In 2018, Netflix crashed through Oscar biases with Alfonso Cuaron’s personal epic Roma and this year they have their sights set on even bigger prizes. The streaming service has built an empire of original content (and debt) and put up the $150 million budget for Martin Scorsese’s decades-spanning crime drama, The Irishman. It’s a fitting reunion for Joe Pesci, Robert De Niro, and Scorsese, and then to add Al Pacino on top, well it all makes for one supremely entertaining and occasionally striking movie experience. However, I think some critics are getting a bit too carried away with their plaudits. While entertaining throughout its mammoth 3.5 hours, this is much more Casino than Goodfellas.
We follow the life of Frank Sheeran (De Niro), a Philadelphia-based truck driver who rose to be a Teamster union rep and, reportedly, a prolific hired gun for the local mob, headed by Russell Bufalino (Pesci). Sheeran is tasked with helping Jimmy Hoffa (Pacino) with his business, which helps the larger contingent of organized crime that used the Teamsters multi-million-dollar pension as their own slush fund to pay for projects and schemes. After he loses his leadership position, Hoffa begins to think of himself on the same level as the tough guys and just as protected. Sheeran tries to turn his friend back from the self-destructive path he seems destined for, and ultimately, it’s Frank Sheeran who says he pulled the trigger killing Hoffa (is this a spoiler?).
There are moments that just sing in this movie, buoyed by a wonderful film alchemy of the actors, the storytelling, the skill of Scorsese and his longtime collaborators like editor Thelma Schoonmaker, and it can feel exhilarating. There’s a rich world of day-to-day detail from the character interactions and mob politics, and once Hoffa comes onscreen the movie becomes something more and better. It’s just as much Jimmy Hoffa’s movie as it is Frank Sheeran’s. Here is a live-wire character bursting with unpredictability, later to his great deficit, and who pushes the other characters around in a way that creates instant tension and realignment. Considering the selling point of the movie is its perspective from the claimed killer of Hoffa, it only makes sense that these moments are allowed the most attention. Hoffa sees himself as a champion of the little guy, as an ideologue trying to make life better, never mind his own extravagance, ego, and inability to let go of grievances. Hoffa was the head of the Teamsters union for twenty years and was a well-known public figure, somebody people like Peggy Sheeran (Anna Paquin) could idolize unlike her father and his other cohorts she despised. He’s a larger-than-life figure and those theatrics find a perfect match with Pacino and his bombastic nature. It’s no wonder he steals the movie. Pacino is terrific and has the clearest arc of any character onscreen, a meaty role that gives Pacino new life. I predict he’s the front-runner for supporting Oscar gold. I was transfixed by the amount of details that Scorsese and screenwriter Steve Zallian (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) imbue in every scene, propelled by Frank’s narration and a dark sense of humor. It’s very easy to get immersed in this criminal underworld and its many machinations, which provides a steady stream of information points to tantalize. If one scene isn’t working, just give the movie a few minutes and another avenue might open to prove newly fascinating. It makes a difference on its running time, making 3.5 hours feel more mercifully like 2.5 hours. Of course, once it’s released onto Netflix, I feel like its size and scope will become less unwieldy for viewers.
Because of that surfeit of detail, I think The Irishman would have better benefited from being adapted into a miniseries than as a single movie that happens to be 15 minutes longer than Titanic. The finished film feels rather episodic, like three movies attached into one; the introduction into a life of crime and rising in the mob, the friendship and fall of Hoffa, and the finale as an old man. All of these segments have genuine interest and compelling drama but I think they would have been even more compelling with a larger narrative canvas to play out upon. That way each episode could have its own beginning/middle/end and play its part adding to the larger whole, which is essentially what scenes should be doing anyway for a story. The problem is that The Irishman gets a little lost in its own minutia in the middle and the plot stalls. It feels a little too taken with itself. It feels like we’re experiencing the same information just in more settings. How many moments do we need to show Hoffa pushing away sound advice, making enemies of allies, and dooming himself? Admittedly, the Hoffa portion of the movie is the most compelling, and longest, segment of the movie. It’s the best because of Pacino’s spotlight and from the personal involvement in Sheeran, pushing his loyalties to the test when he genuinely grows close to Hoffa and realizes he’ll be the one that has to eliminate his friend. It’s the most dramatic and harrowing and most interesting part of the movie (and no, not the somber final 30 minutes). I think it would have had even more punch over the course of multiple episodes of material and momentum. By going the miniseries route, the film could have also stripped its second and entirely unnecessary framing device, having the men drive their wives across the Midwest to attend Bill Bufalino’s (Ray Romano) wedding. The short scenes fail to lead to any import until it’s revealed late what also happened during this fateful weekend. It’s a long wait to justify its placement, and even after that it doesn’t feel like the occasional road trip updates were worthwhile.
Much has been made from several dazzled film critics and online pundits about the movie’s concluding half hour, which follows the “after” of a mafioso’s life. We got a taste of this in the conclusion of Goodfellas after Henry Hill and family were relocated to schlubby mundanity through witness protection, implying the boring life that awaited, but The Irishman dedicates its conclusion to demystifying these mob men. Few of them live to old age, so already Sheeran is the exception (he died at age 83 in 2003) but he’s also incapable of introspection. That gives the final half hour a change of pace and an air of contemplation but it’s stagnated. Frank’s family wants nothing to do with him, everyone from his earlier life has passed away, and he shows little regret for his life’s actions, shocking a priest, his only regular visitor. I suppose one could surmise the self-deluded and sad existence of this man who refuses to accept accountability, but I found this final thirty minutes to be interesting, yes, but far from revelatory. I think critics are doing a fair amount of projection by searching for some kind of tidy, accumulative meaning, as if Scorsese is providing some wise, decades-earned statement on his own famed works highlighting the flashy lives of very bad people doing very bad things. People are a little too desperate for The Irishman to provide that neat hook, that definitive statement, and it’s just not there. It may have been too “movie land convenient” but I was begging for a final confrontation from Peggy.
The de-aging CGI is the source of much of the film’s gargantuan budget, which was why studios balked before Netflix welcomed Scorsese with eager arms. The first display of the de-aging effect is jarring and jarringly bad. We see Pesci and De Niro as 40-year-old men and it’s initially horrifying. The effect looks wrong, like somebody drew over their faces to provide some degree of cell-shaded dimension (think of the video game Borderlands). There are also elements that will just never look right, namely the elasticity of the skin, which looks overly smooth and polished, reminding me of the doll faces of the stop-motion film, Anomalisa. It gets better from there. Interiors and lower-light environments are better at masking the unreality. After a while you simply grow accustomed to it and the characters are aging anyway, which means the effect is rarely used after the first half of The Irishman. It’s impressive at parts but even with the digital facelift, these are still 70-year-old men moving their 70-year-old bodies with new shiny faces. There’s a moment when a younger Sheeran beats and stomps on a grocer and it reminded me of professional wrestling with the stiff movements of one participant followed by the extravagant physical overreaction of the recipient. Captain Marvel is still the champ at actor de-aging.
There’s also the fairly strong possibility that Sheeran made all of this up. Well into his twilight years, he reportedly recounted his amazing tale to a medical malpractice lawyer before he died, and that became the 2003 book, I Heard You Paint Houses. An August 2019 article by Slate.com writer Bill Tonelli (“The Lies of the Irishman”) gives a pretty thorough rundown of the facts of the case, which align in one direction. All of the FBI agents during Sheeran’s time, as well as the local officials, and surviving criminal actors, all come to the same conclusion that Sheeran has grossly overstated his role in mob matters and outright fabricated his most sensational claims. According to Tonelli: “Most amazingly, Sheeran did all that without ever being arrested, charged, or even suspected of those crimes by any law enforcement agency, even though officials were presumably watching him for most of his adult life. To call him the Forrest Gump of organized crime scarcely does him justice. In all the history of the mafia in America or anywhere else, really, nobody even comes close.” It does seem far-fetched, but the next question is whether the enjoyment of the movie matters at all if the story it’s based upon is ninety-nine percent hooey? While I think the impact of the movie is slightly blunted with a fictional account, it plays larger into a self-aggrandizing theme and the first framing device of the movie, having Sheeran narrate his life experiences as an old man, left to rot in a nursing home. Perhaps he’s exaggerating to make himself feel more important and grant himself something of a legacy that is denied to him by a lifetime of self-serving choices that have left him abandoned by family. In this regard, there’s a strange meta-textual level that even helps support the larger tragedy and loneliness of these men, in case you needed it underlined.
There’s a delightful feeling of getting the gang back together for Scorsese’s massive, ambitious, and thrilling return to the world of gangster cinema. There are so many characters that it can be hard to keep things straight as we zip through decades, de-aging, framing devices, Boardwalk Empire supporting actors, prison time, nursing homes, and Jim Norton as a young Don Rickles. I wish the story had been parlayed into an epic miniseries rather than a movie. The finished film is certainly long and imposing but also compelling and entertaining. The personalities don’t have quite the pop as Pacino, a rollicking screen presence relishing the spotlight, but the rock star bravado has been replaced with a somber reality of self-cultivated isolation. Pesci is terrific in what might be his most nuanced, insular, and quiet role of his career. I wish he would continue acting. De Niro is suitably gruff and has a few scenes of trying to hold back a cascade of emotions, but he’s more our impassive face into a world of crime and vengeance. I don’t think the final conclusion has the power that others have claimed and is a result of projection. The Irishman is an entertaining deep dive that I only wish could have gone even deeper.
Nate’s Grade: B+
Think of it as a feminist companion piece to The Wolf of Wall Street or The Big Short. Inspired by a true story, Hustlers follows a diverse group of strippers who wine and dine Wall Street middlemen and execs, feeding off the spoils of their feeding frenzy, and then eventually upping their game, drugging them and fleecing them for one wild night that they’ll be too embarrassed to report that next morning. The story grabs you early on and is stuffed full of interesting details about the ins and outs of the stripping industry as well as how to service and manipulate the wealthier men who frequent said clubs. Hustlers becomes a combination of a crime caper, a con artist thriller, and a class-conscious drama about the haves and have nots, but it really becomes a showcase for the talents of one Jennifer Lopez, a woman who does not seem at all close to her fifty years on this planet (her introduction is quite the jaw-dropper). Lopez plays Ramona, the alpha leader of the group, a loving single mom with a healthy distaste for the hand she’s been dealt. She is sensational and delivers the best performance of her long career. Even when she’s doing bad things, even when she’s taking bold risks, there is a moral center to that woman, an unbreakable heart for the people she chooses to let into her life, and it does not budge, which was a poignant note. In many ways she is more the main character than Constance Wu (Crazy Rich Asians), a figure that serves as more entry point than fully-fleshed out character. I enjoyed learning the various tricks of the trade writer/director Lorene Scarfaria (Seeking a Friend for the End of the World) peppers throughout with her love of montage and stylish transitions, but it really picked up after the 2008 financial crash where the women cross over into direct criminality. At first they figure they’re just skipping ahead, drugging with MDMA rather than waiting for their marks to get drunk (“Drunk enough to order the bill but sober enough to sign the check,” Ramona cautions). Then things get escalated and sloppy and the women are in trouble. It’s a fun ride watching the ladies get theirs, and I was challenged to muster much of any sympathy for their Wall Street marks. Part of me wishes more women would be inspired by this movie and follow suit, fleecing the people who fleeced our economy. The movie rides that wave of the good times you know can’t last, prolonging the fall we’re all anticipating coming. The supporting characters can be a bit weak; several of the other girls involved in the scheme merit one note of description, and some of the humor feels a bit out of place, like a running joke where one of the women nervously vomits often (this is like her single character trait, and it’s weird). It’s also likely the stripper-centric movie with the least nudity I’ve ever seen, thanks to Scarfaria treating a sensational story with candor rather than exploitation. Hustlers is a glitzy drama that will entertain you with its flash and then surprise you with its edge. And all hail, Jennifer Lopez, ageless wonder and underrated actress getting her due.
Nate’s Grade: B
Mob movies are culturally beloved. I could watch Goodfellas every time I see it on TV. We know these movies, we know this lifestyle, in so much as it’s been demonstrated in our art. A feminine perspective is often the dame, the moll, the panicked wife who worries her husband will never come home and see his bratty kids again. Rarely in mob movies are there roles for women that can be considered three-dimensional. Even Diane Keaton gets shortchanged in The Godfather series. In comes Oscar-nominated Straight Outta Compton screenwriter Andrea Berlof, tackling her directorial debut and adapting a graphic novel about three mob wives fighting the system. It’s about time this under-represented perspective in some of our favorite movies got its due spotlight. It’s too bad then that The Kitchen finds ways to still leave the women behind where it counts.
Set in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood of New York City in the late 70s, three mobsters get arrested one evening by the FBI and sent to prison. Their wives are now left alone to raise their families, struggle for employment, and to not be forgotten with the new pecking order of those mobsters left behind. Ruby (Tiffany Haddish) and Kathy (Melissa McCarthy) think they should take over their husband’s rackets while their men are indisposed. Claire (Elisabeth Moss) is more worried about what will happen when her abusive husband comes back from prison. The three women work together to make a stake at their own claim, butting heads against the existing power structure of dismissive men who don’t think organized crime is any place for a woman.
The Kitchen has such potential but it’s too often running off the fumes of other mob movies. Beyond the obvious similarities with last year’s more refined and polished Widows, this is a movie that gobbles its mafia movie clichés like a heaping helping of pasta (more clichés!). The characters aren’t terribly well defined and the story oddly moves in starts and stops, with moments either feeling too long or too short, and especially abruptly transposed, using montage to hurdle through what should have been needed onscreen development. People rightfully complained about the final season of Game of Thrones skipping over needed steps along a character’s journey to get to its intended destination, and The Kitchen is deserving of the same charge. We want to see these women in charge and others afraid, except the movie doesn’t show me any reason why these women would rise in power and what sets them apart from their steely competition. I get that they’re underestimated and they are determined, and that works in a general sense, but by the half-hour mark they’re already successful mobster entrepreneurs and I’m unsure how. Even after their rise, there is little that seems to deter them. Every new obstacle is comically taken care of in such casual fashion that you never worry for their well-being. It feels like Berloff wants to skip through all the hard work and just get to the enjoyable desserts or a life of crime, but moving up the ladder is an essential part of any power struggle story. As a result of the sloppy plotting and pacing, there is an over-reliance on clichés to stand in place, relying upon the audience’s warm understanding of the genre territory and what to expect to relieve the movie from having to do more work. It’s all telling and hardly any show.
The characters are kept as archetypes as well, at least 2/3 of the leads. Both McCarthy and Haddish seem miscast for their roles. Both are splendid comic actresses and have dramatic capabilities beyond what they get credit for, but they seem to rely upon comic instincts to get through their underwritten scenes, which further hampers the lack of tension. Each actress gets one solid scene to open up their character but it’s just so little. Ruby has a sit down where her mom credits beating the “soft” out of her daughter for Ruby’s success. That little glimpse into her past and her fraught relationship with her mother served as a tantalizing hint at what could be explored further with the Ruby character. The same with the fact that she’s a black woman who married into a very rigid Irish-American family set in their prejudices. There’s such dramatic potential to be had there. Alas, she’s tasked with being a hardass and that’s all The Kitchen asks of Haddish, treating her more as symbol than person. For McCarthy, there’s a late scene where another character tries to soft-peddle her involvement in crime, saying she did what she had to for her children, and Kathy corrects, saying, no, she did it all for her. She was tired of being a deferential doormat and wanted to feel important. That degree of self-empowerment through selfishness could be a fascinating character angle to explore, but we don’t get that. She clarifies the lens for us to view her with but by that point it’s far too late. The film is top-heavy with underwritten women and that’s a shame.
The most interesting character by far is Moss’ abused wife-turned-budding killer. Claire is the one starting at the lowest point and the one who takes to the life of crime as means of salvation. These characters are doing some pretty heinous acts but with Claire I felt the most empathy for her plight, bullied by her husband and feeling trapped, more worried about the impending release and her return to being the scared woman cowering in the corner again. She doesn’t want to go back to that life and I believed every moment of Moss blurting out her despair and desperation. That’s why her relationship with another oddball killer played by Domhnall Gleeson (The Last Jedi) was what I cared about most in the movie. You watch them grow together, him mentoring her on how to cut up a body and dispose of it down river, and you watch how each of these two people finds something missing in the other. They may not even be good for one another, enabling their darker impulses and past a point of no return, but it’s the only evolving relationship we were given an entry point to empathize with fully. This segment is also criminally underwritten but it’s clearly where the focal point of the movie should have been. This was the perspective the movie should have been locked into and the character’s journey we follow through every step.
The Kitchen isn’t a bad movie at all. The production design and period appropriate costumes are to die for. There’s always going to be a visceral enjoyment watching the underdogs move ahead and topple their doubters and competition. The ensemble doesn’t have a bad actor in the bunch. Bill Camp (Molly’s Game) shows up with a real sense of veiled menace as a Brooklyn mobster both irritated and impressed by the ladies’ advancement. The soundtrack is packed with Scorsese-riff-approved tunes, including three instances of Fleetwood Mac. There are pleasures to be had. It’s just that the ingredients to a better movie were all there, plain as day. If you’re a fan of mob movies in general, you may find enough to satisfy with The Kitchen, which has its moments but ultimately feels too much like an under-cooked dish you’ve had one too many times before (metaphors!).
Nate’s Grade: C+
When we last left human killing machine John Wick (Keanu Reeves) he was on the run. He had just committed the cardinal sin in this world of professional hired guns — killing a protected man on safe ground. As a result, The High Table, which governs this ordered realm of trained assassins, has excommunicated Mr. Wick and placed a $15 million dollar bounty on his head. John is desperate for an exit and leans on old pals (Angelica Huston, Halle Berry) before coming home once again to face off against all the gun-toting wrath The High Table can offer.
Plenty of Hollywood action movies can elicit cheers and thrills, and John Wick 3 is definitely in that mix, but what sets it apart is the sheer number of “Oooo”s, “Oww”s, and, “Holy shit”s. Most other action movies have one or two moments that make you wince or make you shake your head in astonishment of something intense, gnarly, or self-evidently awesome. John Wick 3 is packed with these moments. There are numerous examples just in the opening action sequence. There’s one long extended fight where John uses whatever is at his disposal, including knives and shards of broken glass and mirror, to take down his mounting enemies, and then he pulls these deadly projectiles out of their bodies to use again in a pinch. By the end of this action sequence, my preview audience burst into applause. I can’t think of another movie where this happened especially in Act One. The movie has lots of standout action sequences and the good sense to let the audience enjoy the disciplined, imaginative fight choreography in full with long expansive takes. There are moments that are just incredible to witness, like John Wick utilizing a kicking horse to his advantage, or seeing the full take-down effect of whirling attack dogs in combat, and a two-on-one fight where every glass cage in sight must be smashed to bits. For action fans, the John Wick series is a simplified adrenaline shot where the director and star are working in unison to compose goose bump-triggering action cinema for the masses.
Another hallmark of the series is its sense of macabre humor and the world building peculiarities. Amidst the wild carnage and bloodshed, there are moments that shocked me with how funny they were. I was almost in tears toward one baffling moment toward the very end. I loved that the chief antagonist, a samurai sword-wielding Zero (Mark Dacascos), can also be a fanboy. During a rare moment of downtime, he gets to gush and freak out that he’s actually interacting with the John Wick. There’s a new character played by Asia Kate Dillion (TV’s Billions, Orange is the New Black) who behaves like a peeved middle manager trying to get back on the next red-eye home. She’s the best new addition in Chapter Three. Don’t expect much from high-profile new faces like Angelica Huston and Halle Berry as their screen time is brokered into short segments. There’s a sequence where John combats trained soldiers in body armor, and so he has to constantly be reloading because it takes multiple precise shots to down the bad guys. It’s a smart way to escalate the stakes of the scene while staying true to its world, because who wouldn’t wear everything and the kitchen sink when being tasked with killing John Wick? I laughed out loud when Wick returned to an armory perturbed that he had to reload so soon, muttering to himself in agitation.
The action is relentless and all kinds of fun to watch but the movie starts to lose its momentum by the conclusion. Part of this is by the sense of lowered emotional stakes in its finale (more on that below) and another factor is its general plot-less nature. The entire story of John Wick 3 is the title character trying to outrun the people set out to kill him, jumping from one supposed safe landing spot to another. This works for a frenetic sense of pacing, knowing that any lag time will be minimal before the next kickass brawl. Because the movie rarely catches its collective breath, it can also feel like a mindless video game, with each new location a new level and with innumerable, faceless cohorts rushing in to be battled. The violence can be brutal but also feel a bit programmed, lacking some of the visceral dynamic realism of The Raid movies, the closest equivalent action franchise I can think of. There’s nothing here that challenges the brilliant set pieces and organic complications from the last Mission: Impossible movie. It’s a fun action franchise but it runs the risk of resting on its (considerable) laurels, feeling too same-y, and that can prove deadly. The clever fight choreography, sense of humor, and conviction of Reeves does enough to mask the negative effects of this artistic choice. This may affect people differently especially fans of the series, as lavishly produced action can be rewarding enough to ignore other pressing faults. For me, I was feeling as gassed as John Wick by the end.
The further and further we get from the events of the original John Wick, the less emotional involvement the series seems to ingratiate, especially with its central baddies onscreen. Every dog-loving audience member was wiling Wick to get his vengeance in the first movie. We wanted him to get the bad guy in the sequel. Now it’s basically wave after wave of hired guns that he has to defeat, and without a better connection to that opposing force, the movie franchise runs the risk of losing any longstanding personal stakes. The bad guys are just interchangeable and only present to be dispatched. There’s no emotional victory or satisfaction for the audience if Bad Guy #12 gets toppled by the climax. The John Wick franchise is magnifying this accelerating problem; by making the conflict carry over into an additional movie, and now into another additional movie, the audience is getting further and further distance from the origin of this conflict, and thus its resolution becomes less of a desirable and satisfying goal and more a perfunctory endpoint. I would recommend the John Wick team review 2008’s Quantum of Solace to see a recent example of a big action movie hampered by overextending a thin storyline.
If you’re coming to John Wick 3 for another heaping of high-quality action, you won’t leave disappointed on that front. If you’re looking for signature moves, dark humor, and lots and lots of casual headshots, then you won’t leave disappointed. If you’re looking for a thrilling good time at the movies, you won’t leave disappointed. As a fan of the series, this was the movie I was wanting from the first sequel, dealing with the larger consequences of his rule-breaking life-and-death decision. As the third act ramped up for John Wick 3, I turned to my friend and said, “If this was the second movie, it would end right here.” Perhaps if you watch John Wick 2 and the third movie in short succession some of the problems would be smoothed out, namely a depleted sense of personal stakes and too little plot stretched over multiple movies and counting. I’ll happily continue watching further adventures of John Wick, though I’d be just as interested in an exploration of the world without its titular star. At some point it may be necessary to retire John Wick (Reeves seems to have lost a step, but he’s still like a hundred steps beyond most of us) and when they do, I hope this interesting and peculiar world is allowed to house further weird and exciting adventures. In the meantime, John Wick 3 will more than delight those action urges and sate the action appetites of its fans.
Nate’s Grade: B
At the start of 2019, there were an amazing three Hollywood remakes of foreign films released. It was a peculiar time where we had the American version of France’s global hit The Intoucheables (The Upside), the American version of Norway’s quirky and violent In Order of Disappearance (Cold Pursuit), and the American version of Mexico’s searing beauty pageant crime thriller, Miss Bala. The films didn’t seem like a studio dump job, the new regime quietly dropping doomed movies into the early months of the year to go hopefully unnoticed. The Upside was a $100-million grossing hit, once again proving the durable and international power of that story. The remake I was most concerned about was Miss Bala, which looked via trailers to have strayed so far from the original. It felt like a potent and tragic movie was being turned into an empowerment vehicle, pretty much flipping the artistic intent of the 2011 Mexican original.
Gloria (Gina Rodriguez) is a pageant makeup artist visiting her good friend in Tijuana. The nightclub they’re in becomes a scene of gag violence and Gloria is a reluctant witness to who was responsible. As a result, the cartel gang kidnaps her and forces her to do their bidding, including unwittingly driving a car full of explosives to a DEA safe house. Gloria is forced to be a DEA informant, a courier for the cartel, and all the while she’s searching to find her friend Suzu (Cristina Rodlo). By the end this new “Miss Bala” (“bala” means bullet in Spanish) will be forged by fire and find her strength to fight.
This is a very different version of the Miss Bala story, and for the purposes of this review and critical clarification, I think it would be helpful to reprint my brief analysis of the 2011 film for easier comparison. So here is my 2011 review in full:
“Miss Bala (Mexico’s foreign film Oscar entry for 2011) is an unwavering, startling, and deeply tense movie about one woman’s tragic and unwilling association with a powerful drug cartel. Laura (Stephanie Sigman) wants to be the next Miss Baja California, but she’s unwittingly pulled into a life of crime after she witnesses a gang hit. The cartel ensures that Laura wins the beauty pageant and becomes a courier for them. The movie takes a Lars von Trier approach to storytelling, putting its heroine through a torture chamber of anxiety and terror. This woman only wants to escape the hell she has accidentally found herself a part of, but every attempt to escape, be it going to the police or confessing assassination plots to the intended targets, gets her corralled back into the fray. For Laura, there is no escape. The movie packs a near-constant surge of paranoia, as we fear that at any time something awful will happen. In fact it’s usually only a matter of time. Laura is more a symbol of the collateral damage of Mexico’s billion-dollar drug war than a character, and she kind of becomes a numb zombie by the movie’s latter half, perhaps accepting her doomed fate. Director Gerado Naranjo favors long unwinding takes and handheld cameras, which add a gritty realism and sense of compounding dread to the picture. The movie has an unflinching level of realism to it that makes it all the more haunting, stripping the romanticism from a life of crime. Much like Italy’s heralded crime film Gomorrah, this bleak but impassioned movie shows the inescapable tentacles of organized crime and gives a face to innocents caught in the middle. Miss Bala is a testament to the hidden toll of a nation at war with itself.”
That sounds like a pretty interesting movie, right? It is and is worth checking out regardless of your feelings for the 2019 Miss Bala. The original protagonist was simply a victim of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and as a result she became a pawn in a larger game of leverage between warring factions. Her entire goal was to simply escape the terrible danger she was in, but every refuge just put her back into the fray or used her for their own devious purposes. The protagonist wasn’t completely passive since she’s constantly reacting to the dangers and dangerous men around her, assessing her ability to escape, who she can trust and when, but she is decidedly less empowered.
That is the biggest divergence with the 2019 Miss Bala, making our protagonist an empowered woman who struts in slow-mo in a ball gown and an automatic weapon, the kind of image you’d see in any number of schlocky Michael Bay action thrillers. Over the course of her harrowing experience, Gloria becomes a Strong Woman, a Fighter Who Fights Back, whereas the protagonist of the 2011 film, Laura, was just trying to be a Survivor first and foremost. There’s a distinct difference in intention and execution there. One is curated with more realism and the other becomes a revenge fantasy. One is meant to disquiet and jar a crowd and the other is meant to be a fist-pumping crowd-pleaser.
I’ll admit there was less action in the 2019 Miss Bala than I had feared from the commercials. However, the action that does occur is indistinguishable from other bigger budget crime shootouts. You’ve got grenade launchers, exploding cars, nightclub shootouts, and other cliché moments handled in relatively cliché ways. There is a final confrontation between Gloria and one of her chief antagonists that includes the line, “I did what I had to do. We both did!” I’m stunned they didn’t feel the need to have the villain denote, “You know you and I are not that different.” Actually, now that I think about it, I’m fairly certain this scene did exist between these characters, with the guy talking about his American upbringing as a means of making connections with her. What I’m ultimately saying is that 2019 Miss Bala kind of misses the point of 2011 Miss Bala. It’s like using the Iron Giant, a figure of pacifism (“I am not a gun”) into a weapon of war (ahem, Steven Spielberg, Ready Player One).
But why don’t you judge the movie on its own merits instead of simply comparing it to its superior source material? That’s a reasonable argument so allow me to do so, dear reader. The new Miss Bala doesn’t work as the fist-pumping crowd-pleaser because it doesn’t know what to do to build its tension and escalation. Take for instance a scene after Gloria is taken in by a rogue DEA agent (Matt Lauria) and told she works for them now. She’s sent back to the clutches of the cartel and then alone in a bedroom with a leader. This guy tells her to start taking off her clothes. It’s certainly an uncomfortable moment, and the camera weirdly lingers on Rodriguez’s breasts as she’s about to remove her bra, but the scene is merely a scuzzy guy wanting to see her skin. What if she was wearing a wire or had been hiding something from the DEA, and then removing her clothes would put her in far more danger than being uncomfortable? To further hammer this home, we have a second scene where he acts sleazy to her, touching her and making her uncomfortable, so why do we need two scenes of this making the same point?
The Gloria of 2019 Miss Bala is also a bit too predisposed to be that figure of empowerment in the face of dismissive and dangerous men. Again, nothing wrong with this storytelling perspective, it’s just the film makes it so obvious and clunky at every turn. Within the first minute of screen time, we see Gloria apply her artistic skills at home, go to work, and be dismissed by a snooty male pageant worker telling her, “We’re not paying you to think.” So, as you can see, subtlety is going to be this movie’s strength. Within the next few minutes she travels to Mexico and gets a friendship bracelet from her BFF and she declares, “You are my family.” Again, subtle. Once the club attack goes down, Gloria’s mission becomes finding her missing friend who she assumes is still alive. In the original (here I go again), the protagonist was only interested in escaping and staying alive, and here we have a main character that must save others. The problem with this development is that the movie, like the above described scene, doubles down needlessly. Gloria is already threatened by the cartel that if she escapes they will harm her godson. Why does she need two personal reasons to stay in the thick of the cartel? She already has the DEA pressuring her to do their bidding or else she’ll never find her way back to the United States. The extra conflicts don’t feel like escalations but more like redundancies.
Rodriguez (TV’s Jane the Virgin) is the best thing going with the 2019 Miss Bala. She is a luminescent actress with skills and was unrecognizable for her in Annihilation. The best thing director Catherine Hardwicke (Twilight) does is train her camera closely on Rodriguez’s face to gauge the pained, panicked expressions playing out across her very expressive face and glassy eyes. Rodriguez is a real talent who can carry herself in an action vehicle (her muscular turn in Annihilation was a genuine pleasure). She could headline an action movie, but this isn’t the one for her. Her desperation and fear gives way to a quiet confidence that loses the “quiet” part as she undergoes a slow-mo action hero transformation when the movie needs her to zip to the end of her character arc.
I would thoroughly recommend the 2011 Miss Bala for fans of thoughtful, intense, and affecting thrillers. The paranoia and dread were strong throughout that combustible movie that had more on its mind than some cheap thrills. Comparatively, the 2019 Miss Bala remake feels only designed for cheap thrills and a misguided empowerment message. As the main character is turned from a survivor into a fighter, the edges smooth out, the complexity gets distilled, and the movie becomes any other number of action thrillers where our fragile, scared character becomes an avenging angel by the climax. If that’s your recipe for an enjoyable movie, 2019 Miss Bala still has problems with its execution and poor development. You won’t regret watching the new Miss Bala but your time would be better spent watching the original film and hoping better for Rodriguez.
Nate’s Grade: C
S. Craig Zahler is the real deal when it comes to budding genre auteurs. He’s been writing in Hollywood for some time and after numerous un-produced scripts he finally decided to take matters into his own hands. In 2015, he wrote and directed the terrific and terrifically violent western Bone Tomahawk, and then in 2017 he tried his hand at another genre movie, the brutal prison drama, Brawl in Cell Block 99. Now Zahler has hopped to another genre, the more familiar cops-and-robbers crime thriller territory, Dragged Across Concrete. I’ll watch anything that Zahler decides is worthy of his precious time, and I was unprepared for how engaging, exciting, and uncomfortable the movie made me. It’s still early but I already feel confident this is destined as one of my favorite films of 2019.
One bank robbery. Many different sides fighting for the score. Henry Johns (Tory Kittles) is an ex-con fresh for prison and attached to a crew thanks to a childhood friend, Biscuit (Michael Jai White). Brett Ridgeman (Mel Gibson) is a police detective who has been in the same position for nearly 30 years. His wife has MS and his daughter is being assaulted in their urban neighborhood. His partner, Anthony Lurasetti (Vince Vaughn), is struggling to work up the nerve to propose to his girlfriend and he sees his partner slipping. Both of them are on suspension after a video of them beating a handcuffed suspect appears online. Then there are the mysterious, masked men (labeled as Grey Gloves and Black Gloves) working alongside Vogelmann (Thomas Kretschmann) who hire Henry John and Biscuit to be their getaway drivers. This culminates with a bank robbery that places every character in greater jeopardy as things spin out of control.
What separates Zahler from the pack is simply the magnificent manner he can write scenes, building and building, unlocked intriguing character details, building to startling conclusions or everyday relatability given a new, brash context. It’s a screenwriting edict that every scene should in essence be its own story, having a beginning, middle, and end, a drive, and if possible a reversal to something unexpected, shedding further examination onto a problem, person, or setting. I was greatly enjoying just watching the various characters talk in their understated, hard-boiled, often funny conversations, which don’t feel too self-consciously stylized. It’s just damn good writing. Even when they’re doing bad things, or mistakes that cost them greatly, Zahler has his characters respond like people and not hip, soulless movie cartoons. There’s a reason Concrete is two and a half hours long and that’s because Zahler really lets his scenes breathe at their own pace, which can be too languid if it wasn’t for how exquisitely written they are, particularly with character details. Each scene sheds a startling non-judgmental spotlight on a different character, some criminal, some corrupt, most struggling to keep their heads above water and provide for family, and you feel the narrative expanding, growing, transforming, and providing the needed space to make these people feel real.
Each one of these scenes could be a marvelous short film upon themselves, and sometimes it feels that way with the skipping perspectives. What happens to Jennifer Carpenter’s character, a woman beset with anxiety about returning to work after maternity leave, is its own wonderful movie that provides a glimpse into a life and in only five minutes’ time. Her reluctance to go back to work, her need to be with her child, the simple, heartfelt plea with a child’s sock. It all works in impressive tandem to make this person feel authentic. The same with an exchange between two lifelong friends about a birthday cake and naming dinosaurs, reaching back to ease the current tension. It’s insight rarely afforded to characters in a standard heist movie. The actors are all given these artistic arias to work with, and the extra attention to detail brings a depth of dimension that makes them feel fully realized. Zahler has captured recognizable, complicated human beings and placed them in a pulpy genre movie. This is the sort of A-level elevation of B-movie material that is usually the purview of Quentin Tarantino.
Because of my general awe with the characterization, Zahler had the added benefit of making the rising dread feel powerfully unnerving. It’s major a slow burn of a movie, setting up the various players that will be directly or indirectly involved with the robbery, and that robbery doesn’t even hit until well after an hour into the film. Because of that patience, or self-indulgence some will decry, the movie fleshes out all the participants and their various motivations so that the audience feels degrees of sympathy for many people on different sides of the equation. This leads to amazing tension for the last hour. I was tying myself in knots waiting for awful things to happen to characters I found compelling because, frankly, awful things happen easily in Zahler’s movie universe. There is a stash of guns in the glove compartment of a getaway van. The first sequence involves the growing tension of characters placing themselves in a vulnerable position by giving up their weapons. Then, as the scene transforms anew, the guns in that compartment become a reminder of an ironic advantage that only one character knows about, and we wait for their retrieval to escalate the danger of the new scenario. That’s fabulous writing with organic developments. There are several characters at cross-purposes with little reason to trust one another, and so we wait for that looming explosion of violence fed by mistrust and greed. Zahler understands this and that’s why many of the scenes in the last hour follow the writing style, slow burns that hang onto the unease and breathing space. There are several long takes aided by long shots that amplify the gnawing tension, as your eyes scan the screen waiting for the boom.
I’ve read more than a few negative reviews for Dragged Across Concrete and I don’t understand their central criticism, namely that Zahler’s movie is “problematic” because of a supposed conservative, bigoted point of view. I think these critics are conflating a featured viewpoint with an endorsement of that viewpoint. Take for instance the brouhaha that erupted over a 2015 episode of the Hulu comedy series Difficult People where a narcissistic, caustic character makes an inappropriate joke featuring super scion Blue Ivy and vilified R. Kelly. In the context of the show, the character is berated for her off-color joke and suffers social consequences. When the episode aired, people went after the show and producer Amy Poehler and entirely missed the point. The character was not put in a positive light for making this joke. She was shamed. Clearly the show did not endorse her behavior but others could not see through their own misplaced outrage. With Dragged Across Concrete, we are presented with middle-aged police officers with a chip on their shoulder who feel justified in engaging in brutality against a suspect of color. That’s not a good thing. Zahler’s film does not endorse their actions or worldview but allows them space to exist, filling in their experiences, so we have a greater understanding of how their perspectives have been honed and hardened over time. It’s the same empathetic lens given to other people, like the opening where Henry comes home and discovers his mother has been forced to turn to prostitution to fend for herself and Henry’s disabled younger brother. I don’t think Zahler endorses the abusive cops any more than the ruthless masked killers.
I’m keeping things light in this review for the reason that I want you, dear reader, to be surprised by the many twists and turns of Dragged Across Concrete. As the film builds in intensity, the body count rises and the conclusion feels inevitable because of the superb writing that laid a tight foundation to build upon. Even in death, the characters stay true to whom they are, which can often be very not nice people. The acting is great from every player. This movie grabbed me from the beginning and refused to let go and I was genuinely spellbound from Zahler’s storytelling prowess and ability to weave a net of complex, flawed, humane, and fascinating characters into a tragic scenario of violence that left me anxious and exhilarated. When people complain that Hollywood isn’t making thinking-person films for adults, please invite them to the burgeoning oeuvre of Zahler, who is charting a path for himself on his own terms thanks to his instincts and tremendous writing voice. Dragged Across Concrete is a ferocious punch to the gut in the best way possible.
Nate’s Grade: A
Polar is such a thoroughly unpleasant film experience I was wondering if Lars von Trier had somehow made a comic book movie. I enjoy exploitation movies, I enjoy slick hitman spectacles, and I enjoy audaciously stylish indie films with their own lingering sense of cool, but Polar is gratuitous in every sense of the word and a chore to sit through.
Duncan (Mads Mikkelsen) is the top assassin in an organization filled with colorful personalities with guns. The head of the agency, Blut (Matt Lucas), has a surefire plan to pay off his debts. Rather than pay the assassins their pensions once they hit the mandatory retirement age of 50, he’ll just kill them. Brilliant. Duncan sets off to enjoy his last few days before his big birthday by settling down in a sleepy small town, getting to know his meek neighbor, Camille (Vanessa Hudgens). This quiet new life is interrupted by a team of crazy killers determined to eliminate their colleague and collect his riches.
The tonal disparity with Polar never settles down, which makes it hard to find any sense of a baseline of what is acceptable reality. What is normal here? The film veers from grotesque, brutish, gory violence to cartoonish, grating, juvenile slapstick. The violence is far too gross and brutal for the light tone it wishes to maintain. It’s the kind of violence where every gunshot necessitates a lurid explosion of blood, and why stop at one gunshot when a dozen will do? There’s an extended torture montage that lasts a total of four days when it could have just been a single session if the point is to kill the hero. It’s close-ups of skin peeling and being penetrated, and I’m not averse to gore effects and exploitation elements but when it’s paired with this flippant, nasty tone it cheapens the violence. This is a film that wallows in the grotesque, tittering to itself and trying so damn hard to be so provocative that it becomes exhausting. It’s jam-packed with style-for-style’s-sake choices that further call attention to its overall emptiness. I started counting the number of shots that existed simply to highlight a woman’s butt, and mostly that of Ruby O. Fee (The Invisibles). I swear her entire role seems to be butt-centric. Then there’s one shot composed entirely of butts shaking in Katheryn Winnick’s (Vikings) face. She’s having a phone call and her face is squeezed between two strippers shaking butts just because. It’s hilariously and transparently gratuitous. So many edits, shots, and even scenes exist just to call attention to its supposed sense of cool. However, cool movies, just like people, don’t have to convince you that they’re cool, they just are.
Let’s take the evil assassins that chase after Duncan. They’re the kind of glib movie assassins that all seem defined by one or two quirks and costume styling guidelines. It’s a diverse group of ridiculous cartoon villains who seem reverse-engineered as toy figures. Why are they also working for an employer that plans on killing them all to escape paying them upon retirement? Why would you willfully work for someone who is so open about betraying you? It’s astoundingly shortsighted thinking. Regardless, other movies have utilized colorful criminals to better establish a sense of fun, particularly the early works of Guy Ritchie. These villains bounce from person-to-person tracking down their target, killing with callous indifference mixed with childish glee, but there’s no personality, no menace, so the bloodletting feels gratuitous and ugly. Scene after scene feels like the actors had large trunks of costumes and props and were told to dig around and grab anything they wanted before they began filming. It makes every one of their appearances feel annoying and trite, especially when one scene, again, exists simply to highlight Fee’s butt in jean shorts. The killers’ big plan is to shoot their target while receiving oral sex from Fee’s character. Then the others will bulrush and shoot some more. Or, and I’m not an expert here, they could simply break in while their target sleeps and shoot them in the back? This lame group of hired killers is the big threat… and then they’re taken out with half the movie left. They are removed with such haste that I was shocked. We had spent so much time with these antagonists and then they’re gone. It’s a fantastic waste of time for a group of characters that didn’t even merit one minute. There’s even one scene where Richard Dreyfuss (Jaws) shows up and is never seen again.
The supreme villain is played by Matt Lucas (Doctor Who) and it just does not work. It’s like Toby Jones’ second cousin found the relics of Elton John’s closet and decided to try and play a Bond villain. I enjoy Lucas normally for his daft comedy roles and I think he’s trying to adopt a Goldfinger impersonation but it does not work. Once again it’s the entire tonal execution and narrative development at fault here. Blut is an officious dweeb prone to yelling at people and running away. He has no standout scene and poses no real threat once the hired guns and goons are taken care of. He cannot hold his own. This is why killing off the team of assassins with half the movie left relates to a dire misstep.
The only thing that does work in this movie is Mikkelsen (Rogue One), who is doing everything in his power to provide an anchor for the pitiable audience. He is way too good for Polar. He takes everything one hundred percent seriously and is genuinely emoting while everyone else is chewing whatever scenery isn’t nailed down. It very much feels like Mikkelsen is in some other different movie, or is pretending to be in a different, better movie. His interactions with Hudgens are a high point, taking her under his wing and showing small glimpses of sympathy and guilt. Their ultimate relationship is predictable, and she disappointingly becomes trapped as a damsel in distress for the final act. Mikkelsen does have a terrific brawl in a hallway (the location of all film fights now it seems) that is well choreographed and very physical without feeling like he’s superhuman. I wish I were watching the better movie Mads Mikkelsen thought he was in.
Everything about Polar feels unnecessary. The sex scenes are gratuitous, the violence is gratuitous, the style is gratuitous, and when everything feels tacked on for cheap thrills, the movie becomes hollow, calculated, and lazy. The suspense sequences should be exciting or an example of our protagonist’s expertise but little feels clever. There are one or two moments, glimmers of what could have been had more attention been given to developing the sequences. As I was watching this two-hour cartoon I was strongly reminded of the 1990s Tarantino knock-off, The Big Hit, which was an exaggerated cartoon of tiresome depravity. It tried so hard to evoke a carefree hipness when it came to its criminals, their depraved acts, their comedic interactions, the debauched humor, that it all felt like two hours of collective flop sweat. Polar is very much in that same description, a movie that is trying too hard to be a fun, breezy, exploitation movie. Except it feels adrift and phony and unpleasant. Polar doesn’t deserve Mads Mikkelsen and it doesn’t deserve a minute of your time, butts and all.
Nate’s Grade: D+
Clint Eastwood plays a real-life 90-year-old drug mule, though I must inform you dear reader that at no point does he hide his cargo in a very uncomfortable place. The Mule is an interesting story about the most unexpected mule. Eastwood plays a man broke and on the outs with the family he’s neglected their entire lives. He takes up an offer to simply drive albeit for a Mexican drug cartel. As with most life-of-crime movies, what starts off uneasily becomes second nature as our characters get in over their heads. Except that doesn’t really happen in The Mule. I would estimate twenty percent of the movie is watching Eastwood drive and sing along to the radio. There are some tense near misses where he’s almost caught, but these are confined to the first half. In the second half the cartel becomes the chief source of danger, all because he doesn’t go by their routes. If he’s their most successful mule, having never had a ticket in his life, then why micromanage? There are some other nitpicks that nagged at me, like the cartel knows the DEA agents (Bradley Cooper and Michael Pena) are pulling over a very specific color and kind of car, but at no point do they change out Eastwood’s car. Also, Eastwood is spending vast sums of money in public for a man who was losing his house, and yet no red flags there. Eventually Eastwood has to make a choice of family over angering the cartel and risking his life, and I think you’ll know where his character arc is destined. The dramatic shape of the movie feels a little too inert for the stakes involved, leading to an all too tidy conclusion. Eastwood delivers a fine performance, as does every other actor involved. The movie kind of coasts along, much like Eastwood in his truck, on the inherent interest of its premise and the star power of its lead/director. The Mule might have worked better as a documentary.
Nate’s Grade: B-
Melissa McCarthy adopts the Oscar bait route of pre-approved credibility, which usually means playing a tragic, self-destructive real-life figure, stripping away any sense of vanity, and working with an up-and-coming indie film director (Diary of a Teenage Girl‘s Marielle Heller). The recipe is alive and well in the consistently entertaining, but only for so far, Can You Ever Forgive Me? which traces the life of literary author Lee Israel, a biographer who nobody wants to read, that is, until she starts “discovering” lost letters from the likes of Noel Coward, Dorothy Parker, and other famous authors. In total, Israel forged 400 letters and sold them to private collectors and archivists until the FBI charged her with fraud. Because of the relatively low-stakes nature of her accidental jaunt into criminality, the “how” is less interesting than the budding friendship formed between Israel and a malcontent bawdy barfly/partner in crime (Richard E. Grant). Their rapport is wonderful and they truly seem to be having a ball with their ill-gotten gains, yet they still maintain a vulnerability even to the very end. In many ways this film does for McCarthy and her standard barrage of caustic, anti-social characters what Punch-Drunk Love did for the Adam Sandler introverted goofball sad-sack barely concealing his explosive rage. It’s a grounded deconstruction on that familiar movie archetype we’ve seen from a popular comic actor. There are some interesting aspects about Israel’s lonely life, like a timid female bookshop owner who circles around a potential romance with Israel, but it’s really a two-hander of a movie between Grant and McCarthy. Can You Ever Forgive Me? is a slight character-driven drama with comedic elements, but McCarthy shows that she has the acting chops to play multi-faceted characters in any genre if given the right opportunity.
Nate’s Grade: B
It is no disservice when I say that Bad Times at the El Royale joins the ranks of the finest of Tarantino imitators. It’s packed with twists and turns that keep an audience glued to the screen and continually re-evaluating the characters that we thought we knew. Because of that dynamic the movie invites the audience into becoming more involved, dissecting the information available and waiting for the next clue or plot revelation. It turns watching the film into a game and makes the experience that much more active and thrilling.
In the summer of 1969, the El Royale hotel is in for one hell of a night. The old fashioned hotel sits on the border between Nevada and California, allowing its dwindling customer base the opportunity to choose which state they would like to stay in. A group of strangers cozy up for the night including a priest (Jeff Bridges), a chatty vacuum salesman (Jon Hamm), a hopeful lounge singer (Cynthia Erivo), a skittish bellhop (Lewis Pullman), and a mysterious woman (Dakota Johnson) who happens to have a hostage in her trunk. As the night progresses and the characters uncover one another’s secrets, sometimes with deadly results, menacing cult leader Billy Lee (Chris Hemsworth) comes swaggering to the El Royale to reclaim by force what he feels is rightfully his.
There are Act One twists and reveals in El Royale that would have been the Act Threes of other movies. Writer/director Drew Goddard (Cabin in the Woods, The Martian) has packed his movie full of sinister intrigue as he establishes the hotel, the main characters, and an immediate impression of each in the first 15 minutes. From there, the movie is divided into chapter titles (another Tarantino motif) where we follow different room inhabitants who get 20-minute-vignette spotlights. Once in private, the characters shed their false faces and begin to reveal who they really are, or who we think they might really be, and the movie starts to resemble Tarantino’s own hidden identity parlor game, 2015’s Hateful Eight. The vignettes begin to overlap, ending on cliffhangers and then circling back with a new character as our focal point, re-watching prior scenes but from a different perspective. Goddard’s script is wonderfully clever, layering in questions and answers and a constant desire to upend audience expectations. Even though some segments will repeat, Goddard doesn’t waste time on redundancy. A character will be seen prying loose floorboards searching for something desirable, and we never have to relive the before or after of this moment from that character’s perspective because we’ve been imparted the necessary info and can put the pieces together with the next jump. I appreciated Goddard’s faith in the intelligence of his audience. The pleasure of El Royale is watching it deftly unfold as a fun, funny, startling, appealing mystery.
The characters must also be worthy of our attention, and Goddard does fine work teasing out his colorful cast of criminals and lost souls and deepening most. Everyone has something to hide at the El Royale, and finding out his or her true intentions and motivations is part of the film’s fun. I won’t spoil any of the big surprises or which characters are really putting on a show. Despite all the many plot machinations intertwined, Goddard still finds time for his film to breathe and let the characters talk, opening themselves to one another, sometimes with the assistance of dramatic irony. Jeff Bridges and Cynthia Erivo play the best characters and deliver the best performances. Both of them are haunted by pasts they don’t feel like sharing, both are under some element of disguise to embark on finding their happy ending, and both form a sort of bond throughout the film as kindred spirits, even if they can’t fully trust one another. Bridges has the most complicated back-story but it actually links with a very real and emotional condition: memory loss. His character is (legitimately) going through early dementia and he’s losing full control of his sense of self, occasionally blanking and forgetting who he even is and how he got where he did. For a character pretending to be someone else, there’s a cruel irony to this malady. The seven main characters aren’t all on the same level (some are more plot devices than people) but Goddard knows this, making sure his 142-minute movie spends the most time with the best of them.
The actors given the best characters are also the ones that deliver the best performances, if you can imagine that. Bridges (Hell or High Water) brings a strong sense of pathos to his memory-addled priest trying to assess his life and his choices. He seems genuine in every moment, which is a feat considering his character has his share of secrets like anyone else. Erivo is a Broadway star making her film debut here, and she steals the show with her bruised sense of optimism. She’s the heart of the movie and a proven survivor, especially from a rigged system that protects predatory men. She brings a quiet power to her character as well as a believable vulnerability that makes you care. Hemsworth (Avengers: Infinity War) is all shaggy, scraggly charm as a cult leader who gets off pitting his followers, and captives, against one another. Really he likes to listen to himself speak, and Hemsworth is having a grand ole time with the part. Another actor exhibiting clear joy is Hamm (Baby Driver) who is, if you’ll pardon the pun, hamming it up with great gusto. He does a far majority of the talking for the first twenty minutes. He’s practically bouncing all over the place as an unchecked extrovert, but when alone, Hamm demonstrates an additional layer to his outlandish character. Another strong impression is from Pullman (Strangers: Prey at Night) as the lone employee eager to find absolution for his part in the El Royale’s history of sin as well as his own personal demons. The weakest of the ensemble ends up being Johnson (Fifty Shades Freed) who gets lost in her femme fatale archetype and can’t seem to find her way out again.
This is only Goddard’s second directing feature and his best directing aspect is that he knows when to linger on the written page. There are several segments that dwell in a certain emotion, elevated by Goddard’s tracking shots to continue the predicated unease. There’s one early moment where the bowels of the El Royale are revealed as hidden viewing areas to secretly record the guests doing their seemingly private illicit good times. The lead character of this vignette walks along the corridor, studying other characters and slowly realizing the implications of what he or she is finding. The scene is given a beautiful and eerie soundtrack thanks to Darlene practicing her singing, belting out “This Old Heart of Mine” like her life depended upon it, the tune taking on a sinister edge as it echoes through the dark hallway along with the tick-tock of the metronome. There’s another terrific singing suspense segment in this very same location, except with a different character spying on Darlene as she and another character work in conjunction to coordinate their movements, timing striking sounds in the room to her claps. Goddard has an adequate eye for visuals but he benefits from the gorgeously conceived and constructed El Royale setting, allowing the quirks of the rundown hotel to serve as another character to his ensemble. I enjoyed little touches, like only the Nevada side having a liquor license and the bright red line that runs down the middle of everything.
And yet there are some lingering doubts that halt me from a full-throated endorsement of El Royale, and I’ve been trying to articulate them better in the days since I watched the film. It frankly doesn’t fully come together by the end in a way that feels suitably climactic. Once Billy Lee enters the third act, the movie stabilizes and we spend time with the remaining characters assembled together to be terrorized by the cult leader. After seeing everyone else’s story in smaller vignettes with some slippery non-linear perspectives, we’ve finally come to our big confrontation and summit with everyone. Except it doesn’t feel as big as the movies needs it to be. Characters will be dispatched swiftly, and instead of it feeling shocking it feels abrupt and contrived, devaluing the character arcs that had been shuffling forward to that point. The deaths feel too ho-hum, and the final confrontation and melee too chaotic and random. The sacrifices feel wasted and sloppy rather than the payoff from some long established setup. It’s here where Goddard cannot hide his narrative trickery anymore and the machinations are exposed. I couldn’t help but feel that the final act was slowly losing the momentum and excitement that had been built carefully over the course of two hours. Billy Lee isn’t quite the force that his whispered presence has been made out to be, no fault to Hemsworth, who impresses me more and more with every new performance. It’s like by the end of his movie Goddard has realized that certain characters were inevitably just more interesting than others and he saves room for them to get a climax and brushes off the rest. Thematically I don’t quite know if it comes together with any sort of final statement about the 1960s, the dichotomy of good and evil, or anything else. It’s a final act that left me a little disappointed and realizing the end wasn’t nearly as fun as the journey.
Bad Times at the El Royale is a movie jam-packed with twists, plot turns, and colorful characters played by great actors who are clearly enjoying themselves, given the room to roam and stretch their muscles as exaggerated and dangerous criminal cohorts. Goddard’s film is impeccably structured up until its final act where it feels like the answers and confrontations cannot match the mysteries and setup that had been laid before. If you’re a fan of the top level of Tarantino imitators, like Things to Do In Denver When You’re Dead or Lucky Number Slevin, or enjoy unpacking a good mystery, then check into the El Royale, a hotel where maybe the cockroaches have the best chance at survival.
Nate’s Grade: B+