Wednesday, December 26, 2018

The Mule review

It's sad to say this but the reality of life is that those that we admire age and will face the end of their lives. Legendary actor and director Clint Eastwood is eighty eight. And to be honest, it is the twilight of his career. But like the late director Akira Kurasawa, he's not going out gentle into that good night. In The Mule, Eastwood stars and directs a story based on a real life a man in his eighties named Leo Sharp who ran drugs for a Mexican drug cartel.

This story does take some fictional turns but the gist is the same. Illinois resident Earl Stone (Clint Eastwood) is an old man in his nineties who was a Korean War veteran and expert horticulturist. It's the early two thousands and he sells his flowers from his farm but does not see the advent of the internet. Stone is involved in his prize winning lilies that he neglects his daughter Iris played down to earth by Eastwood's daughter, Alison Eastwood. This also aggravates Iris' mother and his ex-wife Mary. (Dianne Wiest) His closest familial relationship is his granddaughter, Ginny. (Taissa Farmiga)

A decade or so later, the internet with its ability to sell flowers online kills his business. And while visiting Ginny and seeking help, a Mexican friend of hers offers Earl a chance to drive his truck for some buddies who turn out to be drug dealers. Earl agrees and after a couple of "errands" he becomes an extremely capable drug runner or mule. He's so successful that he is earning hundreds of thousands of dollars. Meanwhile, DEA agents Bates (Bradley Cooper) and Trevino (Michael Pena) are tracking Stone's connections looking to bust the operation.

As usual, Eastwood attracts a very talented cast. His daughter, Allison is good as he neglected daughter. Taissa Farmiga is quite real as a working class granddaughter. Ignacio Serricchio plays Julio, a cold cartel handler and he's excellent in depicting the humanity in guy who's bad but has some goodness somewhere in him. Eastwood is good but it's tough for him to play a guy who's probably a little goofy and should be afraid of who he's dealing with. I mean when was the last time, you've seen Eastwood play as a character who was in fear. That doesn't hurt this film but one problem is that Eastwood and Nick Schenk's screenplay gives too much time to everyone, including Eastwood himself. From Wiest's scenes to Eastwood's party celebrating the restoration of a VFW, it's an excess that the film needed to be cut so it would be tighter.

One should applaud Eastwood and Schenk for not making Stone a perfect hero. He's not. He's a guy who at times is generous but the film always reminds you that he's a drug mule working for some really bad "hombres." Eastwood's direction is clean without interfering with his actors and the story. His shots are clean and clear. He's able to convey the tension of the story of an elderly guy who trying to stay ahead of the law and not anger the dangerous cartel.

Eastwood still has it as a director. And more importantly, he knows a good story. The grade for The Mule is B Plus.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

First Man review

Are new cinematic takes on particular subjects already covered advisable? Or should it be that a different look at a subject or genre will work? Because that's what director Damen Chazelle's First Man is. It's a different, unusual  take on America's space program, this time it's the story of the first man on the moon, Neil Armstorng.

Based on the biography, First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong by James Hansen, the film starts out with test pilot Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) struggling to fly and land the NASA test spacecraft X-15. It's harrowing and one of the constant reminders that astronauts would face death at every turn. The movie then shows Armstrong's other struggle. His child daughter Karen is suffering from cancer. She succumbs to it and her memory haunts Armstrong for the rest of his life. At the same time, his wife Janet (Claire Foy) cares for Armstrong's two sons. After the X-15 test flights, Armstrong applies for astronaut and makes the cut. He is befriended by astronaut Ed White. (Jason Clarke) The rest of the film is the story of Armstrong's participation in NASA's Gemini and Apollo space programs. The last which leads to Apollo 11 and the moon landing.

Armstrong was quiet.  He was an enigma.  Gosling plays a man who maintains an even strain while suppressing his emotions.  He's even more Spock than Spock.  Janet (Claire Foy) struggles with raising a family and dealing with the idea that her husband may not come back from work.

Director Chazelle and screenwriter Josh Singer have decided to make this movie an indie like take on an legendary  story.  Whereas, the  predictable way of doing this movie would be similar to another film on the space program, The Right Stuff. (1983)  That movie had an epic feel.  Chazelle's approach is a swing and miss.  First Man feels small compared to the titanic   subject matter.

This small approach to an epic leads to a dull film.  First, Chazelle keeps the lighting dim, diffuse and strained.  The Armstrong home looks like a set in an indie movie..  Second, many times he films the astronauts from a first person view or from within the spaceship.  Yeah, it gives the movie a claustrophobic vibe but the audience doesn't get what is happening because you don't see the ships from the outside.  For example, during a Gemini mission, Armstrong's ship starts to spin out of control.  But because the focus is on Armstrong, we don't really have a good feel of what is happening with the ship. That's drama draining.

Then there is the music score.  Composer Justin Hurwitz's melodic talents which were vividly demonstrated in La La Land (2016) are set aside.  This movie demands the fanfare of The Right Stuff's Bill Conti. Hurtwitz decides to go Philip Glass.  Any emotional boost is non-existent.  His score is musical wallpaper.

The saving grace of this movie is that it is competently made.  I can admire the craft but not it's emotional impact  If you're looking for a dramatic telling of the Apollo project, you should try to find the HBO mini-series From the Earth to the Moon.  (1998) First Man can be as barren as the moon.  The grade is C Plus.

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Monday, November 5, 2018

Conservative Republicans have become racists

Conservative President Donald Trump is the head of the Republican Party. He and his conservative Republican allies have been making racists statements over the last month to motivate bigots in the party. And I have not seen any push back from other conservatives. They have embraced racism. Don't believe me? Let's go over some of them.

In the Florida Governor's race, Conservative Republican Ron DeSantis has described his African American opponent, Democrat Andrew Gillum with this phrase. Don't "monkey this up" by electing Gillum. (The Hill) I've never heard the phrase "monkey" something up. I have heard racists compare blacks to monkeys and apes.

Trump then called Gillum a "thief" (Trump tweet below.) There is not one shred of evidence that Gillum is a thief. (CNN) And too often, it is what racist whites use to describe African Americans.

Then, conservative Republican Sonny Purdue who's also the Agriculture Secretary said that the Florida gubernatorial race was too "cotton pickin'" important to be messed up. (Vox) "Cotton pickin'" is a phrase used to associate with Afircan American slaves who were forced to pick cotton.

And since there is another African American running for governor in the United States, Trump felt the need as head of the Republican Party to again drop another racist charge. In Georgia, African American woman and Democrat, Stacey Abrams is running for governor. Trump on Sunday called her "unqualified." Now, this is an old insult against African Americans by racists who question their intelligence. Ms. Abrams is a Yale Law School graduate and was minority house leader in the Georgia House of Representatives. (CNN Report)

If you wish to reject this bigotry, stop voting conservative Republican. Vote Democratic.

Friday, October 26, 2018

In midst of bomb attempts, Trump must act like a President

It's been disappointing to see President Trump tweeting that some of the blame for the atmosphere that has led someone to send bombs to Trump's critics belongs to the media. Now's the time for Trump to do his job as President. He is not just President of the Republican Party, he's also President of all the American people and that includes Democrats, independents and others. It's in times like these that the President must comfort the people, condemn the violent acts even if they come from a supporter because we are a nation of laws.

So, this is to President Trump. Go before the nation. And from the Oval Office, give a speech on what I have just said. Here, I've written a couple of sentences for you.

"My fellow Americans. Do not let one deranged individual to terrorize you from living your lives, exercising your fundamental rights such as the right to speak and to vote. I am confident that our law enforcement will find this person or persons. To the individual or people behind these bombing attempts. You do not represent my campaign. I repudiate and reject your acts of terror. Stop these criminal actions."

See, President Trump. It's not so hard. I note that you have asked the "caravan" to turn back. You can do the same with this terrorist to stop these violent actions. He does follow you. He is attacking your critics. Please be the President of all the people.

Trump has indirectly encouraged the attempted bombing of his critics

Over the last few days, pipe bombs were sent to critics of President Donald Trump. One was sent to CNN, perhaps Trump's favorite news organization he hates. They all share one two things in common. One, they have spoken or published negative things about Trump. And this is most important. Trump has personally attacked them. Sometimes, he went after them in rallies. The targets make up an enemies list. See Huffington Post article.

Now the President can be critical of people. I don't have a problem with that. However, his words matter especially since he is the President of the United States. People may follow what he says as  a kind of a command an authority or think they are doing their patriotic duty by taking his hatred to criminal levels. So, when he says the "the press is the enemy of the people", somebody might act out violently thinking that this is somehow right.

Trump's dangerous attacks are numerous. But here are a couple. As i said, he says the news media is the "enemy of the people." Just this month, he praised the attack on a reporter. Axios video below. Trump is giddy that last year Cong. Gianforte (R-Mt) body slammed a journalist. Watch the video below. At the twenty second mark, Trump literally applauds the act. At the thirty second mark, Trump says "But I had heard he body slammed a reporter" and he points to the press in the back as to signal them out. His crowd goes wild. Later, he says, "I know Montana pretty well.  I think it (the assault) might help him. (Gianforte) And it did." (Parentheticals added. Fifty second mark.) By the way, Gianforte was charged with assault and pled guilty to it.

At an October 2, 2018 rally in Mississippi, Trump said this about Democrats, "These are really evil people." AP News.

I could go on about the attacks on the the bombers targets. But Trump has gone after all of them. Hillary Clinton. Former President Barack Obama. George Soros. Cong. Maxine Waters. Even the great actor Robert De Niro has been attacked by Trump. So what does this all mean? They form Trump's Enemies List. It's a roll call to some right wing conservative who listens to Trump, and is now trying to kill Trump's enemies and intimidate his critics with terror. Time to call this what it is. Anybody hurt on the Trump's Enemies List lies at the feet of this President.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

The Predator review

Here's the thing about director-writer Shane Black. He likes to deconstruct genres with a subversive glee. Take a look at his films Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005) and The Nice Guys. These two movies were part comic takes on the private detective- film noir genre. It worked well for those two films because he respected the genre and the it could withstand the comedy without the films becoming camp. In 2013, Black co-wrote and directed the blasphemous Iron Man 3 and by blasphemous, I mean that Black took a serious comic book villain, The Mandarin, and turned him into a clown. He also showed no respect for the concept of a man donning the Iron Man suit and becoming a hero. The result of that movie was regrettable for the fans of Iron Man. Now, Black takes on the fourth movie in the Predator series, if you exclude the Alien vs Predator series, in The Predator. Quick trivia, Black acted in the first Predator (1987) film. The question is will Black's rebellious style work here?

The Predator opens up like the first one with an alien ship containing a Predator approaching earth. This time the ship crashes. It just happens to crash nearby a hostage rescue. On this mission, Army Ranger Quinn Mckenna (Boyd Holbrook) and his soldiers stumble on the ship. Quinn takes some of the armor off the alien. After fighting with the Predator, he wanders the countryside. Quinn later mails the armor to his young son Rory (Jacob Tremblay) who I think is about ten. Quinn gets captured by government agents led by Traeger (Sterling K. Brown) and is transported to a secret base where a captured Predator is being studied. Also arriving is Dr. Casey Bracket. (Olivia Munn) You can guess what happens. Said Predator escapes.

I can't complain about the cast. They're solid. A quick nod to Emmy Award winner Sterling K. Brown who's known for his sensitive Randall Pearson in the TV series This is Us. Here he's ruthless, ends justify the means government official. And before I forget, Quinn recruits a squad of misfits led by Trevante Rhodes, and Obama's Anger Translator, Keegan- Michael Peele. Okay, Peele is doesn't play Obama's Anger Translator but he teams up with an unrecognizable Thomas Jane or was that Aaron Eckhart? Sorry it's Jane, confused by male white actors with long faces and strong chins. Anyway, the misfits are the comic relief.

The Predator has many problems, the least of which is Black's subversive take on the franchise. First, is the screenplay by Fred Dekker and Black. I'll praise it for some good ideas as far as why the Predators are coming to earth. But it has logical flaws. I mean why would Quinn send Predator armor to his kid? I guess it's a contrivance to set up other plot threads. Then, there are way too many jokes for this type of thriller and too often they don't work.

Second, Black substitutes making a taut action movie with night scenes which are too dark, and fast cutting. The result? Confusion. And his subversive tone drowns out any drama. Is he making a sarcastic action comedy or a tale of life and death struggle?

The Predator is a mess of a movie. It can't decide whether it wants to be a thoughtful science fiction action picture or a sarcastic comedy on the genre. It fails both. The grade is C Plus.

Saturday, September 22, 2018

Fahrenheit 11/9 review

About fifteen minutes into director and writer Michael Moore's documentary Fahrenheit 11/9, he makes a fascinating point. America is actually a liberal nation. As evidence, he cites polls which show majority support for unions, a women's right to choose and other progressive causes. He even cites the recent Reuters poll which shows that a whopping seventy percent of Americans want medicare for all. So he raises the question of how did we as a nation elect a far right-wing conservative in Donald Trump as President? It's one of the themes in this film.

The film starts out with the political Titanic campaign of Democrat Hillary Clinton. We again are reminded of how the Democrats and she were so confident of winning that she skipped campaigning in Democratic states such Wisconsin. It would be these states primarily in the rust belt of the Midwest and Pennsylvania that doomed her. Yet she won the popular vote. So, how did she lose?

Moore goes back and examines the system and politics that lade to Trump's victory. No doubt, he raises the Electoral College system. But Moore goes in a direction that most people would not expect. He blames Democrats. Don't get me wrong, conservative Republicans don't look good in this movie either. However, it's Democrats who "compromise" their liberal beliefs that fails working people. He makes this point by looking at the water crisis in his hometown of Flint, Michigan.

Moore uses Michigan as a microcosm of how Trump was able to win. Michigan's governor is Rick Snyder who like Trump was a super rich businessman. Promising to use his business expertise to run the state even though he had no experience running a government. To seize power from some of the cities, Snyder ordered Emergency Managers to run them and suspend democratic rule. Yes. this is true. In Flint, to save money, the manager decided to take water from a polluted river that would corrode lead pipes. As a result people were poisoned with lead.

Now in Moore's film,  conservative Republicans take some of  the blame. However, Moore is objective. He highlights a visit by then President Obama, who comes gives a great speech, and pulls a stunt by drinking a glass of Flint's water. But he does nothing to help them. Later the city is used for war games. Abandoned, you can guess that people are not going to vote Democratic. It's this abandonment of liberal ideas by Democrats that suppressed the votes of their own. Why would working people vote Democrat when it's all lip service. Hence, the rise of Trump just like Snyder. And Trump also wants power, to the point of looking like a fascist.

It's not all a horror show. Moore shows emerging democratic progressive movements. West Virginia teachers striking for better pay. Parkland, Florida high school students who survived a mass shooting, taking on conservatives and the NRA. More women candidates running in the #metoo movement. And the rise of Democratic Socialist candidates like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez who won her New York Democratic primary against heavy odds.

The problem with reviewing a documentary is what happens when the critic agrees with the political views of the filmmaker. It becomes more difficult to be objective. So, I watched Moore's film trying to be more critical of his more leftist opinions. What I looked for were moments of truth that could not be denied. Immigrant children in detention camps crying for their parents. The children of Flint poisoned by lead. Moments like these were emotional and powerful. It made me question what our democracy has become. One small gripe, the focus on Flint does take away from Moore doing a more thorough analysis of Trump's con job.

Fahrenheit 11/9 is both horrifying and hopeful. At times sad and funny. It's also a powerful call for liberals to fight back. The grade is A.