Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Brutality of thug prison life at center of "Brawl"



Early on in director S. Craig Zahler's savage prison drama Brawl in Cell Block 99, Bradley Thomas (a never better Vince Vaughan, looking transformed both physically and spiritually) displays his fierce brutality by practically destroying his wife's (Jennifer Carpenter) car with his bare hands - he punches the shit out of it until it resembles a junk yard prototype - after she informs him of her recent infidelity.  Bradley, a man of principle as much as vicious barbarity, does no harm to his spouse, but instead forgives her and, after being laid off from his tow trucking job, decides to go back to dealing drugs.

The world of Brawl is a cruel and merciless one, a place where gangsters are willing to cut-off an unborn fetus' feet from its mother's womb only to threaten and blackmail its imprisoned father, and where the high security penitentiary warden (a perfectly cast Don Johnson) will just as soon murder an inmate as serve him a meal of shit (literally).  Vaughan plays the former-boxer, turned-drug dealer/criminal, turned-prisoner-of-minimum-security facility, and eventually, turned-convict of the most disgusting-and-lawless-prison ever displayed in American cinema.  To survive it - and to save his wife and unborn child on the outside from gangsters whom he still owes millions - Bradley will resort to such extreme barbarism that his actions will make you both squeamish and relieved (the latter because they happen to vile characters who certainly deserve it).  Rarely have we seen such raw, uncompromising rampage from a central protagonist, and without the aid of a single weapon.

Brawl in Cell Block 99 is a rare prison movie, an ultra violent masterpiece about a somewhat decent man's descent into hell on Earth where he loses his soul, but perhaps not his humanity.  The Shawshank Redemption may have been a more moving prison movie, but I can't think of any other film in recent memory that portrayed the savagery of life behind bars so unapologetically, and with such vile beauty.
A

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Cruise's charm elevates "American Made" past standard cliches



There's really not much in American Made that you haven't seen before, often in lesser movies, but sometimes in better ones.  Tom Cruise, playing a real life character named Barry Seal, is charismatic as can be, and is really the saving grace of this otherwise very mediocre effort.  As an unhappy and overworked pilot for TWA airlines in the late 1970s, Seal is recruited by CIA for top secret operations in Central America, and is eventually entangled into the Colombian Medellin drug ring that includes the likes of Pablo Escobar.  He also juggles several children of his own, and a marriage to a blonde bombshell (Sarah Wright), whose white trash brother (Caleb Landry Jones) arrives one day at their doorstep and threatens to ruin their up-until-now rather profitable existence.

The movie's Lord of War-meets-meets-Blow structure should be familiar to an average movie goer, but what is disappointing is the somber bummer of an ending, which goes against the movie's rather lengthy comedic tone up until that point (since it's based on true events, I guess they couldn't go against the grain and provide a somewhat more elated conclusion).  Director Doug Liman and Cruise have made better movies before (Edge of Tomorrow is one of the most memorable sci-fi action movies of the last decade), but here they get a bit too comfortable with the familiarity of 1980s archetypes of the smuggling trade.  If nothing else, American Made proves that Cruise alone can still carry a movie, despite his recent struggles to rule the box office the way he once did.
B-


Friday, October 13, 2017

Somber "Song" examines the flaws of grief



Ever since Sophia's (Catherine Walker) young son died, she's lived a life of bitter regret, which has in essence turned her into an unforgivable wench whose existence consists of searching for an occultist who can help her open the door to the underworld.  Hoping to speak to her guardian angel and eventually contact the soul of her deceased offspring, Sophia hires Joseph (Steve Oram) an angry, bitter conjurer, and the two retreat into a large mansion in the middle of Wales, in an attempt to unlock the gates of hell.

A Dark Song isn't your typical horror movie. For one, its first two acts are rather slow, and since the cast consists of primarily two actors and one location, the audience can easily get bored by its lethargic, methodical pace.  However, as the mood slowly turns very dark indeed, and all sorts of mysterious noises suddenly take place off screen, tension soon rises higher than the hairs on your arms.  Newcomer director Liam Gavin gently builds to a horrifying conclusion that will leave you gasping (seriously, watching the movie in the dark, it's an understatement to say that I was scared shitless).  A Dark Song is an original horror gem, and although it may not be a masterpiece, it contains more frights and insight into the power of individual forgiveness that it will leave you shaken for days afterwards.
B+

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Nature's cold brutality serves up quite a life lesson in "Walking Out"



The cold, brutal mountainous nature of Big Sky country isn't quite what you'd expect early on in Walking Out, a new survival drama that explores an estranged father-son relationship like few movies before it. And don't let the "poor parent" connotative title fool you: this movie is essentially a look at two different generations of paternal figures, and how each had a profoundly different effect on their respective offspring.  When young David (Josh Wiggins) arrives in the Montana wilderness to spend some time with his father Cal (Matt Bomer), he gets more than her bargained for when their hunting trip goes completely awry after Cal is accidentally shot, leaving the two stranded in the middle of nowhere, with two enormous grizzly bears potentially on their trail.

Directors Andrew and Alex Smith (adapting a short story by David Quammen) create a chilling, helpless mood throughout, especially in the second act, when David has to carry his wounded father for countless miles through the thick, frozen snow, amid ever increasing exhaustion, hunger and thirst.  Walking Out isn't your typical man-vs-nature movie; if anything, it's the most harrowing look at a boy's coming-of-age in a long time. By the time David finally reaches civilization, he may have lost a very important part of his childhood, but what he ends up gaining will define him for the rest of his life from there on in.
B+

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Confused "Hours" completely misses comedic mark



In the movie world, there's no sin greater than an unfunny comedy, and Jeff Baena's mid-eval farce, The Little Hours, tries too hard to do too much, but unfortunately, it doesn't do any of if well.  As the three horny nuns serving at a convent run by the drunkard Father Tommasso (John C. Reilly), Alessandra (Alison Brie), Ginevra (Kate Micucci) and Fernanda (Aubrey Plaza) come across as too one-dimensional and pretty unlikable characters to hold our interest for the eighty plus minutes of the film's running time (an early scene in which they're mean to the gardener feels out of place, and is as funny as a school bus fire).  When a young hunk, Massetto (Dave Franco), shows up as the new hand at the convent, the three nuns fight for his affection - uhm, his groin area, is what I meant to say.

The Little Hours feels like a failed Mel Brooks comedy, a period piece filled with modern slang and contemporary verbiage, but its heart is clearly in the wrong place, and many potentially funny scenes simply fall flat on their face (Nick Offerman is the only one who generates genuine laughs, but his presence in this movie is, sadly, limited at best).  There's also a late scene involving naked women dancing in the forest, and it clearly belongs in a better movie; no actresses should shed that much clothes only to perturb and disgust the viewer.  And what can one say about Aubrey Plaza? I've yet to see her appear in a movie that's actually funny.  She's better than this material, but I wonder if we'll ever get a chance to see it.
C-

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Revelatory "City of Ghosts" examines revolutionary journalistic methods



Matthew Heineman's audacious documentary, City of Ghosts, explores the rise of ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) like no other movie in the terrorist group's young existence thus far.  Focusing on several different journalists from the war-torn Raqqa, a city overwhelmed by internal and external decay due to ISIS's extremely violent dictatorship, the men at the center of Ghosts risk their lives to bring the world the news about the violence and the oppressed regime that's overtaken their land, much to the ignorance of the rest of the globe. They keep plugging away and exposing the establishment's cruelty (through a channel called Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently, or RBSS) on various internet sites and social media, even as they watch their family members get slaughtered publicly in the process, as punishment for their kin having defied ISIS.

Heineman's approach is very personal, as the men behind RBSS (Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, Hamoud, Hussam, Naji Jerf and Mohamad) do not resemble heroes any more than you or I, yet their plight is incredibly gallant.  City of Ghosts explores a very controversial and globally relevant topic, and even though its protagonists carry a world of burden of their shoulders for choosing to be the truth tellers at a time and a place where others dare not go, the final impression is that of a very good documentary, but perhaps not a great one.  Nevertheless, that should still not take away from RBSS's noble cause, which in today's divided world, is a revolutionary one indeed.
B

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Magical "Kedi" gives the feline an otherworldly status



Seldom are documentary films as lyrical and as poetic as Ceyda Torun's passionate Kedi, a movie that looks at everyday lives of several different cats in present day Istanbul, Turkey.  Interviewing various men and women who look after them on daily basis, the film is a combination of a beautiful travelogue about a historical European city and an examination of the feline species of all different sizes, colors and various temperaments.  The lush cinematography will take your breath away, while the testimonies of the local citizens will move you the way only a melodic symphony or poetry can.  Kedi is more than just a documentary: it's an ode to cats everywhere, a testament from the heart to that most domesticated of all house pets.