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The Wager (2020)

The Wager is a gob smacking example about the utmost significance of screenplay structure and a lesson for others to learn and avoid. I was beside myself with frustration from this 90-minute movie available on Amazon streaming, occasionally yelling at my TV screen, but mostly I was dumbfounded by the storytelling choices. The wager of the title, which is also prominently noted in the synopsis attached for the film, doesn’t even occur until 78 minutes in. That’s right, you don’t get the hook of the movie until the very end. This astounds me. The Wager is an Ohio-made faith-based indie that generally bored me and occasionally made me guffaw or scream in bafflement. I’d wager unless you’re already among the faithful flock, you’re going to be unmoved and more than a little mystified by this tone-deaf drama.

Bruce (Ty Shelton) is a young man abandoned as a child and raised in the foster system. He gets into trouble at school and eventually gets plunged into a life of crime against his will. As an adult (Jim Gloyd), he’s strung out on drugs and resorting to petty robbery to find his scores. His childhood friend Suzy (Stephanie Haff) runs into him at a casino and offers spiritual outreach, but Bruce wants nothing to do with God. That is until an angel enters his life with a big bet about reliving Bruce’s tortured past with a new perspective.

If you’re going to present a Christian spin on the classic It’s a Wonderful Life formula, having a guardian angel intervene in a person’s life to show them a highlight reel of memories and what could have been, why wait until there’s only ten or so minutes left in your entire movie? Once Bruce does review his tortured life, it includes scenes we’ve already seen, including his birth, which begs the question why we needed to see these moments twice. It’s not like what came before this celestial review needed 78 minutes of undivided attention. For the first 15 minutes, all that happens is that an abused woman gives birth, drops the baby on the doorstep of the police, and the officers call social services. Did we need that to take up 15 minutes? From there we witness young Bruce getting in trouble at school and then being kidnapped (oh, there will definitely be more on this later) and living life as a drug dealer. We spend an hour establishing Bruce’s life as being awful, from child to adult, and it’s repetitive and deflating. How many scenes do we need to see of Bruce sleeping on the ground or shooting up drugs or being pushed around? Not only could the far, far majority of this plotting have been condensed considerably, it would have been more impactful to watch Bruce reflect on his experiences by re-living them rather than dwelling in the extended misery that made me wonder if this was going to be a modern-day passion play. Truly, imagine It’s a Wonderful Life but we spent an hour of watching George Bailey haggle over business practices with Mr. Potter. This central screenwriting miscue is just so catastrophic to the entertainment factor.

We could have easily established adult Bruce being a troubled man and the people of his past having difficulty recognizing the man they thought they knew from the movie’s start. This would establish that bad things have happened, and he could hint at more that he doesn’t want to reveal, and then the end of your first act could be him hitting rock bottom and getting his angelic intervention. We don’t need more than 20-25 minutes to establish how crummy this man’s life is. When given an hour, it just becomes too crushing and risks undercutting the message of personal redemption. Learning with the character about his life’s hardships would be more engaging with him having to come face-to-face with the them and his guardian angel partner. It also allows us to not have to be dependent on chronology and jump around to the major events we need to best define Bruce. This obvious structure makes so much sense that I am shocked the filmmakers missed out. Having an angelic guide would also force the character into conversation and confrontation and potential reflection, giving us better insight into the man than simply watching the events on our own without commentary. Simply put, you shouldn’t name your movie after a key plot event that happens in the last 15 minutes unless you’re a disaster movie and the Big One is finally striking.

The mistakes in plot structure also harm the overall slack pacing. The pacing is practically nonexistent for long portions. The energy level is so subdued that I thought I might just fall asleep. The camera movements will often utilize long takes and slow pans with minimal cuts, which just makes the lack of energy that much more palpable. So many dialogue exchanges sound like people are just reanimated zombies, and so much dialogue feels needlessly expositional. People talk in that phony way where they’re constantly repeating what the other person says but turning it into a question. It’s an inauthentic way of conversing that reminded me of Neil Breen’s silly films. Take these examples of poor onscreen conversations and see what I’m talking about:

“I have no clue what we’re going to do in Science today.”

“Me neither. I guess we’ll find out soon.”

“You’re right. See you there.”

Wow, did we need to be privy for that vital information? Or how about:

“I know you have your troubles, but I know you.”

“No, you don’t. That’s just how I act around you. I don’t think you know.”

“Just stop. I know what you’re trying to do. You’re trying to make excuses rather than accepting yourself for who you really are.”

Isn’t writing better when characters just blurt out another person’s internal dilemma for the audience? Or:

“He asked me for Herb’s Garage.”

“Oh yeah. I remember that place.”

“We all did. So, I didn’t expect a thing.”

We needed less time with scenes like these, where it feels like characters are detached and drifting with excess time to fill. There’s one long hallway exchange between a young Bruce and Suzy that lasts over a minute of chit-chat that feels like they’re just reading off the script. The performances have that rushed feeling, of sentences starting immediately after the next, but lacking an energy level that would justify the delivery. Simply put, when two or more characters are sitting down and talking, you might as well go get a refill or hit the bathroom. The chances will be good they will still be in that same sedate conversation and you will have missed little. This is why the structural choice to spend 78 MINUTES OF MOVIE on establishment scenes is so maddening, because writer/producer/co-star Gloyd did not have the material to cover the time.

Let’s get into what I think is the most egregious portion of The Wager and that is the lengthy middle where Bruce gets kidnapped and coerced into a life of crime. I thought we were headed for some Oliver Twist territory and we’d watch Bruce’s struggles over the pressure to commit criminal acts he was uncomfortable doing, maybe even while he schemed to escape. First off, the fact that the criminals are stereotypical depictions of black males made me sigh. I also was confounded why they placed so much emphasis on kidnapping teenagers and runaways to serve as drug dealers. When you have access to money and power, you have people that will come to you for opportunities (you’re a job creator). You don’t need to kidnap children and hold them hostage to sell your wares, especially having to worry whether they will run away or whether someone will recognize them as missing. It’s stupid risk. Considering these men just sit in the car and watch young Bruce make his first street corner deal, it’s not like they’re being terribly conspicuous.

And then there’s the undetermined time jump, which is revealed during one of those static camera angle montages. It’s a nice surprise; however, it means that Bruce has been sleeping on this same dirty mattress in the same room for, like, twenty or thirty years (also none of the items on the shelves moved in that same time, meaning Bruce never touched a thing in his living quarters or he is very, very particular about where things should go). The same crime bosses are still alive and in their same position of leadership. Bruce is now played by Gloyd in a horrendous looking ratty wig and I needed to know desperately how much time has passed. Gloyd definitely looks to be in his 40s, and this significant jump in time raises so many irksome questions. The police haven’t found adult Bruce in 30 years but the same officer who found him as a baby, who is still alive and working as a security officer, can recognize him on the spot? How old are these same criminal leaders then, and Bruce hasn’t ascended higher up the organization than street dealer? If we’re jumping that far ahead, wouldn’t it make more sense for Bruce to be the new leader, letting us know he has been molded under the negative influence of his captors? If he’s just going to be a drug-addicted adult then why do we need to jump so far ahead in time? The answer, it seems, is so that the writer/producer can have a starring role. That’s fine, but we could have done more structurally to maximize the drama rather than dwelling in redundant misery.

Let’s analyze the spiritual message at the heart of The Wager. Bruce’s life is pretty bad. He’s in and out of foster homes, gets abducted and held hostage as a criminal lackey, becomes addicted to drugs and desperate, and then homeless and contemplating suicide. He’s had, by all accounts, a hard go of things. He’s understandably resentful about the forces he feels have conspired to lock him into agony, so when other characters raise the notion of a loving God that has his back and watches over him, Bruce scoffs and views his life as refutation. There’s even a nature versus nurture argument to be had. In fact, the first time Bruce went to Suzy’s church was when he was abducted. The cop character tells Bruce he’s been praying for him since the moment they first crossed paths, but considering what Bruce has endured, that’s not exactly a ringing endorsement for the power of prayer. Now obviously Bruce will conclude with accepting the love of God and finding a greater purpose with his life, but why did we need to wait so long? The end is never going to be in doubt with a Christian-themed indie any more than whether or not James Bond will get out of his latest scrape. That’s why refocusing the structure onto Bruce having to confront an angel over his feelings of abandonment from God would be far more dynamic, powerful, and I’ll say it, even Christian than the message as presented. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not questioning the faith and credentials of the filmmakers. I’m saying the way they go about telling their story makes the overall message less believably impactful.

The acting in The Wager is typically rather flat, given that energy-sapping direction that makes each scene feel twice as long. However, there is one actor I want to single out and that’s Cameron Arnett (Overcomer) as the unfortunately named Gabe Angelus (get it?). Arnett reappears in different roles, my favorite being a batty homeless man that helps out Bruce from time to time. In that moment, Arnett is so believable and arguably natural even while playing a highly mannered character. He immediately drew my attention and I remarked, “Here’s a good actor.” As for the other thespians, it’s hard for me to tell whether they just didn’t get the material to showcase their skills or whether those skills are in need of polishing. I know KateLynn Newberry (Widow’s Point, Dark Iris) as the queen of Ohio indies, and she’s pretty much wasted as a doting wife who lives to ask her husband what he wants for dinner. Fun fact: one of the crime lords is played by former Columbus resident and famous boxer James “Buster” Douglas.

With The Wager, I couldn’t believe what I was watching. Obvious dramatic setups seem to be sorely missed, a structural reformatting was in dire need to maximize the hook, because without that it’s like watching one poor man spiral and suffer for an entire feature-length film. It feels like overwrought overkill. Do we need a half-hour of a guy slinging drugs and sticking needles in his arm, without any supporting characters to interact with, or can this information be conveyed with practiced brevity? I am amazed at so many choices that left me scratching my head. The movie ends with our guardian angel staring into the screen and laughing maniacally for several prolonged seconds, even over the cut to black. What? This is the kind of behavior we associate with evil beings. Why do we need a flashback of a young girl running out the door when the adult version could have just relayed this event in words? I know Christian movie audiences aren’t exactly the most discerning audiences, prioritizing message over storytelling and technical achievement, but the decisions that the filmmakers make impair that faithful message. You don’t make an It’s a Wonderful Life story and just reserve it for the last 15 minutes. I advise select people to watch The Wager simply to learn what not to do with the importance of screenwriting structure. That’s its ultimate cautionary tale.

Nate’s Grade: C-

I’m Your Woman (2020)

I’m Your Woman does for the gangster/crime genre what You Were Never Really Here did for the loner revenge thriller, namely demystify popular tropes and find a humanity often missing below the surface. We’ve been inured to gangster cinema for decades and love following the criminal antics of bad men without fully thinking about the collateral damage on the periphery of their story. I’m Your Woman imagines a typical crime story but from a very human perspective, focusing on the wife who has to deal with the confusion and fallout from her husband’s misdeeds. It’s a refreshing and modern take that works as moody paranoia thriller just as much as it does a subversion of them.

It’s the 1970s. Jean (Rachel Brosnahan) is married to a man who she knows does some very bad things. One day Eddie (Bill Heck) comes home with a baby that he declares is theirs. Where did this baby come from? Jean cannot say but she chooses to raise this child as her own son. Another day, her husband goes out with some friends and never comes back. One of his associates barges into her home in the middle of the night, bloodied, and tells her that Eddie is gone and she needs to likewise be leaving in a hurry. He tasks Cal (Arinze Kene) to drive Jean and her baby out of town, watch over her, and wait until the heat dies down or everyone else just ends up dead.

And with that, the movie is off to a gallop and Jean doesn’t know what’s happened to her life, only that it’s bad, and she doesn’t know where her husband may be, or even if he’s alive, but she’s told that people will be coming for her to get to him or to punish him, and so she must be whisked away in the middle of the night into hiding. We as the audience are left very much in the dark with Jean, and this precious little information allows us to very strongly feel her paranoia and anxiety. Every scene when she’s been left alone and sees a car coming closer, every knock on the door, it raises the suspense because your mind, like hers, is questioning everything. Admittedly, some will find this to be rather boring and a lacking perspective, but I thought the approach of director/co-writer Julia Hart (Stargirl) was to highlight the perspective of a character often taken for granted and forgotten in gangster cinema and its celebration of doomed antiheroes. We’re used to criminals neglecting their molls, and I’m Your Woman declares its allegiance right in the title. We’re on the run with this woman, trying to make sense of the plight as we go, and being trapped in a position of limited information is an intriguing and relatable dash of realism.

There are violent outbursts from time to time, but much like You Were Never Really Here (the two of these movies would make a good double-feature, folks), the violence is far from glorified and often denied to the viewer. Much of the violence is depicted off-screen and we watch Jean stumble upon its awful consequences, again linking up with the perspective of a bystander to the careening violence and mayhem from her romantic attachment to a life of crime. There’s a mass shooting inside a club that is deeply unnerving because of our limited perspective. We’re tethered to Jean and hear the off-screen gunshots getting closer, the screams of civilians, and the camera keeps running without a cut as she dashes down a long corridor but cannot find an exit. She ducks into a phone booth and we watch armed men pass by. She waits and makes her escape, tripping over bleeding bodies, and the camera continues in one ongoing take. It’s nerve-wracking but it also denies us coherency or clarity which makes it so much scarier (I was having visions of what people might have gone through with the Pulse nightclub massacre). Given its subject, there are moments of sudden, shocking violence but often it’s to disorient us and not as some delivery system of satisfaction. It would be very easy to follow a more traditional formula for Jean where being thrust into fending for herself turns her into a steely killer that lays waste to the men hunting her as finds her own means of authority. That was essentially the plot of last year’s The Kitchen, a fairly mediocre and disappointing movie about threatened mob wives. That’s not this movie. Jean doesn’t become a ruthless mob boss. She certainly attains an agency that she didn’t have at the start of the film and a well-earned resilience, but she’s always a grounded, frantic, and relatable person trying to keep their wits and not serve up a witty retort.

Because much of the movie involves the protagonist in wait and picking up small pieces of information to reform her sense of self and her dire circumstances, the digressions had better be worth it. I fully believe I’m Your Woman is going to be a divisive movie and it will entertain likely as many people as it leaves cold. I found the small digressions to be interesting and doing their part to strip away the movie world heroics and trappings, allowing people to simply act like recognizable people. There are little things that stand out, like a kind neighbor simply recognizing how exhausted a new mother looks, or a method of soothing a baby passed down from father to son, or the discussion of making a child laugh being the clincher for parental ties. There’s a lovely moment halfway through where Jean and Cal are stopping at a café. She delivers a monologue about her unexpected child, about her inability to carry a pregnancy full-term, about her prior miscarriages and her divining what that means about her involvement in crime, and it’s one of those moments where it feels like a character is just baring their soul. Jean is so vulnerable, so remorseful, but also so lost yet hopeful of what being a mother could mean for her, a title she says she tries to downplay but had really been her heart’s desire. I enjoyed getting to spend time with Cal and those he links Jean up with later. There’s a found family aspect of dislocated people trying to navigate the hand they’re dealt without pity or commiseration. When the movie stops to take a breath, that’s when it kept solidifying its growing authenticity for me.

Brosnahan (The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel) is a fine anchor. She has to constantly be alert and anxious, as well as exhausted, so even when she’s at rest her character can never fully be rested. It means that even during the quiet moments alone, Bosnahan is giving the viewer a terrific sample of non-verbal acting prowess. I appreciated that Jean isn’t stupid. She’s ignorant insofar as she lacks crucial knowledge, but throughout I’m Your Woman she responds to potential threats and suspicions in ways you would hope and avoids more than a few disasters. Brosnahan also has an easygoing chemistry with Kene (How to Build a Girl) that makes them a winning team.

I found I’m Your Woman to be a refreshing take on crime stories by re-examining life from a character very often left behind while the men run their schemes and accrue their violent demise. It’s an interesting character study of a gangster’s moll and what living with the consequences of a bad marriage can involve. There’s terror and bloodshed but it never feels sensationalized or glamorized. Our heroine proves herself capable of surprising those who discount her, but that doesn’t mean she transforms from a scared, confused, and desperate person into an action hero. The filmmakers have brought a reflective and humanist take on the gangster genre, and your appreciation will likely also benefit from familiarity with the genre and its tropes. If you’re subverting expectations, knowing those expectations is somewhat essential to the desired effect. I’m Your Woman is worth your time if you ever wondered about the life of so many of those underwritten, possibly stock supporting roles in a gangster movie and asked about their interior lives.

Nate’s Grade: B+

The Tax Collector (2020)

If you had told me that The Tax Collector was a parody of writer David Ayer’s hyper masculine, lurid, crime-ridden jaunts into the slums, police stations, and domestic lives of criminals, I would have completely believed you. We’ve been here before, with Ayer’s End of Watch, Street Kings, Harsh Times, Dark Blue, Training Day, even the fantasy-mingled Bright looked like an Ayer battleground of gangs, crooked cops, hypocritical politicians, and godly family men who someone can justify the heinous acts of violence they do. This time Ayer is following a pair of gangsters that make their monthly rounds to collect their dues from the other gangs. Their big boss, The Wizard, is rotting in jail, and a rival gangster, who also is literally a cannibalistic Satanist, takes the opportunity to make a violent power play. First off, this is nothing you haven’t seen before. It’s more bad men barking threats at those they feel are underneath their authority, then lots of driving banter meant to endear us to these bad men, and then professions of how much they love family or God. With the main villain being an avowed occultist, the battle-line takes on a biblical sense or good versus evil. The problem is that I didn’t care about a single character nor did I find them interesting. For a solid hour, we’re watching David (Bobby Sotto) and Creeper (Shia LaBeouf) go about their collections, argue about theology and diet, and reminisce. These guys are not interesting and more place setters for more compelling characters to be developed in later drafts that never took place. There’s a paucity of thrills and action and general tension to be had here. It’s shoddily paced. When things do pick up and The Tax Collector becomes a grisly revenge tale, the villains are so easily toppled, and in such unmemorable ways, that you understand why Ayer was putting all this off. During a bathroom brawl, the action stops for a pointless flashback to see Bobby in his martial arts class, but when he comes back he smashes a guy’s head with a toilet cover. That wasn’t a martial arts move he learned. It’s strange moments like that where The Tax Collector feels more like an old, incomplete screenplay Ayer had locked away in a drawer, a rough collection of his bombastic machismo crime thriller tropes that barely tops 80 minutes. The only passion on display is from LaBeouf, who reportedly got an entire chest tattoo for his character except his exposed chest is never clearly seen once on camera. I don’t even know why he wasn’t the main character. Bobby is boring as the humdrum hoodlum who wants out of the family business (Michael Corleone he is not). A late twist is meant to be revelatory but, beyond being predictable by the economy of characters, signifies little for Bobby. The Tax Collector is awash in the same grimy gangland stereotypes that have populated most of Ayer’s professional work, but rarely has his moral ambiguity, nihilism, and envelope-pushing “rawness” felt more like self-parody. This is a thriller bled dry.

Nate’s Grade: C-

The Last Days of American Crime (2020)

Even by relaxed standards which we judge widely-available Netflix movies during a time of quarantine, The Last Days of American Crime is a staggering waste of 150 minutes. It’s based on a 2009 graphic novel series and even by the sliding scale of shut-your-brain-off action movies, it’s numbing, dreadfully dull, incoherent, and stitched together with hoary genre clichés and little creative forethought. It’s rare that I come across a movie that seems so willfully ignorant to explore the implications of its own premise.

In the near future, the U.S. government is in the final stages of implementing the American Peace Initiative (API), a special radio signal that stops crime in its tracks. It acts as a brain blocker on anything illegal, stopping the user from being able to follow through. Graham Bricke (Edgar Ramirez) finds out the hard way when his bank robbery crew become some of the first test subjects. American citizens are desperate to flee to Canada before the API goes live. Bricke gets seduced by computer hacker Shelby Dupree (Anna Brewster) to pull off one big score. The government is readying to destroy a billion dollars in currency before going digital, and Shelby’s fiancé, Kevin Cash (Michael Pitt), has the connection to pull off the heist of the century.

Firstly, there is not nearly enough material here to justify the gargantuan Avengers-esque running time. You could realistically slice down a whole hour and not impact its middling entertainment value or clarity. While I was watching it didn’t even feel like a movie, more like a series designed to be binge watched, where the plotting becomes much more slack because the filmmakers anticipate their show will be digested in quick succession and that they have earned patience. It irritates me in television and it certainly irritated me here as well. Don’t blithely assume that your audience has infinite patience when you haven’t given them a proper story to properly engage with. Just about every scene could be trimmed down and some of them go on punishingly long, especially scenes where people are getting shot. There’s one late scene that goes on for what feels like five minutes of just watching two characters get shot. It’s so gratuitous, like much else in the movie, that it borders into unintentional anti-comedy.

As for the action, director Oliver Megaton (Taken 2 and 3) delivers very little of note. There’s a car chase here, a shootout there, but no set piece that actually develops or proves that memorable. It’s all just disposable noise that amounts to little, not even fleeting, escapist entertainment. This is a heist movie where the actual heist planning is ignored. The most enjoyable part of a heist movie is the intricate planning and then execution of that plan, combating the unforeseen complications and overcoming for triumph. If your entire movie is centered on a big heist, don’t treat that like it’s another meaningless plot element. I cannot believe the filmmakers failed to realize that if the viewer doesn’t know what the dangers, problems, and scheme of the upcoming heist will be, then everything feels arbitrary and unsatisfying, and it does so here. The actual heist, pulled off around the 90-minute mark, is not worth the buildup and lack of accessibility. It’s just another haphazard action set piece, not the culmination of planning and an important payoff for carefully manufactured setups. If you’re tuning in for fun action, you’ll be sorely disappointed to find there’s more time spent torturing people onscreen than there is for sustained and exciting action.

The awful characters we’re left to spend 150 minutes with are hardly worth that investment. Everyone is kept strictly as stock archetypes, and even when the screenplay tries to develop them, it follows a strictly predictable path to minimal results. Oh, someone has a family member in custody and is being pressured to snitch? Oh, our silent-and-seemingly-conflicted protagonist wants to avenge his dead brother because he cares and stuff? Oh, our oddball criminal scion wants to make a big name for himself outside of his father’s shadow? The fact the movie spends so much time with these characters while giving them so little dimension, little personality, and little to do is another indictment on the bloated pacing. If we’re spending this much time with our criminal rogues, the least you can do is make them interesting and dramatic and colorful. The protagonist’s name is Graham Bricke, which sounds so boring that it must have been generated by an A.I. The femme fatale super hacker lady is really here just to look sad or sexy, here to deliver three uncomfortable sex scenes including a near rape as well. The other notable female roles in this movie include News Anchor, Lesbian 1 and Lesbian 2, Female Tweeker, and Female Cop. Hooray for depth.

There are two characters that had a chance of being interesting but are so mishandled. The first is Kevin Cash, our wannabe gangster. Pitt (HBO’s Boardwalk Empire) brings a much-needed dose of energy and theatrics, like he’s trying everything in his power to desperately hold your flagging attention. Even his pathetic overcompensating nature is tiresome. A scene where he, his father, and his younger stepmother (another fine example of female character representation in the movie) shriek and bicker at one another is just embarrassing and misplaced comic relief. He’s boring. The only other potential was with Sharlto Copley (District 9) as a disgraced police officer. We spend plenty of time with him early in the movie, establishing his outsider status, perhaps some regret, and hoping that his position of authority will be better explored as he wrestles with whether the police force is worthy of its state-decreed exemptions to the API. Nope. He just becomes another dude in the final act that could have been replaced by anyone else. It would be like devoting so much time to Henchman #12 and his personal crisis of self in a Bond movie only to watch the lug unceremoniously die in a final action rush. Was that worth the time spent?

Its Purge-like premise sounds intriguing and worthy of exploration until, that is, you really think about how silly it all is. So a magic radio signal is going to inhibit your brain from committing known wrongs, but does that mean that the radio signal will have to blare constantly in order to have a lasting effect, otherwise its enforcement will be limited? What happens to sociopaths who don’t even register right from wrong? They will be able to move and act without abandon. Then there’s the day-to-day corruption, graft, greed from all pillars of society, politicians and Wall Street and officials that exploit their positions for illegal gains. Seriously, if this radio signal inhibits the fruition of illegal acts, would Wall Street just shut down? Would the factory owners who knowingly skirt worker safety for profits be able to operate? Would criminal defense attorneys be able to operate or would they use the ethical justification that everyone, no matter how heinous, deserves legal representation? If you think about a capitalist society, it’s built upon people behaving not so nicely, so would all facets of the economy grind to a screeching halt?

There is one aspect of this world building, even with what the meager story has established, that could be interesting to explore, and that’s the exceptions to this new order. Police officers are getting implants that make them immune to the effects of API, though in a world where a radio wave eliminates criminal acts, do you still need a police force to protect and serve? Regardless, this special class of exception is deserving of further exploration, a socially relevant angle to tap into the inherent advantages offered to the top one percent who don’t think the rules apply to them. In fact, if Last Days of American Crime was going to run with its silly premise as is, and during the pre-activation countdown timeline, they should have presented a story about those who are given the state-sanctioned privilege to act with impunity. Let’s watch the elite get their special exemption chips and plan for the New World where they maintain their vaunted privileges. It would at least make the movie socially relevant as well as a better development of its sci-fi premise.

Watch, dear reader, as I present you two better scenarios with this silly premise. The first is the most obvious and that’s life AFTER the implication of the AFI, presenting life under a new fascist order and a group of revolutionaries trying to thwart the radio waves. Imagine a group not plotting to pull off a bank heist but ridding their community of the AFI and giving them autonomy over their minds and bodies again? There’s an ever-present hostility that forces the characters to keep their thoughts on safe topics, having to communicate with subterfuge to not set off their brain jailers. It would be like a dystopian version of that classic Twilight Zone episode where little Bill Mumy where everyone had to think “good thoughts” or else he would magically banish them to the cornfield. That’s interesting, that’s genuine conflict, that’s characters under great duress trying to escape a fascist nightmare without tipping off the invisible sensors in their own minds that could trigger. There’s a larger goal of freeing their fellow citizens from this tyranny as well. That’s already one hundred times better than simply trying to steal money before the clock strikes zero. If it was only ever going to be “one big last score” then why even bother with the mind-control antics? It could have been anything at all.

However, if you wanted something more low-key, you could take a different path with the idea of the bucket list before the API goes live. Think of two teenagers who don’t have the means to escape and feel like they haven’t fully lived and a whole lifetime of rebellion and adventures they had been dreaming towards will now be snuffed out. The screenplay already floats the idea of a criminal bucket list but why not run with that idea as the core of your movie? Two teenagers making the most of their time together over the course of one long crazy night of cutting loose, testing their boundaries, and acting out the best ways they know how, learning about each other and the depth of their friendship before their minds will not fully be their own. It takes the teenager coming-of-age model, feeling like a stranger in your own body, and gives it a PG-13-Purge twist, with the distant tragedy of the looming tyranny ahead to up the stakes. Even that development would be better than “one last score,” and these are just two ideas I’ve come up with while writing this film review. Think what could be accomplished if a professional screenwriter spent weeks fleshing out a better version.

Alas, the version of The Last Days of American Crime we do receive is powerfully plodding, incoherent, empty and arbitrary, and definitely not worth your precious 150 minutes. With the current state of the world where thousands of U.S. citizens are protesting in the streets over a militarized police state and wanton brutality, it makes Last Days look even more phony and ill-conceived as entertainment. It doesn’t examine the implications of its own fascist police state, it only uses it as a pointless backdrop for an arbitrarily plotted  “last score” heist before it all just falls apart, spent of imagination and intent.

Nate’s Grade: D+

Capone (2020)

In 2012, after the found footage superhero movie Chronicle became a surprise smash, director Josh Trank was at the top of Hollywood’s hot new director list. Within three years, he was a pariah. The production behind 2015’s Fantastic Four was so troubled and fraught with reshoots, creative clashes, and secret edits that Trank was labeled as a malcontent who couldn’t be trusted with the big tentpoles. He was unceremoniously dumped by Star Wars and seemed to become the latest casualty of an industry that eats its own promising wunderkinds. I’d highly advise people read a very illuminating in-depth article from Polygon on Trank’s troubles and triumphs, including his insights on where Fantastic Four went awry. Trank spent years honing his next script, an Al Capone biopic of his late years, and waiting for star Tom Hardy to be available. Some critics have called Trank’s comeback movie a self-indulgent, surreal, campy mess, and indeed while I was watching I had visions of Mommie Dearest. However, that wasn’t a bad thing, at least for me. I cannot call Capone an unqualified success but I appreciated the bizarre lengths Trank goes to make a biopic that mocks and tears away the mystique of its macho idol.

Capone (Hardy), or “Fonze” as he’s referred to primarily, has been released from his prison sentence for tax evasion and living the rest of his days on his Florida estate. He’s suffering dementia from the effects of neurosyphilis, a condition he contracted as a teenager. His wife, Mae (Linda Cardellini), tries her best to keep him from harming himself or others. The F.B.I. is still listening, still watching, and newspaper reporters are still hiding along the bushes. Capone struggles to keep his mind from being completely lost but will lose, dying at age 47.

First off, I think Trank’s initial creative approach is a genius way to explore a biographical film, running through the major points of a subject’s life in a hallucinatory, non-linear fashion that mixes fantasy and reality. From that standpoint alone, Capone is never boring because it can quite literally go anywhere as Capone retreats further and further into his fraying mind. That’s such a visually stimulating way of telling a story while also presenting a chaotic impression of a character’s perception, locking us into an empathetic experience with an unreliable guidepost. I think that alone makes Capone worthwhile, as does Hardy’s go-for-broke performance (more on that later). It’s a weird fever dream of a movie, constantly shifting between past and present, fantasy and reality, and I think this perspective adds much to the film’s appeal and ambition. One second the man is sitting down with FBI agents and the next he’s wandering a ballroom to go onstage with Louis Armstrong for a New Year’s Eve duet. It gets pretty crazy and that’s good.

I was wondering if Trank would glorify his title subject. I only had to wait for the first twenty minutes where Al Capone literally craps himself twice for my answer. This is not Capone at the height of his fearsome power where he ruled the Chicago ganglands; this is a decrepit, doddering middle-aged man, equally helpless and reckless, unable or unwilling to even control his bowels. He is rotten from the inside out, a vile human being whose own filth is leaking out to smother him. Gangster cinema has often glamorized the mafia and criminals as unorthodox folk heroes, like in 1967’s Bonnie and Clyde and the more recent Public Enemies in 2009. So, with all of that said, I enjoyed that Trank took a legendary figure of the criminal underworld and totally undercut his machismo power. He strips away the romantic notions of the man’s life. This isn’t the man on the pulpy radio dramas, this is a guy who craps the bed. Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman got plenty of acclaim for spending its final half-hour showing where a lifetime of crime leads its elderly protagonist, a sad, lonely life without any lasting personal benefit. Trank takes that much-heralded final half-hour and turns it into an entire 100-minute movie. I wish more movies would do this to deserving subjects.

The biggest draw of the film is Hardy (Venom, The Revenant) who never met a film role he couldn’t grumble, mumble, growl, or unleash a funny voice for. To say he is committed does not to do the man justice. He is not only chewing scenery; he is rapidly inhaling it. He is playing to the cheap seats with this role, bloodshot eyes bulging out of his head with thousand-yard stares of confusion and paranoia. He’s barely intelligible at times, and that’s before he has a stroke that further impairs his ability to communicate. He can also be hard to recognize under layers of pock-faced makeup. The acting-with-a-capital-A style is so enthralling but perhaps not for the exact intended reasons. It’s fascinating to watch a highly respected, Academy Award-nominated actor just indulge every over-the-top impulse and tic, where each small decision feels like generating the question, “Really, you went with that choice?” The batty performance brought to mind Faye Dunaway’s breathtaking performance in 1981’s so-bad-it’s-good Mommie Dearest as Joan Crawford (she thought she was going to in awards for that performance!). It’s a level of camp with no earthly reservation, and it’s rare to see from such a famous actor, and I was spellbound. If you enjoyed Mommie Dearest for its unintentional camp hilarity, then Capone might be just for you.

While at turns confounding and fascinating, Capone falls short when it comes to examining the inner life of its title character. I assumed with the conceit of losing touch with reality that Capone would be experiencing some reckoning over his past misdeeds, and this happens to a very mild, opaque degree. There are some supporting characters that turn out to be, surprise, ghosts that Capone had killed in his past. But they stop there, failing to provide an opportunity for Capone to feel remorse and they don’t even push him on being guilty. You would think a man with a sizeable list of dead people he’s responsible for would be haunted by more ghosts from the past, forcing him to reconcile his idea of himself with his tortured deeds. Capone is also seeing images of a young boy that is meant to represent his poor youthful upbringing, but he doesn’t interact with this past representation other than look uncomfortable in his presence. The movie desperately needed more introspection with this man examining his sins and legacy and validations. A bad man coming to terms with the end and what it means has great dramatic potential. A bad man who bumbles around his luxurious home, sees some ghosts, and continues bumbling has less so. That’s where Trank’s screenplay really falters because it doesn’t push harder. Capone is too caught up in upending the image of Al Capone rather than digging deeper into the man himself and his inherent end-of-life drama.

The supporting characters also do little to offer alternative sides to better know Capone. His long-suffering wife is nicely played by Cardellini (Green Book), brought to tears watching her strong man waste away, calling her an angel one minute and forgetting her face the next, but we don’t learn more about the central figure through her. He started poor. Got power. Now he’s incompetent (and incontinent). That’s it. There’s room for more here than a man physically and mentally falling apart. What about the other people in his life? What about plans for succession from those who spent their lives in his service? There’s even a storyline of a lovechild trying to get in contact with him and the movie miraculously does nothing with this abandoned son to add further dimension and insight.

I would be lying if I said I wasn’t laughing throughout Capone, though I think Trank is intending some degree of mockery with his biopic that plumbs the depths of the strange and grotesque. There’s a guy who gets stabbed in the neck maybe 50 literal times. There’s Capone shooting alligators, convinced they’re conspiring to munch on his testicles. There’s Capone applauding and singing along to The Wizard of Oz and arguing for the sake of the Cowardly Lion. There’s an ongoing subplot about different supporting characters trying to somehow sift the location of Capone’s hidden millions from his broken mind like a treasure hunt. There’s an entire sequence where Capone, with carrot-as-cigar in mouth, marches around firing a golden tommy gun while his saggy adult diaper droops around his waistline. In short, there’s more than enough material here to enjoy on a strictly ridiculous, pulpy, heightened to the point of breaking campy variety. Hardy is fully unrestrained, for better and worse, but he’s always watchable, as I would say of the film itself. Even if it feels ultimately superficial and underdeveloped, Trank’s Capone is a mess of bad taste about a bad man going through some bad times and it just might be the good kind of bad.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Constraint (2019) [PART THREE]

Please read PART ONE and PART TWO if you have yet to as I try and better articulate my questions over this Columbus, Ohio indie and its confounding creative decision-making. Dear reader, I am going to take you live through this very intellectual and artistic assessment as I continue to watch Constraint.

The main plot revolves around Oracabessa (Brooklyn Sabino Smith), a young cellist, who becomes entangled in a web of human traffickers, led by Tuco (Ralph Scott).

I’m now heading into Act Three with a half-hour left of movie to go with Constraint. Oracabessa mumbles the address from Tuco’s I.D. and wanders into the woods rather than call for help or use her moped or one of the cars at the scene of the accident. Magically, she finds the location. Her sense of direction must be superb while suffering from a concussion. Why would she think Tucco was holding the trafficking victims at his registered home address? I feel like the first step of human trafficking, after giving away one’s moral whole, is not to keep your victims at your home.

Dear reader, I am all about climaxes where our protagonist wreaks havoc among some very bad people who deserve some very bad justice dealt to them in hopefully poetic and painful ways. It’s a natural storytelling formula rife with catharsis and payoffs. But like other formulas, you need to still put in the work to reap the rewards. Just because our heroine is stumbling to a compound to free the victims and bring down their tormentors does not mean it works. It’s skipping to a climax the movie doesn’t really deserve because we spent so much precious time on side characters that didn’t matter and dawdled. Just in case if you mistook the good faith of the production, there’s also a gratuitous rape scene used as a setting device for one of the heretofore unknown bad men (at least she was clothed). One of the women from the beginning is found in the basement, she mistakes Oracabessa’s intentions, and runs to her to be saved, and she then gets gunned down in the back by the traffickers. She was let down twice by our heroine.

Our leading lady wanders the compound and comes across two children, one white and one non-white, both of them trafficking victims, but she only addresses the white kid and says, “I’ve come to take you home.” They ask if she is the police, again a reminder that perhaps alerting the police to the whereabouts of this site might have been a higher priority than going alone. She is only here, it would seem, for these two children. Sorry the women she found in the confusingly oriented basement. I was already having a hard time liking this protagonist as is but this sealed it.

A lot of shots of running through the woods happen without much to connect a sense of spacing and geography, and then Oracabessa is saved when Derick drives up and they get inside his car and drive away to safety. The following then happens in our bulrush of a resolution:

1) Oracabessa is in a hospital bed. A nurse is asking her about medications.

2) Nicolas quickly rides a motorcycle to the hospital entrance outside.

3) The nurse says she “just got your blood tests back” (a certain The Room line echoed in my head) and then imparts, “Have you ever been pregnant before?” Why is this even being asked except to imply that she is currently pregnant or never had a son like she confessed before. We get no clear indication on either of these being true, so, again, why include it?

4) Cut to Nicolas running down the hospital corridor while SUDDEN electronica music begins blaring like we just dropped into an action set piece from Blade.

5) Nicolas comes into Oracabessa’s room and pulls up a blanket on her in a manner that seems less “tucking in” and more “pulling sheet over a corpse on a slab.”

6) We reveal in the same hospital is Oracabessa’s brother who was indeed the drug carrier that Tuco stabbed far earlier and has not been referenced since. The doctor says he lost a lung.

7) Nicolas thanks Derick for saving Oracabessa and they seem to part on good terms. In the same camera setup, with Derick in the same outfit, thus implying that same day, Oracabessa leaves on crutches, meaning she was discharged in hours. The ADR-ed line “Think you cracked the skull” occurs without Derick moving his mouth.

8) We jump to a new scene where Oracabessa has her hands around Derick’s face and she says, “I’m going to kiss you now, and it’s going to be the last time. I’ll never kiss you again.” It’s a repetitious line that screamed Neil Breen to me.

9) We jump to a new scene where Oracabessa is hobbling to the ballet class teacher who shows no sympathy and literally tells her that her last performance “was an abortion.” Yikes! This is then immediately followed by Derick saying, “A woman has a right to choose” to Nicolas.

10) While talking to the creeper from before with the French accent who heads a music school, Oracabessa SUDDENLY remembers a time she saw him sitting in the passenger seat of Tuco’s car while it passed her on the street. Who else will she arbitrarily remember next? And how often did she see this one car drive around her entire town that she committed to memory? She, at long long LONG last, finally calls the police and has the human trafficker creeper arrested.

11) She then flies to Jamaica and visits her father, asking him about the little boy he ran over. Did this man serve jail time? Oracabessa blames herself for the kid’s death and now I feel like this should have been dealt with more if we’re going this route. It doesn’t feel like catharsis because it doesn’t feel like it was on her mind too often. Did I confuse the earlier scene of her talking about a son as this kid?

12) Nicolas surprises her in Jamaica. “Whatever happened to that Derick fellow?” asks dad at a dinner with the three of them. We’ve been told Nicolas was engaged to Oracabessa, so it seems peculiar that of the two men in his daughter’s life, this is the one he is unfamiliar with. Dad threatens Nicolas with great harm if he does anything to hurt his daughter. Is this comedy?

13) The voiceover overlaps and we jump to a wedding party dinner with the use of split screens. Why split screens? With how quickly we are rushing through plot content, I feel like this is the series finale of HBO’s Six Feet Under and I’ll see the next hundred years of these people’s lives.

14) The various characters mingle and dance in, what else, a wide angle that lasts an astounding FOUR MINUTES without cuts, as if the movie didn’t know it was over. It’s just lingering with no real purpose of why the audience needs to see any of this for four minutes. There is no dramatic change. Just people hugging. If the movie already wasn’t nearly two hours long, I would have accused the filmmakers of dragging this thing to a feature-length running time. Then the end credits just appear, which they could have done four minutes ago too.

Finally, now I can derive my critical conclusions on this truly bizarre Ohio indie movie. Constraint feels overwhelmingly like Ohio’s own Neil Breen movie, plotted so loosely, so archaically, with characters behaving so randomly and nonsensically, and with a story that never seems to have traction, bouncing from one character to another and going on strange tangents and flashbacks, like it’s trying to pack in some half-formed Armistead Maupin ensemble piece. Constraint is just as much about a girl walking around town with her cello on her back (possibly one quarter of all shots) as it is about sex trafficking and finding the victims (when it’s not squeezing in some nudity from them). The pacing seems overstuffed and insufficient, with so many things happening but little connection to make those actions feel important even with life and death stakes. Perhaps having our main trafficker just wandering around town at all hours takes away from his mystery and danger. This is a movie where anything might happen at a moment’s notice because it doesn’t feel like much of what you’re watching builds off what came before. Being redundant at 110 minutes is just inexcusable. The scenes in a movie should matter, as should their placement, and the characters should learn, grow, progress, or at least present an interesting viewpoint for an audience to follow.

From a production standpoint, Constraint has some positive qualities but they are routinely hobbled by the exasperating creative choices of the man in charge, writer and director and editor and cinematographer Richard A. Nelson (The Endangered). The man likely should have only had one job on this project as director. He needed other creative supports that could better concentrate on seeing a vision through, a better writer to make a better story with fleshed-out characters, a better cinematographer to ensure more seamless camera arrangements for the edit, a better editor that wouldn’t sabotage the movie’s flow and literal comprehension with so many erratic edits. It’s not a bad looking movie despite some unfortunate edits and a heavy reliance on day-for-night filming. The acting is generally acceptable but I don’t hold the performances against the actors. The characters they are playing are very difficult to find a sustainable reality to inhabit. Smith (Indie Film School) has something about her that keeps you watching, which is good considering her cellist character doesn’t fulfill that same outcome. Scott (After) is dependably great. There are even moments, slivers, that give an idea of how good all these actors could be with better material, like the small scene between Alice and Tuco together. Constraint feels like a dozen movies that have been sloppily distilled together, with inorganic sections intruding upon one another. I don’t know if this approaches a so-bad-it’s-good quality but it’s flabbergasting to witness.

I cannot advise you to watch Constraint but I cannot not advise you to watch this. It’s Ohio’s own Neil Breen indie and I never thought I would discover something quite like that.

Nate’s Grade: D-

Constraint (2019) [PART TWO]

Please read PART ONE if you have yet to as I try and better articulate my questions over this Columbus, Ohio indie and its confounding creative decision-making. Dear reader, I am going to take you live through this very intellectual and artistic assessment as I continue to watch Constraint.

The main plot revolves around Oracabessa (Brooklyn Sabino Smith), a young cellist, who becomes entangled in a web of human traffickers, led by Tuco (Ralph Scott).

I am now 45 minutes into the movie and screamed, “What?” to my screen. Oracabessa (Brooklyn Sabino Smith) is once again playing cello for a ballet class and the instructor doesn’t like the musical selection. She requests Wagner, and Oracabessa says she won’t. The instructor is animated and agitated and demands to know why she can’t play the composer. “I didn’t say I couldn’t play it. I won’t,” she replies. Why? Is this going to be like some character moment like in La La Land where Ryan Gosling gets fired for refusing to play the holiday music his boss asks for as dining accompaniment? I would think refusing to play what a client was requesting could cease in you getting more work from that client. And considering this one ballet class is the only thing we’ve watched her do for money, I wouldn’t be too pushy.

Oracabessa sees Tuco walking along the street again which begs the question of how protected does this guy think he is? She follows him but the ensuing tailing sequence goes through a blender of edits so it more implies the chase than allows it to establish. She then joins the college professor, and Derick, and others at a hookah bar to translate a French speaker. “What about having your own racial identity?” Why does this scene exist in a story about sex trafficking? Is the professor Oracabessa’s sister? Why was this never established earlier? There’s now a discussion over whether or not Jewish people should be defined by the Holocaust and its impact and it’s like a family dinner squabble, still with the omnipresent ADR dialogue, and I’m starting to lean into the arbitrary madness of Constraint as it further infects me.

We transition back to the life of Tuco, our beleaguered sex trafficker. He kills a guy for being late to a drug deal and I cannot say but this might have been Oracabessa’s brother from the previous family dinner scene. Tuco has his kidnapped women line up in their underwear so they can be “inspected” by his superior. He warns them not to “embarrass him,” though I have no idea how that would be achieved. And then the women start stripping off their clothes and the camera angles are PURPOSELY AIMED to highlight their full-frontal nudity, even one side view that captures all three women’s breasts in a row while cutting off their heads. That’s when I stood out of my chair, cursed this movie out loud, and paced around the room in building anger.

Nudity in film by itself doesn’t have to be sexual or gratuitous, but this nudity is meant for titillation, framed for this purpose, and to squeeze this into the context of sex trafficking, a very depressing and all-too-real reality for many, I felt extremely grossed out. The scene doesn’t need visible nudity to feel the distress and vulnerability of the captured women. I love exploitation movies as entertainment, and have even supported a few financially, but story context and tone are key. The women of this moment are there to be objectified and the camera objectifies them too. You know how I know how these actresses felt about this scene? None of their last names can be found in the film’s credits, so I don’t think they were too happy to have their full names associated.

We now transition to another new perspective, this time Nicolas’ parents (Dino Tripodis and Kristina Kopf, The Street Where We Live). “He experimented with something exotic,” the father says, and I don’t know if this implies that dad is racist for thinking “black” equals “exotic.” This entire scene feels even more student film-esque than the rest, with the editing choices and the characters dancing around critiques of domesticity and parenting. The wide angles that suddenly cut to extreme close-ups of faces, the jump cuts, and ADR sound design, it’s all starting to make this feel like a foreign film that’s trying to be New Wave arty. “You didn’t even leave your son with the hopeful illusion that maybe his parents were in love at one time,” mom says. The dialogue in this movie feels like it was written by an A.I. at many points. Nicolas later confronts dad who is apparently out on a date with another woman, and he does so with his mom in tow. “My whole life, the one thing you’ve been good at, is making people cry,” Nicolas bemoans. The wide shots showcase a bar/restaurant with nobody else in attendance, again another mistake with revealing the limitations of filmmaking. Now the scene is suddenly in black and white, so is this an established flashback? If the whole thing was a flashback for Nicolas then why wasn’t it all coded in black and white? Wait, then Nicolas’ own voice over narration is coming in while dad is talking in the present. We then pull into a flashback of Nicolas telling the story of meeting his divorced father in the park to Oracabessa, so we witnessed a flashback-within-a-flashback for a side character. “What would you say is the most devastating thing to happen in your life?” he asks Oracabessa. Sheesh, if this is your pillow talk no wonder she dumped you, dude. There’s now a flashback 23 years to Jamaica with Oracabessa’s biological father. There’s an ongoing streak of whispered poetic voice over from Terrence Malick films. What movie am I watching now? I can’t keep up with the shifting perspectives and visual vocabulary that keeps being broken so flagrantly and randomly.

Folks, the erratic edits have not gotten any better and a conversation will randomly jump from four different camera positions from line to line to completely obliterate flow.

Derick and Nicolas are fighting over Oracabessa, who doesn’t want either of them, and then Oracabessa is playing at a big recital, and again I have to remind myself this is supposed to be a movie about sex trafficking but it’s playing like some small-town ensemble piece (why else do the same people keep running into each other in a city of over a million?) but like a Christopher Guest mockumentary (Waiting for Guffman) played straight. Why does Tuco even attend this recital?! Oracabessa follows him and the chase has several nice camera angles for a low-budget indie, and it’s also edited in a way that maintains the suspense and is readable for the audience, going from better selected angles to convey the progression of the chase and Oracabessa following closely. The music, however, is way too overwrought and we watch Tuco go into a restaurant, eat, and then leave with Oracabessa following again. Why did we need a pitstop? She didn’t even go inside.

Tuco finally ambushes Oracabessa and runs her over, which triggers a flashback of her son (?) she confessed she lost (in the flashback with Nicolas) being run over in the past. The way the scene plays doesn’t make it seem like she was witness to this event for recollection. Nope, it’s just a kid that Oracabessa’s father ran over while she was a child, which explains why she could recall this moment but also makes it too confusing for an audience to adjust to what is being thrown at us without context as it plays. It wasn’t even in black and white, which is the established code for flashback. A drunk driver then plows into Tuco’s car, which smashes into Tuco, finally killing him and setting Ralph Scott (Minus One) free from the earthly bonds of this movie. Oracabessa takes his I.D., gun, and sets off, presumably, on a path of righteous vengeance as she… wanders into the woods, but what do I know?

So this one woman had her father run over a child, abandon her, then she lost a child of her own, and has been stalked by human traffickers. This is getting into telenovela territory of melodrama. And so ends PART TWO of my real-time review of Constraint.

Constraint (2019) [PART ONE]

A most unusual thing happened when I was watching the Ohio-made indie Constraint on Amazon Prime; I was so bewildered by the filmmaking choices that I had to stop and begin writing my thoughts immediately on the movie even as it continued playing. This is a rarity, a movie that causes such confusion that I feel compelled to articulate my thoughts in the moment rather than, as I normally do, assessing them upon completion. I wasn’t expecting any of this. Constraint has a very serious subject, sex trafficking, and filmed in my hometown of Columbus, Ohio, which has itself a very serious problem with sex trafficking networks. It starred familiar faces from my other Ohio indie viewings of recent. But then within only three minutes, I had to pause at several points, walk around my room muttering questions to myself, and couldn’t go much further in the movie without repeating this process. So, dear reader, I am going to take you live through this very intellectual and artistic assessment as I continue to watch Constraint.

The plot revolves around Oracabessa (Brooklyn Sabino Smith), a young cellist, who becomes entangled in a web of human traffickers, led by Tuco (Ralph Scott). Other characters will come and go into her orbit but Oracabessa is our guiding point.

Within minutes, I was already starting to question decisions, or practical limitations, exhibited by writer/director/editor/cinematogpraher Richard A. Nelson (The Endangered). Even the opening credits are strange with listing an assistant director before blocks of cast names and then zipping by in a blink as to render their inclusion seemingly moot. Then there was the realization that all of the dialogue sounded like it had been ADR, meaning recorded later and indoors. Not just outdoors scenes, which can be notorious for wind and auxiliary noise, but also indoor settings. Honestly, it made me immediately think of the notorious Mystery Science Theater 3000 high point/low point, Manos: The Hands of Fate, a movie from 1966 where every line of dialogue was recorded after filming and, what sounds like, in a bathroom, and sometimes with one actor providing both voices to a conversation of two characters. Immediately, my mind starts going into formulating some kind of explanation why this might be, what could have led to this, and I’ll fully admit to striking some of my criticisms if they vanish later in the film.

The editing choices can be jarring and forced me to stop the movie at several points. An early scene, at the four-and-a-half-minute mark, has our lead Oracabessa visiting her boyfriend, Nicolas (Aaron Geib). The camera moves to a wide angle as they settle at a kitchen table. Within seconds there are two jump cuts but they eliminate mere seconds or fractions of seconds of footage. Then there’s a quick cut to an exterior of the apartment, presumably to “clear the edit” and allow a passage of time or at least a new camera angle. Nope, we come right back to the same shot. Why? Why not just start with the shot from after the exterior cut of her passing her drink to him? Why did the previous moments need to be seen? What then follows is a close-up of the food, fully prepared, and the boyfriend has his line entirely off screen. This is the stilted dialogue that follows:

Him: “It’s a peace offering? What are we, at war?”

Her: “Man and woman in any kind of relationship are always at war. It’s just a matter of what degree.”

She then passes by him and it jump cuts (same camera angle) to him responding, then it pans over to her at the other end of a doorway, and then after her line it literally cuts back to his position on the doorway (same camera angle) to walk over to her. What? Why not just pan both ways? She responds and then we have ANOTHER JUMP CUT (SAME CAMERA ANGLE) and then ANOTHER JUMP CUT (YOU GET IT) of her a step forward walking past him, and then ANOTHER JUMP CUT (YOU KNOW IT) of him looking off screen at her. The camera angle then changes, mercifully, to a medium shot (with her head cut off) of her pulling off her ring followed by a different medium shot (with her head now visible) of her placing it atop a bookshelf. We then cut back to the EXACT SAME previous shot of the guy still looking off screen in response. There’s a couple more cuts as she leaves and then the movie jumps into a bizarre montage of images as she’s riding on her moped with a fixed handlebar-POV shot, a closeup in slow motion, and black and white inserts of her presumably as a child.

Ladies and gentlemen, I have no idea what to tell you beyond watch the segment (5:30-6:30) for yourself and join in my mounting alarm and confusion. Even if the production was stuck with minimal camera setups, why jump so haphazardly from moment to moment with jump cuts? Why use pans so sparingly when they could keep an audience in the moment? If the point of the scene is to impart a distance, a lack of engagement in this couple’s relationship, the staging and editing could have better communicated this without resorting to off-putting decisions.

The next moment of curiosity occurs seconds later as Oracabessa attends a very sparsely populated college lecture (I literally counted 12 people in a hall that likely seats 200). Again, the noticeable ADR sound, again the annoying jump cuts, and again confusing choices about the staging of the scene. The professor is arguing over reparations and there’s a moment where it cuts to a black and white still image of the professor and then cuts back to her talking. Is this an Oliver Stone movie? A (white male) college student protests he shouldn’t have to pay for his ancestors’ bad deeds and gets into a fight with another student, but the majority of the crowd shots are taken from one very wide angle. When the students confront one another, the camera doesn’t move, doesn’t get us closer, and they just occupy a small portion of our screen, which then cuts to another exterior shot and back to the same interior angle again. I’ll accept that the professor, and the older man monitoring her teaching, were filmed at a separate time and cut to look together with the crowd of students. I get scheduling shortfalls, but why make it all the more apparent to your viewer? Why film in a way that highlights how empty the space of this lecture hall is? Why shoot with such static angles? And why again do we get so much weird edits that break up the flow of the scene? Reader, I am only eight minutes in.

I just counted six edits and three different camera angles just to capture Oracabessa copying a paper on a copy machine. It’s a twelve-second scene which raises the question why multiple camera angles were needed to simply convey she copies something and why we needed twelve seconds on this task. I am just completely bewildered by the editing choices of this.

Credit where its due, the investigation scene of Oracabessa looking through old microfilm at the library on missing person reports is the place where jump cuts and rapid edits are beneficial. The black and white flashback is confusing though whether it constitutes the events that actually happened, seeing a young woman and little boy somehow separately being stalked by an unseen driver in a car regardless of the fact that they’re walking in opposite directions, or whether it’s Oracabessa’s imagination playing out over what might have taken place.

The movie then seems to transition its protagonist, switching to Alice (Maya Sayre), the mother of the missing boy, who is identified via a subtitle at the bottom as if this was a documentary subject. She seems to be sitting in a coffee shop with a stack of missing fliers and… signing them? I don’t know. There are more quick cuts of things like a closeup of a teacup and then Alice sitting alone at a park. The trees all around her have missing posters of her son tacked on, which starts to beg the question of why put it on twelve trees in close vicinity to one another unless Alice has an endless supply of disposable money for unlimited copies or really hates trees. She is literally posting the same flier within mere feet of one another.

Here, finally, is an example I can praise for its filmmaking choices. Alice is postering the neighborhood when the bad trafficker Tuco then pulls up to her in his car and says, “Oh, your son is missing?” As he asks about her circumstances, the camera hangs on Sayre (One Dollar) to deliver the moment with her performance and it works. It works because the camera allows us to stay in the scene and because of the trust in the actors. She’s heartbroken but still unable to fully articulate her grief, and it’s a beautifully acted moment of desperation. She even looks like Jessica Chastain in certain angles, especially profile. When Tuco walks up to her, the camera angle remains the same but to the benefit of the scene this time, as his size towers over her, dwarfing her, his head cut out of the frame, his arm thrown around her shoulder, providing potential comfort or potential constraint, and we already fear for her safety. She invites him into her home and they have a nice talk, with Alice lamenting how people are no longer kind. The irony seems to be building, and finally Constraint feels like a movie with purpose.

This is legitimately a good scene as Tuco vacillates over what to do with Alice. Her dubbing him a gentleman seems to dial up his sense of shame and he leaves for another room where we see him take out his gun and then put it back. Will his compromised sense of morality win out? Even the clipped framing helps this case by placing the emphasis on Scott’s hands and the gun. Their conversation lingers and the camera continues running, and that’s how to drive tension. Unfortunately, her horny desperation to get him to stay and the weird song that plays in the background as if they were trapped in an elevator undermine the scene’s suspense.

More bizarre editing choices as the scene of Tuco talking with a crony literally jumps from a super wide shot to a closer shot as they trade lines. It makes me think of the Sesame Street bit where Elmo demonstrates near and far. After several more erratic edits, the film leaps to a shot of Tuco waiting in his car, but it’s being filmed from an angle where a pole or pillar is obscuring his very face from being seen on camera. Why choose an obstructed view of this? Even more baffling, a minute later the movie indicates Oracabessa is observing Tuco kidnap another young woman and throw her in his car and drive off. And. Oracabessa. Does. Nothing. Not even call the police, try and yell back and create attention, even jot down a license plate number. Perhaps she wasn’t literally viewing this spectacle, but when you cut to her walking in what looks like the same setting as this is going down, then you’re going to convey this interpretation to your audience.

A stranger who has been hardcore eyeballing Oracabessa as she played cello for some little ballet dancers stops her on the street. He compliments her playing and then leans a hand out and says, “May I?” and then bizarrely strokes the side of her face. “Your face is flawless,” he says in an accent that invites imitation, all while gripping her face. “It is like glass. Like caramel-colored glass.” Why is she allowing this creeper to continue doing this? This is even before he says he’s a music school bigwig and think she has real talent. Does this woman have any sense of self-preservation? The characterization for her doesn’t make any sense from scene to scene.

There’s another flashback where she recognizes Callie (Jennifer Ann Hickey), the female partner for Tuco, and that she had the missing boy beside her in the same car Tuco was driving. Again, is she imagining this and trying to connect mental dots (it’s played in a kind of black and white) or did this happen, which means that yet again she should have recognized Tuco as he was abducting a new girl in front of her. Then I laughed out loud when the camera does a sudden zoom into Tuco’s car followed by a close-up of Callie turning to face the camera and glaring. I thought Tarantino’s Kill Bill music was going to commence. Does Callie somehow recognize Oracabessa too? She starts running away, and again this is an opportunity for Oracabessa to call the police or write down Tuco’s license plate number, and she does nothing, eventually fleeing herself.

The editing proceeds as follows: Oracabessa is on the run. We hear a classical music piece to note the tension. We then see Tuco’s car trailing Oracabessa. Inside Tuco’s car, the same classical music piece is playing but noticeably softer, trying to imply the music is diagetic to the car radio? Then we cut to a hand on an acoustic guitar and a young woman singing at a party, which also seems kind of like an attention-grabbing thing to do unless the party is centered upon your performance. It’s only revealed later that Oracabessa is at this party. The same professor from earlier asks to dance with Oracabessa and literally holds her hands and barely sways, like a child’s idea of what slow dancing would be. This same professor then admits to inviting Oracabessa’s ex Nicolas and then says to dance with her. All of this is the same shot too. Nicolas then hovers over Oracabessa, butts into her dance, and then they awkwardly stand next to one another without saying a word for thirty seconds, and then the other dancee comes back. What?

The movie jumps perspective again, this time following the ex Nicolas, who goes home and sits on the bed he and Oracabessa used to occupy. There’s a post-coital flashback, which features Smith nude, and I felt protective of the actress, like she shouldn’t have to get naked for this. There’s even more stilted dialogue between the pair:

Him: “In every great love affair, you gotta have a nickname. Yeah, I gotta come up with a nickname for you.”

Her: “I detest nicknames. They’re arbitrary.”
Him: “Naw, your birth name is given before your personality has time to develop. A nickname is usually based on a personal trait.”

Her: “It’s an intimate thing naming a person.”
Him: “Well… I think you’re a… ‘Saffron.’’

Her: “Why Saffron?”

Him: “It’s got a malevolous ring to it. And you with your angular edges. I gotta name you something pleasant, right?”

Oh my God, people do not talk like this, at least the people of Earth. This scene could have been cute and a snapshot of their better times as a couple but now it just makes whatever they had feel even more bizarre. The dialogue is very unnatural throughout Constraint and reminiscent of something I would find in a Neil Breen movie, and it pains me to make that comparison.

Another guy, Derrick (Kenyatta Foster), is also interested in Oracabessa and having a flashback of falling for her, and why am I seeing any of this? Her anecdote about “sympathetic vibrations” from a cello is actually a well written aside that she can explain her dating goals with, but it’s hobbled by the guy just leering over her: “I can give that to you baby, you just have to see.” He goes for the kiss and she consents, which makes me question whether she cheated on her now-ex-boyfriend or what the timeline was for this, or even whether this might just be in his head. I do like that it cuts from him kissing Oracabessa to him kissing the professor, and he’s clearly not into her. That’s an honest-to-God clever editing choice and better conveys the character’s response.

So many jump cuts, so much day-for-night shooting, so many confusing geographies, so many quick exterior shots after spending time indoors just to cut back to the same indoors, and now even more nudity from our lead actress with a gratuitous shower scene. This woman deserves better.

Tuco has somehow tracked her though we have no idea how and hidden in her closet. Instead of killing her when she was in the shower, to avoid the Psycho homage I suppose, he waits until she’s performing her cello. They fight and she beats him with her cello and uses the bow like a riding crop. Yet she doesn’t call the police after nearly being stabbed by an intruder, when the assailant’s weapon is still there, as well as his blood, for physical evidence. Tuco comes back but she has a few intimidating dudes standing around as a posse. Then we cut to ballet! Why? Is the threat over? Why does this guy even see Oracabessa as a threat considering she’s never reported him? How did he find out where she lived? Her apartment looks like the interior of a school. How is any of this adding up to the larger narrative? I am just so lost with the creative choices here.

I’m actually going to turn this review into a multi-part series to make it more digestible for you, dear reader, so thus concludes PART ONE. Read PART TWO.

Among Them (2019)

Among Them was described in its advertising as “Tarantino meets Bad Times at the El Royale,” and ignoring the fact that Bad Times is itself a colorful Tarantino-styled homage, what I was really reminded of was Waiting for Godot. For those unfamiliar with Samuel Beckett’s existential play, it follows two gentlemen who do nothing much more than waiting for a man named Godot who never shows up. They get involved in philosophical discussions, and many have intuited that Godot is a representation of God, to Beckett’s dismay, but it’s really a two-act play that involves a whole lot of waiting and the question over why. This is the extent of Among Them’s 90-minute total – a lot of waiting and a lot of questions over why bother.

Two bank robbers, Mick (Dan Liebman) and Harry (Jonathan Thomson), are hiding out in a motel room off the coast. Their bank heist has gone wrong and they’re awaiting the proper papers to escape overseas under new identities. They also discover a woman, bound and gagged, inside the trunk of their getaway car assigned to them from their bosses. Syd (Evalena Marie) could be a liability and they need to make sure she doesn’t get them caught.

The problem with the screenplay by director Kevin James Barry (Serena and the Ratts) and co-star Marie (Dark Haul) is that it has conflated being vague with the idea of being mysterious. There’s far too little going on in this story and far too little that makes much sense. Our criminal duo is following instructions to lie low at a motel. That’s it. They don’t really know who they’re working for, what those plans might include, and so they wait for some unknown source to finally give them their new passports to escape from the police. Being kept in the dark with your characters can be a benefit for storytelling because you are forced to think things through at the character’s level, which works nicely for paranoia thrillers and mysteries. However, when you don’t put in the necessary work, it just makes the story feel unfinished and pointlessly protracted.

I can clearly see the Tarantino elements that the filmmakers attach to Among Them, the bank robbers hiding after a job gone wrong, the kidnapped character becoming part of the team, the motel that might not be all that it appears to be, but these are just elements. What’s desperately missing from Among Them is the intricate plotting and superb characterization one comes to expect from a QT joint. If we’re going to be stuck with these characters in a confined setting, then we need either intriguing developments or engaging personalities that draw us in. Well, considering the story involves characters just waiting around a motel room and seeing weird ghostly visions, plot development isn’t going to be the winner. This is really where Among Them creates an artistic ceiling for itself with its bland characters who we’re stuck hanging around with. Neither Mick nor Harry are charismatic, interesting, or even that dangerous. There aren’t even that many differences between them. If you’re keeping characters cooped up, it would be smart to have some sort of interpersonal conflict that threatens to boil over and ruin things. Think about From Dusk ‘til Dawn and Tarantino’s character and his creepy fixation on an underage hostage, or the different agendas in Bad Times. Just because the characters are seemingly losing their minds doesn’t replace dynamic and necessary characterization.

This brings me to the character of Syd, whom I do not understand at all. She’s discovered in the trunk of a car that was designated for our bank robbers. You would naturally think this woman either means something important enough to be captured or presents an intriguing enigma. This is another consequence of keeping everything so overwhelmingly vague. The characters don’t seem too bothered to learn more about her and why she was placed in the trunk of their car, which just seems like a criminal lack of curiosity on their part. Even worse, Syd doesn’t seem too interested herself why she ended up in somebody’s trunk. I figured she would want to run away at the first opportunity, but she doesn’t, and instead just hangs around with the guys, eagerly volunteering to help on their “spy missions.” If her perspective was going to be off kilter, then this could have opened up the character more, making her a wildcard who could take things too far, perhaps provide a dangerous threat to the characters achieving their goal, something. The fact that a bound stranger is gifted to them and they don’t have to thwart her from escaping feels bizarrely wasted. Why even bother with this scenario if nothing is to be done with it after twenty minutes?

Among Them fills its meandering runtime with unexplained supernatural imagery and dream sequences, which don’t so much convey the unique emotional trauma of the characters as it does serve up conventional spooky imagery and pad the running time. I held on waiting to see if there would be a viable explanation for everything, and I was left waiting unfulfilled, much like the main characters. I think the filmmakers were trying to get the audience to doubt what they watched, and show the characters are descending into madness, but it also doesn’t quite work. There isn’t an escalation for them. They don’t seem more unbound as things progress. These eerie visions don’t lead them to make drastic choices, though the movie comes close. Therefore, it just feels like a supernatural presence is messing around with people in a vague and unsatisfying manner because it, too, must be bored. It feels like weird things are happening to goose up a narrative that doesn’t have enough conflict or engaging characters.

From a production standpoint, Among Them looks relatively solid for a low-budget thriller. Having a limited location works for an indie production and the director seems to use every part of his space to keep things from getting visually dull. The acting is overall decent with the standout being Marie as a frightened victim who becomes the most interesting character among the three. Another actor worthy of note is Michael Reed (Chupacabra Territory) as the creepy motel clerk who is, from the get-go, clearly hiding something nefarious about his intentions.

Among Them is a fairly pedestrian thriller that had potential to be something more but is trapped by a stunning lack of imagination and intrigue. There are questions to be had and mysteries to be uncovered, but the subsequent supernatural twists and turns amount to distractions. The screenplay is absent memorable characters with complexity, conflict, and even colorful personalities to make spending all this free time with them something other than a chore. I never really knew what was happening and the characters didn’t seem too eager to find out either. Among Them is more a listless experience than a painful one, a tale that doesn’t ever seem to get started despite some surefire story elements just sitting there. If you’ve ever wanted to watch a disappointing 90s indie crime version of Waiting for Godot, then Among Them is chief among them.

Nate’s Grade: D+

The Gentlemen (2020)

I’ve been hoping, wishing, praying for Guy Ritchie to return back to his screwball Cockney crime pictures of his splashy beginning, but the further and further I get from 2001’s Snatch, the more I think it’s a luxuriously madcap exception. The Gentlemen is a closer return to form than 2008’s RocknRolla, but it’s still a long way off from early Ritchie. The recognizable elements are there, from the convoluted story with twists and turns, the non-linear storytelling lapping and overlapping itself, the comical brushes with sudden violence, the colorful array of criminal characters, and a sense of style that seems all over the place. We follow Matthew McConaughey as a marijuana titan looking to get out of the business, though there are threats old, new, and “just business” that are trying to take his empire from him before his exit. The biggest problem with The Gentlemen is how clever it feels like it needs to be and how few characters there are to find interesting. Snatch, by contrast, forever contrast, was practically a Dick Tracy rogues gallery of all its memorable and unpredictable characters. These feel pretty rote, even our heroes, and the minority characters get even shorter shrift. The plot is also more complicated than it needs to be with an extended meta-textual layer of a lecherous Hugh Grant tabloid journalist pitching the story like it was a movie (irony: it is a movie!). It took maybe 45 minutes before I felt like the story was finally picking up momentum and stakes, and by the end, it felt like Ritchie was just extending his story with another twist and wrap-up, and then another twist and wrap-up, like the outer edges of the movie cannot be contained and somehow it’s still even going. It’s like Ritchie doesn’t know when to walk away from his own party. Because of these things the pacing is wonky and there are more than a few tedious stretches. Colin Farrell has some amusing moments but should have been the main character as a boxing trainer who takes a shine to try and reform local hoodlums. McConaughey’s character is too boring and always wins too easily, which makes him more boring. The Gentlemen is a C-level rendition of Ritchie’s best material, and Snatch only shines even brighter with each new miss.

Nate’s Grade: C+

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