Mule, The (2018)
★★ / ★★★★
“The Mule” attempts to deliver a moving family drama and a suspenseful dance between a ninety-year-old drug courier (Clint Eastwood who also directs the picture) and a hotshot Drug Enforcement Agency agent (Bradley Cooper), but it succeeds at neither. The reason is because the material lacks the necessary subtlety so that lessons about family and personal responsibilities seep through both strands in a way that surprises us. As a result, although the film offers strong performances, especially by Eastwood and Dianne Wiest, the latter portraying the former’s ex-wife who has had it with decades of the man’s absence as a husband, a father, and a grandfather, the work offers neither excitement nor freshness.
Nearly every point about Earl Stone, a Korean War veteran, is handled with a hammer, from the way he treats his family—and the manner in which they treat him—to the rapport he builds with various members of the cartel. Initially, it is entertaining because the man lacks a filter. For instance, he makes pointed racial jokes so often that we wonder whether eventually a person might take it the wrong way and decide to put a gun on his face. But there are jokes about him, too. His age is a source of humor but so is his obstinacy. Pardon the pun but the usual tricks grow old eventually.
Halfway through, one cannot help but realize that the screenplay by Nick Schenk has gone on autopilot. While I enjoyed that the film actually takes the time to establish the subject’s usual patterns of drug transport, it grows repetitive by the fourth or fifth run. It gets interesting only when wrinkles are introduced such as Earl getting handler (Ignacio Serrichio) because the boss (Andy Garcia) is so impressed that the old man is able to deliver over a hundred kilos of cocaine every run without arousing suspicion. (The man has never gotten a speeding ticket—impressive especially given the fact he has driven across forty-one states.) The relationship between Earl and the handler is interesting at times, but it never gets a chance to take off since the plot is too busy juggling Earl’s family problems and the DEA closing in.
Regarding the investigation, there is not much of it—lukewarm at best. Cooper’s character is shown taking pictures from afar, putting pressure on a metrosexual informant, and keeping his cool when mistakes or misinformation lead to relatively small arrests. But we never see the man pushed to his absolute limit. I was not convinced of his formidability as a person without the badge. So when Agent Bates and Earl finally meet, there is only minimal tension. Performance-wise, Eastwood steamrolls over Cooper not because the latter is incapable of holding his own but because he does not have much to play with. As Earl must remain interesting whether he is on the job or with his family, the man hunting him must be equally absorbing as well.
We all know the importance of family and so when a mature drama comes along, especially one based on an incredible true story, it is expected that the lesson be explored in meaningful ways rather than simply resting on platitudes. While not short on personality, “The Mule” lacks specific details that help to turn the work into something memorable and special.
Jersey Boys (2014)
★★ / ★★★★
The brilliant sort of music video dance number during the beginning of the end credits shows what the film could have been: silly but eye-catching, full of energy, and like silk in our ears. What results instead is an overly serious musical drama—offering very few surprises despite its dramatization—that embraces a typical arc involving the formation, climax, and break-up of a band who made it big the 1960s called The Four Seasons.
Frankie (John Lloyd Young) and Tommy (Vincent Piazza) are in a four-man band with dreams of making it big someday. With Frankie’s unique voice and Tommy’s ability to talk people into just about anything, the band—called The Varietones at the time—is surely on the rise. To escape Belleville, New Jersey, there is a belief that young people either join the army, get mixed up with the mob, or become famous. Tommy and his friends are ambitious: they choose to participate in the latter two.
The picture comes alive when the camera fixates on The Four Seasons on stage. While the songs are very good, the entire package would not have worked if the performers did not exude charisma, energy, and a real love for or belief in what they are doing. We understand as to why the characters eventually reach fame and financial success. Because if we like them, the fans in the movie must like them, too.
But the story is weak and uninteresting. There is a lead mobster named Gyp (Christopher Walken) who is like a father figure to the boys. We wait for something—anything—to happen that will show us why he is an important element that drives the plot forward. Walken is not given anything new or exciting to do; it is as if he were sleepwalking through the role. I was at a loss as to why the screenplay by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice shy away from really exploring how it must have been like to grow up in that specific neighborhood. Sure, we get a taste of petty crimes and misdemeanors but the tone is so light that they are almost treated like a joke.
Thus, the material lacks gravity. Another example of this involves Frankie and his relationship to his wife (Renée Marino) and daughter. We see two or three superficial scenes that denote marital problems. These do not work because Frankie and Mary are never shown as a real couple with believable and flawed chemistry. The scenes they share in the latter half of the picture feel forced, tacked on. We are never involved in their personal lives so, in the end, why should we care about all the drama?
Directed by Clint Eastwood, “Jersey Boys” ought to have been more fun in terms of musical numbers and more engaging with respect to its story. The Four Seasons’ songs are so full of life and longing but the movie is almost the exact opposite. The contradiction fails to translate into entertainment.
American Sniper (2014)
★★★ / ★★★★
Officially credited with one hundred sixty kills over four tours in Iraq, Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) is known for being the deadliest sniper in American history. Director Clint Eastwood creates a beautiful-looking film and manages to extract a solid performance from his lead actor, but the movie is too long and leaves the audience with a certain level of detachment. By the end, we do not feel as though we know the subject as a complete person but merely a representation of a blindly patriotic man who claims that his actions are motivated by wanting to defend his country.
The setup is particularly strong, beginning with a memorable first scene in which the marksman must make a decision whether to shoot an Iraqi woman and her child who may be a danger to American soldiers standing a couple of feet away. We feel the weight of Kyle’s conundrum as Cooper highlights every blink, inhalation and exhalation, the angling of his arms as his character takes careful aim.
Right away we get the impression that doing what he does is not to be taken lightly—that just because he is far away from the fray does not mean he lacks courage. Having the ability to pull the trigger is one thing but carefully gathering evidence that a person is a threat within a span of a few seconds is something else entirely. At times he must rely on instinct. Instincts can be wrong.
The screenplay is written by Jason Hall and it is inexcusable not to have well-developed supporting characters, especially for a movie that runs above two hours. Kyle’s wife, Taya (Sienna Miller), is not given very much to do other than to look seductive in a bar, act pregnant, and sound worried over the phone. Later in the picture, Taya expresses to her husband that when he is home, although he is physically there, he is not mentally present in the company of her and their children. There are at least three scenes that are very similar to one another and when one considers Miller’s character as a whole, Taya comes across as the nagging wife. We do not see enough of her struggles in being a mother who must raise children on her own while her husband is overseas.
Another character that I thought is worth getting to know further is the Marine who trained becoming a priest (Luke Grimes) prior to enlisting. If the character had been developed, he would have been a great foil for Kyle. Although they ended up in the same place and fighting for the same thing, their starting points, one can argue, are worlds apart. Specifically, I was interested in how a man of faith was able to change the way he thinks and take another life when such an action goes against what he has come to know.
The picture is not short on suspense. When we see what Kyle sees before he takes a shot, there is almost always a moment of suspension—that doubt in the back of our minds, questioning whether he will be able to hit his target at a crucial moment. When the camera is patient but calculating, we are engaged and this sets the work apart from other films that offer junk, empty-calorie violence.
“American Sniper,” based on Chris Kyle’s autobiography, is handsomely made, offering consistent bursts of tension and tragedies, but it suffers from pacing issues and a lack of development of its supporting characters. Inaccuracies from the real story aside, the film is worth seeing and thinking about. Clearly the cost of war should not only be measured in numbers.
J. Edgar (2011)
★★ / ★★★★
J. Edgar Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio), working as the head of General Intelligence Division at the time, observed how the Bureau of Investigation handled crime scenes and noted that a lot of changes had to made in order for the group to maximize their efficiency as both a protector of the people and, in theory, preventer of execrable crimes. When he was appointed by the Attorney General to be the Bureau’s acting director, it was his chance to make the necessary radical changes from within. “J. Edgar,” written by Dustin Lance Black, had a fascinating history in terms of its subject, his personal and professional life, but the picture only reached moments of lucidity regarding what it wanted to say about a man’s legacy. Perhaps it had something to do with the way the screenplay was structured. It wanted to cover a plethora of subjects which ranged from Hoover’s determination for the government to give the Bureau the power to make arrests and bear arms, the hunt for the communist radicals, the controversial and painstaking attempt to solve the Lindbergh kidnapping, to, and most importantly, his evolution from being a patriot to an obsessed man who couldn’t let go of being in charge, his tragic inability to separate his professional from personal life. Focus and insight came few and far between. I wish we had known more about Hoover’s relationship with Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts), his eventual personal secretary and confidante. One of the most exciting and amusing scenes was when the two went out on a date. Hoover’s idea of romance was to show her the impressive catalogue he created for the Bureau. In order to prove to her the efficiency of his system, he asked her to time how long it took him to find a book given a specific subject and time frame. The scene had spice and humor because we don’t see many, arguably, lame dates in biopics. It made Hoover seem human for a change instead of just being a robot who strived for constant perfection, a man who wiped his hands every time he shook hands with another. Later, when Hoover and Gandy were old, their scenes lacked impact when they exchanged looks that were designed to be meaningful. It felt forceful. This was because their relationship didn’t have a proper arc. The same critique could be applied to Hoover’s relationship with his mother (Judi Dench). While Gandy was painted only as a career-striving woman, the mother was drawn as a control freak who preferred to have, in her own words, a dead son than a daffodil for a son. In real life, I imagined Annie Hoover to be a loving woman who just didn’t know how to deal with homosexuality. Otherwise, Hoover, a smart and persistent man, wouldn’t have stayed with and loved her for long. Conversely, what the picture managed to do well was the execution of Hoover’s romance with his protégé and eventual Associate Director of the FBI, Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer). The film captured the love between them even if they had to remain in the closet given the times and natures of their occupation. Despite their intense feelings for one another, they couldn’t express them without dancing around the issue then having to retreat. It got so bad to the point where punching each other in the face and wrestling on the ground was the only time they had an intense physical contact. Directed by Clint Eastwood, “J. Edgar” needed to be more selective in terms of which aspect of its subject’s life was worth covering. Considering Hoover’s legacy was epic, to say the least, putting all the apples in one basket, even if only one of them was rotten, in this case a few, corrupted the rest.
Million Dollar Baby (2004)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Frankie Dunn (Clint Eastwood), a boxing trainer, swore he would never train a girl. But after his main boxer left for a manager who could book him to have a shot at a title, Frankie just might change his mind. Scrap (Morgan Freeman), Frankie’s longtime friend and partner in running the gym, insisted that Frankie should take a second look at the determined Maggie (Hilary Swank). Despite his initial reluctance, Frankie decided to train her. In a way, he saw it as a chance to forgive himself for the decision he made many years ago that led to Scrap losing half his sight. Written by Paul Haggis and directed by Clint Eastwood, “Million Dollar Baby” was a moving story about people who used their body as instruments. I was impressed with its clear vision of what it wanted to tell us about each character and at what point they were in their lives. Maggie was a nobody, just a waitress who took home her customers’ uneaten food, but she turned into a rising star in a matter of months. She craved to be in the ring. She was proud of every beating–if her opponents were lucky enough to land a punch. On the other hand, Scrap had accepted that his turn in the ring was over. He felt the need to pass on his knowledge in regards to both the techniques in boxing and the business side of the dangerous career. Meanwhile, Frankie was somewhere in between. Not really knowing his place hardened him. He couldn’t quite let go of the mistakes he made and he was almost blind to how he made others’ lives better. Perhaps it had something to do with the daughter who wouldn’t communicate with him. The three were connected by their passion for the sport and their own definitions about what it meant to be a true fighter. The actors’ performances were equally strong which elevated an already sublime screenplay. Swank was a natural. I was astounded by her ability to make determination look glamorous and ugliness almost effortless. Freeman had quieter moments but he made each scene he was given memorable. I especially enjoyed the way he balanced his character’s playfulness and solemnity, never settling in being predictable. As for Eastwood, with that soft but ferocious growl, I believed his character’s life being all about boxing. However, one small problem I had with the film was its occasional use of music. I noticed it especially when the movie would cut to scenes of Maggie being a waitress. Cue the sad melody, a sign that we should feel sorry for her. I didn’t need the music for me to realize that she had to work extremely hard to scrape by. I could see it in her eyes and the way she held her pride when she felt like someone was doing her a favor. “Million Dollar Baby” was fearless in reaching into the souls of its characters. As a testament to the film’s power, we eventually find ourselves needing to reach for the box of tissues. Indeed, the events toward the end were sad but it was more than that. I think it’s a wise reminder that even the most ordinary can have the potential to have magic in them.
★★ / ★★★★
Written by Peter Morgan and directed by Clint Eastwood, “Hereafter” followed three strangers from different areas of the world and how they’ve been touched by the afterlife in some way. Marie (Cécile De France), a successful French television reporter, survived a tsunami while on vacation with a co-worker who happened to be married man (Thierry Neuvic). Since she got back, Marie became obsessed over meeting with scientists who studied life after death for some explanation about what she saw when she lost consciousness. San Franciscan George (Matt Damon) had the ability to communicate with the dead. He used to do it for money. He wanted to stop altogether and lead a normal life but his brother (Jay Mohr) kept sending him clients. When George met a girl (Bryce Dallas Howard) in his cooking class, it seemed as though the life he wanted was within reach. Lastly, in London, Marcus and Jason (Frankie McLaren and George McLaren), were inseparable twins. But when Jason passed away and his mother checked into a rehabilitation center to attempt to recover from heroin addiction, Marcus was placed in foster care. The film was promising because of the way it set up the characters’ unique circumstances. The tsunami scene was heart-pounding, the reluctant psychic’s situation had a whiff of comedy to it, and the twins’ relationship was genuinely moving. However, as it went on, I couldn’t help but feel like it was afraid to tackle the difficult questions. It was plagued with scenes that led nowhere, especially the middle portion, and it became repetitive. I wanted several of my questions answered but the picture never got around to it. In regards to Marie, was she able to step outside of herself and notice a change from being a fact-driven woman to a woman so willing to embrace what’s outside the realm of possibility? She seemed to be a very smart person and for her completely believe everything she saw right away didn’t seem like the material showed loyalty to her character. As for George, he claimed he wanted to stop using his gift but was there a part of him that enjoyed giving other people closure? In some circumstances, if he didn’t hear anything from the spirit or if the connection wasn’t strong enough, was he forced to lie in order to give someone a chance to move on? His craving for a so-called normal life felt superficial. What I found most moving was Marcus’ harrowing quest in dealing with his older brother’s untimely death and the abandonment he felt when his mother had to leave. The character was the “quiet twin” and it worked especially the heartbreaking scenes when Marcus met with people who knowingly and falsely claimed to have a connection with spirits. He didn’t need to speak or scream or yell in order for us to understand what he might be going through. His actions (or inaction) were enough to reflect his sadness and possible state of depression. “Hereafter” need not offer me any definite answers because I have my own view of the afterlife. But what it needed was to fearlessly confront the characters’ own beliefs about the unknown, challenge them, and show us how they’ve changed, or if there even was a change.
★★★ / ★★★★
Based on John Carlin’s book and directed by Clint Eastwood, “Invictus” was about Nelson Mandela’s (Morgan Freeman) role in uniting South Africa despite the nation’s history of great injustice and racism. I was surprised with this movie because I thought it would be more about Mandela’s role in trying to unite the South African people by showing us the more obvious politics and bureaucracies instead of focusing on the rugby team (led by François Pienaar played by Matt Damon). While the picture made it obvious that Mandela’s intention was to unite South Africa through sports, the movie did not completely feel like Mandela’s story. While the film had very exciting scenes of the 1995 Rugby World Cup, at the same time I wanted to know more about Mandela such as why he was sent to jail, his key experiences there, and the political moves he made during his first term as president. Because I’m sure he did a lot more than what the film portrayed. Nevertheless, I thought “Invictus” had some great moments such as when Mandela explained to a particular group why they had to keep the status quo in terms of the rugby team’s flag and anthem. Freeman, as usual, rose to the occassion and I believed him as a man who, despite having been through jail for being an anti-apartheid activist, was ready to forgive, move on, and promote a multicultural society. I also very much enjoyed the scene when Freeman and Damon had their first one-on-one meeting. There was a certain understated elegance in that scene alone; I thought it was interesting how Damon’s character started off as somewhat reluctant to connect and by the end of the meeting, although he was shaken, he began to trust and respect Mandela. There were also scenes that interested me such as the picture hinting at Mandela’s strained relationship with his wife and children. I believe “Invictus” is not Eastwood’s best work because it shifted its focus from the big picture far too often than I would have liked. For a movie that was over two hours, I didn’t feel like I knew Mandela well enough because he was always on the rugby field shaking hands with the players instead of shaking hands with politicians. What kept this movie afloat were the performances from Damon and Freeman as well as the intense rugby games even though such were more like distractions from Mandela’s accomplishments. I read a review stating that the film needed to decide whether to it wanted to be a sports film or a character-driven film so he could invest his interest in either one. I felt exactly the same way.
★★★★ / ★★★★
I’ve always wondered about this classic western about three men (Clint Eastwood, Morgan Freeman, Jaimz Woolvett) who decided to hunt down two other men who cut up a woman’s face (Anna Levine) for the price of $1000, but I was always reluctant to see it because the western genre is my least favorite. I’m glad to have finally given it the chance it more than deserved because it absolutely blew me away. Every scene felt like a crucial piece of the puzzle in order to understand why certain things were happening and why certain things must happen. I truly identified with Eastwood as a man who used to be a drunk and a killer because every fiber of his being was fighting his inner demons regarding the people he killed for no good reason. In every frame, I felt the fierce passion in his eyes, the wounded soul in his voice and the subtleties of his body movements; it made me believe that he really was a changed man. But eventually, it was nice to see why he did not want to be that kind of person anymore, not just because he now had a family, saw the error of his ways, and wanted to set a good example, but because that person really was engulfed in such darkness whose sole motivation was to kill. All of the supporting actors were exemplary such as the villanous authority of the town played by Gene Hackman, the leader of the prostitutes played by Frances Fisher, and the kid who was so enthusiastic about killling even though he had myopia (Woolvett). Although this was a western film, I was surprised because it was very anti-violence. Even though there were shooting involved, a requisite in most western pictures, the thesis of having no honor in killing was always at the forefront. I never thought I would ever be interested in watching more western films, but after seeing “Unforgiven,” perhaps I just might. This film will definitely set the standard of my eventual foray into westerns. I can honestly say that this deserved its Best Picture and Best Director win at the Oscars because despite the film looking a bit dated, the emotions are still raw and quite timeless. Complexity within its deceitful simplicity is this film’s forté and it succeeds in every single way. That’s a rarity.
Miracle at St. Anna (2008)
★★ / ★★★★
I heard that one of Spike Lee’s motivations for making this picture is to highlight the fact that African-Americans did participate in World War II–something that is not apparent in other World War II movies (notably Clint Eastwood’s). Although I did enjoy this 160-minute feature in parts, when I look at the bigger picture, I realize that it didn’t use its potential to be great. Las Alonso, Omar Benson Miller, Derek Luke and Michael Ealy star as four American solders who were forced to wait in a Tuscan village because they were surrounded by German soldiers. Along the way to Tuscan, Miller stumbles upon an enigmatic Italian boy (Matteo Sciabordi) who has an imaginary friend. Eventually, the two form a friendship that underlines the religious aspects of the film. I found it strange that Lee wanted to represent African-Americans yet he has characters that were drowning in stereotypes. I’m not black but I felt offended as I was watching the film because I know that some characters would’ve been the same if certain stereotypes were absent like that glaring gold tooth that one of the characters has. Story-wise, I felt as if it was all over the place. One minute the plot was about resistance fighters, the next minute it was about faith, the next it was about invaluable artifacts, and the next it’s about a love triangle. I would’ve preferred if Lee focused on just three issues and made a leaner film that offers a lot of insight about the psychology of a soldier who’s fighting for a country that treats him as a second-class citizen. Whenever “Miracle at St. Anna” related being in an actual war in another country and feeling like one is in a war in his own country, the movie becomes that much more alive and interesting. During those scenes, I was so engaged to the point where I caught myself thinking, “Oh, I never thought about it like that before.” Instead, it tried to tackle too much so it lost considerable amount of focus. The emotion is there and so is the entertainment value. However, what’s missing is the mark of great filmmaking. Therefore, “Miracle at St. Anna” is not as powerful as it should have been so it disappears in the sea of motion pictures about World War II.
Gran Torino (2008)
★★★ / ★★★★
I honestly thought this movie was going to end up a dud because the previews looked really preachy. But after about fifteen minutes into the film, I really cared for Clint Eastwood’s character even though he’s racist and a very secretive person. I knew he would open up a bit after meeting his Hmong neighbors but I wanted to see his struggles before becoming a better person. Eastwood’s character made me laugh even though he uses every racist Asian term because we are made to understand what he’s been through and how conflicted he is by people who do not look like him. The way he interacted with the Hmongs during a party was done in a bona fide manner, such as when the older women kept putting food on his plate. As part of the Asian community, that rings true whenever there’s a special occasion, especially when others think that you’re too skinny. The film was at its best whenever Eastwood’s character would interact with Ahney Her and Bee Vang; we come to realize that he treats them like a daughter and son, respectively, more than his blood relatives, and they treat him more like a father or a grandfather more than anyone else. There was a point in the film when Eastwood admitted that he finds more similarities with his ethnic neighbors than with his own flesh and blood. I think a lot of people feel that way especially when they don’t feel like they are appreciated despite their flaws. In a way, Eastwood’s character reminded me of my late grandfather. Even though my grandfather was not strict, he resembled Eastwood’s mannerisms such as his intimidating growl and the way he walked. As much as I loved the comedic moments, the dramatic elements are also very involving. The scenes which feature the Hmong gangs and the things they are capable of are both scary and heartbreaking. (I’m amazed by some people on IMDB who claim that Asian gangs don’t exist. Yes, they do exist.) I thought the ending was perfectly handled because it shows how much Eastwood’s character has grown and what he is willing to do for the kids who taught him how to feel more alive and connected. In the end, we realize what the Gran Torino is supposed to symbolize. Directed and produced by Clint Eastwood, “Gran Torino” is rumored to be his last film. If it is, I think his fans will (or should be) proud of this film. If it isn’t, then I’m excited for what he will come up with in the future.