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

Poem: Hock Loogies

Where’s my fucking Fanta, motherfucking cocksucker

and you’re not even good at it, artisans take pride

in work done well

but you’re not of them, are you?  You’re just pumpy pumpy

spurt goblin madman, a lemming over the cliff

praying for a better tomorrow, stupid, take no pride

in your punishment, been asleep for months

in a great coma, now where’s my fucking fanta!

 

You don’t know never knew and won’t ever

understand the breaks or why they happen

the way they do, see this is the god finger

going right in your eye, we’re all pawns

in a maggot blender

begging for scraps, man, so take what you can

get when they throw it away, dress it up

marking it new, off-brand lazy philosophy.

 

With your new threads they will call

stylish, convince yourself of purpose

meaning and progress, stepping banana peel

abbreviated misgivings

of short counts, the world is a poison pit

all and sundry escape, eventually, so no

point is farther than simply to enjoy

what you can, spit on the ground.

Poem: Hock Loogies

Poem: Utopia

What kind of revolution lands with a plop, not a passionate

caucus of like minds, but the righteous ho hum

of the revelry, twiddle stash and his minions ruling

with an upturned eyebrow and a question mark, expecting all

but you to know the answer, while none are ever.

to speak it, for reality is a sense of burning tires.

 

It deposits its waste on the regular, spilling out over

the news every day, concluding hopeless tid bits

and ball scratching posers, for misery is a business too,

like all other things, working a neverending

cycle of tragedy, four digits dead is a jackpot.

 

Twenty-four hour coverage of the great sense

deadening, somehow survival has become a sport,

on the horrorshow, in and of the horrorshow

also, come to think of it, seems like it’ll be on the news

apocalyptic finality, but Bachelor in Paradise is on.

Poem: Utopia

Poem: Proud Cycle

Shiver awake the first day, and there was no sun

warming me or the others, though we could see shine

in through the ceiling holes, we were to together though,

hearts beating like ovens, we were kept keeping love

warm under the roofs, we prayed they’d not return.

 

The bad days born again, my brother died in a tub

drowning shallow water away, but those of us

holding hope sacked movements eternal, failing

first, but surrender has been taken from us, the weak

have no choice but to fight, live or die depending.

 

The overlords whatever they are, killing for fun

or boredom business decisions, the kernel

remains ever thirsty, for we will emerge again

wearing letters, knowing many will die this time

as last again, but resistance is foundation.

Poem: Proud Cycle

Poem: Straight Horizontal

The horizon isn’t

a line to crest and plunge, beckoning the darkness

to die and summon the sun, only an expression

of passage ticking forward, holding still your eyes

on it is a good way to forget that you’re dying, but yours will come

when the pupils mold over, and you won’t hear a bell.

 

See the future in your shadow, through the past raining

down in streaks, for to live is to die every day

beginning an end, tombstone maternity wards

build deathmatch nurseries, for the world is inescapable

horrorshow systematics, naught is to be done

but draw the shutters.

 

But buck up, chucklefucks, for love is real

whether or not it matters.  You can believe your own lies,

so sing them in songs that rhyme.

Poem: Straight Horizontal