Three movies this week, and I’ve got a special treat that I think you’ll like!
PS — I watched half of a Harry Potter movie yesterday, the one about the magic olympics, but I’m not including it in here because I fell asleep before the olympics started. Don’t worry I’ve seen it before, I like it, I’m a big Viktor Krum-head, a real Krum-bum.
The Cloverfield Paradox (2018)
Pretty much everything I’ve read on The Cloverfield Paradox has been the same: the movie is pretty bland, a waste of a fun international cast, the only interesting thing about it was its announcement and same-day Netflix release (which was clever for both Paramount, who got to dump this turkey from its slate, and Netflix, who has made adding turkeys to their slate an art form, in as much marketing can be an art form). I agree with all of that.
But let’s look at the movie, what’s even going on here? It’s a pretty standard “things always go wrong in space” premise, which is fine, it’s just a starting point. I liked the idea of being stranded in another reality, but it’s really tough to explore how that matters when the only link we have to what’s going on on the ground is the main character’s backstory about her dead kids. Great your kids are dead, whose aren’t? You’re the main character in a moody space movie so we can pretty much just assume someone close to you has definitely died and caused you to doubt yourself or your faith or whatever and you’re in space to run away from your inner demons, we get it. So when we get the big revelation that in this reality her kids are alive, it’s not really a surprise. I get it’s meant to create an internal conflict for her about sabotaging the team to stay behind but really there’s no way she’s staying behind, come on. They’re alive but they aren’t even really your kids! Plus, their real mom, the alternate reality version of you, is still alive and, uh, raising her own damn kids that she didn’t end up accidentally killing. You can’t stay there, lady!
I don’t know, there’s some fun stuff in here, like the guy full of worms and the ship eating Chris O’Dowd’s arm, and the arm crawling around and writing out clues for the rest of the crew. But ultimately it doesn’t amount to more than a couple of fun, gross moments spread few and far between the self serious rehashing of movies you like better. Hey, clever marketing only counts for so much. At least this time around we didn’t have to spend a season watching press junkets where Daniel Bruhl has to pretend that he’s friends with Chris O’Dowd. Maybe in some other reality I’m out there at a Taco Bell drive thru, ordering an extra large Dr. Pepper so that I can get the special cup with Zhang Ziyi on it before I drive off to see this movie in a theater, I don’t know. I’ll never know.
Anyway I came up with a game to play while watching this that I call “Oh, like in…” where whenever a scene happens in this movie that is just a less exciting version of an iconic scene in a better movie you say, loudly and performatively, “Oh, like in [Alien]” or “Oh, like in [Armageddon]” or “Oh, like in [Manchester by the Sea]” etc. etc., you get it. Try it out with Stranger Things.
Lady Macbeth (2017)
Let’s try something new, it’ll be good, I promise! I’m very lucky to welcome MOVIE DIARY 2018’s very first special guest, Tessa Strain, to talk about Lady Macbeth!
Jesus Christ, what a nasty piece of work. Lady Macbeth delivers a scathing critique of white womanhood that feels painfully vital and relevant (not to be all “now, more than ever,” but fucking “NOW, MORE THAN EVER) and is absolutely excruciating to suffer through. The movie exploits our early sympathy for Lady Katherine (played with steely nerve by Florence Pugh); she is introduced as the victim of an abusive and constraining marriage. Watching, I longed for her to act out, but when she does, it is with astonishing cruelty instead of the expected cathartic righteousness, and she only escalates from there, carving a path of unspeakable destruction.
And don’t count it out as a contender for the prestigious Gone Girl Memorial Best Performance by a Cat Who Is Incidental to the Movie Award!
Tessa Strain is a writer living in Geoff’s apartment. Her work has appeared in Bright Wall/Dark Room and The Comics Journal. She is @tessastrain on Twitter, where she does a pretty good job, and on Instragram, where she does a bad one.
Brawl In Cell Block 99 (2017)
Here’s a movie that eventually won me over, but boy did it take its sweet time to do it. there’s like a full hour of this movie that exists to do two things: 1) remind you that Vince Vaughn’s character Bradley (not Brad, as he insists throughout the movie) is a good man despite all the bad things he does, and 2) create an atmosphere of self-serious, small town misery porn that gets tossed as soon as the movie reveals what it actually is in its second half.
Both goals are important — we definitely need to know why we should have any reason to root for Vince Vaughn, of all people — but I’m of the mind that we don’t need an hour for this. I guess maybe writer/director S. Craig Zahler is going for a sort of bait and switch, but I don’t think it’s as effective or worthwhile as he’d wanted it to be. The first hour of the movie is grounded in reality, to make the turn into the full-on exploitation of the rest of the movie even more of a surprise, but the dialogue is less in line with a cold, hard reality, and more in line with an action movie or a moody comic book. The over the top dialogue is kind of a hint about where this movie is going to go once it really gets started.
The second half begins when Udo Kier comes in to explain how the rest of the movie is going to work. Bradley’s wife Lauren has been kidnapped because Bradley pissed off the wrong people before he was sent away, and now he has to kill another inmate or else his pregnant wife will be forced to undergo a truly horrific forced abortion procedure. The problem is the other inmate is in a different prison, which happens to be the meanest, most human rights violating prison in the world. Bradley is going to have to figure out a way into that prison (hint: it involves assaulting a bunch of corrections officers). I, of course, got a huge kick watching the movie go from plodding and miserable to batshit violence romp the moment Udo Kier enters the scene. It’s like a man from another movie steps into Bradley’s prison and invites him to fight his way into a different movie, one where he can still be the hero he thinks he is.
The rest of the movie is just straight up disgusting exploitation movie violence. And Vince Vaughn is surprisingly great at it! Why did it take so long to cast Vince Vaughn as a big tough guy goon? One shot that they keep coming back to is the camera focused on the back of Bradley’s cross-tattooed head as he slowly steps through his world. It’s effective in that it shows he’s physically very imposing, and he lumbers around at a slow, deliberate clip which gives his character some understated menace. Vince Vaughn in this movie is to slowly stomping around as Tom Cruise is to running full sprint in his movies. Also, now that I’m thinking about it, why doesn’t Vince Vaughn have more tattoos in this? He has this giant cross tattooed on the back of his head, but no other tattoos. I feel like a head tattoo is typically not going to be your first tattoo, or if it is, it certainly can’t be your last. I guess it’s not that integral to the movie anyway as the rest of it focuses on the many different ways Bradley finds to stomp and gouge the life out of his enemies, so whatever.
While I wasn’t a big fan of the first hour, I did find myself reconsidering it once the movie turns into an American take on Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky (1991). The misery of the first half combined with the gleeful, cathartic violence of the second half have the effect of making Brawl In Cell Block 99 seem like a white working class fantasy. Bradley’s life before prison reads like the beginnings of some New York Times article about poor white Trump voters who can’t seem to see that they voted to fuck themselves, but his life in prison is an unbridled, gory fantasy. Is this meant to be a fantasy for the poor white working class who’ve found themselves backed into a corner by greedy politicians and a failing economy? I’d guess that by the end we’re supposed to realize that this was supposed to be a good old fashioned grindhouse movie and that we’re not meant to read too deeply into it, but spending so much time in the hard times setting pre-prison makes it seem like Zahler is inviting you to read this movie as commentary on this moment and these people. That it’s all just kind of thrown aside to act as a contrast to the high violence and excess of the second half seems at best frustrating and at worst cowardly. If you want to make a prison exploitation movie you should have the courage to just go ahead and make that prison exploitation movie instead of dragging me around for an hour forcing me to think about Trump voters.