The Mule review

THE MULE

Director : Clint Eastwood
Cast : Clint Eastwood, Bradley Cooper, Michael Peña, Laurence Fishburne, Allison Eastwood, Taissa Farmiga, Dianne Wiest, Andy García, Clifton Collins Jr., Eugene Cordero, Noel Gugliemi
Genre : Crime/Drama/Mystery
Run Time : 1 h 56 mins
Opens : 10 January 2019
Rating : M18

Clint Eastwood is 88-years-old and has been working steadily since the 50s, so it makes sense that some of his recent films deal with aging. In this drama, his character’s old age is an asset, because it makes him less suspicious – as a drug mule.

Eastwood plays Earl Stone, a nonagenarian horticulturist and Vietnam War veteran who has fallen on hard times after his house and farm is foreclosed upon. Earl is estranged from his family, including his ex-wife Mary (Dianne Wiest), his daughter Iris (Alison Eastwood) and his granddaughter Ginny (Taissa Farmiga). Earl comes across what he thinks will be a one-off opportunity as a drug runner for a Mexican cartel. Because the work is easy and pays extremely well, Earl finds himself coming back, unexpectedly becoming one of the cartel’s top mules.

DEA Agents Colin Bates (Bradley Cooper) and Trevino (Michael Peña) learn through an informant about a mule the cartel refers to as “Tata”, Spanish for “grandfather”. The deliveries are being brought into Chicago, with the agents closing in on the elusive mule. Back in Mexico, cartel kingpin Laton (Andy García) is pleased with Earl’s performance, but his lieutenants are spooked by the increasing DEA activity, taking issue with Earl’s penchant for unscheduled stops. Earl knows his successful run working for the cartel cannot last forever and faces the inevitable: he will either be killed by cartel enforcers or captured by the DEA.

The Mule is based on an article in The New York Times by Sam Dolnick, entitled The Sinaloa Cartel’s 90-Year-Old Drug Mule. Eastwood and screenwriter Nick Schenk, who got his big break penning Eastwood’s Gran Torino, have taken loose inspiration from the life of Leo Sharp, a World War II veteran who became a drug runner for the cartel run by El Chapo. Eastwood’s presence as director, producer and star means that it’s obvious that he has projected himself onto the Earl Stone character, who is drawn as a well-meaning, good-hearted man who just isn’t properly appreciated by his family and winds up doing bad things even though he is not a bad person.

Eastwood is too in love with the character, who functions as an avatar of himself, for the movie to accomplish very much. Having directed 34 movies, Eastwood more than knows what he’s doing on the technical front and draws out good performances from his talented cast. However, he is squarely the centre of attention. Earl berates younger people for constantly being on their smartphones and functions as a stubborn guardian of a bygone age, an old-fashioned stalwart who doesn’t get the respect he deserves. He also has at least two threesomes with prostitutes, scenes which one imagines Eastwood doing multiple takes of just to be sure.

Cooper and Peña are given underwritten roles, but Cooper does get one good scene set in a Waffle House in which he gets to do a bit more than chase after Clint Eastwood. Dianne Wiest is the standout in the cast as Earl’s ex-wife, who harbours less ill-will towards Earl than his daughter Iris (played by Eastwood’s real daughter Alison) but who still wishes things could’ve been different. The skill with which Wiest conveys quiet sadness ensures the relationship is not overly treacly.

The scenes in which Earl is friendly towards the cartel members lower on the ladder who warm to him are quite endearing. Both Andy García and Laurence Fishburne are on hand to lend additional gravitas in relatively small roles as a cartel boss and a senior DEA agent respectively.

The Mule is not an instant classic the way some of Eastwood’s films are, and it is more obviously a vanity project than several other late-period Eastwood movies. There are moments when it’s charming and the Earl Stone character is not the worst person to spend a couple of hours with, but the movie fundamentally lacks any urgency or drive. The moments of tension, when it feels like Earl’s Faustian bargain is catching up to him, are too few and far between. It is ultimately saved by the compelling nature of the true story and Eastwood’s unquestionable competence as a director but is not one of the more essential entries in his oeuvre.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

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Geostorm

For inSing

GEOSTORM

Director : Dean Devlin
Cast : Gerard Butler, Jim Sturgess, Abbie Cornish, Alexandra Maria Lara, Amr Waked, Eugenio Derbez, Ed Harris, Andy Garcia
Genre : Sci-Fi, Thriller
Run Time : 109 mins
Opens : 12 October 2017
Rating : PG13

There was a period in the 90s when disaster movies were huge: think TwisterDante’s PeakVolcanoArmageddonDeep Impact, movies like that. Roland Emmerich attempted to revive that subgenre in 2000s with films like The Day After Tomorrow and 2012. Now, Emmerich’s long-time co-writer and co-producer Dean Devlin has made Geostorm, which is like one of those movies on steroids.

            In the near future, Jake Lawson (Gerard Butler) is a scientist and astronaut who supervised the creation of a network of satellites that regulates the earth’s climate, nicknamed ‘Dutch Boy’. Jake’s younger brother Max (Jim Sturgess), who works at the U.S. State Department, calls on Jake when Dutch Boy starts malfunctioning, causing freak weather incidents around the world. Jake travels to the International Space Station, working with an international crew of astronauts led by Commander Ute Fassbinder (Alexandra Maria Lara) from Germany.

            Back on the ground, Cheng Long (Daniel Wu), who supervises the Dutch Boy satellite positioned over Hong Kong, informs Max of a possible conspiracy to sabotage the satellite. At the Democratic National Convention in Orlando, Max convinces his girlfriend Sarah Wilson (Abbie Cornish), a Secret Service agent, to help him kidnap President Andrew Palma (Andy García). The President is the only man with the kill codes to shut down the satellite before more damage is caused. It’s a race against time to stop the ultimate calamity: a Geostorm.

            In many ways, movies like Geostorm are why this writer wanted to become a film critic. It’s definitely not a good movie, but is ludicrously entertaining and might just be the best comedy of the year.

The movie underwent a troubled production, and disastrous test screenings led to Warner Bros. ordering reshoots which reportedly cost $15 million. Because Devlin was unavailable, Danny Cannon was brought in to conduct the reshoots, with Laeta Kalogridis rewriting the screenplay, cutting characters from the film and adding new ones. Presumably, the reshoots added more jokes, giving the movie a semblance of self-awareness. As it stands, Geostorm is halfway between a straight-ahead disaster thriller and a full-on comedy. It ends up hitting the sweet spot, in that it is maximally entertaining, never unwatchable and funnier than it would’ve been had it been an intentionally bad movie akin to Sharknado.

One of the punchlines bandied about when the trailers for Geostorm first came out were that it looked like a SyFy Channel original movie with a $150 million budget. It is glorious that so many resources were spent on something this stupid. It’s a little like the Transformers movies, but Geostorm is never as smug, never as insulting, never as unbearable or self-indulgent as those films can be. The visual effects look great, and the spectacle is grand, especially in IMAX 3D. There’s an action sequence in which two astronauts are on a spacewalk and one of their spacesuits begins malfunctioning. It’s genuinely thrilling and staged quite well.

Naturally, the timing isn’t ideal. 2017 has seen several devastating hurricanes in quick succession, making it harder to accept large-scale global destruction as popcorn escapism. This is mitigated somewhat by the sci-fi context and inherent goofiness of the whole enterprise, but it is a touch tasteless that the film opens with what appears to be actual news footage of natural disasters and the dead left in their aftermath.

The movie is crammed full of stock characters, none of whom even remotely feel like they could be real people. Butler’s filmography is filled with awful movies, and Geostorm feels like the ideal use of his talents. Jake is the  totally reckless but ultimately noble hero, a man of action who’s also a super-genius, and Butler is plenty of fun in the role.

Playing opposite Butler as the brother with whom Jake doesn’t quite get along, Sturgess summons likeable earnestness and tries to take the material as seriously as possible. Cornish gets to do a little more than your average ‘designated girlfriend’ in a film of this genre does, taking the wheel and shooting at pursuers during a car chase. Unlike your average Michael Bay film, Geostorm isn’t misogynistic, and Alexandra Maria Lara’s space station commander character Ute is capable and an equal to Jake Lawson.

For his part, García plays a credible president, getting to yell the line “I am the god***n President of the United States of America!” Zazie Beetz, who is playing Domino in Deadpool 2, makes for a fun comic relief hacker character.

Geostorm is the rare mega-budget movie that’s genuinely so bad it’s good. This reviewer burst into fits of laughter any time a character says the word ‘Geostorm’ out loud, or when the word appears on a screen above a countdown timer. Sure, it’s bad, but it moves briskly and is absurdly enjoyable. If you can somehow get discounted tickets to see this in IMAX 3D, maybe as part of a cinema loyalty card program, do so.

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Max Steel

For F*** Magazine

MAX STEEL 

Director : Stewart Hendler
Cast : Ben Winchell, Josh Brener, Ana Villafañe, Andy García, Maria Bello, Mike Doyle
Genre : Action/Adventure/Sci-fi
Run Time : 1h 31min
Opens : 27 October 201
Rating : PG (Some Violence)

max-steel-posterHasbro and Mattel are kind of the Marvel and DC of toymakers. Hasbro’s Transformers films are hugely successful in spite of their poor quality, and there are plans underway to weave the G.I. Joe and Transformers franchises into a shared cinematic universe. Over at Mattel, after years of delays, a live-action Max Steel film limps into theatres. Yes, Hasbro is Marvel and Mattel is DC in this analogy.

After years of moving throughout the country, Max McGrath (Winchell) and his mother Molly (Bello) return to the small town in which he was born. Max’s father Jim (Doyle), a scientist, was killed in a lab accident when Max was a baby. Max goes to Dr. Miles Edwards (García), his father’s former colleague at biotechnology firm N-Tek, to learn more about the circumstances under which his father died. Sofia Martinez (Villafañe), a girl at Max’s new school, takes a liking to Max. However, Max begins displaying erratic behaviour as a side effect of developing superpowers: he gains the ability to manipulate and project liquid energy from his fingertips. The levitating alien orb Steel (Brener) finds and befriends Max. When Steel symbiotically bonds to Max, they fuse into the superhero Max Steel. Max must come to grips with his newfound powers as he fends off a shadowy threat and pieces together his father’s past.

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Max Steel kind of feels like something you’d let your kids watch if they weren’t well-behaved enough to deserve seeing the Marvel Cinematic Universe films. In this age when superhero action flicks are done so often and so well, Max Steel comes off as a low-rent knockoff at best. When it’s not dull, it’s annoying. Every single hoary superhero origin story trope gets a re-tread. This film will put most audiences in a stupor, with viewers muttering in a half-conscious state of recognition “oh, that’s from Spider-Man” or “that kind of reminds me of Power Rangers”. Mattel’s Masters of the Universe property was, like Max Steel, created with the express purpose of selling toys, but a more or less fleshed-out mythology has developed around it. That doesn’t seem to be the case with Max Steel, which when it was created in 1997, tapped into the ‘Xtreme!’ zeitgeist. As originally conceived, Max Steel was kind of an extreme sports junkie superspy with a sci-fi tinge.

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The premise has since been reworked into a young adult ‘chosen one’ plot: take the afore-mentioned Spider-Man and replace “radioactive spider bite” with “robot alien suit” and you get the picture. While the design work is largely uninspired, the production values aren’t terrible: the physical suit itself was created by Legacy Effects, who have constructed the non-CGI Iron Man suits for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Steel convincingly occupies the same space as Max. The love child of Navi from The Legend of Zelda and 343 Guilty Spark from Halo, Steel is exactly as irritating as that sounds. Brener’s rapid-fire neurotic delivery is as much to blame as the painfully unfunny lines that Steel spits out.

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‘Chosen one’ protagonists have a not-undeserved rap for being blank slates. Max is almost prodigiously boring. Winchell is blandly handsome and is stricken with severe charisma deficit disorder. He was around 20 when the film was being shot, but looks significantly older, unable to pass for a high school student. Sure, Max executes a fine three-point landing, but a pose alone does not a hero make.

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Opposite him, Villafañe’s Sofia is the ‘designated love interest’ to an almost comical degree. She’s pretty much Lana Lang from Smallville, and Villafañe resembles Kristin Kreuk too. From the moment they have their meet-cute, it’s a sure thing the pair will end up together, and Sofia’s largely undeterred by Max’s techno-organic freak-outs. “If only getting the girl were this easy in real life,” the boys in the audience will sigh, realising that Max is now almost impossible to relate to. Bello and García are both respectable actors who are slumming it here. As the stock protective mother, Bello emerges with more of her dignity intact than García’s.

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Screenwriter Christopher Yost is a veteran of animated action adventure shows, with credits including the 2003 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles series, X-Men: Evolution, The Batman and Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes. If nothing else, those shows were generally fun. Max Steel could have done with truckloads more fun, the ‘grounded’ approach crippling what could have been an unbridled, energetic, delightfully silly kids’ action flick. The franchise-begging ending seems almost adorably naïve.

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Summary: Max Steel is a rusty shell of superhero origin story clichés, bereft of excitement or originality. At the very least, it doesn’t look that cheap.

RATING: 2 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Ghostbusters

For F*** Magazine

GHOSTBUSTERS (2016)

Director : Paul Feig
Cast : Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon, Leslie Jones, Chris Hemsworth, Neil Casey, Andy García, Charles Dance
Genre : Action/Comedy
Run Time : 1 hr 56 mins
Opens : 14 July 2016
Rating : PG (Some Frightening Scenes)

Ghostbusters posterA new gang dons the jumpsuits and the proton packs in this reboot of the Ghostbusters franchise. Dr. Erin Gilbert (Wiig) is a particle physics professor at Columbia University who had a falling out with Abby Yates (McCarthy), a paranormal researcher who co-authored a book with Erin. Abby is now working with nuclear engineer Jillian Holtzmann (McKinnon), and an unexplained occurrence at New York’s historical Aldridge Mansion forces Erin and Abby to make amends. After witnessing a ghost on the train tracks, Metropolitan Transportation Authority worker Patty Tolan (Jones) volunteers to join the trio, rendering in-depth knowledge of New York’s history and geography. The dim-witted but handsome Kevin Beckman (Hemsworth) is hired as the crew’s receptionist, and they come to be known as the ‘Ghostbusters’. The team traces the recent spate of paranormal activity back to Rowan (Casey), an unhinged hotel bellhop bent on unleashing hell on earth. The Ghostbusters take on both malevolent spectres and repeated attempts to discredit them as the city is brought to its knees by the ghastly apparitions.

Ghostbusters Melissa McCarthy, Kate McKinnon, Kristen Wiig and Leslie Jones

It’s impossible to talk about the Ghostbusters reboot without bringing up the spectre of negativity that has clung to it from the moment the idea was mooted. Across the internet, there were innumerable cries of childhoods being ruined, and dismay that the four members of the classic team had been replaced by women. Vitriol including death threats was spewed at all involved. The cast and filmmakers hit back, with McCarthy opining that all opposed to the Ghostbusters remake were man-children living in their mothers’ basements. It just kept getting uglier, on all sides. The original cast endorsed the reboot and several of them have cameos, but leaked emails revealed that Sony was threatening “aggressive litigation” against Bill Murray if he didn’t promote the film. Murray was famously reticent to appear in 1989’s Ghostbusters II and his refusal to co-operate with Dan Aykroyd was what put the nail in the coffin of a third film in the original series.

Ghostbusters Chris Hemsworth, Kate McKinnon, Leslie Jones, Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy

Sure, some of the arguments against the Ghostbusters reboot have merit, and this is yet another demonstration of how heavily Hollywood banks on recognisable, marketable franchises. It’s not so much that there are no new ideas, but that studio executives largely refuse to put faith in said ideas because they aren’t proven. There’s a lot to strip away, but when one gets down to it, this can’t help but feel like a storm in a teacup – or an ectoplasmic vortex in a ghost trap, if you will. Stop the presses: Ghostbusters ’16 is nowhere near as disastrous as its detractors have been hoping it would be.

Ghostbusters Leslie Jones, Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon suited up

Director Feig and his cast have a proven track record of bringing the funny, which they do in spades here. The style of humour is brash and in-your-face compared to the more sardonic jokes in the original Ghostbusters films, but a good amount of jokes land. Not all of them, to be sure, but enough of them. Abby, Erin, Jillian and Patty are not merely gender-swapped versions of Ray, Peter, Egon and Winston. An adequate balance has been struck between respectful tips of the hat to Ghostbusters movies past and comedic stylings that are unmistakably Feig’s, with Feig’s and co-writer Katie Dippold’s affection for the source material readily apparent. As such, it is a bit of an ironic shame that so many die-hard fans have long decided to boycott this reboot when more than a few morsels of fan-service are tossed their way. The cameos are generally pretty fun and had this reviewer wanting to see more, but they’re brief enough so as not to be wholly gratuitous.

Ghostbusters Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon and Leslie Jones on the train tracks

This reviewer thinks McCarthy is funnier when she’s more understated, so it’s great to see her ably take on the position of team leader. This is a cast that absolutely clicks, and we never thought we’d say it, but their camaraderie does rival that of Murray, Aykroyd, Ramis and Hudson in places. Jones’ Patty is plenty loud and sassy and might come off as a racist stereotype, but her character actually feels more like she’s a part of the team than Hudson’s Winston Zeddemore did. And hey, a regular everywoman who’s not a scientist is a Ghostbuster; that’s absolutely fine. It is McKinnon who handily steals the show, getting some of the best lines as the team’s resident wacky wild card. McKinnon’s spot-on impressions of Ellen DeGeneres, Hillary Clinton and Justin Bieber amongst others on Saturday Night Live have garnered her considerable attention, but Ghostbusters just might be what rockets her up the comedy actor A-list, where she belongs.

Ghostbusters Chris Hemsworth

Hemsworth is game and entertaining as the receptionist who’s practically too dumb to function, slightly reminiscent of Jason Statham’s sendup of his action hero persona in Feig’s previous film Spy. The characterisation does seem like it comes from some place of resentment though, seeing as Annie Potts’ memorable Janine from the original films wasn’t an airhead at all. The film’s villain is obviously not where the focus lies, but while Casey’s Rowan is creepy, he doesn’t cross over into being legitimately threatening and amounts to a regrettably forgettable foe. It’s also less than ideal that the film’s climax is pretty much a bog-standard big ole CGI-infused melee in Times Square, the likes of which we’ve seen many times before. It doesn’t hold a candle to the iconic Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man rampage of the first film, or even the Statue of Liberty marching through New York in the second.

Ghostbusters climactic battle

Is the Ghostbusters reboot the best idea to come out of Hollywood? No. But thanks to the efforts of Feig and his talented, watchable cast, it succeeds where many reboots haven’t, as just enough of its own thing. Feig, Dippold and the other filmmakers have been given enough free rein such that this doesn’t come off as just a studio-mandated cash grab. There’s also no indication that there was any desire to supplant the original films or deny their legacy exists. Stick around for extra clips interspersed through the end credits, plus a post-credits stinger to cap it all off.

Summary: It’s not too hot to handle nor is it too cold to hold, but Ghostbusters is largely funny and well-made. Despite being stuck in the shadow of the towering original, it’s pretty enjoyable.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Kill The Messenger

For F*** Magazine

KILL THE MESSENGER

Director : Michael Cuesta
Cast : Jeremy Renner, Rosemarie DeWitt, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Oliver Platt, Paz Vega, Michael Sheen, Ray Liotta, Andy García
Genre : Biography/Crime/Drama
Rating : NC-16 (Some Drug Use And Coarse Language) 
Run time: 112 mins
The archetype of the “intrepid reporter” has always had its allure and while we’re gripped by thrilling stories of journalists who will chase a story at any cost, it’s easy to forget that in real life, situations like this don’t often end well. It is 1996 and Gary Webb (Renner) is a reporter for the San Jose Mercury News who uncovers a shocking connection between the CIA and drug-runners in Nicaragua. He writes “Dark Alliance”, a three-part exposé for the newspaper that grabs the nation’s attention. The African-American community in particular is angered by the possibility that the CIA intentionally introduced crack cocaine into their communities. Soon, the scrutiny that comes from life in the spotlight proves to be more than Webb, his wife Susan (DeWitt) and their three children can take as he feels his life is in danger.

            Kill the Messenger is adapted from Nick Schou’s book Kill the Messenger: How the CIA’s Crack-cocaine Controversy Destroyed Journalist Gary Webb as well as Webb’s own Dark Alliance: The CIA, the Contras, and the Crack Cocaine Explosion, an expansion of his articles. Like other conspiracy thrillers that examine the cost of uncovering the truth, Kill the Messenger is driven by a righteous indignation and has the David and Goliath aspect of a reporter from a small local newspaper going up against the CIA. Director Michael Cuesta has dealt with similar subject matter directing episodes of the TV series Homeland. There is a sense that he is striving not to over-sensationalise the actual events that took place but perhaps as result of this, the second half of the film lacks the propulsive urgency promised in the first half.

            The film places a fair amount of focus on Webb’s family life and how his pursuit of the truth behind the CIA’s alleged partnership with the Contras in Central America affected them. We see his exuberance slowly fade as he slides towards a meltdown as much of the journalism community turns against him and the big boys at the L.A. Times and the Washington Post become ravenously envious of his scoop. It feels as if a good chunk of what made the real-life case so compelling has been omitted from the film. Ideally, a thriller should pull one in deeper and deeper as it progresses, but Kill the Messenger hits a disappointing plateau midway through.

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            Director Cuesta claims that in this film, Jeremy Renner delivers his best performance since The Hurt Locker and he’s pretty much right. Renner can’t quite seem to attain A-list action hero status despite appearing a number of popcorn movies over the last few years and perhaps projects in this vein are what he should be pursuing. There’s a charisma and hunger as well as a dash of idealism that Renner doesn’t overplay and it is truly crushing when we see things start to collapse before Webb’s eyes. The supporting cast is studded with semi-recognizable-to-pretty-famous faces including Oliver Platt, Ray Liotta, Tim Blake Nelson, Michael Sheen and Andy García. Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Rosemarie DeWitt, as Webb’s editor and wife respectively, are especially convincing and their performances contribute to Kill the Messenger’s credibility as an account of actual events.

            Kill the Messenger brings an event and a personal story that has been largely forgotten by the public back to the forefront. Gary Webb died in 2004 from being shot twice in the head; this was ruled a suicide. There are still lessons to be learnt from Webb’s story, particularly for those interested in investigative journalism. While Kill the Messenger is admirable in how it doesn’t turn the whole thing into an overblown melodrama, it slides a little in the opposite direction, rendering its subject matter not quite as compellingly as it could have.

SUMMARY: While Jeremy Renner puts in an excellent performance, Kill the Messenger doesn’t dig deep enough into its subject matter and falls short of being a searing account of journalist Gary Webb’s ordeal.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars
Jedd Jong