Brawl in Cell Block 99 (Fantastic Fest): A Noble Descent Into a Vicious Hell - Dread Central
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Brawl in Cell Block 99 (Fantastic Fest): A Noble Descent Into a Vicious Hell

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Starring Vince Vaughn, Jennifer Carpenter, Udo Kier, Mark Blucas, Dion Mucciacito

Directed by S. Craig Zahler


For those of you who have seen movies at an Alamo Drafthouse, you know that there are small sheets of paper upon which you use a tiny pen to scratch down your food and/or beverage order. I bring this up because when sitting in screenings at Fantastic Fest, I’ll often grab one of those sheets of paper to scribble notes for review purposes. When I left Brawl in Cell Block 99, the bottom of my sheet saw two words written in large, inescapable letters: “HOLY SHIT.

The film follows Bradley Thomas (Vaughn), a Southern man who begins the movie as a tow truck driver/repo man who gets fired only to come home to find that his wife, Lauren (Carpenter), has been cheating on him. After unleashing some rage upon her car – in a scene reminiscent of Street Fighter II‘s bonus stage – the two have a difficult but important discussion in which they decide to give their marriage another chance. As part of this, Bradley chooses to go back to being a drug runner, something Lauren clearly doesn’t like the thought of but accepts because, hey, she just cheated on him.

Eighteen months later and the two are pregnant and living in a beautiful, if not strangely sterile, house. But soon afterwards, a drug pickup organized by Bradley’s boss, Gil (Blucas), which is meant to create a partnership with the foreign drug dealer Eleazar (Mucciacito), goes south, Bradley is sentenced to seven years in prison and Eleazar’s associates are seriously unhappy with the amount of money he’s cost them. That’s when Lauren is kidnapped and threatened in the most harrowing of ways, leaving Bradley to venture down a dark path of violence and destruction while incarcerated.

Right away, I need to state that Vaughn’s performance is absolutely phenomenal. He’s undeniably imposing, his muscular form filling the screen. However, it’s his ability to portray a man constantly teetering on the edge of pure, seething rage that is astounding. Remember when people were scoffing at the idea of Heath Ledger playing the Joker? It’s understandable if there are those who have their doubts about Vaughn’s ability to play a role such as this. Trust me when I say your misgivings are unnecessary; this is an award-winning performance of redemption, whatever the cost.

Essentially an exploitation film, Brawl in Cell Block 99 unfolds at a steady, measured pace. It takes some time to build up, but that only adds to the tension and promise of violence. In a strange way, Zahler’s vision unfolds as a descent into Hell, reminiscent of Dante’s Inferno. Vaughn’s journey takes him deeper and deeper into the prison system, each jail cell darker, filthier and more shocking than the one before it.

Backed by a very smart and witty script, Brawl in Cell Block 99 opts for a far more realistic approach with this story and with the fight sequences, which utilize wide framing so that we may see the action but still appreciate and almost vicariously feel each thudding impact. Oh, and speaking of violence, Zahler doesn’t shy away from bringing viciousness to the screen in levels that made half the audience cringe and audibly gasp. I’ve seen a lot of gore over the years and even I widened my eyes during some moments.

Another Fantastic Fest film that straddles the line of horror, thriller and dark drama, I’ll be the first to admit that Brawl in Cell Block 99 is far more horrific than it is horror. However, genre fans will find vast amounts to love here as Zahler’s latest offering is an assault on your senses that sees Vaughn in one of the best performances of the year.

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User Rating 3.14 (7 votes)
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Desolation Review: Campers + Lunatic = Simplicity, But Not Always a Better Product

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DesolationStarring Jaimi Page, Alyshia Ochse, Toby Nichols

Directed by Sam Patton


I’m usually all in when it comes to a psycho in the woods flick, but there was just something about Sam Patton’s Desolation that seemed a bit distant for me…distance…desolation – I’m sure there’s a connection in there somewhere. Either that or I’m suffering from a minor case of sleep-deprivation. Either way, make sure you’ve got your backpack stuffed, cause we’re hitting the timber-lands for this one.

The film focuses on mother and son tandem Abby and Sam, and the tragic notion that Abby’s love and father to her son, has passed away. The absence has been a crippling one, and Abby’s idea of closure is to take her adolescent offspring to the woods where her husband used to love to run and scatter his ashes as a memorial tribute. Abby invites her best friend Jenn along as emotional support, and together all three are planning on making this trip a fitting and dedicatory experience…until the mystery man shows up. Looking like a member of the Ted Kaczynski clan (The Unabomber himself), this creepy fellow seems content to simply watch the threesome, and when he ultimately decides to close the distance, it’ll be a jaunt in the forest that this close-knit group will never forget.

So there you have it – doesn’t beg a long, descriptive, bled-out dissertation – Patton tosses all of his cards on the table in plain view for the audience to scan at their leisure. While the tension is palpable at times, it’s the equivalent of watching someone stumble towards the edge of a cliff, and NEVER tumble over…for a long time – you literally watch them do the drunken two-step near the lip for what seems like an eternity. What I’m getting at is that the movie has the bells and whistles to give white-knucklers something to get amped about, yet it never all seems to come into complete focus, or allow itself to spread out in such a way that you can feel satisfied after the credits roll. If I may harp on the performance-aspect for a few, it basically broke down this way for me: both Abby and Jenn’s characters were well-displayed, making you feel as if you really were watching long-time besties at play. Sam’s character was a bit tough to swallow, as he was the sadder-than-sad kid due to his father’s absence, but JEEZ this kid was a friggin malcontented little jerk – all I can say is “role well-played, young man.”

As we get to our leading transient, kook, outsider – whatever you want to call him: he simply shaved down into a hum-drum personality – no sizzle here, folks. Truly a disappointment for someone who was hoping for an enigmatic nutbag to terrorize our not-so-merry band of backpackers – oh well, Santa isn’t always listening, I guess. Simplicity has its place and time when displaying the picture-perfect lunatic, and before everyone gets a wild hair across their ass because of what I’m saying, all this is was the wish to have THIS PARTICULAR psycho be a bit more colorful – I can still appreciate face-biters like Hannibal Lecter and those of the restrained lunacy set. Overall, Desolation is one of those films that had all the pieces meticulously set in place, like a house of cards…until that drunk friend stumbled into the table, sending everything crumbling down. A one-timer if you can’t find anything else readily available to watch.

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2.5

Summary

Looking for a little direction way out in the woods? Look elsewhere, because this guide doesn’t have a whole lot to offer.

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User Rating 2.95 (19 votes)
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Children of the Fall Review – This Israeli Slasher Gets Political

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Starring Noa Maiman, Aki Avni, Yafit Shalev, Iftach Ophir, Michael Ironside

Directed by Eitan Gafny

Reviewed out of Utopia 2017


Slashers are a subgenre of horror that are often looked down upon. After all, what can a movie about a killer slaughtering multiple people have to say about, well…anything. Those of us in the community know full well that this is nonsense and that any kind of horror movie can be a jabbing (no pun intended) commentary on society, culture, politics, art, etc… And that’s precisely what Eitan Gafny aims to do with Children of the Fall, one of the few Israeli slashers ever created.

Set on the eve of the Yom Kippur war, the film follows Rachel (Maiman), a young American woman who comes to Israel to join a kibbutz after suffering some serious personal tragedies. Her goal to make aliyah (the return of Jews to Israel) is however hampered by some rather unpleasant encounters with local IDF soldiers and members of the kibbutz. Pushing through, she makes friends with others in the commune and her Zionistic views are only strengthened, although they do not go untested. Once Yom Kippur, one of the holiest holidays in Jewish culture, begins, a killer begins picking off the kibbutz workers one by one in violent and gruesome ways.

Let’s start with what Children of the Fall gets right, okay? As slashers go, it’s actually quite beautiful. There are wonderfully expansive shots that make use of the size and diversity of the kibbutz. The film opens with a beautiful shot of a cow stable, barn, water towers, and miscellaneous outbuildings, all set against a dark and stormy night. The lighting of this scene, and throughout the film, is also very good. I found myself darting my eyes across the screen multiple times throughout the film thinking I’d seen something lurking in the shadows.

The kills, while unoriginal, are very satisfying. Each death is meaty, bloody, and doesn’t feel rushed. In fact, the camera has no problems lingering during each kill, allowing us to appreciate the practical FX and copious amounts of blood used. And if you believe that a slasher needs to have nudity, you won’t be disappointed.

The acting is middle of the road. Maiman is serviceable as Rachel but the real star of the film is Aki Avni as “Yaron”. His range of emotion is fantastic, from warm and welcoming to Rachel when she arrives to emoting grief and pain during his Yom Kippur announcement where we learn that he was a child in a concentration camp. The rest of the cast are perfectly acceptable as fodder for the killer.

So where does Children of the Fall stray? Let’s start with the most obvious part: the runtime. Clocking in at nearly two hours, that’s about 30 minutes too much. The film could easily have gone through some hefty editing without affecting the final product. Instead, we have a movie that feels elongated when unnecessary.

Additionally, the societal and political commentary is very in-your-face but the film can’t seem to make up its mind as to what it’s trying to get across. Natalia, a Belarussian kibbutz worker, raises the concept of Israeli racism, misogyny, and xenophobia, her hostility unabashedly pouring out in the midst of IDF soldiers, locals, other kibbutz members, and more. Is there validity to what she’s saying? Undoubtedly. But there is also validity to Rachel’s retorts, which include calling this woman out on her own vitriolic views. This back-and-forth mentality frustratingly prevails throughout the film, as though Gafny was unwilling to just commit.

The dialogue is also quite painful at times, although I attribute this to difficulties with translating from Hebrew to English. Even the best English speakers in Israel don’t get everything perfect and the little quirks here and there, while charming, are quite detracting. Also, why is this movie trying to tell me that Robert Smith of The Cure is a character here? While amusing, it makes absolutely no sense nor does it fit in Smith’s own timeline.

Had this film gone through a couple rounds of editing, I feel like we’d have gotten something really great. Eitan Gafny is definitely someone that we need to be watching very closely.

  • Children of the Fall
2.5

Summary

While Children of the Fall has a lot going for it, it has just as much working against it. Overly long, you’ll get a really great slasher that is bogged down by uneven social and political commentary.

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User Rating 3.27 (22 votes)
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Madam Yankelova’s Fine Literature Club Review – A Charming, Quirky Dark Drama

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Starring Keren Mor, Yiftach Klein, Hana Laslo, Ania Bukstein

Directed by Guilhad Emilio Schenker

Reviewed out of Utopia 2017


One of the great joys I have in being a horror fan is seeing horror films from around the world. I view these films as a chance to learn about the fears, folklore, mythology, and lore of varied cultures. Films like Inugami, Frontier(s), [REC], and the like transport me across oceans and into places I might never get the chance to visit otherwise. Hence my interest in the Israeli dark drama Madam Yankeolva’s Fine Literature Club, the feature debut of director Guilhad Emilio Schenker.

The film follows Sophie (Mor), a member of a strange, female-only reading club – who believes that love is a lie – that we soon realize brings men into its midst only to have them killed. The woman who brings the most fitting man is awarded a trophy for her fine taste. When a member reaches 100 trophies, they get to enter a coveted and highly esteemed upper echelon of the reading club’s society, one that includes lavish surroundings and an almost regal lifestyle. Sophie starts the film earning her 99th trophy but her plans towards the all-important 100th trophy are thrown askew when she ends up developing feelings for her latest victim. She must now decide if the mission that has been so dear to her for so many years is something she wishes to see through or if she’s ready to take a huge risk and fall in love.

Now, if this seems like a strange story for a horror website, I don’t disagree. Madam Yankelova’s Fine Literature Club is certainly not your traditional horror film. In fact, I’d liken it far more to the more playful works of Tim Burton and Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s The City of Lost Children than something more grotesque and violent. It’s very playful and quite charming, although there are times when the presentation feels amateurish and certain moments when things become wildly unbelievable. That being said, the film aims to be a dark fairy tale come to life, so a healthy amount of “I’m okay letting that go” will not go unappreciated.

The film is shot in such a way that it’s very soft around the edges, almost like we’re constantly in a dream. This is aided by composer Tal Yardeni’s score, which obviously takes inspiration from Danny Elfman, playfully weaving its way through each scene.

While there’s a lot to love about Madam Yankelova’s Fine Literature Club, it’s certainly not a flawless film. As mentioned previously, there are times when it feels quite amateurish, as though no one thought to look at how a scene is being filmed and say, “People, this isn’t how things would go down. We can have fun but this just doesn’t sit right.” Additionally, the story moves very quickly. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve heard of love at first sight. But that’s not how this story plays out, so the wildly strong feelings that develop between Sophie and Yosef (Klein) seem strangely out of place.

All things being what they are, Madam Yankelova’s Fine Literature Club is a charming film that can definitely appeal to horror fans if they’re willing to stretch their boundaries to include films that have absolutely no scares or gore but imply quite a horrific situation.

  • Madam Yankelova's Fine Literature Club
3.5

Summary

Charming, quirky, but not without its faults, Madam Yankelova’s Fine Literature Club is a dark drama for fans of Tim Burton and Jean-Pierre Jeunet. Don’t go in expecting any scares or gore. Rather, anticipate a fairy tale that might be just a bit too gruesome in tone for young children.

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User Rating 3.45 (20 votes)
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