THE MULE – HARD EARNED ADVICE FROM CLINT EASTWOOD

AUDIO PODCAST OPTION OF THE MULE REVIEW

SHORT TAKE:

Rough but insightful view of the true story of an 88 year old man’s experiences as a mule for a drug cartel, with some autobiographical overtones for Eastwood in the foolish sacrifice the main character makes of his family in preference for his business life.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Adults only for language, topics, and environments which include wild parties, drugs and scantily clad prostitutes.

LONG TAKE:

SPOILERS

I admire those who make movies that are completely politically incorrect. It takes great big brass bowling, base, golf, and basket ones to do so in this day and age. And that’s what I love about Clint Eastwood – and he must have a large collection of sports equipment. At the age of 88, with a repertoire of films including cultish Spaghetti Westerns like The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, action icons like Dirty Harry, directorial accomplishments like American Sniper, even comedies like Paint Your Wagon (did you know before The Mule he could sing…well carry a tune) and masterpieces which he has directed and starred in like  Gran Torino and Unforgiven, I do not think Clint Eastwood has anyone to prove himself to or fear but God.

There is a wise saying: If you can’t be a good example, be a horrible warning, and Eastwood’s main character, Earl, is that person who, by his own warning, is not someone whose behavior you would want to adhere.

The Mule is about an elderly man, Earl Stone who, at the end of his rope financially and anxious to make amends with his estranged family, becomes a transport for a cartel of drug dealers. Earl has spent his love and devotion on an ultimately unsuccessful day lily nursery instead of his family. With this in mind, the movie becomes a horrible warning against living a misdirected life with the day lily as a wonderful symbol of the brevity of our time on Earth which, like our lives, blooms for a day then fades.

While Earl’s motives in the movie may be noble and the money he earns is spent on worthwhile events: his daughter’s wedding and the renovation of the local Veterans Lodge, it does not excuse his participation as one of the links in the drug trade which destroyed so many other people’s lives, even as he was reinvigorating his own. The story is based upon the real life Leo Sharp, featured in a New York Times article by Sam Dolnick.

I heard it speculated that there was an element of autobiography for Eastwood in this story. Not that Mr. Eastwood has ever conveyed illegal pharmaceuticals for Mexican drug lords, but that Eastwood, much like the character he portrays, in his pursuit for fame, financial security and business success may have felt he traded his family life for an ambitious career. It is a fine line to walk, between working hard to care for your family and to trade your family for your work.

Eastwood is a fine character actor, who has made a career of portraying the same interesting, likeable character in a wide variety of movies. There’s little difference among the likes of the cheroot chewing Blondie in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, looking down the barrel of the very big gun of Inspector Calahan in the Dirty Harry franchise, the singing Pardner in Paint Your Wagon, the scheming eponymous character in Kelly’s Heroes, the stubborn but surprisingly kind Walt Kowalsski in Grand Torino or Earl in The Mule. All of them face the world with the same gritty, teeth grinding, begrudgingly amused side long view. All of them are tough guys who mean well at their core even when doing something they know is wrong. All are portrayed with the gravel-voiced determination of a man with whom you do not want to cross swords.

But in The Mule, Eastwood is willing to openly show the fragility of his old age which, even so, does not stop either Earl, the Mule or Eastwood, the director, from soldiering on in this slice of life movie.

The acting is wonderful. Dianne Wiest portrays his wife, Mary, with all the intimacy of betrayal in a failed marriage between two people who have loved each other for decades. Bradley Cooper plays the determined DEA agent who pursues Earl to the exclusion of family events, and in this way discovering, perhaps in time, he has much to learn from the misaligned Earl. And Andy Garcia portrays the deceptively likeable drug lord Laton.

If this happens to be the last movie the aging Eastwood is in, it would be a fitting denouement and ties in some of his most recent accomplishments. For example, Cooper, who plays the DEA agent in pursuit of Earl, and Eastwood, worked together before on American Sniper. Eastwood had once offered to direct Cooper again in Cooper’s then planned remake of A Star is Born, but Cooper wasn’t ready for the role. Eastwood later encouraged Cooper to direct A Star is Born himself and history was made with that interesting film, which I reviewed here.

In another tie-in with old friends, the credit’s song, Don’t Let the Old Man In, was written expressly for this movie by Eastwood’s friend and golf buddy Toby Keith, inspired by a comment Eastwood made to Keith about how to keep going despite age. Keith wrote and sang the tune as a demo and sent Eastwood a copy. So anxious was Keith to have Eastwood hear it that Keith sang it while struggling with a bad cold. Eastwood loved the rough, dark, weary feel of it and used it exactly as Keith had recorded it for the movie.

And most touching, Eastwood’s own real life daughter Alison came out of acting retirement at the behest of her Dad to play Iris, Earl’s estranged daughter.  Alison commented in one interview that the most difficult part of playing Iris was pretending to be estranged from the man who played her character’s father, her own Dad.

Filmed with a certain fatalistic feel, knowing this can not end well, we ride along and are seduced into empathizing with the amoral Earl as he bounces from attending his granddaughter’s wedding to a multi-hooker party at his cartel boss’ mansion.

Other reviewers have noted that Eastwood, with Mule, is signaling his bestowal upon Bradley Cooper of his outre mantle, a blessing of sorts to Cooper, the accomplished and busy actor and director who still finds the time, energy and whimsical playfulness to bring Rocket’s voice from Guardians of the Galaxy to life.

In medical school there is a name given to the prize for the student who made the top grade in Anatomy – “The Ball and Chain”. The implication being that you have set yourself up for a high bar to continue to have to leap over. In The Mule there is a telling and touching scene where Earl, the mule which Cooper’s character, Colin Bates, has been doggedly pursuing, sits down next to Colin in a diner. Colin has no idea who Earl is, so underestimated is Earl for the better part of 10 years of drug running because of his age and otherwise clean record. Earl knows who Colin is and proceeds to give what appears to be off hand advice about not committing himself to his career to the exclusion of his family. In retrospect was this Earl to Colin or Clint to Bradley…or both?

I find it courageous that Eastwood not only exposes his own human aged physical frailty to an audience which has grown up and grown old watching him move from an action hero to an increasingly fragile man, but makes himself vulnerable to inquiries about his own interpersonal failures. Much like most in Hollywood he has had his share of failed relationships and left a trail of at least 7 children.  And it takes a measure of brave self-perception to admit, even if only tangentially, that you may have failed to do your best to put your familial ties ahead of your own ambitions.

While not for a younger crowd due to topics, language, and sexuality, for the adult crowd it is a fascinating examination of how easy it is, one daily mistake at a time, to lead your life down a long wrong path in a way that can do permanent and irreparable damage to those you might find too late you love most.

Kudos to Mr. Eastwood. And while I hope this is not his last film, if it is, it is not a bad bookend to his cinematic legacy, and a fitting epitaph to a man whose devotion to and accomplishments for the cinematic world, have been remarkable, even if it may have come at great personal sacrifice.

GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY 2 – STRANGEST HOMESCHOOLING FAMILY… EVER

Every homeschooling family is unique. Some raise farm animals. Some attend symphony concerts. Some are heavily into sports. And one —– saves the galaxy. And most important to the homeschool family is — the father. I’ve said this before in other blogs, but I am happy to have the opportunity to say it again: A father (or father figure) in a family is irreplaceable and essential to a child’s development unless you want that child SERIOUSLY screwed up. No movie of recent history exemplifies this point more than the most recent Guardians of the Galaxy installment. I get that some families must persevere without a father – BUT given the vital role a father has in the home it is imperative that fatherless homes finds a wholesome father figure role model – brother, grandfather, priest, friend. Someone who can be turned to for counsel and, when needs be, protection.

While Guardians of the Galaxy 2 is one of the most entertaining movies I have seen in a long time, there are serious underlying themes.

Please understand that the analysis below of the rather sobering themes explored in Guardians is not meant to imply that this is not a fun, funny, uplifting romp of a movie. I know the expression “feel good film” is more overused than “blockbuster” but you really WILL feel good when you come out. The movie is comedic, warm, and friendly, though a BIT too mature for the under 13 crowd. The violence is extensive but cartoonish and richly deserved by the recipients. No one takes themselves too seriously and tongue is planted firmly in cheek. I mean, how can you miss it when one of the characters is named EGO.

BEYOND HERE BE MASSIVE SPOILERS!!!!!!!!!!! FOR BOTH GUARDIANS!!!

I hate giving spoilers, so if you haven’t seen either of the Guardians movies wait to read this blog. But in order to do justice to the analysis of Guardians I have to get into spoiler-detail territory. If you continue – well, you’ve been warned. In addition, some of my comments rely on some short hand which only those who have seen the films will fully get.

On the homeschooling issue – it would have been easy to justify placing Baby Groot (YES! Still voiced by Vin Diesel) in some kind of protective custody environment. The hazards routinely taken by Baby Groot’s family of risk taking super hero parent/sibling models would have given the willies to the Flying Wallendas. Instead they work together to provide for the needs of Baby Groot, to nurture, protect and teach him all the while carrying on with killing scary critters and taking on fleets of homicidal bad guys. No one will watch your child the way you do. Your child is safer with you in a hazardous situation than they are with paid strangers in a “safe” environment.

And integral to the successful homeschooling home, ideally, is the father.

The importance of a good father in the healthy upbringing of a child is featured in this Guardians sequel both for daughters as well as sons. Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) is “kidnapped” (and I’ll explain the quotes shortly) by Yondu (Michael Rooker) instead of returned to Peter’s appropriately named father, Ego, as Yondu had been paid to do. And so Peter was raised without his biological father. Ego, (Kurt Russell) presents himself to Peter, first, as a loving father, happily and finally reunited with the son he was denied by Yondu. In fact Ego has deliberately “seeded” himself both physically into the various planets he has visited as well as bred with many species across the galaxy in order to come up with the perfect child with which he can eliminate all life forms other than himself. He justifies this because he, himself, as far as he could tell, just “popped” into existence and has been traveling around, aimlessly, for millions of years – much like V-Ger in the first Star Trek movie, gaining a lot of knowledge but, it seems, very little wisdom. And with almost limitless power but without the guidance of a good father, Ego has become the embodiment of his name.

After thousands, or perhaps even millions, of attempts, Peter is Ego’s first progeny who is able to share Ego’s abilities. The others were killed in the trial process or murdered and discarded – we are never made clear on this creepy point. And – to make Ego even more evil – in order to stay true to his own perverted course, to sever all ties to anything which might distract him, he murders Peter’s mother by deliberately placing the tumor in her brain that kills her.

So – this heartless, selfish, sensualist alien playboys himself around the universe, wooing women in order to bed them, impregnating them, then abandons them and abuses the children. If this sounds more familiar than it should it’s because it is the repetitious refrain of almost every domestic abuse scenario in pretty much every single daily paper we read. While the story in Guardians is glamored up with a lot of extremely fun sci fi, that is exactly what happens. Boyfriend (not husband, mind you), impregnates a woman then returns, if at all, only to abuse the child and batter then kill the mother. While Ego doesn’t beat Peter’s mother, I would say that infesting her with a brain tumor definitely qualifies as battery.

It is interesting that the character of Ego is played by Kurt Russell, an actor who made his name as a child actor portraying family friendly, father supported characters. In all his cinematic years he seems to know how to demonstrate the need for a good father by showing us one with no fatherly attributes.   

Ironically Ego is seeking “meaning” to his life. And cleverly, Peter expresses the thought about Gamora and Yondu that: “Sometimes the thing you want most is right next to you all the time.” The meaning Ego seeks he had found in Quill’s mother and the children he had bred. But he rejected all of them to serve is own enormous —– Ego.

Meanwhile, the sisters Gamora (Zoe Saldana, who also plays Uhura in the Star Trek reboot) and Nebula (Karen Gillian, unrecognizable under all the cybernetics from her stint as Amy Pond in the Matt Smith incarnation of Dr. Who Duke it out both physically and verbally until it is revealed that Nebula’s cyborg implants are the result of her losses to Gamora in fights when they were children. Every time she was defeated by Gamora in the combats set up by their father, Thanos, he would perform grisly replacement surgeries on her – arm, spine, eye – purportedly to make her stronger. Once again, the warped relationship with the father mangles these women physically and emotionally, pitting them against each other in a twisted desire to glorify himself under the guise of “strengthening” them.

Once again, it all comes down to the father.

And if this weren’t enough, both Yondu and Rocket (Bradley Cooper) admit to each other that they were betrayed by THEIR “father figures” – Yondu by his parents who sold him into slavery and Rocket by those who created him only to torture him with genetic engineering. Rocket is another example, like Gamora and Nebula, of parent figures who try to warp their “child” into images of themselves. Yondu is another example of the abandoned child.

In the course of the film it is explained that Yondu did not kidnap Peter but, like a reformed abortionist, could no longer stomach what was happening to the children he was delivering to Ego and decided to take Peter as his own, hide him from Ego and raise him the best way he knew how. Being a pirate that fathering took some unusual turns but it is made clearly evident that Peter was, indeed, the recipient of some solid mentoring and fathering, given the hero he becomes.

As another counter to Ego’s bad father example, Drax nostalgically grieves for the daughter he has lost. And then there is Groot – who steals EVERY-SINGLE-SCENE he is in. Every member of the crew functions in a parental or sibling way. Peter tells him to put on his seat belt before going into combat, Gamora cautions him to get out of the way during a firefight then humors him with a smile and wave. Drax and Rocket carry him on their shoulders, Rocket offers everything he has to the pirates who kidnap them just to ensure Groot’s survival, yet in other scenes Rocket listens carefully while Groot explains the origin of his discomfort with people who wear hats – all during a prison break, then later Rocket warns Groot that they will have to work on Groot’s tendency to use bad language (which we, of course, never hear because all he says are inflected variations of “I am Groot”). Groot’s healthy nurturing is underlined again in one of the post-credit scenes where Peter confronts a surly now-teenaged Groot sulking in his room with a computer game and Peter quips: “Now I know how Yondu felt,” acknowledging both his recognition of Yondu as his real father and the frustration of every parent at some point in the relationship between parent and adolescent child. These guys all demonstrate the importance of “being there” at the opportune moments in a child’s life when they need to be heard or chastized or sheltered or comforted or just held. And these moments are lost when a child is institutionally schooled.

This is the most eccentric homeschooling family since Gomez and Morticia decided that Wednesday and Pugsly weren’t getting the background important to the Aadams’ family traditions. But Groot — well —- blossoms (pun intended) beautifully under the care of the Guardians.

So, basically, what we have with Guardians is a super entertaining action adventure sci fi covering up a yin and yan of parenting and showing an unusual but thriving homeschool family. On the one hand you have the archetypal examples of bad father figures, represented by Ego and Thanos, who use their children instead of love them. On the other you have good parenting of the Guardians, who, ironically, represent almost every example of victims of bad parenting: abandoned, orphaned, abused, neglected, and used as extensions of their parents’ “Egos”, each of our crew has issues but rise above them to do their best to parent — Groot.

Yondu does his best to be a father substitute to Peter and makes the ultimate parental sacrifice of his life. Drax was brutally stripped of his children but becomes a protector to the other Guardians. All the abused children, from Yondu to Rocket, step up to do a better job with Groot, the child with which Fate has entrusted them. And we know Groot is in good hands because of the way they interact with him. One example of this bond is that the crew, despite the fact all Groot ever says is “I am Groot,” understands exactly, often in complex detail, what Groot is saying.

And this is what makes Guardians more than just another fun but forgettable adventure flick. The Guardians of the Galaxy are wonderful examples of how we can each do our own part to save the galaxy – one child at a time.