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

Sleeping With Other People


Getting laid in the Big Apple is easy for these two.

Getting laid in the Big Apple is easy for these two.

(2015) Sex Comedy (IFC) Alison Brie, Jason Sudeikis, Adam Scott, Adam Brody, Natasha Lyonne, Amanda Peet, Jason Mantzoukas, Katherine Waterston, Marc Blucas, Skylar Gaertner, Andrea Savage, Anna Margaret Hollyman, Margarita Levieva, Billy Eichner, Jordan Carlos, Margaret Odette, Sawyer Shipman, Brian Berrebbi, Michael Delaney, Remy Nozik, Victoria Frings. Directed by Leslye Headland

There is that age old question of whether or not men and women can be friends with each other without being sexually attracted. According to When Harry Met Sally the answer is no, and since it’s been 26 years since that classic hit the theaters, writer-director Leslye Headland thought it was high time that question was re-explored.

Jake (Sudeikis) is a serial womanizer who just can’t keep it in his pants. It seems to be a by-product of his commitment phobia for when any woman he’s spending time with wants to get close, he does something spectacular to push her away (generally sleeping with her best friend or sister); one recently made an ex-girlfriend reacts by shoving him in front of a taxi.

&At a self-help meeting for sex addicts, he runs into Lainey (Brie), the girl who was his first back in college (he was her first as well). She’s still hung up on the gynecologist, Matthew (Scott) that she was in college, much to Jake’s amusement. Matthew has all the personality of a wet sock and he can’t for the life of him figure out what she sees in him. In any case, they decide to hang out and develop a deep friendship.

Not wanting to mess things up with sex, the two decide to remain platonic and even institute a “safe word” when they start to feel sexual attraction for each other. Needless to say, everyone around them, particularly Jake’s friends Xander (Mantzoukas) and Naomi (Savage) who are married to each other see full well what the two don’t – that they are perfect for each other. And of course they both know it too, but are too scared to take action on it. So they both take refuge in old behaviors, just like many of us do when confronted by the scary.

Headland has written a smart, modern romantic comedy that is incredibly sexy. In fact, the onscreen sex is much more graphic than most mainstream films usually show in terms of body movement and facial expressions; however, there are no genitalia on display which is a bit odd considering that at various points in the movie there are some rather graphic conversations, including one where Jake demonstrates the finer points of female masturbation to Lainey so that she can curb her urges.

Sudeikis has been knocking on the door of stardom ever since graduating from Saturday Night Live and here he does the best work of his cinematic career. This is the movie that defines his strengths in a nutshell; it doesn’t hurt that he is given some wonderful dialogue that’s both snappy and smart. At one point, he dismisses Matthew as “the Pontiac Aztek of people” which is a hoot especially if you’ve ever driven one.

Brie has also been someone who has been knocking on that door, but her career is a lot less established than that of Sudeikis. She shows here that she has the chops to be as good a comic actress as any out there, including such names as Kristen Wiig and Tina Fey. She certainly in many ways is as good as Greta Gerwig who gets more indie love. Perhaps after this movie, which was a big hit at Sundance and Tribeca, that will change.

The only issue here is that there are some situations that reek of New York indie cuteness which is a disservice to the film. I don’t expect every movie to innovate, but I would at least hope that one that is as smart as this one at least avoids some of the same cliches that other films have fallen victim to, but at least it doesn’t hurt the movie too much.

It helps that there is some fine talent in supporting roles, many of whom are literally there to be conquered sexually by either Jake or Lainey. Many critics are comparing this to When Harry Met Sally and while this is much more graphic than that film, the basic man-woman friendship vs. sexual attraction thing is still at the forefront, and like that movie, there is intelligence and depth. Does it come to the same conclusions as that iconic rom-com? I will leave it to you to find out for yourself because this movie is certainly worth the look. As for me, I’ll have what they’re having – and fortunately for me, I already am.

REASONS TO GO: Excellent dialogue. Sudeikis at his very best. Intelligently written.
REASONS TO STAY: Too many cute indie cliches. Might be too sexy for those sensitive to such things.
FAMILY VALUES: Lots of graphic sex (but no graphic nudity), sexual dialogue and some drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Scott and Mantzoukas both appeared together in Parks and Recreation.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/9/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 59% positive reviews. Metacritic: 64/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: When Harry Met Sally
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Reversion

Deadline (2009)


Maybe she should have taken a shower.

Maybe she should have taken a shower.

(2009) Psychological Thriller (First Look) Brittany Murphy, Thora Birch, Tammy Blanchard, Marc Blucas, Claudia Troll, Michael Piscitelli (voice). Directed by Sean McConville

Writers block is a bitch. When in the throes of it, you can’t think and you certainly can’t write. Everything feels wrong, like things are out of place and you can’t think where they are supposed to be. It’s frustrating and there is no sure way to break it.

Alice (Murphy) is a screenwriter with a deadline coming up. She is fast in the grip of Le Block but has good reason to be – her boyfriend tried to drown her in their bathtub, causing her to lose the baby she was pregnant with at the time. Her boyfriend was sure that she was sleeping around and the baby wasn’t his.

A producer friend with more money than sense offers up a decrepit Louisiana plantation he has access to for Alice and tells her that if she locks herself alone in there with a week’s worth of food and drink with nothing else to connect her to the outside world the words will start flowing like the Mississippi. Alice, despite the fact that her homicidal boyfriend is being released from jail, agrees to it despite the misgivings of her friend Rebecca (Blanchard).

So to distract herself from the blank pages Alice explores the crumbling mansion and in the attic discovers a box of videos taken by the house’s former owners and a camcorder. She begins to watch them and discovers they are of David (Blucas) and Lucy (Birch), a couple who simply left the mansion one night and never returned. Nobody knows where they are.

Alice discovers some eerie similarities to her own situation. Lucy, for one thing, was pregnant. And David was growing paranoid, thinking that the baby wasn’t his. And Alice is becoming more and more certain that Lucy haunts the old plantation. And that her boyfriend (Piscitelli) is stalking her and knows right where she is. Is all this really happening or is it a product of Alice’s paranoid imagination?

This was the last picture to be released during the late Murphy’s lifetime (another one, in the can, still awaits release later this year although she passed away four years ago) and it isn’t a bad one from her perspective. She nails the role nicely, giving Alice a kind of emotionally fragile veneer but with a personality that’s endearing enough to make you identify with her character. Even those who aren’t fans of her work as I am will find this performance worth checking out.

It’s a shame that she wasn’t given a lot more to work with. The script is fairly routine, with the usual jumps and twists that you expect to find in a psychological thriller/is the house haunted or is she crazy kind of movie. There are also some real head-scratchers here; why would anyone agree to go somewhere remote all by themselves when there was prospectively someone who wanted to do them harm running around on the loose? And if the couple disappeared, what were their videos doing in the attic, particularly if there was damming evidence on the tapes (i.e. Lucy’s murder)?

One gets the sense that the script was written in a hurry by someone with writer’s block just borrowing whole cloth bits and pieces from other movies. The concept is nice (although it could have gotten there with a little more logic) and there is some genuine creepiness to be found. Those and Murphy’s performance are pretty much the film’s saving graces but I wouldn’t look too hard for this one.

WHY RENT THIS: Decent performance by Murphy. Some chilling moments. Nice concept.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Basically kinda been there, done that. No real surprises and a whole lot of stuff that must be taken on faith.

FAMILY MATTERS: There’s some nudity, some disturbing images, a bit of violence and a fair amount of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The DVD was pulled from Redbox shelves after star Brittany Murphy passed away 19 days after the video release.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: What Lies Beneath

FINAL RATING: 4.5/10

NEXT: The Incredible Burt Wonderstone

Mother and Child


Mother and Child

Nobody beats Samuel L. Jackson in a staredown. Nobody.

(2009) Drama (Sony Classics) Naomi Watts, Annette Benning, Samuel L. Jackson, Kerry Washington, Jimmy Smits, David Morse, Marc Blucas, Shareeka Epps, Lisa Gay Hamilton, S. Epetha Merkerson, David Ramsey, Eileen Ryan, Cherry Jones, Amy Brenneman, Tatyana Ali, Elizabeth Pena. Directed by Rodrigo Garcia

 

Motherhood has a unique place in the female psyche. It may well be the driving force; the urge to procreate and then care and nurture for that child. Sometimes it’s not always possible for those instincts to be indulged the way you want to.

Karen (Benning) is an emotionally brittle caregiver in every sense of the word – by day she works as a physical therapist, by night she returns home to care for her elderly mother (Ryan). Karen is not the easiest person to get along with; she tends to keep people at arm’s length. She’d had a baby when she was 14 and was forced to give her up for adoption. That has haunted Karen’s entire life; she won’t let anyone in, not even sweet-natured co-worker Paco (Smits), although his patience seems to be limitless.

Elizabeth (Watts) is a driven attorney who never seems satisfied with anything in life. She is hard, occasionally crude and tends to keep people at arm’s length. She has started work in a new firm, and in order to cement her position – and possibly even improve it – she has initiated an affair with her boss, Paul (Jackson). It is a relationship all about sex, power and ambition. Elizabeth was adopted and seems to have no desire at all to find out who her birth mother is (although I’m sure you can guess). However, her world turns upside down when she discovers she’s pregnant.

Lucy (Washington) is unable to have children. She and her husband Joseph (Ramsey) have elected to adopt and are looking for a baby to call their own. The agency that Lucy is going through, whose representative is Sister Joanne (Jones), sends along several expectant mothers who are giving up their babies for adoption. Ray (Epps) seems to be a suitable candidate, but she is understandably picky about what kind of home her baby will be placed in and has enough attitude to choke an elephant.

All three of these women’s lives are entwined in ways that are both visible and invisible. Their stories may be told separately, but they are all a part of the same story, one that will not end as expected for all of them.

This is a bit different than most ensemble anthology dramas in that the story really is a single story although told from the viewpoints of three different characters. Much of the story is telegraphed – anyone who doesn’t figure out that Elizabeth is Karen’s biological daughter is probably not smarter than a fifth grader. However, it is saved by some pretty good performances.

Benning, who would get Oscar consideration for her performance in The Kids are All Right that year showed why she is as underrated an actress as there is in America. It is difficult at best to play an emotionally closed-off character and still make them sympathetic, but Benning does it. In some ways this was a tougher role than the one that got her all the acclaim that year but because the movie wasn’t nearly as good as the other one she probably didn’t get the scrutiny here.

Watts also has a similarly difficult job and while she doesn’t pull it off quite as successfully as Benning does nevertheless acquits herself well and shows why she is also a formidable actress given the right material. Sometimes she flies under the radar, mainly because her films aren’t always as buzz-worthy but time after time she delivers film-carrying performances and while she isn’t the household name she deserves to be, she is still well-respected in Hollywood as one of the top actresses working today and this movie illustrates why.

The ending smacks a little bit of movie of the week schmaltz and the story relies way too much on coincidence. However one has to give the filmmakers credit for putting together a movie that is female-centric and tackles the effects of adoption on the birth mother, the child given up for adoption and the person doing the adoption in a somewhat creative manner. While other critics liked the movie a little more than I did (and I can understand why, truly), the contrived nature of the plot held the film back from a better rating. Had the three stories been a little bit more independent of each other I think it would have made for a better overall film. Not all stories have to be wrapped up with a neat little bow.

WHY RENT THIS: A surprisingly potent examination of women and their maternal instincts. 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The ending strives for grace and lyricism but falls short.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some sex and nudity, along with a decent dose of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Naomi Watts was pregnant with her son Samuel during filming; when you see her baby moving in utero during one scene, that’s actually Samuel.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $5.0M on a $7M production budget; the movie wasn’t a financial success from a box office perspective.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Motherhood

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skulls

Knight and Day


Knight and Day

Club Med, this ain't.

(20th Century Fox) Tom Cruise, Cameron Diaz, Peter Sarsgaard, Viola Davis, Paul Dano, Maggie Grace, Marc Blucas, Jordi Molla, Falk Hentschel, Lennie Loftin, Dale Dye, Rich Manley, Celia Weston, Gal Gadot. Directed by James Mangold

Although I can’t prove it, I do believe that all women dream of a dark, handsome man who’ll whisk them away on the adventure of a lifetime. Most every woman I’ve ever asked has said that’s a fantasy of theirs. As they say, be careful what you wish for.

June Havens (Diaz) is returning home to Boston after scouring junkyards in Wichita for car parts for the GTO she’s rebuilding for her sister’s wedding gift. In the airport she literally bumps into Roy Miller (Cruise), a handsome, nice man who seems genuinely polite. June is immediately attracted to him but as usual dithers about doing anything about it. Her problem is that she’s been burned by the skeletons in the closets of the men she chooses too many times. Of course, there are skeletons and then there are SKELETONS…

Roy has a doozy. He’s a field agent for the CIA who has stolen a battery from an agency lab, along with its inventor, whiz kid Simon Feck (Dano). It’s not just any Duracell, either; it’s a perpetual energy battery that can indefinitely power, say, a small city. Obviously this is something a lot of people want to get their hands on, not the least of which is Roy’s partner Fitzgerald (Sarsgaard), his boss Agency Director George (Davis) and Spanish arms dealer Antonio (Molla).

Fitzgerald sends some agents on the plane from Wichita to Boston to try and apprehend Miller, but they fail. Unfortunately, both of the pilots get caught in the crossfire and the plane goes down in a field. Roy and June are the only survivors.

June wakes up (after Roy drugs her, a repeated theme throughout the movie) in her own bed and wonders if it was a dream. However, the post-it notes Roy left for her throughout her house advising her not to get in a vehicle with anyone claiming to be from an agency, to deny all knowledge of Roy and to get as far away from any agent as possible who tells her that she’s going somewhere safe and secure as this is code for “we’re going to execute you.” She tries to explain all this to her would-be boyfriend, fireman Rodney (Blucas) but they are interrupted by Roy who takes June hostage.

They get away and try to find Simon but Roy is late getting there and the understandably nervous Simon has fled for Austria. Right about then the Spanish gunmen arrive…

The plot here is really secondary to two things; the action and Tom Cruise. Mangold has crafted a fairly competent action movie with some nice stunts, although nothing terribly elaborate by say James Bond standards. The attraction here is Cruise. He is in full-on movie star mode.

Back in the day, there were movie stars like Cary Grant, Clark Gable, Gary Cooper, Paul Newman and Steve McQueen who mesmerized you just by being onscreen. They had an indefinable charisma, something you can’t really explain but certainly can feel. You’re drawn in. There are very few of them left today. Tom Hanks is one, Julia Roberts is another. Cruise is like that, too.

He is no longer the young guy in his tighty whities sliding across the floor to Bob Seger, but he still has that incandescent smile and that self-confidence that makes him so irresistible to women, even if he has developed some middle age jowls. Whenever he’s onscreen (which is nearly the entire movie), the screen sparkles.

You have to feel for Cameron Diaz. She’s a fine actress in her own right and quite pretty, but she doesn’t have the kind of screen presence that Cruise possesses. That’s not a bad thing – it’s a pretty rare commodity – but it does make her almost an afterthought when you remember the movie, even after just having seen it.

There’s a pretty fine support cast, including the urbane Sarsgaard doing his best villainy, and Davis who resembles facially and vocally a young Alfre Woodward here. Dano is nearly unrecognizable as the Hall and Oates-loving genius who is perpetually in a state of shattered nerves.

That Hall and Oates thing is what lies at the heart of the flaws that the movie possesses. I know teenaged geniuses can be quirky but loving Hall and Oates music? Doesn’t seem realistic to me; I would have thought it better if the kid was into Lady Gaga or something a little more contemporary. Also, Paul Dano didn’t look like a young teenager or even a college student; that also took me out of the film’s world a little bit.

The conceit of drugging June constantly so that Roy can rescue her got a bit wearisome and kind of smacked of lazy writing – that way we didn’t get to see Roy get them out of the sticky situations they were in. It was bang, he knocked her out, there were a few brief moments where she faded into consciousness at various stages of the operation, and then bang, she’s awake in some totally different locale. Yes, we get that Roy is very, very good at what he does – it wouldn’t have hurt to see a bit more proof of that onscreen. The writers make a half-hearted attempt to put some doubt as to Roy’s motivations, but we know he’s a good guy from the beginning; this is a non-twist and these are the kinds of things that tend to distract viewers from a movie’s better nature.

Otherwise, this is a pretty good movie, not great. Certainly it kept me entertained the entire time and I enjoyed myself while I was watching it. It’s not as bad as I heard it was, nor is it as good as I hoped it was. It’s a standard action comedy, elevated by Cruise to something better. That’s good enough for me.

REASONS TO GO: Tom Cruise is at the top of his game. The movie is fun and lively.

REASONS TO STAY: Again, nothing particularly new or cutting-edge here and the CGI is a bit atrocious in places. A little too Looney Tunes for my taste at times.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a good deal of violence (action style) throughout and a little bit of bad language. Perfectly suitable for all teens.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The script was originally titled All New Enemies and the movie was shot under the title Wichita before changing its name to the current title.

HOME OR THEATER: While some of the action sequences look to need a larger screen, by and large this one is perfectly adequate at home.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Land of the Lost