The Mule

The man is 88 years old and still working hard to make good films. I skipped the first of his 2018 movies, the poorly reviewed “15:17 to Paris”. I was initially interested in seeing it, but the reviews were so bad that even the idea of the actual heroes playing themselves was not enough to induce me. This film does not any gimmick to it, it simply has the one essential plus that could over power any doubts; Clint is acting in the movie. In addition to directing, which has been his main focus for the last decade, he has come out of semi-retirement as on on-screen presence to deliver a performance to potentially cap off his amazing career.

It’s unlikely that he will receive Awards attention, he will be stereotyped as playing a character that he is, an old man. That character can also be seen as not to distinct from Walt in “Grand Torino”, a man who today’s generation would see as a racist because of the generation he grew up in. He is also likely to be ignored because he has crossed some lines that politically are Hollywood landmines. Regardless of whether he gets some professional accolades, I’m willing to give him some personal ones. For most of his career, he has played steel willed characters with a streak of sardonic humor. He keeps the humor for this part but adds some personal weaknesses and doubts. A lot like his character in “Million Dollar Baby”, Earl, the ninety year old drug mule in this film, struggles to connect with family and sees the most selfish impulses as the easiest ones to choose. His stubbornness is the real reason the title describes him. Earl has always done things his own way, and the fact that it might inconvenience his cartel employers is one lesson he has trouble learning.

The fun and personable aspects of Earl’s character are shown in the early scenes of his horticulturalist success, and later in the film as he parties with the drug lords. Clint manages to make a flinty old man a subject of amusement and charm. At the same time, we see that he recognizes some of his faults. There is an opening scene where he should be reminded of his own daughter’s wedding, and he brushes it off without a second thought. Towards the end of the film, we get to see that he can’t do that anymore. He sincerely wants to be there for his mostly ignored family. The facial expressions on his phone call with his granddaughter are contained looks that are appropriate for the character and the film. When Clint plays against Diane Wiest as his former wife, you can see the frustration she feels, but the aura of sadness and realization and defensiveness that Earl feels is palatable.  There is a slightly manufactured scene where Earl comes across his counterpart, a younger version of himself, someone who is driven to succeed but may be doing so at the expense of his family. As he offers advice, the voice contains the weariness that should tell the younger man that this is a man with the kind of experience to learn from.

Although this is a family drama, the crime elements are barely in second place. We care about this head strong, recklessly casual nonagenarian. He jokes with the guys he is taking the drugs from, and we laugh as he struggles to figure out texting, or makes ethnically insensitive jokes with the wrong guys. You will almost certainly smile when Dean Martin is crooning and the gang is all a part of it, but when the timetable is upset or the actions of a uptight handler threaten Earl, you will feel tension and that is exactly the kind of thing that a director like Eastwood knows. He plays a old man, in over his depth, who is trying to get by on the same charm that works with his VA buddies and his friends, but we know that that is not the audience he is playing to, and disaster is on the horizon.

The cast is thick with talent, Bradley Cooper, Michael Pena, Lawrence Fishburne and Andy Garcia are all in small but valuable roles. Diane Wiest has only a few scenes but she shows again that she is one of the most talented character actors working. She is twenty years younger than Clint but you will not sense that difference in their performances. The cast that plays the drug cartel drones is chosen for their looks but they also are capable. Eastwood has picked an interesting story, put together an involving drama, and turned in a effective performance and he has done it as he himself is approaching Earl’s age. We should all be so talented and full of ambition.

Mama Mia! Here We Go Again

Maybe it’s because I am a child of the Seventies, or that I have always loved movies with singing, or just that it is Summer-time, but I thoroughly enjoyed “Mama Mia !”, and now I will repeat that experience with the totally unnecessary but still fun sequel. “Mama Mia! Here We Go Again” has no depth, it is frequently campy beyond description and there are some songs that just don’t do much for you. So What? It is also visually inventive and gorgeous to look at, it has a two to one ratio of good ABBA songs to mediocre ABBA songs, and it is full of pretty people who all look like they are having a blast making fools of themselves.

The  marketing department that choose to release this in the middle of the summer, probably will re responsible for half the take at the box office. This is a movie that works because it is so light and insubstantial that your head will not hurt from trying to think about plot lines or what dialogue you should be paying attention to. Like a revue show on the Vegas stage, or an RKO or MGM musical from the golden age, this film story makes little sense and doesn’t matter. What you really want is to hear the songs and see the choreography. There are a few repeats from the first film of musical selections but the staging is all new and there were plenty of ABBA songs to fill out a second film, although some of them are justifiably obscure.

Once again the setting is primarily in the seas off of Croatia, and the landscape is spectacular. Anyone who has every taken a vacation somewhere and asked themselves when they were leaving the location, “How could I live here, what can I do to make that happen?, knows how the beauty of a place can transfix you. On film, you can also control the lighting and angles to make it even more attractive, and so this production does. Now to insure that people will really like what they are seeing, you fill the movie with lovely young women, who have romantic crushes and flings with handsome young men. When you race forward to present day, the young women and men are now old but they are vibrant and handsome in their advanced states.  Lily James and Amanda Seyfried are glowing, longhaired blonde pixie dream girls. They may lack the requisite mania to make the characters the stock issue in other films, but their smiles and enthusiastic singing are the stuff of summer romances. The young men who are cast as the youthful counterparts to Pierce Brosnon, Stellan Starsgard and Colin Firth, are effectively familiar and they carry most of the load when it comes to singing, so we only get snatches from their less tuneful older versions.

Director Ol Parker makes the film flow smoothly with inventive staging that frequently suggests his theatrical roots. As we bounce back and forth from 1979 to today, there are transitions using back to back walls, images appearing in mirrors and actions that begin with one set of characters but finish with the other set. Maybe they are not completely new inventions but they work well at moving things along and keeping the energy of the story from lagging too much. Anthony Van Laast put the dance sequences together in a vigorous manner that may lack the grace of a Busby Berkley extravaganza, but is compensated for by the diverse chorus of dancers who are not all 20 something models. Even the geezers in the cast look like they can dance a little, and if not, they look like they are having fun trying.

Meryl Streep who crooned her way through the starring role in the original film, appears in only one number near the end and then in the end credits. Lily James does the heavy lifting as the young version of the slightly promiscuous Donna. It is a bit of a leap when Meryl does come in because her Donna is definitely a different version of the character she and Lily are playing. Andy Garcia has become a go to older romantic lead, following his earlier turn this year in “Book Club“, another film to appeal to the geriatric set. Finally, Cher shows up and makes a movie star sort of impression with a minimal amount of screen time. She has one song that she chers [shares, ha ha] with Garcia and then sings in the ensemble closing credits.

If you were seeing this as a revue on stage, you would clap along and sing the chorus and when the finale shows up you’d stand up and boogie in place. The demographics on this film will definitely skew over thirty and female. At an 11am screening on a Friday, the theater was packed…with walkers, wheel chairs and canes. Forget your age, and your dignity. Don’t pay any attention to the usual standards that you might apply to a movie. This is a little like the song lyric from the 1990s, “Disco lemonade”. Have a cool drink on a warm summer day and dream of “sex and candy”.