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The Many Saints of Newark (2021)

If you’re a fan of The Sopranos, I can’t say you’ll enjoy The Many Saints of Newark, and if you’re not a fan of The Sopranos, I can’t say you’ll enjoy The Many Saints of Newark. It’s a prequel set in the early 1970s, decades before an adult Tony Soprano was ruling his turf in New Jersey and going to therapy to deal with his rising panic attacks. The Sopranos was an era-defining, ground-breaking show for HBO and creator David Chase would captivate and infuriate audiences in equal measure, mixing shocking violence, twisted comedy, strange side steps, pessimistic psychoanalysis, and stubborn subversive storytelling to its very end with a polarizing finale that still elicits debate to this day (count me in the Tony-is-dead camp). It would be too much to expect a return to that world to pack in all the entertainment and enrichment of a peak TV series, but I was at least hoping that Chase’s return to his mobster magnum opus would present an engaging story that would add further insight or intrigue into the series and its characters. After two hours, I’m left shrugging like Silvio Dante and about as clueless as Paulie Walnuts.

As personal background, I watched all seven seasons of The Sopranos and eagerly anticipated its finale in 2007. I was one of those people that even questioned whether my cable had somehow gone out as the series suddenly shifted to a black screen without further warning. I enjoyed the show though I haven’t watched it since it originally concluded over ten years ago. It would be a worthy series to re-watch in our binge era, but I think I would keep my initial interpretation of the show and its self-loathing patriarch, Tony. I think over the course of 8 years Chase intended to demystify the perverse allure of organized crime and the glamor of Hollywood myth-making. I think he subversively took a familiar setup, a family man trying to fight for respect from his family and his Family, and knew many people would find themselves rooting for Tony Soprano and his underdog status and his potential redemption through therapy and self-analysis. Except, Chase’s point, is that these bad men are not complicated, they’re not geniuses, and they’re not capable of real empathy. Tony’s near-death experience and inevitable return to his old ways was proof of that. Chase created a vehicle where people sided with the anti-hero lead and he systematically provided more and more evidence that this man was cruel, impulsive, selfish, and incapable of redemption, and every episode, especially in that final season, pushed the viewer to ask, “How much longer can you look the other way? How many more excuses can you give?” It was Chase taking the appeal of mob movies and anti-heroes and testing viewer loyalty, making people question the appeal of these kinds of stories about these kinds of men. That’s my reading.

As a prequel, The Many Saints of Newark might appeal to the most diehard fans of The Sopranos who just want to have two hours more in this world, seeing these characters again one more time. Perhaps fans will thrill to see James Gandolfini’s son, Michael Gandolfini, play teenage Tony Soprano. Perhaps they’ll thrill to see Tony’s mother at a younger age but recognize some of her self-pitying and antagonistic quirks that would define her as an elderly woman. Perhaps they’ll thrill to watch Christopher Moltisanti’s father, Dickie (Alessandro Nivola), as Tony’s uncle, the man he said from the series who was so influential to him. In essence, this story, written by Chase and Lawrence Konner, is about how Tony got to be on his doomed path of crime. The fact that Tony is merely a supporting character in this tale is not a grievous structural fault. However, the fact that Dickie is such an uninteresting lead character in such an uninteresting and glum story is a significant fault.

The Sopranos was dark and frustrating too, though your emotional investment was grander, but it was rarely boring. The majority of my time with Newark was spent stooped and patiently waiting for something meaningful to happen. There were bloody murders and gunfights and love affairs, but I kept waiting for it to seem like it mattered to the overall bigger picture. Very little in this movie ever felt important, because the movie doesn’t invest in its own characters and its own story on their own terms, it merely coasts off the attached appeal of the TV show it’s meant to link up to and coasts off the good will of its audience. If you removed the names of the characters, thus denying its creative inheritance, then I doubt even the most ardent fans of mob movies would find that much to appreciate here. If this wasn’t a Sopranos movie, it wouldn’t have gotten this platform and attention, and that seems less a reason to run with an underdeveloped story with a dull protagonist stumbling through mundane mob cliches.

If Dickie is meant to be so influential, I don’t understand the appeal. I guess he’s slightly more emotionally stable than Tony’s father, played by Jon Bernthal, but that’s not saying much. Dickie violently confronts his father, “Hollywood Dick” (Ray Liotta), over his abuse of his young new bride from Italy, Giuseppina (Michela De Rossi), to defend her. That’s good? But when Dickie takes up an affair with the same woman, his stepmom, he proves just as depressingly violent. That’s bad. The problem is that Dickie is not a complex character to hang a movie upon. I thought there was going to be a slow temptation to begin an affair with his new stepmom, but that happens far too early, which places her as simply the “goomah” on the side he retreats to for sexual gratification and empty promises of building a life. She goes right from being a potentially interesting character, a woman with agency and danger, to another mob movie cliché, the arm candy waiting on her bad man to patronize her. Dickie says that his wife has had trouble conceiving, so I thought maybe this new stepmom would be revealed to be Christopher’s actual birth mother. That’s why she was here in this story. Nope, yet again this possibility is dismissed early. The Many Saints of Newark frustratingly takes every tedious story detour it can when presented.

The movie is set primarily in the late 60s and early 70s in Newark, barely tackling the riots of 1967 to use them as a cover for a storytelling choice for Dickie. The entire subplot featuring the struggles of the African American community feel tacked on to this movie, as if Chase is responding to criticisms that his series wasn’t diverse enough. The rise of Harold (Leslie Odom Jr.) as a gangster is given such little significance. He begins as an employee of Dickie’s and then becomes a rival, but this complicated relationship isn’t played like it’s complicated. Every time Odom Jr. (One Night in Miami) appeared I kept hoping that finally the movie was going to give him something to dig into, to really explore this perspective in a meaningful way. The rivalry between Harold and Dickie doesn’t even feel significant because both of these men are criminally underwritten. The Newark riots are played so incidentally and without consequence. Why begin to explore racial unrest and police brutality if you’re just going to ignore it after twenty minutes of movie?

As a movie, The Many Saints of Newark did not work for me. As a Sopranos prequel, The Many Saints of Newark did not work for me. I had some mild amusement and intrigue with moments like Corey Stoll going full force in his impression of a young Uncle Junior, with Vera Farmiga chewing the scenery as Tony’s mother, and the impeccable resemblance of Gandolfini to his late father. I enjoyed the weirdness of Liotta playing twin brothers. I enjoyed the period appropriate production values and music choices. Unfortunately, it doesn’t add up to a vital experience that lends better understanding and insight into the Sopranos universe. Again, some fans may just be happy enough to exist in this universe for two more hours, to soak up even the most superfluous of details (I know I would be for my TV show favorites). That’s fine, but for me, what’s on screen barely resembles the daring and complex characterization of the series. Maybe a movie was always set up to fall short but this one falls short even as a mediocre mob movie.

Nate’s Grade: C

No Sudden Move (2021)

A star-studded collaboration between director Steven Soderbergh (Logan Lucky) and screenwriter Ed Solomon (Bill and Ted Face the Music), No Sudden Move is a class in how to effectively use tension and confusion to a movie’s benefit. Don Cheadle and Benicio del Toro play a pair of low-level criminals struggling to make ends meet. They accept a quick job “babysitting” a family while the husband (David Harbour) retrieves a very valuable document that certain higher-ups are after. Very early on, you feel like something is wrong and something will quickly go wrong, and this feeling persists throughout the film’s two hours. Our two protagonists sense they’re being set up, take action, and from there the movie becomes them trying to cash out with this valuable document while constantly looking over their shoulders. There are many different parties that are willing to do whatever it takes to obtain this document. In all honesty, the screenplay by Solomon is a little too over-plotted. There are several betrayals and schemers and acrimonious relationships built upon past betrayals and mistakes that it can all be a little hard to follow at times. The dread I felt was palpable. You don’t expect these guys to get away with this, not against the forces they’re going against, and so it becomes a nerve-wracking game of assessing every moment and whether this is when disaster will strike. Soderbergh’s dashes of style don’t always jibe with the 1954 Detroit setting, like his penchant for fish-eyed lenses communicating the distortion of this murky world of shadow brokers. It feels like Soderbergh has to resort to some new gimmick to get himself excited about movie projects (at least is wasn’t filmed on an iPhone). The acting is strong throughout, though Cheadle can be hard to hear at times from his guttural, frog-in-throat speaking voice. The movie kept me guessing, with some surprise cameos, and it left me dreading what would happen next. A modest success for glamorous discomfort.

Nate’s Grade: B

Wrath of Man (2021)

Wrath of Man is the least Guy Ritchie movie of Guy Ritchie’s career. It’s a crime movie, yes, and based upon a 2004 French film, but it’s absent his trademark big colorful Cockney personalities, ironic coincidences and upheavals, and broad slapstick violence. It has some narrative shuffling on board, as you can’t have a Ritchie heist movie where he’s not cross cutting between characters explaining the steps of the heist and enact it simultaneously, but Wrath of Man has far more in common with a lean, stripped down crime thriller like Heat than Snatch or Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels. Even a fun caper like 2015’s Man from U.N.C.L.E. felt like a clear distillation of his signature style into a new mod studio setting. This movie doesn’t feel like a Guy Ritchie movie. There is style, sure, but it’s far more gritty and less self-consciously flashy. It’s a solid vengeance tale, a pulpy though confusingly structured B-movie, a crime story with a message about anticlimax, and a sign that Ritchie can restrain himself when his film project calls for it.

In an opening scene, we watch an armored truck robbed and both drivers are executed. The repercussions of this will echo throughout the story. H (Jason Statham, reuniting with Ritchie for the first time since 2005’s Revolver) is a new hire for that same armored truck company, escorting large sums of money. He and his partner, Bullet (Holt McCallany), are held hostage by armed thieves and H methodically dispatches them, killing them all. Who is this man? He’s someone trying to find the culprits behind the opening robbery for his own personal reasons of vengeance, and that means setting up tantalizing traps for would-be robbers and working his way across Los Angeles to determine who is going to feel his manly wrath.

This is a darker and more somber vengeance movie where the violence has more weight to it. Everything feels heavier in Wrath of God. Even though this is strict B-movie territory, Ritchie does a commendable job of making the violence feel real and dangerous. It’s not cartoonish. There are recognizable genre moments, like too-cool interrogations, but this feels closer to a version of our own world where violence isn’t cool but awful. That may sound like the opposite of a recommendation, and I can hear someone say, “Why would I want THAT in my Jason Statham thriller?” Fair point, but the visceral nature of this depiction of crime makes the thrills feel more earned and less fleeting. The musical score by Christopher Benstead (The Gentlemen) is heavy dread personified for the entire two-hour running time. I was surprised how involved I found myself getting as the movie progressed, and during a climactic shootout I was feeling palpable nervous tension. I didn’t know who was exactly going to make it out alive, but I also wanted the “bad guys” to be taken down, but I was uncertain whether any of this would happen. Wrath of Man is an efficiently calibrated thriller when the action heats up. It doesn’t do anything special but what it does is build its moments with compounding dread. You’re waiting for bad things to happen, and you should expect bad things to happen, but you don’t quite know if they’ll happen to characters you like or don’t like, and that pumps up suspense. I was honestly surprised how invested I was during that shootout despite the limitations of characters as genre placeholders. The action and confrontations are chilly and ruthlessly efficient.

It’s the structure that’s the real villain here. I’m exaggerating a bit but there are significant structural curve balls that attempt to make Wrath of Man more unpredictable and I think take away from its overall impact and coherency. We see the opening robbery from three eventual perspectives, the drivers inside the truck, the perpetrators, and the bystander victims. We’re also shifting perspectives from chapter to chapter, but I’m not certain that all this fancy narrative shuffling is actually worth the strained effort. I’ll agree it keeps things unpredictable, but any movie where beginnings and middles are rearranged would achieve that same effect. Our first segment presents a mystery, but then it’s answered immediately in the next segment. The third segment answers another mystery, and it’s here where I started feeling like these answers weren’t quite worth the efforts to get there. There’s a notable anticlimactic design to much of the reveals, and while I believe it has ripe thematic purpose (more on that later), it also removes degrees of satisfaction that you can take from the movie. When you find out who H really is, you’ll be like, “Oh. Okay.” And from there he seems like an unkillable superhero. And when you find out who is responsible for the opening robbery, you’ll likely be like, “Oh. Okay.”

The problem is that these answers aren’t nearly as satisfying because the people are so one-dimensional. The gang involved in the robbery, and responsible for H’s tragedy, are just one-note dudes and with a super obvious liability they keep on their team that takes away from their so-called professionalism. By taking characters in and out for long portions of the movie, we can lose track of meaningful supporting characters but also it limits the dramatic appeal. If we knew who hit that robbery early, and how they’re reacting, we might feel more conflict when they come head-to-head again with H in the climax. Or we might be better off simply not knowing them at all for as much time as they are given. Getting such shrift characterization, and with an obvious psychopath on board, feels like a half-hearted shrug. Likewise, knowing H’s tragic back-story later into the movie doesn’t really produce much more than had the movie opened with that information. It feels like Ritchie and company have recognized the limitations of their mystery and rearranged the pieces just to provide some extra questions for an audience to grapple with longer. I enjoyed early on discovering just how capable H was, and I enjoyed how the movie doesn’t pretend the obvious isn’t apparent (“Your shooting was… unambiguously precise”). However, this is Jason Statham, so we already know he’s going to be more than capable on the job.

I wanted to talk about the emptiness of the movie, and I don’t mean this as a pejorative assessment but in the themes. It’s about greed and pride and vengeance and, ultimately, it’s about how little any of these motivating factors add up. This is a gloomy movie about bad people, each with a reported reason for doing the bad things that they do. There’s been a million “crime doesn’t pay” messages in movies, but this is one of the few where I felt the futility of it all. By the conclusion, as innocent people are being killed by not-so-innocent people, and then they are just as easily dispatched by even less innocent people, I kept thinking of Marge Gunderson’s inability to reconcile criminal behavior during the end of the brilliant movie Fargo: “And all for a little bit of money? There’s more to life than money, ya know?” I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that H does get his vengeance at long last in the movie’s resolution, but by that point I felt like it didn’t even matter. Sure I still wanted the antagonist to be toppled, but after such mayhem and such loss of life, and all for a little bit of money, the anticlimactic nature of the ending felt purposely designed. The movie has been leading up to this moment and yet when it comes, it’s not quite what we would have hoped. That intentional emptiness is meant to convey the hollow nature of vengeance as well as a nihilistic approach to crime movies. It kind of works but also it works because the movie didn’t do much work making this antagonist memorable or multi-dimensional so that I could relish his eventual smiting. It feels, in some ways, like the grimy B-movie equivalent of Matt Damon getting clipped at the end of The Departed (spoilers?).

Wrath of Man is a solid vengeance thriller with some heavier themes and some weightier violence, but it’s still a movie where Jason Statham cleans shop. It’s still going to scratch those very basic demands but I applaud it for trying to be a little something more. It succeeds in some areas, like tone and theme and thrills, and doesn’t so much in others, like the non-linear narrative and too many one-dimensional characters. Ritchie demonstrates some artistic growth taking just a few fateful steps outside his cocksure and gaudy signature style. I would welcome more Ritchie signature movies akin to Snatch, but I would also welcome more well-oiled thrillers where Ritchie sublimates his style for the good of the story and mood. Either way, I’d just be happier with more good Guy Ritchie movies (and a sequel to The Man from U.N.C.L.E., please).

Nate’s Grade: B

Memento (2001) [Review Re-View]

Released March 16, 2001:

A film is taking the nation by storm and it isn’t anything from a big studio. In fact it’s the first release of a new indie production house called New Market, and these people have lassoed a real winner. Memento is a murder mystery bubbling with perfect elements of noir, suspense, and trickery. Memento is the tale of Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce) who is searching desperately for John G., the culprit he believes that raped and murdered his wife. Along the way Leonard gets assistance from his friend Teddy (Joe Pantoliano) and Natalie (Carrie Anne-Moss), a down on her luck bartender.

Except Leonard has a peculiar problem plaguing his one-man investigation for justice. After the attack on his wife the assailant knocked him out, and Leonard was left with no short-term memory whatsoever. Leonard cannot develop new memories. So if something happens to him, he is liable to immediately forget it within five minutes. To aid himself he write on small post-its telling him which car is his, what hotel he’s at, etc. all over his body are tattoos of clues he has amassed. He takes Polaroids of people and writes their names on them to remind him of the faces he sees that he won’t remember. Leonard’s investigation is about what his notes tell him. He doesn’t know whom he can trust and whom he cannot.

If this wasn’t enough to make Memento interesting the entire tale is told out of sequence and run from end to beginning. The entire film is told backwards. This action robs the audience of the same information that escapes Leonard. We too know neither who to trust. The effect could fall into gimmick territory but makes the movie fresh and adds for some great comic situations as well, like when Leonard awakens with a bottle of champagne in his hand and tells himself he doesn’t feel drunk.

Pearce is gripping as the emotionally shattered and fractured Leonard. He is a man that can trust nothing and must live from repetition but is intent on bringing his wife’s killer to bloody justice. Pantoliano and Moss provide good support as the weary characters that weave into Leonard’s plight. The acting it excellent all around. They leave us guessing and reassembling our perceptions as more of the puzzle unravels.

Memento is top-notch film noir. It’s a breathless thriller of a first rate caliber. The direction given by Christopher Nolan from his screenplay is tight and highly effective. The character of Leonard is fleshed out in all his paranoia, pain, and frustration. Nolan has delivered a gift to movie audiences always hungry for fresh material. One has to see the film a second time just to see how well the segments play together.

Memento is the coolest movie around. Rush out and see it, then see it again, and then again. It’s the best movie of 2001 by far as of now and has the Best Original Screenplay Oscar locked [Editor’s note: it lost to Gosford Park of all things.] It’s destined to be a cinematic classic people will talk about for years.

Nate’s Grade: A

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WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER

Without a doubt, there has been no filmmaker that has had the meteoric rise over the last twenty years than Christopher Nolan. The man has entered that rare, hallowed upper echelon of the Steven Spielbergs and Quentin Tarantinos where his name alone is the selling point. You go to see a Nolan movie because you know it will be an experience that no other filmmaker can quite deliver, and from 2005’s Batman Begins onward, he’s been given immense studio resources and unchecked creative control to make his big dreams come true on the biggest stage. It’s thus very fun to go back to the little 2001 indie movie where it all started for the future box-office titan. It has many of the hallmarks that have followed the director’s ascendant career, like dead wives as back-story, cool emotions, an unreliable protagonist, and especially its crackerjack, air-tight narrative. Memento already had a dynamite premise, an amateur investigator seeking justice who couldn’t hold new memories because of a mental condition. It was based on an unpublished short story by his brother Jonathan (future frequent collaborator and creator of HBO’s Westworld), which is why it qualified as an original screenplay at the Oscars, to which it would eventually lose out to Gosford Park (go figure). Nolan deliberately made the story even harder to follow in a gambit that would come to define his screenwriting experimentation. He told the entire movie backwards, so that the story began at its ending and finished at its beginning. Every few minutes, we, like our memory-challenged lead Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce), are left to ask, “How did we get here?” It puts you in the stark position of the lead’s perplexed and scrambling sensibility. It’s a raised bet of a storytelling check, one that Nolan delivers with incredible panache, but twenty years later, is Memento more than a brilliantly executed magic trick?

Even after watching Memento likely half a dozen times in my life, this is still one very confusing movie to follow. There are two current storylines that crisscross and eventually overlap, like tributaries reconnecting to a source. The black-and-white segments of Leonard narrating his rules, tattoos of key clues, practices, and investigative successes as he narrows his search for the mysterious “John G.,” the man he claims assaulted him and his wife, are filmed more objectively, playing out in linear fashion, given to rampant exposition to better orient the audience to the tricks of the movie. The color segments are the main action, watching Leonard go from murdering a confidant to then explaining how we got here, roping in scummy drug dealers, violent men, sad-eyed barmaids, and people looking to take advantage of Leonard and his unique disability (the motel owner rents him multiple rooms). These sequences are played in the backwards trajectory that drives the movie, so every pit stop essentially resets the movie as we know it. It’s an amazing device because it makes every scene its own little movie with its own little payoff, with a dopamine reward for seeing how the opening of the last image came to be. Some of these are played for laughs but many are extremely well thought out to keep an audience guessing. Leonard opens a closet to find a beaten and gagged man who swears it was Leonard who did this to him. Leonard begins in mid-chase, seeing a man running parallel to him. “Oh, I must be chasing this guy,” he comments in voice over, until seeing the man’s gun in hand and his advance. “No, he’s chasing me,” he corrects, and runs in the other direction. Then there’s the question of who Leonard can trust, and your assessment of the supporting characters in his orbit will shift. You’ll feel bamboozled just like Leonard, that is, if he could remember. The backwards-narrative allows Nolan to make his revenge thriller so much more mysterious and audacious and playful, and the director takes full advantage of the possibility. It’s a rare screenplay of near genius quality.

On a later DVD release, there was a hidden special feature that could be unlocked that would play the movie in chronological order, and I feel like this would be like watching a magic performance with X-ray vision. It would completely take away the appeal. While I think the level of details and continuity and thematic connections would be even more apparent with more traditional, linear plotting, it would seriously negate much of the fun and potential of the movie. That’s not to say that Memento is only effective because of its narrative shuffling. It’s still a lean thriller with a brimming confidence that can give you an artistic contact high. The character of Leonard Shelby is a fascinating and tragic figure worth exploration, which the movie allows for deeper discussion off-board. However, when you’re witnessing a thoroughly thought-out magic trick that is performed at such a heightened degree of excellence, why blow it up with asking for convention?

It’s also fun to revisit the 2001 movie and see many of Nolan’s staples of creative collaborators. There’s his brother, who he’s co-wrote a very successful Batman trilogy with, along with Doddy Dorn as the editor (Insomnia), David Julyan (The Prestige, Insomnia) as the composer, and especially Wally Phister as the cinematographer who helmed every Nolan movie from 2001 to 2012, winning an Oscar for 2010’s Inception.

I’ll preface these next two paragraphs with a spoiler warning, which I acknowledge is perhaps overdoing it for a movie that’s been available for twenty years, but I’m going to discuss the ending (beginning) of Memento and its implications, so if you’d prefer to be surprised and are one of the people on the planet who hasn’t seen this movie, or been spoiled, then go watch it and then come back to this review. The through line of Memento is Leonard’s murder of “John G,” a.k.a. Teddy (Joe Pantoliano), a supposed ally that may work in law enforcement. The movie becomes a question over whether Teddy was guilty or whether Leonard was manipulated from beyond, and this proves to be the case, though the culprit is rather unexpected. It’s not Natalie (Carrie Anne-Moss) seeking vengeance for her dead drug-dealing boyfriend, though she plays her part, but the real manipulator is none other than Leonard himself. Teddy has set up a fall guy for Leonard to take out to get his long-sought vengeance, and maybe he can remember to be satisfied, but as Teddy recounts, it always fades. They’re always back repeating their old loops. Given the circumstances, Teddy sets up his pal to take out local lowlifes and figures why not profit from the experience (his warnings to ditch the drug dealer’s car go unheeded by Leonard, who instead chooses to drive it around town and even wear the clothes of his victim, a nice visual cue that leads to the big sucker punch reveal Nolan has coiled).

Teddy’s real offense, however, is telling Leonard a truth he does not want to accept. The back-story that has driven him is deemed fictional, conflated with an ongoing anecdotal analogy about Sammy Jankis (Stephen Tobolowsky), a memory-impaired man whose wife tests him that results in her overdose on insulin. Leonard’s wife survived the assault. It was she who overdosed on insulin to test her husband’s condition. This truth runs counter to everything Leonard has defined himself by and he rejects it, and through that hostile rejection, he sets Teddy up for a cruel fate. He ensures Teddy will be hunted down as the next “John G.” suspect, and thus Leonard actively chooses to live the fiction than deal with truth. In 2021, especially after four years of a pungent presidency that shamelessly warped reality to whatever was deemed preferable, and with millions of gullible Americans still falling for the fantasy, the story of a man choosing the comforts of self-delusion over uncomfortable accountability is striking for its topicality. It’s about the lies we tell one another. Leonard says he deals with facts because memory can be fickle, it’s unreliable, and then the script proves this to be exactly the case, having hidden the answer right in front of your face. I love that the implications can be deliberated even twenty years later and the question of whether Leonard is a secret villain. He believes he’s doing righteous work, but he also proves he can never be satisfied and will very likely continue to hurt others to sustain his preferred reality. Because of the narrative trickery, or limitations of building from a foundation, it’s hard to say that Leonard is a deep character rather than a blunt force instrument. It’s in the revelation and lingering implications where the depth of Leonard Shelby emerges, and I think it’s a depth that often gets overlooked by those trying to keep up with the admittedly confusing storyline.

Revisiting Memento, there’s a definite nostalgia quality, watching two stars from The Matrix and the young upstart from L.A. Confidential bouncing around a Polaroid-snapping L.A. noir mystery from the man who would come to redefine blockbuster cinema. It’s not an understatement to say Nolan is in a class of his own, and his critical and commercial success seems to have convinced him that every movie needs his narrative sleight-of-hand. Some of those films didn’t really benefit from the extra complications. I thought the three timelines compressed on top of one another in 2017’s Dunkirk was entirely unnecessary and distracting. It got even worse in 2020’s deliberately palindromic Tenet, which was a puzzle box from Nolan I felt no desire to solve. Nolan has told movies with just about every construction of linear and non-linear plotting imaginable, and it’s hard not to feel like he’s struggling to find some new fix to hold his interest. Maybe the appeal of the Nolan signature magic trick is wearing off for me; I’ve been relatively disappointed with every Nolan movie since 2012’s Dark Knight Rises, which gets a bad rap for not being the zeitgeist-tapping flick that was The Dark Knight. Maybe he’s getting bored. It certainly felt like Tenet was more an intellectual exercise than an accessible entertainment for the masses. It would explain his experiments with indecipherable sound design. You don’t go to a Nolan movie to turn your brain off. There is an explicit demand that you will need to pay close attention. It just feels like the later films haven’t quite been worthy of the extra efforts.

Back in 2001, I recall being blown away by the narrative trickery of Memento. It was my top movie of that year, tying with Moulin Rouge! before I decided my heart was more aligned with Baz Luhrmann’s glitzy extravaganza (I’m looking forward to revisiting this one in two months). I didn’t have much in the way of critical analysis in 2001 beyond my exaltation of its greatness, declaring it a new classic that people would talk about for years. That’s partially true, but mainly because of the huge career that Nolan has undertaken since. My original review was also certain it would win that Best Original Screenplay Oscar and, honestly, this one still befuddles me (Gosford Park?). Twenty years later, Memento is still a daring and confusing movie, one that rewards close reading and invites deliberation and deconstruction. It’s a top-grade magic trick from an excellent illusionist and sometimes even that is enough. While I would argue it is more than its famous gimmick, it’s still enough to warrant two viewings for everyone’s lifetime.

Re-Review Grade: A

Cherry (2021)

Between 2014 and 2019, the Russo brothers directed four Marvel movies with a combined worldwide box-office of over six billion dollars, so for their first foray from the world of super heroes and magic space gems, the brothers had carte blanche to pick whatever project they desired and Cherry was it. Watching all 140 minutes of this true-life tale, you get the feeling it’s less a story about loss and redemption and more an overly extended excuse for Joe and Anthony Russo to use every stylistic trick they’ve ever wanted to employ to make their own inferior Goodfellas (or Casino). Free of MCU oversight, these guys are practically going full Tony Scott or Darren Aronofsky with the multitude of their visuals tricks and gimmicks. We’re talking different aspect ratios, color washes and spotlights, heightened fade outs, fourth wall breaks and freeze frames, chapter titles complete with prologue and epilogue, in-your-face subtitles, tracking shots, and even oblique angles such as a point of view from inside Tom Holland’s inspected rectum. Cherry is aggressively flashy to compensate for how little substance there is with its story and humdrum characters. It’s based on a true story about Nico Walker (Holland), an Iraq War veteran coming back to Ohio, getting hooked on drugs, and resorting to robbing banks The trauma of his war experiences leads him to seek help and the system fails him and pushes opioids on him, turning him into another addict among too many who is desperate to do anything for cash. On paper, that sounds like it would be interesting, and the shocking part is that for all these identifiable dramatic elements and stylistic flourishes, Cherry is kind of dull. Everything feels like it’s kept at a surface-only level. Walker is just not that interesting even though interesting things happen to him. You would think it’s about PTSD, the opioid crisis, economic anxiety, and while these elements are present they are not really explored with any sustained nuance or theme. The level of social commentary stops at Fight Club-level snarky sight gags, like the names of the banks being “The Bank” and “Shitty Bank.” There’s too much bloat with the plot and running time. By far the most interesting section of the movie was his descent into addiction and the criminal excursion, but Walker doesn’t even exit the war until over an hour in. We did not need all the fluff before the war to properly set up this limited character. The real drama of the movie is post-war, and there’s an hour of setup that could have been cleaved away. You leave this stuff in as “texture” if you’re building something rich in atmosphere and character but I can only tell you what has happened to Walker externally. He’s perfectly unremarkable. The movie is too shallow for its own possible ambitions, and it ultimately feels like cribbed notes and homages to other movies the Russos enjoyed, like Goodfellas or Requiem for a Dream or Boogie Nights. It only reminds you of other, better movies, and one I was reminded of was Roger Avary’s Rules of Attraction. I appreciated the flash and style of that 2002 movie because it was about empty characters living empty lives striving for something they were incapable of, so the excessive and prioritized visual artifice worked. With Cherry, the visual trickery is distraction from the underwritten characters who the movie very much wants us to see favorably through their struggles. I enjoy Holland (Spider-Man: Far From Home) as an actor immensely but he is miscast here. He’s too boyish and charming and genial to ably perform dark and gritty antiheroes. You sense he’s eager to try these “darker roles” to prove himself but he doesn’t need to. Ciaria Bravo (Wayne) plays the girlfriend/infatuation object/junkie partner and she looks so young that see feels like an unsupervised child onscreen. Maybe that works with her as a symbol of innocence. Cherry is a movie that left me indifferent and shrugging throughout all its excesses and meandering. It feels like a movie the Russos needed to get out of their system, one of creative indulgence charging into familiar territory when more restraint, nuance, and contemplation would have sufficed, and maybe their next movie will be more mature and fulfilling and worthy of 140 minutes.

Nate’s Grade: C

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+

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