Talk about laidback and low key. I knew by the trailers that Clint Eastwood’s The Mule wasn’t going to be an outright thriller or anything intense despite the subject matter but I really appreciated how wistful, elegiac and at ease with itself this film was. Eastwood is knocking at 90’s door and is still spry as a sprite, once again taking both acting and directing duties in the story of Earl Stone, an elderly horticulturalist turned drug mule for the Mexican cartel. Earl is an egocentric social butterfly who could never seem to find time for his family or put them before his needs. His wife (Dianne Wiest) resents him, his daughter (Alison Eastwood) full on abhors him for missing her wedding. Only his granddaughter (Taissa Farmiga keeps getting more fantastic with each new role) holds out hope and still welcomes him with open arms. He’s all but broke when his garden centre is foreclosed upon, until a chance meeting puts him in touch with underworld operatives and before he knows it he’s ferrying lump sums of narcotics across the states for very dangerous people. This character fascinated me because even when he gets this extremely lucrative opportunity that allows him to partly buy his way back into his family’s life, he doesn’t understand or ignores the fact that if they knew where he got all this money from he’d be more in the doghouse with them than when he started off. This is essentially a story about a guy who never took responsibility, who never took life seriously enough to have a proper legacy until he gets an eleventh hour chance to do so. There’s a workaholic DEA agent played excellently by Bradley Cooper and they share a few chance encounters that capture the essence of this story nicely. They’re two men on opposite ends of the law and very different places in their life who are nonetheless able to share a few moments, enlighten each other’s perspectives and be all the wiser because of it. I loved this story because it ably showed how even in one’s twilight years when one is *still* making mistakes, it’s not too late to reconcile or turn it all around. Great film.
David Ayer’s Harsh Times sees Christian Bale in a character study of extreme dysfunction and maladjusted anger, it’s a tough, bitter film to watch but one that leaves a firebrand in its wake, for better or worse. Bale plays Jim, an Iraqi war vet who has come back stateside so internally fucked up and damaged that he can barely hold down a job or keep up steady relationships with anyone that don’t teeter towards self destruction. He spends his days meandering around the outskirts of LA with Mike (Freddy Rodriguez), his partner in petty crime and apprentice in all things spiteful and misanthropic, much to the dismay of Mike’s much more successful girlfriend (Eva Longoria). Jim is both psychologically broken and emotionally untethered, a dangerous combination if left unchecked, and the downward spiral of violence, drugs and antisocial behaviour he slides into is a sad, pitiable thing to see. Did Jim have an affinity for criminal activities before the war, or did his experience change him into the man he is now? What and where is the causality, if any? Where do the lines blur? Ayer keeps it close to the chest, but the clues are all there in Bale’s measured, incendiary performance that may be his best so far. Sparks of vitality still shine through, as when he shows interest in a job with the Bureau (JK Simmons has a great cameo as the chief interviewer), but even with that he causes corrosive friction, perhaps unintentionally. It’s a blistering character study of a guy whose environment has turned him hard, until he goes against the grain almost by second nature and circles a drain that was a long time coming and from which there is probably no escape. Mixed up with a whole bunch of the wrong kind of people from gangbangers to prolific drug runners, this film sees Jim hit the end of his road,. Both Bale and Ayer make it something powerful to watch, if miserable too.
Seven Mummies is so bad it plays like something that From Dusk Till Dawn shat out along the highway. There’s not even one mummy in the thing, let alone seven, instead it’s a dull, shoddily acted piece of bargain bin garbage and the plastic used to make DVD copies would have been put to better use elsewhere. It concerns a bus full of convicts who escape somewhere in the remote southwest, and head for the Mexican border. On the way they stumble across Aztec treasure that has some vague curse, and soon an even vaguer evil is after them all, but none of it makes much sense. Danny Trejo is in it as a mysterious old weirdo called Apache (never mind that he’s so obviously, visibly Mexican), who sits on a dilapidated desert porch and ominously laughs to himself while staring out at the horizon for at least a whole scene. Seriously. No actual lines at all, just laughing and staring, it’s so odd. The one saving grace is veteran villain actor Billy Drago as the evil ghost of an old west outlaw who shows up to cackle and terrorize everyone in a classically hammy bit of theatricality, it’s always great to see him. Other than that there’s really no signs of life to this one, from crappy low rent CGI monsters to lazy filmmaking all round. You’re better off pulling up a chair next to Trejo on that dusty porch and joining him as he chuckles at the tumbleweed dumpster fire of a film he agreed to d just for a few bucks. Amazingly though, it’s still better than that Tom Cruise Mummy flick from last year. Ugh.
“To protect the sheep, you gotta catch the wolf, and it takes a wolf to catch a wolf.” This questionable sentiment is how rogue LAPD detective Alonzo Harris (Denzel Washington) justifies a heavy laundry list of dirty deeds, scary volatility, sociopathic backstabbing and a complete disregard for the badge that he wears on a chain like dog tags. And indeed, inner city Los Angeles can seem like a war zone, but its like he’s in fact more part of the problem than the dark angel of justice he sees in himself. Antoine Fuqua’s combustible crime drama Training Day rightly won Washington an Oscar for his unsettling runaway train of a performance, and he owns it down to the last maniacal mannerism and manipulative tactic. The film takes place over one smoggy L.A. day (hence the title) that feels like an eternity for its two leads, as well as all the colorful and often terrifying people they meet along the yellow brick road that’s paved with used needles and shell casings. Harris is tasked with showing rookie cop Jake Hoyt (Ethan Hawke) the ropes in his neighborhood, in the hopes that he’ll pass the test and achieve Narc status. Jake is prepared for a run of the mill crash course, but as soon as he’s treated to a verbal beatdown from Harris in the diner they meet at, he has a feeling it ain’t gonna be anywhere close to a normal day. This is just another day for Harris though, as he drags Hoyt by the scruff through drug busts, gang warfare, the worst neighborhood in town and pulls him deeper into his very dangerous world. Fuqua has a knack for getting the atmosphere of his settings just pitch perfect, and the feverish nightmare of the inner city comes alive, seemingly possessing the characters themselves until the atrocities just seem like a way of life. The trouble really starts when they run across Harris’s old drug lord buddy Roger (a wicked Scott Glenn in a role originally intended for Mickey Rourke), who proves a valuable asset later, though not in the way you might think. Harris introduces Jake to his equally crooked and scary team, including Peter Greene, Nick Chinlund and Dr. Dre who struggles in the acting department, especially in a room full of such heavy hitters. Jake is aghast at the horrors he sees and cannot believe the streets are like this. Harris devilishly assures him that this is the job, mutilating the symbol of his badge even more by justifying such behaviour as necessary. Tension reaches unbearable heights during a visit to a Latino gang household run by Cliff Curtis, Raymond Cruz and the eternally scary Noel Gugliemi. This is the heart of darkness fpr the film, a story beat from which there is seemingly no escape, until it becomes clear that Jake has somehow evolved a step up the food chain as far as LA goes, and is now ready to put down the dog who taught him, a dog who has long been rabid. People complain that the final act degenerates into a routine action sequence. Couldn’t disagree more. With a setup so primed with explosive conflict, it can’t end up anywhere else but an all out man to man scrap, which when followed by no flat out action sequences earlier in the film, hits hard. Their inevitable confrontation is a powerhouse, especially from Washington, who finally loses his composure and yowls like a trapped coyote, his actions caught up to him. In a role originally intended for Tom Sizemore (who would have rocked it in his own way) I’m glad Denzel got a crack at it, for he’s absolute dynamite. Watch for Harris Yulin, Raymond J. Barry and Tom Berenger as the three senior LAPD dick heads, Eva Mendes as Alonzo’s girlfriend, Macy Gray as a screeching banshee of a ghetto whore and Snoop Dogg as your friendly neighborhood wheelchair bound crack dealer. Fuqua keeps attention rooted on the dynamic between Washington and Hawke, who is excellent in as role that could have easily been swallowed up by Washington’s monster of of a performance. Hawke holds his own, and the film is really about how two very different guys view a difficult area of town, how it changes them both, and ultimately how their moral compasses end up on a collision course. One of the best crime framas out there, and quickly becoming timeless.