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Dragged Across Concrete (2019)

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

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Hacksaw Ridge (2016)

hacksaw0001-1Mel Gibson needs to direct more movies. End of statement. It’s been a decade since Gibson last helmed a movie, 2006’s visceral art film for jocks, Apocalypto, and he’s been in “movie jail” ever since a string of controversial drunken statements. His new movie is a completely earnest, classical example of storytelling that you just as easily could see faces of old appear (say John Wayne in place of curmudgeonly Vince Vaughn), and Hacksaw Ridge is a stirring war movie and a stirring character study. Andrew Garfield plays Desmond Doss, a conscientious objector who wanted to go to war but refused to touch a gun. The first half of the movie is the U.S. Army trying to make sense of this inherent conflict, looking for ways to intimidate him, make him compromise, or kick him out of service. Yet, he endures, and it’s in the second half that Doss single-handedly saves 75 wounded men as a medic left alone on a deserted battlefield in the Pacific. Garfield (Amazing Spider-Man) is a solid lead performance, though his cornpone West Virginia accent irritated me… until the real Desmond Doss is showcased in archival footage and he sounds exactly alike. The supporting characters are rich and have more depth than I was expecting, including Hugo Weaving as Doss’ father, a drunken shell from his WWI survivor’s guilt. There’s much more complexity to what otherwise could be a hateful drunk and one-note character foil. The one miss I felt was the courtship between Doss and his future wife (Teresa Palmer). It felt like an outdated perspective where a man’s insistence overrode a woman’s agency and he was rewarded for it. Admittedly, that’s a modern perspective applied to a generational relationship from long ago. The movie is naturally graphic but the bloody violence is stylized in a way that communicates the ugliness and chaos of war. The action develops and is grisly and engaging without losing sense of the characters and without falling into redundancy. When Doss is rescuing survivors in the final act, the movie finds new challenges that he has to overcome to keep things interesting and raise the stakes. Gibson’s images can be frightfully beautiful; his command of visual storytelling and its evocative power is too good for only one movie a decade. It may be impossible to make an anti-war movie without in some way glamorizing war, so even though Hacksaw Ridge celebrates the heroism of one man’s anti-violence values it finds a mainstream sense of entertainment in the carnage. It’s like a tentpole Oscar movie and I hope I don’t have to wait until 2026 for the next Gibson-directed vehicle.

Nate’s Grade: B+

The Watch (2012)

1811If scientists could take time away from, you know, curing diseases, and craft the perfect blend of “meh” in a lab, it would be The Watch. It’s not particularly offensive or terrible but it’s certainly not good. The humor of boys misbehaving and talking tough doesn’t ever seem to get further than the initial concept. The movie ends up becoming a more crass version of Ghostbusters, with a special fascination for the male member. This is a very penis-obsessive movie. Usually guy-centric sex raunchy comedies will definitely feature strong discussion/comedy revolving around male genitalia, but this is one of the few movies where complete storylines hinge upon penises (weird imagery, I’ll admit). Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn, and Jonah Hill are more annoying than anything else. Poor Rosemarie DeWitt as the underwritten wife role in what is essentially a boys-behaving-badly movie (also her second 2012 movie where she’s trying to get pregnant). When the movie goes full-force into action mode, it loses just about any semblance of comedy. I laughed about three times, and that was thanks to Richard Ayoade (TV’s The IT Crowd) and, believe it or not, Will Forte (MacGruber). Sitting through 105 minutes with little laughs, irritating characters, and poorly conceived action in place of genuine comedic payoffs, well it’s not exactly a recipe for a successful summer comedy. And yet, with all its obvious faults, I couldn’t hate the movie as others have. It’s certainly not likeable but it does go about its business with a certain swagger, albeit misguided. Cocky loudmouths failing at entertainment are still marginally better than artists who don’t even try. It sounds like I’m reaching, and I am, but The Watch, certainly a bad comedy, may eventually be worth a watch when, you know, it’s on TV and you can half-heartedly pay attention to it while you go about your day.

Nate’s Grade: C-

Couples Retreat (2009)

\Vince Vaughn is a likable scamp. He’s generally played the same quick-witted, charming, motor-mouth lout in every movie since 2005’s smash, Wedding Crashers. He’s been working fairly nonstop since then and has, by all accounts, become something of a box office draw, which seems bizarre if you think about it long enough. So the best thing I can say about Vaughn’s new comedy Couples Retreat is, hey, at least he’s making sure his pals can pay the bills.

I think it was that famed poet Pat Benatar who said love is a battlefield. She never went through marriage counseling (note: maybe she did, I don’t care to actually research this). The movie centers around four dysfunctional couples that take a vocational to a tropical island resort. Dave (Vaughn) has trouble prioritizing his wife, Ronnie (Malin Akerman). Joey (Jon Favreau) and Lucy (Kristin Davis) have been together ever since she got pregnant in high school. They’re at each other’s throats and secretly looking to cheat on each other. Jason (Jason Bateman) and his way younger wife, Cynthia (Kristen Bell), are unable to conceive a baby. They’re very organized about their life and cannot handle life’s deviations. Finally, Shane (Faizon Love) has been dumped by his wife and is taking the loss hard. He’s found comfort in a flighty twenty-year-old girl (Kali Hawk) that he can barely keep up with. The vacation is interrupted when the couples learn that they must participate in the resort’s relationship therapy sessions or leave. The couples must stick it out to in order to save failing relationships and ride those nifty Jet skis.

Couples Retreat sure doesn’t feel like any vacation for the audience. Directed by Peter “Ralphie” Billingsley (longtime friend and producing partner for Vaughn and Favreau), the pacing is leaden and the movie feels like its coasting without any momentum. Structurally, the plot is not your series of escalating events but more a relentless parade of tiny plot speed bumps, seemingly indistinguishable from the last. Many scenes just bump right into each other with little transition. Billingsley does not show that he comprehends the rhythms of comedy. Even at a mere 107 minutes, this movie felt twice as long to me. Like Peter Jackson’s King Kong, it just takes way too damn long for these people to get to the freaking island. I don’t need a half hour of setup for stock characters. Many scenes will go on too long and then just sort of come to an abrupt end, like Vaughn and his friends were saying, “Well, we’ve taken this as far as we can go. The scenes don’t end in climaxes or revelations or punch lines, they just end. So after a while I felt like Couples Retreat was one long draggy middle of a mediocre movie stretched out interminably. It’s the equivalent of an eternity of waiting in a doctor’s office.

The character work is haphazard at best. You would think with the premise involving introspection and communication that the screenplay might offer up some deeper characters. You would be mistaken. Each character is given one note/generalized conflict to work, and they stay exactly within that narrow field of play. The male-female dynamics are Joey and Lucy have been together since high school and now they each have wandering eyes. Of course this kind of waffling infidelity is played for such sophomoric yuk-yuks like Joey getting caught masturbating and Joey getting an erection during a massage. You see a trend there? Cynthia and Jason are too anal retentive about their lives and the fun has died out. Sounds like room for some comedy. Oh, and they are also having trouble conceiving, which is way too serious a topic for this kind of movie. It’s somewhat amusing to think of Vaughn as the most stable character in a family comedy; it’s sort of like when Christopher Walken was the voice of reason in 2004’s equally bad, Man on Fire. What is Vaughn’s problem exactly anyway? He’s a “video game seller” who spends too much time… selling video games? The particulars of his job are too nebulous; does he work at a large chain, does he work at a software production company, what does he do that he can’t bother helping out his wife for one afternoon? You could almost certainly eliminate Faizon Love’s character completely. He’s just in the movie to crank out obligatory “older guy with too young girl” jokes, and his resolution is so hackneyed and reliant upon ridiculous coincidence (surprise, his ex-wife has tracked him down to the resort!) that it hurts the brain.

The movie has the benefit of being made in one of the most gorgeous places on earth. I’m sure the cast and crew had a great time making this movie. Too bad it doesn’t translate well to the paying customers. I was surprised at how stodgy the overall film is. I expected it to look down on hedonism, and I appreciated the movie treating marriage as a serious commitment that constantly needs to be engaged, but what is up with how stuffy this message comes across? The people who aren’t in relationships are seen as little party animals looking for their next carefree fix. Sure marriage is going to look better to the masses when you make the alternative so irresponsible. However, prolonging unhappy, extremely dysfunctional couples who can no longer stand each other isn’t helping either. Can’t some dysfunctional couples just grow apart? Why must there be reprehensibly forced happy endings all around? Couples Retreat, after awhile, kind of feels like your grandmother lecturing you about your relationships.

There’s much potential for laughs with Couples Retreat, but you’ll do no better than scattered chuckles. This is definitely a case where all the good jokes were highlighted in the trailer. Couples Retreat squanders so much talent, mostly consisting of a boy’s club and giving the actresses little to do or play off of. Akerman (The Heartbreak Kid), Bell (Forgetting Sarah Marshall), and Davis (Sex and the City) are all very capable comedic actresses; Kali Hawk quickly becomes irritating with what she’s been given. The island therapists include the hilarious John Michael Higgins (The Ugly Truth) and Ken Jeong (The Hangover), who must be contractually obligated to appear in every movie this year. I would have thought that eccentric therapists plus the natural conflicts of couples counseling would have provided a wealth of funny material. It’s a shame then that the counseling scenes are kept short. It would be a better asset for this movie if it spent more time in therapy and less time doing goofy, trust building exercises by island guru Jean Reno. Seriously, swimming with sharks is supposed to help a deteriorating marriage how? There are comic setups that look like they’re going to lead to something juicy, and then they just fizzle, like a Guitar Hero battle that goes from silly to lame all too quick. A buff and tan yoga instructor (Carlos Ponce) gets a little too in touchy-feely with his female pupils. But then it stays at a distance, hammering home the same PG-13 safe sight gags. It’s like watching people dry hump for laughs. As I expected, the funniest parts are the naturally combative interplay between Vaughn and Favreau. Part of that may be because they’ve been friends for over a decade and part of that might be that both are credited as screenwriters, along with producer Dana Fox (What Happens in Vegas).

Let’s look at how I’ve described Couples Retreat in this review. Waiting in a doctor?s office. Listening to your grandmother condemn your relationship. Doesn’t sound like much of a good time, does it? The comedy consists of mostly one-liners with a whole lot of dead space in between. The characters are so limited, the actors are shamefully wasted, and the comic set pieces are too meandering to be amusing. Somewhere there’s an edgier, R-rated version of this movie that got scrubbed clean to fit a PG-13 mandate. You see glimpses of the naughtier movie Couples Retreat might have been. This is a movie in need of some serious counseling of its own.

Nate’s Grade: C

Into the Wild (2007)

Undeniably well made, I just couldn’t emotionally connect with the main character, Christopher McCandless (Emile Hirch). Chris turns his back on his affluent parents and his bourgeois lifestyle and heads off into the wilderness to experience nature and find what has been missing in his life. Director/screen adaptor Sean Penn turns Chris into a Jesus-like figure that touches all those who he encounters on his cross-country tour that will meet its end in Alaska. I found the character treatment to be a tad naive and off-putting, and his lack of communication with his family, especially his younger sister who was in the same boat with him, seems especially cruel. And yet, the movie has its share of transcendent moments that bury themselves deep inside you, like when Chris befriends an 80-year-old widower (Oscar nominee Hal Holbrook) who is given new life. The closing moments, when Chris has accepted is fate, is profoundly moving and exceptionally performed, and this is coming from a guy that felt an emotional disconnect from the main character. Into the Wild is lovely to watch with top-notch cinematography, a fabulous score by Eddie Vedder, and fine acting by a diverse cast. I’m very impressed by what Penn has accomplished here. However, I admire the movie more than I can embrace it, and it all goes back to the character of Chris. He’s a mystery and both romantic and frustrating, which is kind of a fit summation for the movie.

Nate’s Grade: B

The Break-Up (2006)

Real-life couples have a rocky track record when they star together. Sure, for every Mr. and Mrs. Smith there’s also a Proof of Life, Vanilla Sky, or, God help us, a Gigli. The trouble is that what captures the fancies of two actors rarely translates to the big screen. Was anyone more the wiser why Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck got together on the set of Gigli? Now here comes The Break-Up, an anti-romantic comedy starring Vince Vaughn and Jennifer Aniston. They’ve been playing a coy game with the media about whether they’ve been dating since the movie wrapped a year ago. Audiences will have difficulty seeing whatever magic the two felt, because The Break-Up isn’t romantic in any sense of the word.

Gary (Vaughn) and Brooke (Aniston) meet cute at a Chicago Cubs game and begin a two-year relationship. Then one evening, after a terribly uncomfortable dinner between their folks, both decide to call off their romantic entanglement. Neither is willing to leave the condo they co-own, so each engages in a battle to convince the other to leave. Gary wardens off the living room as his space. Fine, Brooke invites her brother’s glee-club to perform in her area. He gets the pool table they had talked about waiting to purchase. She throws his clothes into the hall listening to Alanis Morissette. She invites dates over. He has a night of strip poker with actual strippers. At the same time, Brooke is questioning whether she can save their relationship and work things out.

Audiences expecting a cheeky romantic comedy will be soundly disappointed. The Universal marketing weasels have lied to you! After the 30-minute mark, The Break-Up doesn’t have much comedy, let alone romance. This is really more of a gutsy mainstream drama that prefers to exist in a world similar to ours where heartbreak and yearning are often unresolved. This is a respectably good, if flawed, relationship drama that doesn’t pull its punches. The Break-Up has a very Chasing Amy air to it; both films present atypical Hollywood relationships and both seem to sense a happy ending would just be insulting. Actually, in another similarity, both The Break-Up and Chasing Amy have their comedy completely dissolve by film’s end.

The biggest flaw The Break-Up has is that we don?t generally care if Brooke and Gary get back together. The only good times of yesterday we see are via photographs that are shown during the opening credits. Beyond this brief photo collage, we?re basically starting at the end of their union. There’s a fair amount of gender stereotypes to go along with the characters and their behaviors (men are from Mars, women from Venus?), though it didn’t bother me as much as it would have in a typical romantic comedy. Brooke is a bit of a nag but an altogether good person who just goes about her reconciliation plans in the wrong manner (push him away to have him come back, make him jealous, the famous double-speak). Gary, on the other hand, is pretty much a jerk. The tagline for The Break-Up says, “Pick a side,” but the movie already picks for us. Gary is a lazy, egotistical, unappreciative, selfish jackass and you’re really puzzled why Brooke would keep trying to resuscitate their relationship. Again, part of this is because The Break-Up doesn’t ever show us a moment of these two crazy kids in love. We really have no interest in seeing these unhappy people be unhappy with each other for a longer period of time.

The Break-Up has a lot of intentionally pained awkwardness to it, partly because good portions of the movie is about voyeuristically watching an unhappy couple argue. The Break-Up‘s relatability, something nearly unheard of in the overly saccharine, simplistic world of romantic comedies, is a double-edged sword. Couples may wince and pass knowing looks, thinking, “We’ve had that fight. I too crossed the line like that. I too went about that the wrong way.” Audiences will see pieces of themselves onscreen, but do mainstream audiences really want to see pieces of themselves screaming at each other for a whole movie? I doubt it. I think displeased moviegoers are going to tell their friends to stay away in droves, unless they’re avid tabloid followers.

The Break-Up (2006)

Vaughn continues his motor mouth lout shtick, though it’s somewhat impressive that he willingly puts himself in such an unflattering light. He’s also a bit puffy in the movie. Aniston is an actress I haven’t been overly enthusiastic with, to say the least, but she’s a winning personality even if she’s replaceable. She seems to be in a frazzled rut. Despite whatever real-life passion the filming ignited, the leads have little chemistry together onscreen. This would be a bigger concern if the film was starting at the end of their relationship, though. The supporting cast of Vaughn’s friends and co-workers is rich with talent. A late scene between Vaughn and Favreau about hiring a hitman to take out Brooke’s supposed new beaux is solid gold. The wonderful John Michael Higgins (Arrested Development), as Brooke’s socially inept brother, provides the biggest laughs. And for those wondering what ever happened to Ralphie from A Christmas Story, here he is all growed up and emasculated by Joey Lauren Adams.

Director Peyton Reed (Bring it On, Down with Love) has a good feel for human comedy and interesting shot selections. He normally keeps his movies brisk and airy. The dialogue is above average and feels naturalistic. I am surprised that I have heard so little about Aniston’s brief nude scene. Then again, I don?t watch that recycled Entertainment Tonight TV vomit. It’s kind of neat to note that there was a 1998 movie itself called The Break Up; they just didn’t have the hyphen. Remember that hyphen in a few months when you’re at your local video store [Author’s note: R.I.P. video stores].

I give Vaughn and the filmmakers credit for trying something challenging and attempting to have a mainstream audience go along. The Break-Up is uncomfortable in how painfully awkward and relatable it is. Whether audiences want to flock to a movie about unhappy people who don’t belong together is a good question. This isn’t as nasty a comedy as The War of the Roses; no, this film is kind of stuck in a thematic middle ground of a gutsy, if flawed, relationship drama. Those expecting promises of comedy and romance might feel cheated. The Break-Up is like a real-life experience: it’s somewhat painful, somewhat expected, and perhaps better once it’s finally over.

Nate’s Grade: B-

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