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: 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

Movie Review: LA Confidential (1997)

Director: Curtis Hanson

Writer: James Ellroy (novel) Brian Heigeland (screenplay)

Starring: Guy Pierce, Kevin Spacey, Russel Crowe, Kim Basinger

LA Confidential, simply put, is one of the most compelling, endlessly re-watchable thrillers of all time.  One thing that distinguishes this film from its rivals is the faithfulness to its source material.  I don’t mean the novel it was actually adapted from, James Elroy’s piece of the same name, which I haven’t read, I mean Dragnet (1952-9)Dragnet has its fingerprints all over the film, from the opening slightly satirical monologue delivered over a montage of scenes from the city, to the way the story tends to take place in a series of interrogations.  However, this isn’t Dragnet, and modern audiences need a bit more nuance and a bit more honesty.  Not every interrogation ends in a fade out.  Some interrogations end in blood, some end in death, and some end in sex.

The interrogation that ends in sex is one of my favorite scenes in the movie.  Kim Basinger (who won Best Actress for her performance) blazes the screen with wit, honesty and intensity.  Her character Lynn Bracken distinguishes herself early as an intelligent and capable woman, but the world in which she works as a high-class call girl only values her sexuality.  So when Ed Exley (Guy Pierce) knocks on her door in the middle of the night, and passionately kisses her, she resists at first.  She even says “fucking me and fucking Bud White (Russel Crowe) aren’t the same thing you know?”  Upon hearing this, a statement that correctly judged Exley’s true motives, he simply persists, and power relationships being what they were in the 50’s, she has no choice but to succumb.  This quasi-rape scene spurs the film on to its conclusion, but more than just a plot point, it showcases in horrific microcosm one of the film’s central themes; that when the police outstep their bounds, they become indistinguishable from the criminals they fight against.

This theme is shone most obviously in the performance of Russel Crowe, who is stunning as veteran detective Bud White.  When we first see officer White, he interrupts a domestic dispute not by ringing a doorbell or pounding on the door, but by yanking the christmas decorations off their roof.  Though it turned out officer White was justified, as his actions did put at least a temporary halt to an ongoing case of domestic abuse, I wonder who was going to pay for the destroyed christmas decorations.  Later in the film, White executes a man, shooting him in the chest, before taking care to pull out a second gun and stage the crime scene.  Both White (Crowe) and Exley (Pierce) are weak and morally compromised in their own ways, but by the end, they must join together to reach a satisfactory conclusion.  This brings us back to Dragnet.

Every episode of Dragnet ended with an arrest, showing that any mystery is solved and evil is punished, and though LA Confidential is definitely unconventional in most every respect, its ending draws everything together.  Through the masterful performance of everyone involved, particularly James Cromwell whom I believe should’ve won an oscar for his portrayal of Captain Dudley Smith, Curtis Hanson (Director) stitched together a remarkably compelling history lesson.  He shows through the slanted motives and animalistic desires of nearly each character involved, that nothing is exactly as it seems.

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Movie Review: LA Confidential (1997)

Movie Review: Cam

Many Netflix original movies have so far ranged from simply awful (The Cobbler, The Ridiculous 6) to charmingly loopy (The Babysitter, Turbo Kid), frequently producing content that simply would not fly in a theatrical release, either due to shocking and unexpected violence or the laziest of comic writing.  However, with 2017’s Wheelman Netflix showed that it could produce a first-rate thriller, creating a fast-paced, exciting ride, even if the plot was a little thin for a theatrical release.  2018’s Cam represents another step forward for the production team, crafting an immensely watchable and unconventional thrill ride, one that is familiar in the type of tension it brings to the fore yet wholly modern in its conclusion.

Though Cam was helmed by promising first-time director Daniel Goldharber (and co-written by Goldharber and Isabelle Link-Levy), the story comes from Ilsa Mazzei, who used her own experience as a working cam girl to color the piece with an unmistakable layer of authenticity.  The story concerns Alice Ackerman (Madeline Brewer), an enterprising young woman who makes a more than healthy living as a cam girl, which is a term I was unaware of before I saw the film.  Cam girls make their money by performing an improvisational pornographic cabaret in front of their personal webcam, receiving suggestions and payment from legions of leering patrons.  The film offers a peek inside the world of the cam girl, including the friendships, collaborations, and antipathy shared among this society of modern entrepreneurs.  Early in the film’s runtime, however, Cam takes a turn to the dark underbelly of the Cam girl business, making of itself an unconventional and immensely watchable thriller.

As the movie never strays from her character’s point of view, Madeline Brewer delivers what could be a star-making performance, displaying in equal parts intelligence, strength, resourcefulness, and desperation.  As Ackerman and her cam girl pseudonym “Lola_Lola” are toyed with by a mysterious doppleganger, the film’s tension expands into unexpected avenues, keeping the tension tangible and unconventional.  There is at one point a threat that Ackerman’s cam girl persona might be exposed to her friends and family, and while a more conventional look into this business might cast this as the ultimate horror, Cam simply allows it to happen and then deals with the consequences.  The greater threat comes from the false “Lola_Lola,” and in a climactic showdown that takes place entirely on Ackerman’s webcam, she vanquishes the threat and regains control of her digital identity.

Though the film is littered with excellent supporting performances, most notably from Kevin Druid (13 Reasons Why) as Ackerman’s younger brother and Patch Darragh (The First Purge) as her most slavish patron, the film lives and breathes through its star.  Brewer’s performance acts as the perfect conduit for the statement being made by Ilsa Mazzei, that cam girls are not like prostitutes or even strippers whom could become victims of exploitation, but are more akin to explorers in a new field of profitable sexuality.  Though this statement might seem dubious to some, particularly Ackerman’s mother Lynne (Melora Walters), Cam constructs a fascinating argument, and heralds the arrival of exciting new talent in modern filmmaking.

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Movie Review: Cam

Movie Review: John Wick: Chapter 2

In 2014, the surprising hit John Wick created a diverting comic-book riff on the revenge drama, seeming like a one-off set piece that hit all the buttons action fans look for.  However, with John Wick: Chapter 2, the writer/director team of Derek Kolstad and Chad Stahelski have taken what I consider to be a significant step forward in the evolution of American action filmmaking.  Ditching the sentiment almost completely, they dove into the lunatic alternate reality they created, and came away with one of the most consistently enthralling and artistically expressive action movies I’ve ever seen.  It left me gasping, and as I pant for more I’m forced to admit that though this movie’s influences are many, from the riveting gun-fu of Hard Boiled to the intense close-quarter combat of Ong-Bak, in sheer audacious bravado this film stands alone (except for maybe Hard Boiled).

I say audacious because according to the entertainment section of businessinsider.com, the kill count of this blood-drenched magnum power shot stands at a staggering 128, meaning that the average stands at just over one kill every minute of the movie’s 122 minute runtime.  This mass of fatalities, however, is not stretched out over the entire movie, but is rather concentrated in two or three central shootouts (depending on how you determine when one shoot out ends and another begins), which see the inimitable Keanu Reeves transform into the mechanized killbot it seems he was always meant to be.  Because of his strangely vacuous performance style, which made him perfect for Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure and the object of derisive laughter in Dangerous Liaisons, makes him this movie’s perfect protagonist.

I refer to Reeves’ character, the eponymous John Wick as a protagonist, not a hero, because John Wick: Chapter 2 has no real heroes.  In the first John Wick, the eponymous character’s thirst for revenge was ignited by the death of his beagle puppy named Daisy, a symbol of the love he’d had for his recently deceased wife.  In this second volume of the Wick saga, the movie’s central villain simply destroys his house, without even harming the new dog he never bothers to name.  It is notable that whereas Daisy, the puppy from the original film, was a cuddly little bundle of love, Wick’s new dog is a very obedient pit bull.  This is a signifier that in the first movie, Wick lost his soul, and though he at first remains reluctant to return to death-dealing, he ends up taking to it like a master executioner, killing without thought.

This singularity of purpose and lack of true motivation are two of the things that I believe make this movie a significant advancement in American action cinema.  Too often, even in justifiably regarded tentpoles of the genre like Die Hard or Lethal Weapon, the action has to pause for the insertion of sentiment or (god forbid) romance, giving viewers like me a chance to go to the bathroom.  John Wick: Chapter 2 eschews any sentimental subplots, replacing them instead with an extraordinary visual panache.  Shootouts in an art exhibit containing a hall of mirrors and a topiary gallery that changes color depending on which side its viewed from are entrancing; so much so that they forego the need of an emotional undercurrent.  The movie’s director Chad Stahelski began in movies as a stuntman, most notably doubling for Reeves in The Matrix, and with this viscera-speckled opus, he shows that the closer one draws to violent action, the more such warfare becomes part of his identity.

Movie Review: John Wick: Chapter 2

Review: In a Valley of Violence

In a Valley of Violence (2016)

Director: Ti West

Writer: Ti West

Actors: Ethan Hawke, John Travolta, Taissa Farmiga

 

In its own harsh, uncompromising manner, In a Valley of Violence scoffs in the face of well-wrought western tropes, and comes away with a delightfully intense bloodbath.  I can say unreservedly that I am a fan of westerns, from the meticulous Italian chaos of Sergio Corbucci’s Companñeros to the somber philosophy of Peckinpah’s Ride the High Country, I love the western genre.  As is obvious from the opening titles which closely imitate the opening credits of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, director Ti West (The House of the Devil) loves it too.  His love of  westerns is most obviously displayed by his eagerness to subvert the genre’s tropes, which he does here by injecting characters with weakness, stupidity, and more than a little comedy.  This comedy most often comes from the committed and somewhat silly performance of a masterful John Travolta (Swordfish, Battlefield Earth, Scientology), who portrays tobacco chewing bravado while his character becomes a strange alternate protagonist.

The story’s central hero is Paul, Ethan Hawkes’ mysterious drifter traveling alone with a dog.  Paul and his strangely intelligent companion, Addie, are linked via an almost supernatural connection.  These travel companions make an ill-fated pit stop in Denton, a town terrorized by the son of the local sheriff (James Ransome), who practices wanton cruelty with impunity.  This character, Deputy Gilly Martin is perturbed when newcomer Paul (Ethan Hawke), fails to respond quickly to his inquiries.  This simple perceived slight leads to a chain reaction of escalations, culminating in a climactic death that is both ludicrous and metaphorically perfect.  The unstoppable expansion and eruption of violence is so reasonless, yet so inevitable, that In a Valley of Violence could be said to make a permanently timely statement about the ease and cost of killing.

These are pretty heavy issues, however, and they might weigh down a movie as violent as this one, but it is saved by the aforementioned Mr. Travolta, playing the sweetest Marshal ever.  Travolta’s character is kind, reasonable, merciful, and hilarious.  Marshal Clyde Martin (Travolta) has one fatal flaw, however, his love for his son.  As terrible as Gilly had become, he was still the Marshal’s son, and family trumps everything.  I think that this, in many ways, is the central conceit of In the Valley of Violence.  That even the most positive emotional reflexes, like a father’s love for his son or a drifter’s love of his dog, can lead to copious bloodshed.

Westerns can be intense, savage, and unapologetically brutal, but they can also be funny, touching, and philosophical.  In the Valley of Violence can do all of these things, but it is one thing above all, a kick-ass western.  The music is dramatic and propulsive; shrieking with energetic violins that sound like stabbing.  The performances are all exemplary, particularly Taissa Farmiga, who brings a mad spirit to the role of Mary-Anne, charming with every nervous giggle.  This is a western of surprising depth and fantastic production, but what really leaves an impression is the sheer fun of it.

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Review: In a Valley of Violence