Clint Eastwood's The Mule casts the 88-year-old as professional horticulturist Earl Stone, and in the man's first five seconds on-screen, he refers to his Mexican employees' vehicle as a “taco wagon.” He does it with a grin, of course, and the friendly chuckles of his workers indicate that they know good ol' Earl is just pulling their chains. But like that elderly relative of yours whose casually racist comments at the Thanksgiving table make you wish you'd had a drive-thru burger instead, Clint, from the start, is so relentlessly, “adorably” offensive in his first starring role in six years – and offensive in so many different ways – that I spent almost the entirety of the film's two hours silently loathing him. In theory, The Mule, with its script by Gran Torino scribe Nick Schenk, is about a broke, aging man who finds a steady income and renewed purpose running drugs for a Mexican cartel. In actuality, though, it's about Eastwood knowing he can say and do anything he damn well pleases and the faithful will devour it with ravenous gratitude. Personally, I'm well past full.
Here's a taste of the crotchety, curmudgeonly, insensitive, abjectly clueless treats that Clint has in store for us this time. As Earl, he rails against Latinos who “all look the f---in' same.” He pulls over to help a black family with a flat tire, telling them “It feels good to help out you Negro folks.” He rails against the Internet and texting and the younger generation's obsession with their phones (while the phones of several seniors at my screening rang at regular intervals). He bribes a cop with two tins of caramel corn “for the boys in the station and the gals downstairs.” He engages in not one but two three-ways with obliging young women, one of whom, in the year's most excruciating scene, slides on top of Earl while removing his shirt. (My eyes are still burning.) Meanwhile, as a director, Clint stages all of this with his sight firmly planted on his capitalized Base, clearly confident of the roars and applause he'll receive after Bradley Cooper's DEA agent, simultaneously amused and appalled by Earl's candor, tells the man that he may have lost his verbal filter, and Earl replies, “I never knew I had one.” (When I saw the film, that retort got just slightly bigger laughs than the meant-to-be-dramatic moment in which a Latino driver was pulled over and nervously told the officers “Statistically speaking, this is the most dangerous five minutes of my life.” My crowd loved that bit.)
From Schenk's careless and lazy plotting, with Earl apparently working for the world's most naïvely trusting criminals, to the grossly sentimentalized family melodrama, to the visual clichés (with Andy Garcia's Mexican drug lord living in a Mexican-drug-lord house straight out of Central Realty), to the depressing waste of significant talents including Laurence Fishburne, Michael Peña, the perversely ill-used Dianne Wiest, and Clint's charming and extremely capable daughter Alison, I detested nearly every second of The Mule. (Only Cooper's scenes suggest the frisky, even-playing-field fun this debacle might have been.) But it was Eastwood's personal contributions that made me angriest, and I only came close to enjoying the film during Earl's interminable long-distance drives, with the man blithely eating ice-cream sandwiches while crooning along to his FM station's old-school pop hits. I may not feel the need for any more Eastwood movies in my life, at least at present, but if the guy wants to cut an album that I can safely avoid, I say go for it.
Heaven knows we don't need more bad or bland options at the cineplex. Yet I'm not sure we need more good ones, either; I think we just need more polarizing ones. Case in point: writer/director Brady Corbet's Vox Lux. As the end credits rolled at my Friday-morning screening, the gentleman sitting behind me – a patron, I might add, who entered the auditorium an hour into the film – sighed and stood and loudly proclaimed, “Well, that won't win any awards.” Several rows behind us, a woman countered with, “Maybe not, but it'll sell a lot of albums.” This, in turn, was followed by a third voice, with another man insisting “I don't know what movie you two saw – I thought it was a masterpiece.” I didn't necessarily agree with any of these people. But I loved that Corbet's intensely challenging drama inspired such a variety of reactions, to say nothing of inspiring at least a few of those who saw it to want to audibly, proudly, express their opinions. Whether or not Vox Lux wins awards, or sells albums, or comes to be regarded as a masterpiece, the movie is certainly making people feel something, even if what they're feeling is anger. I'll happily take that over the anesthetizing effects of an Instant Family or a Grinch or an umpteenth Robin Hood any day of the week.
In the first, more effective half of Corbet's twinned meditation on trauma and celebrity, Celeste Montgomery (Raffey Cassidy), an eighth-grade student in 1999 Staten Island, suffers a bullet to the neck and consequent spinal injury during a horrifying homeroom shooting, and becomes a singing sensation after performing a number composed in response to the tragedy. In the second half, set in 2017, Celeste (now Natalie Portman) is a full-scale techno-pop diva prepping for a hometown concert, and attempting to juggle a media blitz, her drug and alcohol dependency, the needs of her teen daughter (also played by Cassidy), and the news that an overseas terrorist attack found the assailants donning masks familiar from one of Celeste's early music videos. I won't pretend to know what made the huffy guy behind me so outraged – especially considering he wasn't there for preliminary scenes far more unpleasant than anything in Act II – but it might easily have been Portman. Speaking, or rather shouting, in the cartoon bray of a stereotypically impatient New Yorker, and so lacquered, weepy, and physically tic-y that you can't tell if she's aiming for an Oscar or a Razzie, Portman's intentionally out-there portrayal is a lot to take – maybe, for some, too much. Viewed in retrospect, however, the garishness feels justified (if not altogether successful), because Vox Lux itself feels like it's teetering on the edge of madness.
It opens with narration (by Willem Dafoe) suggesting the literary-fairytale charm of The Royal Tenenbaums and quickly morphs into something akin to Gus Van Sant's school-shooting elegy Elephant, and that's before a lengthy tracking shot on a winding road and upwardly rolling opening credits bring The Shining irrevocably to mind. In its first 10 minutes, Corbet's film is already an austere comedy, a requiem, and a horror flick, and like Celeste herself, it goes through plenty of additional iterations before bringing us to the climactic concert that's staged (kind of poorly) like early Lady Gaga but leaves us uneasily expecting the climax to Robert Altman's Nashville. There's a line in Angels in America that goes “In the new century, I think we will all be insane,” and I thought of those words all throughout Vox Lux. Corbet employs slow-motion, fast-motion, black-and-white documentary footage, dual casting, voice-over narration, physical slapstick, sickening violence, and more, and in doing so suggests both the beauty and the depravity of our modern world – a world of voracious media appetite in which pop-culture icons and the victims of unspeakable tragedy are one and the same. With its filmmaking energy, stylistic bravado, and pinpoint supporting performances by the likes of Jude Law, Jennifer Ehle, and Christopher Abbott, Corbet's movie is frequently thrilling. When Portman is around, it's also frequently infuriating. But I hope you see it regardless. And I hope you bring someone with whom you can fight over it.
It's going to take several more viewings, maybe a lifetime of viewings, to fully wrap my head around the greatness of director Alfonso Cuarón's cinematic memoir Roma, which just landed on Netflix – and, this week, at Iowa City's FilmScene – amidst the sort of critical acclaim generally reserved for an unearthed opera by Puccini or a new film by the late Orson Welles. (The latter of which, coincidentally, also landed on Netflix in the form of Welles' recently reconstructed The Other Side of the Wind.) But after an initial watch, my gut response is that the kudos are completely justified; a day after seeing it from the comfort of my couch, I'm finding its images, themes, and stunning artistry plastered to my mind in ways that only a few big-screen releases in 2018 have managed to approach.
Beginning in 1970, and following a year in the life of a family closely modeled on Cuarón's, Roma explores both the tumultuous and everyday events surrounding a well-to-do clan in Mexico City, with primary attention paid to the experiences of nanny and housekeeper Cleo (the pitch-perfect newcomer Yalitza Aparicio). At first, it seems a strange and tangential thing to do – Cuarón choosing to tell his childhood story through the eyes of someone not even related by blood. (One of the young siblings that Cleo takes care of – there are three boys and a girl – is clearly based on Cuarón himself, but while it's hinted at, it's never made clear which one of those children he may have been.) Yet doing so appears to have unleashed something spectacularly clear-eyed and honest in this memory piece. With a surrogate Cuarón all but absent on-screen, or at least unrecognized, he's able to fully imagine what that year in his life was like wholly without sentiment, and also able to provide a broader, more empathetic worldview; the kids may have been (mostly) all right, but the adults in this Mexican landscape were facing problems and issues and joys and heartaches that a prepubescent Cuarón couldn't possibly dream of.
While much of Roma concerns Cleo's handling of her unexpected pregnancy, as well as the family matriarch Sofia (Marina de Tavira) contending with her husband's long absence while on “a business trip in Quebec,” there's actually very little traditional story in Cuarón's latest, and after a half hour of its languorous rhythms and apparently uneventful daily routine, you may begin to wonder what all the critical fuss is about. I urge you, however, to stick with it, because a startling power emerges from its seemingly nonchalant presentation. By the film's finale, I was shedding tears not only over what I had just seen, but over sights and patches of dialogue from the film's first third that I initially, unfairly disregarded or failed to properly appreciate.
After a single viewing, I already feel dizzy from the memorable moments: Cleo witnessing a terrifying street riot from the confines of a department store's second floor, the violence quickly escalating and forcing her to confront it personally; a field of martial-arts trainees attempting to master a difficult yoga pose that only a warrior – one of whom happens to be Cleo – can pull off; the miraculous tracking shot that follows Cleo from the beachfront to the sand, and then back to the beachfront, and then into the waves, which crash with a threatening ferocity unacknowledged by the camera's serenity. (Cuarón himself served as cinematographer – as well as screenwriter and co-editor – and his work here, on display in lusciously evocative black-and-white, is every bit as graceful and fluid as Emmanuel Lubezki's was for the director in Y Tu Mamá También and Children of Men and Gravity.) And the film, an intimate saga with the scope of an epic, only grows stronger in reflection; I would've finished this review a lot sooner had I not kept going back to my Netflix account to re-watch scenes I was writing about as I was writing about them. With the Oscars and other awards shows soon heading our way, you're going to be hearing a lot more about Roma in the coming months. Give yourself a holiday present and find out what the laurels are about in advance.
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