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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5 Phenomenal Movie Cemetery Scenes

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It’s funny how I happened upon this week’s Phenomenal 5 list. I was in somewhat of a funk, unable to come up with a list that felt fresh. Well sometimes simply looking out your car window can offer up inspiration. Such was the case this week as I list 5 phenomenal movie cemetery scenes. I passed a cemetery and I instantly started thinking on the great movie scenes that have taken place in them. In fact it’s more than you might think. Obviously there are loads of horror films that are right at home in a graveyard. But I’ve also come up with great scenes from other genres. And to make the list more intriguing, I’ve chosen scenes that DO NOT feature a funeral (you’ll read about those in the near future). So considering the plethora of great movie cemetery scenes I would be dead wrong to call this the definitive list. But I feel perfectly comfortable calling these 5 movie cemetery scenes absolutely phenomenal.

#5 – “THE THIRD MAN”

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One of my all time favorite classic movies is 1949’s “The Third Man” from Carol Reed. In the film an American writer named Martins (Joseph Cotton) visits Vienna in the wake of World War 2 to find an old friend who has offered him a job. He finds out his friend has been killed in an accident but he begins to suspect murder. He befriends his buddy’s girlfriend named Anna but soon finds out that she and nearly everyone else he meets is involved in the mystery. I don’t want to spoil anything so lets just say the movie ends after a funeral. Now this isn’t a cheat because my scene of choice is the final shot of the movie. It’s a long shot of Anna walking towards the camera with Martins leaning on a cart waiting for her. She walks and walks, finally making it to us but continuing out out of the picture. Martins is left alone and the movie ends on that note. It’s the perfect ending.

#4 – “TERMINATOR 3”

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How can I talk about cemetery scenes and not include the ridiculously over-the-top but ridiculously fun scene from “Terminator 3”? This franchise is known for its monster action sequences and this is one of the biggest. Thinking he is visiting his mother’s tomb, the Terminator reveals to John Connor that the casket is actually full of weapons. Arnie then busts out of the mausoleum with the casket full of weapons on his shoulder and a mini gun on his hip. He throws the casket into a hearse and then sprays every police car within 3 miles full of lead. But it doesn’t stop there. The evil terminator then appears and a crazy chase through the cemetery follows. A rocket launcher to her chest and a few broken tombstones later, and we get a wilder ending to what is a great cemetery scene.

#3 – “ARMY OF DARKNESS”

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Call it a sentimental choice but I just had to include the wacky cemetery sequence from “Army of Darkness”. You know the story, our “Evil Dead” hero Ash has been sucked back to the medieval past where and the Necronomicon holds the secrets to getting him back home. The problem is the Necronomicon is hidden deep within a spooky old cemetery. Ash makes his way to the center of the graveyard where three books await, two are traps and one is the real book. After a painful process of elimination, Ash finds the real book. All he has to do is say the phrase “Klaatu barada nikto” and he can safely remove it. Of course he completely botches it which triggers the rise of the army of darkness. It’s a hysterical cemetery scene from a great movie.

#2 – “NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD”

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I hate to keep including this movie in my Phenomenal 5 lists, but I can’t help it. George Romero’s 1968 horror classic “Night of the Living Dead” is such a great movie. Just think, the entire zombie craze as we know it today started in a rural Pennsylvania cemetery during this film’s wonderful opening scene. Barbra and her jerk of a brother Johnny have been making the long trip to visit their father’s grave for several years. But this year it’s a little different. As Johnny is teasing Barbra about her uneasiness in the cemetery they notice a man stumbling their way. As he approaches them he attacks. Johnny fights with the man only to have his head slammed against a rock in the struggle. The man then chases Barbra out of the cemetery which launches this classic horror story.

#1 – “THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY”

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Of all the Phenomenal 5 lists I’ve done none have had a more obvious #1 choice than this one. Sergio Leone had an unmatched knack for building up and executing great western showdowns. Perhaps his best takes place in his tasty 1966 spaghetti dish “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly”. In a scene destined to take place since the film’s brilliant opening, the good (Clint Eastwood), the bad (Lee Van Cleef), and the ugly (Eli Wallach) come together in a Mexican showdown at Sad Hill Cemetery. With buried gold at stake the three square off in a three-way duel not knowing who can trust who. Leone masterfully soaks the scene in tension with his camera and with Ennio Morricone’s glorious music. And even after the shootout, Leone gives us a classic finale that seals its place at the top of the list.

There are several other fantastic cemetery scenes I hated to leave off. What are your favorites? Please take time to let me know what you agree or disagree with.

5 Phenomenal Movie Nicknames

There are so many cool and fun things about movies. One of those things is the cool assortment of characters that filmmakers introduce us to. I’ve been thinking about some of these great movie characters lately. As I was thinking on them, I started noticing the many nicknames that characters have had. I thought it would be fun to do a Phenomenal 5 on movie character’s nicknames. The one’s I chose range from funny to cool to down right iconic. Now as always I wouldn’t call this the definitive list. But there’s no denying that these 5 movie nicknames are simply phenomenal.

#5 – BLONDIE

Clint Eastwood and Eli Wallach share some fantastic and memorable moments in Sergio Leone’s classic spaghetti western “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly”. The three title characters are trying to beat each other to a chest of buried Confederate gold. They scratch, fight, and shoot their way through deserts, civil war battlegrounds, and cemeteries. The movie is actually full of nicknames but none stand out more than the name Tucco (Wallach) gives Eastwood’s character. “Blondie” is funny in that it doesn’t exactly fit a tough-as-nails gunfighter. But it works so well especially in the classic final scene. How can you not love it?

#4 – SHAMPOO DOUGLAS

Before things really get serious in Jeff Nichols’ “Shotgun Stories”, we are introduced to the key characters through some genuinely fun scenes. While “Shampoo” Douglas (G. Alan Wilkins) isn’t one of the main characters, he cracked me up from the first time I saw him and in almost every scene afterwards. He’s part small town redneck, part dense-as fog airhead and you can’t help but laugh at him, the way he talks, and the interesting predicament he finds himself in. Then there’s his nickname. What’s so great about it is that he hardly looks like someone who has used much shampoo. But yet somehow the goofy nickname is a perfect match for this goofy character.

#3 – HARMONICA

Yet another Sergio Leone classic, “Once Upon a Time in the West” may be my favorite western of all time. It features some incredible direction from Leone and a fantastic cast of characters. We meet one of those characters in the brilliant opening scene at the train station. Charles Bronson plays the mysterious gunfighter who makes his presence immediately known. Aside from his quick draw, he stands out for the haunting tune he plays on his harmonica. It clearly has meaning and we see that later in the film. But it’s the on-the-run bandit played by Jason Robards who gives him the simple but perfect nickname “Harmonica”. He’s such a great character and every time someone mentions the harmonica I think of him.

#2 – WILLIAM “BILL THE BUTCHER” CUTTING

Daniel Day-Lewis’ award winning performance in Martin Scorsese’s “Gangs of New York” is memorable for many reasons. Day-Lewis gives the character the same intensity and energy that he always does. He creates a scary and brutal gang leader who also has one of the more interesting nicknames. The name William “Bill the Butcher” Cutting is both funny and intimidating. The fact that his last name is Cutting is pretty funny in itself. But it’s his fondness and skill with knives that really give the nickname it’s pop. We see that he not only knows how to butcher meat, but he’s not afraid to use his knives on his enemies. He’s a great movie character with a movie nickname that really sticks out.

#1 – INDIANA JONES

How can any other nickname top Indiana Jones? Harrison Ford’s iconic action movie character is not only one of the most entertaining movie characters but he’s also known by everyone. We first saw Indiana in 1981 with the classic “Raiders of the Lost Ark”. It was followed by two fun sequels and more recently a pretty bad one. But Indiana’s icon status will never die. It’s a strange and unusual nickname but it’s one that after all these years feels perfect. I mean can you imagine him being called anything else? He may have taken the name from the family dog, but whenever I hear the name Indiana Jones, I’ll always think of the tough and cool archeologist that I grew up wanting to be. Without a doubt, Indiana Jones is the best movie nickname.

There they are. See a movie nickname you disagree with? What are some of your favorite movie nicknames?

“FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS” – 3 1/2 STARS

If you looked at a list of movies made about World War 2 it would probably stun you. Hundreds of films have been made worldwide that have examined and portrayed the global conflict from a variety of different perspectives. Many have focused on the combat, particular battles, or even well-known officers. Others have looked at different aspects of the war including the horrors of the Holocaust and the resistance movements that rose against the Nazi aggression. In 2006 director Clint Eastwood released “Flags of our Fathers” and it’s sequel/companion piece “Letters from Iwo Jima”. It was an ambitious undertaking as both films attempted to look at the brutal and bloody battle of Iwo Jima, one through the eyes of the Americans and the other through the eyes of the Japanese.

“Flags of Our Fathers” was adapted from the James Bradley and Ron Powers book of the same name. It’s story centers around the six soldiers who raised the American flag on top of Mount Suribachi. The flag raising was captured on camera on February 23, 1945 by Pulitzer Prize winner Joe Rosenthal and is considered by many to be one of recognized photographs from the war. The story is told through a series of flashbacks that are at first tough to navigate though. Eastwood sets up the battle of Iwo Jima and introduces us to the main characters early on. We see the landing, scenes involving the intense and rugged fighting, and the eventual flag raising.

But it’s all being told through the flashbacks of three of the soldiers who raised the flag, Navy Corpsman John “Doc” Bradley (Ryan Phillipe), Private Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford), and Private Ira Hayes (Adam Beach).  After the photograph is released in the states, the three are called back to participate in a war bond tour to raise much-needed money for the war effort. But what’s being promoted isn’t exactly how things happened and the soldiers have a hard time reconciling the importance of the war bond campaign with their painful memories of the bloody battle they took part in.

Staying with Eastwood’s film can be a bit challenging and I found it at times be a little clunky in its transitions from the stateside scenes to the battlefield flashbacks. But that’s not saying the story is bad. It packs a lot of emotion and sincerity and Eastwood clearly wants to tell the stories of not just the soldiers at war but the people back home as well. He nicely portrays the battlefield camaraderie that goes well beyond the trenches and he also puts great effort and detail into presenting the United States and it’s mood during that pressing time. Everything looks and feels just right. The problem is that the attempt at clever storytelling does more to hurt the flow of the movie than to help it.

I was also a little mixed on Eastwood’s battle scenes. The visuals are at their best during the wide shots of the battlefield or the Naval fleet around the island. There are also a few really cool scenes involving airplanes attacking Japanese hillside fortifications. But the ground combat seemed to be missing something. There certainly are moments of intensity but as a whole things looked plain and with the exception of a few standout scenes, the combat feels a bit repetitive. I’ve thought that maybe I’ve seen too many war films and maybe the combat in movies doesn’t pack the same punch that it used to. But I don’t think that’s the case here. Eastwood is trying to create the same atmosphere that those soldiers faced back in 1945 but it’s the actors that relay that more than the visuals.

The performances are strong and the big cast of quality actors add a lot to the film. Phillippe is really good both on the battlefield and during that stateside scenes. I also enjoyed Beach’s performance as the Native American soldier who fighting more than just one war. There are several other good performances from the likes of John Slattery, Barry Pepper, and Neal McDonough.

“Flags of Our Fathers” ends with a poignant reminder of just how much this war effected our country and our people. In many ways it’s the final 15 or 20 minutes that helped bring everything together for me. I was really mixed during several parts of the film but after seeing it through, I get a better idea of what Eastwood is conveying. It’s a story of patriotism, sacrifice, and brotherhood. But it’s also a film about desperation, vulnerability, and exploitation. It does become a little melodramatic but never to the point of drowning the film. Instead the bigger problems centered around the movie’s structure and it’s so-so combat scenes. But I still find “Flags of Our Fathers” as an easy movie to recommend and it certainly looks at the war with sincerity and care.

REVIEW: “J. EDGAR”

 

At first glance, “J. Edgar” has Oscar nomination written all over it. It’s a period biopic directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Leonardo DiCaprio. It looks just like the kind of film you would expect to hear mentioned a lot on Oscar night. While the movie does several things right, it ultimately falls victim to some flat direction and an unfocused script. The movie starts strong and the first half of the picture seems to have a good sense of direction despite it’s lack of any real emotion. But the film seems to lose it’s identity and in the second half we end up with a hodgepodge of disjointed historical and personal vignettes.

The story unfolds through numerous reflections from Hoover to his typist as he prepares his autobiography. We jump back in forth through time and get a look at everything from Hoover’s work with Mitchell Palmer to his rise to acting director of the Bureau of Investigation. We get small glimpses of the Palmer Raids, the Bureau’s war against the likes of John Dillinger and Machine Gun Kelly, the Lindbergh kidnapping, the JFK assassination, and more. And even though we never stay long, the film is strongest when moving from one historical moment to the next, particularly in the first half of the film.

 

“J. Edgar” paints Hoover as the complex individual he really was. We see Edgar as a well-intentioned man who truly loves his country and believes in what he’s doing. But we also see him become a man more concerned with his legacy and with maintaining power regardless of the laws he may break. We see his contributions to forensic investigation but also his willingness to blackmail various presidents to get what he wants. He can be pitiful and sympathetic but at other times despicable and the movie does a good job conveying this to the audience.

While the first half of the picture had the look and feel of a well-crafted historical biopic, it felt dry and emotionless. The second half of the film tries to make up for that by spending more time looking at Hoover’s personal life. But this is where the movie loses it’s focus and ventures from fact into speculation. It was rumored that Hoover was a closet homosexual with strong feelings for his second in command Clyde Tolson. But the rumors were never proven. Eastwood stated that the film would address the relationship but leave it open for the audience’s interpretation. I think that approach would have worked much better. Instead, Eastwood’s picture leaves little for interpretation and the result is a cut and paste relationship that never feels genuine or natural. It does more to bog down the film than add to it.

DiCaprio gives a strong and committed performance that’s only held back by the occasionally clumsy script. He fleshes out his character’s insecurities, quirks, and unpleasantries without becoming a simple caricature. DiCaprio never loses his character even while playing him as young and old. It’s hard to take your eyes off of him even when he’s working through some occasionally stilted dialogue. While this isn’t my favorite work of his, it’s a well-rounded and controlled performance that could get some serious Oscar consideration. Armie Hammer as Clyde Tolson starts off strong but ends up giving a rather uneven performance. Hammer is subtle and effective as the younger Tolson but doesn’t quite sell him in his later years. And unlike DiCaprio, Hammer just isn’t able to overcome the material when it stumbles.

 

Visually “J. Edgar” does a nice job capturing the different decades. Careful attention is given to wardrobes, furnishings, and automobiles. It’s hard not to be impressed with the look of the film and Tom Stern’s cinematography really draws out the detail. One big topic of discussion has been the makeup used to age Hoover and Tolson. DiCaprio’s makeup is a bit jarring at first but I quickly grew used to it. Hammer’s makeup never looked natural and at times was pretty distracting.  There’s one scene outside in the sunlight where Hammer’s makeup was extremely pasty and looked more like a mummy that a human being. I was really taken back by how fake it looked.

“J. Edgar” could he been a classic picture. Instead it’s a good movie that never reaches it’s potential. It’s Dustin Lance Black’s script that leads to many of the film’s bigger problems. While it starts strong it eventually loses it’s cohesion and Black’s liberties in the second half of the film fall flat. But there are times where it really feels like an important picture and I did enjoy jumping back in time to see some of the bigger events in American history through Hoover’s eyes. “J. Edgar” is also worth seeing for DiCaprio’s solid performance. This isn’t a terrible film and it does manage to be entertaining despite it’s flaws. But at the end of the day I can’t help but be disappointed at what could have been a great picture.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

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