Brawl in Cell Block 99


Vince Vaughn is reborn as a badass.

(2017) Crime (RLJE) Vince Vaughn, Don Johnson, Udo Kier, Jennifer Carpenter, Dion Mucciacito, Marc Blucas, Fred Melamed, Clark Johnson, Franco Gonzalez, Victor Almanzar, Keren Dukes, Rob Morgan, Mustafa Shakir, Brian Wiles, Adrian Matilla, Tuffy Questell, Philip Ettinger, Jay Hieron, Phillip Dutton, Larry Mitchell, Dan Amboyer, Pooja Kumar, Devon Windsor. Directed by S. Craig Zahler

 

The grindhouse movies of the 70s were an art-form unto themselves. Quentin Tarantino is famously influenced by them as is director S. Craig Zahler who impressed with the bloody Western Bone Tomahawk. But whereas Tarantino seems content to evoke them and illustrate his encyclopedic knowledge of them, Zahler is more interested in using them as a building block to create more contemporary fare.

Bradley Thomas (Vaughn) is a big man. He drives a tow truck for an auto wrecker yard but with times being what they are, he is laid off. Coming home, he discovers his wife Lauren (Carpenter) in bed with another man. An ex-boxer like Bradley might be forgiven if he used his pugilistic skills to create a whole new face for his wife and lover but instead, he utilizes his temper in a more constructive manner and after his moment is passed, begins to talk calmly and rationally to Lauren about reconciliation.

Jobs are hard to come by so Bradley goes back to one he had before going the straight and narrow; as a drug courier to old friend Gil (Blucas). The work is lucrative and Bradley is soon able to afford a much nicer house for his wife who is now pregnant with their daughter. Bradley is content with the way things have gone. However, when Gil takes on a partnership with a Mexican cartel, Bradley is troubled; he doesn’t trust the Mexican thugs at all and his suspicions are soon borne out. A shoot-out with the cops ensues and Bradley ends up taking the fall for his boss and gets seven years in prison for his troubles.

But his troubles are far from over. Bradley gets a visit from a slimy lawyer (Kier) who informs him that the cartel boss has taken his wife hostage. As far as the cartel is concerned, Bradley cost them millions of dollars and they expect repayment. His wife will be released unharmed if Bradley performs a simple task for them; if not, they will abort the baby.

The “simple task” turns out to be very complicated – Bradley must kill an inmate of Cell Block 99. The trouble is, Cell Block 99 is in Red Leaf Maximum Security prison; Bradley is in a medium security jail. In order to get himself transferred to Red Leaf, he’ll have to call on his inner badass and once at Red Leaf with its cigarillo-smoking warden (Johnson), he must get himself transferred to Cell Block 99 which is where the most violent offenders are sent. Time is ticking down on his wife and unborn child and Bradley must find a way to get the job done – until he discovers that the job isn’t at all what he thought it was.

This movie is hyper-violent with a ton of gore. Heads get stomped like melons; arms are broken into shapes that arms were never meant to take. Faces are peeled off like orange peels and people are shot every which way. If those sorts of things bother you, stop reading and find a different movie to watch because clearly this movie isn’t for you.

It certainly is for me though and one of the biggest reasons why is Vaughn. He’s made a career out of fast-talking wiseacre comedy characters who have a bit of the con man in them but this role is light years away from that. Bradley is soft-spoken but prone to fits of intense and shocking violence. With a shaved head and a Gothic cross tattooed to the back of his skull, he looks like the kind of trouble that most people walk across the street to avoid. Vaughn fills the roll with quiet menace and in the process reminds us that he began his career playing a variety of roles until comedy derailed his versatility for a time. Hopefully this will lead for a wider variety of roles for the actor who has proven he can handle just about anything.

Johnson also does a fine job in his role as the serpentine warden who is neither corrupt nor evil; he’s just doing a brutal job brutally. Putting a stun harness on the prisoners is simply the easiest way to control them; he’s not torturing them so much as educating them, at least from his point of view. It’s a great role for Johnson and hopefully will bring him some just-as-juicy big screen roles from here on out.

The length of the film is a problem. At just a hair over two hours, the pacing of the first hour is a bit too leisurely to sustain itself and you might find yourself looking for something else to do but try to hang in there; once the movie gets going, it stays going. The problem is that by the time that happens, the last half hour begins to really wear on the viewer. Some of the build-up should have been more judiciously edited. It felt very much like we were watching a director’s extended cut rather than the final theatrical version.

Still in all this is the kind of entertainment that B-movie fans are going to love. These types of movies have become more in vogue particularly with the support of Tarantino who has essentially resurrected the genre in terms of respectability – grindhouse type movies have never really gone away, after all. However films like this one have not only kept the genre running but have given it true vigor and made it a viable artistic concern as well.

REASONS TO GO: Vaughn is at his very best here. The gore effects are pretty impressive.
REASONS TO STAY: The pace is slow moving, particularly during the first hour. You begin to feel the movie’s more than two hour length during the last half hour.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity as well as a goodly amount of violence, some of it graphic and/or gory. There are also some drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Vaughn put on 15 pounds of muscle in preparation for filming and also did extensive boxing training over the two months prior to cameras rolling; he claimed that his boxing training made the fight choreography much easier to learn.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Fandango Now, Frontier, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/10/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews. Metacritic: 79/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Starred Up
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Heaven Without People

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Gangster Land


This is how you vogue, gangster-style.

(2017) Gangster (Cinedigm) Sean Faris, Milo Gibson, Jason Patric, Jamie-Lynn Sigler, Peter Facinelli, Mark Rolston, Michael Paré Sean Kanan, Al Sapienza, Don Harvey, Jason Brooks, Veronica Parks, Mark Krenik, Ronnie Kerr, Ryan Kiser, Danny Hansen, Joe Coffey, Shane P. Allen, Louis Fasanaro, Devin Reeve, Drake Andrew, James Bartz, Alan Donnes, Jody Barton, Kevin Donovan, Grace Fae. Directed by Timothy Woodward Jr

 

We Americans have always had a fascination with criminals. We have tended to idolize them and mythologize them, from Jesse James on down to Charlie Manson. We have a particular fondness for the gangsters of the Depression era; even though they were vicious, brutal men we can only help admire their brazen outlook as they lived life on their own terms – and often died by them.

This film is a fictionalized account of the rise of Al Capone (Gibson) as seen through the eyes of his top lieutenant “Machine Gun” Jack McGurn (Faris) who despite his name was actually of Italian descent; he changed it when he went into boxing because he could get more bouts as an Irishman than he could as an Italian. After the murder of his stepfather by a rival Italian gang, he decides to throw his lot in with Capone who had seen McGurn box and was an admirer.

At first McGurn is just hired muscle for the Italian gang under Johnny Torrio (Sapienza) but he rises through the ranks with his friend Al and when Torrio is killed, Capone takes control and begins a ruthless war with the Irish gang of the Northside for control of Chicago. The Northside Irish gang is led by Dion O’Bannon (Rolston) and after O’Bannon is murdered, George “Bugs” Moran (Facinelli). He meets and falls in love with dancer Lulu Rolfe (Sigler) who is unimpressed at first – McGurn doesn’t have much cash and never thought much about dressing stylishly. However he wins her over and she is okay with his lifestyle as a mobster. Now known as “Machine Gun Jack” for his preferred weapon for murder, the war between the two vicious gangs quickly and decisively escalates culminating in an infamous massacre on St. Valentine’s Day that will change Chicago forever.

There is a B-movie gangster vibe here that recalls some of the great movies of that era, of James Cagney, Edward G. Robinson and George Raft only with graphic violence and plenty of foul language. Cinematographer Pablo Diez uses interplay between bright colors and dark shadows to give the film a kind of updated noir aspect that I found interesting. While most noir feels more natural in a black and white atmosphere, Gangster Land gave the color a very noir-ish feel which is quite the accomplishment from where I’m sitting.

There is a bit of an amateurish feel to the movie that negates a lot of the good stuff. The dialogue feels wooden and unnatural and the lines are delivered in a ham-fisted and over-the-top manner that considering the caliber of some of the actors involved is a bit baffling. It’s like they’re channeling a community theater troupe at times and that feeling is a bit disonncerting.

This won’t compare well to the better film of the genre like The Untouchables for example but it’s rip-roaring entertainment in any event. This is, to my way of thinking, more George Raft than Jimmy Cagney. Those of you who love the gangster movies of the 30s and 40s will find this right up your alley particularly if your alley is dark, foggy and filled with shadowy men in fedoras and overcoats furtively carrying Tommy guns.

REASONS TO GO: The cinematography makes good use of light, shadow and color. Think of this as a nod to B movies with modern sensibilities.
REASONS TO STAY: The dialogue is well over-the-top and sounds a bit wrong-headed at times. There is a lot of scenery chewing going on.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s violence, gore, profanity and some sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: McGurn eventually became a pro golfer. He was assassinated in a bowling alley in 1936, a day after the seventh anniversary of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/29/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No reviews yet. Metacritic: No reviews yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Public Enemies
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Shadowman

Pulp Fiction


Someone is going to get a cap in their ass.

Someone is going to get a cap in their ass.

(1994) B-Movie Noir (Miramax) John Travolta, Bruce Willis, Samuel L. Jackson, Uma Thurman, Ving Rhames, Tim Roth, Eric Stoltz, Amanda Plummer, Harvey Keitel, Christopher Walken, Steve Buscemi, Quentin Tarantino, Julia Sweeney, Phil LaMarr, Frank Whaley, Burr Steers, Rosanna Arquette, Bronagh Gallagher, Duane Whitaker, Peter Greene, Stephen Hibbert, Kathy Griffin, Maria de Madeiros. Directed by Quentin Tarantino

Some movies become classics because they define an entire genre; others because they define a region. Many become classics because they define the person who made it – and Pulp Fiction does. But what sets it apart from other movies is that Pulp Fiction has come to define cool.

Pulp Fiction is ranked high on a lot of people’s lists of all-time favorite or significant (or both) films, critics and film buffs alike. Tarantino had already been receiving notice for his previous films True Romance and Reservoir Dogs but to most people, this is his artistic nadir. It would provide a serious career renaissance for Travolta and a boost for Willis, while Jackson would really hit the public radar with his incendiary performance here.

Tarantino skillfully weaves three stories – one of two career killers, Vincent Vega (Travolta) and Jules Winnfield (Jackson) having a particularly bad day, a second about a prize fighter named Butch Coolidge (Willis) who fails to throw a prize fight and runs afoul of gangster Marcellus Wallace (Rhames) who also happens to be the employer of Messrs. Vega and Winnfield. Finally a third story involves Vincent’s ill-advised assignment to take out Marcellus’ wife Mia (Thurman) out for dinner and dancing. He takes her out to Jack Rabbit Slim’s, a restaurant that never existed but OMG it should have. There, waiters dressed like Hollywood stars of the 50s and 60s serve burgers, shakes and steaks to customers seated in classic cars. Slot car racers ring the room and periodic twist contests and other entertainment keep the joint hopping.

My personal favorite sequence is when Vincent and Jules head to a suburban home of mutual friend Jimmie Dimmick (Tarantino) after one of the messiest accidents you’ll ever see on film. They are forced to call The Wolf (Keitel), a fixer who specializes in clean-ups. There is a whole lot of dark humor in the scene and I always look forward to it whenever I view the movie which is pretty regularly.

Tarantino has always been a skillful writer of dialogue and he writes some of the best I’ve ever heard here. Much of it has become classic; Vincent’s laconic assertion that in France, a Quarter Pounder with cheese is called a Royale with cheese, or Jules’ Biblical oration when he’s about to shoot someone in the face and who can forget Marcellus Wallace promising that he is “going to get medieval on yo ass” to a  It is also the kind of film where bad things happen to just about everyone.

The movie combines all sorts of different genres, from black comedies to thrillers, from mob movies to fight flicks. Pulp Fiction is B-Movie noir, a tribute to the movies that weren’t so respectable but are the movies that we tend to remember even more than the high-falluting Oscar winners. These are the movies that we are raised on, the movies that make us feel just a little bit like badasses. These are the movies that appeal to the devils of our better nature, and Pulp Fiction is everything about these movies that makes them great.

WHY RENT THIS: A true classic with some of the best dialogue ever written. Terrific performances by Travolta, Jackson, Thurman and Keitel.  Awesome soundtrack.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: May be filled with a few too many pop culture references.

FAMILY VALUES:  All sorts of violence and drug use as well as a ton of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Travolta and Thurman copied their twist sequence at Jack Rabbit Slim’s virtually move for move from a similar dance sequence in Fellini’s 8 1/2 by Barbara Steele and Mario Pisu.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: The Collector’s Edition DVD includes a feature from Siskel & Ebert At the Movies on Tarantino and his generation of filmmakers, Tarantino’s acceptance speech when the film won the Palm d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, an interview of Tarantino by Charlie Rose and a menu from Jack Rabbit Slim’s. The Blu-Ray has all of these other than the menu.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $213.9M on an $8M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Reservoir Dogs

FINAL RATING: 10/10

NEXT: The World is Not Enough

The Big Bang


Noir, 21st Century-style.

Noir, 21st Century-style.

(2010) Mystery (Anchor Bay) Antonio Banderas, Sienna Guillory, James van der Beek, Snoop Dogg, Autumn Reeser, Sam Elliot, Jimmi Simpson, Thomas Kretschmann, William Fichtner, Robert Maillet, Delroy Lindo, Bill Duke, Rebecca Mader, Robert Ernie Lee, Rachel Handler, Sean Cook, Khanh Doan, Keith MacGeagh, Chandra Bailey. Directed by Tony Krantz

When you think of film noir, you think of hard-bitten detectives in rumpled suits, gorgeous dames in dresses two sizes too tight and big bruising thugs with brass knuckles. You think of soft black and white, foggy back alleys and sleazy private investigator offices. You think of Bogart, Bacall, Mitchum and Greenstreet. You don’t think of Antonio Banderas and neon colored strip clubs.

But they can be noir too. In this celluloid extravaganza Banderas is Ned Cruz, a P.I. from the mean streets of L.A. A Russian boxer named Anton “The Pro” Protopov (Maillet), freshly release from prison after killing a man in the ring, is looking for a girl. Not just any girl though – you can find one on the Internet – but the lovely Lexi Persimmon. You heard me. Anyway, she wrote him a bunch of letters in the slam but gave the galoot no info to go on, no address, no social security, no phone number – not even an e-mail.

There’s also this stash of $40 million in blood diamonds, a waitress named Fay (Reeser) who loves particle physics, a porn director (Dogg) who loves his product a little too much, a kinky movie star (van der Beek) with a dark secret, a cross-dressing nuclear physicist (Simpson), a crazy billionaire (Elliot) obsessed with finding the God particle and willing to re-create the Big Bang in the New Mexico desert to do it and the billionaire’s wife (Guillory) who might be the key to the whole sordid tale. Oh, and did we mention the three brutal cops (Kretschmann, Lindo and Fichtner) chasing down Cruz to find out where the diamonds are?

On paper this really does sound like my kind of movie – something smart but timeless, using the conventions of a noir detective thriller with a touch of sci-fi and a little bit of black humor mixed in. However, references to physics and science doesn’t necessarily a smart film make although this one is pretty clever in places.

Banderas is an engaging star but I didn’t really believe him in the role. Ned Cruz should have been a lot more badass than pretty boy; in some ways I think Danny Trejo might have been more suitable but of course Banderas is the bigger box office draw so from that standpoint I can’t really blame the producers.

The cast is pretty impressive for a low budget thriller with a tiny distributor but not many of them get the kind of screen time that makes for much of an impression. Most are little more than cameos although Elliot seems to be having the most fun playing the kind of character he rarely gets to play while Simpson camps it up nicely. Reeser and Guillory really don’t have much more to do but look pretty which to be fair they do very, very well – but I suspect if their characters had been given a little more fleshing out they would have risen to the challenge as well.

I don’t think the movie achieves everything the filmmakers set out to do, but it is entertaining enough to be worth a look-see. Although I criticized his casting earlier, Banderas at least does an adequate job of playing the tough guy and of course doing the narration which is a noir tradition. While the movie takes a few left turns too many, it nonetheless at least doesn’t disgrace the genre and given that since its heyday many have tried but few have succeeded in giving us a good noir thriller I have to at least admire the attempt.

WHY RENT THIS: A noir thriller involving particle physics – I can’t make this stuff up. Decent cast.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Goes a little bit off into left field occasionally.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some nudity and quite a bit of sexuality (some of it graphic), a bit of foul language and some violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: There was an extended sex scene shot that got the film an NC-17 rating that was removed from the film in order to bring it down to an R rating; director Krantz refers to it on the home video commentary track but the scene isn’t included on the Blu-Ray release.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: The Perfect Host

Daredevil


Daredevil

Matt Murdock and Elektra Natchios engage in a little foreplay.

(2003) Superhero (20th Century Fox) Ben Affleck, Colin Farrell, Jennifer Garner, Michael Clarke Duncan, Jon Favreau, Scott Terra, Ellen Pompeo, Joe Pantoliano, Leland Orser, Lennie Loftin, Erick Avari, Derrick O’Connor, Paul Ben-Victor, David Keith, Kevin Smith. Directed by Mark Steven Johnson

It is a fact that every day, handicapped people show over and over again that they are capable of amazing things. Some are aided by technology but much of it is sheer willpower.

The young Matt Murdock (Terra), who has stood up for his father (David Keith) when neighborhood punks call him a washed-up boxer and a mob enforcer, is shocked one day to spot his loving dad thumping on someone who hadn’t been making his vig. Matt runs off, causing a traffic accident that ends with him being doused by toxic waste, right in the eyes. This leaves him blind for life. However, there is an interesting side effect: Matt wakes up to find he has outrageously acute hearing, including a kind of sonar sense, which allows him to “see” almost as well as any sighted person — better, in some ways.

He also spends time developing his body into a graceful, acrobatic, athletic machine. When his Dad refuses to throw a fight and is murdered, his son is left to seek revenge. The adult Matt Murdock (Affleck) becomes a lawyer. Justice being blind jokes aside, he has a particularly strong streak of wishing to do the right thing in him.

Not content at achieving justice through conventional means, Murdock adopts the persona of Daredevil, utilizing a red leather costume, and becoming a semi-urban legend in New York, one that reporter Ben Urich (Pantoliano) is hell-bent on tracking down. Those who have seen the first Batman movie will note the similarity. His day job allows Murdock to represent the downtrodden, much to the chagrin of partner “Foggy” Nelson (Favreau), who yearns for clients who pay in actual cash, rather than in foodstuffs. Murdock meets Elektra Natchios (Garner), the daughter of a wealthy industrialist (Avari) who is in bed with the corrupt Wilson Fisk (Duncan), the legendary Kingpin of Crime. When Natchios tries to get out of business with Fisk, the Kingpin brings in a psychopathic master of hurled objects, Bullseye (Farrell) to kill Natchios, which he does, framing Daredevil for the deed in the process. Elektra — who is falling in love with the blind lawyer, swears revenge, not knowing that it is his alter ego she has sworn to kill.

The New York City of Daredevil is a dark, gothic place, not unlike the Gotham City of Batman, and like the Caped Crusader, Daredevil inhabits the shadows and rooftops of a corrupt, dangerous city. The problem with casting Affleck in the role of Matt Murdock is that he is far too likable. Affleck doesn’t carry off the brooding vigilante as well as he does the wisecracking lawyer, so the dual personality of Murdock doesn’t mesh as nicely as it could.

Farrell carries the movie, enthusiastically chewing the scenery and spitting it out so he can chew more. Favreau and Duncan are excellent as they nearly always are; Favreau would go on to direct the Iron Man movies but his association with the Marvel studios began here. His chemistry with Affleck is pretty keen.

The Elektra of the comics is far more threatening than the Elektra of the big screen. Garner, who on paper is an excellent choice to play her, is dispatched with near-comic ease in nearly every fight she takes part in. This compares unfavorably to the character in the four-color version (who is kickus assus maximus to the nth degree) and herein lies the problem with any adaptation of any comic.

Those who love the comic book will inevitably measure the movie against the comic, and in most aspects will find it wanting. Daredevil has always been one of the consistently best-written and innovative of story in Marvel’s arsenal. The movie’s writing denigrates it to an unsophisticated Batman knockoff. Yet, there are moments of poetry, such as when Murdock asks Elektra to stand in the rain, which allows him to see her face using his radar sense. That’s one of the best moments of any Marvel superhero film, ever.

A nice little aside – many of the characters here are named after comic book writers and artists, many of whom who worked on the Daredevil book itself. There are also several people associated with Daredevil’s long run at Marvel (including Smith, Stan Lee and Frank Miller) who make cameos in the movie. In addition, something must be said about the soundtrack which is one of the best for any movie in the last ten years. The tracks from Evanescence are particularly haunting. Also, The final confrontation between Fisk and Daredevil is very nicely done, visually speaking although the whole thing of the little water conduits running below the floor are head scratch-inducing.

Overall, this isn’t a bad movie. There are some deficiencies, true, but there is a large number of things the movie does well. Affleck would have been an excellent Daredevil had he another movie or two under his belt. The most important thing here however is to take the movie on its own merits. Try not to see it as a note-perfect portrayal of the comic hero, because you’ll only wind up disappointed. Judge it for what it is; a better-than-average action-adventure movie, and you’ll enjoy it a lot more.

WHY RENT THIS: Better than average action movie. Fine supporting performances from Farrell, Duncan and Favreau.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A bit of a Batman knock-off. Affleck carries off Murdock better than Daredevil. Elektra a bit too wimpy here.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some violence and a bit of sensuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: This was the first American movie in which Farrell uses his native Irish brogue.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: The DVD features a featurette on the comic book series, a comparison of the “Shadow World” as visually realized in the movie vs. the comic book, three music videos and an enhanced viewing feature which, when an icon appears onscreen, allows viewers to see the same scene from different points of view. There is also a Directors Cut DVD edition which restores 30 minutes of footage to the film, cut initially to bring the movie from an R rating to PG-13.  However, oddly enough, the Directors Cut edition has almost no special features, merely a commentary track and a 15 minute making-of featurette. The Blu-Ray contains both the Directors Cut and all the features from the initial DVD release and as such is the best bet for those interested in the movie.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $179.2M on a $78M production budget; the movie broke even.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Tower Heist