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Blu-Ray Pick of the Week: The Mule

“Bumblebee” and “Vice” are also new to Blu-Ray this week. 

Earl Stone (Clint Eastwood) is a master horticulturalist and a charming man. Father of the year, however, he is not. This is all made abundantly clear in the opening moments of “The Mule,” in which we see that Earl choose to attend a horticulture gathering over his own daughter Iris’ (Alison Eastwood) wedding.

It’s also made clear that the old school Earl isn’t fond of the Internet. When we first see Earl at the horticulture gathering, it’s 2005 and he dismisses a fellow horticulturalist who does business on the Internet. Flash forward to 2017—which the subtitle helpfully points out is 12 years later in case you can’t math that out—and Earl is out of business with a home that is facing foreclosure.

In need of money, he has a chance encounter with a shady man at a party for his granddaughter Ginny (Taissa Farmiga) after he gets into a much noticed row with ex-wife Mary (Dianne Wiest). The man gives him a number to call to get some quick cash for just driving. Next thing Earl knows, he’s a mule for a Mexican drug cartel, responsible for moving many kilos of cocaine from Texas to Illinois.

Earl’s story is intermixed with that of DEA agent Colin Bates (Bradley Cooper). Bates and his partner agent Treviño (Michael Peña) are assigned by the special agent in charge (Laurence Fishburne) to strike a major blow to the transportation of drugs into Illinois.

This leads to a bit of a cat and mouse scenario in which Earl doesn’t know that he’s the mouse. Through pure luck, he manages to make several runs unscathed. This is mostly due to the fact that Earl follows his own set of rules and doesn’t stick to the strict path mapped out for him by the cartel. He’s a bit of a wild card for a 90-year-old man, but he gets results, and with each run he is entrusted with more and more product.

What makes “The Mule” work so well is the man at the center of the story. Earl had the intention of doing a run only one time. Then he sees others in need, such as his granddaughter who wants to finish college, and his local V.A., which has fallen on hard times. Earl realizes that he can help people with the money he gets. I’m sure that somewhere in Earl’s mind, the good he does with his money outweighs the bad that the drugs do on the streets in Illinois.

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Make no mistake about Earl: He knows who he works for and knows what he’s doing. It’s easy to look at someone like him and say that he’s a senior citizen who was tricked by unscrupulous cartel members to do something he wasn’t aware that he was doing, but this is not the case. Earl manages to resist opening the bags that get loaded on his truck for the first two runs, but by the third he can’t resist and takes a peek. From that point on, he knows without a doubt what he is involved in, but keeps on making runs anyway. A doddering, easily fooled old man Earl is not.

There’s character growth with Earl too. The hard lesson he learns up front is the importance of family. Earl develops a strong conviction that family comes first, and it’s a principle that he applies no matter the circumstances, even if it means defying the cartel. I admire this in Earl from a character standpoint. It’s very easy to waiver on one’s convictions when the going gets tough and it becomes inconvenient. Most people would waiver if they knew that sticking to their principles could lead to extreme hardship or even their demise. Not Earl though. The importance of family is a lesson he may have learned late in life, but the good news is that he did learn it. What’s more, his moral constitution is one that drives him to stick with it, no matter the cost. Regardless of what you may think of what Earl does or his reasons for doing it, there is one thing you can’t take away from the man: he has a strong backbone. Rent it.

Also New This Week

Bumblebee

Here’s the difference between director Michael Bay and director Travis Knight (whose only previous directing credit is the excellent 2016 animated feature “Kubo and the Two Strings”): When Michael Bay directs a “Transformers” movie, he creates self-indulgent, super bloated action scenes that last ten minutes long—and that is on the short side. Travis Knight, on the other hand, has three action scenes within the first ten minutes of “Bumblebee.” However, these three action scenes are just the right length to create excitement and move the story along, plus they end before they start to become mind numbing. The difference is night and day. Having said that, Knight does not have the same eye for shot composition and camera movement as Bay. At this, Bay is the superior director. However, Bay could take a lesson from the newcomer that too much action can be just as bad as too little. There’s a sweet spot that needs to be hit that balances the action with characters and drama. Thankfully, Knight hits that sweet spot all throughout “Bumblebee,” making this “Transformers” spin-off the best “Transformers” movie since Bay’s first entry in 2007.

What also helps “Bumblebee” along is Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld), the just turned eighteen-year-old heroine at the center of the movie. She’s given a rich back story along with a lot of angst and pathos, all of which Steinfeld plays brilliantly. If this was any other movie—or at least one in which she didn’t have to compete with metal CGI aliens beating the heck out of each other—her excellent performance would be the center focus of what people talk about. But since this is a “Transformers” side entry/prequel (the movie takes place in 1987), the yellow CGI alien robot gets center stage. Steinfeld’s performance, however, does elevate the material and serves the movie up with a healthy amount of emotional gravitas, which is carefully balanced with the action scenes. Rent it.

Vice

Director Adam McKay brings his unique mix of cynicism and snark back to the big screen with “Vice,” about the life and career of former vice president Dick Cheney, played here in a pitch-perfect performance by Christian Bale. While the political aspects feel more like a run of the mill Hollywood hit piece, the personal details of Cheney’s life are handled with a remarkable blend of compassion and understanding. Most notable is his continued love for his daughter Mary (Alison Pill) after he finds out that she’s gay. Dick’s wife Lynne (Amy Adams) is less thrilled with the news, but this isn’t her story.

The opening titles to “Vice” make it clear that McKay and company are making a lot of guesses with the movie, since, for example, no one knows what anyone was thinking in the situation room when the September 11, 2001 attacks happened. It also doesn’t help that Dick Cheney is known for being a quiet and reserved man about whom little is known. Having said that, the opportunistic lust for power possessed by this portrayal of Cheney rings true to me. The theories espoused by “Vice” as to why certain things happened—the U.S. involvement in Iraq shortly after 9-11 being chief among them—seem fair and plausible.

As for McKay’s style, which I so loved and admired in “The Big Short,” it’s hit or miss here with “Vice.” For every time I howled with laughter at something like the fake credits that roll about 45 minutes into the movie, I grimaced at the scene turning Lynne and Dick into Shakespearean figures, divulging their innermost thoughts in iambic pentameter. I understand McKay’s thought that such a dry subject as Dick Cheney needs to be spiced up entertainment-wise, but he tries a bit too hard this time around. Still, “Vice” is a nuanced, unapologetic portrait of a man who was, arguably, America’s most powerful vice president. Rent it.

More New Releases: “The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then The Bigfoot,” about a legendary American war veteran who is recruited to hunt a mythical creature, starring Sam Elliott.

Andrew Hudak is a lifelong film lover. His column on Blu-Ray new releases appears every Tuesday. He lives in Connecticut.

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