Good Omens, by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett / *****

goodomens-hard-2006It’s been more than a decade since I last read Good Omens (full title: Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch), the collaboration between Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett. Since then, I’ve come to know and deeply love the work of Terry Pratchett, and I’ve become more familiar with the work of Neil Gaiman (who, at the time I last read Good Omens, had only had a couple of novels published). That’s made it a perfect excuse to revisit the book, and see how it holds up as a work by two of my favorite writers.

The answer: it holds up perfectly and then some, representing some wonderful union of the best of each author’s sensibilities, and creating something wonderful in the process.

Nominally, Good Omens is the story of the Apocalypse, brought about by the birth of the Antichrist. But, in typical Pratchett style, from the get-go, there are reversals and oddities, from the way that the Antichrist is raised by a family who doesn’t know what their child is and simply raises him normally to the way the book follows an angel and demon as they attempt to prevent all of this from happening. And through it all, Gaiman fleshes out the mythology and imagination of the piece, playing off of Pratchett’s wry social commentary and gleeful silliness.

The result is, first of all, laugh-out-loud, consistently, constantly hilarious, from page one until the end. From a hellhound trapped in the form of a little dog to four bikers who nominate themselves as the followers of the four true Horsemen of the Apocalypse (bikers who have given themselves names like Grievous Bodily Harm, Really Cool People, Things Not Working Even When You’ve Given Them a Good Thumping, and more), from the wonderful banter between a group of children to the running gag about how every cassette left in a car gradually turns into Queen’s Greatest Hits, Pratchett and Gaiman stuff the book with jokes and silliness, ranging from the profound to the absurd and childish. (My favorite throwaway gag involves a group of ducks that’s uniquely attuned to international politics because of all the “covert” meetings that happen at their pond.)

But what makes Good Omens great isn’t the sly parodies of The Omen or the wonderful silliness. No, what makes it great is what makes so many Pratchett (and Gaiman, to a different extent) books great: the way it uses the plot to get to something more meaningful and profound. What begins as a book about the end of the world becomes a study of human frailty (the demon Crowley’s thoughts about how human nature trumps anything he can ever come up with ring as true today as they did when the novel was first written), but also what makes life worth living. As with so many books by these two, the final confrontation doesn’t come down to an action sequence – it comes down to ideas, to optimism (or hope, perhaps) in the face of defeat and cynicism. That’s something both men have always been fascinated by, and always brought out in their work – that the world, and people, are so often horrible, and yet there is something magical and essential about life that’s impossible to ignore. That Good Omens turns that into the text of the novel is what gives is a surprising punch that hits home, even more than any scene of Crowley driving his rapidly disintegrating car or enjoying (what I assume is Gaiman’s work) the novel’s inspired modernization of the Horsemen of the Apocalypse (and, in one case, one that has never changed, and never will).

It truly is the best case scenario for a collaboration – something that brings out the best aspects in both authors and plays them off of each other, creating something that feels like both of their work and yet feels totally of its own piece. It’s funny, it’s imaginative, it’s profound, and it makes you feel better about the world, even while we recognize the pain of it all. In other words, it’s typically brilliant Pratchett and Gaiman in every way.




Ryan Coogler filmography (Fruitvale Station / Creed / Black Panther)

I’ve been meaning to dive into the filmography of Ryan Coogler for a while now; from his interviews to his subject matter, he’s seemed like a filmmaker I need to watch, and one that I want to get into the ground floor on. So with the release and success of Black Panther, what better time than now to go through Coogler’s three films in order?

e2ba8ab17ed11729d3364ce93a1d0b6dCoogler started his career with Fruitvale Station, an account of the last 24 hours in the life of Oscar Grant III, who was shot and killed by police on New Year’s Day, 2009. Coogler has said that his goal here was to depoliticize Grant’s death, essentially attempting to do for this incident what Paul Greengrass’s United 93 did for that event – depict it honestly, calmly, and without sentiment, and without getting into the aftermath and the way the event was dealt with in the aftermath. On the whole, Coogler succeeds in this, I’d say  (here’s a good article about how accurate the film is and isn’t, but the short version is, it’s largely faithful to the reality). Even if occasionally he hits the dramatic ironies a little hard, and even if the scene where Oscar comforts a dying stray dog feels like a bit much, Coogler does his best to depict Oscar not as a saint, not as a sinner, but as someone more complicated – a troubled young man with anger problems and a lot of boiling rage, one who might be turning his life around, or might not. It’s not the hagiography you might assume, but Michael B. Jordan’s charisma and the knowledge of where this is all going (Coogler opens the film with cell phone footage of the actual event) can’t help but make you empathetic for this human life that’s about to be pointlessly lost.

But it’s in the depiction of the event that Coogler’s talent is undeniably most seen. From the escalation to the horrifying moment of the shooting to the panic and chaos afterward, Coogler captures every second of it with an eye that never lets you forget what’s happening. But while what’s depicted is horrible, Coogler remains focused not on the event, not on the larger issues, but on Oscar – a young man who’s in his last minutes on Earth. That, more than anything else, is what makes Fruitvale Station so powerful and effective – the way it takes Oscar Grant III out of the narrative and reminds us that first and foremost, before he was a victim, before he was a moment, he was a human being – a father, a son, a boyfriend, a friend – and that loss in of itself is tragic and horrible, no matter what deeper societal issues it exposed in the process. (That being said, the outcome of this case is legitimately, incredibly infuriating on every imaginable level, so  enjoy that.) And any refusal to admit that is removed by the film’s closing moments, which earns its final shot of Grant’s real-life daughter who’s growing up without a father. Sometimes, things deserve to be hit hard and shoved back into our faces, and the consequences of real-world news events forced back into our consciousness. Rating: **** ½

P.S. If you’ve seen The Wire, you should read David Simon’s very brief piece about the film, which is heartbreaking all over again in its final lines.

rocky-spinoff-creed-poster-600x889I’ve only ever seen the first Rocky film (which I really liked), so I can’t talk that much about how Creed stacks up against the rest of the sequels. What I can talk about is how much Coogler makes the film his own, taking what the original Rocky did – using a boxing story to explore a character, and delivering a character study with all the trappings of a boxing movie – and using it to follow his own interests. In this case, that’s the story of what it’s like to grow up as a young black man without a father, struggling to make his own identity. Once again uniting with Michael B. Jordan, Coogler follows the story of Adonis Creed, who’s attempting to grow up and make himself his own person, outside of the shadow of his late father. That leads him to seek out Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone, of course), and ask him for training.

In taking on Creed, Coogler manages to somehow marry a mid-budget Hollywood tentpole film – an entry in a storied franchise – with all of his own passions and style, creating something far better than you would expect in the process. The relationship between Jordan and Stallone is beautifully handled, with nuance and depth, but also a rich humor that brings both men to life. Stallone, too, has rarely been better; it’s so easy to forget how great of an actor he can be, but even so, the way he plays Rocky here – lonely, older, feeling his age – is remarkable, bringing out the vulnerability in the character, but also his passion and pride. But his relationship with Jordan becomes more than the sum of their parts, with Coogler using it to play with the themes of father/son relationships and what they can mean – and what family can do for us. It gives the film a richness, thematically, investing us in each of these men and their arc. That the film does its best by Adonis’s love interest, a musician played by Tessa Thompson, is no small feat, nor what it does his mother, played by Phylicia Rashad; each woman is given a strength and motivation all her own, and even if they’re supporting characters, they’re handled far better than most films would even try to do.

But for the purpose of this review, I can’t help but discuss how much more assured and confident Coogler’s filmmaking is here, only one film later. The mid-film boxing sequence is incredible – a long, flowing single shot that weaves in and out of the action, gives us close-up shots, follows the action of the match, and gives it a tension and power all its own. It contrasts all the more with the final match, made up of reaction shots to the audience, as well as with each fighter, helping us understand that this match is less about the physical battle, and more about the emotional and mental stakes. That level of confidence goes throughout the film, as Coogler takes on montages, long shots, Steadicam shots, and more, truly stepping into his natural role as a filmmaker in a way that Fruitvale all but guaranteed.

I truly loved Creed, which I honestly didn’t expect; from its depiction of a weary Rocky Balboa to Jordan’s uncertain, questing fighter; from dazzling fight choreography to impactful, genuine emotional stakes; from strongly created relationships to thematic depth that explores real world stakes and issues; all of that and more turns Creed into a worthy successor to the original Rocky – a story of young men finding a way to prove themselves, and figure out who they are. I absolutely loved it, and was floored by Coogler’s growth and style as a director. Rating: *****

dws6uagu0ae4e77And now comes Black Panther, in which Marvel Studios finally cuts loose and generally lets a director make a Marvel product as personal as possible. I’ve long complained about the Marvel formula and the way it’s robbed movies of their individual flavor, and I won’t say that none of that applies to Black Panther. The big action climax of the film is overdone and bland – pretty much, it ends up feeling like it could come from half a dozen other comic book movies – and that goes doubly for the final showdown between our hero and the main villain, which becomes little more than a dull CGI whirl of action – a far cry from the intense, psychological battles of Creed, which married physical conflict with mental games. (That being said, there is a mid-film battle in a casino that unfolds in a dazzling long take that I enjoyed; it reminded me of what Coogler did in that mid-film bout in Creed, and to pretty great effect. It’s the one action set piece that really stands out in the film, and not coincidentally, the most engaging.)

But thankfully, moments like that are the exception in Black Panther, not the rule. Freed of almost any need to tie in to other Marvel movies (the mandatory end-credits scene aside, which can easily be ignored), Black Panther feels like no other Marvel movie to date, thanks in no small part to how deeply, truly African it is. Eschewing the usual generic cityscape of every other Marvel movie, Coogler fills the frame with colorful costumes, tribal fashions, and a rich tapestry of visuals that give the film a truly revolutionary feel. (I’m a straight white dude, so there’s no way I can speak to what this must feel like for so many other people, but to me, Black Panther felt truly like a film that got to celebrate black heritage and ancestry in a way that almost never happens.)

But as rich as the visual palette is, what really makes Black Panther work is the way that Coogler brings his wide, sprawling cast to life, filling his film with the sort of realistic, natural conversations that rang so true in his other movies. The result is that the film feels lived in in a way that Marvel rarely has for me; from the tribal priest, played by Forest Whitaker, to T’Challa’s sister Shuri (a scene-stealing, joyful performance by Letitia Wright), from Danai Gurira’s steely bodyguard to Winston Duke’s intimidating, surprisingly funny chieftain, Coogler takes the time to bring every character to life, letting them not just exist as plot points, but as characters and people.

But where that’s most evident, and most revolutionary, is in the film’s villain, Erik “Killmonger” Stevens. (A side note: Andy Serkis’s portrayal of the secondary villain, Ulysses Klaue, is a blast – he’s chewing the scenery gloriously and having so much fun that it’s infectious.) Set aside the fact that Killmonger is portrayed by Michael B. Jordan, whose effortless and massive charisma (and, let’s be honest, physical attractiveness) instantly makes his Killmonger watchable and fascinating. black-panther What’s truly remarkable about Killmonger is how trenchant and valid his concerns are, and how obviously Coogler uses him as a way to smuggle in truly revolutionary and incendiary ideas.

After all, here is a character who is driven by the loss of a father who himself was infuriated by the treatment of black communities; who is angered by the way Wakanda has let black people around the world suffer while they’ve prospered; who wants justice and payback for centuries of racism and injustice. It’s hard to hear Jordan’s angry, violent rhetoric and not feel like he’s the voice of reason here…and what’s more remarkable is the way the film takes his concerns seriously, with characters acknowledging the truth of his ideas, even as they fear and deplore his methods. That debate gives Black Panther far more depth than you’d expect, and the way the movie ends up becoming a discussion about the responsibility of the well-off to care for the less fortunate, as well as a vicious commentary on how a history of racism has corrupted and angered a generation, is all the more incredible for what Coogler has managed to do within the framework of a Marvel movie, the most formulaic of genres. (Jordan’s final line of dialogue in the film is a nuclear bomb of defiance that sent shivers down my spine, and I can’t imagine what it felt like as an African-American.)

I’ve come all this way, and there’s more I could talk about – I haven’t even touched on Chadwick Boseman’s soulful performance, which finds him moving between royalty and grief, between a loving brother and a threatened head of state, nor the film’s glorious afrofuturism, which mixes so effortlessly and seamlessly with the rest. The short version is, yes, Black Panther is still a Marvel movie, but it’s the first one that has pushed back against the limits of the genre to any sort of success. And if it eventually falls back into some of the weakest elements, that only underlines all the more what Coogler got away with here – how many ways he got away with an uncompromised, unique vision and trenchant social points. It’s the sort of movie that, to me, actually represents what I loved about comic books growing up – not the battles, but the ideas, the intelligent voices, the rich characters, and just the incredible worlds of imagination. But best of all is the fact that Coogler does all of this while somehow still creating something that’s recognizably his. No small feat, that – and it bodes well for a long career that will give us interesting, thoughtful films both in and out of the studio system. Rating: **** ½

IMDb: Fruitvale Station | Creed | Black Panther

Blue Ruin / **** ½

blue20ruinI wanted to see Blue Ruin even before I saw Jeremy Saulnier’s Green Room, his follow-up and all around incredible film. Indeed, as much as I loved the claustrophobic tension of Green Room, the fact that Blue Ruin sounded so Coen-esque – a murder story that escalates – had me even more intrigued. But what I got was something more interesting and substantial (though no less well-made) than I expected; while Blue Ruin handles some of the same themes as other revenge films – primarily, the question of whether or not revenge is worth the blood that it spills, or the violence that sometimes blows back upon the avenger – it does so by creating something more complicated and mundane than most revenge films. This is Coenish in the “regular folks getting in over their heads” feel that it creates, but rather than using it for black comedy, as the Coens so often do, it’s used to increase our unease, our tension, and the emotional impact of the movie.

Much of Blue Ruin‘s impact has to be laid at the feet of Macon Blair, who has to carry so many scenes entirely on his own, without dialogue or any other actors to play off of. Even from the film’s opening notes, where we’re introduced to Blair as a homeless, unkempt drifter, the film lets his performance tell the story, as he wanders around, gets food, and eventually finds himself brought in by a police officer who wants to let him know that someone is being released from prison. Saulnier fades the audio here, prolonging the mystery, but Blair’s face tells us all the story we need – there is some deep tragedy here, and it’s how this man ended up where he is. To some degree, that sets up the recurring theme of the film: the way that violence ripples out far beyond its original target, leaving far more devastation in its wake than a single act might suggest.

Yes, Blue Ruin is a revenge film, but it’s not the one you expect; indeed, Blair’s act of revenge doesn’t end the film so much as it kicks it off, leading to a chain reaction of escalating violence that leaves plenty dead, more wounded, and the damage both emotional and physical hard to quantify. Saulnier stages it all perfectly for tension and unease, constantly reminding us how over his head Blair is, but also how broken he is – how little he has left in him beyond this quest to even the scales, no matter what it takes. And while there’s a lowkey comedy to some of the proceedings, Blue Ruin feels more like a tragedy than anything else – not just in terms of Blair, but in all of the participants in what follows.

None of this might make Blue Ruin sound as good as it is, or as tense; as he did in Green Room, Saulnier stages things expertly, extending the tension until it’s unbearable, using gore and violence for maximum impact, and investing us in these characters so that their fates matter to us beyond the machinations of a plot. Much of this comes down the performances, but also Saulnier’s control of the film; especially given how little this film gives us in terms of exposition, the fact that we’re never lost as to what’s going on is remarkable. But the way each setpiece unfolds slowly and horribly makes for some truly gripping viewing; yes, these are undeniably the acts of an amateur, but that only makes them more emotionally affecting and desperate, investing the film with even more power.

Blue Ruin‘s Coen brothers comparisons are understandable on a number of levels, but they don’t really prepare you for the film, which feels more like a very violent drama than a true revenge thriller or crime caper. It’s a film about violence that doesn’t flinch from it – similar to what Saulnier would do with Green Room – but it’s also about what these acts can do to a human being, both as a perpetrator and a victim. It’s a pretty stellar entry into the film scene, and bodes well for years of Saulnier films to come.


Buster’s Mal Heart / Logan Lucky / Tangerine

large_busters_mal_heart_ver2I missed Buster’s Mal Heart last year at the Chattanooga Film Festival, a festival whose tastes almost always align with mine; as a result, when it showed up on Netflix, I figured it was worth checking out. A weird, twisty, psychological thriller starring Rami Malek (of Mr. Robot fame) and written/directed by Sarah Adina Smith, Buster unfolds in three separate stories whose connections are unclear for much of the film’s running time. In one, a heavily bearded Malek drifts in a rowboat on the ocean, screaming Spanish obscenities at the sky; in another, he plays a wandering drifter named Buster who’s wandering in and out of the houses of the rich. But in the main story, he plays Jonah, a hotel clerk whose marriage and relationship with his daughter is suffering under the strain of his night shifts and the influence of a wandering drifter (DJ Qualls) preaching about the evils of civilization.

It’s all an interesting enough setup, and Malek plays his parts incredibly well. But Buster’s Mal Heart is far less than the sum of its parts, with the ultimate connection between the story feeling meaningless and more than a bit pretentious, and some of the film’s other big moments ending up thudding and obvious. It all feels like it’s going for something profound, or at least mind-bendy, but instead, it just ends up muddled and dull, Malek’s performance aside, turning into something little more than a tired retread of ideas from better movies. Rating: **

1510598-bI’m pretty glad that Steven Soderbergh is unable to retire, from a film fan point of view. As long as he’s working actively, I’m guaranteed a regular stream of interesting, engaging movies; more than that, he’s almost completely incapable of repeating himself (a couple of Ocean’s sequels aside), as Logan Lucky shows. It would be entirely easy for Soderbergh to retread Ocean’s 11 again; after all, this is a heist film at its core. But, instead of giving us a smooth, sophisticated con game, we get something more low-key and natural-feeling, which befits the different world of Logan Lucky. This isn’t high rollers and con men; this is the working poor, stealing to stay alive, and Soderbergh brings a more controlled, thoughtful approach to much of the film’s setup period.

Indeed, it’s fascinating how much the downturn in the economy has shaped recent Soderbergh films, from Magic Mike to The Girlfriend Experience, and Logan Lucky is perhaps the most explicit version of this to date, with Channing Tatum’s single working dad getting laid off due to insurance liability, and Adam Driver’s bartender only having one arm thanks to three tours in the Middle East, a job he took due to a lack of other options in the area. It’s never hammered on, but the subtext is impossible to ignore here, and it’s what keeps the movie from being the condescending look at the poor that some people have accused it of being. Soderbergh’s clearly got some cynical feelings about corporations and big business, culminating in a brief scene in the aftermath of the heist where we get the business’s side of it, and his sympathy is deeply with these characters. Does he find the comedy in them? Oh, undoubtedly – Logan Lucky is incredibly funny. But all of these people are smarter than you might first assume, and there’s an undeniable Robin Hood feeling to the heist – the poor robbing from the rich.

All of which adds up to a great heist movie, but something that’s also quintessentially Soderbergh – something more character-driven, more stylish, and more entertaining than the simple story would ever lead you to believe. I had a blast with it, and love that Soderbergh’s work ethic means he’s going to be churning out more movies for a long time to come. (Oh, and the famous Game of Thrones joke? It’s every bit as funny and wonderful as you’ve heard and then some.) Rating: **** ½

tangerineBefore he made the incredible The Florida Project (my favorite movie of last year), director Sean Baker rose to fame with Tangerine, a dark comedy/drama that follows two transsesxual prostitutes on a Christmas Eve of manic events, largely orbiting around Sin-Dee’s (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) efforts to track down her pimp/boyfriend who cheated on her while she was in prison. At the time, I was never sure if Tangerine was famous because it was good, or because it was shot entirely on an iPhone and still looked pretty great; having seen it, I can tell you that it’s almost entirely the former.

Yes, Tangerine looks incredible, to the point where you probably won’t remember the iPhone shooting while you’re watching; it doesn’t hurt that Baker has such a great eye for finding the beauty in everyday images, as well as a cinephile’s eye for framing. But as he did in Tangerine, Baker creates a naturalistic, fleshed out world, one where you don’t feel like you’re watching a movie so much as trespassing in a whole society that we’re only barely privy to. As Sin-Dee and her friend Alexandra (Mya Taylor) make their way around the city – Sin-Dee hunting down her boyfriend, Alexandra trying to drum up audience interest in her performance that evening – we watch as they argue, talk at each other and everyone else, chat with old friends and new enemies, and just sort of exist. The result is a little more plot driven than Florida Project was – the two women have a full character arc each, as does Razmik (Karren Karagulian), a local cab driver who’s got his own life that weaves in and out with these women. Again working with primarily new faces, unknown actors, and inexperienced newcomers, Baker brings his world to life, depicting these lives without pity or judgment.

The end result is surprisingly funny; there’s no end of drama and screaming, but I ended up laughing at a huge amount of it, and there’s no denying that Alexandra’s dry commentary on half of the drama makes every scene all the better. But Baker finds the emotional core buried deep within the women, ending on a quiet scene that’s perfect in every way – a moment of tenderness, understanding, and peace in the middle of all of it. In a way, that’s Baker’s movies, too – an affectionate, nonjudgmental portrait of people we tend to overlook. Rating: *****

IMDb: Buster’s Mal Heart | Logan Lucky | Tangerine

Hunt for the Wilderpeople / *****

hunt-for-the-wilderpeople-movie-poster-2016-1020773853It has been a long time since I fell in love with a movie as hard as I did with Hunt for the Wilderpeople, director Taika Waititi’s wonderful, incredibly funny, deeply warm-hearted film about a foster child who goes on the run into the New Zealand bush with his uncle rather than be returned to Child Services. That doesn’t sound like the setup for a comedy, but I cannot overstate how often and how hard I laughed at Wilderpeople. But more than that, what won me over about Wilderpeople was its incredibly big heart and humane spirit; it’s never cheesy, never ridiculous in its earnestness, but it never is less than kind to its characters and honest in its belief in the importance of love and kindness.

That mixture is evident even from the opening scenes of the film, which depicts the arrival of new adoptee Ricky (Julian Dennison, whose performance is a wonder) at the home of Bella and Hec, a couple living near the edge of the New Zealand bush. Hec is gruff and silent, and Ricky is presented as “a bad seed” – a trouble maker, a wanna-be gangster, and just generally a bad kid. But Bella’s mothering can’t be denied, and the look on Ricky’s face when he finds that she’s left a hot water bottle to warm his bed for him speaks volumes – it’s a moment of kindness toward a child who may have never experienced any, and Dennison’s underplayed reaction is quietly moving in its appreciation and awe.

That’s how the film goes, though. Waititi is known for comedy, and Wilderpeople is laugh-out-loud funny throughout, with Waititi making the best of the wonderful chemistry between the outsized personality of Dennison and the taciturn straight man of Sam Neill. But he populates the film with silliness throughout, never letting the film escape the grounding of its story, but finding the absurdity and ridiculousness in almost every scene, from a bewildering funeral speech to an entirely overzealous child services officer. And none of that even takes into account the brief role played by the wonderful Rhys Darby, who never fails to make me laugh, as the self-titled “Psycho Sam”.

And yet, even though it’s that funny, what turned me from enjoying Wilderpeople to loving it is the depiction of this lonely, rejected child and the hardened man played by Neill. Yes, I’m sure you know the broad outlines of how that relationship will go, but none of it detracts from the way that Waititi fleshes it out – the slow unveiling of both characters’ past traumas and vulnerabilities – nor the way both performances convey so much about the characters without Waititi needing to spell out every detail. Indeed, so much of the joy of the film comes from its willingness to take its characters seriously, even when it’s peppering you with silliness.

For some, I suppose the disconnect of the absurdity (which hits its peak in an elaborate and over the top finale) and the human element might be an issue. But for me, somehow, Waititi holds it all together, letting his characters drive the comedy, generally preferring the simple gag to the elaborate one, but always making the humor about the world and the characters, not at them. Even Ricky, who’s presented as one sort of trope, becomes something better and richer – a young child who just wants to be loved, and whose front is, well, a front. That he manages all this while still giving us a rich adventure tale in the New Zealand bush – a manhunt, hunting trips, confrontations with locals, and more – is all the more remarkable, but makes the overall movie all the more joyous and warm as a result. It’s funny, humane, kind, absurd, and just wonderful in almost every way I can think of, and I loved every second of it.


Brawl in Cell Block 99 / *****

7801760-5With his first movie, Bone Tomahawk, director S. Craig Zahler made a name for himself, creating a compelling vision of the Old West before turning his True Grit-flavor abruptly into brutal and violent horror. It was a movie I liked a lot, even if at times I made the comment that it felt a little overlong and shaggy at times. And, to be sure, the comment could easily be made that the film feels intentionally disjointed and disconnected, but it still makes for an odd viewing experience.

But with his second film, Brawl in Cell Block 99, Zahler makes a huge step forward, creating something tonally unified, unfiltered, and absolutely effective. It’s unmistakably a 1970’s grindhouse revenge film tribute, but one that makes use of Zahler’s willingness to take his time in his films, letting the characters develop to make the payoffs all the more effective. And please trust me when I tell you that  the payoffs here are effective – but they are also brutal. At times, this makes the violence of Bone Tomahawk seem like a dry run; it’s shocking, horrifying, and undeniably disturbing.

But that’s fitting for Brawl, which takes the form of a 1970’s revenge film, more or less. It’s the tale of Bradley (Vince Vaughn), a man trying to get his life on track, but struggling to stay employed. Through a complicated set of circumstances, Bradley finds himself going to a minimum security prison, when something happens that changes his whole plan. (If it sounds like I’m being vague, that’s intentional; while this isn’t a plot heavy film, it’s best enjoyed relatively cold, to savor Zahler’s brutal and unexpected machinations.) That, of course, leads to the titular brawl…which lives up to expectations and then some.

But as much as the film’s violence is effective, jarring, and nightmarish, what lingers more than anything else is the mood of the film, which gives even the happiest scenes a feeling of dread and inevitability, and makes the film’s slow progression to its looming conclusion all the more intense. From the blue-tinted lens work to the lived-in feel of the dialogue, it’s not hard to feel that Zahler’s work has stepped up another notch from his already outstanding work in Bone Tomahawk, creating something even more intense and gripping.

For all of that, there’s no way to talk about the film without talking about Vince Vaughn, who may have never been better in a film than he is here. Gone is Vaughn’s usual swagger and ironic charm; his Bradley is a hard man, shaped by a troubled past that we only get hints of and the vagaries of a difficult daily life. There’s none of Vaughn’s usual motormouth tendencies, none of his ability to talk his way out of situations. His Bradley is all physicality – tense, dangerous, coiled. (It doesn’t hurt that Vaughn bulked up so much for the role; he’s big enough to seem like a threat that’s ready to pop at any moment.) And yet, we get glimpses of the man underneath it all; even as he’s doing horrifying things, there’s no joy in it, no savage delight – it’s just survival. That’s especially relevant, given how much Zahler turns the plot on Bradley’s need to protect his family; for all of Bradley’s physicality and violence, he’s a deeply loving man whose only priority is to provide for those he loves.

There are other great performances here – Don Johnson makes the best of a small role as a prison warden, turning a role that could easily turn into camp into something more threatening and hard – but truly, Brawl works so well due largely to Vaughn’s incredible performance here, one in which he fully commits to the part. That he’s matched – or forced into stepping up his game – by Zahler’s outstanding direction…well, that combo makes Brawl as good as it is, turning pulpy revenge into something more gripping, effective, and tense than it might be on paper. It’s not for the faint of heart, but for those up for it, Brawl is an absolute knockout of tension, mood, and performance. Just be prepared for what you’re getting into.


Mr. Splitfoot, by Samantha Hunt / **

23719481Mr. Splitfoot really should work for me. Unfolding across two time periods, it follows two halves of the story of Ruth, an orphan raised in a group home by a religious cult leader. In the first story, we follow Ruth and her closest friend, a young man named Nat, as they attempt to survive their bizarre childhood and find themselves falling in with a traveling con man who spies Nat’s “communing with the dead”; in the second, a much older Ruth visits her niece Cora, who’s single, pregnant, and questioning her place in the world, and decides to follow a strangely silent Ruth on a long walking journey to…well, somewhere, right?

Con artists, religious cults, doomsday prophets, and ghost stories – all of it should add up to a book I loved. Instead, Mr. Splitfoot was an absolute slog for me, losing its way in overwritten and turgid prose more interested in showing off than in conveying a story, confusing “cryptic” for “interesting”, and never realizing that it takes a certain kind of story to handle a lack of clear answers, and this sure isn’t one.

Much of the blame for that has to be laid at the feet of the Ruth and Cora story, whose tedium really can’t be overstated for me; while the initial mystery is intriguing (where are they going? Why won’t Ruth talk?), the story feels like it’s spinning its wheels waiting on the point where it can intersect with the other plot thread, and so instead we get chapter after chapter after chapter of the characters walking and Cora thinking to herself. Which, in of itself, might not be a bad thing, but Hunt never brings much interesting to the table in these sequences, and at a certain point, the big reveals she has at the end of the story are so weak and pointless that they can’t justify the wait to get there.

But even the section of the book that follows Ruth in her childhood falls flat ultimately, as the plot gets more and more ludicrous and twisty, robbing it of its pleasures. Setting aside Hunt’s showy writing, the group home material is at least engaging, if eye-rollingly Gothic at times. And as the con man surrogate father enters the book, there’s a sense that at least we’re going somewhere fun. But, alas, that’s not meant to be, as things get silly once again by the end and Hunt’s convoluted story starts doubling back on itself.

Mr. Splitfoot feels like a Gothic ghost story that’s embarrassed to admit that it’s a genre piece, and so it gussies itself up with overwrought prose and leaves enigmas aplenty so as to feel “literary”. But the enigmas aren’t thought-provoking; they’re tedious and annoying. And the prose is never engaging or rich; it’s just distracting and forced. It all adds up to a slog on just about every level.