The Mule


Viewed – 30 January 2019

The last time I watched legendary actor Clint Eastwood would probably be Gran Torino, a movie which has become one of my favourites.  So sitting down to this was with some anticipation and well, would such an actor put himself back in front of the camera again (considering he’s also a respected director) for anything less that something worthwhile?  Let’s see.

The Mule

Eastwood plays Earl, an elderly man who has spent much of his life missing out on important events with his family in favour of growing his horticulture business.  Yet when he falls on hard times and age seems to be finally taking it’s toll, he attempts to reconnect with his loved ones.  However when attending his granddaughter’s engagement party he is approached by a guy offering him the chance to make some money.  All he has to do is drive – something Earl is very experienced in.

This gently observed and absorbing story is anchored by a wonderfully nuanced performance from Eastwood who turns a self-centred, world-weary character into a loveable, charming man who’s adept at turning even the riskiest situation to his favour.  The way he gets in the good books of ruthless Mexican drug dealers, who go from threatening him to befriending him is just a joy to watch.  Add to this the growing relationship he builds with his estranged family, and I was totally invested in what was going on.  Bradley Cooper is on board as a dedicated DEA agent and Diane Weist (remember her?) plays Eastwood’s ex wife.

One character development later in the movie is a touch cliched and some ideas feel a bit out of place despite the humour intended (Eastwood and some hookers?), yet the story expertly juggles an increasingly deadly scenario with emotional and heart-felt family drama that really got in the feels.  A must watch.

Verdict:  5 /5

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Black Mass


Viewed – 22 March 2016  Online rental

I think I’m not alone in being a little tired of Johnny Depp’s over-the-top caricatures in movies like Pirates of the Caribbean and Alice In Wonderland, even if he is often good in those roles.  Occasionally however it’s nice to see him in a more normal acting role, and to some extent this is a perfect vehicle for him.  He plays Boston gangster Jimmy ‘whitey’ Bulger; a ruthless and manipulative thug and leader of a local gang.  One day however an old friend from the neighbourhood comes knocking to ask a favour, who also happens to be an FBI agent out to nail the local Mafia, and soon an awkward alliance is formed.

Black Mass

This gritty and occasionally very violent crime yarn based on true events is well cast and well directed and I was swept up by the realism and atmosphere.  At first it takes a bit of getting used to Depp’s make-up and he stands out a bit compared to the other cast members for this, but thankfully an assured and gradually menacing performance shines through and Depp proves himself equally adept at villainous characters as he is light hearted ones.  Also he’s not the only one who delivers a strong performance as the often underrated Joel Egerton (The Gift) is brilliantly conflicted as an FBI agent in bed with the devil.  Benedict Cumberbatch turns up as Whitey’s politician brother but only adds marginal screen presence, and Kevin Bacon appears as a  very shouty FBI chief.  Yet it’s the uneasy relationship between Depp’s mobster and Egerton’s Fed that carries the movie and proves edge of the seat and powerful with a few moments that genuinely shock (the prostitute).

It may not be as complex or as layered as some crime epics, and how things wrapped up confused me a bit … but overall, I had a very good time with this and those after a decent crime thriller need look no further.

verdict:  4 /5

Donnie Brasco


Viewed – 19 April 2015  Netflix

Sometimes there is a reason you don’t get around to watching a particular movie.  Maybe it’s just passed you by, other movies have caught your interest more … or something is trying to tell you, it’s not really as good as you’ve heard.  This is one such movie.

Donnie-Brasco

Johnny Depp plays undercover FBI agent Donnie Brasco who gets embroiled in the goings on of a gang in New York and gets mentored by aging mobster Lefty (Al Pacino).  Based in a true story this is of course an intriguing set up and makes for at first engrossing viewing.  Pacino this time around isn’t playing the boss, the main guy, but more an always overlooked and fairly disgruntled ‘hood with one eye on a boat trip out of town, and another on the boss’s job.  It’s definitely an interesting change of pace for the usually loud and brash actor.  Depp is the confident, slightly cock-sure guy who thinks he’s got it all under control, as his family life begins to fall apart and he gets pulled further and further into the underworld.  Michael Madsen is on hand as the guy everyone fears and looks up to.

Depp & Pacino’s friendship holds this together well, but isn’t the most convincing, as Lefty seems to take much of Donnie at face value despite many moments that should have lead him to question the guy’s identity.  There is however plenty of tension as Donnie juggles his family life with that of the mob and tries to keep one step ahead of everyone else as the FBI increasingly pressure him for results.

The biggest issue is the supporting cast.  The surrounding actors are plucked from the poor-man’s mob actor barrel, lacking much of the menace or presence of a Joe Pesci or Harvey Keitel.  British director Mike Newell goes for a realistic style and avoids much of the grandeur or energy of other great mob movies like Goodfellas. With only smattering of violence and a script that often felt like it was satirizing the world it was depicting (how many times do we hear ‘forget about it’ ?), something about this just never came to life.  Add an ending that seriously lacked the big pay-off I’d been lead to believe was coming … and I came away rather disappointed.

Verdict:  2.5 /5

American Hustle


Viewed – 02 May 2014  Blu-ray

Kind of a blind purchase this one.  I won’t automatically leap to watch a movie based on it’s awards or nominations or general buzz … been there before and came away disappointed (The Life Of Pie, anyone?).  Yet with a cast consisting of Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner – it seemed an invitation very hard to turn down.

AmericanHustle

Bale is professional con man Irving Rosenfeld, who along with girlfriend Sydney Prosser (Adams) go about scamming art dealers, accountants and pretty much anyone else to make a lot of money.  Business is good until FBI agent Richi DiMaso (Cooper) busts them and offers them a deal – whether go to jail, or have them use their expertise at conning people to help him nail a group of corrupt politicians.

The late 70s setting, the costumes and the atmosphere, all set the tone for an energetic, detailed and very absorbing tale of cons, relationships and who is back stabbing who.  Bale, an actor I’ve felt was starting to get a bit old news these days, is superb in the lead role, sporting what appears to be a very good Robert DeNiro impression (hopefully intended), which is fitting considering this has the pace, the feel (and the narration) of a Martin Scorsese picture.  The cast all get a chance to shine, especially Cooper’s over-eager, charismatic FBI agent … and Adams’ dangerously-sexy Sydney really marks her out as one of the best (and hottest) actresses’ around.  For a hustle movie, despite initial fears I was never left confused as to what was going on, loved every bit of the plan and every comical development … it just all sucked me in like a perfect hustle might, but at least didn’t leave me feeling conned by the end.  No, this was quality filmmaking, with a great cast, a superb soundtrack (Donna Summers’ I Feel Love, Wings’ Live & Let Die…) and genuine name-making direction from the mostly underrated David O Russell.

Essential.

Verdict:  5 /5

The Silence of the Lambs


Viewed – 12 April 2013  Blu-ray

Always nice to revisit a classic, especially on Blu-ray.  I have long loved this Oscar-winning thriller, that for me is still the finest serial killer movie ever made (with Seven being a close second).  Sitting down to this last night it wasn’t hard to see why it gained such acclaim.  The performances are perfect, with a vulnerable but tough Jodie Foster, near unrecognizable in a black hair dye-job (or wig?).  Mentored by Scott Glen’s equally well cast Jack Crawford.  Yet the big selling point for me, and what has gone on to define a career is Anthony Hopkins’ amazingly creepy but charismatic turn as Dr Hannibal Lecter – one of the greatest creations in movie villain history.

silence-of-the-lambs-hannibal-560

Foster plays FBI agent Clarice Starling, given the task of interviewing imprisoned serial killer and former psychiatrist Hannibal Lecter as the FBI attempt to track down currently at large killer Buffalo Bill.  This is a movie that is just as much character study as it is a thriller, with exceptional performances across the board (with a very unnerving Ted Levine as Bill – ‘it puts the lotion in the basket’), and very well observed and realistic direction from Jonathan Demme.    Silence of the Lambs has become the blue-print for all serial killer movies from Seven, to Copycat and even has echoes in current TV series The Following, that for me it just can’t be faulted.  Yes over the years it has been satirized  which I think is a shame, because on its original release this hit viewers hard, and in my opinion still should.

The Blu-ray isn’t quite as impressive.  The picture, whilst acceptable and with moments of good detail, seems overly soft.  The sound in 5.1 DTS Master Audio is decent and punchy however with good crisp dialogue, which is very important in this particular movie.  Extras are mostly carry-overs from the previous DVD editions, but remain extensive with several documentaries and featurettes, trailers, deleted scenes and outtakes.  The only exclusive to this HD release is a feature-length bonus called ‘breaking the silence’ that has the movie playing as interviews with the cast and film makers pop up as well as interesting bits of trivia.  An audio commentary would have been nice but is sadly absent.

Verdict:

(the movie)  5 /5

(the Blu-ray)  3.5 /5