THE MULE. Because he works so much — with no indication of flagging now — Clint Eastwood's name comes up a lot in this column. I'll spare everyone the dull recitation of his recent resume and simply say I've found his directorial output of the last decade equally confounding and revelatory. There is an austerity to Eastwood's cinematic technique (not unlike his acting) that is admirable for its economy of motion, its sense of quiet urgency. He forgoes fanciful technical tricks in favor of solid, purposeful camera placement, lighting and editing (his insistence on soft jazz scores might be the one exception). This results in finished products that, while unadorned, bear the marks of practiced craft. The Mule, while perhaps not among the best of his best, reflects the coming together of disciplines in aid of story that fundamentally defines the medium of cinema. It's a fine example of how slowing down and paring down can illuminate a narrative.
Eastwood plays Earl Stone, a flirtatious horticulturist, Korean War veteran and curmudgeon. Flashing back to the early 2000s, Earl gladhands in a seersucker suit and jaunty hat, skipping the wedding of his daughter Iris (Alison Eastwood) to receive an award for his daylilies and buy rounds for the hotel bar. Moving forward 15 years, his business shuttered and house in foreclosure, Earl doesn't really have anywhere to go. His preference for his role as travelling flower salesman, rather than husband and/or father, has estranged him from his daughter and long-suffering ex-wife Mary (Dianne Wiest). He shows up at his granddaughter Ginny's (Taissa Farmiga) engagement party in spite of the rift and, of course, a nasty little scene ensues. But it's not a total loss: A friend of a friend of Ginny's tails Earl out of the party, letting him know that he might know someone who could employ him. That someone turns out to be a here-unnamed Mexican cartel and soon enough Earl is shuttling between Peoria and El Paso, first in his raggedy old road-warrior Ford and then in a posh new Lincoln. His age and comfort on the highway render him all but invisible, and soon enough he has become the most productive mule on the roster. And then the DEA (represented here by Bradley Cooper and Michael Peña) start to close in on the operation, just as leadership within the cartel takes a violent turn and illness casts a pall over Earl's family.
Thankfully steering away from any political commentary, The Mule sticks to the story, mining it for details that add to the tone and pace of the piece. Eastwood gives a surprising performance here: controlled (of course) but also deceptively doddering, leaning into the age of the character and the conflicting internal impulses that have led him to this moment. R. 116M. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK.
GREEN BOOK. Material like this — by which I mean stories of overcoming differences, unlikely friendships, etc.— always come with an asterisk: May contain scenes of inauthentic emotion and/or pat resolutions. It takes a lot on both sides of the camera to bring sweetness to bear without careening into sentimentality and speechifying, and, thus, into falsehood. Green Book has a couple of close brushes but, thanks largely to tremendous performances by the leads, manages to stay the course, at least cinematically (I've heard rumblings that some family members of one of the men on whom the movie is based take issue with it).
New York, 1962: Tony "Tonylip" Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen), champion eater and the Copa's resident head-splitter, faces a hiatus. The club will closed for two months of renovations and Tony doesn't have many job prospects. His ability to solve problems with his fists has not gone unnoticed to certain tax-free income types on the periphery of his circle but Tony tends to shy from the sort of work they're offering. Enter Dr. Donald Shirley (Mahershala Ali), a consummately trained, consummately lonely, multi-doctorate concert pianist who intends to tour the deep South with his trio. Tony has been shortlisted as a potential driver cum bodyguard for the trip. This presents complications, of course: Tony will be away from his wife Dolores (Linda Cardellini) and their young sons for two months and he is inherently, if not permanently, narrow-minded and racist in his world view.
The set-up is cringeworthy to describe but Mortensen and Ali each give such immersive, deeply-felt performances that one can't help but root for them. And director Peter Farrelly (Dumb and Dumber, There's Something About Mary) exercises uncharacteristic restraint, recreating a part of America in 1962 with the same deftness and care he applies to the storytelling. PG13. 130M. BROADWAY.
ROMA. People have been vibrating with anticipation for Alfonso Cuarón's latest for months now. Under most circumstances that would be enough to make me skeptical but I've been a fan since Y Tu Mamá También (2001) and have come to think of him as perhaps the most inventive visual stylist working in movies today. He presents himself with nearly impossible challenges in terms of camera placement and movement, then solves them in revolutionary ways. But he also clearly reveres stories and strives to tell them honestly and in great detail. Roma is the culmination of his career to date and is every bit as good as it has been rumored to be.
In brief, the movie describes the life of a splintering upper-middle class family in Mexico City as 1970 becomes 1971, as seen through the eyes of their young maid Cleo (Yalitza Apericio). As political tensions mount in the streets, the father of the family in Cleo's charge goes absentee while Cleo is left pregnant and alone by her erstwhile boyfriend.
Description can't do justice to the experience: the recreation of a remembered place in time, shot with such patience in heartbreakingly beautiful black and white, the delicious detail of the production and exquisite pacing. Cuarón, who wrote, directed, co-edited and was his own director of photography, has produced something far greater than any description thereof. R. 135M. NETFLIX. MINOR through Dec. 20.
— John J. Bennett
See showtimes at www.northcoastjournal.com or call: Broadway Cinema 443-3456; Fortuna Theatre 725-2121; Mill Creek Cinema 839-3456; Minor Theatre 822-3456; Richards' Goat Miniplex 630-5000.
AQUAMAN. James Wan directs the butched-up ocean superhero's (Jason Momoa) solo feature with Amber Heard and an army of CG sea creatures. PG13. 143M. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK, MINOR.
BUMBLEBEE. Transformers spinoff starring Hailee Steinfeld and John Cena. PG13. 113M. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK.
MARY POPPINS RETURNS. The original super nanny (Emily Blunt) takes on the children of her former charges. With Lin-Manuel Miranda and a freakishly spry Dick Van Dyke. PG. 130M. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK, MINOR.
MARY QUEEN OF SCOTS. Enough queenly rivalry to make RuPaul gasp in Josie Rourke's historical drama starring Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie. R. 124M. BROADWAY.
IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1946). No man is a failure who has friends. PG. 130M. BROADWAY.
SECOND ACT. Jennifer Lopez accidentally catfishes her way into a high-powered job. With Leah Remini and Vanessa Hudgens. PG13. 103M. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK.
WELCOME TO MARWEN. A violent assault sends an artist (Steve Carell) into a therapeutic, woman-powered fantasy world. With Janelle Monáe and Leslie Mann. PG13. 116M. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK.
BECOMING ASTRID. Pippi Longstocking's Swedish creator Astrid Lindgren get the biopic treatment. NR. 123M. MINIPLEX.
DR. SEUSS' THE GRINCH. Benedict Cumberbatch voices the green menace (which is going to give me all kinds of issues) in this latest animated trip to Whoville. PG. 90M. BROADWAY, FORTUNA.
MORTAL ENGINES. Hera Hilmar and Hugo Weaving star in Peter Jackson's steampunk adventure with roving cities battling it out in a post-apocalyptic landscape. PG13. 128M. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK.
RALPH BREAKS THE INTERNET. More video game hijinks voiced by John C. Reilly and Sarah Silverman. PG. 112M. BROADWAY.
SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE. Inter-dimensional spider heroes team up in an animated adventure. Starring Shameik Moore, Jake Johnson and Hailee Steinfeld. PG. 117M. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK, MINOR.
— Jennifer Fumiko Cahill