Review: Brawl on Cell Block 99

Brawl in Cell Block 99

Director: S. Craig Zahler

Writer: S. Craig Zahler

Actor: Vince Vaughn, Jennifer Carpenter, Don Johnson

Streaming on Amazon Prime (as of 10/10/19)

Brawl in Cell Block 99, the startling second feature from burgeoning cinematic master S. Craig Zahler (Bone Tomahawk, Dragged Across Concrete), depicts characters and events that are at once enthrallingly captivating and darkly depressive.  His first, Bone Tomahawk, was an exemplary update of traditional western tropes, but with his second feature, he seems to have found a muse.  The film opens with the camera focused on Vince Vaughn, unrecognizable from the wiseass party animal of Wedding Crashers and Old School.  He is completely bald, muscled and imposing, with a large gothic cross tattooed on the back of his head.  These fearsome aspects of his outward appearance are nothing as compared with the thoughtful, emotional, terrifying figure he portrays throughout the film.

While most characters Vaughn has played in the past speak with a sort of incessantly speedy pitter patter, his character in Brawl, Bradley Thomas speaks in measured clauses and considered sentences.  Early in the film, after his drug dealer boss Gil (Marc Lucas) asks him about the proper use of the “N” word, Vaughn responds “I don’t think someone like you could use that word in any way polite.”  The film, though full of cleverly plain witticisms like that, never risks becoming what anyone would call comedic.  In fact, the film’s director S. Craig Zahler has created the cinematic equivalent of a slow walk into hell, and the tortures heaped on Vaughn’s character expand at an exponential rate.

After a drug deal gone bad results in a shootout with police, Bradley (Vaughn) makes the decision to turn on the drug dealers, shooting one of them in the back and disabling the other with his bare hands.  After this selfless act of heroism, our protagonist’s descent into hell begins in earnest.  While the opening scenes of the movie are filmed in sharp sunlight, as the film goes into the darker parts of its story, each set piece is given less and less light.  When Bradley (Vaughn) first arrives at Redleaf, a high-security prison built in the days before prison reform, the warden (Don Johnson) delivers a speech about the horrors held therein.  In this and his every scene, Johnson (Miami Vice, A Boy and His Dog) brings a smirking dignity to these trashy proceedings, and keeps the viewer invested through the film’s trying final third.

When the movie finally comes to a close, it is with a horrifyingly graphic final shot, but this fits the savagery that came before.  While Zahler’s debut film, Bone Tomohawk ends with an act of violence so horrible that I am loathe to re-watch it, I’ve viewed the entirety of Brawl on Cell Block 99 no less than five times.  I think this is thanks to Vince Vaughn, who shows through his collaboration with Zahler that he understands serious characters, and that his eyes are as still and threatening as any action star.  For a pulpy, grimly realistic, and unflinching view into an ordinary man becoming an animal, this film is beyond compare.

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Review: Brawl on Cell Block 99

Movie Review: Out of the Past (1947)

Out of the Past (1947)

Director: Jacques Tourneur

Writer: Daniel Mainwaring

Stars: Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer, Kirk Douglas

Streaming for free at https://www.dailymotion.com/video/x72utly

Out of the Past (1947) is the height of film noir, and it is endlessly fascinating.  The movie is stuffed with quotable lines, so much so that the opening scene has dialogue from wise-cracking small town short-order cook that is notably aggravating to me (“Two things I can smell inside a hundred feet: a burnt hamburger and a romance”).  This scene might even discourage people from moving farther into the film, but I assure you, I swear this is only a speed bump.  Once you’re past this initial annoyance, the story becomes an endless facade of witty lines, delivered with a sinister bent.  The story centers around private eye Jeff Markham (Robert Mitchum), who later on in the story changes his name to Jeff Bailey, and is the quintessential film noir protagonist.

Robert Mitchum, who would go on to star in multiple horror classics Night of the Hunter (1955) and Cape Fear (1962), shows hints of the gravitas he would later bring to these classics.  He plays a man on the run, one who cannot help but for the darkness of previous events to etch shadows on to his face, as captured in stark contrast by Tourneur’s confident camerawork.  Early in the movie Bailey (Mitchum) confesses to his lovestruck best girl Ann (Virginia Huston) that his real name is Jeff Markham (Mitchum), but his confession does not end there.  The story, though it goes from bad to worse three or four times in the film, finds no change at all in our Markham/Bailey’s perspective.  He sees the world as a cruel place, where the only thing you can do is take your lumps without blanching.  In fact, early in Makham’s confession, he describes going to a bar staking out femme fatale Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer):  “I even knew she wouldn’t come the first night, but I sat there, with the beer and the darkness; grinding it out.”  I believe that this quote encapsulates its speaker’s belief that suffering is inevitable, and there’s no point in hiding from it.

This perspective stands in direct opposition to the central villain’s perspective.  Local crime boss Whit (Kirk Douglas) is endlessly entertaining to watch, and his deadly threats are delivered by a soft, permanent toothy grin.  His character’s presence hangs a lethal veil over his every scene, and the movie is never clear of tension.  However, though the ever-expanding prevalence of whip-smart dialog and extreme danger might seem anathema to romance, the relationship between Markham (Mitchum) and Moffat (Greer) is captivating.  Their conversations are filled with a competitive sense of wit, but passion is never far from the surface.  When Kathy asks  “Would you like me to take you somewhere else?” Jeff responds “You’re gonna find it very easy to take me anywhere.”  Crackling exchanges of dialog like this are everywhere in Out of the Past, and they are used to disguise the movie’s soul, which is black.

The movie’s director Jacque Tourneur first became famous for atmospheric Hayes Code era (oppressive film censorship of the 1930’s-60’s) horror movies Cat People (1942) and I Walked with a Zombie (1943), both of which needed to rely on deep shadows and harsh lighting to convey terror.  Here he uses shadow to capture emotion, which this film regards as more dangerous than anything else, especially for people like Bailey/Markham (Mitchum).  All this leads up to an ending that is not satisfactory in its realism as far as physical reality is concerned, yet holds up to the view that there are no happy endings for characters like these, and the most anyone can hope for is to settle for something safe.

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Movie Review: Out of the Past (1947)

Movie Review: Avengement

Avengement (2019)

Director: Jesse V. Johnson

Writer: Jesse V. Johnson

Stars: Scott Adkins, Craig Fairbrass, Thomas Turgoose

Streaming on Netflix (as of 10/1/2019)

Avengement, the 2019 crime thriller written and directed by former stuntman Jesse V. Johnson, is brutally violent, swiftly plotted, and magnificently entertaining.  At only four minutes in, the movie’s star Scott Adkins, himself a former stuntman and competitive martial artist, dispatches a pub’s two doormen quickly and without warning.  Incidents of savagery such as this occur in nearly every scene in the film, and while this does appeal particularly to action junkies such as I, the excellent script and star-affirming performance of its lead correspond to transform what would be a cheap and gritty B-movie into a genuinely compelling thrill ride.

The film follows Cain Burgess (Adkins), a character who, through circumstances outside of his control, has become an animal.  His face at the beginning of the movie is covered in burn scars, he has a gash in his cheek and he has silver teeth.  All of these things are the consequence of injuries the viewer watches him sustain in one of the movie’s many flashback sequences.  In the hands of a less confident director, this backwards form of story construction might have rendered the film a narrative mess, but Johnson holds the structure together with aplomb, trusting that his star can keep an audience engrossed without exhausting them.

His star and frequent collaborator Scott Adkins holds the film together with an intense, seething performance.  We see as the movie goes along how Cain (Adkins) was transformed from a powerful yet gentle street tough into a hardened psychopath, and each phase of this evolution makes perfect sense.  The story adheres to a structure wherein it transfers intermittently among three periods of time, which could potentially become confusing, but Johnson does a remarkable job of allowing the narrative to direct its own path.  Both Johnson and Adkins grew up in densely populated, urban sectors of England, and their experience with the seedier characters and settings clothes their film in authenticity.

Despite the characters, language and violence which all seem to my American ears genuine, there is no denying that Avengement is a fantasy.  This fantasy is an undeniably brutal, pessimistic one, which allows the filmmakers to patch together some less-than stellar supporting performances with shockingly barbaric violence.  Overall, though I think that Adkins’ remarkable performance gives this bloody tableau a solid emotional footing, it’s primarily a grim, bloody good time in hell.

 

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Movie Review: Avengement

Movie Review: Hard Eight

Hard Eight (1996)

Director: Paul Thomas Anderson

Writer: Paul Thomas Anderson

Cast: Phillip Baker Hall, John C. Reilly, Gwyneth Paltrow

 

Hard Eight, the meticulously crafted first feature from Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights, Punch Drunk Love, There Will be Blood), is completely and unpredictably engrossing.  From the very beginning, when Sydney (Phillip Baker Hall) offers to give John (John C. Reilly) a cigarette, buy him a cup of coffee, and teach him the ways of a professional low-stakes gambler, the film moves swiftly from one scene and setting to the next without pausing to take a breath.  Downhill plotting like this, where each scene leads to the next without an end in sight becomes a showcase for spellbinding performances from Hall, Reilly, a frighteningly charismatic Samuel L. Jackson, and perhaps most compellingly from an unforgettable Gwyneth Paltrow.

Clementine, Paltrow’s character, is an injured woman.  This can be assumed from the very first time we see her, clad in a provocative cocktail dress and sharply crimson lipstick, she absorbs the lecherous words and gazes of the men who surround her.  Her character, like every character in Hard Eight, has been forced by terrible circumstance into desperation, and is driven to take the only avenue she sees open to her.  The sadness in her every scowl and spoken word is heartbreaking, and the regret she harbors is only reaction to the world’s unrelenting cruelty.  This is just the same with John (Reilly), who begins the movie penniless and clueless, and crawls out of his trouble only by doing everything Sydney (Hall) tells him to.  Despite these two assured performances, both of which are complex and layered, the movie belongs to Hall, who fills the story with both structure and emotion.

Sydney (Hall) begins the movie speaking seriously, posing himself as a no-nonsense pragmatist, one offering aid to society’s castoffs for no reason other than that they needed help.  As the story progresses and we learn of the reasons Sydney does what he does, the emotion breaks through but only subtly; almost unnoticeably.  After John (Reilly) and Clementine (Paltrow) have a quickie wedding at a Reno chapel, Sydney watches the wedding tape, and though he barely moves a muscle throughout the scene, the intense emotion roiling underneath is extremely powerful.  For the entirety of the film, he stands as an immovable post around which all the emotion and intrigue of the film swirl, and the emotion behind his tight face and businesslike behavior hide a well of intense feeling.

This brings me to the significance of the title Hard Eight, which I think reveals the purpose of the film as a whole, and of Sydney’s (Hall) character in particular.  Hard eight refers to one of the stupidest bets one can make at a craps table.  It means not only are you betting that the two die, when rolled, will equal eight, but that you will win the bet only when the total eight is reached by two fours.  This makes the odds of a roll achieving hard eight only one in thirty-six.  This means that late in the film, when Sydney places a thousand-dollar bet on hard eight, he does it fully understanding that he more than likely will never see his money again.  This is a movie about sad, hopeless people struggling to make due in a world that wasn’t made for them.  And with the direction of a blossoming master making every emotion powerfully tangible, it is an exhiirating viewing experience.

 

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Movie Review: Hard Eight

Ask a Nazi Interior Designer

Hello, my name is Gunther Meyer and I am a fifth generation Nazi, born and bred, and I have some helpful hints to help fun, exciting fascists spruce up their homestead.  Whether you are a country boy holding an informal cross burning/barbecue, an enterprising young business mogul sprucing up his home for a meeting of the minds, or just a simple laborer who wants to lend his living space that touch of Überzeugungskraft, these are the things to know:

1. Swastikas Galore!  I’ve said it before and I will say it again, you can never have too many of the Fuhrer’s favorite piece of graphic symbolism.  The mass of right angles perfectly expresses the rigidity of our shared worldview and the folded appearance of the design tells all unwanted persons to stay away.  One caveat, however, is that it is possible to overdo it, so be careful.  While a giant Swastika made of 1250 smaller swastika’s, as I designed for an Alabama corn farmer’s 250 acre farm in 2007 is a wonderbar testament to the dream of a new world, 250 swastika posters on the roof of a tumble-down cottage is in terrible taste.  Know your limits, mein liebshin.

2. Beware Curves:  Though many of our youth have been seduced by the comfort of a smooth, slight curve, do not be tempted, for it is only in the severity of right angles that we can see our future.  I have had clients in the past fear that their children might slip and fall onto my designs, injuring them perhaps greatly, but I have told them that this is how children learn.  Every bruise, scrape and scar your children suffer falling into the corner of a wall or a door in your home will be a lesson that they carry, making it less likely that they will fall again.  Also, as an added bonus, Jews are notoriously clumsy-footed, so if you have the misfortune of having one as a guest, they might fall and hurt themselves.  Also, Swastikas have many right angles, so win win!

3. Deny Comfort: It is well known that sleep is the refuge of intellectuals (Jews) and homosexuals, so it is imperative that you avoid like the plague any form of padding and every source of warmth.  While a fireplace is a lovely centerpiece for any entranceway, there should be no nearby places to recline, as to soothe your aching extremities is to admit weakness, and our superiors would not approve.  Fireplaces are to be used to heat the home and to burn perverse literature, nothing else.  Also, hanging above a fireplace is another ideal place for that most perfect design, a Swastika!

4. Pay Tribute: It goes without saying that portraits of der fuhrer are an absolute must, with three being the minimum number of tributes to the man who started it all, but it is also right and proper to honor lesser known members of the reich.  A few suggestions: A nursery would be well suited for a portrait of Artur Axmann, who led the hitler youth through the glory days.  Joseph Goebbels is an absolute must, as he was the big man’s absolute favorite.  Adolf Eichmann deserves a place in your front room, as he was chief architect of the final solution and a handsome devil with a charming smirk.

5. Discourage Imagination: Any encouragement of creativity might serve to lead people, especially impressionable children, toward the evils of philosophy and art, so the use of color must be strictly regulated.  Ideally, you should only use black, white, and Hitler’s favorite shade of red.  If you are unable to acquire enough of this exact paint however, it is only imperative that you stick to red and black.  If the ubiquity of this color scheme upsets you, you would likely be in the need of some re-education, and I recommend slamming your fingers in a door so that you are reminded of liberalism’s pain.

I hope these helpful hints can aid you in your quest for true purity and glory, Mit herzlichen Grüßen, Gunther Meyer

Ask a Nazi Interior Designer

5 Hot New Podcasts

 

1. The Bible with David Lynch:

Acclaimed auteur David Lynch (Twin Peaks, Wild at Heart, Dead Mouse with Ants) reads the King James Bible “from cover to cover,” never altering the pitch, pace or timbre of his voice in the slightest.  What results is a strange, unsettling, and occasionally hilarious journey into the heart of madness.  Recommendation: never listen with the lights off.

2. Comedy Fartstorm:

Hosted by Bob Saget, Comedy Fartstorm features a parade of both famous and obscure comedians like Brendan Schaub, Sarah Silverman, and Bob Newhart making fart sounds with their mouths before laughing uproariously.  Because this podcast features no spoken words, it is up to the audience to determine what comedian makes which fart sound.  Some of the farts might even be real, no one has any idea.

3. Silly Sound Playhouse with Morgan Freeman

Morgan Freeman uses the uncanny gravitas of his speaking voice to introduce very silly sound clips.  Episodes are very short (15-20 minutes) and include sounds such as “Tiny tennis ball squeaky toy with multiple rapid squeezes,” and “Silly kids’ voice saying ‘Yipee!’”  After each sound, Freeman gives a brief appraisal, usually limited to one word, like “fascinating.”

4. Gary Busey Fights Monsters

Famously unhinged actor Gary Busey regales you with stories of the victories he’s had battling legendary beasts like Centaurs and Leprechaun armies during his life.  In one of the podcasts most famous episodes, he tells the story of how he faced down Medusa while he was on the set of “The Magnificent Seven Ride!”  The stories are often harrowing, action-packed, and dubious.

5. The Podcast Podcast Podcast:

Hosts Terry Grintest and Amanda Bullifer discuss the ins and outs of making podcasts about podcasts.  The hosts discuss what podcast podcast creators get right, what they get wrong, and which are the best podcast podcasts every week.  The hosts maintain a running count of how many times the word podcast is used each episode, and when the number goes over 100, they each eat ice cream sandwiches.

5 Hot New Podcasts

Brilliant Young Actor Stuns Hollywood with Talking Tracheotomy Scar

27 year-old burgeoning star Dennis Sureswith, best known for his oscar-nominated turn in “The River has no Bottom” as well as his standout performance in “Fartbusters 4: The Wettening,” recently stunned industry insiders when he revealed his commitment to method acting.  In preparation for his role as Derek Somersberg, survivor of a traumatic car accident who goes on to vanquish an alien uprising, he had an actual tracheotomy performed on himself.  “I felt I wasn’t really getting into the role as deep as I wanted to,” Sureswith told reporters at the film’s Cannes premiere, “So I told (producer Elizabeth Winegarten) to just stab me in the throat.”

After only two weeks with his new throat hole, Sureswith attested that while the procedure had greatly helped him act the role, his extreme method acting had also delivered unexpected benefits.  As he told a stunned group of reporters at one of the several Cannes press junkets, “My Trache scar can talk.  His name is Jean-Jacque and he’s French.”

The press pool, struck by an understandable wave of incredulity, questioned whether such a thing could even be possible.  Melissa Vicontin, Dutch reporter with The Associated Press, exclaimed “How is this possible?”  In response to the question, Sureswith’s tracheotomy scar replied, “Con comme ses pieds, it simply is!  Why must you question, eh?”

This reply brought guffaws from the French press in attendance, which only grew as Sureswith joined the conversation.  “I don’t speak any French, I have no idea where this is coming from.”  At this, Jean-Jacque quipped “Of course you don’t, you are too stupid for French, tête de noeud.”  This response left the French press in further hysterics, and inspired an abrupt career shift on the part of the young American movie star.

Currently, Sureswith is remaining in France, touring the countryside as a comedy double act, “Jean Jacque et l’âne,” which roughly translates to “Jean-Jacque and the donkey.  The American star’s family and friends haven’t heard from him in weeks, leading many to believe foul play is afoot.  This controversy is the most remarkable to hit Cannes since Terrence Malick revealed that he has an extra face in the back of his head named Boris Dimitrov.

Brilliant Young Actor Stuns Hollywood with Talking Tracheotomy Scar