Category Archives: drama film

“The Mule” misses some merit but meets most of its mission

Clint Eastwood’s films have all been about regret and the old world clashing against the new world. He serves as a wise old sage in many respects, a symbol of past Americana, both great and flawed, and how it crashes against new social norms. In films like “Million Dollar Baby” and “Gran Torino”, his nuanced, simple approach works well and develops strong themes. “The Mule” is not near as successful, but nevertheless has some strong points.

Eastwood plays Earl Stone, a 90-year-old horticulturalist who doesn’t have enough money to pay for his granddaughter’s wedding or his mortgage or any number of other expenses. When he is approached about becoming a drug runner, he jumps at the chance to earn some much needed cash. In time, he becomes the cartel’s top “mule”, driving drugs back and forth from Mexico to Illinois. All the while, DEA agent Colin Bates (Bradley Cooper) investigates him, never suspecting that the man he’s hunting is not a young hoodlum, but a Korean War vet.

The themes of regret, aging and love are strong throughout the film, and they keep it afloat even as some narrative storylines tumble (especially one starring Julio (Ignacio Serricchio), whom we believe to have a part to play in the conclusion but who simply disappears). Its universality keeps it highly accessible.

A devout Republican, it’s a bit hard to stomach some of Eastwood’s conservative underpinnings in the age of Trumpism. Most of the Latinos in the film are depicted as drug dealers, feeding directly into a sinister national narrative. Earl at one point calls an African-American family negroes before being corrected and is amused by a group of dykes on bikes. Granted, he is charmed to be corrected, but the stigma and general theme of new needing to learn from old still feels antiquated.

Narratively, the biggest problem with the film is Earl’s character. He’s rather dumb and naive, not taking care to cover his tracks very well or feeling remorse at being a drug runner. He eats ice cream, sings songs on the radio and pays his granddaughter’s tuition. What he really needed was a stronger conscience. He should feel bad about what it is he is doing and then the story is an examination of his conscience. Will he try to get out? How far is he willing to go? At what point will he break? Instead, Earl is far too eager to just go along with the plan, resulting in a ho-hum narrative that only achieves punch at the conclusion.

Being 88-years-old, who knows if this is last film of the legendary Clint Eastwood. It seemed that “Million Dollar Baby” was the crescendo of his career, then it was “Gran Torino”, then it was “American Sniper.” He appears to be showing no signs of stopping, but each Eastwood film, with its understated examination of basic emotions and penchant for hitting the heart, should be valued just in case.

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“The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” a song to Westerns real and mythic

The Coens have crafted dozens of screenplays, directed classic films and won Oscars, WGAs and Golden Globes. Now they venture into the world of online streaming with their first Netflix film, “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.”

The film illustrates six tales of the Old West, starting with singing gunslinger Buster Scruggs (Tim Blake Nelson), continuing on with a cowboy trying not to be hanged (James Franco), to a pair of traveling showmen (Liam Neeson and Harry Melling), to an old prospector digging for gold (Tom Waits), to a girl who gets rattled on the prairie (Zoe Kazan) and finishing with an odd group of individuals in a rickety old coach (Jonjo O’Neill, Brendan Gleeson, Saul Rubinek, Tyne Daly, Chelcie Ross).

The different stories never intertwine or have interacting characters, instead serving as a collage that illustrate the themes present in pretty much every Coen brothers film: the wondering of life’s purpose, the corruption of evil, the unpredictability inherent in living and the just rewards of simple good actions.

It is both a celebration and a condemnation of Western stories, the tales of rough riders thrillingly told but with an admission of the failure of their hubris. For every glorious gunfight, there is a sad death scene. For every strike of gold, there’s a harrowing betrayal. For every moment of marital happiness, there’s a sad reminder of the unpredictability of life. For the Coens, one can sense their idolization of the Western, but they incorporate the knowledge of history, bloodshed, backstabbing and cruel ambition. The Western is an inherently American genre, mythmaking in its tales of bravado and open plains, of adventure and glory, but much like America is full of contradictions, the Western is too. Our myths guide our national heritage, but the truth about our past is fraught with inconsistencies.

Though all the different stories belong in the same world and have the same pacing, they are disjointed at times. Some stories are stronger than others and some feel less consequential. And like so many of the Coen’s other films, sometimes they’re just a little too cerebral for their own good.

All in all, “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” is another strong chapter in the Coen’s cannon, more a peripheral entry than a starring one. It weaves several personal stories against a grand landscape to give a very balanced yet stylized interpretation of the Old West.

“Roma” a Neorealist Modern Masterpiece

“Roma” is the kind of film cinephiles dream about, a return of sorts to Italian neorealism with its non-professional actors, real-life situations set in extraordinary times and simple shots utilizing film composition to illuminate themes. Choreographed in gorgeous black and white, “Roma” succeeds in being an experience in and of itself, a vital artifact of the human experience that feels as timely as it is historical.

Written, photographed and directed by Alfonso Cuaron, the film tells the story of a middle-class family in Mexico City during the 1970s, a time of great social upheaval. Children Tono (Diego Cortina Autrey), Paco (Carlos Peralta), Pepe (Marco Graf), Sofi (Daniela Demesa), mother Sofia (Marina de Tavira) and father Antonio (Fernando Grediaga) live a stable existence as events falter around them. But the film really focuses on their housemaid, Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio). Distant from her own mother, she is both a member of the family and a subordinate. When her boyfriend Fermin (Jorge Antonio Guerrero) gets her pregnant, Cleo faces a long journey of finding some sort of peace and preparation for the future.

The film does a great job of illustrating different class structures and by extension a history of colonialism and societal power. Impoverished, undervalued youth rebel, as is the case with Fermin. The film doesn’t really illustrate what exactly it is Fermin and his gang want, but it doesn’t really matter. It’s the dynamics of the situation that will always breed discontent. In addition, the powerlessness of women is a central subject of the film. Cleo and Sofia are abused by the men in their lives, with Antonio dumping Sofia for a mistress and Fermin abusing Cleo for getting pregnant. Sofia even tells Cleo that women are alone in this world, blamed for the problems of men and desperate to find comfort. These social dynamics are omnipresent throughout the story and give it added heft.

The film puts its subjects at a distance compositionally, with long shot pans and tilts utilized by the camera and lots of action happening in the frame. It acts as a static eye almost, making us feel as if we are peering into the lives of the story. Keeping this distance between us and the subjects prevents us from empathizing with them in the traditional way. While we feel for their stories, we also are put in the position of judging all the characters as if set on a wide canvas, an omnipresent god as it were.

Water is present throughout the story as a metaphor for the unpredictability of life. Cleo uses it to clean the driveway of the family, but is afraid to swim. When she is pregnant, she tries to drink some ale but it is pushed out of her hands. Only when a couple of children are close to drowning does Cleo venture against some turbulent waves and conquers the water. It is after this baptism of sorts that she reveals her sorrow and regret.

“Roma” has a distinct autobiographical feel. Cuaron himself was one of the boys in the story, the film dedicated to his nanny, Libo, and the viewer can sense that he loved her as a surrogate mother, sister and girlfriend. The movie feels dreamlike at times and frighteningly real at others. It’s both a testament to the power of memory and its ability to be distorted.

The ending of the film is vague, and you can’t help but wonder if things really are different at the end. Perhaps the family has recognized Cleo for the love they all share. Or perhaps she will always be their housekeeper first and family member second. Whatever interpretation is taken from “Roma”, one can’t help but stand back and see a film meticulously made, full of interesting ideas, underrepresented lives shown new light and a timeless tale meant to be experienced.

“A Star is Born” a heartfelt modern love story

To say that “A Star is Born” is a coming out party for Lady Gaga would be a misstatement. After all, Lady Gaga is one of the biggest stars in the world. But in “A Star is Born” we see Gaga do something she’s never done before: capture an audience for a feature-length film and deliver a career-defining performance.

The third remake of the original 1937 film starring Janet Gaynor, “A Star is Born” (2018) tells the story of country star Jack (Bradley Cooper) and Ally (Lady Gaga), a woman he finds in a drag bar desperate to perform and escape her doldrum life. What starts off as a fling blossoms into a romance that catapults Ally to superstardom just as Jack’s career nosedives because of drugs and alcohol.

Director and co-writer Bradley Cooper demonstrates a great aptitude for filmmaking in his first go-round behind the camera (and in front of it). His work with Gaga and brother character, Bobby (Sam Elliot), is heart-wrenching. An acting tour-de-force first and foremost, there is a good mixture of handheld camera and pans to dramatize the action and the lighting really accentuates the curves of the character’s faces, every dimple and wrinkle defined. The first 30 minutes of the film is a slow-paced marvel, brilliantly building up the first night between Jack and Ally. After this, the film feels generally rushed. It can’t match the care given to the first act which is a shame, even though there are several strong sequences and the general arc of the narrative is moving.

Taking a film whose original narrative was conceived before World War II and adapting it to modern day can be challenging, but much like taking “The Taming of the Shrew” and putting it a high school setting (“10 Things I Hate About You”), the trick is to utilize the basic structure of a story and incorporate modern themes. The “A Star is Born” films of 1937, 1954 and 1976 all tell a romance story about how fame corrupts. That will never grow old. Cooper’s version adds the pressure of constant social media coverage, illustrating how our perceptions of each other are framed behind Facebook feeds and 10-second stories that keep us from really connecting.

And much like Cooper’s ability to connect with a broad swath of America in Clint Eastwood’s “American Sniper”, his character of Jack embodies both the hope and despair of the modern American. His addiction to pills and booze mirrors the growing opioid epidemic. And Ally’s low-paying job, living with her father, who works as a limo driver, reflects a growing number of failed dreams and unrealized potentials; so many of us are trapped or held back because of the way we look or how the odds are stacked against us. It’s a personal, interesting dynamic that really hooks the viewer into the narrative.

For Lady Gaga, she steals every scene of the film, her eyes both naive and strong, her face welcoming and fearful. It’s a star making role for a persona many of us thought we already knew, a reinvention of sorts of a mainstream celebrity.

It’s a shame that the film is another remake. It would have served perfectly fine as its own narrative, but who knows if a film like that could have been made today.

Overall, “A Star is Born” is a love story, the kind we don’t often see anymore, shamed by us for thinking them too sappy. We’re jaded by an oversaturation of media and false narratives, much the point of the film, unable to recognize our true selves hidden by booze, social media or disguises. Cooper’s Jack sees Ally as her true self and falls in love with her. It’s the world itself, full of jaded individuals, that destroys that love. The film is a moving tale of love regardless of the path it takes.

“The Founder” portrays capitalism as the enemy

Perhaps no company in history is more vilified than McDonald’s. The master of cheap and convenient, an emblem of obesity and profitability, most would be surprised to learn that the story of the company is not a rosy rags-to-riches family-owned venture, but a tale of ruthless capitalism from the get-go. “The Founder” illustrates that story and its figurehead, Ray Kroc, the man who made an empire. Perhaps an evil empire.

Written by Robert Siegel and directed by John Lee Hancock, “The Founder” tells the story of Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton), a hustler salesman who stumbles upon a new type of restaurant run by two brothers, Dick (Nick Offerman) and Mac McDonald (John Carroll Lynch). They have designed a new, fast system of food service, where people walk up to the counter instead of wait for food to be brought to them in their car and an assembly-line crew prepares food with a smaller menu to increase efficiency. Intrigued by the idea and its potential, Kroc finagles a deal to become their head of franchising and begins to spread McDonalds throughout the country. As the race to get big ensues, Kroc comes to realize that it is the brothers who are in his way more than anything else, setting up a conflict that will leave only one of them with control of the company.

Michael Keaton is a very interesting, inviting actor and that plays to his advantage in the role of Kroc. Even though he appears crazy, you can’t help but be intrigued by him. Meanwhile, the McDonald brothers are rather pedestrian and boring. You feel for them, but kind of find them uninteresting, our sympathies transitioning to Kroc instead before the ending which reverses our emotions. In other words, perfect casting and writing by extension.

The conflict however could have been emphasized even more. For most of the film, Kroc and the McDonalds are in different states, talking on the phone. There’s little direct confrontation until the end, where the story really comes into focus.

And for Kroc, the choice to betray the McDonalds brothers is not really a choice: he’ll do whatever it takes to make the most money.  He’s lacking that great moral dilemma that would make his choice interesting and give weight to the story.

What is interesting is seeing the lure of power and money and how it brings a man to betray others. It’s a story of the downfall of capitalism, how a system that values money above morals destroys relationships. It’s a very classic story that feels fitting in the modern age.

“Downsizing” belittles the important details

When you get a high concept idea for a story, you need to work through the writing process and see where the story will take you and develop deeper themes. For example, the high concept of “The Matrix” is ‘what if we were living in a video game reality’, but the story is really about breaking free of boundaries and developing inner confidence. In “Jaws”, the concept is ‘what if a shark attacked a small coastal town’, but the film is about the protagonist overcoming his fear of the water. In “Downsizing”, the high concept of people being shrunk to reduce waste and improve economic well-being is a great and strange idea. The deeper themes are not.

Written by Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor and directed by Payne, “Downsizing” is the story of Paul Safranek (Matt Damon). He convinces his wife, Audrey (Kristen Wiig), to go through the recently announced downsizing program to increase their wealth and hopefully their happiness. When Audrey backs out at the last moment, Paul finds himself abandoned as a five-inch tall man in a community living in dollhouses. A clash with his new neighbor Dusan (Christoph Waltz) leads him on a strange road to downsizing creator Dr. Jorgen Asbjornsen (Rolf Lassgard) and Vietnamese refugee Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau).

The first 40 minutes of the film are a slow buildup to the first reveal, but once Paul is on his own,  the film takes off and sputters at the same time. Like the point above, the film should be about something else other than just people shrinking. And it is. But “Downsizing” investigates themes of overpopulation, extinction, social class, finding happiness, finding love, finding purpose … It’s all just too much and not enough at the same time, the characters being lost in the shuffle of themes and plot. It feels as though Payne and Taylor had so many different ideas of where to take the story that they just threw as many concepts as they could at the script and just hoped one would stick.

And when the characters are giving breathing space to influence the direction of the story, there’s just not a lot to them. They’re more stereotypes than actual people, especially Ngoc Lan Tran, an annoying cliche of Asian mannerisms that is unacceptable in today’s world.

All in all, “Downsizing” is a great concept, but one bogged down by too many themes and not enough characters. In the hands of someone else like Charlie Kauffman or John Waters (someone more avant garde), the theming could have worked towards much greater and stranger effect, but Payne and Taylor are not the right filmmakers for this sort of concept.

“At Eternity’s Gate” may feel like eternity for some

Director Julian Schnabel specializes in slow-moving, intensely focused dramas. His newest film “At Eternity’s Gate” is no exception, his camera focused on Van Gogh’s face and his corresponding paintings and madness. He seems to be literally talking to us. For some, the direct contact brings the questions and moral of the story into sharp focus. For others, it’s a droll exercise.

Willem Dafoe stars as Vincent Van Gogh in the last few years of his life. Never recognized for his artwork, he is constantly rejected by the masses and the artistic world, his only friends fellow painter Paul Gauguin (Oscar Isaac) and brother, Theo (Rupert Friend). As he wanders through France looking for canvases to paint, his depression and anxiety drive him into psychotic episodes. He realizes that his painting is the only thing that gives him joy and solitude from his madness.

No one really knows what Van Gogh suffered from, but today he would probably be diagnosed with bipolar disorder and depression of some sort. Schnabel is really able to put the audience in that mental headspace through his camera work. Through erratic handheld shots of Van Gogh’s feet to long takes of environment landscapes, the viewer sees the mania, depression and joy of his life.

The film however feels repetitive to a degree with the continuous swing back and forth of Van Gogh’s emotions. In part, this is by design as Van Gogh’s topy-turvy life is balanced in the extreme. But, for the viewer, it can feel a bit been-there, done-that after awhile.

Willem Dafoe does great work as Van Gogh, but at the same time, he is miscast. Van Gogh was a 37-year-old Dutch man. Dafoe is a 63-year-old American. It’s hard to bridge that difference in a convincing way.

People in Van Gogh’s life continually ask him why he paints, especially when so many of them find his work repulsive. He can only answer that he paints because he must. It is the only thing that gives him peace, and he wants people to see the world the way he does, hopefully something that lasts long after he is gone.

The film does a great job of bringing that ideology to life if the viewer is able to give the film enough berth to impress upon them.