This week’s watch – ‘Vice’ and ‘The Mule’

“Vice” (Released) (Golden Globe Nominations for Best Motion Picture, Musical or Comedy; Best Actor in a Motion Picture Musical or Comedy, Christian Bale; Best Supporting Actress in a Motion Picture Musical or Comedy, Amy Adams; Best Screenplay, Motion Picture, Adam McKay; SAG Nominations for Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Leading Role, Christian Bale; Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Supporting Role, Amy Adams) Filmmaker Adam McKay has moved on from his sophomoric comedies (“Step Brothers,” “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy”) to political satire, first with his “Funny or Die” videos (co-produced with Will Ferrell) and now to the power dynamics within the Bush-Cheney administration… and how a quiet, unassuming insider became the most powerful man in America. In one of the biggest casting head-scratchers of all-time, Christian Bale takes on the role of Dick Cheney. We are barely one scene in before all doubts are dismissed, and we are reminded yet again why Bale is one of the most talented and fascinating actors in cinematic history. With the weight gain, the hair, the growling voice, the asymmetrical smirk – Bale becomes Cheney on screen and that allows us to focus on the manner in which filmmaker McKay unfolds the events – many of which we remember, even if we were blissfully unaware of the backstory. Cheney is first seen in 1963 Wyoming as a drunk and somewhat rowdy youngster. The film then bounces the timeline to key events such as Cheney’s time as Donald Rumsfeld’s (Steve Carell) intern/lackey and the 1970’s (his being named youngest White House Chief of Staff, Ford’s loss to Carter, and the campaign for Wyoming Congressman). Cheney’s wife Lynne (played by Amy Adams) is portrayed as more ambitious than her husband (at least early on), and in one searing scene, yanks a young Cheney out of his funk and onto the upwardly mobile track. Were the timing 15 years forward, it’s not difficult to imagine Lynne as the rising political star. The events surrounding 9/11 bring on a very interesting segment when there is an emergency White House evacuation, and Cheney is whisked into a secure room and appears to overstep his authority… at least that’s how it appears to everyone other than Cheney. He is described as having power “like a ghost,” and it’s this scene and the follow-up discussions about Afghanistan, that McKay believes best exemplifies Cheney’s lust for power. Putting aside partisanship, filmmaker McKay is to be applauded for a most entertaining look at how our government officials can manipulate policy and public statements, and may even stoop to focus groups in better understanding the views of the American people. Editor Hank Corwin (Oscar nominated for “The Big Short”) is a big part of maintaining the quick pace of the film, and the use of fishing as a metaphor somehow works. “America” from “West Side Story” is a fitting song to end the clever, funny and thought-provoking film and our look at the rare politician who amassed power while mostly avoiding the publicity that other politicians seek. Watch at your own risk – depending on your politics. “Spider-Man: Into the Spider Verse” (Released) (Golden Globe Nomination for Best Motion Picture, Animated) The film’s biggest strength is knowing exactly what it is. There’s no deep meanings or important messages to be found here other than the usual superhero morals and that leaves a lot of room for action, comedy and heart. The animation really sells this movie; I can’t say I’ve seen a similar style before. While it can make some action sequences a little hard to follow, it is absolutely beautiful and never gets old. The writing is pretty great; the story is cohesive and different and many of the jokes hit well (clearly some “Deadpool”-inspired humor to be found here). Miles Morales is a fantastic spider-man and alternative Peter Parker is nicely fleshed out. The other spider-men, women and pig are lacking in character but provide good comic relief and keep the film fresh. The mish-mash of villains is an interesting choice. While Kingpin is definitely made the main antagonist, there are a number of villains in the movie but none are given any backstory or reasoning behind their actions other than Kingpin. This isn’t necessarily a weakness however, since the film is never bogged down by trying to justify their villains and instead focuses on the fun-factor of having enough enemies for the number of spider-people in the movie. It’s also worth mentioning that the soundtrack and score for the movie is pretty darn good. “The Mule” (Released) (No Golden Globe or SAG Nominations) When 90-year-old Earl Stone loses everything he loves, can he use ill-gotten gains to win it back before the DEA or the cartel, takes him down? Written by Nick Schenk, directed by and starring Clint Eastwood, this film was inspired by a New York Times article “The Sinaloa Cartel’s 90-Year Old Drug Mule” by Sam Dolnick. The film uses true events to frame a compelling story. Bucking the current trend of emotionally monochrome dramas, this film is a rich tapestry of triumph, tragedy, humor, sadness, guilt and forgiveness. Earl Stone (Eastwood) is a successful horticulturist in Peoria, Ill., but neglectful of his family. He finds himself estranged from his wife, Mary (Dianne Wiest), and daughter Iris (Alison Eastwood), but is still admired by his granddaughter Ginny (Taissa Farmiga). Mary and he divorce, and after failing to embrace the digital age, Stone’s business fails. He takes a mysterious offer to deliver a package from El Paso to Chicago. With his newfound income, he rebuilds the local VFW after a fire, buys a new truck and helps pay for his granddaughter’s wedding. Meanwhile, he frustrates his cartel handler, Julio with his unpredictable behavior.   Things get complicated when DEA agent Colin Bates (Bradley Cooper) and his partner Trevino (Michael Peña) flip a cartel employee and he tips them off about a successful drug mule known as “Tata,” or grandfather. The unassuming elderly white man with a clean record was able to slip under law enforcement’s radar. At 90 and with the DEA on his tail, Earl Stone is running out of time to reverse his fortunes and reconcile with his family. The movie is loosely based on the life of Leo Sharp, a WWII veteran and Detroit-based horticulturist and daylily farmer who began working as a drug mule for the Sinaloa cartel after his business fell on hard times. His life of crime made him a millionaire. Sharp was finally caught in 2011 at the age of 87, pled guilty to drug conspiracy, and served one year in prison before being let out due to his declining health. He died in December 2016. Most of the events depicting Earl Stone’s family life were not based on his historic counterpart. Sharp had a wife and three children, and was still married when he died. The filmmakers changed the years in which the events took place, and changed Sharp’s home state from Michigan to Illinois. These changes, particularly when it comes to the main character’s personal life, substantially improved the story and added much-needed depth, drama, and substance. The filmmakers didn’t set out to tell Leo Sharp’s story; they used it as a springboard to tell their own. The film’s message is deeply personal, and therefore emotionally impactful on its audience.  But the examination of how Earl interacts with a world that has changed without him realizing it is a delight to watch. Throughout the film he does change in his realizations that the concerns of others, from strangers to his family, are worth giving a damn about and, ultimately, that he has a price to pay for a lifetime of not giving a damn.   Yes, it would’ve been nice if family had always been Earl’s drug of choice, and he has to own the fact that it wasn’t. But this soulful and deeply satisfying film — a fitting swansong, if ever there was one — makes a compelling argument that change is always possible, and that the path we’re on is never as narrow as the highway makes it look. With what might be his last film, 88-year-old Clint Eastwood cements his place as one of the greatest actors and directors of our time. I also want to point out the great cinematography by Yve Belanger, and the brilliant editing Clint’s friend and editor for over 30 years, Academy Award winner Joel Cox. By now you must see that I loved this film and feel it should have had some nominations and this may have a bit to do with Clint’s politics. DVD Recommendation: “Dumplin’” (2018) (Golden Globe Nomination for Best Original Song, Motion Picture-Girl In The Movies) (Streaming on NetFlix) Based on the novel by Julie Murphy and directed by Anne Fletcher, this film tells the story of a teenage girl trying to understand how to fit in with a world she doesn’t fit into and who also loves Dolly Parton. Willowdean (Danielle Macdonald) was raised primarily by her Aunt Lucy while her mother Rosie (Jennifer Aniston) relives her beauty queen past as a semi-celebrity in their small Texas hometown.  After the sudden death of her aunt, Willowdean has to deal with pageant season, a time of the year that she finds ridiculous. She convinces her best friend and fellow Dolly fan Ellen to enter the Miss Teen Bluebonnet Pageant as a protest. Willowdean isn’t the same body shape and size as her mother, so she’s fiercely against the beauty contest and willing to defend others, like shy Millie, who ends up coming out of her shell. Joining them in their “protest in heels” is Hannah whose short hair look and love of metal are in sharp contrast to every other girl. Miss Teen Bluebonnet will test Willowdean’s friendship with Ellen, as well as strengthen her love of her lost aunt by meeting many of her drag queen friends.  Willowdean also learns that even the cutest guy in school, Bo, might be able to see through society’s views on beauty to see who she is inside. Sure, “Dumplin’” is sentimental and at times schmaltzy, but it’s also a well-made and at times, a pretty amusing film. And who doesn’t love hearing a soundtrack packed with Dolly tunes, including a new one that she wrote just for the movie. As we start 2019, I am reminiscing about how truly blessed I feel.  Each and everyone of you who read my reviews, whether you comment or not, are what makes my heart very full. Wishing you a very Happy New Year and I hope that 2019 is filled with love, joy and hope.