REVIEW: “The Mule”

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Even at the spry young age of of 88 Clint Eastwood remains a captivating presence behind the camera and especially on the movie screen. With “The Mule” he shows he still has the acting chops to carry a movie and he’s still a solid director who can tell a good story even if the material isn’t always up to snuff.

“The Mule” is based on a 2014 New York Times article by Sam Dolnick. It detailed the crazy true story of 90-Year-Old Leo Sharp and his life as one of the most prolific drug mules in history. For over ten years Sharp transported thousands of pounds of cocaine across the country for the Sinaloa Cartel. The article was adapted by screenwriter Nick Schenk who previously worked with Eastwood on “Gran Torino”.

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Eastwood plays Earl Stone (inspired by Leo Sharp), an esteemed horticulturist known for his award-winning daylilies. But with the rise of the internet Earl finds his once bustling greenhouse out of business. His family wants nothing to do with him after years of neglect save his soon-to-be-married granddaughter Ginny (Taissa Farmiga). Earl’s ex-wife Mary (Dianne Wiest) and daughter Iris (Alison Eastwood) aren’t as forgiving and with good reason.

Broke and estranged, Earl takes the job of a “mule” for a Mexican cartel. Several successful runs later, he finds himself rolling in cash and in good standing with the the cartel boss (Andy Garcia). He hopes to use his newfound wealth to regain his community status and make amends with his family but finds out nothing is certain in such a dangerous and volatile business.

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We also get a parallel story of a Chicago-based DEA agent (Bradley Cooper) hungry for a big bust. This story thread follows him and his partner (Michael Peña) as they try to plug the flow of drugs into the city. It’s inevitable that they and Earl eventually cross paths, the trailer tells us as much. Interesting idea but unfortunately everything about their investigation up to that point is so restrained that it offers very little in terms of suspense or drama.

It’s tempting to go into “The Mule” expecting a tense crime thriller. That’s certainly how the trailer frames it. There are moments of that, but ultimately this isn’t that kind of movie. It’s all about a man running from his guilt, seeing the light, but still left to reckon with the choices he has made. It’s this primary focus that makes “The Mule” work. And don’t let his age fool you, Clint Eastwood remains a fascinating and immensely watchable presence.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

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REVIEW: “Guardians of the Galaxy”

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I don’t know if anyone expected Marvel’s cinematic universe to be the humongous global success that it has become. The comic book giant’s first wave of films brought most of its heavy hitters to the big screen and millions of people to the theaters to watch them. Most critics have responded positively to these films while also showing signs of growing weary of them. But Marvel has started their second wave of movies which will feature some of their more obscure characters. “Guardians of the Galaxy” is one such film and I truly felt Marvel was overreaching. But an over $90 million opening weekend proved me wrong. But as the Transformers franchise has proven, a big box office take doesn’t always represent the quality of the movie.

“Guardians of the Galaxy” is a very different installment into Marvel’s movie world. It stands apart in a variety of ways including its tone, its setting, and the characters it brings to the table. It’s overall different feel may have been one of the things that has attracted audiences to it. That being said, it won’t take you long to recognize some pretty familiar plot points wrapped in the film’s shiny, CGI-heavy packaging.

At its core “Guardians of the Galaxy” is a story that you’ve seen before. A ragtag group of misfits must overcome their criminal pasts and personal animosities and join together to quell a cosmic threat. It’s that basic and you can see many of the plot angles coming a mile away. But for me a familiar story can be overcome if its centered around good characters. As luck would have it, good characters are one of the film’s greater strengths.

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Chris Pratt continues to deservedly catch people’s attention. Here he buffs up but maintains that lovable goofiness that seems inherent in every character he portrays. He plays a petty space pirate named Peter Quill, a.k.a.Star-Lord. After swiping a mysterious orb, he finds himself being pursued by the henchman of an alien fanatic known as Ronan (Lee Pace). Ronan has made a deal with the ominous Thanos (Josh Brolin) to retrieve the orb in exchange for power to destroy a rival planet.

Peter gets in way over his head and as his circumstances worsen he finds himself joined by a raccoon bounty hunter named Rocket (Bradley Cooper) and his tree sidekick Groot (Vin Diesel), an alien assassin named Gamora (Zoe Saldana,), and a revenge-fueled warrior named Drax (Dave Bautista). The dysfunctional team begin working together each for their own personal reasons, but as you can probably guess, a proper bond begins to form between them as things move along.

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For me the characters are what anchors this film. Each are unique in their own way and each contribute to the undeniable personality of the movie. There are times when the script does them no favors. There are some corny lines and there are times when the jokes fall flat or feel forced. But there are other times where the chemistry between the characters and between the performers just clicks. These are the moments when the jokes work and the camaraderie is entertaining. I also loved the 70s and 80s culture references sprinkled throughout the film. I did find myself wanting more in terms of backstory from the group (aside from Peter). I also thought Ronan, while extremely cool, was an incredibly bland villain who won’t be remembered past the end credits. But ultimately I liked the characters and am interested enough to see them together again (something that is certain to happen).

The effects and makeup are genuinely good particularly with Rocket and Groot as well as the host of alien side characters three of which are played by Djimon Houndou, Karen Gillan, and one of my favorite character actors Michael Rooker. I do wish Marvel would shake up their standard formula for big action endings. It seems that every film ends with a huge 20 minute CGI blowout that leans more on chaos than coherency. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that the ending of “Guardians” doesn’t work. It just felt a bit generic and almost what I’m starting to expect out of every Marvel movie.

“Guardians of the Galaxy” marks Marvel’s first real foray into their rich cosmic universe. It is in the same universe as the other Marvel pictures yet it feels strikingly different. That is part of the charm the movie possesses. It aims to be unique and features characters that I’m not that familiar with. But how that unfamiliarity influenced my response to the movie compared to other Marvel films is hard to figure out. In fact my response to the film as a whole may seem confusing. There are some glaring flaws and shortcomings but at the same time I was entertained enough through the film’s 2 hours. In that respect “Guardians of the Galaxy” is a success. Yet I can’t seem to shake the feeling that it just barely missed true greatness.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

REVIEW: “The Place Beyond the Pines”

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The title may make it sound like a high-minded ethereal exercise, but “The Place Beyond the Pines” is actually an ambitious movie that is one part cautionary tale and one part complex family drama. The film reunites its star Ryan Gosling with director and co-writer Derek Cianfrance who previously worked together on “Blue Valentine”. This is certainly a different kind of movie with many more layers and a much broader vision. That doesn’t always equal a better movie but in this case Cianfrance definitely takes a step up and his new film almost reaches the lofty heights it aims for.

“The Place Beyond the Pines” can basically be broken down into three parts. First we meet a motorcycle stunt performer named Luke Glanton (Gosling). He’s a tattooed, chain-smoking loner who goes town to town with a traveling carnival. During an annual stop in upstate New York Luke learns he has fathered a child with a local waitress named Romina (Eva Mendes). He decides to quit the carnival and stick around hoping to take care of son, but with no money or job that becomes difficult. He strikes up a friendship with Robin (Ben Mendelsohn) a local mechanic with an affection for robbing banks. A few bad choices later and Luke finds himself in a pretty tough spot.

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Luke’s story connects to that of a young local police officer named Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper). The second part of the film focuses on Avery after he is injured in the line of duty. He struggles with the actions that led to his injury and the “hero” tag that he has been given. As he recovers he fights to stay connected to his wife and young son. He also faces a battle between his moral conscious and some shady goings-on by his friends on the police force.

The third part of the film jumps ahead 15 years but to tell anything else about it would be doing a disservice to the viewer. Suffice it to say this is a film about two men, two families, two fathers, and two sons whose lives are veritably intertwined. The three segments each have their own unique tone and feel to them yet the connection between all three is always there. This was a bold approach to storytelling and I certainly can appreciate Cianfrance’s ambition. But the risk would only work if all three segments were equally good and unfortunately that’s not the case.

My favorite of the three “chapters” (for lack of a better word) was the first one which focused on Gosling’s character. This was a good surprise for me because unlike many people I’m not sold on him as an actor. We get a lot of his normal routine here – brooding, emotionless stares, and a lot of mumbling. But it actually fits a lot better with this character and Gosling does throw in a few variations that we rarely get from him. The story is compelling and features a gritty realism. I loved Mendelsohn here and Mendes is very good as well.

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I also liked the second act which focused on Bradley Cooper’s character. It’s drastically different but deeply connected to what we’ve already seen. The contrasts in the lives of these two men are jarring yet there are similarities which I will let you sort out for yourselves. It’s during this chapter that the film does begin to slow down a bit but it still maintains a strong dramatic pull. But the final act tries to be a little too clever and the contrivances that are employed are all too obvious. There are parts of the final third that do work but as a whole the story becomes less interesting and it’s here that I began to feel the trudge of the movie’s 140 minute running time.

So what do I make of “The Place Beyond the Pines”? Ultimately it was a better movie than I anticipated but not one that fully meets its own high expectations. The camerawork is fantastic and the performances are solid across the board. Also, I never begrudge a filmmaker from making bold choices, but I don’t feel Cianfrance quite knew when to pull back the reins. In the end the film felt a little too cocky and indulgent for its own good. While that brought the movie down a bit it certainly didn’t undo the good qualities that we see particularly in the first two acts.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

REVIEW: “American Hustle”

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I may not be a card-carrying member of the David O. Russell fan club, but there are several things you have to give him. He has a knack for creating and developing raw and thoroughly engaging characters. He is also able to put together incredible ensemble casts perfectly in tune with his characters. Both of these strengths are the key reasons why Russell’s new film “American Hustle” works. The movie has several of his same indulgences that don’t always work for me but it’s the characters and performances that makes this film so intriguing.

The movie is set in 1978 and is loosely based on the FBI’s ABSCAM operation. It’s a time of good music, big collars, and really bad hair. Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) is a con artist who joins up with and falls for Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams). The two run a small time but controlled loan scam that is bringing in some nice cash. Things are going well until they are caught up with by an ambitious FBI agent named Richie Di Maso (Bradley Cooper). But Richie doesn’t want small time cons. He wants the career-boosting big fish. So he forces Irving and Sydney to work for him and entrap bigger targets, namely politicians and government officials.

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Irving doesn’t like his circumstances at all. He likes things small and low-key. He also doesn’t like Richie and his constant changing of the rules. He feels that going too big will jeopardize the whole operation. But the biggest threat to their plans may be Irving’s loose cannon wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence). She’s loud, volatile, and she knows Irving has a thing for Sydney. That’s a pretty lethal cocktail. Another complication comes in the form of a New Jersey mayor named Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner). He’s a popular and seemingly well-meaning guy who develops a friendship with Irving. The trouble is he becomes one of Richie’s prime targets.

This interwoven web of ‘who’s conning who’ could have been an utter mess but it actually plays out in an entertaining and fairly cohesive way. Much of that is due to the sharp script penned by Russell and Eric Warren Singer. It’s not perfect. There are lulls along the way and I couldn’t help but feel that they stretched the story to its limits. There are also a few glaring questions that remain unanswered. They don’t cripple the story the way major plot holes do, but they did stand out to me. Still, in terms of delivering a slick and stylish story, Russell and Singer pull it off.

But getting back to a previous thought, neither the direction nor the script are the film’s strongest point. The movie’s true success lies in the performances. It starts with Christian Bale. Armed with pretty much the same voice that he used playing Dicky in “The Fighter”, Bale was the most compelling character of the bunch. While he may sound like Dicky his physical appearance was quite different. In “The Fighter” Bale lost over 30 pounds to convincing depict a crack addict. In “American Hustle” he gained nearly 50 pounds which we get a good look at in the film’s opening scene. But Bale delivers much more than just a physical transformation. He gives us a character who is funny, selfish, crooked, pitiful, sympathetic – all encapsulated within a wonderful performance.

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I also liked Bradley Cooper, an actor who has gotten surprisingly better over time. His character is a little hard to gauge at first but as the story unfolds so does Richie’s personality and ambitions. Cooper gives an hearty performance that does at times get a tad too big but is still impressive. And speaking of big, Jennifer Lawrence is also good as the powder keg Rosalyn. She has already raked in a ton of critical acclaim but I wouldn’t call this her best work. The character is loud and abrasive by design so the performance has to be big. But it isn’t until later in the film that Lawrence is actually allowed to show her range. On the other hand Amy Adams (goofy split-up-the-front blouses aside) is fantastic. Her character isn’t a ‘take home to meet the parents’ kind of girl, but there is a sad and needy underlying thread to her. Adams never misses a beat. And I can’t forget Jeremy Renner who has a smaller role but to me was just as good as anyone else.

I can’t say that “American Hustle” has any kind of staying power and I don’t think I’ll remember it as one of the great films. But there is something about these generally unlikable characters that draws you to the screen. In typical David O. Russell fashion they are a little too abrasive for my taste. But each is fascinating in their own right and each truly desires something more: Irving – to be a more successful con, Richie – an FBI superstar, Sydney – British royalty, Rosalyn – a loved and appreciated wife, Carmine – a legendary mayor. Most of the credit for this goes to the performances. “American Hustle” is more of a showcase of great actors than it is great storytelling, but it still keeps you glued to the screen as you watch them do their work.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

“Silver Linings Playbook” – 3.5 STARS

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I can’t say I was all that excited to see “Silver Linings Playbook”. But since its release I’ve heard nothing but positive things about it. The reviews have been unanimously great and its popped up on one Top 10 list after another. And then along came awards season. “Silver Linings Playbook” made a huge splash with the Academy nabbing 8 nominations including one in every major category. Now it looks like The Little Engine That Could as it gains more and more momentum heading into Oscar’s big night. So what’s with my reluctance to see this film?

Well let me get this out of the way, “Silver Linings Playbook” is a good film. It’s a sharp romantic comedy that avoids the usual pitfalls associated with the genre today – that is right up until the end. It’s written and directed by David O. Russell which quite honestly was one reason I was in no hurry to see this movie. I am not a big fan of Russell’s abrasive and sometimes crass style of storytelling. But I have to hand it to him, even though we do get some of that here, Russell manages to tell a good story and his personal connection to the material is evident.

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While Russell wasn’t a draw for me, the cast certainly was. I don’t care for the raunchy “Hangover” movies or much else that Bradley Cooper has been in yet I’ve always kind of liked him. Here he gets a chance to really perform and he nails it. He plays Pat, a man who, due to his bipolar disorder, has spent eight months in a sanitarium. We learn that after catching his wife having an affair, Pat flies into a rage and beats the man to a pulp. His court agreement says he must receive treatment hence his stay in a mental hospital. He’s eventually released into the care of his parents with hopes of starting a new life and convincing his wife that he is cured. But there’s one problem, she has a restraining order which doesn’t seem to deter him one bit.

His parents are played by Robert De Niro and Jacki Weaver. Talk about perfect casting. Weaver is very good although most of her scenes put her in the background. I wish she had a little more to do. It’s De Niro that really stands out and this is the performance that people have been waiting to see again. His character is honest and grounded. He has some hilarious moments but he also gives us a look at where his son’s disorder may have originated. This was right up De Niro’s alley and some of the film’s best moments are when he’s on screen, particularly when he’s hashing out his complicated relationship with Pat.

But it’s a troubled young woman named Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence) who shakes Pat’s life up the most. Since the death of her husband, Tiffany has struggled to keep her life on track. At first the two have no idea how to react to one another. This leads to some really funny moments including conversations about medications and what constitutes a first date. Cooper and Lawrence have a nice chemistry and I was impressed with how well they played off each other. I can’t help but believe that improvisation played a role in their performances because much of their dialogue flows so naturally (especially their more heated discussions). They are two fractured souls and watching them struggle to manage their lives can be both funny and crushing.

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It would be hard to justify criticism of any of these performances. They are that good. But that doesn’t mean this is a flawless movie. There are a few issues and for me they can be traced back to Russell. There is so much that he does right in the movie and I don’t want to downplay that. But I did feel it was a little longwinded early on and then there’s the ending. For most of the film things felt fresh and I thought Russell was plowing new ground. Then things take a conventional and predictable turn. Obviously to keep from spoiling things I have to dance around the details, but I saw the ending coming from a mile away. I kept expecting Russell to steer away from the mainstream course he was on but it never happened.

Now don’t misunderstand me, there’s nothing wrong with these types of endings. But here it did nothing to set the movie apart from the rest of these types of films. And since that seems to be what Russell was going for (and accomplished for most of the picture), it’s a real head-scratching decision. But enough with the negatives. “Silver Linings Playbook” is a fascinating look at mental illness and its effects on relationships, family, and social life. It’s also a master class in acting, showcasing some of the best performances of the year. Obviously I don’t find it as profound as many do and I don’t see it as a Best Picture or Best Director Oscar winner. But it deserves praise for taking a difficult subject and nicely wrapping it in humor and emotion. That’s something many films have tried to do but failed.

“THE A-TEAM” – 1.5 STARS

I was a big fan of the original “A-Team” TV show so naturally I was interested in seeing this group of guys move to the big screen. The TV show was a pretty fun mix of over-the-top action and good-natured humor and it found a pretty strong following. Sadly the movie adaptation is a loud, obnoxious, and rather pointless modernization. There’s no doubting the cool factor in seeing Hannibal, Face, B.A., and Murdoch on the big screen for the first time. But the material is so bad and the novelty only carries the film so far before it quickly wears off.

One of the first things to turn me off was the pervasive profanity found in the film. How this movie was able to keep a PG-13 rating is stunning. You name the curse word and it’s there and many are used throughout the movie from start to finish. Don’t be fooled into thinking this is a fun action movie you can take your kids to (much like the TV show). I suppose the filmmakers feel that a movie must be “modernized” in order to attract newer audiences. So they throw in things such as the profanity and changing Face from just a ladies man into someone who sleeps with every woman he encounters (including an adulterous relationship). “Losing it’s innocence” is probably a silly term to use here but I really hated the direction they chose for the film.

Another problem I have is with the way the movie was filmed. Normally I have no problem with jumpy cameras trying to add the feel of “chaos” to a film even though it’s something that’s been done over and over. But in “The A-Team” the film’s camera work and editing is horrible. There are some battle sequences where the shaky camera and hack-and-slash editing are so bad that you have no idea what is happening. Over time this becomes annoying and detracts from the action which is the film’s bread and butter.

The story is certainly nothing to brag about. In fact, there’s nothing that you’ll remember about it once the end credits roll. It’s utterly forgettable. It’s basically three small missions woven together by a few thin threads of plot. So that leaves it up to the action sequences (and there is alot of them) to hold up the film. There is some wild action and when it isn’t hindered by the editing it can be pretty entertaining. But while it’s full of slick explosions and tons of CGI, some of the scenes are so over-the-top that they come across as just silly. Fans of the TV show will remember that some of the team’s exploits were beyond belief. But it’s nothing like in this movie. You can’t help but to shake your head at some of the stuff you’re seeing.

“The A-Team” does have a decent cast and Neeson and Cooper are particularly good even when the writing lets them down. Perhaps the movie’s strongest points are the exchanges between these two. There is a lot of botched potential here. What could have been a fun, action popcorn escape turns out to be a mess. Some good acting and wild action is overshadowed by annoying profanity, pitiful editing and camera work, and a mediocre story. “The A-Team” is a disappointing film in almost every regard.