I’m In Your Face (Brawl in Cell Block 99 review)

As a child of the eighties I had the great misfortune to have missed out on grindhouse cinema. Sitting in a theatre all day, watching raw  and wriggling film seems like an excellent way to spend your time, but alas I will never get to have that experience. If only there were movies out there that could recreate that grit…

 

Brawl in Cell Block 99 (2017)

Cast: Vince Vaughn, Jennifer Carpenter, Don Johnson, Marc Blucas, Dion Mucciacito, Udo Kier
Director: S. Craig Zahler
released on blu-ray December 26, 2017
********** 10/10

IMDB: 7.2
Rotten Tomatoes: 92%, Audience Score 74%
The Guardian: ***/*****

Steven Craig Zahler, known sometimes as S. Craig Zahler and also as Czar when performing, is a director, screenwriter, cinematographer, novelist, and musician.  He has written novels in a number of genres, most notably within the western, crime and science fiction arenas, and his work as a drummer, lyricist, and singer for Realmbuilder has garnered success with metal enthusiasts. In short, Zahler is a man of many talents.

Brawl in Cell Block 99 is his second film, but his first film (Bone Tomahawk) received critical acclaim and a positive response from the general public. I think this can be attributed to his broad interests and his ability to fuse genres together in an appealing way.

But best of all, he has managed to take an actor like Vince Vaughn, play to his comedic strengths and infuse a fresh perspective to his talents which allow a grindhouse crime film to work in a satirical state of Trump presidency.

Courtesy of Wikipedia

Bradley Thomas (Vince Vaughn), driving a tow truck with a car in tow, pulls into the auto garage lot he works at. Soon after he arrives, he is laid off. He gathers his personal items from a locker and departs the garage in his car. As he arrives home, he sees his wife, Lauren (Jennifer Carpenter), sitting in her car in front of their house, using her cellphone. He approaches her and demands to see her phone, which she gives to him. As he is scrolling through it, Lauren admits to him that she has been seeing someone else. Bradley instructs her to go into the house, which she does. He then violently dismantles her car with his bare hands. When done, he enters the house to speak to Lauren about why she made the decision to cheat on him. Once the discussion ends, Bradley decides to forgive Lauren and to do more than just make ends meet. He makes the decision to return to drug dealing, a life he previously left behind.

Eighteen months later, Bradley and a pregnant Lauren living in a larger, more expensive home. Bradley’s boss, Gil (Marc Blucas), gives him a new assignment. Bradley is to go with two men to pick up a shipment. Bradley does not trust the two men, but is urged by Gil to do the job, as it will lead to more money and more business. During the job, Bradley and the two men pick up the shipment by boat. As they drop the boat off at the pier, one of the two men takes one of the bags and heads to the car as Bradley ties up the boat. Bradley takes the other bag, dumps it in the water for a later retrieval, and instructs them to do the same with their bags but they knock him down & run off with one of the bags. Suddenly, the police show up and engage in a firefight with the two men. Bradley has a chance to leave, as the police have not spotted him. But, aware that the deal was that no one was supposed to be harmed, he decides to stop the two men. One is killed by the police and the other is knocked out by Bradley. Bradley is taken into custody and ultimately sent to a medium security prison.

On the second day of his incarceration, he is visited by the Placid Man, (Udo Kier), who informs Bradley that he works for the boss of the two men that were killed in the shootout. He tells Bradley that Lauren has been kidnapped and that, unless he kills an inmate named Christopher Bridge, limbs of his unborn child will be surgically removed and sent to him. Bradley decides to take the job. The Placid Man tells Bradley that the inmate is in cell block 99 inside Redleaf correctional facility, a different maximum security prison.

Bradley picks a fight with a guard, brutally breaking his arm. As he is restrained and being taken away, Bradley fights with the other guards, until he’s overpowered and transferred to Redleaf. There, he meets Warden Tuggs (Don Johnson), who subjects Bradley to a cavity search outside of the prison entrance. Bradley is put into a horrible cell, where the toilet is clogged with feces. The smell being so overwhelming, Bradley is forced to take off his undershirt and wrap it around his nose. Eventually, he is able to go outside for yard time. When a fellow inmate informs him that Christopher Bridge is not located in this section of the prison, Bradley fights some fellow inmates and consequently is thrown into Cell Block 99.

Bradley is forced to wear a belt that gives him electric shocks at a push of a button, as punishment for the fight. His cell in block 99 is lined with broken glass. Bradley devises a plan and takes the lining from his shoes and puts them between his body and the belt to minimise the shocks. The plan works, but he accidentally kills one of the guards when he slams a door on his face when he tries to escape. Bradley locks the other guard in his cell. Bradley goes and meets with the boss of the men who he assaulted earlier (revealed to be the man who hired Bradley for the initial job that landed him in prison). Bradley fights with his henchmen, leading to him stepping on the back of one of the men’s heads and dragging it across the pavement, leaving that man’s face disfigured, with his skull showing. Bradley fights another henchman and slams his foot down on that man’s face, brutally dislodging his jaw, killing him. Bradley grabs the boss and takes him back to his cell. Bradley takes the man’s phone and calls The Placid Man to negotiate for Lauren’s freedom. Warden Tuggs arrives at the entrance to block 99, but Bradley threatens to kill the remaining guard, if he and any other guards comes in. Lauren is delivered to Gil, who in turn, kills The Placid Man. Bradley then speaks to Lauren for the last time, as well as sharing a few words with their unborn child.

After knowing Lauren is safe, Bradley grabs the boss and places his head over the crude squat toilet hole and stomps on his head, decapitating him. The captured guard runs from the cell, and Warden Tuggs enters into the cell. Accepting his fate, Bradley gives one last look at Tuggs, before Tuggs shoots Bradley twice, once in the chest and once in the head. The screen fades to black as we hear the third gunshot and Bradley’s body hit the floor.

It’s a simple premise taken to excess. A film that by all accounts shouldn’t exist, and yet macho ultra violence still features heavily in modern cinema. Quentin Tarantino should probably hang up his hat now, because Zahler is willing to take risks with his characters that Tarantino has taken since Pulp Fiction. Bradley is certainly mild-mannered at the start of the film. He takes losing his job like a champ, but when he learns his wife is cheating on him, a tiger beneath is hinted at, and so we see that there is so much more to his personal history and an inhuman kind of strength held at bay.

It’s not until the second act that we really see the full extent of Bradley’s abilities, but it is completely necessary to humanize him first, so that both the satisfaction as he moves towards his goal and irksome consequences of his actions stick with us after the curtain has lowered and the lights have dimmed on the blood-soaked floor of this epic.

Pros: Vaughan’s character is grounded in emotion and a loyalty to his family, and so the violence becomes intelligent played to accentuate the fantasy of a blue collar worker acting out.

Cons: For all of the detail and intentionally cheap practical effects, it isn’t always clear what the message of the film should be. But then again, wasn’t that true of most grindhouse films of the seventies?

Runtime: 2 hours 12 minutes

Points of Interest: …

It’s amazing to see Vaughn in such an intimidating role, because it also feels like he is invested in the role after a decade of being type-cast in loser man-child roles. I really enjoyed a lot of films that came out in 2017, with La La Land, Get Out, Logan, The LEGO Batman Movie and Baby Driver at the top of that list… but this seems to be the sleeper hit of the season, and one I’m glad to have stumbled upon.

theories Summarized

I’m not sure what the future holds for Vince Vaughn or for S. Craig Zahler for that matter, but I honestly can say that I hope both of them continue to make these kinds of intelligently constructed and entertaining worlds. Stories like Brawl in Cell Block 99 have a message within them, and that is one of quality over quantity.

That said, it seemed like a good time to share another of my favourite films with you in this week’s Watch Culture episode. A fun and quick overview of 2015’s The Gift, starring Joel Edgerton, Jason Bateman, and Rebecca Hall, with Edgerton in a first-time directorial role as well. It’s really quite excellent, and the film is top shelf too. But I’ll leave that final decision up to you. And as always… Comment! Like! Subscribe!

Tim!

Hail Mary (Father John Misty, Pure Comedy review)

Unforgettable. That’s what many of us wish to be. But if we’re all important, then none of us are.

And that’s quite the joke.

 

Father John Misty – Pure Comedy
released April 7, 2017
********* 9/10

Joshua Michael “Josh” Tillman, sometimes known as J. Tillman, and especially in this case, as Father John Misty, is an American singer/songwriter and instrumentalist. He’s been making albums since 2003, with the first eight being under the moniker of J. Tillman. This is the third outing of Father John Misty, preceded by the album I Love You, Honeybear; an affecting and self-dissecting grand gesture that is both smart and heart.

So it makes sense that Pure Comedy would simply raise the up stakes and let us walk on through into themes like post-apocalyptic landscapes, religion, pop culture, and politics. And it does. Hard. Hardcore even.

And maybe it’s my undying love of 90s bands like Harvey Danger, The Presidents of the United States of America, Weezer, Tonic, Jimmy Eat World, Semisonic, Everclear and Third Eye Blind, but doesn’t this guy sound like he could fit right in with those blokes? Without sounding like he was doing the recording itself in the 90s of course. But maybe it’s the confessional nature that really draws me in and makes me want to sit down and pray with him.

With a runtime at about 80 minutes, it’s almost impossible to sit through this in one go (read:meditating for the win), and even more difficult to break it up into separate ideas, though I am going to give it a shot.

Tillman is not alone in his criticisms of world views, namely the problems with our planet and the people that inhabit it, but his dark humour calls back to comedians of the 1970s like Peter Sellers and Monty Python. He wants to be seen as a patron saint of satire, but he is willing to self-efface to earn that mantel. At it’s centre point is the dark and sometimes funny Leaving L.A. It isn’t the best song on the album, but it definitely serves the purpose. The comedy of errors that we call life.

I can personally appreciate the health mix of existential though dashed into this record, because Tillman is no stranger to exploring themes within Pure Comedy. Both an epitaph to the process of art and a lover letter to making music, there is way to much complexity going on here to digest in my ever-so-brief review of it. Take a look at the album artwork for instance, a shining example of the detail involved in a life lived full.  We will likely never experience all of the same things as another person, but that doesn’t mean Birdie can’t try to describe utopia for us.

A criticism without judgment, Pure Comedy is a sermon Father John Misty should be proud to share.

theories Summarized

In listening to this record, I cannot help but think of The Comedian from the graphic novel Watchmen. Toward the end of his days The Comedian unravelled a global plot to change the world. One which would involved the slaughter of millions so that billions could united together against a common, if not fake, threat. It’s all a joke he said, just before he was murdered.

The real joke is that Josh Tillman hasn’t even begun his decline yet – this might just be pure gold.

Tim!

Thankless, Think More (Thanksgiving)

Don’t get me wrong folks, I enjoy spending time with my family as much as the next Canadian, but I feel obligated to inform and remind you that just like many other holidays we enjoy and take for granted, this creative ritual is not one so simple as simply moving into a land of plenty and prospering.

Thanksgiving just might be akin to celebrating the Holocaust. Well, if you’re an American especially.

Yeah, I went a little dark with this one dear readers.

But for so many reasons that I cannot even begin to name, Thanksgiving is effectively an American holiday and we Canadians decided to ride the gravy train (read: intentional bad pun) right along with them in 1879, a mere 12 years after Canadians became self-governing.

Americans have been celebrating this event for over 200 years now, and yet the more time passes the less people realize how incredibly fucked up it is to partake in this event.

Now I know that we have the holiday because we are hoping to share in the harvest, count our blessings, and thank others for what they bring to the table (read: another intentional bad pun), it’s dangerous for us to forget what preceded this state. Because humanity is about caring for and supporting the collective, not just picking and choosing what makes sense in a particular moment.

Of course I’m not so naive as to admit that I understand the complete scope and scale of what happened in North America in previous centuries, however, I do know this – when we celebrate the holiday, we should focus on participating in Thanksgiving as a way to honour community and the lives of Native peoples who welcomed immigrants into their lands. However individuals and governments chose to exploit individuals, we cannot know that all European immigrants were evil, nor can we proclaim that all Native peoples were innocent in how things shook out, because of our lack of context. But, we can be thankful in Canada that many people continue to immigrate into this country and our government is always working towards a future that is rather multi-cultural, a celebration of humanity.

That is what we should give thanks for. That opportunity for those who come into this country exists, and my hope is that the next generation is even less tolerant of disparity amongst new citizens.

And God do I ever hope that’s not just a theory.

Tim!

Adventure Time (Mississippi Grind review)

Have you ever read the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn? It’s more than 100 years old at this point. In case you haven’t read it, it’s a story that explores the subjects of race and identity. It has been studied over and over, because while it digs into the the existence of slavery, it also exists within the context of the time period and so there are a number of racial slurs and stereotypes played out in the story.

Odd then that I find myself watching a movie about the Mississippi and identity, but without the issues of race, well mostly.

 

 

 

Mississippi Grind (2016)

Cast: Ben Mendelsohn, Ryan Reynolds, Yvonne Landry, Sienna Miller, Analeigh Tipton
Director: Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck
released on blu-ray Dec 1, 2015
******** 8/10

mississippi_grind

IMDB: 6.4
Rotten Tomatoes: 89%, Audience Score 54%
The Guardian: ****/*****

Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck are American film directors that have a habit of working together. They have co-directed Have You Seen This Man, Gowanus Brooklyn, Young Rebels, Sugar, It’s Kind of a Funny Story and now Mississippi Grind. Boden also co-wrote Half Nelson with Fleck while he directed that film.

It probably helps that they have been romantically involved, which as we all know if fostered probably leads to committed love, and whether they are still together or not (I don’t know and couldn’t figure it out), they obviously have a lot of love and respect for each other, which allows their stories to play out organically and realistically. It’s Kind of A Funny Story is one of my favourite movies after all.

Now, Mississippi Grind is the typical story of an odd couple, but rejuvenated with modern beats on gambler road movies. Gerry (Ben Mendelsohn), is a professional gambler who is on hard times, and definitely in a state of addiction to the sport. Upon visiting a casino in Iowa, he meets Curtis (Ryan Reynolds) in a game of Texas hold’ em. Curtis is a bit younger, extroverted and friendly. Curtis beats Gerry in a hand and then buys him a premium glass of Bulleit bourbon, instead of Woodford. They become fast friends and leave on good terms.

Later in the evening, Gerry runs into Curtis at a bar, while Curtis plays darts. After discussing their views on life, Gerry learns that Curtis is successful at cards because he doesn’t care about winning and just likes to play. After a night of heavy drinking, they crash at Curtis’ place and then decide to hit the dog track. They initially win a lot of money, but because Gerry is unable to walk away, they end up losing it all. Afterwards they head to another bar where they test the waters on playing pool and try to bet the local sharks on a game of $1000. The men are not impressed and the odd couple are booted from the bar. Curtis decides it’s time to leave town, and on his way to his car, Gerry is threatened at knife point by a guy who overheard the $1000 bet. Not realizing that Gerry was bluffing, the man stabs him and then runs.

The following day Gerry meets up with a lady he owes money to, and she expects repayment immediately. Gerry lies and states that he was robbed and shows the knife wound. Gerry then runs into Curtis again at another bar, and decides that it is fate and that Curtis is his good luck charm. Gerry proposes a trip down the Mississippi, consisting of several major gambling destinations, and a final game of poker at New Orleans with a $25K buy-in. Curtis agrees, stakes him $2K and Gerry agrees to drive.

But if I share too much more, you won’t watch, so let’s split the pair.

ProsAn excellent portrayal of the nature of the gambler, and how mideast America is still full of these locales. Gambling culture has probably not been this well showcased in a decade or more. Reynolds and Mendelsohn are lovable and disgusting at the same time.

Cons: Some of the characterizations are a little textbook and the backstories of our two leads aren’t really fleshed out in a deep and meaningful way.

Runtime1 hour 48 minutes

Points of Interest: Tony Roundtree, the gentleman that runs the New Orleans poker game, is played by James Toback, the guy that wrote The Gambler. The tattoo on Curtis’ leg is the same as the combination to his and Gerry’s hotel safe.

Mississippi Grind might come across as a boring and pathetic examination of addiction, but at the heart of it there is a lot more love between it’s characters and the nuances of their interactions with each other and their supporting cast is something to behold. The landscape of the film is rather sparse and washed out, but I think that it is intentional, to show that these guys are struggling against the typical humdrum of midlife.

 

 

 

Mississippi Grind fits itself right into the region in which it depicts, though it never quite addresses its reference to Huckleberry Finn and Jim directly. It is a spiritual exploration of two men from different worlds that become friends and fight against their environment and shortcomings in an attempt to escape to better circumstances. Does the movie achieve this end? In a word, yes. But you’ll just have to watch it yourselves to find out if I’m lying.

Tim!

It’s 3 AM, I Must Be Lonely (Jake Owen, American Love review)

Ever watch How I Met Your Mother, dear readers? In what seems to be a theme of break up related things, I am now writing another post about breaking up. Breaking up is hard to do, after all.

There is this episode of How I Met Your Mother called Nothing Good Happens After 2 AM, that comes to mind for me in this moment. I won’t go into detail on it, but essentially Ted is invited over to visit a drunk and down Robin, but he is conflicted about it because he still is in a relationship with Victoria, his long-distance girlfriend.

The statute of limitations on spoilers is the same as news at this point if you’ve never seen the show, but I’m a gentleman, so you’ve been warned.

Essentially Ted does the bad thing, hooks up with Robin, and it has repercussions for more than just him. And of course, the challenge is whether it really is true that nothing good happens after 2 AM or if it’s mere perception.

Surprise, surprise, this week’s music review features an artist who has a song about this, and more importantly, love.

 

 

 

Jake Owen – American Love
released July 29, 2016
****** 6/10

jake-owen

Joshua Ryan Owen, better known by his stage name, Jake Owen, is an American country musician. He has released 5 studio albums over the course of a eleven year career with RCA Nashville. Apparently the reason he changed his stage name to Jake is to avoid confusion with Josh Turner and Josh Gracin.

How is a guy supposed to stand up for himself if he can’t even keep his first name? Well I guess he just has to make good music and carry a torch for something worth listening to.

American Love is Owen’s response to a year of trauma and difficulty. Seasoned with sweetness and outdoor themes, the lyrics underneath are rather bittersweet as you start to sit with everything for longer than a single listening session.

Yes, it is wholly optimistic, with a feel-good impression, but the dude just went through a pretty intense divorce and had to jump-start this record after a failed launch of original lead single Real Life, which is nowhere to be found on the album.

Instead it is replaced by upbeat tunes like American Love, Everybody Dies Young, VW Van, and Good Company. Then we get into the real meat and potatoes of the album with LAX, If He Ain’t Gonna Love You, and When You Love Someone, which are all emotionally wraught and showcase Owen’s heartbreaking method of the blues. I mean this is a country album after all, it can all be smiles and unicorns.

When we finally get to the bookend with American Country Love Song, which is currently climbing the country music charts, and it fits in nicely with the rest of Owen’s previous work. So maybe an upbeat note isn’t a terrible thing to leave on, but I’m less impressed by this then the rest of the back half of the album.

I think part of the problem comes from the fact that when Owen started this album, he was still married and in a much different place, then all of a sudden he was single again, and had to sort through his shit. So his team and him attempted to salvage what they could, and then he got some support to create something meaningful.

After all, the album is about love, just not the head-over-heels, infatuation version of it.

But it feels odd to have a typically upbeat and summer music artist tackling heavier themes and jumping back and forth between theme. Yes, the love theme is consistent, but I almost would rather he pick one tone and stuck with it OR found a way to transition from each tone to the next in a more organic way.

 

 

 

Jake Owen pokes fun at the notion that nothing good after happens after midnight, on the eponymous track, but deep down he knows that nostalgia is it’s own kind of love drug. Wrapped up in the past is one way to live, pretending your pain isn’t there, but we all need to work through these things, so that we can become the best version of ourselves, whether we pair up or go it alone.

After all, it should be about love. But that’s just a theory.

Tim!