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Schultz reviews: 'The Last Shift' and 'Public Enemies'

Schultz reviews: 'The Last Shift' and 'Public Enemies'

Carl Schultz

 

 

“The Last Shift”   Distributed by Sony Pictures Releasing, 90 Minutes, Rated R, Released September 25, 2020:

Versatile and prolific character actor Richard Jenkins gets a rare opportunity to step into the spotlight in “The Last Shift,” a new picture from Sony Pictures Releasing that emphasizes character over spectacle, and places drama above action or adventure.

One of those faces you’ve seen a zillion times in movies and TV shows but have trouble attaching a name to, Jenkins’ superb character work has over the years embraced movies big and small and genres from horror to drama to comedy to western--from “Silverado” to “Hannah and Her Sisters,” and “Jack Reacher,” “Spotlight,” and “Kong: Skull Island,” among many others.  The actor was nominated for an Academy Award for his performance in Guillermo del Toro’s 2017 film “The Shape of Water.”

In “The Last Shift,” Jenkins appears as Stanley, one of those invisible people you see every day but don’t really notice--the guy who flips burgers at the neighborhood diner.  With no education, no prospects, no family, and no ambition, Stanley’s worked the graveyard shift at Oscar’s Chicken and Fish in Albion, Michigan for 38 years, and looks forward to nothing more complicated than springing his elderly mother from a Sarasota nursing home and retiring with her to Florida.

As his last shift at Oscar’s approaches, Stanley’s charged with training his replacement--a young ex-con named Jevon, on parole after an act of sophomoric vandalism, in need of a steady job to stay out of jail and support his wife and toddler son.  Jevon once had enormous promise as a writer, and still actually has talent and dreams of writing as a profession.  But as he becomes accustomed to his new job at Oscar’s, Jevon begins to wonder if his future contains no more promise than Stanley’s.

Written and directed in his dramatic film debut by Ann Arbor-born documentary filmmaker Andrew Cohn, “The Last Shift” is rich in nuance and atmosphere, and beautifully acted by both Jenkins as Stanley and newcomer Shane Paul McGhie as Jevon.  But even the slight narrative of the picture and its plot seems underwritten.  The actors bring more to the table than Cohn the screenwriter provides for them.

As a result, Cohn the director occasionally allows the film to wander a little too far in the direction of pathos, and to become maudlin when it should be reaching for revelation, or even relevance.  Funny in places and heartbreaking in others, “The Last Shift” is a pleasant enough way to pass the time for 90 or so minutes, but not really something you’ll remember into next month, or even into next week.  The fine performances by McGhie and particularly Jenkins are certainly worth your while.  But overall, file “The Last Shift” under D for Disappointment.

Produced by filmmaker and two-time Academy Award-winning screenwriter Alexander Payne (“Sideways,” “The Descendants”) and also containing a nice big screen supporting role for television stalwart Ed O’Neill, “The Last Shift” is (unfairly) rated R for strong language, adult themes, and a brief scene of urban violence.

“Public Enemies”   Distributed by Universal Pictures, 140 Minutes, Rated R, Released July 01, 2009:

Released by Universal Pictures during the summer of 2009, Michael Mann’s “Public Enemies” is a picture that should’ve found a wider audience than it did.  

With box office receipts totalling over $214 million around the world, the picture was hardly a failure.  But with a timely and compelling story, intelligent and stylish direction by Michael Mann, and a cast of megawatt Hollywood superstars, the picture wasn’t the worldwide blockbuster its ingredients might have suggested.

Based on writer Bryan Burroughs’ 2004 book “Public Enemies: America’s Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI 1933-34,” Michael Mann’s 2009 picture depicts the final months of the fabled Depression Era bank robber John Dillinger (Johnny Depp), and the pursuit of the outlaw and his gang by the steely-eyed, by-the-book G-Man Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale), assigned by the then-fledgling Federal Bureau of Investigation to track Dillinger down.

Woven together in a sort of tapestry of 1930s crime and punishment, Burroughs’ comprehensive book followed four separate storylines:  The hapless, self-pitying Charles A. Floyd, known the the world as Pretty Boy; the vicious and calculating Ma Barker and her backwoods brood of kidnappers; the untamed and murderous Barrow Gang, Bonnie and Clyde, who somehow managed to be both shiftless and feral; and the legendary John Dillinger, a personable farm boy who became a sort of Robin Hood to Depression Era America.  Familiar names such Machine Gun Kelly, J. Edgar Hoover, and Baby Face Nelson weave in and out of the narrative as necessary.

Author Burroughs’ original intention was to create and develop an extended miniseries for broadcast television, cable, or an online streaming service.  But when the writer began to understand the depth and relevance of his subject he decided to write a book instead, a nonfiction novel in the vein of Truman Capote’s 1965 narrative “In Cold Blood” detailing the exploits of the real-life desperadoes who populated newspapers and the imaginations of a generation of Americans during another troubled and turbulent time.

When filmmaker Michael Mann became interested in adapting a motion picture from Burroughs’ book, he decided to focus on only one of its stories--Dillinger and the man who pursued him and ran him to ground.  The director also had a hand in adapting the book into the picture’s screenplay, along with collaborators Ann Biderman, an Emmy Award-winning writer known for television’s “Southland” and “Ray Donovan” and the 1996 film “Primal Fear,” and the Irish novelist Ronan Bennett.

As a media-savvy John Dillinger in “Public Enemies,” actor Johnny Depp uses none of the flamboyant flourishes which mark his most popular roles, including his Jack Sparrow characterization from the blockbuster “Pirates of the Caribbean” pictures which bookend “Public Enemies” in the actor's filmography. Once considered a sort of modern day Paul Muni, Depp's characterization as John Dillinger might be one of the performer's last great movie roles before his life and career imploded into a series of lurid headlines in supermarket tabloids the world over. 

Rather than attempt an approximation of the famous bank robber’s physical appearance, voice and mannerisms, Depp seems to simply transfer his own natural charisma and magnetism into the role of Dillinger.  While Dillinger ultimately robbed some 24 banks, escaped from jail twice, and killed one man (in self-defense), many of those who interacted with him--on both sides of the law--remember him for his charm, and his genial demeanor.  Depicted in “Public Enemies” as loose and good-natured and often sporting an easy smile, Dillinger might be the closest role Depp’s ever played to his actual persona.  

Born and raised not far from each others’ hometowns in America’s rural heartland, both Dillinger and Depp were, and are, notoriously private men whose professions place them under intense scrutiny from the media.  When asked in “Public Enemies” by a member of his gang why he cares so much about the public’s favorable opinion of him, Depp’s Dillinger shrugs and says simply, “I hide out among them.”  You almost get a feeling the actor might be speaking for himself.

Although more quiet and intense, actor Christian Bale as the untouchable and incorruptible FBI special agent Melvin Purvis matches Depp’s Dillinger volt-for-volt in his role.  Bale’s performance as the embattled G-Man is characteristically studied--as always, the actor disappears into his film persona.  Reportedly Bale researched and studied the real-life Purvis’ life and career, and even contacted and spent time with the lawman’s surviving descendants as a means of accurately capturing his speaking cadences.

A professional actor since starring at the age of twelve in Steven Spielberg’s 1987 World War II epic “Empire of the Sun,” Christian Bale despite his worldwide fame as Batman in director Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy of blockbusters has evolved over the years into a sort of master actor, Generation X’s equivalent to the retiring Daniel Day-Lewis.  The master thespian delivers in “Public Enemies” another graduate course in the profession of acting.  But despite his exacting performance, the audience never quite manages to forget Bale’s an actor playing a role.

The award-winning filmmaker known for projects from television’s iconic “Miami Vice” series during the 1980s and feature films as varied as “Thief” in 1981 to “Collateral” in 2004, “Heat” in 1995 to “The Insider” in 1999 and “Ali” in 2001, Michael Mann with “Public Enemies” contributes another example of solid and compelling filmmaking.  If the picture has a fault, it might be in attempting to cover too many bases...and too many genres.

Often Mann’s pictures tend to be triumphs of either style or substance, but rarely both.   In approaching his subject as plain and indisputable historical fact with little editorial commentary, Mann’s “Public Enemies” presents neither Dillinger nor Purvis as the story’s hero.  There’s nobody for the audience to root for.  In many ways, “Public Enemies” aims for both substance and style, and as a result achieves neither.  The film despite its occasional dramatic license might actually be more successful as a docudrama rather than a dramatic narrative.  And considering the talent involved here, that’s a real disappointment.

Filmed in many of the real story’s authentic locations, “Public Enemies” seems to strive to make many of the film’s details as accurate as possible to the true events...which makes all the more perplexing the narrative’s occasional departures from the facts.  The ambush of Dillinger outside Chicago’s Biograph Theater, for example, is rendered in painstaking detail, right down to the exit wounds (and filmed at the actual location on Chicago’s Lincoln Avenue, which during the film’s 2008 production still appeared more or less as it did in 1934).  The notion of Dillinger murmuring his dying words into the ear of a G-Man, however, is pure Hollywood fiction.

Also featuring supporting performances by Marion Cotillard as Dillinger’s girlfriend Billie Frechette, Billy Crudup as J. Edgar Hoover, Stephen Dorff and Jason Clarke as Dillinger accomplices, and a blink-and-you-miss-it appearance by Channing Tatum as Pretty Boy Floyd, “Public Enemies” is rated R by the MPAA for scenes of violence and bloodshed and some language concerns.  The picture is now streaming on Netflix, Sling TV, YouTube, Google Play, Vudu, and Amazon Prime.

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