S. Craig Zahler has quickly become one of my favorite working filmmakers. He doesn’t seem to care if you find his films too nasty or brutal. He just wants to elicit a response and expose you to the raw, merciless side of the world. And though the length of his films may put your butt to sleep, every second is crucial to the rich, sprawling narratives he plans to shock you with.
His latest masterstroke, Dragged Across Concrete, is his best film yet — and Brawl in Cell Block 99 is one of my favorite movies of the past five years. And like that film, Dragged Across Concrete has an incredible ensemble cast. Jennifer Carpenter, Tory Kittles, Michael Jai White, Laurie Holden, Udo Kier, and Don Johnson, among others, all make appearances. Each actor has a significant role to play to serve the greater good of its story about cops getting intertwined with the criminal underworld, but it’s Mel Gibson and Vince Vaughn who run the show.
Aside from the sprawling structure, it’s Zahler’s sharp-to-the-touch dialogue that makes his films engaging front to back. It’s like imagining Aaron Sorkin writing a gritty crime noir or a less cartoonish Quentin Tarantino. There are many scenes throughout where characters are talking to each other, but all the conversations are fascinating commentaries about our world. Whether it’s Ridgeman and Lurasetti discussing if the singer on the radio is a boy or girl or throwing out percentages of the likelihood of their survival, Zahler’s writing (and how the actors deliver it) is fit to study. There’s a rough edge and a truth to his words.
Then, there are the great action scenes and intensity. Similar to Brawl in Cell Block 99, this film is a slow burner that leaves scars. Zahler builds up the tension like an EDM DJ ready to drop the proverbial bass. When it hits, the results don’t disappoint.
Extras: The Blu-ray combo pack includes a three-part documentary (“Elements of a Crime”) and a featurette (“Moral Conflict: Creating Cinema that Challenges”).
Arctic (★★★★) In the near-perfect and intense survival drama Arctic, Mads Mikkelsen (Hannibal series) portrays an engineer named Overgård who is stranded in the Arctic after a plane crash. When he discovers a young woman (Maria Thelma Smáradóttir) who is also stranded, he must decide whether stay at his makeshift camp or embark on a deadly journey through the cold unknown to save her — and himself.
The film, co-written and directed by Joe Penna (in his feature debut) is a remarkable achievement. For a film of so few words, the visual language of storytelling and Mikkelsen’s career-best performance carries this film safely home. Through carefully calculated camera movements (or happy accidents) and Mikkelsen’s scenes of reflection, audiences are invited to be active participants in the story.
It’s not a film that spells out all the answers or makes it easy.
It’s thoughtful and true to the human experience.
Rated PG-13, 97 minutes.
Extras: The Blu-ray includes a Digital HD copy of the film, a behind-the-story featurette, a special on Mikkelsen and deleted scenes.
Escape Room (★★½) Here’s another horror movie that takes a fun thing you could do with friends or family (like camping, trick-or-treating, or going to a haunted house) and makes you never want to consider the thought of doing that activity again. That also happens to be the thrill of horror movies.
Unfortunately, as fit as the escape room concept is for the genre, the film forgets the fundamentals of storytelling: You need some sympathetic characters and an ending that doesn’t feel cheap.
That said, some horror movies exist so you can watch people die in inventive ways and show off cool sets, and that’s where Escape Room excels.
The production design and the camera movements are often quite mesmerizing, especially for a film with a $10 million budget.
Coming off as a mediocre bloody mixture of Saw and 1997’s Cube, Escape Room is a decent rental for a date night on the couch. It won’t move mountains or anything, but there’s some enjoyment.
Rated PG-13, 99 minutes.
Extras: The Blu-ray combo pack includes an alternate opening and ending, six deleted scenes, and four behind-the-scenes featurettes.
Tarantula (★★★) I don’t know about you, but I’m a deathly terrified of spiders. So, the thought of a 100-foot tarantula that wreaks havoc on a town has me squirming like Ron Weasley. Thankfully, this Scream Factory release is a 1955 monster movie, so you don’t have to worry about it looking too authentic.
Directed by Jack Arnold (It Came From Outer Space), and starring John Agar and Mara Corday, Tarantula is admittedly a movie made to be torn apart by the Mystery Science Theatre 3000 guys.
However, as unbelievable and hokey as the film gets (no one seems to notice an arachnid the size of a football field until they become lunch), it has some solid visual and special effects work, especially for its time.
You see supersized lab rats and guinea pigs. (They don’t fight the Tarantula like Godzilla or anything, so don’t get too excited.) But how the filmmakers managed to stack images on top of each other is impressive.
There’s a shot of the spider busting through a window that took me back to creating monster movies when I was a kid. It’s got this childlike quality that’s too fun to dismiss. I mean, Clint Eastwood makes a cameo appearance as a hero. It’s totally worth it.
Not rated, 81 minutes.
Extras: The Scream Factory release includes a new 2K scan of the original film elements, a thorough audio commentary with a trio of film historians, a theatrical trailer and a still gallery.
Also available this week: The Boxer (1997, a Shout Select release); The Brain (1988, a Shout Factory release); Hannibal (2001) on 4K; Kuffs (1992, a Shout Select release); Miss Bala; Mission of Honor; Police Story / Police Story 2 (1985-1988, a Criterion Collection release); Serenity (2018); and Sixteen Candles: 35th Anniversary Edition.