Film is a powerful medium but it’s also one where it seems an infinite number of people are ready and willing to debase themselves just to be part of a production, just like there seems to be an infinite amount of people ready and willing to use their perch as filmmaker to exploit, particularly, young women that normally wouldn’t give them the time of day. I don’t dislike exploitation cinema on its face. I enjoy crazy movies, bad movies, and movies replete with sex, drugs, and violence as much as the next guy. The problem is when the exploitation is for its own shallow sake. Such is the case with the repellent She’s Just a Shadow from writer/director/producer Adam Sherman, whose scuzzy aim seems to be a lower-rent Harmony Korine, who is a lower-rent Larry Clark, all face down in the trough of skeevy exploitation cinema runoff. This may be the kind of movie only a disaffected 12-year-old kid would love but you wouldn’t want to get to know that child.
Set amid the glamour and grime of Tokyo, we follow Irene (Tao Okamoto, The Wolverine), who informs us in her opening narration, “It was kind of confusing how I took over the black market and sex trade of the whole city.” So, off to a good start. She’s married to Red Hot (Kentez Asaka) who is looking to gain new turf for his drug empire and stomp the competition, which happens to be a grade school friend of Irene’s that causes him intense jealousy. Gaven (J-pop star Kihiro) is tired of his rich gangster playboy life and torn between his feelings for two prostitutes, Tanya (Karuka Abe, Kiss Me First) and Beth (Mercedes Maxwell, Marfa Girl). He wants to run away with Tanya but just can’t leave his cushy lifestyle. Really, the plot of this movie is: whatever character does copious amount of some drug while naked women cavort in foreground or background. Plus there’s a serial killer. That’s it.
The opening sequence sets the tone for this repulsive TWO-HOUR experience. A woman is hogtied, naked, and laid onto train tracks. Her abductor records her panicked muffled cries as one of Japan’s bullet trains approaches. Yes, it’s a twenty-first century film where a villain straps women to railroad tracks. However, that’s not edgy enough, so the abductor proceeds to masturbate to the woman’s terror and climaxes on her, which we see, before she gets smacked by a train. It’s a gross, sleazy, and gratuitous opening, and it sets the tone for a movie that never challenges itself to be anything more than the world’s most boring exploitation film.
You can clearly see Sherman’s interests in exploitation film staples and Japanese culture, but getting to play with your kinks and getting dozens of women naked does not a movie make. It feels like I’m watching some strange and off-putting project that’s a combination of a rambling, incoherent student film and personal pornography. I’m a red-blooded heterosexual male who enjoys nudity but She’s Just a Shadow is excessive to the point of boredom. The movie is almost two hours and I can literally count on my two hands the number of minutes that did not include some naked woman. Scene to scene, naked women will just bounce around, or sometimes they just lay around while other characters talk, serving as literal scene decorations. There’s a big glitter orgy and visuals of writhing, tawny nude bodies. There’s a full-frontal photo shoot that just goes on and on. There are multiple trips to a strip club. The gang of prostitutes are dressed in chunky Alice in Wonderland-style Gothic dresses and wigs and jewels glued to their faces. I looked it up and several of the minor Japanese actresses are real porn stars (no judgement). The objectification of the women is just so overpowering. It’s not that you can’t tell a compelling story with sex workers as the primary stars/perspectives. Sherman has not provided them the material because they aren’t characters; they’re barely people (more on that below) in this realm. They’re disposable fetish figurines meant for posing. This is like some horny teenage boy’s fantasy of having enough power to get a bunch of women to frolic to his specific demands. I counted the number of actresses listed under “prostitute” in the end credits and it’s 32!
Exploitation movies trade in base behavior, memorably outrageous characters, and fans celebrate them for it, but they still need to provide an entry point for an audience. She’s Just a Shadow is trying so hard to be edgy in every scene that it reeks of tragic desperation. It’s unrepentantly misogynistic and trashy and ugly and cruel for its own stupid sake. There are no characters of interest, no recognizable people to follow and empathize with, and Sherman’s idea of a Strong Woman amounts to an abused woman forced to do awful things to fit in or rise above awful people. Crime movies and exploitation cinema is rife with immoral characters but the filmmakers know well enough to make them worth watching. With She’s Just a Shadow, one of the biggest character’s entire arc is that he keeps saying, “Man, I can’t party anymore.” He has a life of empty luxury and he says he can’t handle it any longer, and yet he stays. The lead characters are supposed to be ferocious criminal leaders but they act like self-involved morons or cartoons. They have (nick?) names like Red Hot, Knockout, and the competing gangster, Blue Sky. There is one moment that is so incomprehensible in its insane nihilism that I was gob smacked. In the span of ten seconds, a character roundhouse kicks a kid in a wheelchair across his face, then punts his dog over a fence, and then gets plowed into by a speeding truck. If you needed confirmation, here it is that Sherman has contempt for his unfortunate characters.
The heavy-handed nihilism is so tiresome and is its only trick. Sherman is forced to resort to repetitive shock theatrics to jolt life into his movie because it’s such a floundering story. There’s one scene where Tanya is eating an ice cream cone, digresses about how her drunk father was so poor he could not even afford an ice cream cone, then discusses how she was possibly molested and raped by that same father, and now he’s dead, mom too, and then she smears the vanilla ice creams over her face and asks, “Will you lick the ice cream off my face?” Then there are close-ups of Gavin’s tongue lapping every morsel. What the hell is this scene even doing?
The lingering serial killer is the biggest symptom of this diseased thinking. The “Train Track Killer” is seen murdering a half a dozen naked women in his signature over-the-top style, and why do we need to see this half a dozen times? Are we gaining any further insights about this man? The police can’t seem to determine the identity of the culprit, but in this universe not a single train employee or passenger records evidence of a weird man standing beside a dead body. The serial killer poses as a cop but most of his screen time is spent spying on Irene’s prostitutes, and hacking into their electronic devices, and masturbating furiously. I suppose there’s a mystery of whom he is, not that his identity matters, but it does matter to Irene and her girls who are at risk. Halfway through the movie, Irene knows who this guy is and… she… does… nothing. Why? Eventually, at the very end of the movie, she does take a stand, but why didn’t she take the initiative an hour earlier? There are more women dead because she chose not to act. The “Train Track Killer” adds nothing of genuine value to this story. He’s a slipshod antagonist kept along the periphery, called upon to do something horrible at random times, yet his actions have no impact on the characters he targets. Under Sherman’s guise, the women are all disposable. This is a stupid character that has nothing to do except provide work for the newscasters (who report with the same microphone and obliviously within feet of speeding trains). Let this terrible man’s spiteful ejaculation in the opening scene serve as a metaphor for the entire enterprise.
She’s Just a Shadow has so many bizarre, ineffective, and pathetic examples of headache-inducing dialogue that I had to assemble my favorites. I asked my friends on social media what the best-worst example of dialogue is, and by a close margin they went with the first selection. The candidates for Worst Line of Movie Dialogue of 2019 are the following:
1) “Women! No matter how human they seem, they are just shadows. But on the other hand, aren’t we all?”
2) “This sandwich is cold and raw AND SO ARE YOU!” *hangs up phone*
3) “There’s two kinds of love: strawberry love and Twinkie love. A Twinkie can sit there for decades and still be sweet. A strawberry is juicy and sweet but if you leave it out it will rot in just a couple of days.”
“Only a prostitute would say that.”
4) “Everything goes away in the end. Love goes away in the middle.”
“Love is a thing with feathers.”
5) “You’re a man whore. A prosti-dude.”
The production has some merit when it comes to its Grand Guignol primary-color drenched photography, but anything of technical value is quickly extinguished by Sherman’s unrestrained penchant for gratuity. Even if you enjoy some of the visual arrangements, there will be scenes where it feels like they were running out of time and just threw a camera onto a tripod and got the first take. Even if you like some of the style, Sherman will indulge to the point of self-parody. There’s one moment where Irene’s girl gang and a rival gang standoff and Sherman has 14 seconds of shots of characters just drawing their guns (I actually counted) and no seconds of watching the actual shootout (the camera frustratingly pans away to hear the off-screen gunfire). Let that be an example of Sherman’s predilections and priorities, featuring women posturing in his fetish gear but, when it comes time for there to be stakes and story significance, the movie cowardly retreats. I haven’t even talked about the numerous other awkward moments. Red Hot rapes Irene twice, once after spanking her/beating her with a laptop, and a second time after stabbing her in the thigh. Gaven badgers a dying and profusely bleeding prostitute (it’s like the floor is painted in gory gallons) about whether or not she can see God in her final moments, and she requests a kiss that is followed through with a string of bloody saliva between their lips. The earlier shot didn’t even have this string of saliva, but then Sherman shows another take immediately after, because he definitely wants this string of saliva seen and processed. It means something. Or nothing.
To say She’s Just a Shadow is in bad taste or a waste of anyone’s time is an obvious understatement. This is a bottom-scraping bad time of a movie, soaked in various bodily fluids, gruesome for the sake of being cool, smothered by its wanton excess, and supported by one-dimensional ideas of characters that are really just opposable bodies miming the exploitation influences for Sherman. He feels disdain for all of these characters but especially the women who are fetishized, objectified, abused and harassed, and made to sadistically suffer. I felt bad for every person, especially the women, involved in what feels like Sherman’s student film project where he gets to tickle every personal fetish he’s ever had. Even watching the stream of flesh and violence grows utterly tiresome without variance or reasons. At one point, a call girl stumbles into a double suicide, blood splattered against the walls, and seems to be talking directly to the audience when she huffs, “This is the stupidest fucking thing I’ve ever seen.” You said it, sister.
Nate’s Grade: D
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+
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
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
The John Gotti biopic has become somewhat notorious because of its 0% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, not that this is the first film to hit that dubious mark. It is bad, though not quite 0% bad. The biggest crime of this movie is that it at no point solidifies a reason why we should find John Gotti interesting. As played by John Travolta, he’s a ruthless leader who beat so many prosecutors that he was nicknamed the “Teflon Don.” He’s also really really boring, spouting stereotypical bromides about the importance of family, never giving an inch, never turning on your family (both capital F and lowercase f). It’s a cock-eyed worldview I’d expect, however, at the very end of the movie, the movie itself adopts this cock-eyed justifications, presenting the federal government as the real villains and inserting interview footage of real people eulogizing Gotti, saying he made their streets clean and cared about his community and was, essentially, a hero. It’s amazingly misguided, like director Kevin Connolly (“E” fro HBO’s Entourage) has suffered Stockholm syndrome from his lunk-headed, murderous criminals. That same sense of misjudgment is never more adamant than in the musical score by pop star Pitbull. Read that again. There’s a sequence where Gotti goes out on furlough and is escorted to kill an associate, and the musical score is jaunty and uptempo. There were several moments where the score just took my breath away, so tonally disjointed was this mostly modern-day musical score. The movie is structured as an ongoing series of interviews between Gotti Sr. (Travolta) and his adult son, with choice flashbacks interspersed. We don’t even get a rise-and-fall sort of formula. It never provides sufficient evidence why Gotti was interesting at all and worth a big screen biopic. The dialogue feels like it was written with all exclamation points. Nothing is subtle or left to the imagination here, and that extends into the scenery-chewing acting as well from a bunch of unmemorable stock roles. There is also a 1996 TV movie about John Gotti starring Armand Assante. Sight unseen, it must almost assuredly be the better movie and more worth two hours of your precious time.
Nate’s Grade: D+
Jordan Peele and Keegan Michael-Key are gifted comedic performers, as often evidenced from their often-brilliant sketch comedy show Key & Peele. It was only a matter of time before they made the leap to feature-film players, and Keanu is a suitable springboard for the gents that portends to even better future results. Relying upon mistaken identity bluffs, Peele and Key play a pair of relatively straight-laced men who pretend to be violent gangsters in order to retrieve Peele’s stolen kitten. Fortunately, the movie doesn’t feel like an overextended sketch though it does have its narrative detours that dawdle (a celebrity drug deal is padded out with far too few jokes), running jokes that hold on for a beat too long and then some (the George Michael fascination culminates in a drug sequence that does absolutely nothing), and there are missed opportunities that seem obvious (Key using his new gangster friends to intimidate a man making advances on his wife). Will Forte’s hip-hop loving drug dealer feels like a character nobody knew what to do with, including Forte. What doesn’t disappoint is the natural comic chemistry of its leads as well as the movie’s ability to surprise, zigging rather than zagging, and finding small jokes just as satisfying as larger set pieces. I enjoyed when the guys’ insecurity butted against their bravado, like when Peele is trying to deflect credit for helping his new pal to do some very bad things. The onscreen action is somewhere between the wackier world of 21 Jump Street and the grisly, unfunny world of Pineapple Express but at least the filmmakers realize that an action-comedy still needs to present its action through a comic lens. I was laughing consistently throughout though it was mostly at a chuckle level, if I were to be honest. Keanu is a fairly fun comedy that you can’t help but think could have been more refined during its structureless periods, but then another joke appears and it’s hard to get too upset with the final enterprise. Keanu is funny enough but you sense that a better vehicle is on the horizon for these two gifted comedians. Oh and the cat is powerfully adorable.
Nate’s Grade: B-
It’s hard to mention the action thriller Gangster Squad without a passing reference to the Aurora, Colorado movie theater shooting in the summer of 2012, the reason for the film’s five-month delay and reshot action sequence. Gone is a shootout at the movies and now we have a confrontation in the streets of Chinatown. I wish they hadn’t stopped there. If given the opportunity, and remember they did have an additional five months, I would have scrapped Gangster Squad almost completely and started fresh.
In 1949, former boxer Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) has seized control of Los Angeles organized crime. His influence extends even into a police, which forces Chief Parker (Nick Nolte) to go to desperate measures. He asks Sgt. John O’Mara (Josh Brolin) to assemble a team of enforcers to fight back. They won’t have badges but they will be pushed to use whatever means necessary to carry out their mission, which means blurring the line between what is considered lawful. O’Mara assembles a super group of former officers and one of them, Sgt. Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling) gets into even deeper danger when he starts seeing Mickey Cohen’s main squeeze, Grace Faraday (Emma Stone).
This movie is like if The Untouchables and L.A. Confidential had an illegitimate child and then abandoned it in a sewer where degenerate hobos raised it. Gangster Squad rips off other gangster movies with liberal abandon that I can’t even begin to list the lifts. I’d be less offended if I felt that the movie had more on its mind than just replicating the tone and look of noir cinema. Actually, it feels more like what they want to replicate is the tone or style of the video game L.A. Noir.
The main problem is that Gangster Squad really only has the skeletal outline of a plot. It’s missing any essential character and plot development. Here, I’ll summarize the barebones plot for you: Mickey Cohen is a bad guy. O’Mara forms a team. They have a montage taking out bad guys. Mickey takes out one of them. They have a showdown. That, ladies and gents, is it. There really aren’t any scenes that diverge from those scant descriptions. It felt like only five minutes passed from one of O’Mara’s guys getting killed (and just like The Untouchables, it’s the nerdy one) to them descending on Cohen’s headquarters and duking it out. Why does the film introduce the conflict of Wooters seeing Cohen’s girl if he never finds out? There isn’t even one scene presented to take advantage of this conflict. It just ends up being another half-baked plotline. It feels like the only development we get with Gangster Squad is through montages. What is also apparent is that O’Mara and his team really don’t have anything resembling the faintest notion of a plan. We watch them take out some bad guys via fights and shootouts but there’s no higher plotting to it. You get a sense that these former cops are just playing it by ear, looking for a fight every night. It’s hard to imagine that these people, even with their law enforcement and war experience, could be effective in the long term. Without any formative organization or greater planning, these guys just seem like dull bruisers bouncing from fight to fight with no sense of direction.
Then there’s the paucity of character work, relying solely on genre archetypes to do its work for the movie. O’Mara is the determined family man but his team can best be described by one-word classifications: The Black Guy (Anthony Mackie), The Nerdy Guy (Giovanni Ribisi), The Mexican Guy (Michael Pena), The Young Guy (Gosling), The Old Guy (Robert Patrick). That’s about it, though I suppose they do have different weapon preferences meant to supply all that missing characterization. Oh look, Officer Harris (Mackie) brings a knife to gunfights. That’s pretty much the beginning and end of his character. Wooters is so lackadaisical he feels like he’s on drugs, and Gosling’s soft-spoken, mealy-mouthed line delivery only adds to the effect. It feels like Gosling, in a stretch to find something interesting out of the mundane, said to himself, “I wonder if I could give a whole performance where I only speak under a certain vocal register.” Then there’s the woefully miscast Stone (The Amazing Spider-Man) as the femme fatale/mol to Mickey. I love Stone as an actress, but man-eater she is not and sultry seductress doesn’t fit her well either. Perhaps with the aid of a sharper script and a greater depth of character she could rise to the challenge. At no point does Gangster Squad really even attempt to make these people multi-dimensional. They never reflect on the moral turpitude of their own vigilante justice or the ramifications of their actions. There’s no room for ambiguity here.
Finally, we must speak of Mr. Sean Penn (Milk). The man’s actorly gumbo goes into campy overdrive. In these rare circumstances, you aren’t watching Sean Penn Esteemed Actor so much as Sean Penn Human Vortex of Overacting. Normally I would criticize Penn for going over the top but over the course of 110 minutes, he single-handedly becomes the only entertaining thing in the movie. He’s chewing scenery up a storm, yes, but at least he’s channeling the pulpy silliness of the whole movie. I came to enjoy his antics and outbursts and thus became more empathetic of Mickey Cohen and his efforts than I did with O’Mara. Such is the danger screenwriters run when they spend more time crafting an interesting villain than a hero.
Gangster Squad is what happens when a movie is sold on title and genre elements. To be fair, it’s a bang-up title. The plot is half-baked at best, really only serving as a thin outline of a gangster movie, but instead of adding complexity and intrigue and characterization, they just ran with it. The actors are either camping it up or out of their element, the action and shootouts are pretty mundane, and the story is just uninvolving, even for fans of film noir like myself. It’s a good-looking film from a technical standpoint, but that’s as far as I’ll go in my recommendation (it could be an odd pairing with Milk considering the two shared actors). It feels like it just wants the setting elements of film noir, the atmosphere, and then figures just having good guys and bad guys shoot it out will suffice. That glossy, high-sheen period look just seems like a cool façade, and a cool façade seems like the only ambition of Gangster Squad. I can’t really recall any signature action sequence, snappy quote, plot development, or peculiarity worthy of remembering. It may be one of the most forgettable gangster movies Hollywood has produced.
Nate’s Grade: C
Considering the talent in front of and behind the camera, it’s hard not to describe Public Enemies as anything but a letdown. This Depression-era gangster film is heavy on period details and very tight-fisted when it comes to characterization. You’d think given 140 minutes and the natural charisma of Johnny Depp that an audience would come to some kind of understanding with notorious bank robber John Dillinger. Nope. The characters remain perfunctory the entire time, pushed into conflicts by a brisk pace that manages to squeeze in three bank robberies, two prison breaks, and many police shootouts. Because the movie barely takes time to breathe, the love story between Dillinger and Billie Frechette (Oscar-winner Marion Cotillard, a dead ringer for pop singer Katy Perry) is never credible, the tension never feels palpable, and director Michael Mann (Heat, Collateral) seems overly smitten with his distracting high def digital photography. You never really feel any sense of danger or interest. The characters on screen feel like strangers even after 140 minutes. Depp makes the movie more tolerable than it would be without his presence. Mann, one of three credited screenwriters, seems to assume the audience is well versed in Dillinger history and so he skips over plenty of fertile territory. Public Enemies certainly hums with plenty of polish but it comes across as mostly mundane due to such flimsy character work. It’s a collection of good scenes that fail to make up a satisfying whole.
Nate’s Grade: B-
In the Bible, God promised not to obliterate the town of Gomorrah if Abraham could find a righteous man. That didn’t work out so well. This stirring Italian crime drama explores the long-reach of the Camorra crime syndicate stationed in Naples. The oldest Italian criminal organization is larger than the mafia, and the film’s four overlapping narrative threads showcase how the Camorra has a grip on every industry. The usual criminal enterprises are there, from drug trafficking to hired murders, but the organization is also deeply involved in the fashion industry as well as toxic dumping; in a perfect metaphor for the entire film, the Camorra is profiting by burying toxic death just below the surface. The objective docu-drama style lends disturbing reality to the ordeal, though the screenwriting too often feels like a pumped-up “true crime” novel – there’s far more emphasis on the minute details than the people. The movie makes empathy nearly impossible, not that this is necessarily a stinging detriment. The movie steers away from the excitement of violence and instead the death is merciless and swift and unexpected. Gomorrah strips away all the romantic notions involved with the gangster lifestyle; the two teenage gangster wannabes who quote Tony Montana are in for a rude awakening by the established toughs. The movie can be punishing and bleak but it’s always fascinating and told with factual backing that makes it spooky. It may not be as powerful or intense as 2002’s City of God but this is certainly one movie that can be punishing and bleak but it’s always fascinating.
Nate’s Grade: A-
This is a wildly overwrought and sleazy drama is hoping to come across as edgy but everything is so overdone. It fulfills all the requisite elements of the modern crime picture; double crosses, forlorn anti-heroes, bloody violence, but Street Kings misses the mark big time when it comes to any nuance. Every beat of this murky, convoluted dirty cops mystery is plain and obvious. If you cannot guess within minutes who the eventual culprits will be then you haven’t seen enough movies. Every character is a cliché of a cliché, every unrestrained actor is constantly speaking in nothing but exclamation marks, and the dialogue is some of the worst I’ve heard all year. Keanu Reeves is a listless leading man who is blank and lifeless, unable to wrestle the dark and complicated emotions needed for a “cop on the edge” role. I can practically feel Forest Whitaker’s spittle every time he speaks. Street Kings feels like a route retread of rogue cop pictures, which are director David Ayer’s specialty. It wants to shine a light on the seedy underbelly of the law but it can’t stop from feeling like a lobotomized version of L.A. Confidential (Note to Ayer: Jay Mohr + mustache = an arrangement that benefits neither party).
Nate’s Grade: D