Category Archives: family

The Mule (2018)

Every now and then, the fanfare surrounding a film is warranted and I suggest that the praise heaped on The Mule marks such an occasion. While Earl Stone’s journey from horticulturalist to drug mule drives the top layer of the storyline, the emotional undertow of his parental and marital failings packs the hardest punch. Beginning with Unforgiven from 1992, Clint Eastwood has leveraged his storied career as an onscreen badass par excellence to limn the depths of his personal travails like no other actor. This dramatic heft is satisfying on its own terms, but like a piece written by a great jazz musician, his performance has many additional layers that are equally praiseworthy. Aside from the numerous threads of commentary on the drug war, The Mule touches on immigration, veterans affairs, the toll of globalized e-commerce on local economies, the dissolution of intergenerational wisdom, the challenge of aging in America and the corrosive effects of political correctness.

Even when he’s playing a badass, Eastwood’s characters are never one dimensional and Earl Stone is no exception. Like Ellington or Mingus, Eastwood lays out the contours of Earl’s character with clean phrases but repeatedly plays them against dissonant harmonies. When we first meet Earl in 2005, he’s a model of geriatric charisma and swagger. He is quick witted, well dressed and still knows how to charm the ladies. Earl is a law abiding citizen, appreciates old fashioned verities and is a Korean War veteran to boot. Irrespective of the personal failings in his family life, Earl Stone is a model citizen. He is the guy with whom everyone wants to have a beer and shoot the shit. When he eventually turns to smuggling drugs, your sympathies do not diminish. Earl’s ill gotten economic gains are used help finance his granddaughter’s wedding and the rehabilitation of the VFW Hall. He puts the money to work out of a genuine desire to mend fences with his estranged daughter and ex-wife as well as to uphold a place of community and refuge for his fellow soldiers.

These qualities endeared him to hardboiled gangsters, Bradley Cooper’s FBI agent and his immigrant gardeners while making the unvarnished edges of his personality go down easier. When he sternly admonishes his Mexican staff to fix their car so that it won’t be a “ticket to deportation”, you’re disarmed by his honesty. When he tells his cartel handlers they’re getting dirty looks because they’re “two beaners in a cracker bowl”, it comes across like a straightforward observation rather than a hateful epithet. And the fact that he’s willing to say something that risky to the faces of armed thugs is also pretty funny.

Like clockwork, the puritanical screeching over Earl’s politically incorrect coarseness has come from the SJW corners of the mediasphere. Sadly, these insufferable scolds will never grasp the point that Eastwood was making. When Earl offers to help a black couple change a tire, he refers to them as “negroes”. Instead of being thankful for the help he offered, they spent all their time being triggered and butthurt by his words. They inform him that it’s against #WOKE protocols to say such terrible things, but Earl smiles and proceeds to help them. Eastwood is cleverly pointing out what everyone outside the progressive bubble already knows. The Left has indoctrinated a posture of perpetual offense and a pathological desperation to enforce to a set of ever changing rules. “Negro” was once perfectly acceptable and Earl’s usage of the term did not carry a tinge of racial animosity.

Speaking of PC scolds, Eastwood’s demolition of progressive puritanism isn’t limited to his willingness to piss off the racism cops. He gives us something that feels increasingly rare in today’s era of hypersensitivity: unabashed Latina pulchritude. When Earl successfully completes a record run, he’s treated to a proper celebration that only a drug lord could host. Earl is flown to the Mexico compound where Andy Garcia’s Laton throws a party that’s overflowing with liquor, drugs and tons of scantily clad chicks. Eastwood’s camera lingers on their curvaceous asses as they gyrate to salsa jams. It’s a lovely sight to behold and the fact that some harpy from the online feminist stasi is seething with rage over its inclusion makes it that much more glorious.

Though somewhat softer than the grizzled hardass he played in Gran Torino, Earl is perpetually bewildered and perturbed by the fact that he lives in a world that’s increasingly disconnected from the traditions with which he grew up. “Didn’t your daddy teach you to change a tire?” he asks of the couple in distress as the man flails about haplessly searching for network connectivity. For Earl, the idea of a father not teaching basic automotive care never crosses his mind. Let alone the possibility that either of them might have grown up without a father. The #WOKE intelligentsia will probably chastise Eastwood for this attempt at cinematic paternalism, but I’m inclined to think this was also Eastwood’s stealth commentary on illegitimacy in the black community.

While Earl feels the walls closing in on the destructive trade in which he’s inserted himself, he never stops seeking redemption, grace or a few minutes to stop and smell the roses. The pressures of the cocaine trade should never supersede the opportunity to enjoy the best pulled pork sandwich in the Midwest. Just because you’re being tailed by the FBI doesn’t mean you can’t impart hard earned wisdom with the agent who has you in his sights. Even as he basks in Laton’s decadence, he counsels his handler Julio to abandon the thug life. Earl never has to face the destruction his drug running exacts on the social fabric he wants to see preserved, but he never loses sight of his culpability in the consequences of his choices.

A cynic might say that casting Alison Eastwood in the role of Earl’s daughter was an act of nepotism, but in this case, it was a masterstroke. There’s no doubt in my mind that Iris’ resentment towards her father came from a genuine place, but like Earl, Iris goes through a growth arc of her own that feels equally genuine. Dianne Weist is brilliant as Earl’s ex-wife, Mary, and the mixture of emotional anguish and love she holds for Earl is palpable.

The Mule is making some very obvious points about how the media spotlight creates perverse incentives for federal law enforcement, but I suggest that Eastwood giving us a glimpse of something even more profound. This isn’t just a skillful adaptation of a real world story. This is a window into a tightly controlled network of forces that’s been deployed and managed by the establishment. Hollywood is the propaganda arm for two sides of a dialectic that appear opposed but are more intertwined than they appear. Eastwood may have the trappings of a successful Hollywood career, but I believe Earl’s fate is a metaphor for Eastwood’s life in more ways than one.

Hollywood’s pathological fixation on youth has fueled a culture of narcissism, vacuous moral preening and increasingly impoverished filmmaking. The mere existence of this film amidst this sea of fame seeking hacks and soulless technicians feels as precious Earl’s day lillies. With The Mule, Eastwood has risen to the stature of the jazz greats he admires. This is work of an artist who breathes life into every line and frame. The entire film feels like Eastwood’s lesson in filmmaking to the up and coming generations. I can only hope they’re paying attention.

The Florida Project (2017)

It seems like everything that comes out of Hollywood these days is either insufferable garbage or, at best, a mixed bag. I didn’t think I’d find a film that fills both categories, but The Florida Project may be that film. This is the tenth effort from the 47 year old writer/director, Sean Baker, and it is an excruciating chore to watch. If I were slathered in honey and pushed into a pit of fire ants, it wouldn’t adequately convey the psychic torture this film inflicts. This film completely embodies Hollywood’s loathsome and contemptible double standard and false moral preening. At the same time, it does present you with some thorny questions around societal norms, gender roles and moral standards that any honest person will have difficulty answering. Set amidst the pastel colored sprawl of Orlando, The Florida Project tells the story of single mother Hallee and her daughter Moonee as they attempt to simply survive while living in a low budget hotel amongst the “hidden homeless”. The film is intentionally shot against the backdrop of Disneyworld because Baker wants the juxtaposition of a beloved fantasyland destination for stable families to play against the broken lives of quiet and not-so-quiet desperation that carry on beyond the view of the average American.

Though it can be seen as having redeeming qualities when viewed through the right lens, it is also a film whose unrelenting unpleasantness immediately makes you wonder what exactly Mr. Baker intended to convey. Based on the available interview footage, the subject matter of his other films and the virtue signaling on his Twitter feed, we can safely conclude that this was yet another vile and repugnant moral circle jerk. Baker wants to render the emotional and societal wreckage perpetrated by the very people with whom he surrounds himself in the most vivid and realistic ways possible. Rather portray this as a tragic collapse of societal norms, he asks you to engage in an exercise in radical #EMPATHY. No, this is not an occasion in which to judge or ascribe blame. Check your privilege, bigot. This is about the #INCLUSION of #MARGINALIZED groups.

Hallee is, in many ways, the apotheosis of the progressive, feminist single mother archetype. She’s an ill mannered, foul mouthed derelict who has no business being anywhere near a child, but she is, in fact, the sole caregiver of the equally monstrous and ill mannered brat, Moonee. We no longer need to speculate about what life in the matriarchy will be like because Hallee perfectly embodies it. She don’t need no man, bitch. She won’t be slut shamed for turning tricks while her daughter bathes in the next room. You got a fuckin’ problem with how she’s raising her child, you uptight conservatard? And don’t you dare judge her for stealing from others just to make a buck. What do you expect from a womyn still struggling to liberate herself from patriarchal norms, you misogynistic bigot?

As Bobby, Willem Dafoe debases himself once again by giving us yet another warped and damaged archetype of postmodern paternalism. Dafoe is the manager at the hotel where Hallee and Moonee live, but he is also a de facto father figure. Reduced to making futile attempts to restrain her ghastly behavior and having to cover up for her numerous pathologies, Dafoe is a burned out shard of a man desperately reaching for fragments of self-respect, moral rectitude and legitimate authority.

While I can freely admit that my own childhood was far from conventional and I was accorded liberties that would have been judged very negatively by many, I would hope that the average viewer would be appalled by the adverse effects of the complete absence of real parenting for Moonee. Baker appears to be asking you to witness Hallee pass on her own pathologies to her daughter and suspend all moral judgment. He even seems to be quietly cheerleading Hallee for her “bravery”. Based on all the breathless swooning from the intelligentsia, he appears to have succeeded.

If we were to take the most charitable possible interpretation of this film, it could be argued that Baker may have inadvertently made one of the biggest red pills ever. This is what the secular progressive consensus has produced. The state of perpetual rebellion against any kind of social norm has produced a society that can no longer uphold anything as an ideal to which to aspire. All that remains is a nihilistic fixation on the dissolution and decay which is what passes for radical #EMPATHY and enlightened virtue. Hey, at least Baker HAS THE COURAGE TO TELL IT LIKE IT IS, AMIRITE? NO SUGAR COATED, ANDY GRIFFITH STYLE AMERICAN NOSTALGIA HERE, MAN! WE’RE TACKLING THE STUFF THAT’S JUST TOO REAL FOR ALL YOU SHELTERED CONSERVATARDS.

Naturally, Hollywood showered this movie with praise as a paragon of pure #WOKENESS. A 95% Fresh reviewer score on Rotten Tomatoes is full confirmation that the enlightened, sophisticated and sensitive people approve. And all the promo photos on social media will remind you that this film has the seal of approval from the Right Peoplekind. If you see this movie, you’re aware of how real the struggle is and you really should like it. You probably read Affinity, The Root and Everyday Feminism, too. And you most certainly vote the right way.

While those who watch this will congratulate themselves for enduring this psychic torture and use it as evidence of their moral superiority, the larger question is what is do be done about these phenomena? It’s too much to confront. But somehow, we’re to presume that merely watching this movie inches us closer to some kind of singularity of mass #EMPATHY. At least we’re getting more #WOKE, AMIRITE? If you’re serious about the issue, either you’re going to advocate for building stable families from the start or you’re going to get into the trenches and work on dealing with the breached levees of society. Unfortunately, most of society’s energy is trained towards mitigating the damage that’s already been done. Sean Baker would never make a film about a white, stable Christian family trying to navigate the waters of a society that’s hostile to their lifestyle in every way because he has no real moral framework. Nor would he make a film which trains its sights on the ways that Disney itself is exacerbating these problems because these are the types of people whose approval he ultimately seeks. All you really need is #EMPATHY and #INCLUSIVENESS. His films are just long form social media memes for everyone who’s already part of his ideological hugbox.

The ending of the film is obviously meant to evoke a heartfelt moment of liberation and triumphalism for two young children whose future prospects in the world are badly compromised. But I also suspect Baker is also taking a predictable jab at the average middle-class American family who makes sacrifices to take their kids to Disneyworld so that they can have some happy memories to cherish. I suspect Baker thinks he’s that brave and sensitive soul who is shaking the unwoke masses out of their slumber by ever-so-subtly insinuating that those people simply aren’t allowed to enjoy their middle-class indulgences anymore. Check your class privilege, proles. Sean Baker is here to make you feel guilty for having a relatively stable life. But at least you can tell everyone how great you thought The Hollywood Project was. Because in the end, that’s what really counts.

Lady Bird (2017)

Greta Gerwig’s debut as writer and director is a modest gynocentric bildungsroman which succeeds on its earnest affections and enjoyable performances. Like virtually every film that occupies the so-called “indie” film market, it aims to portray the unvarnished edges of deep family intimacy as well as the quiet humor of well rendered characters. Gerwig has built a reputation by appearing in Quirky Indie Films like Baghead, Frances Ha and Greenberg. Films which can occasionally come off as platforms for charmless affectation and urbane pretentions. Thankfully, Lady Bird doesn’t devolve into this black hole of solipsistic navel gazing. If anything, Gerwig deserves credit for crafting a taut story filled with brisk, direct dialogue, relatable characters and energetic exchanges. The story hinges on the affectionate but contentious relationship between Saoirse Ronan’s Christine and her mother played by Laurie Metcalf.

Lady Bird charts Christine’s trajectory of growth in her final year at high school as she attempts to carve a path towards college. Her mother Marion is a hard bitten realist who wants to rein in Christine’s tendency towards self-aggrandizement and tamp down her grandiose dreams of an East Coast liberal arts education. Christine is the defiant daughter determined to rise above the rigid confines of her Catholic School upbringing and her lower middle-class home life. So much so that she insists on being called Lady Bird.

The film opens with a very funny quarrel between Marion and Christine in which Christine ejects herself from the car in order to avoid listening to her mother. Essentially, Christine is another headstrong adolescent who is unreceptive to maternal advice. Marion’s ministrations are blunt, but like most caring parents, she’s more than willing to dispense the bitter medicine.

Aside from her tortured relationship to her family, Christine’s journey covers three significant themes: friendship, academic achievement and men. She abandons her best friend in favor of ingratiating herself with one of the cool girls. She falls in love with a guy who turns out to be gay and then ostracizes him from her life. She has a contentious relationship with her Hispanic adoptive brother. She struggles with math and honesty. In other words, there’s nothing that hasn’t been broached on the ABC Family Channel or an episode of Roseanne.

If this seems like fairly standard dramatic fare for a modern coming of age story, you’d be correct. With so little real originality, you’re left to contend with the equally standard progressive editorializing. If you go into a contemporary film knowing it’s a vehicle for leftist commentary, you won’t be exasperated. It’s just a matter of degree, and Lady Bird is relatively modest on the preaching. Relatively. Sure, it gently mocks religious people and pro-life views. It panders to gender warriors and lesbians. It ridicules Ronald Reagan and conservatives. Par for the course. But there are places where it slides in some especially pernicious and deceptive editorial.

A common tactic among progressives is to take something that’s true pertaining to the possibility of danger, and then frame it as a joke, a lie, a conspiracy theory or a byproduct of bigotry. It’s a way of simultaneously reinforcing a smug, all encompassing intellectualism and a cosmopolitan openness to the world that is beyond the reach of narrow minded conservatives. When Christine’s friend Julie questions the possibility of terrorism while attending college in New York, Christine shoots back with the admonition “Don’t be a Republican.” It’s cute and kind of funny, but Julie’s concern is not exactly unfounded. It’s as though the mere consideration of the very real possibility of terrorism is contrary to progressive orthodoxy. It somehow means you’re setting yourself on an inexorable path toward conservatism by conceding that it could happen. It’s just one of many reasons modern progressivism is such a pathetic joke. Ideological conformity takes precedent over the objective reality of escalating terrorism worldwide.

Another moment comes when Christine is attempting to woo brooding artist, Kyle Scheible. Kyle is portrayed as a stereotypical young hard leftist who smokes hand rolled cigarettes, reads Howard Zinn and plays in a band. Timothée Chalamet effectively splits the difference between laconic cool guy, detached douchebag and emotional midget. Christine asks if he has a cell phone, but when he explains his reason for not having one, he says he doesn’t want to be tracked by the government. He then goes full Alex Jones, points to his skull and says “Then they’ll put it in your brain.” Gerwig plays it for laughs and wants you see him as a conspiracy prone naïf, but I think this is a tell. The fact that the NSA is spying through all manners of mobile devices is now widely known. But now, we’re already seeing articles about people willingly taking microchip implants. Gerwig very likely wants you to chuckle at Kyle’s youthful paranoia, but attempting to anaesthetize people to uncomfortable truths with ironic distance is standard practice for progressives.

The biggest crime of progressive agenda building in Lady Bird is the symbolism. Gerwig is presenting Christine as yet another archetype of leftist feminine virtue. At a purely symbolic level, birds represent freedom, the future or messengers of God. Gerwig has even given her lead character the female equivalent of Christ by naming her Christine. Her profile eclipses the blurred out crucifix on the movie poster. It doesn’t get any more explicit than that. Christine has survived her growing pains, heartbreaks and disappointments and now she’s ready to stake her claim to political power, the executive offices of corporate America, the lofty perch of the entertainment industry or the highest echelons of academia. You know. The cushy, prestigious positions that have air conditioning, six figure salaries and no physical labor.

Even Tracy Letts’ appealing and sympathetic turn as Christine’s father, Larry, feels like yet another subtle act of vandalism on the paternal father figure. He is doting and affectionate, but he’s also depressed and unemployed. He’s able to provide a sober counterpoint to Marion’s alpha mother harangues, but it feels like an explicit attempt to portray manhood as broken and ineffectual. The job interview at the end can be read both as a commentary on the declining economic prospects for the aging middle-class white male, but also as a rather blatant and dishonest sop to the pro-immigration plank of the progressive agenda.

Lady Bird is essentially the indie film complement to the more hamfisted preaching of blockbusters like Wonder Woman. It’s quieter and it has just enough emotional depth and universal humanity to salvage it from the bin of agitprop. But just barely. It struck me as very similar to Paul Weitz’ ode to an aging feminist from 2015, Grandma. But is this Best Picture caliber filmmaking? Meh. Not so much. If I wanted to be very cynical, I’d simply call this Hollywood affirmative action. It checks off all the requisite boxes in order pass the Hollywood PC virtue test. If that’s all it takes to earn a Best Picture nod, what a sorry state of affairs that represents. But I’m going to give Greta Gerwig the benefit of the doubt. I’m going to treat this as an earnest attempt to tell a story about a young woman coming to terms with her family and childhood and what she wants to carry into adulthood. And maybe in today’s cinematic landscape, that’s saying quite a bit.