medium.

Movie Review ~ Annabelle Comes Home


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Determined to keep Annabelle from wreaking more havoc, demonologists Ed and Lorraine Warren bring the possessed doll to the locked artifacts room in their home, placing her “safely” behind sacred glass and enlisting a priest’s holy blessing. But an unholy night of horror awaits as Annabelle awakens the evil spirits in the room, who all set their sights on a new target-the Warrens’ ten-year-old daughter, Judy, and her friends.

Stars: Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Madison Iseman, McKenna Grace, Katie Sarife, Michael Cimino

Director: Gary Dauberman

Rated: R

Running Length: 106 minutes

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review: When I first heard the filmmakers behind The Conjuring were interested in creating a universe of their own which would do for horror what Marvel did for superhero comic book movies, I was pretty dubious as to how it would all pan out. I mean, The Conjuring was such a perfect scare machine that its unexpected success with audiences, critics, and the box office of course meant a sequel would be produced but were there enough good ideas to truly expand it into something bigger? Moreover, would the real life case files of paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren continue to be used or would new poltergeists haunting houses be unearthed?

The first attempt out of the gate was 2014’s lackluster Annabelle, a direct spin-off from The Conjuring centering on the scary doll. The film had a creepy vibe but failed deliver anything more than surface shockwaves. While The Conjuring 2 in 2016 had its moments of excellence it came down with a case of sequel-it is and overstayed its welcome. Then, a minor miracle occurred in 2017 with the release of Annabelle: Creation, which managed to improve upon its predecessor by some truly terrifying leaps and bounds. Consider how well put together that film was and how nicely it managed to fold in elements from all the films that came before, it felt like the filmmakers took in the criticism received from the previous films and made the changes necessary to keep this universe expanding.

Now, something very strange and special is happening within The Conjuring Universe as it continues to grow as a rapid pace. While 2018’s The Nun and The Curse of La Llorna from this past April stumbled a bit (but still did good numbers at the box office), things are back on the terror track with the release of Annabelle Comes Home, another strong entry that bodes well for the future of this franchise. Employing a healthy dose of atmosphere long before the real scares begin, it rewards longtime fans of the series and invites newcomers in with a wicked grin.  While it largely benefits from the jump scare, there are an equal amount of frights that come when you least expect them and plenty of misdirects to goose your bumps nicely.

So far, each Annabelle tale has found an interesting way into the timeline of the events in the history of the Warrens and this one is no different. The prologue for Annabelle Comes Home begins right after the prologue from The Conjuring when we were first introduced to the doll that had spooked a couple of college co-eds. Ed (Patrick Wilson, Aquaman) and Lorraine (Vera Farmiga, Godzilla: King of the Monsters) are taking the troublesome toy back home to their room of once (and still?) possessed artifacts for safekeeping, but Annabelle doesn’t make the journey an easy one.  The trip back presents car trouble for the Warrens and, wouldn’t you know it, they break down right outside a cemetery inhabited with spirits drawn to the doll.

Once locked away safely, things stay relatively quiet where Annabelle is concerned until Ed and Lorraine leave their daughter Judy (McKenna Grace, I, Tonya) under the care of Mary Ellen (Madison Iseman, Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween) while they go to an overnight conference. While Mary Ellen is a responsible caregiver, she’s friends with Daniela (Katie Sarife) who is more interested in the Warrens profession and poking around in their artifact room than baking a cake and entertaining Judy for the night. She’s not just looking for a cheap tabloid thrill either, there’s a reason why Daniela wants to know if the supernatural afterlife is real. Left alone in the house while Judy and Mary Ellen try out a new pair of roller skates (this is the ‘70s, remember?), Daniela snoops her way into trouble when she accidentally lets Annabelle out. Once the doll is free, she brings an assortment of crazed curios from the Warrens unholy collection out to play as well.

In the past, the more sequels a movie gets the less time these installments seem to take on set-up and exposition before launching into what audiences are craving for. That’s not true with the films in The Conjuring Universe. At 106 minutes, the movie isn’t in any rush to get to the unleashing we all know is bound to happen and that allows director Gary Dauberman the opportunity to let us get to know these characters a bit more. Peppered with creepy moments for the first hour as we see the Warrens leave the girls for the night and Daniela taking her need for emotional closure in the spirit world one-step too far, when the movie does reach its apex it takes off like a rocket and doesn’t let up.

Popping up over these last several years in small roles proving herself as a dependable young actor, Grace is an ideal lead as the Warrens only child. Maybe possessing some of the same gifts as her mother, Grace paints Judy as struggling to fit in but not unware that maybe she’s one keeping people at a distance. Her sisterly friendship with Mary Ellen is believable and Iseman too turns in a winning performance as the smart, responsible babysitter that doesn’t let a pining boy (charming Michael Cimino) in because she’s already committed to spending time with Judy. Though at first glance Sarife’s role looks like the bad girl there to cause all the trouble and pay a huge price, the script by Dauberman (who also did good work with IT) and James Wan (Insidious) has bigger (and surprisingly emotional) plans for her in the long run.

While Annabelle Comes Home doesn’t ultimately land with the same electric punch as Annabelle: Creation, it’s still a resoundingly worthy entry in this growing universe. If the scripts continue to be creative and the casting remains strong, I can see these doing good business if the interest is still there. Looking ahead we have The Conjuring 3 in 2020 and then nothing firm yet for the next slate of films and I think that’s a good thing. Let’s see how these movies land and then figure out where to go from there.  Something tells me Annabelle has more untold stories waiting to get a big screen scream treatment.

Movie Review ~ Shazam!

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: We all have a superhero inside us, it just takes a bit of magic to bring it out. In Billy Batson’s case, by shouting out one word – SHAZAM! – this streetwise 14-year-old foster kid can turn into the adult superhero Shazam.

Stars: Zachary Levi, Asher Angel, Mark Strong, Jack Dylan Grazer, Grace Fulton, Faithe Herman, Ian Chen, Jovan Armand, Cooper Andrews, Marta Milans, Adam Brody, Djimon Hounsou

Director: David F. Sandberg

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 132 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: Those poor souls over at Warner Brothers/DC Comics were likely looking at 2019 and feeling crestfallen at their prospects. With three highly anticipated Marvel films set for release and their Wonder Woman sequel pushed back to 2020, it must have felt like any hopes of getting another foothold in their franchise ladder weren’t going to happen. I’m not sure how much faith they had in Shazam! at the outset but they should have pumped this one up a bit more than they did. Sure, I saw the preview more times than I needed to before other films but going into the movie I wasn’t expecting anything vastly different than the soulless offerings they’ve been churning out in the past decade.

Thankfully, it seems like they may have stumbled onto something good.

Foster kid Billy Baston (Asher Angel) has found himself on the wrong side of the law for the last time when he is apprehended after obtaining information from a police database. He’d been attempting to find his mother after they were separated when he was a toddler and hasn’t given up hope that she’s out there and is looking for him as well. Taken in by another foster family that already boasts a diverse line-up of kids in similar family situations, Billy bides his time until he can run away again to continue his search.

When he’s mysteriously brought to the temple of an aging Wizard (Djimon Hounsou, Serenity) tasked with guarding the seven deadly sins, he absorbs the fading Wizard’s magic and turns into a buff superhero (Zachary Levi, Thor: The Dark World) anytime he says the Wizard’s name: Shazam. Unware of the extent of his newfound powers, Billy has the mind of a teenager in the body of a mature adult and at first doesn’t exactly use his upgrades for good. Though he runs through some trials of his abilities with his foster brother (Jack Dylan Grazer, IT), he starts to be the kind of hero that’s only looking out for himself instead of assisting others.

He’s put to the ultimate test when Sivana (Mark Strong, The Imitation Game) enters the picture. Obsessed with finding the temple of the Seven Wizards that he too visited as a young child, the grown man eventually makes his way back to the hidden dwelling and frees the sins from their prison. Now being used as their vessel for evil, Sivana sets his sights on taking the Wizard’s power from Shazam (who has become something of a local Philadelphia celebrity) and eliminating everyone he loves.

If there’s one thing that’s been sorely missing from the DC slate of superhero movies it’s a sense of humor and finally the stiff suits at the studio backed up and let wiser talents guide this process – and it’s largely successful. Though the previous credits for screenwriters Henry Gayden (Earth to Echo) and Darren Lemke (Goosebumps) might not have suggested they’d be the right choices to bring Bill Parker and C.C. Beck’s superhero to the big screen, Shazam! is a welcome change of pace from the darker-hued adventure films the studio has been greenlighting. Adding director David F. Sandberg (Lights Out, Annabelle: Creation) was another inspired choice as he’s nicely able to balance the lighter/more comedic elements of the plot with the darker edges supplied by Sivana.

Sandberg has cast the film well starting with Levi as our hero that becomes more than the sum of his bulging muscles and caped suit. Seeing that he’s actually a teen given awesome powers, Levi might overplay the sarcasm and wise-cracks a bit early on but it provides him a place to jump off from as he grows into a more responsible hero and a more understanding teenager. He has a nice rapport with Grazer and his other foster siblings, adding some layers to a character that could easily have been pretty one-dimensional. The villain role doesn’t seem to be much of a stretch for Strong at this point and while he’s perfectly fine in the part it would have been nice to see it played by someone a little less expected. It’s just too easy for Strong to slide into these wicked characters by now.

While it’s a good 10-15 minutes too long, spending unearned time with Sivana and following Levi through perhaps a few too many blunders, Sandberg and the screenwriters manage to introduce a late breaking twist that I found pretty delightful and nicely inclusive. Buoyed by strong performances by the child actors (a rarity these days) and a nice dose of humor and creativity, Shazam! is a fun right turn from the careening curve DC studios couldn’t pull out of.

Movie Review ~ The Mule


The Facts
:

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.