Archive for the ‘thriller’ category

Brawl in Cell Block 99

October 29, 2017

Brawl-In-Cell-Block-99-TrailerIn the first shot of Brawl in Cell Block 99, the heavy tire of a truck flattens a can of lite beer. This, I imagine, is a signal that you’re about to get a shot of the hard stuff. You may have read about how ferally brutal Brawl is, and what a change of pace it is for its star, Vince Vaughn, but the truly shocking thing about it is how tender much of it is, how much humanity even briefly seen supporting players are apportioned. The movie is hushed, almost meditative, as it lays the groundwork for a grand finale involving crushed skulls, faces scraped against concrete. The audience for the film may fall within a very tiny Venn diagram of those who can sit with subtly emotional, drawn-out scenes and those who can hang with the bone-cracking and bloodletting.

It is also some kind of grim masterpiece, fully delivering on the promise of writer/director S. Craig Zahler’s 2015 debut, Bone Tomahawk. In that Peckinpah-meets-Deodato epic, Kurt Russell and a small posse delve into hell — land of hulking cannibals — to save a woman from a fate worse than death. Here, Vaughn, as recovering alcoholic with a side order of rage issues Bradley Thomas, must descend level by level into a dungeon of horrors to rescue his pregnant wife Lauren (Jennifer Carpenter) and their unborn daughter from an equally ghastly end. There’s a heaping helping of white-knightism in both films, but it doesn’t go unchallenged, nor do easy notions of manhood or machismo. Violence in these films is not to be relished, but to be engaged in with sorrow that it had to play out this way — without sadism but also without mercy. They are portraits of men in extremis, grotesque but fully alive and human.

After being laid off from his auto-mechanic gig, Bradley comes home to discover that Lauren has been cheating on him. He tells her to go into the house, then uses his fists on her car, finally ripping the hood off. We don’t need to be told that he is inflicting damage that he can easily fix; the same would not be true of wounds dealt to Lauren. And then a wondrous thing happens: after punishing the car, Bradley steps inside and faces Lauren, and they talk. They talk like adults in a movie for adults. This, too, is shocking. Everyone who meets Bradley seems to sense that he has, as a detective puts it, a moral compass. They can also see in his eyes that he would rather not hurt people, but is exceptionally capable of doing so if his hand is forced. Well, his hand is forced, in an odyssey that takes him from a minimum to a maximum security prison, and finally to “the prison within the prison,” ruled by the sportive cigarillo-puffing sadist Warden Tuggs (Don Johnson).

Brawl in Cell Block 99, like Zahler’s Bone Tomahawk, doesn’t use brutality for a kick or a tickle. It’s lumbering, terrible, thudding stuff, with the fights often filmed in long takes so we can see that, yes, that is indeed Vince Vaughn and not a stunt double distributing pain like Halloween candy. Bradley is a bad-ass, but Vaughn isn’t interested in that aspect of him (nor is Zahler). You’re not meant to go “whoo!” when the fists fly and arms are splintered, the way you were at something like Sylvester Stallone’s back-to-basics 2008 Rambo. You’re meant to wince, avert your eyes. Vaughn brings an intelligent wit and vulnerability that play against his six-foot-five frame. Bradley is a man who could easily be a hero, except that fate has made him a villain.

He does it all for his woman and his unborn child. As with Bone Tomahawk, I couldn’t be less interested in unpacking the story’s politics (avoiding spoilers, but some of the plot hinges on a hot-button issue). A great many effective pulp fantasies of the past, of course, would not pass today’s ideological purity tests. I’m as lefty as they come, and whatever right-wing skeleton may be rattling around inside Brawl concerns me not in the slightest. There’s no agenda being pressed here, just a cracking story with across-the-board fine performances (it’s predictable that Udo Kier is in perfect creepy form as a crime associate, but how about the surprisingly authoritative work from Marc Blucas — the most boring presence on Buffy the Vampire Slayer — as Bradley’s racist drug-dealer friend?). I don’t know how S. Craig Zahler votes, but I have seen how he writes and directs, and I’m ready to say he’s the most exciting filmmaker working in the violent genres since Tarantino raised his flag 25 years ago. Watch him.


Get Out

May 28, 2017

getout“Let me tell you about the very rich,” wrote F. Scott Fitzgerald. “They are different from you and me.” Jordan Peele’s political horror movie Get Out, which he describes as a “social thriller,” tells us just how the very rich (and, mostly, very white) are different. This paranoid masterpiece has also been an old-school-style horror success story, earning back many, many times its cost. It hit a nerve; it is also legitimately frightening at times, and deeply funny at others, and always both entertaining and wince-inducing. It is not, perhaps, as radical as some have made it out to be — screen Fight for Your Life or The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith for such people — but it’s still an electrifying achievement.

Peele reveals himself as an intuitive director early on, when our protagonist Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) arrives with his girlfriend Rose (Allison Williams) to visit her affluent parents. The parents, we are told before the trip, have not been briefed on Chris’s blackness. They are, we are also assured, the furthest thing from racists. So when they meet Chris, we wonder what subtle tics of anxiety the camera might impart in close-ups. Peele leans away from this trope and shoots the whole scene at an across-the-street distance; we hear the voices, the cloying dadness of Bradley Whitford and the patrician rich-white-lady tones of Catherine Keener. Peele is encouraging us to look beyond appearances and to avoid putting too much weight on visual cues.

The movie will likely play better a second time; Peele must have planted a thousand little Chekhov’s guns, and the performance of one actress in particular, Betty Gabriel as the family’s maid Georgina, almost demands further scrutiny. Georgina and another servant, the oddly spoken Walter (Marcus Henderson), are both black, and Rose’s dad sheepishly acknowledges the problematic optics. Rose’s parents engage in a sort of meta-narrative, commenting on the likely appearance of things as if self-awareness were itself redemptive. It’s a tried and true way of deflecting criticism about privilege.

Get Out ramps up gradually — for the longest time there’s very little blood, a drop here, a headlight smear there — and, as Chris becomes more and more menaced and baffled, the plot rolls inexorably into paranoid sci-fi/horror. Black writers trying to account for white perfidy have from time to time engaged with metaphor or conspiracy-myth; it goes back at least as far as the story of Mr. Yakub. The metaphor-myth Peele creates and parcels out bit by bit has to do with the different style of racism practiced by wealthy white liberals. Peele doesn’t say that underneath outwardly genteel white liberals are racist demons. He says that genteel white liberals can also be racist demons, side by side in one person, one shading into the other. For good measure Peele throws in a Japanese man, who asks Chris if his experience as an African-American has been an advantage or disadvantage.

That detail, like many others in Get Out, has been unpacked in thinkpieces from sea to shining sea. For a while, it was the biggest gotta-see-it-and-talk-about-it movie in too many years. Written during the Obama years, filmed when a female president seemed likely, premiering at Sundance three days into Trump’s presidency, the movie does collide productively with the zeitgeist while never abandoning the story’s more timeless horror elements — the tension of our hero trapped in a ghastly situation. The narrative goes way over the top; anyone still taking the story literally will end up on the side of the road. Metaphor and myth can also power satire, and that’s where Get Out ends up — has been all along, really. For black audiences, the true horrors on the screen are nothing new, except in movies. White liberals take a few hard shots in the chops. It’s not as if we didn’t have it coming.


April 30, 2017

splitThe most intriguing thing about M. Night Shyamalan’s comeback thriller Split is something I can’t reveal — or maybe I can, since Shyamalan has recently told the press that there will be a Split sequel that also follows up Shyamalan’s 2000 cult favorite Unbreakable. What I’d like to say, first and foremost, is that the usual literal-minded sorts have gone after Split for demonizing a character who lives with dissociative identity disorder — what used to be called “split personality.” But, given what we find out, it seems possible that the afflicted protagonist, Kevin Wendell Crumb (James McAvoy), is no more a typical D.I.D. sufferer than Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs was transgender. Something more supernatural — dare I say superpowered? — seems to be going on here.

An enormous success at age 29 with his breakout hit The Sixth Sense before his hubris and some bad choices locked him in movie jail for a few years, Shyamalan has been working modestly and steadily back towards credibility. Split shows — as did his least-loved movies, really — that Shyamalan’s problem was never directing. He brings with him a highly welcome sense of gravitas and quietude, and every frame feels suffused with dread. Some find Shyamalan’s style tiresome, but I’ve always valued it as a corrective to the hyperbolic flailing of other directors of his generation.

Kevin, under his bespectacled and buttoned-down identity Dennis, kidnaps three teenage girls, including the movie’s heroine Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy). They are meant, we gather, as sacrifices for Kevin’s as-yet-unseen 24th identity, The Beast, who disregards regular physical limitations. When you meet The Beast you might see what I mean about superpowers; if Unbreakable was the origin story of a hero, Split functions the same way for a supervillain. Back in 2000, I razzed Unbreakable a bit for its (to me) anticlimactic ending, but now I feel that assessments of both it and Split will be incomplete without seeing the end of the trilogy (to be called Glass). Usually I insist that a movie should be judged on its own merits, but in this case there seems to be a long game at hand, and why not wait to see where Shyamalan plans to take this story?

The underpopulated movie runs for a long time on the virtuoso instability of McAvoy in the several identities he gets to try on, and the contrasting survivor’s intelligence of Taylor-Joy, whose Casey, like Kevin, is the product of abuse. Every so often, Kevin — in the person of the most socially competent of the identities, Barry — goes to visit his therapist (Betty Buckley), whose study of Kevin aims to prove that the brain is capable of more power than we can imagine, to the extent of controlling the potential of the body to heal or to perform feats of strength. Is Shyamalan saying that everyone with D.I.D. is a budding mutant psychopath? No, just Kevin, although there’s talk of others with similar talents. (Maybe Kevin has a more benevolent counterpart out there, a Professor Xavier to his Magneto. The comparison is apt, since McAvoy’s largest claim to fame has been playing the young Xavier in the last several X-Men films.)

Shyamalan spent much of his thirties high on his own reputation, and he was due for (and maybe earned) a humbling stumble; get called the next Spielberg at 29 and see how you act. But how much longer are we going to hold his younger self’s ego against him? I think he’s eaten enough worms. Split is a tight thriller with Shyamalan’s usual mastery of mood, and with a dream role for any actor that McAvoy somehow — mostly — resists ramping up into camp; he finds the humanity, cracked or otherwise, in each of Kevin’s personae. Split not only makes me anticipate its follow-up but makes me want to revisit Unbreakable: If he doesn’t blow it in the last inning, the trilogy of superhero movies unfolding in the gunmetal-gray mundanity of Philadelphia could be Shyamalan’s true legacy, a quiet rebuttal to the bland vapors of the Marvel films and, Kal-El knows, the ridiculous nü-metal pomp of the DC films.

The Assignment

March 19, 2017

assignmentWatching Another 48 HRS on TV recently with the sound off, for some reason, I found myself drawn into the movement, the colors, the cinema. That movie is a lazy, stupid sequel, certainly not the finest hour of its director, Walter Hill. But Hill is a visual samurai, and for a few minutes I just let myself coast on the smooth, feral images. Hill’s latest, the controversial pulp thriller The Assignment, has a few moments like that. Too few. An alarming chunk of it amounts to two people in a room swapping stiff dialogue. Given the advance anti-buzz — the very premise an affront to the struggle of transgender people — I was anticipating a good crappy time, a low-rent guilty pleasure, but the sad truth is it’s too dull to be offensive.

Hill is only as good as his script, and this one, which he and collaborator Denis Hamill tinkered with for years, doesn’t do him any favors. A hitman, Frank Kitchen, a lithe and scowling fellow with a beard, kills a lowlife who turns out to be the brother of an insane plastic surgeon (Sigourney Weaver). The surgeon has her revenge by having Frank abducted and brought to her operating table; before long, Frank looks like Michelle Rodriguez, with the accompanying lady parts, and of course without his former man parts. I say “his” because Frank is not transgender; he had gender reassignment surgery without his consent, so the use of trans-friendly pronouns doesn’t quite apply here.

What we have here isn’t truly transphobic. It’s really more of a gendernaut rewrite of Hill’s 1989 Johnny Handsome. In both films, the assumption is that surgery to change a scoundrel’s appearance will also change his heart; Weaver’s cracked surgeon sounds almost the same as Forest Whitaker’s much more altruistic sawbones in Johnny Handsome. In this case, it’s presumed that changing macho, cold-hearted Frank into a woman outwardly will also make him inwardly more feminine, less violent. Of course, the surgeon is also a woman, and she’s fairly cold and has no trouble getting thugs to do her psychotic bidding. Unpacking this movie for what it might say about gender will only result in clutter. It’s basically noir: people don’t change; people can’t change.

Towards the end, as Frank slaughters his way closer to the surgeon, Hill’s casual mastery of violence kicks The Assignment into gear. It’s cheaply done, and it’s depressingly clear that Hill’s days of having budgets like the ones he had for 48 HRS or Southern Comfort are long behind him. But there’s some snappy brutality. It doesn’t make up for the talkiness, though, or Hill’s habit of using corny scene transitions, or the highly expendable subplot involving Frank and a comely but unethical nurse (Caitlin Gerard). Hill was enamored of the film’s premise for decades, but he never made the premise into a movie. Weaver, sitting in a straitjacket, talks to shrink Tony Shalhoub for what seems like a lifetime, and talks and talks, and every time Hill goes back to this room and these two, we tap our feet and wait for the film to get started again.

Weaver tries for some Dr. Lecter sangfroid in bringing this arrogantly arch character to life, but it’s a monotonous, unsmiling performance from a usually good-humored actor. Rodriguez looks for something real in this pulp universe and fails, falling back into her sullen default mode. Walter Hill turned this material into a French graphic novel before he made the movie, and the movie has the same gritty, debauched tone as a European comics album for adults only. The acting needed to be heightened, the dialogue cruel and sharp as a shiv. There aren’t even quotable lines or amusing turns of phrase. The transgender community has far worse things to fear and rage against than this pallid exercise. Walter Hill alone may know why he still wanted to make this movie; the rest of us won’t know from watching it.

The Maltese Falcon

September 26, 2016

the-maltese-falconHumphrey Bogart’s Sam Spade is a likable bastard, someone you might come to with your troubles but not with your power of attorney. Sam is a private detective in San Francisco on the cusp of wartime (the movie was released about two months before Pearl Harbor), dealing with shady characters of vague and various nationalities. The Maltese Falcon is less about Dashiell Hammett’s plot than about the interplay of cynical villains and anti-heroes, and first-time director John Huston (who also wrote the script) was savvy enough to know that. The Maltese Falcon itself is, as Sam might say, hooey; it’s what Hitchcock liked to call the MacGuffin, the thing nobody has that everyone wants.

This is a great and unmistakably American entertainment, and might lay claim to being the best directorial debut of 1941 if not for a modest little film called Citizen Kane. As it is, The Maltese Falcon more or less inaugurated film noir as it came to be known in Hollywood, even though Huston doesn’t do all that much show-offy with the lighting or compositions — his effects are subtle, a sturdy cage enclosing a menagerie of creatures. Aside from a couple of scenes dealing with the murder of Sam’s partner Archer, the movie stays confined to offices and hotel rooms — it’s claustrophobic, with the boxy Academy format hemming everyone in further. At times we seem to be viewing the world through a keyhole — the movie turns us into detectives.

A woman calling herself Ruth Wonderly (Mary Astor) drifts into Sam’s office, speaking of a dangerous man threatening her sister; there is no sister, and no Ruth Wonderly either — her real name, or at least the one she settles on, is Brigid O’Shaughnessy. Sam pegs Brigid as trouble from the start, yet still develops feelings for her, and is self-aware enough to be bitterly amused by them. There’s a reason Sam didn’t quite turn into a running character for Hammett (he appeared in three other short stories) — he’s less a serial hero than a flawed portrait of wised-up urban manhood, complete with the prejudices of the day. He enjoys slapping around Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre in his iconic American role), whose homosexuality was more explicit in the 1930 book, and he enjoys needling the touchy thug Wilmer (Elisha Cook Jr.) by referring to him as a “gunsel,” which pointedly did not mean what the squares of 1930 or 1941 (or 2016, possibly) thought it meant.

Cairo and Wilmer work for “fat man” Kaspar Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet), who yearns to possess the titular bird statue, or “the dingus” as Sam dismissively calls it. By this point in the narrative it hardly matters what the Falcon is or what it’s worth. All these vipers want it, and Sam says he can get it, but he’s just weaving his own web of deceit. The Maltese Falcon is a comedy-tragedy about liars (the only straight shooter in the movie is Sam’s secretary Effie, played as a wry sunbeam of morality by Lee Patrick); the comedy derives from the sharp back-and-forth in the dialogue, as the liars assess each other and figure out who knows what and what can be gained, and the tragedy is bundled in at the end, when, as Danny Peary pointed out in the first book of his Cult Movies trilogy, one character goes quickly to Hell, while Sam proceeds more slowly but will get there sooner or later.

Seventy-five years old on October 3 (when it comes to the Brattle in Cambridge for a four-day 35mm screening), The Maltese Falcon feels evergreen, not so much in style or attitude but in mood. It was the first of five films Huston made with Bogart, though I’m not prepared to say it’s the best — The African Queen and especially Treasure of the Sierra Madre pose hefty competition. It is, though, the movie from which a lot of blessings flow; its influence may feel fainter in this era of romcoms and caped crusaders, but look for it and it’s there. Its calloused urbanity comes from Hammett, its cheerful cynicism from Huston, its peculiar human gravity from Bogart, that odd, tooth-baring presence who excelled at men with dark corners, who was seldom less than compelling. Huston sets about surrounding this man of gravitas with a circle of moral gremlins, all of whom try their best to steal the picture (Lorre comes closest) while Bogart heavily stands his ground and fends them off not with a gat but with a gibe and a sneer.

Hell or High Water

September 4, 2016

Hell_or_High_Water_Large.jpgAt the end of a long, hot summer of movies for (essentially) children, there’s a tendency for critics to overrate a film that at least pretends to be for adults. The latest example is the crime drama Hell or High Water, which has just opened wide after a few weeks in limited release. The movie certainly isn’t bad; it offers some pleasures and actually has relevant things on its mind, yet wears the relevance lightly. It’s hard, though, to escape the feeling that we’ve heard this story and met these characters before. The conflicts are deftly played, decently written. There’s a terrific moment when a character makes a crucial shot and then seems torn between laughter and tears. There’s little flab but also little poetry, little reason this had to be a movie instead of, say, a novel or a radio play — it’s a bit cinematically null.

The relevance comes in with the motive for two brothers, Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster), to rob a string of Texas banks. They’re raising money to pay off the mortgage for the ranch that belonged to their late mother. The twist is that they’re hitting branches of the same bank that holds the mortgage — they’re robbing Peter to pay Peter. On their trail is Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges), who’s set to retire in three weeks. Marcus has an amiably insulting relationship with his Comanche partner Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham) — he says ironically bigoted things to Alberto we know he doesn’t really mean, and Alberto razzes Marcus about his impending obsolescence.

The brothers are mostly harmless, though Toby is capable of quick, decisive violence and Tanner has done time for killing their abusive father. For a while, they go from bank to bank without hurting anyone much. Then things go bad in a hurry, and the movie loses what garrulous Texan sprawl it had. There are a couple of funny scenes involving waitresses — flirtatious Katy Mixon, no-nonsense Margaret Bowman — which also, alas, points up that except for Marcus’ replacement toward the end and Toby’s ex-wife, waitresses and bank tellers are about all the women we see in this masculine world of guns, casinos and beer.

Fargo is missed in more ways than one, not only because Marge Gunderson is a more original hero than Marcus, but because Hell or High Water feels like an amalgam of Coen brothers films — Fargo, No Country for Old Men, Raising Arizona, even True Grit with Bridges doing his gruff unintelligible shtick again — without the Coens’ sense of wit or play. Director David Mackenzie never does anything discordant but never does anything genuinely surprising, either. The comfort and pleasure many may derive from the film might issue from its very been-there-done-that quality. It is very much “a movie like they used to make in the ’70s,” only they used to make them with a bit more idiosyncrasy, a little more art.

The movie seems to want points for telling a small story about regular people, except that these are the kind of regular people one meets only in movies: the desperate but noble bank robber, his half-crazy brother, the soon-retiring good ol’ boy after them. These men could come across as archetypes rather than clichés, but they don’t. Chris Pine and especially Ben Foster try to make something dangerous yet relatable out of the brothers, and there’s a nifty bit of quietly combative dialogue at the end that would probably go down better if it didn’t seem so pleased with itself for drawing from the same well as Heat, American Gangster and many other movies in which adversaries sit and take each other’s measure. Hell or High Water is so busy taking inspiration from earlier movies that it forgets we’ve seen them too.

The Shallows

June 26, 2016

the-shallows-movie-trailer-3-shaIt’s probably in the DNA of shark movies to be hyperbolic — even the legendary Jaws made its great white 25 feet long — but The Shallows endows its toothy antagonist with powers well beyond mere mortal sharks. This motherfucker leaps into the air to take down a surfer in mid-surf; it chomps fearlessly into whale hide, rocks, and finally metal; it leaps into the air again to escape the fiery surface of the ocean. What it doesn’t do is swim around lackadaisically, mostly just farting around until it occasionally bites something, which I imagine is what real sharks do. No, this shark isn’t just a human-killer (making it an anomaly in the world of sharks), it’s a serial human-killer, taking out two men within minutes of each other (making it idiotic in the world of narrative). This shark doesn’t just kill to feed; it kills because, I dunno, it’s an asshole.

The shark is trying to kill Blake Lively. Blake Lively is just trying to make it home alive and prove she can carry a movie almost literally by herself, as her husband Ryan Reynolds did in Buried. But whether Lively can anchor minimalist suspense is a question the movie doesn’t allow itself to answer, because it weighs her down with backstory. And the backstory — her character mourns the death of her mom, which has made her question whether she should continue working on her med degree — doesn’t really play to Lively’s strengths. The backstory is only there to turn the movie into a Chicken Soup for the Soul fable about fighting for life. But would we not feel the heroine’s life was worth fighting for without all the special pleading?

Anyway, Blake is out surfing off the same beach her dead mom used to frequent, and the aforementioned shark, defending its turf (a decomposing whale carcass), bites her. She makes it to a bit of rock, accompanied by a blood-streaked seagull. Using her med-school know-how (leading us to think that if she were, say, a marketing major or something instead, she’d just bleed out 35 minutes into the movie, the end), she takes her earrings and, in tight, nauseating close-ups, “stitches” her wound closed. Is this something doctors can do to themselves without anesthesia? I was reminded of the notorious Stephen King short story “Survivor Type,” in which a doctor marooned on an island removes and eats parts of himself to live another day.

The Shallows also reminded me of a similar and vastly superior nature thriller, Open Water, which had the dark wit to let one of its yuppie protagonists howl into the uncaring void, “We paid to do this!” The new movie, though, has no wit, dark or otherwise; it’s too sappy to be lean and mean. As a fable of endurance, it lacks the visceral tension and based-on-a-true-story veneer of authenticity of 127 Hours. We know Blake Lively will survive as soon as we see her talking to her kid sister and dad via videochat. Indeed, we may easily imagine the heroine going on to a lucrative career giving feel-good talks about how she conquered her demons (grief, nihilism, shark), and you can too for the low introductory price of $49.95.

The backdrop for the sad blond white woman to have her crisis is a never-named beach somewhere in Mexico. Blake encounters five Mexicans. One is an amiable guy who gives her a ride to the beach and refuses payment. Two are surfers who condescend to her. One is a drunk fatso who steals her phone and backpack, and is about to go steal her surfboard when the shark comes calling. And one is a boy, the amiable guy’s son I guess, who happens to find the GoPro helmet camera Blake records her goodbyes on as a sort of message in a bottle. The movie is set in Mexico, I guess, so that Blake is alone among people who can only speak limited English or can’t understand her limited Spanish. Certain orange-skinned pundits and their followers might catch a matinee of The Shallows and conclude that what’s needed to protect great American med students from loser Mexican sharks is a wall — an underwater wall — and the sharks will pay for it, and let me tell you, it will be terrific.