I grow weary of critics who accept screeners from ultra-low-to-low-budget filmmakers, then, when that filmmaker name drops better-known directors and films, the review proceeds to judge that self-produced passion project against those Bayos n’ Bayhem’ed, A-List summer tent pole inspirations: it’s a losing proposition to a negative review.
A critic simply can not measure today’s 2020s’ indie streamers — no more than you could rationalize regional filmmakers of the ’70s, such as Don Dohler or Andy Milligan (Fiend, The Ghastly Ones), or SOV home video purveyors of the ’80s, such as Jon McBride (check out our “Exploring” feature), or Doug Ulrich and Al Darago (Scary Tales) and Donald Farmer (Scream Dream) — to the films that inspired said filmmakers, which would be everything from Hitchcock to Carpenter, between the usual soup-to-nuts sprockets.
Today’s young bucks, such as this film’s writer and director, Michael Matteo Rossi, are analogous to those up-against-the-budget indie filmmakers of ’70s and ’80s yore — as they deliver a fascinating entertainment experience (at least to this snobby, know-it-all critic) in observing how the modern, digitally-based filmmaker tackles the hard-to-tackle-on-nickles-and-dimes action and science fiction genres (Anton Doiron’s Space Trucker Bruce as the best-example).
Courtesy of today’s here-to-stay digital technologies, gone are the days of indie filmmakers heading out to a patch of woods, sans permits, with a camera loaded with short ends and a gaggle of their friends and amateur actors to leave their mark with a horror film (and don’t forget that de rigueur pair of overalls or coveralls). Today’s smart phone’d filmmakers, such as Anthony Z. James (Ghost) and James Cullen Bressack (For Jennifer) and other Canon Reds purveyors, aspire to rise above those regional and home video filmmakers of old to create films in other genres besides the aforementioned horror and the low-budget auteurs’ second favorite genre: the cheap-to-make rom-com, such as Edward Burns and his industry breakthrough with 1995’s The Brothers McMullen, from those Fine Line Features, Fox Searchlight and Miramax glory days (that he shot for $30,000 and cleared $10 million in box office).
So, yes. Michael Matteo Rossi is ambitious. To a fault? Eh, maybe those James Dalton-opinions down at the roadhouse vary in the eyes of the Brad Wesleys of critical divide. Moi? I see no reason to compose discouraging reviews. (Ugh, again with the length complaints: the one hour thirty-six minutes of Shadows is short compared to most indie-streamers where directors are their own worst editors.) So, yes, I cut a wide berth (see Nigel the Psychopath, as an example) — that I would never give to a major studio film: those major leaguers know better than the shaggin’ flies guys down in Triple A (I hated Last Man Standing and John McClane seeks not my pity).
As I spoke with Rossi and actor Chris Levine when their previous film, the John McTiernan-aspiring The Handler, was released, they enthusiastically spoke of their next film, Shadows — and mentioned their joint admiration of Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas and Michael Mann’s Thief.
Does that mean I should critically compare Rossi’s works to either of the those stellar films? No. Absolutely not. What Rossi’s mention of his cinematic inspirations provides this critic is a critical embellishment to the film’s IMDb-posted logline: I simply now know what to expect as the 1s and 0s formulate images on my lap top. As with Michael Matteo Rossi’s The Handler serving as his homage-throwback to ’80s and ’90s action films, Shadows is his cinematic tip-o’-the-hat to the crazed flux of ’90s gangster films — films rife with the expected Shakespearian-to-Dashiell Hammett noirish twists and betrayals.
So, with that being said: My critical barometer, here, is not Scorsese or Mann, but, when thinking back to Quentin Tarantino serving as a secondary inspiration to those Miramax-gangster ’90s: his film, Reservoir Dogs. Well, more accurately: Rob Weiss’s low-budgeted, Tarantino-cobbled Amongst Friends, Matty Rich’s Straight Out of Brooklyn, and Troy Duffy’s Boondock Saints. But make no mistake about it: Rossi is not a filmmaker who cuts off one’s nose to spite one’s face — as did that “Tarantinoesque” ego-destroying triumvirate. However, unlike those three films, okay, well, maybe not Boondock Saints, Shadows is not your typical indie streamer: it is not only a well-shot film: the sharp cinematography is supported by solid, fluid editing giving it, well, the Scorsese-Mann quality on-a-budget to which it strives.
I immediately — and pleasantly — noticed Rossi smartly brought back the fine Rachel Alig, Tyrone Magnus and Chris Levine (The Ice Cream Stop, No Way Out) from The Handler for his cast. He then ups the game with the casting of long-suffering indie actress Krista Allen, who parlayed her indie film roles (speaking of the shot-on-phone genre: the pretty fine Case 347) and under-five and guest starring television roles (Diagnosis Murder to CSI: Crime Scene Investigations to Hawaii Five-O) to a featured, 77-episode role in CBS-TV’s long-running daytime drama, The Bold and the Beautiful. Another welcomed actor to the cast is Rahart Adams from Nicklelodon’s Every Witch Way, (as well as Pacific Rim: Uprising) in an adult film role, given a chance to shine as our well-meaning but flawed Othello. Fans of FX’s Sons of Anarchy and Mayans M.C. will also notice David Labarva, fine here as the crazed, drug-manufacturing Nicolas. Then there’s Jazsmin Lewis of the Ice Cube-starring Barbershop franchise, in support, as Shonda, who cares for Jewel and a stable of hookers.
The streaming incentive, here, of course, is, well . . . we wish Australian icon Vernon “The Wez” Wells was here in more than just-a-name-on-the-box starring role, à la the aforementioned Bruce Willis, or Eric Roberts and Nic Cage (we are forever his bitch), but we do get a little bit more of Francis Capra — yes little Calogero in the Scorsesesque A Bronx Tale.
As with the aforementioned Amongst Friends, Rahart Adams is Cody: another troubled soul from a broken family hoping to break free of Jewel (Krista Allen), his crack-addicted prostitute mom, by working at the only good-paying job a foster care-dumped kid can get: as a low-level drug dealer. The modernized, Shakespearean proceedings — as they usually do in these films — goes to shite when Cody unknowingly buys a batch of a new designer drug for a quick mark-up resell — only to discover the drugs are part of a cache stolen from our in-residence Iago, Nicolas. And — as things usually do in these films — gets worse when our femme fatale Desdemona, aka Michelle (Rachel Alig), from Cody’s mom’s stable of call girls, unwittingly drags him into a multiple homicide.
Now Cody and Michelle are on the run from Nicolas’s right-hand psycho, Axel (a very adult-fine Francis Capra), who takes a scored earth approach to his profession: no survivors — including Vernon Wells’s prostitute-addicted lowlife, Cliff. Cody and Michelle’s savior comes in the form of Eric Etebari (The Lincoln Lawyer and TV’s NCIS: Los Angeles) packing the Robert Forster-cool as the salvation-seeking cartel hitman, Dean.
In the end, Rossi, as he did with The Handler, handles the drama-to-action ratio with a Scorsese-Mann aplomb. So much so that those pesky digital blood n’ bullets sticklers will overlook those digital effects. We will just have to wait and see if Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson sticks to his publicity-driven bluster to never use “real guns” on sets, again, and he ups digital gun effects and squibs to the point where we can no longer tell the difference. Hello money: here’s the mouth.
So, until The Rock delivers: Michael Matteo Rossi delivers as he keeps getting better at the craft.
After watching and reviewing The Handler, Rossi provided me with a link-copy of his previous, third film, 2019’s The Chase (his freshman and sophomore features — amid his twelve shorts — are 2013’s Misogynist and 2017’s Sable). While The Chase is a commendable effort, The Handler is certainly the more ambitious, superior effort. And Shadows — thanks to great casting with actors bringing their A-games — trumps both of those films. I believe, once his next film, the also-starring Vernon Wells The Sweepers drops come September 2022, Michael Matteo Rossi will begin to receive mainstream, major studio notice as did his digital cousins Prince Bagdasarian (Abducted) and Steven C. Miller (First Kill). In fact, like Ryan Coogler before him: I see Michael Matteo Rossi creating that film — one that will win “Top Audience” and “Grand Jury” awards at the Sundance Film Festival where he will find himself called out of the dark, indie shadows to the sun-kissed majors.
It’s all about, not naysaying, but seeing the potential in the indie filmmaker. And Michael Matteo Rossi’s day in the sun is on the horizon and ready to break the dawn.
Shadows will be released to VOD and digital streaming on May 6th by Acort International Pictures (the team behind Clinton Road). The studio’s page for the film will lead you the film’s Facebook and Twitter pages to follow, as well as an Action-Flix interview with Michael Matteo Rossi and Deadline interview with actor Rahart Adams.
— R.D Francis