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.

A Star is Born (2018)

Frankly, I may not be in much of a position to give this film a fair and objective evaluation. There has been a huge amount of upheaval in my life in the last month. My emotions are very heightened at this time and as a result, my reactions could be influenced by my state of mind. With that caveat in your head, let me say that the emotional journey this film takes you on is likely to be one of the most satisfying in many a year. This is a third retelling of a story that is very well known now, but it manages to get a lot of mileage out of the romance and heartbreak of a love story with a blossoming career and a exploding one as background.

First time director Bradley Cooper has managed to not only get a naturalistic performance from his first time star Lady Gaga, he has directed himself in an honest and mostly low key performance which is filled with examples of both their talents. “A Star is Born” is an adult story with enough bells and whistles to make a less introspective audience happy as well. While it does have some modern sensibilities like brief nudity and frequent use of the worlds most over indulged adjective, it still maintains many of the traditions and touches that the older films have. Hell, the font for the title could easily have been used for the 1954 version of the story, and the placement of the star in that title frame is all about the notion of an emerging star as envisioned by audiences in four different decades before.

You know that Lady gaga can sing. She has a powerful voice and a great range that she uses with much greater subtlety than most of today’s divas. The first song she does is a rendition of classic era tune that is primarily French. The subsequent moments as her talent emerges in front of the eyes of Country Rock Star Jackson Maine, are heartfelt modulated nearly folk performances. The chanteuse that will arrive in the second half of the film, identified with a single name like “Cher” or “Madonna”, is much more contemporary pop icon, but as the reticent songwriter who is falling in love with the bad boy singer, Lady gaga emulates a striking but contained sort of performance. Her songs fit the audience she is thrust in front of and her voice matches those expectations. Cooper as Maine also manages an amazing range of vocal performances. For a guy who is not really a singer, he sings really well.

When this story moved from backstage Hollywood to the concert stage in the Streisand version, we got a chance to see the talent of the male lead instead of merely having it talked about. Kristofferson was well cast and effective, but Cooper manages to project a real artist on both the stage and in the love story. The success of this film is largely due to the fact that the lead actor’s story is finally presented as an equal plot thread as opposed to something merely for the lead actress to react to. The duets and collaborations here go much deeper than other versions which makes the romance more effective. Ally is not a milquetoast woman standing by her man and quickly overlooking his flaws. Lady Gaga gets some real hurt in her eyes at some of the events that happen in the story. The screenwriters have set up some of that personality but she is the one who manages to carry it off.  Even when she does seem to simply be loyal to Jackson despite a humiliating public experience, she does so in a way that suggests the kind of fed up tolerance that someone in love really feels.

Gaga doesn’t have to worry about another female drawing away from her role, she is largely the only woman in the main cast. It seems a little unfair that the star part has to be supported by so many men, but let’s say that it is a pretty great set of men. The always welcome Sam Elliot gets to be the rationale voice in the head of Jackson’s character, even when his character ends up estranged from the singer. Ally’s Dad is played by none other than Andrew Dice Clay, who continues to show that he has talent as an actor, dismissing any criticism of his long time role as stand up provocateur. Dave Chappele and Eddie Griffin ditch their funnyman backgrounds as well and step up as minor characters in the most romantic sections of the film.

There are a dozen great songs in the film and another dozen that are wholly satisfying without necessarily being great. “Maybe Its Time” “Shallow” and “First Stop Arizona” were the standouts for me, but the gut punch end song “I’ll Never Love Again” resonates too much for me in this time of my life for it not to be my favorite. Maybe I have always been too sentimental for my own good, but when I hear the words to that song and think of my own life, I wept. This film may have flaws that will be more noticeable on second and third viewings, but at least you are going to want a second and third viewing.