Movie Review: Brawl in Cell Block 99 [2017]

I’ve long contended that many comedians (or at least comic actors, if not stand ups) have the potential to be outstanding dramatic actors. Once seen as an unusual casting choice, comic actors have repeatedly proven their chops in dramatic roles, from Robin Williams and Will Smith to Will Ferrell and even Adam Sandler. I still stand by my theory that Dave Chappelle has at least one (possibly mutltiple) award-winning dramatic performance in him—that is, if he wants to do it, or if the right director can convince him to step up to the plate.

The latest actor stepping out of his comedic comfort zone is Vince Vaughn. Since his breakout role in 1996’s Swingers, Vaughan has found success almost exclusively with parts in comedies like Old School, Starsky and Hutch, Wedding Crashers, and Dodgeball. He’s shown a yearning to “go legit” in dramas for years, most notably starring as Norman Bates in Gus Van Sant’s 1999 remake of the Alfred Hitchcock classic Psycho, but has now gone on a run of dramatic performances that has gotten him some attention: a lukewarm turn as Frank Semyon, the heavy in the critically-panned second season of HBO’s True Detective; hardass (but still slightly funny) Sgt. Howell in Mel Gibson’s acclaimed World War II drama Hacksaw Ridge; and what may be, depending on your tastes, either his best or worst dramatic performance to date—as an ex-boxer stuck between a rock and a hard place in S. Craig Zahler’s homage to 70’s revenge exploitation flicks, Brawl in Cell Block 99.

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Brawl features Vaughn as Bradley Thomas, a man in the unique position of being a good man with a strong moral compass, while also being the ultimate badass. Working at a service station at the start of the film, Bradley is promptly laid off—only to drive home early and discover that his wife is seeing someone else. After a tantrum in which he destroys/disassembles his wife’s vehicle by hand (a glimpse of the violence he’s capable of), Bradley and his wife Lauren (played by Dexter’s Jennifer Carpenter) admit their relationship hasn’t been the same since the miscarriage that rocked them to their core. They decide to recommit to each other and try for another baby, and Bradley decides to go back to running drugs for his dealer friend Gil, to which Lauren reluctantly agrees.

Fast forward 18 months and Bradley is driving a much nicer car to a much larger home after a day of making deliveries for Gil. We learn that Lauren is expecting again, and the loving couple couldn’t be happier—although we all know that can’t last.

Bradley accepts an offer he can’t refuse from Gil, who has partnered with a Mexican drug lord. The job goes south, and Bradley’s partners in the job end up in a shootout with police. Rather than escape scot-free, Bradley kills one partner and injures another, ending the shootout and saving police lives, before being arrested without further incident.

After being sentenced to 7 years in a medium-security prison, Bradley is visited by a henchman of the Mexican drug lord, who tells Bradley he is now indebted to the man to the tune of 3.2 million dollars to make up for drugs lost in the failed job. He can erase that debt, however, if he takes out a prisoner the drug lord wants dead. And if he doesn’t…terrible things will be done to his wife and unborn baby. The catch? The prisoner Bradley is to take out is in a different, maximum-security prison. Bradley must figure out a way to get himself transferred there, and his plan to do so is ultra violent.

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S. Craig Zahler’s first film, 2015’s Bone Tomahawk, was a fantastic debut—an original concept (a mashup of western and horror) made even better with stunning cinematography, vivid characters, and exceptional dialogue. While these elements are also present in Brawl in Cell Block 99, they are there in smaller doses, and don’t quite match the brilliance that made Bone Tomahawk so great. That’s not to say Brawl isn’t good—it just has different ambitions, calling to mind the films of Clint Eastwood or Charles Bronson.

The biggest quality this film shares with Zahler’s previous effort is the deliberate pacing and slow build to a savage, intense climax. The director spends quite a while detailing how Bradley has everything of value taken from him until, despite the fact he was not the most likable character at the start of the film, you end up rooting for him to get some sort of justice against those who have put his back against the wall. Time passes quickly despite the film’s 2 hour and 12 minute running time, a testament to Zahler’s ability to grab the viewer’s attention and not let go. His next film is Dragged Across Concrete, re-teaming him with Vaughn and co-starring Mel Gibson, a film about police brutality and cops caught up in a violent underworld. I, for one, can hardly wait.

What will make or break this film for you is the incredibly graphic displays of violence Bradley uses to get transferred to Red Leaf, the maximum-security hellhole that houses the man he is to kill, and the subsequent acts he performs once he gets there. To call it unflinching is an understatement—a couple of scenes are absolutely jaw-dropping in terms of what they show you, on the level with some of the most over the top horror movies out there. And Brawl in Cell Block 99 is nothing if not over the top.

As a matter of fact, it requires a pretty hefty suspension of disbelief to make this movie fly (why did he shoot his partners rather than escape? How is it this “ex-boxer” has a fighting style closer to Krav Maga? How in the hell does he have the stomping power of a hydraulic press?), but if you’re able to do so (and have the stomach for it)…you’re in for a wild ride.

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Halloween Horror Edition

October seemed to creep up on me somehow this year. Before I turned around the month was already almost half over and Halloween was in danger of passing me by. I rarely squander the chance to celebrate the season, so I decided to binge on some horror movies and thrillers on Netflix over the past few days to get myself in the spirit. I watched a pretty decent psychological thriller (The Guest), a fresh take on vampires (A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, which I didn’t finish yet, but looks promising), and a really creative spin on zombies (Pontypool). While none of those were bad by any stretch, it was a different one altogether that compelled me to write up a piece about it.

The Taking of Deborah Logan

I’d never heard of The Taking of Deborah Logan before I tapped the thumbnail of the image above on Netflix. It had higher than average ratings for a horror movie, and I liked the general premise so I decided to give it a shot.

Deborah Logan is a found footage film (wait, come back…really) put together–in its first third especially–to come across as a legitimate documentary. A college student and her two person crew have gotten the titular Deborah to agree to be the subject of a film the students are making about Alzheimer’s disease. The students capture Deborah’s demise from forgetful to bizarre to self-harming to harming others and begin to wonder if something more sinister than the disease is at the root of it all.

At its core The Taking of Deborah Logan is fairly standard horror movie fare not far removed from the king of all found footage films, The Blair Witch Project, but it stands out for a few reasons, chief among them is the acting–the two main characters, Deborah and her daughter Sara,  are especially believable right off the bat, so as the trajectory of the film veers from realistic and creepy to out and out batshit crazy you find yourself too invested in the characters and story to turn back.

Add to that the clever angle of Alzheimer’s blurring the line between naturally occurring mental issues and more devious forces at work, and the movie manages to suck you in. This is found footage at its best, in my opinion. If you didn’t know going in it was a work of fiction, it would take a good 20-30 minutes to figure it out.

The majority of the jump scares are relatively well placed, but what I really appreciate is that the director resists the temptation to lace them all throughout the movie. There are a good number of scenes where you begin to anticipate a jump scare that never happens. That’s one of my favorite things, that building of tension without a payoff. Then once it finally does pay off, it does so in a major way.

Finally, there is one shot from across the room of Deborah mindlessly playing a tune on the piano with one hand while staring vacantly into the camera that is without a doubt one of the creepiest 15 seconds of film I’ve seen in a long time.

I was going to include a link to the trailer, but I think the trailer gives too much away. Look it up if you want, but I’d recommend just watching it knowing as little as possible.

While I’m at it I’ll throw in a couple other good scary movies I’ve seen in the past couple months. You’re Next is an insanely fun, twisted movie about a group of people trapped in a house surrounded by bloodthirsty killers, and Creep is an unsettling film about a filmmaker hired to document a few days in the life of a terminally ill man expecting his first child. While it doesn’t pull off the found footage angle quite as well as The Taking of Deborah Logan it’s still quite believable, thanks in part to the strong performance by Mark Duplass as a truly twisted man.

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If you’re looking for something off the beaten path of typical horror, give one of these three a shot and I bet you’re not disappointed. And if I don’t get my lazy ass to the computer to post anything else before the end of the month, Happy Halloween!

A Night of Subverted Expectations

This is a sort of pop culture wrap-up for my Saturday (and again, my Saturday=your Sunday). I finished the book I was reading and my wife and I squeezed in three—count ’em, three—movies, and it turned out to be a mini James Gandolfini marathon. Aside from the movie Thirteen, starring Holly Hunter and a teenage Evan Rachel Wood (which was a good fly-on-the-wall look at a good girl’s turn toward the dark side, and is BOJ certified as recommended, but didn’t knock my socks off), the book and both Gandolfini movies subverted my expectations, for better or for worse. I’ll start with the ‘for worse.’

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Killing Them Softly had been on our DVR for quite awhile—if you couldn’t tell by now, I’m a sucker for gritty crime drama, noir, hitmen, etc. When you have a cast as strong as this one—Brad Pitt, James Gandolfini, Richard Jenkins, and Ray Liotta—I’m in.

It wasn’t a bad movie by any means, it just seemed to miss the mark a little bit. The plot is as follows: three men are responsible for knocking off an illegal gambling ring, knowing the head of said gambling ring (Liotta) will take the fall. Pitt’s character is brought in by an attorney to the mafia (Jenkins) to figure out what happened, who’s to blame, and who’s going to die. Gandolfini’s character is brought in to help carry out one of the hits.

What seemed like it should’ve been a pretty straightforward plot was unnecessarily messy and hard to follow, ending rather abruptly and leaving my wife and I with questions like, “What happened to ____?” and “Who the hell was _____, anyway?”

It was also a bit heavy-handed with political tie-ins—the movie takes place during the McCain-Obama campaign run, and ends on election night. At the very end it becomes more clear why the tie-ins are there, but it still could’ve been handled with a little more subtlety.

It felt at times like a Tarantino/Scorcese-light kind of movie: aiming high but falling short. If you’re into these kinds of movies like I am I would still give it a go. It’s well-shot (with some stomach-turning graphic violence handled nicely, in my opinion), and well-acted. James Gandolfini is awesome (if ultimately irrelevant to the plot) as the unhinged, unstable hit man brought in to help Pitt’s character. If you don’t typically like these kinds of movies, you probably won’t care much for it.

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Chuck Palahniuk seems to be what I’d call an “avocado” author: people tend to either love him or hate him. I can’t fully fall on the love side, but I like a lot of his work. I’d heard Rant was really good without really knowing much about the plot at all, so when I got the chance to check out the e-book from my library, I took it.

**(side note: did you all know you could recommend e-books to your local library for them to purchase using the Overdrive app? I don’t know about other cities, but the lovely folks at the Wichita Public Library have bought two books on my recommendation, and I think that’s downright awesome)

It starts as a character study of Buster “Rant” Casey, a backwoods country bumpkin who as a kid has an affinity for getting bitten by insects and vermin, picking his nose and sticking the boogers on his wall, and finding valuable coins.

We follow Rant to an early diploma from high school, where he moves to the city and the story takes a turn into sci-fi territory, as we learn society has been divided between the respected “Daytimers” and the lowly “Nighttimers”, with a strict curfew to keep the two groups from intermingling. Rant falls in with the Nighttimers and into a social circle known as Party Crashers—an organized sort of after-hours demolition derby that takes place on the city streets. To give much more away would ruin the book.

About 2/3 of the way through the book I was interested in the story, but starting to get a little bored. After reading the last third in one long stretch, I felt dizzy. The book goes from taking a turn here or there to spinning like a top until you don’t know up from down, left from right, or father from son.

The “hook” of Rant is in the way the story is told. The official title is Rant: An Oral History of Buster Casey, the key words being ‘an oral history.’ The book constantly changes perspective as different characters give their accounts of the events that unfolded in Rant’s life, sometimes outright contradicting each other. Kind of like a documentary or a special on TV, the way they jump from one talking head to the next. It’s used to great effect, but also made me wonder—

Where’s the line between originality and gimmickry? One of the complaints I hear about Palahniuk is that he’s a gimmick writer, with nearly every novel using some kind of cheesy narrative device to tell the story. There’s no denying he uses different techniques to tell his stories, and I can see the ‘gimmick label’ being applied. The thing is, is it only a gimmick if it doesn’t work?

Pygmy, Palahniuk’s widely hated 2009 novel told via the journal entries of a 13 year-old foreign exchange student/terrorist in badly broken English, is downright tough to read (I think I liked it more than most), and dismissed as a gimmick. Rant, on the other hand, is held in much higher regard, and the ‘oral history’ gimmick isn’t mentioned as much. I don’t necessarily think every book by an author has to have some kind of gimmick to tell its story (I sure hope not, because my storytelling thus far is pretty straight ahead), but wouldn’t the literary world be a boring place if there weren’t people like Palahniuk taking chances with their stories?

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The last subverted expectation was also the most pleasant surprise. I suppose it would come as no shock that I’m not the world’s biggest fan of “chick flicks,” but I try not to discount them altogether, because I know there are some good ones out there. I’ve confessed before my liking for my wife’s favorite chick flick, Return to Me, and last night found one I liked just as well, if not better, with Enough Said.

The film takes what on paper sounds like a fairly standard chick flick or rom com plot—masseuse meets a man and woman separately, begins dating the man and takes on the woman as a client/friend, only to find out they’re ex-husband and wife—and handles it fairly realistically, playing it straight for the most part, but with plenty of chuckles thrown in (and one moment involving a baseball in a drawer that had me laughing so hard I nearly fell out of my chair, thanks to Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s impeccable comedic timing and delivery).

All the characters in the movie felt like real people, not one dimensional and flat or caricatures like in a lot of movies (and books, for that matter), and the dialogue felt realistic and smart. There was also a subplot I liked with Dreyfus’s character subconsciously replacing her daughter, who was preparing to move off to college, with her daughter’s friend. None of the characters were perfect, none of them were total a-holes (although I must admit I didn’t care for Catherine Keener’s ex-wife famous poet character—I’m beginning to wonder if I just don’t like Catherine Keener), they were just fairly normal people with flaws like anybody else. It was well-written and wonderfully acted, and I was glad I watched it. I had expected to look up from Rant every so often to make sure I was following along with the movie, but found myself with my book (phone) in my lap, all my attention devoted to the movie.

 All in all a great night with my favorite person, and a good way to recharge the batteries for writing and some very likely overtime in the coming week.

Yep.

Ever been talking with someone and the conversation seems to just sort of grind to a halt? Not necessarily an uncomfortable one, but it just seems like there’s nothing more to say for the time being? I think this is the blog equivalent of that.

Yep.

Yep.

I’m going through something of an identity crisis, I suppose. Nothing seems a) important enough or b) timely enough to put on the site anymore. When I started, I was watching a ton more TV and movies and could easily fill my blog with reviews or news of upcoming shows. A change in my work schedule and more time spent actually writing has meant a serious decrease in TV viewing, so I really don’t have that to fall back on now.

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For example: I just watched Gone Girl. I thought maybe I could devote a post either to a full-fledged review of the film, or a comparison of the book vs the film. Then I thought, isn’t it a little late to be talking about it? I mean, I’ll tell you what I thought of it, but to spend a few hundred words on a movie that came out several months ago seems a little late.

Anyway, regarding the movie: I liked it a lot, and thought it was just as good as—if not better than—the book. The things that didn’t make the film were pretty minor, and Gillian Flynn did a pretty excellent job adapting her novel for the screen. As much as I like Trent Reznor’s work, I felt like in some scenes the music was a distraction from what was going on. When Nick and Amy were having a huge blow-out fight, hearing a film score under it (even a somewhat ominous one) took me out of the scene.

The real highlight of the film for me was Rosamund Pike. I literally can’t think of anyone who could’ve pulled off Amazing Amy so perfectly. Cold, calculating, psychotic…her performance was awesome. I don’t know whether or not she’ll win the Oscar, but I think she definitely deserved the nomination.

Want a Netflix recommendation? I’ve got one of those I can throw your way.

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If you’ve never heard of Better Off Ted, you’re not alone. It was only on for two very low-rated seasons on ABC back in the days of yore (2009-2010) when people still watched TV primarily on TV instead of their devices. Take it from me, though, this show is hilarious.

Part romantic workplace comedy, part biting satire of corporate America, and part screwball comedy, how this show never caught on is one of life’s biggest mysteries (because I don’t use my brain to think about things like science or the universe). Once I saw the show was on Netflix I went back to re-watch what I remembered to be my favorite episode and it totally held up, so a BOT marathon may be in the works.

If you’re going to give it a shot and want one episode to see if you like it, I point to “Racial Sensitivity” from season one. The show is set at the headquarters of megacorporation Veridian Dynamics, a sort of SC Johnson or Glad type industry giant, and in a cost-saving measure all the lights, elevators, water fountains, etc. in the building are replaced with motion-sensors that turn off automatically when not in use. The problem? The sensors are defective, and do not detect light reflected off darker skin tones—i.e., they don’t work for black people. The solution? Replacing all the sensors is initially deemed too expensive, so as a temporary fix the company hires a bunch of white people, paying them minimum wage to follow the black people everywhere.

Exchange between Ted and his boss (and company puppet) Veronica:

Ted: “The sensors don’t see black people? …That’s racist!”

Veronica: “The company’s position is that it’s actually the opposite of racist, because the system isn’t targeting black people, it’s just ignoring them. They insist the worst people can call it is indifferent.”

As I write I get more anxious to go back and re-watch the whole series—it really is that good. Give it a shot!

And now, I submit the BOJ suggestion box. Like I said at the top, topics for blog posts are getting a little thin. I have a few ideas, but I’m open to ideas. Soon I should have more writing-related things to talk about as I move from the actual writing of my first novel to trying to get it published, so there’ll be some material there, but what else?

One thing I’ve been bouncing around is a series of “In Defense of…” posts, where I defend something in pop culture that’s either (unjustly) unpopular or was overlooked by the population at large. I may start the first installment of that next week if I don’t think of anything else. So, if you have ideas, suggestions, feedback, whatever it may be, feel free to let me know. What kinds of things would you like to see discussed here?

3 Reasons Why Man Cannot Live on Netflix Alone

Well, this man, anyway.

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Netflix is the rare technological advancement that’s totally affordable but I haven’t adopted yet. For the longest time it was because I had no device to deliver Netflix to my TV—my gaming days ended way back at the PS1 (which, not to get on a tangent, but I’m very grateful for. As if writers don’t procrastinate enough, I can’t imagine having video games calling my name from the other room while I’m trying to get some writing done). Then, last Christmas I got a Chromecast, and suddenly Netflix re-entered the picture as an actual, viable option for our TV/movie viewing needs.

I’ve talked to people I know, and read the comments/opinions of people I don’t know on the internet, and there seems to be a resounding cry of “Screw the cable companies! Get Netflix and cancel your service provider! Netflix is all you need!”

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I agree with the first half of that statement—seriously, screw cable companies. Satellite providers may be only marginally better, and that depends just on your personal experience with whatever company you use, but I hate cable companies. I mean, like, hate-hate. They aren’t regulated for the most part, and it’s basically like the wild west when it comes to their business practices.

But the second part…get Netflix and cancel my paid TV service altogether? I don’t think I can do that. Why? Funny you should ask.

1. Limited choices

From what little I know about Netflix’s menu of programming, TV shows are pretty easy to find—the vast majority of shows are available to binge watch at your leisure. Still, I’m sure with my luck there would be something I watch not on there. Then there’s the issue of movies. I don’t watch movies all the time, but I like having a wide variety to pick from, which from what I can gather about Netflix, is not necessarily the case. They are constantly working to get better, newer movies on their format faster, but their choices are a little limited for the time being. Again, this is just as I (an admitted Netflix ignoramus) understand it.

2. HBO

HBO holds a special place in my heart. Sure, they show movies. Yes, they have boxing. But how HBO got their hooks in me and kept them in is with their original programming. I’m thinking back as far as I can, and the oldest shows I remember watching are Tales from the Crypt, Kids in the Hall and Dream On. Then I got hooked on OZ, followed by the big daddy, still my favorite show of all time, The Sopranos (R.I.P. James Gandolfini—still missed). Since then, HBO has pretty much kept their momentum, with a few bumps in the road of course, with Six Feet Under, The Wire, and Big Love, and currently with True Blood, Game of Thrones, and True Detective.

Time is a flat circle.

Time is a flat circle.

And that’s just the scripted shows.

HBO just struck a deal with Amazon (another alternate TV viewing option) to stream their shows, but only shows that are at least 3 years old. Right now my wife and I are getting ready to watch the final season of True Blood (are they really going to let Tara survive the entire series?), then a cool-looking new show called The Leftovers starts next week, so we’ll be checking that out, and I just started getting into Veep and Silicon Valley. My point is, I’m in too deep.

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Damn you, HBO…

 

Which brings me to…

3. I’m a creature of habit.

I’m writing this on Sunday morning. Once I’m done with this and any other writing I’m working on, I’ll go sit in front of the TV and see what’s on. I’ll look through the onscreen guide, flip to something I’ve never heard of or want to see what it is—I’ll channel surf. That’s what I do, and I can’t imagine not doing it with Netflix.

Last night I found myself watching some show called The Pool Master, about some British guy who was hired to build a dream pool for this (evidently filthy stinkin’ rich) couple in Kentucky. They wanted this dramatic pool built on the side of a cliff, deep enough to high dive off rocks—to cliff dive into their pool, basically—that would have a water feature and a fire pit, etc. It was a massive undertaking as the Brit had to figure out the logistics of digging out the hole for the pool, moving the enormous stones he wanted to use to construct their cliff diving thingie, and it was really interesting…for about ten minutes.

I love doing that kind of thing. Seeing something on and going, what the hell is that? And changing the channel to see just what the hell it is. I know if I cancelled my TV service I could still get a handful of basic channels (the networks) with an antenna, but I’ve been down that road during especially bad storms that take out the satellite signal, and living off antenna is not something I want to do again. Homo sapiens have evolved this far, I’m not going to take a giant leap backwards and watch TV off an antenna like some animal. That’s a slippery slope—where does it end, doing away with my remote and getting up every time I want to change the channel?

I know some of you remember...

I know some of you remember…

Despite all my ramblings, I’ll probably end up getting Netflix sooner rather than later. I think it’s actually a really cool service that would make a nice addition to my TV viewing experience. But to me, that’s all would be: an addition; an enhancement to what I already have. I’m not ready now, and may never be in the future, to cut myself off completely from the pay TV lifeline I’ve been weaned on for so long.

I’m curious what anyone can tell me about Netflix—are you happy with it? Do you find its choices limiting? Have you dropped cable/satellite altogether?

 

On The Joy of Discovery

This post mainly serves as a way for me to knock the rust off, as it were. As you may or may not have noticed, I’ve been gone for a little bit. I’ll go into what caused my temporary absence sometime, but for now I’m just trying to get back in the water, so to speak.

Here are words I wasn’t sure I’d ever say: I saw a really good Woody Allen Movie recently. Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against the man, and there are quite a few of his movies I might enjoy, but the ones I’ve seen, well, they just weren’t my thing (full disclosure—I haven’t seen any of the “classic” Allen movies like Annie Hall or Manhattan). Then I saw Match Point (2005).

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Jonathan Rhys Meyers stars as a has-been-that-never-quite-was tennis pro who takes a job as an instructor at a posh country club in London. He strikes up a friendship with one of his clients, then becomes obsessed with his friend’s fiancé, played by Scarlett Johansson. Meanwhile, his friend’s sister falls head over heels for him, so he begins dating (and eventually marrying) the sister mostly just to keep himself around the fiancé (and his wife’s family’s money), until finally initiating an affair. From there things unravel in quite an interesting—and intense—way.

The movie was a bit unusual in it’s pacing to me. It was sort of a fast-paced slow burn of a thriller. At times it seems like not a whole lot is going on, and yet the story really never stops moving. It was interesting from a storytelling point of view how little wasted time there was. Some scenes would literally be thirty seconds long, giving you just a glimpse of a character’s facial expression to show what they’re thinking/feeling before moving on to the next scene. It was the increasingly rare movie that didn’t feel too long or drawn out; the two hour running time flew by.

Near the end the police enter the story, and their handling of affairs borders on implausible, but the movie was so good that I felt I could let that slide. If you’re in the mood for a dark, intense couple of hours, give it a shot. The tone reminded me a bit of The Talented Mr. Ripley, though not as high a body count.

Now then, on to the title of the post—discovery.

As I’ve mentioned before, in my early twenties I worked at a retail record store (the fact that we didn’t sell actual vinyl records not withstanding). I clearly remember when LeAnn Rimes came out with her debut album, lots of older/elderly people would come in asking for the CD, all of them remarking “She sounds just like Patsy Cline.” I would think, Why do you want to listen to somebody who sounds like someone else? Why don’t you just listen to Patsy Cline?

There was another artist, the name escapes me (maybe D’Angelo?), that people would buy because they thought he sounded like Al Green. Again, I thought, Just go listen to Al Green. Which really isn’t too bad of advice, people. Seriously, put some Al Green in your life. I digress. The point is, now I think I get it.

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I was reading about the goings on at SXSW and happened upon a sentence or two about a band called Radkey. I decided to look them up on YouTube, and well…holy crap. Three brothers from Missouri who play punk rock with just the right touch of melody and harmony (for my tastes, anyway—I’m not much for the really poppy sounds, if you haven’t been able to tell from previous posts), and hearing them felt like someone put jumper cables on my nipples and jumpstarted my head.

There’ve been the occasional bands I’ve come across in the last few years that I liked pretty good, but I seem to keep drifting back to my comfort zone: music from the 90’s and early aughts. Nothing I found recently really moved me except for a select few: Red Fang, which is really up my alley but still not totally freak out worthy; Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, whose funk stylings are awesome but sometimes veer too far to the R&B/soul for my tastes; and OFF!, whose brutal attack of songs are great but short—you can listen to their first four EP’s in less time than it takes to watch a sitcom (without the commercials).

All of which makes Radkey that much more special to me. For the first time in years I found a band that’s actually out right now that I like a lot. Part of what makes them so exciting is how young they are—both in the literal sense and also as a band. They managed to get attention early on and are getting breaks fast, having put out only two EP’s so far. To be able to track their progress in the industry and see how they grow as a band as it happens is something I haven’t done in a long, long time.

Are they perfect? Hell no, far from it. A couple of their songs are kind of generic, and all three brothers are far from virtuosos (the drummer is adequate at best). But that’s the beauty of punk rock—you don’t have to be a master of your instrument, you just need the passion, energy, and emotion, and as long as that comes across in your music, why, you’re just fine. And they’re only going to get better.

Now, I know a lot of you may not share my taste for this particular slice of musical pie, but if you’re so inclined, give ’em a whirl. They have a definite Ramones influence, and at times the singer/guitarist sounds an awful lot like Glenn Danzig, giving them a Misfits vibe. There’s more to them than that of course, so if you’re into that kind of thing check them out. You can visit their website and stream their EP’s here, or you can find performance clips on YouTube—I’ve included a link to my favorite song of theirs, Out Here In My Head, live on Later…with Jools Holland.

And with that, I think I’m officially rust free. 🙂

The Wilhelm Scream—Hollywood’s Inside Joke

I’m in total movie mode this week. We’re six days from the Oscars, and I’m keyed up. I’ll go into exactly why the Oscars excite me so much later in the week, but suffice it to say I’m thinking movies nonstop—making my predictions for Oscar night, reading about upcoming movies (strangely excited to see how Gone Girl turns out when it hits theaters October 3rd), and I came across a gem of a story about how one second of sound became one of the longest-standing traditions in Hollywood.

First, here—listen to this.

What started as a simple sound effect in 1951 has turned out to have a legacy no one could have ever predicted. In the film Distant Drums, a scene was shot where a character is bitten by an alligator and dragged underwater. As is usually the case, the character’s scream was recorded separately and inserted later. In post production, six screams were recorded in a single take. Three of the screams were then used for various scenes in the film and that was that. Then, as future movies were made and screams were needed, sound editors referred back to the ones already in the bank and continued using them in several Warner Brothers films over the years. By 1976 the scream had already been used in some manner in 18 films and a few episodes of TV shows.

Which brings us to 1977. Ben Burtt was the sound editor for Star Wars, and a huge movie buff. He was doing research for the film, looking for sound effects, and stumbled across the original recording  of the screams from Distant Drums. Having already noticed the recurrence of the scream throughout the years as a film student, he decided to make it a cross between an inside joke and signature of sorts. He named the scream the Wilhelm after the earliest character he knew of to utter the cry, and included it in all the Star Wars and Indiana Jones films, Willow, Poltergeist, and several others.

A friend and colleague of Ben’s, Richard Anderson, began using the scream liberally as well, and by the 2000’s they had an impressive number of films peppered with their now-trademark wail, ranging from Planet of the Apes to Madagascar. Future generations of filmmakers also began to use the scream once it was discovered that the classic version was free to use without penalty or fines, and regardless of studio attachment.

In recent years, noted filmmakers to use the Wilhelm in their films include Peter Jackson (2 of the 3 Lord of the Rings movies) and Quentin Tarantino (Reservoir Dogs, Kill Bill Vol. 1, Inglorious Basterds). Once I realized what the scream was and how often it was used, I realized it was like that road sign you pass a thousand times and don’t notice until someone points it out. I’ve unknowingly heard it probably hundreds of times, and every time I hear it from now on I can’t help but chuckle.

For a much more detailed account of how the Wilhelm came to be the stuff of legend, including a theory of whose voice is actually providing the scream, click here for the full story. And just in case you think I’m exaggerating about how much it’s been used, click here for the most recent list of movies that feature some variation of the scream (last updated in 2010 with over 200 films). There are also some compilations on YouTube, if you’re so inclined. I guarantee you, you’ve heard it before.