“There’s A Reason I’m Sitting Behind This Desk Running Things. And You’re Out There With A Partner That’s Twenty Years Younger Than You…”
When it comes to discussions regarding the best new filmmakers working out there at this very moment in time, the one-two success of both Bone Tomahawk and Brawl in Cell Block 99 has deservedly placed S. Craig Zahler on the watch list for any new release which might come this way. After doing the rounds on the festival circuit, the long wait for the American’s latest, Dragged Across Concrete, finally comes to an end to audiences in the U.K, with Zahler once again returning to the B-movie genre in which he truly admires and loves, a particular dedication both impressive and ballsy considering the now common approach for independent filmmakers to make a couple of little-seen gems and then fancy their chances within the cinematic big leagues. Reuniting with Vince Vaughn after directing him to his best ever work on the big screen in Brawl in Cell Block 99, Zahler’s latest sees Vaughn co-star with Mel Gibson (Blood Father), who reunite themselves after their work together on the Oscar nominated, Hacksaw Ridge, for a movie which makes absolutely no mistake in coming across as one of the most seedy, nihilistic and hard-edged movies of the year so far, a police procedural crime drama with a double-edged twist which sees Gibson and Vaughn as suspended police officers who soon flip in allegiances to the law as they attempt to intercept a bank heist involving Tory Kittles’ (American Heist) recently released ex-con and a merciless band of stone cold murderers.
At just over two and a half hours long, Zahler’s impressive positioning in seemingly having complete control over his respective works and directorial final say means that Dragged Across Concrete does ultimately come across as his most indulgent production yet, a full on Tarantino-esque cinematic sprawl which at times feels overly joyous in attempting to frustrate you with drawn out set pieces, particularly in a first act which does take slightly long to really get going, but as with both of Zahler’s works so far, the testing nature of the pacing is offset with a mature and natural flair for excellent writing, interesting characters and incredibly tense set pieces which in their sense of tonal unease creates an off-kilter vacuum which filmmakers of lesser skill would undoubtedly not be able to handle. Whilst it’s hard to like any of the leading characters at the heart of the drama, with Gibson’s Brett Ridgeman a racist, old-fashioned relic of the past ages whose refusal to adhere to the modern world has resulted in failed promotion bids, a particularly chin-stroking set of character traits when considering the actor’s infamous private life, the fact remains that I still found everything involving his relationship with Vaughn’s Anthony Lurasetti utterly fascinating, ranging from elongated stake-out scenes to their ruthless ability to manage the most hostile of situations. With the final ninety minutes of the drama essentially one big heist set piece, the B-movie style for which Zahler is already renowned for really goes all gun blazes, with the introduction of Jennifer Carpenter’s (Quarantine) return-to-work mother giving birth to one of the most jaw-dropping character arcs I have seen in recent memory, and whilst some will gasp at both the runtime and the darkness at the heart of Dragged Across Concrete, name one other independent filmmaker at this very moment in time who has the cojones to make these kind of movies, a film so gritty and so brilliantly summed up by its’ title that come the end of it, you’ll feel that you’ve been dragged across volcanic ash, let alone concrete. That’s my kind of movie.
Overall Score: 8/10
“Good Morning, Wrestling Nerds. This Is Where We See Whether Or Not You Get To Go On The WWE…”
With an absolute absence of knowledge pertaining to anything slightly resembling the world of wrestling, with my own views regarding the slightly absurd money making machine something of which I might just keep restrained for this particular review, it’s fair to say that Fighting With My Family is the type of rags-to-riches true story which from an outsiders point of view, would have to spoon feed me the rise of Saraya “Paige” Bevis, the Norwich born, heavy metal loving hard-ass who became the youngest wrestling champion ever at the age of twenty one. Written and directed by the immediately recognisable figure of Stephen Merchant (The Office, Logan) and backed financially by WWE Studios, whos previous endeavours include erm, The Scorpion King and Leprechaun: Origins to name a few, Fighting With My Family takes the cliched, formulaic approach to bringing the story of Paige to the big screen, and whilst such genre conventions force the underlying narrative to be more than overly predictable, even for someone without knowing the wrestling back story heading in, Merchant’s movie succeeds due to other elements elsewhere, with warm, interesting characters and a charming, likeable sensibility pushing his movie into what can only be regarded as just a damn fine, if overly cheesy, time at the flicks.
With the superbly talented Florence Pugh (Lady Macbeth) taking the leading role as Paige, her iconic accent and emo-inflicted personality immediately offers an element of depth thanks to a central performance which manages to completely immerse you in the journey she undertakes from the rocky roads of Norfolk to the absurdity of the big stage in the sun soaked shores of America. Whilst the film revels in portraying the ills of a Rocky style training camp and the drill sergeant-esque manner from a rather finely tuned supporting performance from Vince Vaughn (Brawl in Cell Block 99) as Paige’s talent scout and mentor, Merchant never seems to forget the core family unit which Paige leaves behind back home, and whilst Pugh is undoubtedly the leading star, the screenplay also balances the effect her newly found fame has on her brother, Zak, as portrayed by Jack Lowden (Dunkirk) whose dreams of capturing the world’s imagination on the biggest platform available are soon crushed as he watches his younger sibling take the road to stardom instead. With scene stealing supporting comedic roles from the always reliable Nick Frost (Hot Fuzz) and Lena Headey (Game of Thrones), Fighting With My Family of course oozes saccharin sweetness and cheesy sentimentality, but when a film is made with enough heart and soul to bypass such flaws, the end result is and hour and forty minutes of good old fashioned lovey-dovey entertainment, even with some rather egoistic cameos from Dwayne Johnson.
Overall Score: 7/10
“You Are A Man Of Principle. You Know The Difference Between Right and Wrong…”
Although the thought of seeing the latest Vince Vaughn movie doesn’t exactly fill me with mountainous levels of excitement, the real drawing power of Brawl in Cell Block 99 is of course director S. Craig Zahler, the American filmmaker behind one of last year’s most surprisingly violent and impressively crafted movies in the form of Bone Tomahawk, who in Tarantino-esque form, managed to create a dark and overly twisted Western which not only had a growling, moustache wearing Kurt Russell on top form, but placed Zahler front and centre amidst the many impressive underground filmmakers out there today. Swapping the Western horror genre for a modern-day based crime thriller, Zahler more than effectively continues the successes of Bone Tomahawk with his latest release, creating a movie which simultaneously emphasises the director’s love of exploitation cinema and midnight movie B-releases, alongside showcasing a redefined Vince Vaughn in a superbly crafted, unrecognisable fashion, and whilst Vaughn has flirted with dramatic roles in the past, with True Detective and Hacksaw Ridge being the most recent examples, Brawl in Cell Block 99 is the type of movie which could inevitably end up giving the American actor his very own mcconaissance, and whilst Vaughn is only the tip of the iceberg for a film which has so many positive elements, the real plaudits undeniably belongs to the film’s commander in chief, with Zahler continuing to prove why so many cinema loving audiences have began to become truly interested in his work.
Fired from his job and sucked back into a previously departed life of criminality, Vaughn’s Bradley Thomas quickly finds himself in the confines of a cell after a drug deal gone sour, and with the welfare of his wife and unborn child at risk, Bradley is forced to meet the demands of a high ranking Mexican gangster in order to pay the astronomical debt caused by Bradley’s sudden incarceration. Using a similar narrative technique to that of Bone Tomahawk, Zahler’s latest is a movie which understands the balance between character based substance and exploitation style violence, utilising the film’s two hour plus runtime to examine a character who bounces back and forth between a charming, family oriented man of the people and a brooding, merciless, violent thug, and with Vaughn using his natural, bulky physique as an essential part of the character’s appearance, Brawl is arguably the first film to really showcase to what Vaughn’s strength’s truly are as an actor. Of course, with the exploitation style violence inevitable for a man who shocked the world with Bone Tomahawk, the scenes in which we witness Bradley rip apart fellow criminals with his bare hands are undeniably shocking and squeal-inducing, but to the film’s credit, always have an undeniable air of B-movie fun within them, and for a film as violent as this, Brawl in Cell Block 99 manages to blend seamlessly the mix between violence, drama and guilty pleasure to a wholly entertaining extent. With brilliant cameo performances from the likes of Jennifer Carpenter and the charisma covered Don Johnson, the best course of action is to remember the name, with S. Craig Zahler slowly becoming the most interesting director working out there today.
Overall Score: 8/10
“Most Of These Men Don’t Believe The Same Way You Do, But They Believe So Much In How Much You Believe…”
Eleven years after the non-stop intensity of Apocalypto, everyone’s favourite crazy American Aussie returns to directorial duty with Hacksaw Ridge, a similarly profound and incredibly violent tale focusing on the true events of The Battle of Okinawa in the early months of 1945 and specifically upon the actions of Desmond Doss, the only conscientious objector to ever receive the Medal of Honour for his services during the taking of the titular Hacksaw Ridge, a cliff face of the Maeda Escarpment surrounded by Japanese forces. Taking on the challenge of a non-fiction wartime miracle, Mel Gibson’s latest suffers from a fundamental flaw of being a movie of two halves, with the first half being primarily a cheesy, eye-gouging hour of character development which evokes everything from Forest Gump to Full Metal Jacket and a second half which can only be regarded as a simply stunning visualisation of the madness of war and one which ranks up there with the best there is to offer in regards to on-screen depictions of the Second World War.
In the lead role as Desmond Doss, Andrew Garfield attempts to shows off his best Virginian accent amidst a performance which reeks of similarity to his character in Martin Scorsese’s Silence in terms of his seemingly unbreakable penchant for sticking to his faith, whilst the rather formulaic and obvious narrative twists doesn’t exactly give much meat to any other character throughout the course of the movie, particularly Teresa Palmer who is wasted as Doss’ wife, Dorothy, who seems to be key in the first half of the movie but then disappears into the abyss of two-dimensional nothingness come the second act. Star of the show however is a joint title for both Hugo Weaving and Vince Vaughn, with the latter channelling his meanest R. Lee Ermey and provoking a rafter of laughs from the audience during a superb Drill Sergeant scene which of course harks back to Full Metal Jacket, a film which similarly suffers from a superb first act but then loses steam after the half way mark. After the brilliance of Apocalypto, Hacksaw Ridge does seem like a fall back into second gear, with Gibson’s latest more of a crowd-pleasing romp in contrast to his other work yet for the time it was on screen, it was a solid and overly violent roller-coaster. Well, just in its’ second act.
Overall Score: 7/10
A Truer Detective?
This week brought an end to the second season of Nic Pizzolatto’s highly addictive crime sage True Detective, a show that this year has been rife with criticism and finger-pointing with many arguing that aside from being wholly unsubstantial to its’ predecessor, it has also been an utter disaster with many being critical of its over-elaborate plot, cliched characters, and the ability of lead-writer Pizzolatto who has come under much scrutiny for this season’s attempt to diverge from the occult-ridden themes of the first and move into a noir-fueled epic, featuring a bundle of new characters and a range of different plot threads in order to make up its’ eight episode run. In terms of my own personal viewpoint on this season of True Detective, I am seemingly one of the few in believing that this series offered the opportunity for Pizzolatto to expand his horizons in regards to what can be achieved with such a format that True Detective holds, resulting in a season that yes, did have a wide range of flaws and weaknesses, but was also highly enjoyable with moments of sheer greatness which distinguished itself from anything else on TV at this particular moment of time. And I salute it.
In a rather ironic sort of way, “Omega Station”, the concluding episode of this years’ series, pretty much epitomised everything that True Detective stood for this time around, with the beautiful cinematography, including the wonderful overhead shots of California’s vast landscape, and heart-pounding scenes of tension, particularly in regards to Velcoro’s tragic last stand, being the highlights of the episode. These particular highlights were traits that although were absent slightly from the first three episodes of the series in which time seemed to go rather slowly with not much actually happening in regards to the overall plot, came to form the basis of the second half of the series in which the story finally managed to take a step forward, resulting in the last three episodes of the series being undoubtedly the best in a string of episodes that began with a drag yet concluded with an almighty band. And what a bang it was. If Frank and Ray’s raid on Agranov’s cash deal wasn’t thrilling enough, “Omega Station” left us with a range of memorable scenes, ranging from Velcoro’s redemption to Semyon’s hallucinatory last-breath, something of which was straight out of the Lynch-school for dramatic weirdness.
In typical noir-esque fashion, the fate of our three heroes in this years’ season, as well as Vince Vaughn’s Frank Semyon, was rather depressing to say the least, with only Rachel McAdam’s Ana Bezzerides coming out alive, albeit on-the-run from the corrupt power structure that has overtaken our beloved heroes’ home, following the now-famous Game of Thrones policy that sometimes that bad guys have to win. In regards to out main band of heroes, it was obvious that Colin Farrell’s Ray Velcoro was indeed the most interesting of the bunch, with Farrell’s acting being on top-notch from the start, whilst Vince Vaughn must also take credit for embodying a role which so easily could have gone majorly wrong due to Vaughn’s capacity for cringe-worthy comedic acting, yet ended up being one of the better points of this years’ season resulting in a true sense of redemption for an actor so easily laughed at for his involvement in a string of rather questionable movies more recently. So, where did it all go wrong? In my own opinion, most of the backlash in regards to this years’ series simply came from people jumping on the True Detective-bashing bandwagon, with it seemingly being hip and cool to add to the growing list of haters for this years series, whilst many simply couldn’t deal with the fact that this years’ series was nothing at all like the first, something of which I was impressed by, with this season offering a truer and more down-to-earth take on the crime genre than the occult-ridden themes of the first.
But in all my fondness for the series, there were noticeable weaknesses and missteps, no more so than the ear-gratingly bad dialogue that our characters spoke at particular moments of the season, with our heroes’ hatred of E-Cigarettes being a personal favourite whilst Semyon’s attempt at being his own personal Gandhi with cringe-worthy anecdotes and “inspirational” speeches being draining at times, highlighting that perhaps all the critical praise Pizzolatto received first time around slightly going to his head. Also on the weaker side was the rather messy plot lines that although were rather hard to follow at times, also resulted in a sense of hollowness during the revelation of Caspere’s true murderer, which, in the end, was wholly anti-climatic and had only a slight relevance to the messy plot lines regarding corrupt police officers and business officials which Pizzolatto felt compelled to tell us about. But hey ho, I’d rather watch a series with flaws and weaknesses than anything else if that particular series has as much entertainment value as True Detective undoubtedly has. At the end of the day, Nic Pizzolatto’s crime sage may not have been for everyone this time around, but for me it was wholly refreshing and gave me a reason to wake up early on a Monday morning, and for those reasons alone I am going to miss it. I can only hope for Season Three this time next year.
Episode Score: 9/10
Death ‘Til Us Part
With the complex and sometimes baffling plot threads, questionable dialogue, and a desire to try and out-class its’ critically acclaimed predecessor this season, True Detective Mark II has had a wide range of detractors and naysayers, yet this weeks’ episode proved that when done correctly, True Detective has the fundamental genetic makeup to be a true great within the already brilliant HBO lineup whilst having the potential to match and rival anything on TV all across the globe. This weeks’ penultimate episode featured everything that made True Detective what it was last year with an increased level of threat and danger towards our main three heroes, solid acting from all involved, and twist and turns that solidified my anticipation for the concluding episode next week in which we are set to tie together the many loose ends that have been left by the complex nature of the overarching plot-line regarding the death of Ben Caspere. This week also handed us the first taste of death for one of our “True Detectives” with Taylor Kitsch’s Paul Woodrugh violently biting the dust at the hands of Ray Velcoro’s police chief. Lieutenant Burris, after narrowly escaping a confrontation with his blackmailers, all of whom seem to be privy to the events of last week’s drug infused orgy in the hillsides.
With Kitsch’s Woodrugh off the payroll, one man who took the lead with some panache this week was Vince Vaughn, who although at times hasn’t had the best writing to work with, particularly in regards to his sometimes ear-grating dialogue, has proven to be one of this highlights of the season with this week’s episode allowing him to fully embrace the deceptive and seedy nature of Frank Semyon who once again escaped from bleeding out entirely and instead remained firmly on the ropes after destroying his two clubs after acknowledging the power struggle between him and Russian gangster, Osip Agranov. Following suit, Detectives Bezzerides and Velcoro also felt the heat this week by both turning to the other side of the law after a turn of events in which their one trusted source within the law department was found dead in their car with the blame firmly placed in the lap of Velcoro. With the walls falling in around our three remaining leads, next week’s conclusion of this year’s season of True Detective is one that shouldn’t be missed. See you then.
Overall Score: 9/10
Due to an enormous level of work and cinema constraints (Damn you Inside Out!), my rather punctual review of the week’s episode of True Detective has annoyingly come two days too late, but nevertheless, such a time period has allowed me to fully digest “Church In Ruins”, an episode in which events within the personal and overall plot-lines of our main heroes and heroines took a step up in an attempt to ready us for the roller-coaster ride that hopefully will be the series’ two concluding episodes. If one overall positive thing is to be taken away from this years’ series of True Detective, it is undeniably going to be Colin Farrell, who’s performance as troubled cop Ray Velcoro hit top-notch this week, particularly during the scene in which we relentlessly witness his descent back into drugs and drink in order to fully accept the notion of losing his son once and for all. On the opposite side of the law, Vince Vaughn continues to impress as Frank Semyon who continues to try and progress in his own investigation into the death of Ben Caspere whilst once again feeling the pressure from the depths of the criminal underworld with the return of the eerie, if rather out-of-place, sombrero wearing Mexican.
As for Detective Bezzerides, wow. The concluding scene in which we witness one of the weirdest undercover operations ever was not only difficult to watch in some places, but also brilliantly executed within all the madness and endless sexual intimacy that was presented on-screen. Kudos too to Bezzerides’ for her ninja skills in the inevitable, yet rather cool and badass knife-attack in which we finally see her expert knife-wielding tactics being but to good use. Oddly enough, with all the attention firmly on Velcoro and Bezzerides this week, Taylor Kitsch’s Paul Woodrugh decided to take a step back this week from the limelight and oddly enough, brought about a much better episode, with his own personal storyline definitely being the weakest of the trio’s throughout the series so far, yet his looming one-two of marriage and fatherhood may be the cause for his troubles to have finally stopped. This week’s episode of True Detective therefore definitely produced a high watermark for the series, propped up by Farrell’s magnificent performance and a scintillating final scene in which the bones of the overall storyline just got a little bit juicier.
Overall Score: 8/10
With the bloody, gunshot ridden conclusion that rounded off last week’s episode of True Detective, this week’s venture into Nic Pizzolatto’s noir-crime drama was bound to deal with the consequences of such, particularly in regards to the surviving trio of Velcoro, Bezzerides and Woodrugh who witnessed first hand a barrage of death and destruction. After a weird and ambiguous change to the show’s theme tune to start us off with, such consequences of the shootout are swiftly distinguished within “Other Lives” with Velcoro and Bezzerides seemingly ending up with the short change, with the latter now working under Frank Semyon and the former ending up in storage, whilst Woodrugh has seemingly taken all the plaudits and rewarded with the opportunity to have a go at being Detective. Of course being only halfway through the series, the fact that both Velcoro and Bezzerides are now out of the main picture, it has given them a chance to establish, low key, other inquiries into the ever-confusing death of Ben Caspere, much to the enjoyment of every True Detective fan with this particular episode diving deeper into the seedy backstory into his death, including a rather nasty looking hut with a rather bloody look to it in a scene that bears similarities to that of the first series.
Elsewhere, Frank Semyon attempted to reconnect with his human side in an attempt to rekindle his relationship with Mrs. Semyon whilst Velcoro was asked to look into his personal staff in an attempt to detect the blame in regards to his loss of finance which followed the death of Ben Caspere. With Velcoro well and truly under the thumb of Semyon, the rather shocking twist regarding the true fate of his wife’s rapist brought the episode to a mouthwatering close, in a confrontation that will ultimately have heavy repercussions heading into the final few episodes. With all the negativity regarding the snail-esque pace of this season’s main storyline, “Over Lives” fought back with a bang and offered a chance to delve deeper into the lives of all four of our main protagonists whilst moving forward with its’ underlying through point regarding the death of Ben Caspere at a rate which finally is leading Season Two of True Detective into a direction it deserves to be heading in.
Overall Score: 8/10
To Live and Die In L.A
With the first series of True Detective declaring it’s sheer awesomeness during its’ fourth episode when we were treated to the now-famous one-take, gang-land escape scene, this week’s episode of series two was bound to include some sort of monumental set-piece in some form or another. And boy, wasn’t it just? The explicitly violent massacre that concluded “Down Will Come” not only was shocking as it was bloody, but also featured ten minutes of ramped-up action that had been absent from this season so far, concluding with Officers Velcoro, Bezzerides, and Woodrugh physically repelled at the sheer carnage they had just all witnessed after a search and seizure on a potential suspect was turned completely on its’ head. Although such a scene was downright epic in its’ own right, parallels to the first series was inevitable. regardless of how good such a scene was going to be, yet I think it’s time to move away from comparisons to the first series and just enjoy True Detective for what its’ attempting to be this year; a dark and brooding noir crime thriller that is trying it’s hardest to shake off the plaudits of its’ predecessor by not being just more of the same.
Of course, the argument that its’ attempting to not be “more of the same” can be easily criticised due in part to the way in which such a set piece in this week’s episode was pretty much expected, but on the whole, the concluding shootout worked and I believe if such a scene was placed into another, bog-standard crime show, it would be applauded. I know True Detective, you just can’t win. Although the final scene was something to take away from this week’s episode, in terms of the overall plot, not much was entirely expanded upon, with Frank Semyon still attempting to rebuild his legacy in the crime underworld, whilst the depth of the case was only focused on within the last ten minutes or so, aside from some rather confusing plot lines regarding spiritual seminars and land development, making this week’s episode memorable in places, but overall, just filler in the overall context of the seasons overarching plot threads.
Overall Score: 7/10
May The Elvis Be With You
Last week’s episode of True Detective left us questioning whether the series had accomplished one of the most shocking deaths of recent times with the supposed murder of Detective Velcoro, a character portrayed majestically by everyone’s favourite Irish export Colin Farrell, yet such a mystery was immediately resolved in the first few minutes of “Maybe Tomorrow” when we established that the murderous bird-masked assailant had thankfully decided to load his shotgun with rubber bullets, much to the relief of Velcoro himself as well as most viewers I would assume who, like me, see Velcoro as one of the more interesting characters in this years’ series. One negative aspect of such a quick resurrection however was that all the fun and games of playing that one scene over and over in the week between the two episodes was quickly overshadowed with such an attempt on one of the leading characters life being brushed over rather instantaneously, a major shame in my opinion. Top marks however for the obvious Lynch/Twin Peaks inspired dream sequence that kicked this week’s episode off though. A good, retro, Lynch reference is always going to win me over. Well done.
With Velcoro’s swift resurrection, “Maybe Tomorrow” marched swiftly forward in an attempt to speed up the rather rambling plot lines that are starting to materialise, with the editing in this particular episode flying like a steam-train in order to keep us privy to not only dealings within the police force, but out of it, with Frank Semyon finally unleashing his inner evil after seeing one of his henchman being brutally murdered in manner not too dissimilar from that of Ben Caspere (Were his eyes not removed?). Furthermore, the obvious symbolism of sexual incapability between the two leads of the series in both Semyon and Woodrugh ties into the notion of both seemingly being absent from what they desire most, with Semyon reeling from the notion of leaving the criminal enterprise and Woodrugh’s obvious defiance from “coming out” as it were. This undercurrent sexual motif has been highly recurrent in this series so far, making me question whether lead writer Nic Pizzolatto is purposely fleshing out characters with such vices in order to have not one, but a whole range of potential suspects for the series’ main mystery on both sides of the law.
Weaknesses of the episode followed suit of the series’ overall weaknesses so far, with a few more examples of cringe-worthy dialogue, whilst the shallow, caricature-ridden portrayal of Mayor Chessani ‘s family, including his trophy wife and extremely annoying son was rather laughable in places. Furthermore, what is everyone’s problem with E-Cigarettes? I mean come on, there are much worse problems out there. In conclusion therefore, True Detective once again supplied another solid and intriguing slice of gritty, noir-esque mystery, stifled with sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, a winning recipe if ever there was one, if suffering from questionable dialogue and an all-too-quick resolution to the cliffhanger of the previous episode.