Showing posts with label vince vaughn. Show all posts
Showing posts with label vince vaughn. Show all posts

May 6, 2020

BRAWL IN CELL BLOCK 99 (2017)


The words “horror-western,” “cannibal tribe,” and “Kurt Russell” left me intensely excited for writer/director Craig Zahler’s directorial debut, Bone Tomahawk. After months of anticipation, finally seeing it was an underwhelming experience. Running at 2 hours and 12 minutes, the first two acts were slowly paced — lots of characters talking to each other and allowing their personalities to rub each other the wrong way. This was Bone Tomahawk’s overall biggest criticism, but it wasn’t something I personally minded, because when you’ve got actors like Russell, Bruce Dern, and Patrick Wilson playing these old west characters speaking to each other in that old west way, it was all very charming — not to mention well written, and very Linklaterish in that conversation realism, even if it didn’t seem to be leading to anything in particular. The third act, however, dramatically changes the tenure of the film, during which Russell and co. finally meet this cannibal tribe, and not everyone makes it out alive. What began as something different and daring ended with very cheap looking sets and graphic violence that kind of came out of nowhere.

Despite that, I made a note of Zahler’s name, largely because of how he approached writing and directing such a left-field kind of story while attracting A-list talent for a genre title. So when his sophomore effort, Brawl in Cell Block 99, began gearing up, I felt that familiar anticipation creeping in.


This time, I was not at all disappointed. On the contrary, it’s incredible — audacious, ballsy, (and daring) — a grindhouse flick that actually feels like a grindhouse flick rather than the gawdy Grindhouse double feature from Tarantino and Rodriguez, or its bastards Hobo with a Shotgun and the Machete series. From its mythical lead bad-ass (Bradley Thomas, as played by an intimidating Vince Vaughn), to its increasingly depressing prison settings (a popular environment for grindhouse flicks), to its array of cartoonish villains (a perfectly calibrated Don Johnson), Brawl in Cell Block 99 feels like the first film in a long time to not only properly make good on its grindhouse roots, but to present something sincere. What does that mean? It means that while something like Hobo with a Shotgun could be argued as being a fun and frantic experience, it’s not necessarily a good film. Brawl in Cell Block 99 is. It somehow manages to dip its toes into both pools with great success. Its special effects (all practical) are presented as purposely hokey; the level of violence Vaughn’s Bradley commits against his target is so graphic that it almost has to be — extremely realistic effects would have robbed the film from its intended camp value, and sometimes these hokey effects threaten to fly in the face of the otherwise razor-serious tone, but it’s a perfect balancing act; these two at-odds approaches complement each other rather than come to blows. Never in a million years did I think I’d ever see Vaughn and genre favorite Udo Kier sharing the screen — between that and the odd but somehow appropriate R&B/soul-driven soundtrack, Brawl in Cell Block 99 should be scattered and random, but yet it all works. And Udo Kier calmly driving down a quiet suburban street listening to soul is just hilarious to me — don’t ask me why. Perhaps the kidnapped, bound, and gagged pregnant woman and sadistic doctor in the backseat have something to do with the absurdity of the moment.

Far too exact to be coincidental, Brawl in Cell Block 99 also runs at 2 hours and 12 minutes (this must be Zahler’s lucky number), and while he again employs his very deliberate pace, this time it feels like a grand design — something part of the plan; incremental rising action. We already know from the outset that Bradley ends up in a hellish prison landscape, so the first half of the film plays with that, putting him on a path that eventually leads him there. Unlike Bone Tomahawk, the pace here is effectively executed — the film opens with a detectable amount of tension, and slowly builds and builds until those prison bars slam home behind the bald-headed and cross-tattooed Bradley Thomas. 


Film fans often seem surprised when Vaughn goes dramatic, but he’s played just as many serious roles as he has comedic ones, even having played a serial killer twice — in the horrid Psycho remake and the underrated thriller Clay Pigeons. And if we can thank the boring second season of True Detective for anything, it’s for reintroducing that idea of a serious Vince Vaughn to a wide audience. Vaughn rides that reasonable good will and ups the ante with Bradley Thomas, who makes for one of the best characters he’s ever played, and results in one of his best performances. It’s through his portrayal of his character that you never doubt for one moment the surreal violence he’s able to commit against those who deserve it — and a couple folks who don’t.

Brawl in Cell Block 99 is a huge surprise. Don’t miss it.

Aug 23, 2019

DEEP INTO HIS WORLD: REVISITING 'THE CELL' (2000)


The Cell is a film that not a lot of people seem to like. References to it over the last few years have mildly spiked in conjunction with the introduction of the critically beloved but little seen NBC series Hannibal, as the two share breathtaking images of unrestrained beauty married to that of the macabre (one particular Hannibal character's fate seems lovingly lifted directly from the former). Every so often you may accidentally catch someone expressing enthusiasm for this horror/science-fiction/serial killer thriller aptly described as "The Silent of the Lambs meets The Matrix," but more often than not, no one has all that much positive to say about it.

Universally derided Jennifer Lopez plays Catherine Deane, a child psychologist employing an experimental approach in her work: her ability to enter the mind of her subject in an effort to examine his/her reality and attempt to study the visual representation of her patient's cognition to determine the root cause of her patient's illness.  This procedure takes its toll on Catherine, both physically, in that it exhausts her and forces her to such stimulants as marijuana (run!) to come down, as well as emotionally, as despite how cutting edge the machinery is, it just doesn't seem to be helping her current patient, a young boy named Edward. That this technique isn't helping with his illness certainly isn't sitting well with Edward's parents, who begin threatening to pull him from the project altogether.

Meanwhile, you've got Carl Stargher (Vincent D'Onofrio), a serial killer who likes to kidnap women and murder them, and then basically turn them into dolls. Hot on Stargher's trail is Peter Novak (Vince Vaughn, in an ever increasingly rare dramatic performance), a detective intent on hunting down the madman before he claims another victim. Their paths soon cross and Novak locates Stargher at his home, but it's too late, as it would seem Stargher is now comatose, having suffered what would seem to be his last seizure. And it's really too late because Stargher did manage to kidnap one more girl and place her in his inescapable cell apparatus, which over time fills with water, causing the victim to suffer and eventually drown. With the only one person knowing the location of this apparatus now in a coma, Novak requests the help of Catherine and her team to enter Stargher's mind and determine how to find this cell by sifting through the many layers of his madness.


As for The Cell being summarized as "The Silence of the Lambs meets The Matrix," this kind of generally lazy pull-quote that a critic concocts hoping to be quoted in subsequent marketing efforts is actually right on the money. You take a hunt for an infamous serial killer and marry it to this strange abstract world where everything seems possible and there are no physical rules to keep everything in place, and The Cell is exactly what you'd get. Many critics faulted this mash-up, not because of the approach, but because of the ol' "style over substance" bit, for which a lot of films get attacked. Too much Matrix, not enough Lambs. And that's a fair critique. Even the most ardent lovers of The Cell have to admit that its visual merits far overshadow and outweigh its thematic ones.  Not only does the film definitely tote the admittedly fantastic visual effects, but except for the mind-suit gimmick, it doesn't do much with the serial killer route beyond what we've seen in this genre so many times before: the killer was abused as a child, has sexual issues, and for the most part retains no semblance of genuine human emotion.

While one should always stress the importance of content over context, sometimes said context can just be so expertly performed that it can capably carry its weak content across the finish line. And that's ultimately what The Cell kind of is: a flawlessly designed and presented horror/thriller with a story strongish enough to complement it, but one still weak enough to prevent the finished product from being celebrated across the spectrum.


J. Lo and V. Vau (sorry) both turn in pretty standard performances, the former finding herself playing a role she's never played before, and likely won't again. Personal opinions of her "celebrity" aside, she manages to pull off a pretty tricky role, especially in the film's final moments when she's been dolled up as Stargher's demented queen.

But the real star is here director Tarsem Singh (The Fall, Self/Less), who became famous for directing the music video for R.E.M.'s "Losing My Religion." His visuals on display are tremendous. He manages to create entire landscapes that are both twisted as well as beautiful; revolting as well as sad; and some of them will flat-out fucking mystify you, such as the bodybuilder (a past victim) that comes to life only when needed to do Stargher's bidding, or any of the several bizarre set-pieces recreated from infamous and abstract art pieces.

Some of these set-pieces are spurred right from his imagination, whereas others are based on abstract works of art (mostly notably the horse vivisection, inspired by the art of Damien Hirst, and the painting "Dawn" by Norwegian painter Odd Nerdrum). Whether original constructions or inspired by elsewhere, all of these images come together and form a demented and disturbed visual tapestry akin to literally a living nightmare.



If you were to accuse Tarsem of being more creatively engulfed by the idea of constructing this strange world rather than exploring the thematics of the serial killer aspect, he would have agreed with you:
You know, the serial-killer thing didn't interest me at all... At the turn of the century, a studio would make any film that had a serial killer in it. I just said, "Okay, so that's the nutshell I need to put it in? It's fine." In the '70s, everybody was making disaster movies. If I'd made The Cell in the '70s, it would have been about a burning building, with a guy having a dream on the 14th floor. I'd make it because of the dream, the studio would make it because of the building burning. Same thing here—I looked at the script, said "Oh, serial-killer thing—I don't give anything about that. Okay. Put that on the side. And inside his head… wow, clean palette."  
Then I came up with all this shit which was called overindulgent, masturbating on dead bodies or whatever. I just said, "All I'm saying with this is, don't laugh at this character, okay?" And that's it. That's what it took.
(Source: The AV Club.)
The Cell made enough bank the year of its release for New Line Cinema to consider it a success, and to ensure a very terrible direct-to-video sequel (though it would star Frank Whaley and take several years). Despite its commercial success and mixed love from critics, Tarsem did not jump right into another studio project, but instead bankrolled The Fall, an independent feature shot in countries all over the world over a span of several years. It was also pretty fantastic, and far more interesting and satisfying than his next big studio project, The Immortals, which starred a pre-Man of Steel Henry Cavill.

Tarsem has gone on record saying of all the genres he's worked in so far, he enjoys thrillers the most, and hopes to do another sometime soon. Here's hoping that's true.