Sunday, September 26, 2021

CLINT EASTWOOD as Mike Milo in the uplifting and poignant drama from Warner Bros. Pictures, “CRY MACHO,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.

Clint Eastwood has spent the better part of 30 years, ever since at least his Oscar winning Unforgiven, examining and deconstructing his own star persona and his legacy as both a filmmaker and an actor. If Unforgiven was an exploration of his western persona, and Gran Torino and atonement of sorts for Dirty Harry, then his latest film, Cry Macho, seems to represent a career summation of Clint the man, and the masculine ideal that he has so long embodied.

A great deal of Eastwood's late period work has been preoccupied with examining American myth making, from Flags of Our Fathers, J. Edgar, and the widely misunderstood American Sniper, to Sully and Richard Jewell, few other American filmmakers have spent so much time pulling back the facade on the lies we tell ourselves. It's interesting, then, that Eastwood's work is so often dismissed by left wing critics due to his stated right wing politics, because the text of filmography is anything but patriotic hagiography. Perhaps it's Eastwood's dogged libertarian streak and general distrust of the government, but Eastwood's cinema is all about questioning official narratives, and he isn't afraid afraid to turn that lens back on himself. 

Cry Macho is very much at home amongst Eastwood's more laid-back late period films, occasionally resembling casual hangout films that are driven only by the loosest of plots. Eastwood stars as Mike Milo, a washed up rodeo star who's called upon by his boss (Dwight Yoakam) to travel to Mexico to retrieve his 13-year-old son, Rafo (Eduardo Minett), from his scheming mother. Upon arrival, however, Milo finds out that it isn't just the boy's mother who's scheming, and that Rafo is a lost young man caught between two unscrupulous parents who are using him as a park in a bitter divorce. Obligated to carry out his mission and return Rafo to his father, but on the run from his mother's agents and the Mexican federal police, Milo and Rafo lay low in a tiny Mexican village where they forge a tentative friendship, giving Milo a long awaited opportunity to be the father figure he never got to be. 

Failed fatherhood is another fascinating through-line in Eastwood's work, and it rises to the fore here, as he plays a man trying to atone for the sins of his past by protecting another man's child in a way that he couldn't protect his own. Rafo, carrying his beloved fighting rooster named Macho, is filled with adolescent rage, his head filled with very clear ideas of what masculinity should look like, an ideal that Milo has long since come to understand is little more than a facade for weak men to hide behind. In that way, Cry Macho is Eastwood's own treatise on toxic masculinity. And while the film never digs as deep into its own themes as it could, it's impossible not to be fascinated by watching a filmmaker who has himself come to represent an outmoded ideal of masculinity attempt to tear down his own iconography and reveal it for the empty bluster that it is. 

At 91 years old and still as vital and prolific as ever, Eastwood is still searching and growing, taking stock not just of a career but of an entire life. His legendary distaste for multiple takes and lack of perfectionism often result in some performances from his non professional cast that are rough around the edges, but there's something almost more authentic about it for that. There's a languid, lackadaisical quality to Cry Macho that might be misconstrued as lack of depth, but therein lies its deceptive charm. This is a filmmaker with nothing left to prove, a living legend reflecting on himself and his own mythology in ways that are rarely seen on screen. It's an elegiac western that feels like a reflective summation of an entire career. Minor Eastwood? No. This is the work of a major filmmaker refusing to go quietly into that good night.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

CRY MACHO | Directed by Clint Eastwood | Stars Clint Eastwood, Eduardo Minett, Natalia Traven, Dwight Yoakam, Fernanda Urrejola, Horacio GarcĂ­a Rojas | Rated PG-13 for language and thematic elements | Now playing in theaters nationwide and on HBO Max.

Tuesday, September 07, 2021

The Marvel Cinematic Universe has become such an ubiquitous, monocultural institution that, for me anyway, it's beginning to feel more like a chore than escapism - each new entry representing a piece of a corporate puzzle that only serves as connective tissue to still more product we are expected to consume. The series has become such a hydra at this point, spinning off both movies and television shows (not to mention the comics on which they're based), that the constantly expanding, overlapping, and self-referencing has worn out its welcome. 

Clearly this hasn't dampened its popularity with general audiences, who continue to show up in droves, making each new film an event unto itself - but ever since the story essentially came to an end after a decade's worth of world building in Avengers: Endgame, the sense of fatigue has felt all the more pronounced. That's why Destin Daniel Cretton's Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is such an unexpected pleasure. After having all but written off the MCU, I found myself drawn into the refreshingly standalone world of Shang-Chi (Simu Liu) and his sister Xialing (Meng’er Zhang). Both products of a union between Xu Wenwu (Tony Leung), the leader of an ancient crime syndicate called the Ten Rings, and Li (Fala Chen), a member of an elite fighting force sworn to protect the one earthly realm that Xu was unable to conquer. 

Having renounced their birthrights and escaped to separate lives on opposite sides of the world, Shang-Chi and Xialing find themselves reunited by their father's quest to at last conquer their mother's homeland. Convinced that she is still alive and being held captive, he is determined to set her free at all costs, but an ancient evil awaits behind the gates, and his arrogance threatens to destroy everything.

Shang-Chi himself is not a particularly interesting hero, but the supporting cast is aces; Tony Leung and Michelle Yeoh are in a class by themselves and they own every scene they're in. Ben Kingsley is also great fun reprising his role as Trevor the actor from Iron Man  3 (Xu Wenwu, it turns out, is the real Mandarin, and is none-too-pleased with Trevor's appropriation of his image), and Awkwafina and Meng'er Zhang's journeys are both more interesting than anything involving Shang-Chi.  The martial arts fight sequences are also much more kinetic and tactile than the usual CGI superhero hammering (again, Yeoh and Leung are best in show here). The whole thing has the feel of a wuxia epic. And no, we're not working on the level of a King Hu, Ang Lee, or Zhang Yimou here, but it's easy to become swept up in its story because Cretton is a smart enough filmmaker to fill what could have been throwaway roles with tremendous actors. The choreography is more engaging, the emotional beats more resonant, the stakes are more personal and tangible, and there's a hint of a soul here that has been largely missing from the MCU. It's certainly taking from bigger and better sources, but it's nice not feeling like I've got to remember minute details of 20 other movies and 50 years of comics to understand the characters and the plot.

Shang-Chi is the first Marvel movie in a very long time that really made me feel something, and not just like I was doing homework for the next inevitable entry. It is thrilling and transporting in a way the MCU hasn't been in a while; and while it naturally connects to the cinematic universe at large in the credit scenes, overall it feels like a self-contained fantasy adventure, which is such a breath of fresh air for the series. One hopes that Phase 4 will focus less on crafting interweaving stories and more on developing films that stand on their own merits - and while I'm not holding my breath on that front, not since Black Panther has the world of a Marvel film felt so vibrantly alive.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

SHANG-CHI AND THE LEGEND OF THE TEN RINGS | Directed by Destin Daniel Cretton | Stars Simu Liu, Tony Leung Chiu-wai, Awkwafina, Meng'er Zhang, Fala Chen, Michelle Yeoh, Yuen Wah, Ben Kingsley | Rated PG-13 for sequences of violence and action, and language | Now playing in theaters nationwide.