"Everything is as it should be."

                                                                                  - Benjamin Purcell Morris

 

 

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Destroyer: A Review

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***THIS IS A SPOILER FREE REVIEW!! THIS REVIEW CONTAINS ZERO SPOILERS!!***

My Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

My Recommendation: SKIP IT. A rather derivative film and a missed opportunity from Nicole Kidman who doesn’t rise to the challenge of playing the archetypal anti-hero.

Destroyer, written by Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi and directed by Karyn Kusama, is the story of LAPD detective Erin Bell who is haunted by an undercover assignment that went wrong years ago and 17 years later is rearing its ugly head. The film stars Nicole Kidman as Bell with supporting turns from Sebastian Stan, Toby Kebbell and Bradley Whitford.

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While Destroyer spends its time in the all too familiar crime ridden gutters of Los Angeles, the film has much loftier artistic ambitions. Marketed as a gritty character study that highlights Nicole Kidman’s acting chops, Destroyer is hoping to reinvent the the old anti-hero cop drama with a female lead. While all the pieces are in place for this to take place, they never coalesce, and Destroyer ends up being a painfully derivative, dramatically impotent art house wannabe.

The main reason that Destroyer fails to engage is Nicole Kidman. I like and respect Ms. Kidman as an actress, and greatly admire her more daring choices in the second half of her career. Kidman can act, of that there is no doubt, but sometimes a good actor is just so ill-suited for a role that no matter what they do it doesn’t click. Such is the case with Kidman as world weary detective Erin Bell.

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Kidman is a beautiful women, but that beauty can be a curse at times, and Destroyer is one of those times. Kidman is uglied up for the role, given an atrocious haircut, deep and dark bags under her eyes, dirtied teeth…the works. But in the film’s incessant close ups of Ms. Kidman, and boy are there a multitude of incessant close ups, she doesn’t look ugly, she looks like Nicole Kidman trying to look ugly.

The two biggest issues with Ms. Kidman’s performance are her physicality and her voice. The key to the film is that Kidman must be believable as this grizzled and street smart detective, but she never pulls it off because she lacks the necessary physical gravitas. Kidman doesn’t significantly alter her posture or gait, and with her more delicate physical features like her thin legs and arms and impeccable bone structure, she comes across as very wispy and slight.

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Kidman makes the mistake of walking with her feet too close together and with no slouch from the heavy symbolic cross she must carry. She is erect and elegant even as she is supposed to be drunk and slovenly. Finding the right physicality is crucial for a role like this and should start with becoming more grounded and centering her gravity in her chest. Kidman’s center is her heavily made up face, and this creates the impression of her being airy, flighty, weak and inconsequential. Kidman’s voice is equally poorly positioned as it is centered too high in her head/throat and not in her gut. This takes away all of the power from her voice, her body and thus the character.

With her physicality and voice not in sync with the role, the internal emotional life of the character, no matter how dynamic Kidman tries to make it, comes across as hollow and vacant. Kidman certainly pushes for moments of emotional combustibility but when they arrive they are limp and flaccid due to a lack of a powerful and grounded physical foundation.

I greatly admire Kidman’s tackling a role so out of her comfort zone, but sadly she simply doesn’t pull it off and since she is the core of the film, the entire enterprise is scuttled because of her failure.

As for the rest of the film, director Karyn Kusama doesn’t do much more than try and make a female centered lone wolf cop story. Sort of Dirty Harry meets Bad Lieutentent meets Nicole Kidman, which in theory is interesting, but in practice is mired in its own maze of cliche and illogic. There is even a minor homage (or brazen theft) to Bad Lieutenant, a vastly superior film, that involves following a baseball game on the radio. Baseball is a mini-sub-text that could have blossomed into something interesting or profound, but it ends up being something that just comes and goes and like the rest of the film, doesn’t mean much.

Visually the film lacks a distinct aesthetic and therefore feels decidedly flat. While the settings in Los Angeles were mildly interesting to me because I know them so well, they aren’t photographed particularly well or in an intriguing manner so everything is washed out and cinematically lackluster.

That said, the best part of the film was the end, not in terms of the narrative but in terms of the filmmaking. In the final sequences it seems that director Kusama and cinematographer Julie Kirkwood finally find a style and aesthetic worth watching, sort of a poor man’s ( or as the case may be…woman’s) Malick, but by then it is far, far too late to save the movie.

The movie is not aided by the script, which is an amalgam of every gruff and gritty cop story ever told. The cliched dialogue is cringe worthy at times and feels as though it would be better suited as a parody of anti-hero cop movies or something laughed out of the writer’s room of Baretta.

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The cast is pretty underwhelming across the board as well. Toby Kebbell is an actor I really like, but his pseudo-guru, Manson-esque Silas is not given enough time to develop into anything more than caricature. The same is true of the dirty lawyer played by Bradley Whitford, who is remarkably one-note. Sebastian Stan is an interesting actor but he is decidedly underused and his character undeveloped.

In conclusion, I really wanted to like Destroyer and I really wanted Nicole Kidman to be great in it…but neither of those things happened. I give Destroyer an “A” for artistic ambition and a “D +” for execution. I cannot recommend you see this film in the theatre as I found it to be totally forgettable, but if you stumble on it on Netflix or cable feel free to check it out. Destroyer destroyed my cinematic hopes for it, but maybe it’ll fare better with you than it did with me.

©2019

The Mule: A Review

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****THIS IS A SPOILER FREE REVIEW!! THIS REVIEW CONTAINS ZERO SPOILERS!!****

My Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

My Recommendation: SKIP IT. An underwhelming dramatic misfire from Clint Eastwood that never lives up to its intriguing premise or its cinematic promise.

The Mule, written by Nick Schenk and directed by Clint Eastwood, is the true story of Leo Sharp, a war veteran in his late 80’s who becomes a drug courier for a Mexican drug cartel. The film stars Eastwood as Leo, with supporting turns from Bradley Cooper, Dianne Wiest, Michael Pena, Laurence Fishburne and Andy Garcia.

Clint Eastwood is royalty out here in Hollywood, and rightfully so. The reasons for his kingly status are pretty obvious, it is because he has been a huge box office star, a cultural icon and an Oscar winning filmmaker as well as the fact that he has been around forever and has made lots of people lots of money, something which Hollywood REALLY likes.

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As esteemed as Eastwood’s career has been, it is his longevity that has afforded him the ability to be alive while the industry lauds his career accomplishments. For instance, Eastwood won his Best Director Oscar for his genre defining and closing western masterpiece Unforgiven at the age of 62, it felt like the final chapter of a remarkable career. But then Eastwood won Best Director again in 2004 at the age of 74 for the less than award worthy Million Dollar Baby in what most definitely felt like a lifetime achievement award, a gold statuette from Hollywood to say thank you to Clint one more time before he died. But then the unexpected happened again…Clint Eastwood didn’t die. He didn’t fade away. He didn’t retire. To his credit, he kept making movies…and he kept making people money because he was always on time and always on budget, which is the true secret to Tinseltown success.

As great as Eastwood’s Unforgiven was, and it is truly one of the great pieces of cinema, the truth is that this Emperor of Hollywood has no clothes in regards to his later works, which have been decidedly sub-par and shoddy. Yes, he and his movies have won awards and made money, but the bottom line is this, Eastwood’s late career movies haven’t been good films. A good test of this is that you can watch Unforgiven a dozen times over and still come away with something new each time, but if you try and watch any of Eastwood’s later films, like Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby, American Sniper, more than once, you are struck by the glaring lack of craft, skill and artistry on display. His late career films, even ones with a lot of accolades and box office bang, are cinematically tenuous and artistically shallow. All of Eastwood’s golden years movies are paper thin, and upon closer examination reveal themselves to be really shoddy pieces of work.

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A hysterical example of that shoddiness is the infamous fake baby in American Sniper, but the problems with Eastwood films runs much deeper than using a fake baby, it is why he used a fake baby that causes the problem. The fake baby came about because the two babies lined up to shoot that day fell through, so instead of shifting on the fly and rescheduling the baby scenes, Eastwood stubbornly stuck to schedule and budget, and shot with a doll instead of a live baby. What this silly little example shows is that Eastwood is more interested in getting it done (on time and on budget) than getting it done right.

Now, the uninitiated and/or “regular people” might think, “hey, why is getting something done on budget and on time bad?” Well, it isn’t bad in and of itself, and it is a wise move in terms of making a living and making a lot of powerful friends in Hollywood, as a minimal talent like Ron Howard has learned, the problem is when it is craft that is the victim of a strict adherence to budget and time. Think of it this way…what if a construction company building the bridge you drive over every day cared more about being on time and on budget than getting it done right. In that case, cutting corners means the bridge will be structurally unsound and will, over time, collapse…which is a perfect metaphor for Eastwood’s later films, as they are structurally unsound and collapse over time and repeated viewings. You wouldn’t want to drive on that bridge, just like I don’t want to suffer through a shoddy Eastwood film.

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Another problem born out of Eastwood’s adherence to tight schedules and budgets is his preference for doing a minimal amount of takes of each scene. This approach works on a film like Unforgiven because you have a murderer’s row of old pros like Gene Hackman, Morgan Freeman, Richard Harris and Eastwood himself carrying the film. This approach works less well on films like Gran Torino, where Eastwood cast non-actors and amateurs, or American Sniper, where much of the cast were less experienced, less talented and less skilled actors.

Actors with less experience need direction, and direction comes about over the course of a few takes. Eastwood’s hands off approach may keep his schedule and budget in tact, but it also makes his movies feel second rate and amateurish.

What is so frustrating to me is that Eastwood’s films all feel like they SHOULD be good, and in theory they are good as they have good ideas, good stories and often times good actors, but the problem is not in theory but in the execution and in the attention to detail, and that falls on Clint.

The Mule is a perfect example as the story of a 90 year old man working as a drug mule for a cartel is certainly intriguing, and so is the idea of a cultural icon, Dirty Harry or The Man With No Name, playing the role, but it is in the execution where the film stumbles and staggers.

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In The Mule, Eastwood’s weaknesses are on full display, with a notable addition, Eastwood himself is so old at this point, that he himself is not much of an actor anymore, and that is a problem when he is supposed to carry this movie not only as an actor but as a director. It is asking quite a lot for an 88 year old to walk around the block, nevermind muster the energy to act in front of the camera and direct from behind it.

It is for these reasons that The Mule is a bit of a conflicted and underwhelming hodge-podge of a movie. To be fair, The Mule could have been a whole lot worse, but that certainly doesn’t mean it was great or even good. The frustrating thing for me is that The Mule could have been great. Maybe if Eastwood just acted in it and there was a more visionary director at the helm, then it could have risen to worthy heights, but as it is, the film is a disappointment.

Eastwood’s acting is painful to watch. There are moments when he flashes back to being the Outlaw Josey Wales (another great movie) or Dirty Harry for a second, but those glimpses quickly fade into oblivion and are replaced by an actor pushing too much or not enough. Clint never firmly grasps the character, which could be due to the script, and so he staggers around from comedy to tragedy and back again.

Eastwood isn’t helped by the script or by his own directing, both of which leave a lot to be desired. There are some scenes with painfully obtuse exposition, like where Leo, out of the blue, tells a stranger that he has driven all over the country and never…NEVER got a ticket or pulled over. Leo shares this bit of information about five times in less than thirty seconds and then the stranger propositions him to be a drug mule. Yikes.

Leo’s relationship with his wife, kid and grandkid are so hollow their dialogue could echo. There is not a single, genuine, grounded human emotion or encounter in the entire film. Not one. Every interaction rings false and forced.

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The characters are one dimensional card board cutouts, but that would make sense since the plot is equally thin. There are all the usual bad movie tropes in there, the interrogation scene where tough guy cops get a bad guy to flip, the drug lords living their decadent and lavish lifestyle, scantily clad women included, and the family drama of a bitter ex-wife and daughter, and the hope of a new beginning with a granddaughter. The whole movie is painfully predictable and is sort of like a amalgamation of every bad drug movie and family turmoil movie ever made.

Besides Clint, the rest of the cast are less than stellar. Bradley Cooper does the best of the bunch, but even he is hamstrung by a nebulous character. Dianne Wiest does her best, but the script does her no favors. The rest of the cast are pretty dreadful, from the tattoed tough guys to the non-tattoed tough guys to the granddaughter with a heart of gold, none of them seem even remotely believable.

There is one thing that stood out to me about The Mule, and that is that it contains the single worst scene I’ve witnessed in a film this entire year. The scene is not only remarkably poorly executed in terms of the writing, directing, acting and editing, but it is remarkable because it doesn’t need to be in the film at all. I won’t say what scene it is, but I will tell you that it comes very near the end, and you’ll know it when you see it. I audibly groaned when I saw the scene, so much so that my fellow movie goers probably thought I was having a stroke…I should have been so lucky.

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As hard as I am being on this movie, it actually could have been worse, and while a cinephile like me disliked it, people who aren’t quite the film snob I am, will probably enjoy it. For instance, old people love to go to the movies, and they love to see other old people in movies. So old people will probably like this movie since they get to watch someone who is most likely older than they are star in a movie. In fact, as I entered the theatre for my screening, a decrepit old lady, probably in her late 80’s, grabbed my arm as I walked past her and stopped me just to tell me “you’ll love the movie…it’s really great.” I didn’t know this woman and had no idea why she needed to share that with me or why she felt it was ok to grab my arm, but obviously she felt strongly about the film. I would love to share my review with her and hear her counter argument, but sadly, even after passionately and expertly making out with her for the majority of the movie, I never once thought to get her name or number….such is the glamorous life of an internet film critic.

In conclusion, The Mule is a formulaic film that looks and feels more like a made for tv movie than a piece of serious cinema. I am a fan of Clint Eastwood, and he is one of the all-time greats in this business, but his acting and directing fastball left him long ago, so much so that he is basically throwing a slow-pitch meatball up to the plate with The Mule. The movie is so rough around the edges and so soft in the middle that it ultimately fails to deliver much drama or any cinematic punch. If you are curious about it or are an avid fan of Eastwood, feel free to check out The Mule when it comes out on cable or Netflix for free, but avoid paying to see it at the theatre because you’ll end up feeling like The Mule kicked you in the head and stole your hard earned money if you do.

©2018

If Beale Street Could Talk: A Review

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****THIS IS A SPOILER FREE REVIEW!!! THIS REVIEW CONTAINS ZERO SPOILERS!!****

My Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars

My Recommendation: SKIP IT. A Beautiful mess of a movie that is gorgeous to look at but story wise is derivative and dull, making it difficult to sit through.

If Beale Street Could Talk, written and directed by Barry Jenkins, is an adaptation of the James Baldwin story of the same name that follows the travails of two African-Americans, Tish and Fonny, as they navigate the perils of young love in a racist New York City of the 1970’s. The film stars Kiki Layne as Tish and Stephon James as Fonny with supporting turns from Regina King and Brian Tyree Henry .

If Beale Street Could Talk, director Barry Jenkin’s much anticipated follow up to his 2016 Best Picture winning Moonlight, is another in a long line of disappointments on the very bumpy ride of cinema in 2018.

Based on the James Baldwin story of the same name (which I have not read), If Beale Street Could Talk is a beautiful mess of a movie. It is at once visually stunning yet also narratively pedestrian and culturally juvenile.

Let’s start with the good news. Cinematographer James Laxton delivers an impeccably lush and cinematically vibrant aesthetic to the film. Laxton’s camera engages in an exquisite dance with his subjects while painting the world of the film with a delicate and ethereal palate that is not only gorgeous to behold but narratively profound. Laxton’s work on Moonlight was equally sublime and dramatically insightful, and with If Beale Street Could Talk, Laxton has shown himself to be not only a master craftsman but a powerful artist.

Sadly, Barry Jenkins script never lives up to Laxton’s stirring cinematography. Jenkins inability to write efficient and effective dialogue and build a coherent and compelling narrative make If Beale Street Could Talk a frustratingly uneven and ultimately unsatisfying film to watch.

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When Jenkins (and Laxton) flashes back and focuses on the blossoming first love of Tish and Fonny, the film crackles with life. The chemistry between actors Kiki Layne (Tish) and Stephon James (Fonny) in these flashback scenes is palpable, and Laxton superbly bathes them in gorgeous light, shadow and color as he lets the viewer see the characters as they see each other, through the prism of unabashed love.

It is when the film shifts to the present moment and its drama of “legal peril”, which is decidedly stale and stultifying with cringe worthy dialogue to match, when the wheels come of the cinematic wagon. An example of which is that there is a scene between Tish and Fonny’s families that is so poorly written, poorly directed and poorly acted that it was like watching kids put on a play…a very bad play…in their basement.

The “legal peril” storyline is so trite, hackneyed and derivative it seems like it was lifted from an episode of Law and Order or some equally awful television show. Anytime the focus of the film shifts to the legal story and its adjacent narratives, it serves as little more than an irritating distraction.

The film is equally abysmal when it tries to convey a political or socially conscious message. When Jenkins tries to use the movie as a statement on race in America, it reveals itself to be, at best, painfully adolescent in its cosmology.

Ironically, in its social themes, If Beale Street Could Talk is as much an unnuanced distorted Black view of America as Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry is a unnuanced distorted view of America through the White perspective. Both film’s are little more than wish fulfillment and fantasies driven by archetypes deeply embedded in the American psyche. In the case of Dirty Harry, it is the archetypal Righteous Gun Slinging Vigilante, who is part of the system but operates outside of it to protect Whites from those lawless “others”, most notably Blacks (think of the “you feel lucky” scene, where Dirty Harry points his .44 Magnum in the face of a “Black criminal”).


In If Beale Street Could Talk, the thematic archetype is one of the Righteous Victim (think of Fonny as the young Black criminal with Dirty Harry’s .44 in his face), who is oppressed by the system and must operate outside of it in order to survive it. In this way, If Beale Street Could Talk is social justice/victimhood porn and propaganda, which on its surface claims to be about speaking the truth of the Black perspective in America, but in reality is about reinforcing and strengthening the victim archetype and narrative.

What is striking to me about this aspect of the film, is that it also reinforces the racist tropes that fueled the Dirty Harry era to begin with and which eventually led to Clinton’s infamous crime bill in the 90’s which further criminalized Black men. For instance, the lead character Fonny which, along with Tish, is whom the viewer is supposed to identify with, and yet when we first learn about Fonny, he commits a crime, theft. Fonny’s lawlessness is not even given a second thought, but in the narrative structure of the film it subconsciously undermines the audiences connection to him to a devastating degree. This is not some personal revelation from me, this is just Cinema 101: Basic Storytelling and Character Development.

The same is true of the other Black men in the movie, all of whom are equally lawless and all of whom commit crimes. Fonny’s father steals from the docks, and his pseudo father in law not only steals but beats the hell out of his wife…and yet these men are supposed to represent “regular Black men”.

Add to that Fonny’s friend Daniel who is fresh out of prison, and just like Fonny claims he is entirely innocent of the charges against him. Apparently Fonny and Daniel are the two guys who really didn’t do it…even though we’ve already seen Fonny commit a crime and Daniel’s sketchy reputation precedes him.

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While all of the Black men in the film are criminals, none of them take responsibility for their criminality. The crimes they commit are all the fault of the system that is screwing them, thus demeaning these men even further as they are deprived of any and all agency. This is the Victim archetype in full bloom, where no matter what the character does it is never their fault. This is an extremely unsatisfying quality in a cinematic Hero, as it simply castrates the Hero and asks the audience to pity them rather than relate or project on to them. It also does not allow for any catharsis on the part of the character, and that in turn doesn’t allow for any catharsis on the part of the viewer, which results in a psychologically frustrating movie-going experience.

Consider other Hero stories where the Hero is brought down by a corrupt system…movies like Braveheart, where William Wallace ultimately loses, but he goes down swinging, screaming “Freedom” at the top of his lungs as he is torn to shreds. Or think of a parallel for the Fonny character to maybe the best known Hero story of them all…Jesus Christ. Jesus is persecuted, just like Fonny, but the key to the Jesus story is that he has agency and chooses to be crucified….thus becoming Christ. Jesus is the empowered form of the Victim archetype…which is the martyr, who is victim by choice. The choice here is the important thing as it means the Hero may suffer a terrible defeat but he still maintains his agency. In contrast, the perpetually disempowered Fonny is just laundry being tossed and turned in a washing machine, who never chooses but always loses.

In terms of the criminality of the characters in the film, there are other contrasting examples, think of The Godfather or Goodfellas. The mobsters in those movies do awful things to people and yet audiences relate to them and embrace them as “Heroes” of the story, why is that? The reason for that is because those characters, from Michael Corleone to Henry Hill, embrace their criminality. They maintain their agency and don’t claim to be victims of the system, instead they are gaming the system.

These details in the DNA of If Beale Street Could Talk may seem minute to the less sophisticated viewer, but it is these specific elements that can make or break a film and its narrative in the unconscious of the audience. In the case of If Beale Street Could Talk, these subtle archetypal issues deter viewers from fully accepting and embracing the characters, story and film.

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It isn’t just the Black men who fair poorly in If Beale Street Could Talk, as White men are portrayed as truly devils in this movie. White men are sexual predators (again, the inverse of the Dirty Harry movie where Black men are predators) and are inherently evil, from a lecherous perfume shopper to a cop who is so consumed with racial hatred he comes across as more than a little insane. For the White characters in this movie, just like Black characters in Dirty Harry, they are entirely devoid of nuance and are absurd caricatures. Even White characters we never see are predators, as there is one who impregnates a poor Latina women and then leaves her with nothing, and then maybe even returns to rape her.

It is for these reasons that If Beale Street Could Talk is just as insidious and insipid as the blatantly racist Dirty Harry movies.

As for the acting, Stephon James and Kiki Layne are glorious in their falling in love sequences. Laxton’s camera holds on their loving gazes for extended periods and their love for one another is tangible in these shots. But when they are asked to do more than just look longingly and lovingly at one another, the two stars lose much of their power.

James is a charismatic screen presence, but he seems rather limited when it comes to the more static shots. James is unable to compress his magnetism and dynamism when he is contained in such a confining space and he loses his power because of it.

Kiki Layne is quite engaging during the dreamy love sequences as well, but she too falls well short when things get much more complicated. Layne’s strong suit is her ability to seem to be overcome by her wonder for the world, but when the world stops being wondrous, she stops being interesting and starts being wooden.

Regina King does solid work as Tish’s mom, but she is hamstrung by being stuck in the intolerably mundane legal drama portion of the story, and while she is a compelling actress, none of her scenes are particularly noteworthy.

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If Beale Street Could Talk, which may be the second most mis-leading title in the history of cinema right behind The Never Ending Story because Beale Street is never seen in the movie and all the action takes place in New York (I am kidding, the title is explained in the opening, but still…I found it funny), is another in a long line of films that underwhelmed in 2018. Barry Jenkins (and his cinematographer James Laxton) has a distinct and luscious visual flair to his work, but his storytelling and character development need serious work. Therefore I can only recommend this film to the most committed of cinephiles who would want to see the cinematography on the big screen. For everyone else, there is no reason to see this in the theatre, but if you stumble upon it on cable one night or on Netflix, feel free to check it out if you like, and tell me if I am wrong or not.

In conclusion, if Beale Street could talk, I’d tell it to shut up because while it talks a lot and does so in a beautifully melodious and mellifluous visual voice, it actually doesn’t say a whole hell of a lot, and what little it does have to say is so vapid and vacuous that it has no value whatsoever.

©2018