Friday, January 26, 2018

Worth Mentioning - A Raging Volcano of Wanton Destruction

We watch several movies a week. Every Friday, we'll talk a little about some of the movies we watched that we felt were Worth Mentioning.

Crime really doesn't pay. Fame ends in tragedy.


S. Craig Zahler immediately established himself as a filmmaker to keep an eye on with his feature directorial debut Bone Tomahawk, a Western with a sort of Italian cannibal edge to it. I was eagerly looking forward to seeing what he would be following that film up with - and the answer is Brawl in Cell Block 99, a wonderfully titled throwback to the prison films of the grindhouse / drive-in era glory days.

It's surprising that Vince Vaughn, being a 6'5" hulk, has primarily gone the comedy route rather than being cast in tough guy roles. Zahler saw his potential to be a bruiser and cast him as Bradley Thomas, having him shave his head and adding a large cross tattoo to the back of his skull. Vaughn looks quite intimidating here, and you believe without question that he could really pull off all of the brutally violent acts we're going to see Bradley perform.

Bradley will end up in a brawl in cell block 99 of a maximum security prison, and we'll see every step of his journey from being a free man to participating in that titular brawl. We really get more information than I needed - Brawl has the same 132 minute running time as Bone Tomahawk, but I felt this movie's length much more than I ever felt Tomahawk's. This is a movie that could have been simplified in a major way; if the same story had been told in something more like 92 minutes, I would have been much more enthusiastic about it.

There are more details given than are relevant as Zahler shows us Bradley's home life with his wife Lauren (Jennifer Carpenter, who had been attached to Bone Tomahawk at one time but didn't end up in the movie). They've had troubles, but they're working through it, and after Bradley loses his legit job he takes a gig running drugs. When a drug run goes bad, Bradley gets sent to prison. It takes him 45 minutes to get there, and that's not even the place with cell block 99 in it.

We see a lot of the process of Bradley entering this minimum security prison where he won't even be staying for the rest of the movie, then Udo Kier stops by to visit. Kier's character is there to let Bradley know that his pregnant, about-to-give-birth wife has been abducted and their baby will be dismembered if Bradley doesn't do a job for him. Bradley has to get sent to the maximum security prison and kill a certain inmate who is locked up in cell block 99. If he does this, Lauren will be released and Bradley's $3.2 million debt (from the drug run gone bad) will be forgiven.

Bradley finally arrives at the maximum security prison 75 minutes into the film. He should've gotten there earlier, because this is where we get to the really good stuff. Up to this point, Zahler seems to have been dedicated to showing us the reality of Bradley's situation, but once he gets to this prison, run by the hardcase Warden Tuggs (Don Johnson), Zahler allows the film to fully descend into the weirdness of old school exploitation cinema. If you break the rules at Tuggs' prison, you get outfitted with a shock belt that will electrocute you at regular intervals. And if you're really bad, Tuggs might even fill your cell with broken glass.

Of course, to get close to his prey, Bradley has to break the rules. And some heads.

Overall, I did enjoy Brawl in Cell Block 99 and appreciate that it's an homage of sorts to an era that I love, but I had serious pacing and structure issues with it throughout. It's not an instant favorite like Bone Tomahawk was. Instead, it's a movie that I like the idea of better than I like the way it was executed.

I'm still totally on board to continue following Zahler's career, though. Next up he has Dragged Across Concrete, a rogue cop movie starring Vaughn and Mel Gibson, which would seem to keep the old school cinema style going. He has also written a serial killer script called The Big Stone Grid that will hopefully go into production soon, and he wrote a Puppet Master reboot titled Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich, which I really can't wait to see.


Although it premiered on the Lifetime channel, director Mikael Salomon's film Big Driver is not the run-of-the-mill Lifetime movie, standing out from the pack due to the fact that it's based on a novella written by Stephen King. It's a tale that's both the typical King story, in that the lead character is an author, but also different from what the average viewer might have been expecting when they tuned in to watch the movie. It's different because this isn't a supernatural horror story; there are no supernatural or otherworldly aspects to it at all. This is a very down-to-earth, straightforward rape revenge story.

Richard Christian Matheson wrote the script for this adaptation, and it must have been a challenge for him and Salomon to put this together, since a lot of the film involves the lead doing things alone, talking or thinking to herself. They handled their end of things quite well, keeping the story moving along at a quick pace and at times giving Tess imagined characters to bounce ideas off of (something that may have been in King's story, but I haven't read it yet - it does seem like a King thing to do), while actress Maria Bello capably did the heavy lifting of keeping the main character captivating to watch.

Bello plays Tess Thorne, author of a series of mystery novels about the crime-solving Willow Grove Knitting Society (basically, a team of Jessica Fletchers). After taking a road trip to a Q&A appearance, Tess is given shortcut directions back home by a local librarian. This supposedly quicker route takes Tess along the back roads... and one spot on a back road happens to be covered with nailed boards. Tess gets a flat tire right outside an abandoned gas station, and soon a pickup truck comes along that's driven by a giant of a man (Will Harris). At first this giant appears to be gentle, offering to help change Tess's tire. But then he attacks, repeatedly raping and brutally beating her inside that gas station. After the assault, the man leaves Tess for dead in a drainage pipe. A pipe he has stored the bodies of other victims in as well.

Tess survives, though. She gets out of the pipe and makes her way back home. Not wanting to deal with the public spectacle that would come with the news that something so horrific has happened to a popular offer, Tess intends to keep the rape a secret and just make an anonymous call to the police about the bodies in the drainage pipe. But then thoughts of a different sort begin to cross her mind. Thoughts of revenge. Much like the members of the Willow Grove Knitting Society would, Tess sets out to solve this crime herself, to find out the identity of the man who attacked her and bring him to justice on her own.

And that's all there is to Big Driver, but it's satisfying to watch Tess's revenge play out, and it involves more steps than simply finding out who the "big driver" is and killing him. This may not be the best revenge thriller you've ever seen, but it's a well-crafted and intriguing entry in the sub-genre with a great lead and a detestable villain who operates within a very twisted situation.

MANSFIELD 66/67 (2017)

Jayne Mansfield was an actress and sex symbol who hit it big in the 1950s, her success spurred on by comparisons to her contemporary Marilyn Monroe - in fact, her breakthrough came when Twentieth Century Fox signed her to a contract hoping she could be their replacement for Monroe, who had been having troubles with the studio. Alongside Monroe and their fellow blonde bombshell Mamie Van Doren, who had been signed by Universal to be their Monroe substitute, Mansfield was one of "the three Ms".

Van Doren is still with us, but unfortunately the other two of the three Ms met tragic endings while in their thirties. The conspiracy theories that were built around the death of Monroe have gotten a lot of publicity over the years, and even if you aren't familiar with Mansfield's work there's a good chance you've at least heard something about her death. Mansfield died in 1967 when the car she was riding in rounded a curve and slammed into the back of a slow-moving semi truck that was shrouded in the mosquito fog being pumped out by the vehicle in front of it. If you live in the United States, you've probably noticed the underride guards that hang down from back of semi trailers, and these bars are sometimes called "Mansfield bars" because they were added to trailers partially in response to Mansfield's death, since the car she was in went under the truck's trailer. The roof was torn back and the three adults - including Mansfield - riding in the front seat received horrific head injuries.

The accident itself was straightforward, but that didn't stop sensationalized rumors from being spread, like the claim that Mansfield was decapitated, nor did it stop people from coming up with theories about the cause of the accident. For some, this wasn't just a simple case of mosquito fog obscuring the view of the road and an unexpected change of speed. Some believe that the cause of the accident is tied to Mansfield's association with Anton LaVey, the founder of the Church of Satan, during the last year of her life.

Directed by P. David Ebersole and Todd Hughes, the documentary Mansfield 66/67 opens with a snippet from an interview with cult filmmaker John Waters in which he says, "You can write anything when someone's dead, you can write a whole book of lies." That's followed by text appearing on the screen to let us know that the documentary itself is "a true story based on rumour and hearsay". The primary focus here are the stories that have been told about Mansfield in the years since her death, stories which no one seems to be able to verify or debunk with 100% certainty.

If you don't know that much about Mansfield, Ebersole and Hughes have you covered. They don't just dive into the juicy stuff, they make sure to provide the necessary information about Mansfield and her career building up to the year 1966, which LaVey had called "Year 1" himself, the first year under Satan. Her reputation for being the "smartest dumb blonde" around, her family life, the fact that she loved publicity and tried to share as much of her life with her fans as possible, the establishment of her "pink palace" mansion, it's all in there. Clips from Mansfield's films allow viewers who haven't seen them to see her in action and get an idea of what her screen presence was like.

The documentary also devotes time to giving us an idea of who Anton LaVey was. Although he was considered to be evil because of the church he started, we're told in a great quote from a "Satanic scholar" that he was more Count Chocula than Charles Manson. It's when the actress who lived in a pink palace on Sunset Boulevard decided to stop by the black house in San Francisco that LaVey's church was based out of that things started to get weird. It's a documented fact that Mansfield went there, there are pictures to prove it, and while she was there LaVey named her a High Priestess of the church. It's also a documented fact that LaVey visited the pink palace some months later. What sort of relationship Mansfield and LaVey had during those months isn't clear. Were they romantically involved? Did Mansfield become a practicing Satanist? This documentary isn't here to give solid answers, it's just interested in examining the gossip. The whispers that LaVey had placed a curse on Mansfield's lawyer/boyfriend. A curse that led to that car crash.

The section of the documentary that delves into the mysterious connection between Mansfield and LaVey draws the attention of the horror genre fan, as the events in Mansfield's life got kind of Omen-ish. LaVey had been a lion tamer and kept a pet lion in his home. When Mansfield's children learned that she had been around a lion, they wanted to meet a lion themselves. And during a trip to the zoo, one of her sons ended up being mauled by a lion.

Mansfield's son being mauled, that's fact. Whether or not LaVey saved the child's life by performing a Satanic ritual, well... that's up to you to decide. This documentary just lets you know that some people believe he did.

Making this section of the documentary even more appealing to genre fans is the appearance of The Birds star Tippi Hedren, who ended up taking in LaVey's lion and giving it a role in the famously troubled "lions run amok" film Roar. That lion fathered a son who was named Billy in honor of Hedren's friend William Peter Blatty. The author of The Exorcist.

I found Mansfield 66/67 to be rather fascinating overall, as Ebersole and Hughes did a good job of making the stories they presented here interesting and in drawing the viewer into Mansfield's life. This documentary made me more of a Mansfield fan than I have been up to this point, and has made me want to binge watch my way through her films as soon as possible. However, I did have some issues with the execution.

In addition to telling its stories through archival footage and interviews, Mansfield 66/67 also features moments with a sort of "Greek chorus" of performers who sing out parts of Mansfield's bio and even do some interpretive dancing to act out certain situations in her life. Pretty much any time the documentary would cut away to these performers, they would make me cringe. This device didn't work for me at all, I wish it wasn't in there. The most egregious use of this chorus comes when archival footage featuring shots of what's left of the car Mansfield died in and of an interview with the man who embalmed her is shown in a split screen with some of the chorus members playing with toy cars while one of them puts on a fake Southern accent to paraphrase what is being said in the archival footage. What the purpose of this was, I couldn't tell you, but I found it to be quite annoying.

Much better to me were the recreations that were done in animation. For example, we see an animator's interpretation of LaVey performing his supposedly life-saving ritual.

I also didn't really approve of the way the filmmakers included death scene photos from the crash. Some of these images stayed on the screen too long for my taste, as we're shown the mangled corpses of the people killed in the crash, including Mansfield. She was scalped in the crash, and either her scalp or a wig, or both, appears in one of the shots - the shot that convinced some people she had been decapitated. She wasn't decapitated, but a pet chihuahua she had with her somehow nearly was, and even the image of that dead little dog lingers on the screen for several seconds.

Some of the choices Ebersole and Hughes made while putting this documentary together were highly questionable, but overall I was interested enough in the subject that I'm left with a positive impression and would recommend Mansfield 66/67 to anyone with even a minor interest in the story of Mansfield's life, whether you've seen any of her movies or not.

The review of Mansfield 66/67 originally appeared on


I was very impressed by director Paul Solet's 2009 feature debut Grace, and thought we'd be seeing a lot from Solet after that - so I was somewhat bummed that six years passed before he made another feature, that one being Dark Summer. Thankfully, we didn't have to wait another six years before seeing another Solet film. After contributing a segment to the anthology Tales of Halloween, Solet is back with his third feature... and this is the toughest Solet film to watch yet. Grace has some rough subject matter, but I found that Bullet Head went even further and darker.

The simple description of Bullet Head that's going around is "Cujo meets Reservoir Dogs", since it's about some criminals on the run who end up trapped in an old warehouse with a killer dog. That sounds kind of fun, and Bullet Head does have some very fun, thrilling sequences, but this isn't just a straightforward "nature run amok" horror thriller. This movie has some serious emotional depth and will tear into the heart of any viewer who love animals.

That killer dog, named De Niro (I thought it would be named Bullet Head, but there's no reason given within the film for it to be titled Bullet Head), isn't just some mad beast. This is a former fight dog who was left behind in the warehouse to be killed, so you can't blame it for its viciousness. People made De Niro into what he is, and Solet has a clear sympathy for the dog.

I was glad that the characters in the film also have a sympathy for it. The criminals who De Niro would like to turn into lunch all have a soft spot for animals, so when they find that they're trapped with this wronged dog they don't match its viciousness while dealing with it. These guys - hapless thieves played by Adrien Brody, John Malkovich, and Rory Culkin - don't have guns in the first place, but even if they are able to get their hands on weapons they don't go out of their way to harm De Niro. They'd rather run, hide, and get shut doors between them and the dog than hurt it.

A character who is less caring is one played by Antonio Banderas, the man who runs the dog fights and made De Niro thirst for blood. This is a criminal on a different level than the thieves, a gun-toting murderer who isn't pleased to see the thieves in the warehouse where his dog fight winnings were stored.

There are flashbacks to the stories (sometimes tragic) that made the thieves become dog people, and there are also flashbacks to the history of De Niro. The cruelty he endured, the fights, the aftermath of these fights. A dog person himself, Solet doesn't actually show us animals getting hurt on screen (save for some CGI gun shots), shots cut away before we see anything like the impact of a hit or fights or a dog in pain, but the implication is there and it's quite troubling.

Bullet Head is a good movie, but of the sort that gets under your skin. The subject matter is heavy, and it may be too dark for some viewers. But with the way Solet handled the moments of violence, a way that shows that he has respect for animals, I was able to get through the film and appreciate the story it told.

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