The Last Days of American Crime

★1/2

“The Last Days of American Crime” (now available on Netflix) is exactly the sort of movie you’d expect a dude named Olivier Megaton to direct. That is to say … it’s a lot.

Megaton is a disciple of French action maestro Luc Besson who previously directed “Transporter 3,” “Colombiana,” “Taken 2” and “Taken 3.” When your best film to date is “Taken 3” you might as well tackle a two and a half hour crime epic, no? The basis of “American Crime” is a graphic novel by Rick Remender and Greg Tocchini. This story could’ve been easily told in two hours or less, but Megaton’s maxing out in masturbatory mode.

“American Crime” takes place in Detroit (with Johannesburg doubling for filming) in 2025. Society is doing away with police forces in favor of the American Peace Initiative, which will send a signal to the human brain that will prevent people from perpetrating crimes.

In the week leading up to API’s launch, career criminal Graham Bricke (Édgar Ramírez) is pitched one last score by Kevin Cash (Michael Pitt). Cash did time with Bricke’s brother, Rory (Daniel Fox, who I didn’t buy as Ramírez’s sibling for a single second), who committed suicide behind bars. Cash suggests that the heist would be an upturned middle finger to the system that did Rory in. Along for the ride is Cash’s fiancé, Shelby Dupree (Anna Brewster), a hacker with issues of her own resulting from tussling with the FBI. Investigating the trio is William Sawyer (Sharlto Copley), a cop who wants to get his last licks in before being rendered irrelevant by API.

Ramírez is a talented actor who received glowing notices in the titular role of Olivier Assayas’ “Carlos.” I mostly think of him as a performer who often excels in works of mediocrity – Scott Derrickson’s “Deliver Us from Evil” is a textbook example of this trend. Ramírez is a good-looking cat and a captivating on screen presence, but he’s given absolutely nothing to sink his teeth into here. Bricke is dull as a brick.

Pitt is an actor I’ve admired in numerous projects over the years – Larry Clark’s “Bully,” Bernardo Bertolucci’s “The Dreamers,” Michael Haneke’s second go-around with “Funny Games” and the HBO series “Boardwalk Empire.” He’s absolutely bonkers as Cash in “American Crime.” This is mega-acting that would make even Nic Cage blush. I haven’t seen a performance this BIG and weird in a mainstream movie since Eddie Redmayne raspily scream-whispered his way through “Jupiter Ascending.” I respect Pitt for taking big swings here and when he connects it’s captivating, but when he misses it’s a whale of a whiff.

Brewster cuts the lithe figure prominent amongst female protagonists in Besson’s work. She does fine work as Dupree, but the role as written is horribly misogynistic. Dupree’s introduced to the film by having sex with Bricke in a bar bathroom. He notices bruising on her neck, which she shrugs off saying, “I deserve them.” Heroin is forcibly shot into our heroine’s arm by a captor, she’s rescued by Bricke, goes into withdrawal, hurls from her heron hangover and seconds later sucks face with our hero. Cash at one point tells Bricke, “You can have the bitch,” which decidedly objectifies this poor woman.

Copley has been known to be a bit of a ham himself (see Neill Blomkamp’s “Elysium”). He leaves all the hot-dogging to Pitt and is saddled with an absolute nothingburger of a role. I suspect Copley was already in Joburg, it was only a few days of filming and the coin sounded cool.

“The Last Days of American Crime” wants so desperately to be edgy, but mostly it seems like Megaton consulted with a 12-year-old boy regarding what’d be rad. (“You want Cash to drive a chrome Hummer? You got it!”) He distilled the youngster’s ideas through a middle-aged man’s sensibilities and some shoddy, digital, televisual cinematography courtesy of “High School Musical 2” lenser Daniel Aranyó to deliver an inaction flick where action doesn’t occur until 85 minutes in. If Megaton wanted to be edgy making a movie about how law enforcement deals with the populace there’s plenty of material out there … he simply needed to dig beneath the surface.   

Shirley

★★★1/2

I’m probably the least qualified person to write a review of director Josephine Decker’s “Shirley,” a biographical drama about renowned horror and mystery author Shirley Jackson (Elisabeth Moss), which debuts on Hulu and VOD Friday, June 5. 

I’ve never read any of Jackson’s work. I’ve seen both versions of “The Haunting” (1963 and 1999), but haven’t watched a single episode of Netflix’s “The Haunting of Hill House.” I haven’t seen any of Decker’s other movies, but have heard good things about “Madeline’s Madeline.” I haven’t read Susan Scarf Merrell’s novel of the same name upon which the film is based. I know Moss more from her movie roles (“The Invisible Man,” “The Kitchen,” “Us”) than I do her highly acclaimed television turns (“Top of the Lake” and “The Handmaid’s Tale”). I’ve only seen one episode of “Mad Men” – Jared Harris whooped Vincent Kartheiser’s ass on it.

It’s the early 1950s in North Bennington, Vt. Fred (Logan Lerman, late of Amazon Prime’s “Hunters”) and Rose (Odessa Young, “Assassination Nation”) are a pair of newlyweds who are staying with Professor Stanley Hyman (ace character actor Michael Stuhlbarg) and his wife, the titular Shirley. Fred is working as an assistant to Stanley at Bennington College in hopes of securing a tenured position. Meanwhile Rose is roped into indentured servitude in Stanley and Shirley’s home working as maid, housekeeper and cook despite being with child.

Stanley and Shirley are horrible people. Stanley is a pretentious philanderer looking to squash his protégé’s aspirations. Shirley is an agoraphobic with a penchant for insults. Sitting down for the first meal Rose has prepared, Shirley calls her a slut and makes assertions about she and Fred having had a shotgun wedding. In spite of this, the two women strike up an unlikely friendship … possibly due to a lack of other options.

Much of the movie’s acclaim has been heaped upon Moss and her performance. She’s good as she reliably is per my limited sample size. This lady plays mania exceedingly well. The performance that most impressed me however was that of Young. She’s the actual lead of the movie and undergoes the greatest change. Young was impressive in “Assassination Nation,” one of my favorite films of 2018. She’s even better holding her own here against acting heavyweights such as Moss and Stuhlbarg. Speaking of Stuhlbarg, he’s deliciously douche-y as Stanley. I wanted to bust his Hyman in the face. He’s like the evil flip side of Stuhlbarg’s “Call Me by Your Name” role. Lerman isn’t given nearly as much to chew on, but you see the beginnings of academicians’ and husbands’ worst traits in his performance. 

“Shirley” connected with me … more on an intellectual level as opposed to an emotional one. It’s fascinating and well-made. I ignorantly expected “Shirley” to have more of a horror bent to it, while it’s actually more of a domestic drama. In the end, it’s a portrait of two couples who ultimately interestingly mirror one another.