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    Bone Tomahawk (2015); Brawl in Cell Block 99 (2019); Dragged Across Concrete (2018)
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    All three films written and directed by S. Craig Zahler - he's apparently a novelist, a screenwriter, a director, a composer, musician and whatnot.

    Boy, is this a puzzler. I am a gigantic fan of "Bone Tomahawk" - simply brilliant. What I love about it - it defies the conventions of the genre, being a Western that's also a horror, fantasy, drama. Usually such hybrids are a disaster - about 99.999999% of the time (actually I can't think of a successful example, other than this one). Bone Tomahawk is the one exception - insofar as I've seen. It's pretty freakin' amazing. The horror is very strong stuff - just the way I like it. But it's also very unconventional in its long sequences of apparently pedestrian scenes (the whole tracking sequence that occupies most of act 2 and 3), good dialogue, great effects, and general avoidance of cliches. Excellent acting - but then it employs excellent actors (like Kurt Russell). So it is with great anticipation that I watched:

    "Brawl in Cell Block 99". I could not believe it was directed by the same guy - S. Craig Zahler. And yet. What a disaster! Everything is wrong with it, but no red flags that things would go so wrong. It has good actors like Vince Vaughn and Don Johnson (Vince Vaughn, though, can be hit or miss), I love the fact that he employs one of my favorite cult actors Udo Kier. The story - on the face of it, in a logline - seems fine. And yet. It's like a different human being wrote/directed this. The dialogue is stilted and overwritten, to the point where the actors, even very good, very experienced actors have trouble excreting lengthy clearly "written" lines. There is zero feeling that the dialogue is spoken by any real human, instead it's faux tough guy patter that's supposed to be witty or cutting, and merely sounds like purple prose. The scenes are badly paced and badly directed (not enough closeups in the right places). Ridiculous developments that throw you out of the movie - I read that somehow he takes that as a badge of honor or trademark that his films end up totally unrealistic in the third act... but while it works well in Bone Tomahawk (thanks to good introduction of the "outrageous" elements right from the start, thus preparing audience expectations), it totally misfires in BICB99. It makes you not connect with either the characters or their predicament. Ludicrous sound effects - again, outrageous sound effects worked in BT but fall flat in BICB99 (and again, worked in BT because they were introduced right from the getgo), as in BICB99 the effects were mismatched to expectations... we don't know what an cry/shout/call sounds like coming from an inhuman creature in BT, so we readily accept what we hear, but we all know very well what to expect from cracking bones and skulls, so 100% unrealistic sound in BICB99 merely strike us as "wrong" and forced. Same with special effects - we don't know what to expect from an alien form, and so readily accept it in BT, but we don't accept the very bad effects of smashed heads in BICB99. The "drama" such as there is, was totally unconvincing and uninvolving, and feeling tacked on. The film started super weak, and kept getting worse - I only watched it to the end out of a sense of obligation, as it was directed by the same guy who did "Bone Tomahawk".

    Now, I had the example of the brilliant Bone Tomahawk and the awful Brawl in Cell Block 99 - question was, did S. Craig Zahler get lucky in BT or unlucky in BICB99? Who is the real S. Craig Zahler? That's where Dragged Across Concrete comes in.

    Dragged Across Concrete on paper has it all - very nice premise of classic pulpy B movie, which all genre folks love, outstanding actors - Mel Gibson (whatever you may think of him as a human being, as an actor he's usually excellent) and the regular Vaughn, Don Johnson, Udo Kier and so on.

    Well, DAC has all the faults of BICB99. And, it’s even more boring, if possible. I had to use superhuman strength to prevent myself from fast forwarding, because badly done boring scenes drag on, and on, and on, and on, and on - predictable, schematic, flat, cliched, bad dialogue and forced acting. Even the editing is terrible - example: Vaugh is on a stakeout with Gibson in a car, he opens the door to go get some fast food and the very next cut is him sitting back in the car with the food - facepalm… feeling like a jumpcut. Awful. I mean, how can you mess up basic editing?? SMH. I guess it’s meant to be “style”, but it’s just as forced and unsuccessful as everything else - story development, dialogue, acting, (due to the terrible dialogue that is impossible to speak naturally). And every character sounds the same - written by the same hack, you can practically hear the typewriter keys clacking. Horrible.

    So the sad reality is that S. Craig Zahler is simply not a good director, and it was “Bone Tomahawk” that was the super lucky fluke, and with BICB99 and DAC are what his speed is really like.

    Now that the shock is over, I can see what elements allowed him to get lucky with BT - things just broke his way, clearly more by accident than design.

    But while that’s fascinating, what’s even more interesting is just how very educational this is.

    I mean, you can learn a lot from well made films, obviously. You can even learn a lot from bad movies (though not very much from terribly terrible movies). But to my mind, the last two movies by S. Craig Zahler are a goldmine of educational resources.

    Because on paper, if you just knew the premise, and the actors involved, you’d think - wow, this has great potential. Plus, seriously, the guy (S. Craig Zahler) even says all the right things in his personal quotes on IMDb. I agree 100% with his observations and advice. So what gives??

    I mean, anyone can make a movie that just doesn’t gel, doesn’t come together for some reason, doesn’t quite work. I get that. But what’s interesting, is that you can really see what the director is thinking here, and his aims and methods, and just see it fail terribly - and given his plans - inevitably.

    What is a fantastic exercise is to take the movie - say DAC - scene by scene, and analyze what’s wrong (apart from the terrible dialogue that then forces even excellent actors to do subpar work). It’s stuff that’s obvious, like pacing, but also less obvious, like shot choices, angles and editing. I already mentioned inappropriate distribution of wide vs medium vs close shots, but it’s also about staging and actor movements. The guy just doesn’t seem to have a feel for it.

    Another big lesson I got from this, is - don’t drink your own bathwater. S. Craig Zahler flatters himself as being a “good writer” - and the success of BT boosted his ego and he stopped being critical of himself - thinking that his terrible, terrible, terrible dialogue is actually good or “edgy” or “hard boiled”. It is also super important, to at least let someone who is not your SO/BFF/Family read your stuff, so they can give you honest feedback. And I say S. Craig Zahler has learned *nothing* from the dismal result of his second movie - BICB99. He should have taken a hard look at that film and done a retreat to the desert or a cave somewhere to radically re-think his approach. Instead, all the faults of BICB99 are still in DAC, if not worse. He learned not a single thing - is it ego, lack of intellectual capability, or complete loss of artistic judgment? Doesn’t he have any trusted people who can take him aside and tell him what the score is? It’s like watching your buddy confidently barreling down a mountain road and behind a corner the road comes to an end at a deep canyon below - and you say nothing to your buddy. This is a very painful example, and I’m now even more paranoid about not just throwing stuff out there without having some strong beta readers look over my stuff for a reality check. It’s a delicate balance. You need - desperately need - to be self critical. But at the same time, being *too* self-critical may demotivate you and prevent you from going on with your project. We all get desperate to shoot something - but that’s no excuse to run with any old idea and any old approach.

    Anyhow, this is a very educational series of films. Far more educational in some ways than great or very bad films. Because the exact failure mode here is super important to take apart. It would be a great discussion if folks here could watch the films and we could all discuss it here on this forum - we’d learn a HUGE amount. But, unfortunately, the user involvement level on most boards on dvxuser is very, very low, so nobody is going to do anything. I sometimes wonder what the point is in posting into the void, but hey, no use complaining - maybe it’s time to move on? Regardless, if you’re interested, I think these three films are almost like a mini film school all by themselves. Hope you get to see them!


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    I agree - came across BT and loved it, moved on to BICB99 and was disappointed, so won’t be seeing DAC.


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    Senior Member Grug's Avatar
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    Bone Tomahawk was intense. I enjoyed it, but I definitely dug Brawl in Cell Block 99 more.


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    Quote Originally Posted by Grug View Post
    Bone Tomahawk was intense. I enjoyed it, but I definitely dug Brawl in Cell Block 99 more.
    This is what I love about dvxuser, and why I keep hanging around - incredibly educational. This is one example. I simply cannot imagine how anyone who knows the first thing about film can possibly enjoy BICB99 more than BT. And yet, an intelligent, discerning, experienced filmmaker - in this case Grug - manages to find BICB99 superior to BT. Mind blown. I mean, it's as if somebody tells you that, say, while they enjoyed f.ex. Reservoir Dogs, they dug a random Ed Wood movie more. It's just incomprehensible to me, starting with any artistic accomplishment angle to basic professionalsm in both movies - day and night (according to me). And yet here we are. Therefore, it is highly educational to me - no matter what I may think is 100% obvious... is actually NOT so obvious to others, who are smart people. Wow. That once and for all tells you that there seems to be no "objective" reality when it comes to evaluating art/entertainment.

    Thank you, Grug, for giving me this insight - I've got to try a lot harder to understand other points of view. Amazeballs.


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    Senior Member Grug's Avatar
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    Haha, perhaps I'm just a little more concise by nature in my opinions

    It's been a while since I've seen either film, and they're both a bit too far down the 'brutal' end of the spectrum for me to want to have a rewatch any time soon - I fear the opening of Bone Tomahawk is probably forever burnt into my brain. The first time I sat down to watch it, I literally got about 15 seconds into the movie and just had to turn it off, figuring I'd come back to it when I was in a better mood for that kind of film.

    It sounds to me like a lot of the elements you really dislike in his films, are pretty intrinsic to Zahler's "style". I like that the films feel so intentional, that the filmmaker is making bold calls (and for the most part, in my opinion, getting away with them), I found it refreshing.

    I think the main thing for me, was that I found Vince Vaughn's character arc in BICB99 just more compelling than the rescue party's in BT. And as the film got further and further away from its reasonably naturalistic beginning, I was just able to accept it as a kind of "descent into madness".

    And certainly there are moments where dialogue isn't delivered naturalistically, but I felt like (most of the time) it worked within the style of the film. I think Yorgos Lanthimos walks a very similar tightrope with his films, but because the delivery feels like it matches the oddness of the world he's created, I don't find it objectionable (most of the time).

    But I think (ultimately) differences of opinion like these are PRECISELY the reason filmmakers need to just speak with their own voices. You just can't pander to audiences very effectively, as everyone has their own tastes - the only thing you can do is stick to your storytelling guns, and hope you find an audience who appreciate your tastes.


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    Thank you Grug for your perspective and interesting remarks. And it's true, you can't please everybody. If I can paraphrase you (and if I'm wrong, correct me), S. Craig Zahler is doing intentionally highly stylized work. I guess for me, it just doesn't work, and comes across as clumsy (especially the dialogue). I contrast that with Tarantino, who also uses somewhat verbose dialogue, but nonetheless manages to make it flow - I don't know, perhaps this is a matter of taste, that I can take the florid style of QT but not of S. Craig Zahler? This is where it gets subjective, I guess, where you can enjoy it, and I can't. What is more troubling for me, is the structure of the scenes - escpecially in DAC - which strike me as simply faulty, with the tension wrongly distributed, resulting in slackness and boredom. For example in DAC (I mention it because I just saw it and it's still vivid in my mind) the stakeout scene in the car with Vaughn and Gibson - I could not believe my eyes how it dragged on and on with banter that's supposed to be witty, and is anything but - both characters sound exactly the same. I love stakeout scenes in cars - but I kept marvelling, how can you screw up such as scene so badly that a stakeout scene is actually profoundly boring. There is something very wrong here. But then again, it could be just a taste issue. I guess I just don't get S. Craig Zahler. What makes me think though, is that how come the same problems were not present in BT? And it's not like I had anything against S. Craig Zahler - the exact opposite, I am a huge fan of BT and came in to BIBC99 with extremely positive feeling. Oh well.


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