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Bernard & Huey

May 27, 2018

Screen Shot 2018-05-27 at 2.08.05 PMBernard & Huey is based on two characters who showed up in Jules Feiffer’s cartoons for The Village Voice and Playboy starting in 1957. The cable network Showtime commissioned, and then declined, a screenplay from Feiffer in 1986; with some semi-topical tweaks here and there (texting, phrases like “scene-adjacent”), that 30-year-old script is what has been filmed here. So it’s no wonder that the movie feels a tad … musty? Beside the point? And is this #MeToo era the worst or best atmosphere in which to release the satirically-styled musings of Huey, an alpha male who says things like “If I had any respect for chicks I’d never make out,” and Bernard, Huey’s beta friend, whose neuroses anticipated the early Woody Allen persona?

It doesn’t help that Feiffer, a playwright and novelist as well as cartoonist, more or less already wrote his Bernard and Huey movie — 1971’s Carnal Knowledge, directed by Mike Nichols and starring Jack Nicholson as Jonathan, the Hueyest Huey imaginable (Art Garfunkel brought up the rear as Bernard — I mean, Sandy). Carnal Knowledge is a bitter classic as well as a useful time capsule; Feiffer and Nichols were grappling sincerely with what it meant to be a man in the time of what was then called Women’s Lib. More recently, too, films like 1996’s Swingers gave us Vince Vaughn as a slickster neo-Huey and Jon Favreau as a befuddled Gen-X Bernard. Swingers even ended on a Feiffer-esque note of embarrassment for the unjustifiably self-confident Vaughn.

Bernard & Huey feels like a throwback in more ways than one; it’s another microbudgeted, Kickstarted indie film that might’ve had an easier time of it twenty or forty years ago. Now here it is, being tossed into an overflowing bucket of streaming content and somehow expected to stay afloat. It’s smoothly helmed, though, by indie vet (and Slamdance Film Festival co-founder) Dan Mirvish, who’s clearly an actor’s director. Not only does he find the perfect Bernard (Jim Rash) and Huey (David Koechner), he finds younger actors (Jay Renshaw and Jake O’Connor, respectively) who match up terrifically with their older counterparts. Mirvish also provides space for smart actresses — Sasha Alexander, Nancy Travis, Bellamy Young, Mae Whitman as Huey’s grown aspiring-cartoonist daughter — to interrogate the men’s antiquated notions.

The movie flashes back to Bernard and Huey’s college days in the ‘80s, which makes for some weird anachronisms; the era is supposedly post-punk, but the attitudes and even some of the dialogue (“I dig it, man”) are clearly ‘60s — when, of course, the flashbacks were originally set. Most of our time, though, is spent in the present day, when Bernard has become a ladies’ man and Huey, a divorced father, is at loose ends. After a 25-year hiatus, a drunk Huey finds himself at the door of Bernard’s spacious but sparse apartment, and soon the men revert back to their younger vibes, Huey sleeping with every woman in sight while Bernard slips into bed with Huey’s daughter Zelda, whose comics are puerile man-bashing until she meets a man who writes better material. On some level, Bernard & Huey still isn’t especially progressive.

Is it supposed to be, though? On another level, it’s a valentine to Feiffer, a near-nonagenarian who’s still going strong (his most recent graphic novel, Cousin Joseph, was published two summers ago) and who has been there for just about every social tremor, earthquake and tsunami that has shaped who we are now. In the philosophically and somatotypically opposed Bernard and Huey, Feiffer had his voices of bewilderment and resentment that both prefigured second-wave feminism and remain relevant in the era of the intersectional fourth wave. Neither Feiffer nor the film has any answers. That’s not for art to provide. We may have many questions, though, starting with this: Why, a full six decades later, are we still meeting the grandchildren of Bernard and Huey in the noxious form of incels and MRAs/PUAs? The OG B&H, here, are made to look sad, scrubby, essentially lonely (though everyone gets a Hollywood ending that almost reads parodically). Maybe that’s the point.

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Oscar Night 2018

March 5, 2018

90th Annual Academy Awards, Show, Los Angeles, USA - 04 Mar 2018The most Oscar-y part of the 90th Academy Awards came when there was a comedic bit so long and unwieldy it had to unfold across either side of a commercial break. In it, host Jimmy Kimmel and a variety of celebs from the ceremony (Guillermo del Toro, Armie Hammer, Mark Hamill) took a stroll over to the nearby TCL Chinese Theatre (formerly Grauman’s). The bit was largely pointless and self-congratulatory (good fellows, let us favor the groundlings with our presence!), especially when you consider the moviegoers in the theater were probably there because of indifference to the Oscars in the first place. But then that’s Oscar: bloated and self-regarding.

And I say that as someone who loves movies, and as a bleeding-heart liberal who agrees with many of the progressive, inclusive ideas espoused in the nominated films and by the presenters and winners. Even for me, the sanctimony got a tad thick — imagine how it played for those in the middle or right of same. At times, one might have taken the temperature of the evening by trying to divine which nominee would most piss off the current president. Among the nods for Best Director were one woman, one African-American, and one Mexican. That the race between directors, and between their films, broke down thus is, I would say, encouraging (the two white men, Paul Thomas Anderson and Martin McDonagh, contented themselves with “your nomination is your award”).

In the midst of all this, it seemed, the show needed to feint at rapprochement with red-staters via a pro-military montage. There was also a good deal of #MeToo rhetoric, but as for its real-world efficacy, we shall see. (Do we know of any upcoming major-studio, big-budget films willing to cast Ashley Judd, Mira Sorvino, or Annabella Sciorra in significant roles to make up for what Harvey Weinstein did to their careers? That, I think, would be more helpful to them and to similarly insulted and injured women than feel-good lip service.) If these Boomer and Gen-X filmmakers don’t know the younger crop of #NeverAgain activists has left them in the dust, it can only be because they don’t want to know. The future belongs to Emma Gonzalez and David Hogg.

But we were talking about the Oscars, weren’t we? It got in before the midnight curfew, but I’ve never really minded the length. The Oscars are long. They will always be long, and there will always be things we wish weren’t there, at the expense of things we wish were there. They should really stop doing In Memoriam, since we all find things to hate in it (no Tobe Hooper??). Bitching about the Oscars is as big a sport as just watching/enjoying them. There’s really no difference. Again, as in recent years, there wasn’t much of anything enormously ill-advised; even the wrong-envelope debacle last year was a mistake, not something that people actually sat down and planned, unlike the infamous Snow White Incident of 1989. There hasn’t been anything that indelibly wrong-headed in a while.

Which is a little sad. Jimmy Kimmel has been a perfectly competent host (it lost something this year without Matt Damon for Kimmel to spar with), but no one will remember his gigs the way they remember David Letterman’s tour of duty, excoriated at the time but now seen as more or less an appropriate response to the glitz factory. What the Oscars have lacked for years is a certain sense of are-we-live? danger, the knowledge that anything can happen. Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway found that out last year, and they returned this year, because Hollywood loves a comeback, and because they probably didn’t want the last thing they’re noted for on this earth to be fucking up the Oscars.

In truth, the Oscars could use more fucking up. As usual, there are mitigating oddities: the director of Blade 2 now has an Oscar, as do Drexl the pimp, Guy Fleegman, and the star of a Chuck Lorre sitcom. I was rooting for Get Out, as much because I’m a horror fan as because I legitimately dug the movie, although there would have been reasons to welcome or at least tolerate the ascension of any of the nine nominees. Get Out spoke incisively about white “liberal” hypocrisy, but it also worked like gangbusters as a new suspense classic. If it didn’t — if it didn’t have that ruthlessly efficient script expertly playing the audience like a piano — no one would be talking about it even a year later. Its Oscar win may or may not increase its viewership, but it will most certainly make any project Jordan Peele pitches more attractive to the beancounters. And the point of the Oscars is more Jordan Peele movies, or movies of comparable energy, originality, and craft. Finally, Roger Deakins — a great talent almost as snubbed by Oscar as Susan Lucci was by the Emmys — won, at long last, for Best Cinematography, an honor he should have won at least seven times before. But he has an Oscar now, so I didn’t have to throw anything at the TV.

The Year in Review

January 7, 2018

mother2Well, 2017 certainly was a year. It more or less began with craziness and pretty much stayed that crazy — though near the end, say in the autumn, we started seeing some pushback in the form of #MeToo. In fraught political times, every work of art seems to comment on those times, even when the commentary is unintentional.

My picks for the top two films of last year seemed to stand cheek by jowl in their efforts to explain the world in which we find ourselves, even though they were conceived and written long before January 20. Jordan Peele’s electrifying Get Out ran a paranoid premise through the filter of a lone African-American’s terror at the hands of outwardly benevolent white liberals. With its airtight structure and attention to detail and theme, it’s built for repeat viewings and long conversations. Darren Aronofsky’s mother!, hotly polarizing among critics as well as audiences, recast a biblical fable as an environmental cautionary tale — much like Aronofsky’s previous Noah. It was, in my view, the film of the year, a daft and impassioned folly that proves stubborn art is still possible on the major-studio level.

I loved Peele’s and Aronofsky’s efforts and look forward to more from them. I also celebrated the return of Patty Jenkins, who directed her long-overdue sophomore film Wonder Woman and made it into a fine refutation of nihilistic male domination in favor of female perseverance (the No Man’s Land sequence was instantly iconic). It became the official “Nevertheless, she persisted” movie, and seemed to set the stage for a period in which male sexual predators were called onto the carpet. One of them, Louis C.K., made a film that didn’t get released (but was shown at film festivals and sent out on screener discs to critics for awards consideration before its maker was disgraced) yet seemed to have the current moment on its mind.

The excellent series capper War for the Planet of the Apes was another accidental commentary on this xenophobic “build the wall” era. So was Mike White and Miguel Arteta’s Beatriz at Dinner, which boasted, for me, the year’s great female performance (Salma Hayek) and found it within itself to allow some wit and dignity to a snide billionaire antagonist (helped by John Lithgow’s compassionate work). Colossal maintained that women can be monstrous too, though not as monstrous as a resentful, friend-zoned man. The tepid Wilson practically gave up on its eponymous anti-hero (Woody Harrelson) and let Laura Dern, as his long-estranged ex, take over the movie. Dern also shines, I hear, in the latest Star Wars episode, which I have not yet seen.

Star Wars, too, has become about how disaffected young white men can re-animate a bad old ideology (the First Order = white supremacy) while disillusioned old white men leave the battle for good to young women and people of color. (Eventually, the self-exiled, gray-bearded Luke Skywalker pulls himself together.) Blade Runner 2049, bloated as it was, spoke compellingly about the role of humanity in a cold tech future. Writer-director S. Craig Zahler’s Brawl in Cell Block 99 was a terrific old-fangled yarn with old-school prosthetic gore as well as a 1970s respect for quiet human moments; it seems to cloak within it a sad critique of white-knightism and toxic masculinity, as did Zahler’s previous Bone Tomahawk. Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri seemed to have confidence in the potential for redemption, even for violent racists. Two middling efforts, The Shape of Water and I, Tonya, still put complicated, suffering femalehood at their centers in all its passion and rage.

In and out of the movie theater, 2017 was a year for struggling with the national identity. Are we to be compassionate or indifferent to injustice and inequality? How shall we define ourselves as a country — what world do we want to make for ourselves and our neighbors? The movies continued to tell us it’s important to stand against oppression in all its forms, even while some of those involved in making those movies were outed as hypocritical victimizers or enablers. (Kevin Spacey found himself un-personed out of the year-end Oscar bait All the Money in the World, replaced by Christopher Plummer.) Will we take up our swords and fight for the good we can be, or will we sink into self-abnegating despair like Luke Skywalker or Wilson or Rick Deckard? Increasingly, we are seeing women and non-whites stepping in. “We got this,” they seem to say; “be our allies or get out of our way.” The quality of our 2018 depends largely on the lessons we learn from 2017 — and its art.

The Shape of Water

December 17, 2017

shapewterWell, for those who always fancast Guillermo del Toro as the director of a Creature from the Black Lagoon remake, we now have The Shape of Water, del Toro’s new beauty-and-the-beast romantic fable pairing a mute woman (Sally Hawkins) with a being known in the credits as Amphibian Man (performed by Doug Jones). Del Toro loves monsters, and that comes through loud and clear. What also comes through is the laziness of the screenplay (by del Toro and Vanessa Taylor). At what point do archetypes become clichés? When they strike us as clichés, I think, and The Shape of Water has enough of them to classify it not as a pure fairy tale but as a mid-budget film that had to be simplified — or dumbed down, if we’re not being generous — in order to be made at all.

Del Toro, for me, will always be among the angels creatively. He’s more or less the only major filmmaker who puts his all into movies that could have been covered by Famous Monsters of Filmland, and he looks for wider and deeper meaning in his elemental stories. His work is probably equally informed by James Whale and Joseph Campbell, by Lovecraft and Bettelheim. Like Clive Barker, del Toro works more seriously with old-school Universal Monsters-style horror than the filmmakers at Universal ever did. So what happens to him sometimes? I think that when working in his native Spanish, del Toro feels more free to flesh out more complex characters. In America, del Toro loses confidence on some level, and he falls back on well-worn tropes.

Here, for instance, the mute woman, Elisa, is lonely and pure of heart. She has no quirks that would intrude on audience identification with her. She’s just looking for love, and so is the cliché next door, her friendly closeted gay artist neighbor (Richard Jenkins nevertheless invests his role with gravitas and regret, and walks away with the film). And so is Amphibian Man, who has been captured and is being contained at the same facility where Elisa works as a cleaning lady. On the other hand, being in a relationship is no guarantee of happiness, either: Elisa’s friend and co-worker (Octavia Spencer) barely tolerates her husband, and the villain of the piece (Michael Shannon), a military man who captured the creature, has the stereotypical cloying nuclear family at home (the movie is set during the Cold War). Only Elisa and the creature’s love is pure, real.

We’re probably not meant to probe this proposal — interspecies love is more authentic than love between humans — too literally. Del Toro intends the romance as a metaphor for how so many people exist at the wrong place and time to find their soulmates, but the universe occasionally gets it right. All well and good, but the problem with predictable characters is that they act predictably and make the movie predictable too. Nothing the brute military man does surprises us, and del Toro piles uglifying indignities on him — the guy throws his wife harsh fucks during which he commands her to be silent; he has two poorly reattached fingers that are starting to stink and blacken with rot. The creature has more dimensions than this human monster, and we get two scenes with the villain buying and driving a new car apparently just to set up its trashing later. It represents the materialism he should transcend, I guess. Not only is he a violent sociopath, he has False Values.

Part of me is always glad that a movie like The Shape of Water can still be made and that a filmmaker like del Toro can continue to work. The movie is a feat of visual imagination, but underneath its sophisticated imagery is a banal and too-plotty skeleton, with a Russian-spy subplot that serves mainly to make the movie longer. If we squint, we can make the Cold War element conform to a larger human theme of feeling alone and mistrustful, or basically feeling like a monster. For del Toro, it always goes back to being a monster, fleeing from the villagers, being smitten with women who shriek at you, dying in an inferno or in a hail of bullets. The thematic masochism is intrinsic to del Toro’s art — miserably picking the scab of one’s self-esteem. But the architecture here is too cardboard, despite a high level of craft among the cast, to make us feel the pain, too.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

November 19, 2017

Valerian-and-the-City-of-a-Thousand-Planets-(France)-1-FullI can’t quite bring myself to convince you that the entire two hours and seventeen minutes of Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets are worth sitting through for Rihanna’s appearance some eighty minutes in. Soon enough, she becomes a blue blob and later turns to dust. But she’s fun while she lasts, as a shape-shifting performer named Bubble who helps the titular hero, Major Valerian (Dane DeHaan), rescue his captured partner Sergeant Laureline (Cara Delevingne). For twenty minutes or so, Rihanna is a suavely fierce nonactress adding some welcome grit and personality to a mix that includes far too many aliens and special effects, far too little humanity.

Valerian is great-looking but awful, a combination that has sadly become the stock in trade of the once-impressive Luc Besson (Leon, The Fifth Element, Lucy). Those who found The Fifth Element a jocular piece of futuristic excess but a bit on the empty-calorie side won’t find much to plug into here; the meaning of the movie is simply to get Valerian and Laureline from one hectic, shiny set piece to the next, barely stopping for a breath or even a scenery-chewing villain performance from the likes of Gary Oldman (who brightened Leon and Fifth Element). Here we get only the grouchy Clive Owen as our heroes’ commander, who gives orders to wipe out an entire species of alien pearl farmers, one of whom stows away in Valerian’s body after dying.

Look, I could go on discussing plot points to prove I saw the film, but you’ll just have to trust me. Valerian has tons of plot but no real story to speak of; our heroes hurtle to and fro to get justice for the aliens, and that’s all there is to it. The movie is so pointlessly eventful and convoluted, though, that it feels more complicated than it is. It doesn’t help than DeHaan and Delevingne have zero chemistry or presence; DeHaan has a gruff dudebro voice like Keanu Reeves’, only without Keanu’s soulfulness, and Delevingne often just seems vaguely inconvenienced, glassy-eyed with indifference for the material. (The two have matching hollow pouts, and they both have arrogantly unmusical voices.) DeHaan does bestir himself when trading lines with Rihanna, though that just serves to prove he has a pulse. Her boss, called Jolly the Pimp, is given a naughty twinkle by Ethan Hawke, but he’s not around for long, either. (I tend to think Hawke opened the script, saw his character’s name, and signed on just on the strength of being able to play a character called Jolly the Pimp.)

What we get here instead of interesting humans is a flock of CGI aliens (the one voiced by John Goodman is amusingly stern) and various scenes of the heroes’ spaceship streaking heedlessly through space, or through trippy environments, and for minutes at a time we might as well be watching animation demo footage unconnected to any context of any interest. Valerian may be welcomed as eye candy by kids and by aficionados of controlled substances, but it offers nothing for someone who merely buckles in for a good time at the movies. Besson also no longer knows what to do with interesting humans when he has them. Rutger Hauer is tossed aside after punching his time card for what our British actor friends call a cough and a spit role; Herbie Hancock is in it, mostly seen as a hologram scolding the heroes. An international cast mumbles stale dialogue in person or as the voices of aliens.

The overstuffed yet empty Valerian is nothing new, of course; we’ve been getting this sort of flatulent, pricey “entertainment” for decades, and it’s not going to end any time soon. Every so often a Get Out or a Wonder breaks out, because it scratches a previously neglected itch, or it speaks to people. Valerian and its ilk speak to no one, although they are engineered to appeal across continents, languages, cultures. Everyone understands things blowing up. Yet you have to drive out of your way for an hour to see, say, a French film for grown-ups (Valerian is based on French comics), while plastic junk like this blurts onto 3,500 screens in America — then slinks off after nine weeks having made back a fraction of its cost. Its failure in America (and in general, worldwide) would be encouraging if we didn’t still get a hundred movies like it every year.

Goodbye Christopher Robin

November 6, 2017

goodbyechrisrobinTo the short subgenre of biopics about children’s-book authors (Lewis Carroll in Dreamchild, J.M. Barrie in Finding Neverland, P.L. Travers in Saving Mr. Banks) we must now add the modestly touching Goodbye Christopher Robin, about A.A. Milne, creator of Winnie-the-Pooh. This one, though, concerns itself more with postwar trauma than with the usual biopic tropes and beats. Milne (Domhnall Gleeson) goes off to World War I, and is injured in the notoriously brutal Battle of the Somme. Once home with his young wife Daphne (Margot Robbie), Milne broods on war, how it seems to render all the world’s sources of happiness impotent. Then Daphne, with misgivings, bears him a child, who will lead him out of himself and into fame and fortune — and a whole other set of problems.

Directed with a stiff sense of dignity by Simon Curtis, Goodbye Christopher Robin is about men and boys, fathers and sons, losing and finding themselves. Curtis, though, with Gleeson’s help, convinces us that Milne has been broken by the nightmare meat-grinder of the Great War, and this runs underneath every scene Milne is in. It’s kept quiet, though, not obnoxiously obvious. And given that this is a very polite PG-rated film, with only the most oblique glimpses of war bloodshed, Curtis impressively conveys the eternal dread of the postwar life. We gather that Milne saw hell. Out of this darkness, improbably, blossoms one of English letters’ most enduring creations of whimsy (not beloved by all, of course, as those who recall Dorothy Parker’s legendary dragging of The House at Pooh Corner can testify).

Inspired by the playtime of his son Christopher (Will Tilston) using a variety of stuffed animals, Milne creates Ashdown Forest and its inhabitants, a place of safe and gentle adventure, as opposed to the real world and all its dangerous, vicious adventure. Milne gives himself a fantasy into which to escape, but in the meantime he has made an unwilling celebrity out of his son, upon whom the books’ Christopher Robin is based. The real Christopher is pressed into service hosting tea parties for lucky young contest winners and posing for photos with a fake Pooh bear. We spend most of our time with the younger Christopher, until the magic of movies telescopes time while he’s at school, so that he becomes a teenager (Alex Lawther) beaten and ridiculed by bullies because of his literary connection. It’s this Christopher, hardened after years of a public childhood, who decides to go off to war himself, this time World War II.

By then, we know what such a decision will do to Milne. A couple of fine, pained scenes between Milne and fellow WWI veteran E.H. Shepard (Stephen Campbell Moore) — who goes on to illustrate the Pooh books — show us what this shared experience does to men, and there’s an equally fine scene near the end, when another pair of men sit and take note of the beauty that the world can also offer. When things look bleak, Daphne excoriates Milne for “fixing it” so that their son (who’d failed the physical) could go to war, but what could Milne do? It was what Christopher wanted, and for Milne to deny him would have driven the last wedge between them. Sidebar stuff like this, which has little to do with the origins of Pooh and Piglet and Eeyore, deals with things we seldom see in movies; a father and a son bonded by horror, ready to embrace the future and abandon the agony of the past.

Much of Goodbye Christopher Robin is honorable, even if the tears are jerked a little too strenuously near the finish. One thing, however, prevents me from giving the film more than a middling mark. I know this isn’t her movie, but the cavalier, seemingly unloving behavior of Daphne throughout the film is baffling, all the more so because no one else seems to notice it. She leaves her husband until he starts writing again; she seems ruthlessly unsentimental, which is fine, but it seems at odds with everything else in the movie. Margot Robbie plays her as a borderline flapper who seems to yearn for champagne and glitz over a stuffy old house with a stuffy old writer. (When they married, Daphne was 23, Milne 31.)

Eventually, offscreen apparently, Daphne gentles into a vaguely worried mom tinkering in the garden, and Kelly Macdonald steals the movie as Olive, Christopher’s faithful caretaker. Macdonald brings that tired cliché the selfless nanny to life, and her expressions of despair and later joy are far more compelling than anything else going on. Goodbye Christopher Robin is refined, tactful, competent. Its dark undertone of war and its deforming power lifts it above the usual schmucky Hollywood stuff. But it’s missing that gratifying sense of everything coming together to create a vision based on subtle thematic work — that almost audible click when the elements hang together coherently and with originality of purpose. (We feel this, for example, at several points in Pulp Fiction.) The movie seems to be about a man who, when creating a fantasy into which to escape war memories, inadvertently drives his own son into another war. How does a movie even begin to deal with that? This one doesn’t.

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.