Wednesday 28 June 2023

The Unusual Clint Eastwood Crime Drama The Mule Needs A Closer Examination

The Unusual Clint Eastwood Crime Drama The Mule Needs A Closer Examination
I was recently sent this wonderful, reflective piece on The Mule (2018) written by Anthony Crislip for /Film. I thought that it may take a little longer for someone to reassess this film and to perhaps focus on some of the film’s merits. In general, initial reviews were rather mixed and some arguably missed a few key elements. I think Crislip gets the balance just about right here, and perhaps offers a much fairer overview of the movie, and thought it was worthy of posting here. 
My kindest thanks to our friend James Anthony Phillips for submitting this piece. 

To look at the trailer for Clint Eastwood's 2018 film "The Mule" is to get a major impression of the story's stark, moral tone. The nearly monochromatic high-contrast photography complements the criminal journey one old man undertakes out of need. The implied consequences to those choices and to his becoming a drug mule for a cartel are fierce. The story seems contemplative and tragic, with nothing hopeful to come out of it. It's even based on a true story — that of Leo Sharp, the oldest drug runner in the world, who was arrested in 2011.

In short, "The Mule" looked like a Clint Eastwood movie, like any of the deeply solemn genre pieces he has put out since 2003's "Million Dollar Baby," with a little bit of contemporary "Breaking Bad" flare. Clint Eastwood has never struggled with playing taciturn, morally conflicted men whose glare masks the deep emotions underneath. Playing the titular mule would be right up his wheelhouse, and the movie would be all the better if Eastwood could summon the gravitas of his best directorial efforts.
But that's not exactly the movie "The Mule" ended up being. Even the character-based racism of Eastwood's 2008 film "Gran Torino," which would have been expected in a movie where the Eastwood character mostly interacts with people from Mexico, is largely absent. With the solid, sturdy one-take directorial style that has become Eastwood's trademark, it's a much more casual and breezy affair, a low-key and often very funny meditation on how one reflects on their life near the end of it.
Given the movie's recent arrival and success on Netflix, it warrants a second look, telling a complex story not just in the morality of its main character, but in larger questions about legacy, nobility, and survival in the 21st century.

A man looks back:
The question posed by "The Mule" is a simple one, one that Clint Eastwood has asked throughout his directorial career, most notably in Westerns he's starred in like "The Outlaw Josey Wales," "Pale Rider," and "Unforgiven." It's all about whether a man can truly move on from the misdeeds of his past, and what kind of actions can be justified by the search for redemption. When "The Mule" is at its best, it's dealing directly with the consequences of its hero's life, handing the emotional nuance of the story with the same delicate hand that he uses on his flowers.
Even at the movie's outset, Earl Stone (Eastwood) is quickly established as never having really been there for his family. In the 2005-set prologue, he misses his daughter's wedding for a Daylily convention at a hotel, resignedly buying a round for a stranger's wedding party at the hotel bar. As his daughter Iris (Alison Eastwood, Clint's daughter) panics, Earl works the room. Iris's mother Mary (Dianne Wiest) is frank, talking about how Earl always chose work over his family.
Earl likes strangers, and he's exactly the kind of charming old man who can befriend anybody in a room. But he has nothing like a lasting connection, and years later, when his loving granddaughter's on the cusp of getting married, he gets shouted out of the house at the rehearsal dinner.
His industry has been gutted by the internet, and he is left with nothing. No home, no family, no legacy. Not even the nice, charming suit he used to wear to conventions. With so little in the way of opportunities, why not become a drug mule?

The true story:
That was more or less what happened with Leo Sharp, whose own horticulturist turned drug-runner journey, as told by the New York Times in 2014, formed the basis of "The Mule." Sharp was able to move vast amounts of narcotics for the Sinaloa Cartel for over a decade, not getting arrested until 2011. "The Mule" shortens that timeframe for the sake of storytelling economy, but it draws on one of the central features of the Leo Sharp saga.
In the movie, Earl picks up drug running when, low on funds, he is spotted by a young Cartel-affiliated man at his granddaughter's wedding rehearsal. Seeing how easily this unassuming man could evade law enforcement, he tells Earl about an opportunity, using intentionally vague language, and Earl accepts with surprising naiveté.
As a clean-cut old white veteran with a spotless driving record and a winning smile, Leo Sharp never really faced suspicion when driving his truck through the country, and the movie milks a lot of humor and suspense from Earl's similar situations. To the police he just seems too nice, too oblivious, and frankly, too old to be involved with anything like that. In any other Clint Eastwood movie, the situation might be played with more intensity, but "The Mule" leans into the character's inherent likability. There's a reason Earl often gets compared to Jimmy Stewart.
The same thing happens when he ingratiates himself to the Cartel, many of whom mock his doddering nature, but just as many of whom love him for it. Like Leo, Earl's elderly charm leads to him becoming known to the Cartel as Tata (as a reference to his paternal nature). According to the New York Times, Sharp's reputation as a horticulturist was such that at his peak, in his 70s, an acquaintance called him a "stud" with "70-year-old swagger." Earl definitely has that.

Old man swagger:
Some of the funniest scenes of Clint Eastwood's filmography come from Earl's dealings with the Cartel. He naturally tries to turn the other cheek any time it becomes clear what he's gotten himself involved in, and his respectable old man shtick is blown to pieces when it comes in contact with gangsters. Early on, when he comes back to the garage for his second mission, he's given a new phone, after having already received a flip phone for his first mission. The drug dealer snaps it, and Earl is aghast, saying, "That was a perfectly good phone!" In return, they call him "big poppa." When they have to follow him on the road, they eventually learn the jazz standards he listens to all the time.
Earl takes a great deal of pride in his work, and, to be fair, Clint Eastwood's filmmaking makes it seem like remarkably pleasant labor. The violence that is typical of media about Cartels, gangsters, and drug dealing is largely absent here, because all Earl has to do is drive. So we hang out with him on those long drives, seeing him eat snacks while driving flat, country routes, listening to jazz. The movie dispenses with any "Breaking Bad"- esque thriller plot mechanics for something a lot warmer.
Rather than build out a personal fortune, all Earl really does with his newfound drug money is help how he can. After paying off his house and paying for the open bar at his granddaughter's wedding, he pays for renovations for the local VFW building.
The movie incorporates parties often, almost like Earl's regular reward for his work. Seeing Earl happily dancing at the newly renovated VFW building to Mollie B and Her Polka Band is priceless.

Plot matter:
"The Mule" has room for more than just wedding parties and VFW parties. Its most famous scene is probably the notorious cartel party sequence in which Earl ends up having a threesome with two much younger women. And that's not even the first threesome Earl has in the movie — the first time is when Julio (Ignacio Serricchio) follows him along for a trip, and can't believe everything he sees this man doing instead of simply transporting the drugs. How could Earl pull over to help a family change a tire? How could he "stop to see an old friend," as Julio recounts to his boss Latón (Andy Garcia)?
That's why he's able to evade arrest for as long as he can. The movie's weakest moments concern the DEA mission to capture Earl, who's a total mystery. Drug lords and Cartel leaders might draw attention, but Earl is entirely too innocuous, and the nature of the investigation feels dry and indifferently directed, without Earl's road movie shenanigans. Even Bradley Cooper's performance as Agent Bates, with the actor teaming up with Clint Eastwood again after a career best performance in 2014's "American Sniper," can't make the material click. The same could be said of the Cartel intrigue, which often feels like watered-down "Breaking Bad," especially when Latón is killed and ultimately replaced by Gustavo (Clifton Collins Jr.).
But the emphasis on Earl is where the movie shines. Earl adopts a fatherly pose with Julio, offering him unsolicited advice to get out of the Cartel, even telling him that "they don't care about you." While it's a touching scene, there is something unspoken in the fact that he's never really been involved in his actual daughter's life.

Earl can pay for his granddaughter's wedding and show up at her graduation, but there is a bitter irony to all of this happening at his old age, and only through criminal work. The things he can do to finally make amends with his family will also tear him away from them. Clint Eastwood told USA Today that he could understand Earl's predicaments, even if only from being an older man.
Like Earl, Eastwood has had a troubled personal life, as documented in Patrick McGilligan's highly critical biography "Clint: The Life and Legend." The vague autobiographical feeling in the movie, of an older man looking back at what he's left in his life, is helped by Eastwood casting his real daughter to play his movie daughter.
New cartel leader Gustavo refuses to give Earl the grace and loose leash that Latón did, and is significantly more threatening, having his men drive Earl out to the woods to let him know, in no uncertain terms, the consequences of failure. "No uncertain stops," one enforcer tells him, taking whatever joy and pleasure he might have gotten from the work away. Instead, he must follow the routes down to the letter. "Don't be stupid."
But Earl can't help but be stupid, leaving a crucial job to visit his dying ex-wife Mary, ultimately choosing reuniting with his estranged family over the job. If not one of the greatest Clint Eastwood movie moments, it is one of the most touching.
He is finally arrested soon after, having angered the cartel and given the DEA ample room to catch him. In prison, having redeemed himself in the eyes of his family, he is given one final grace note: the chance to practice horticulture while locked up.

21st century moviemaking:
In "The Mule," transactional relationships tend to take priority, but the movie emphasizes how a handful of selfless moves can leave a positive mark on others, and offer people something like redemption.
There is a sense of things falling into disrepair throughout "The Mule," whether it's in the gradual collapse of institutions like the VFW building or the larger feeling that people like Earl can't make it anymore without extreme measures. Meanwhile, men like Gustavo, interested more in lining their pockets than building community and lives of their own, have taken over the business. A world that, at least in the movie, was once predicated on extending grace and personal connection now rests exclusively in the hands of bloodthirsty capitalists.
The kinds of adult-oriented movies that Clint Eastwood built his career on have largely fallen out of favor with studios, if not general audiences. With the goal being short-term profits over a substantial body of work, why should any major studio waste money on the kinds of small-scale, achingly human movies Eastwood makes? After the muted response to his 2021 film "Cry Macho," Clint Eastwood was shunned by Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav, who dismissed the studio's long-running friendly relationship with the filmmaker with the classic line, "It's not show friends, it's show business."
Earl made flowers all his life, and Clint Eastwood has made films, with each man leaving a complicated personal life in the wake of their lifelong passion. While "The Mule" is hardly autobiographical, it's hard not to feel like some of the plights faced by both Eastwood and Earl bear some similarity, and the more contemplative, character-focused nature of the movie follows that through.

Click HERE for the original story

Sunday 25 June 2023

Thunderbolt & Lightfoot / Mr. Majestyk rare drive in Ad

Thunderbolt & Lightfoot / Mr. Majestyk rare drive in Ad

Here’s a great little piece of nostalgia passed on to me (with thanks) from friend of the Archive, Jayne Smart. It’s an ad for the Knoxville Drive-In, which use to be located at 128 Forrest Park Boulevard, Knoxville, TN 37919. Thunderbolt & Lightfoot and Mr. Majestyk were both released thru United Artists, and both were 1974 productions. So, I guess the people at U/A wasted very little time in doubling up (and ramping up) the testosterone levels by creating a local Eastwood vs Bronson ‘All action show’ publicity campaign. I’m pretty confident we could had gathered a ‘carload’ of friends together and happily handed over our $2.00 for the privilege of watching these two great movies in one show. 

The Knoxville Drive-In was opened on August 11th, 1948 and closed on September 28th, 1980. 

* July 1st - I actually pulled both Blu-rays and did watch these back-to-back, and they do work great as a double-bill feature. Inspired me so much, I had to put together a little mock-up Quad poster - so posting it here just for fun. 

Monday 5 June 2023

Flashback: Las Vegas, November 15th 1959 When Clint met Sammy

Flashback: Las Vegas, November 15th 1959 When Clint met Sammy
It’s been a little while since we’ve have had a Flashback feature here on the Archive, so I went digging in some files today and found these great 4 pictures which needed a bit of polishing work before they could be posted in their full glory. These great pictures from CBS capture American entertainment legend Sammy Davis, Jr. shortly after he had finished his performance at The Sands Hotel, Las Vegas, NV. On November 15th 1959. At the time Clint was establishing himself as a TV star appearing as Rowdy Yates in the CBS western series Rawhide. Clint is seen here with his wife Maggie clearly having a great deal of fun and discussing gun law with Sammy. 

100 Years of Warner Bros. (2023)

100 Years of Warner Bros. (2023)
I wanted to mention this 4-part documentary which began streaming in the U.S. on 25th May. 
100 Years of Warner Bros. celebrates the studio’s centenary and takes a historical look at the legacy of one of America's leading studios. The documentary explores the origin, evolution and endurance of Warner Bros. - from a family affair to a global juggernaut. As Clint played a huge part of his career at Warner Bros, naturally he is featured quite a bit. Episode 2 is actually titled, Clint, Kubrick & Kryptonite and takes a look at how Warner Bros. navigated the upheavals of the '60s and '70s. Under a new strategist CEO, the company enters an era of unmatched storytelling with some ground-breaking projects.
Our good friend Davy Turner recently sent me this report from the series director Leslie Iwerks who spoke about her wonderful interview with Clint Eastwood, who became Warner Bros. first franchise star and a prominent, Academy Award-winning director: 
“On July 14, 2022, our documentary crew flew to Tehama Golf Club, Clint Eastwood's private 18-hole golf club in Carmel California for my interview with Clint himself. Over the course of nearly 2 hours, Clint waxed poetic about his early days on the Sergio Leoni Spaghetti Westerns, how he landed at Warner Bros. and wooed him with a bungalow, and what made him stay with the studio his entire career. Clint has made the most movies with WB, and has never gone over budget! At one point during the interview, a mother deer and her fawn entered the back patio and photo bombed him, he called her Bambi. After the interview he invited our crew to dinner in his restaurant, and kissed my hand when we said goodbye, giving me the ultimate compliment by thanking me for a great interview, saying 'they're not always this fun and easy.'  He is truly one of the nicest men I've ever met. I will always cherish this wonderful conversation and day with the one and only Legend.”
Leslie also posted (via the It All Started with Walt Disney Facebook page) some great photos from the day of the interview. I really hope the UK audiences will get a chance to see this documentary, as a lifelong fan of Warner Bros, I would imagine this will prove to be a wonderful watch. Apparently the documentary is streaming on MAX in the U.S. right now. 
Thank you Davy.
Below: 100 years of Warner Bros. Trailer

Thursday 1 June 2023

Clint Eastwood Photo Opportunity #38

Clint Eastwood Photo Opportunity #38

June already? How did that happen? We kick off the month of June with another interesting Photo Opportunity. There isn’t too much information behind this one, regardless of possible clues. The lady to the right of Clint is of course the legendary musician Roberta Flack. Flack is famous (among Clint circles) for providing the wonderful ‘The First time ever I saw your face’ which Clint picked up after hearing it on the car radio while driving home in Carmel. Clint thought it was perfect for the love scene with Donna Mills for Play Misty for Me (1971) and the rest is history. 

However, it’s often forgotten that Clint used Flack again in the fourth Dirty Harry film Sudden Impact (1983) where she recorded the song, This Side of Forever (music by Lalo Schifrin, Lyrics by DeWayne Blackwell). It was the first time that lyrics had been added to the familiar Dirty Harry theme/melody. Clint is also clearly seen wearing a Firefox (1982) T-shirt, so this is all loosely from that same time period. It’s not sure if this was just a chance meeting, or alternatively perhaps a very early pre-production meeting for the ‘Dirty Harry 4’ project?

One thing is for certain, you don’t often see a picture of Clint and Roberta together, and that alone makes this the perfect candidate for our June Photo Opportunity.