Rigid, Prolonged Dueling in 'Blunt Force Trauma' Misses Mark

Directed by: Ken Sanzel; Runtime: 97 minutes
Grade: D

It's hard to imagine a more literal take on the "modern-day western" than the premise behind Blunt Force Trauma: strap bulletproof vests onto the participants of wild-west-style pistol square-offs, shifting the proceedings from a duel to immediate death to something like the endurance of a boxing match. Those vests are about the only thing separating the straightforward idea from the framework of other run-of-the-mill competitive gunfight scenarios already out there in classic and modern westerns, featuring a pair of gunslingers who rise up the ranks to square off with the best of the best of an outlawed sport in South America. There's nothing wrong with the minimalism there so long as writer-director Ken Sanzel has a grip on it, somehow tapping into charismatic flourishes and schlocky thrills that show some degree of self-awareness. Despite amplified dialogue and a keen eye for gritty locations to frame the duels, Blunt Force Trauma ends up taking itself far too seriously as a drawn-out and somber backfire with little redemptive value.

People gather in grimy makeshift arenas across South America to participate in these duels, strapping on vests and having an intermediary check the bullets of their personal firearms (all pistols) before stepping into opposing circles across from another. After a heavy bolt slams, a beer can drops, or a blade stabs into the ground, the rivals fire upon one another until one of 'em exits the circle and/or falls down due to the impact -- essentially, gets knocked out -- for a predetermined amount of seconds, with the winner taking home the pot. It's a culture that John (Ryan Kwanten) sort of fell into, but now he's developed enough hunger and aptitude for it that he wants to square off with the mythical head honcho, to which he'll have to jump through some hoops along the circuit to make it happen. A formidable and attractive duelist, Colt (Freida Pinto), joins him on his quest, sporting her own agenda and devil-may-care attitude as they descend further into the dangerous underground culture.

During the initial duel that introduces the intense atmosphere and the roundabout rules, it looks as if director Sanzel might have the right idea with Blunt Force Trauma, where a group of bold, distinct personalities sporting deadly firearms reinvigorate the quick-draw bravura of the "Wild West". Gritty improvised locations reveal a bit of panache in the writer-director's artistic viewpoint, from the knockout zones created by yellow swaths of paint in the grooves of train stockyards to the subtle rays of light pooling in through wood slats of a barn's walls. Alas, these end up being the settings for exceedingly dull, protracted duels that oversell the tense seconds before the bullets start flying, falling back on a peculiar mix of trigger-happy suspense and competitive pummeling that struggles with making one value the skill involved with the "sport". The precision of the draws and the pain of the shielded bullet wounds come across as afterthoughts, emerging in importance only when the plot needs a boost.

Blunt Force Trauma needs a lot of shots to the arm to keep moseying along, too, mainly because there isn't much to the underlying plotting beyond John and Colt's mutual impetus through the underground circuit's ranks and their complicated chemistry on the road. Instead of digging deeper into their characters as an examination of who they really are and why they're involved with the profession, their conversations hinge on a brand of neo-noir flair and guarded existentialism that perpetually keeps one another -- and the audience -- at arm's length, revealing vague elements of their history in dry, detached ways. Ryan Kwanten's experience with westerns and oddball characters languishes inside John's conventional intensity and piercing gazes, while the beauty and mysteriousness of Freida Pinto's character struggles underneath an exterior that's too hardened to jibe with our hardened antihero. Their rapport ends up feeling stiff throughout, though Sanzel gives it a pass due to the volatile nature of their profession.

The journey in getting to the reigning bigwig champion, Zeddiger -- played with zen-like charisma by Mickey Rourke in what's essentially a cameo -- throws a handful of complications at John and Colt, none of which elevate the pulse or make Blunt Force Trauma any more gratifying in its action or thrills. Part of that stems from the predictable, steadfast trajectory being followed by the narrative, but it also has to do with some inane decisions made by a pair of gun-toting, cash-dealing outlaws who should know better than to draw attention to themselves, unnaturally interrupting the flow of the story with self-created problems whose outcomes make it obvious that they're only delaying the inevitable. Police pursuits, thievery attempts, even a training montage open up windows for some kind of brazen amusement, but writer-director Sanzel never breaks from the gloomy attitude to truly relish these meager bursts of bedlam. These are unhappy gunslingers blazing towards their goals with discontent, and Blunt Force Trauma suffers from the backfiring of that.

Quirky, Muddled 'Little Death' Touches On Kinks to Mixed Ends

Directed by: Josh Lawson; Runtime: 98 minutes
Grade: C+

Sexual fetishes can be tough to talk about for a number of reasons, from sharing that intimate and potentially embarrassing aspect of one's preferences with another person to the psychology behind why they actually prefer something a little different in the first place. It's an element of human behavior that rarely gets touched upon in a down-to-earth fashion through the movies: they're typically limited to plot devices in brazen thrillers -- voyeurism in Body Double; witnessing accidents in Crash -- or as the catalysts for budding romances in comedies and dramas -- BDSM in Secretary -- instead of how they often emerge between people in already committed relationships under relatively ordinary circumstances. Josh Lawson initially embraces this purity of discovering and divulging kinks with loved ones in his indie film The Little Death, striking a balance between the ordinariness of perverse fantasies and fondness with elevated situations that also poke fun at and normalize them. Turns out, it's more successful at situational foreplay than reaching genuine climactic ends, but there's enough to admire in how the film stimulates thought and levity along the way to keep going.

Told in something of a connected vignette style, The Little Death -- derived from a French expression for orgasm, "la petite mort" -- predominately follows the lives of four couples across a city in Australia, each of whom are experiencing one of the partner's fetishes in different ways. Some of them are made aware of the other's desires, such as Maeve's (Bojana Novakovic ) proposal for her gentle boyfriend, Paul (writer-director Lawson himself), to rape her, and the marriage-saving roleplaying going on between Dan (Damon Herriman) and Evie (Kate Mulvany). Others attempt to figure out their peculiarities unbeknownst to their partner, from a stressed businessman's (Alan Dukes) enjoyment of his wife's (Lisa McCune) attractive qualities while she sleeps to what happens when a frustrated woman, Rowena (Kate Box), learns that she gets sexual gratification from seeing her husband (Patrick Brammall) cry. For variety, Lawson also folds a fifth kink into the mix involving phone sex, as well as a somewhat darker and creepier element involving a sharp-dressed man (Kym Gyngell) who goes door-to-door between all their houses, creating a very loose bonding agent between them all.

The intimacy in how writer-director Lawson introduces and navigates the discovery of these fetishes tends to be the most rousing element of The Little Death, focused on the explicit and implicit apprehension in exploring them with a loved one. As with most multiple-story movies, some scenarios are more successful than others as they progress beyond their core premise. Maeve's boundary-pushing desire to be forcefully taken reaches an emotional outlook on the discomfort and necessary devotion that surrounds her troubling fantasy, while the lengths that Rowena will go to milk tears out of her husband taps into a warped vein of comedy that's amusing ... up to a point. On the flipside, the bizarre extent of Dan's growing obsession with becoming other people through roleplaying weakens the earnest conflicts of identity and confidence first introduced by the scenario, while the surefire steps taken by the awkward businessman to continue his nagging wife's drowsiness force that entire angle to become the film's dead weight.

Splendid chemistry between all the couples -- both during sensual moments and amid conflicts -- are either capably propped up or undermined by Lawson's good-intentioned, courageous, yet ultimately uneven writing. His maturity in avoiding obvious punchlines and an almost complete lack of exposed skin in a film committed to sexual kinks is highly commendable, rarely featuring moments of overt titillation in respect to the sincere side of the conversation he's having with the audience about the topic(s). To brand The Little Death a comedy might be a bit mistaken, though: while there's some humor and mirthful awkwardness involved throughout, very little of it comes without serious overtones that, more often than not, suppress the laughs instead of succeeding as a kind of black comedy, whether it's the manipulation involved in making a grieving man continue to cry or the tactics employed by a hapless, married somnophiliac with an unsympathetic wife. The upfront nature of the film's initial ideas further deflates whenever the fetishists overstep certain boundaries with their groan-worthy scheming.

Lawson also doesn't reach the sincerest of outcomes with his narrative threads in The Little Death, suppressing the potency of his script's convictions through finales that revel in over-the-top embellishments and underscore some aspect of deceptive avoidance in each of 'em. Guardedness might be a genuine part of dealing with these situations, but the film sends mixed signals about liking unconventional things and the candor involved in trying to express them, not letting any of these couples work out the kinks in their kinks without having to rely on some kind of dishonesty once all's said and done. Granted, a few of these people really don't deserve any kind of encouraging resolutions because of the way they've conducted themselves, succumbing to delusion and obsession in some pretty inexcusable -- borderline illegal! -- ways that manifest as cautionary tales about going too far. While this makes for thought-provoking material that's bound to spark conversations about the nature of their passions and their miscommunication, it also tampers with the overall messages originally conveyed by Lawson, something that's pretty important once the amusement factor takes a back seat.

Remember, there are actually five stories going on in The Little Death, the last one which arrives near at the end -- despite a brief taste of the characters about a half-hour in -- and only really loosely connects to the rest of subject matter. Filed under "telephone scatalogica", or pleasure gained from making obscene phone calls, the final vignette involves Monica, a phone-call relay operator for the deaf (via webcam), and a first-time client who expresses an interest in calling an adult chat line. What results is a rather funny and charming depiction of the complications you'd expect from the situation, driven by a pair of delightful performances hinged on expressions and gestures; however, since it doesn't involve either a couple or much of an account of a fetish like the others, this final piece also feels out-of-place amid the rest of the stories. Josh Lawson probably bent his own established rules by including this instead of letting it stand as its own short film or something, but it allows The Little Death to end on an honest and (mostly) optimistic note after a series of conflicted depictions of sexuality, so it's easy to forgive.

Corrupt Cop Makes 'A Hard Day' Worse In Overstated Thriller

Directed by: Kim Seong-hun; Runtime: 111 minutes
Grade: C+

We've all had one of those days where it seems as if nothing's going the way we'd like, but sometimes we tend to ignore that those days are, in actuality, the product of our own mistakes, the consequences of previous decisions stacking atop one another. That's precisely the kind of day the main character's having in South Korea's A Hard Day (aka Take It to the End) -- which probably should've been titled A Hard Day ... And It's All My Fault -- revolving around a police officer who gets involved in a hit-and-run manslaughter and scrambles to cover it up, all while a bystander attempts to blackmail him with the information. The craftsmanship at work in Kim Seong-hun's thriller yields plenty of tension and black comedy from end to end, crafting a brisk experience that never really pumps the breaks on its momentum; however, the fact that so much of this "hard day" revolves around questionable circumstances, poor decision-making, and superhuman feats detract from its overall impact, resulting in fierce but dubious suspense.

Granted, everything about this messy twenty-four hours isn't entirely the fault of Detective Ko Gun-soo (Lee Sun-kyun), who's also mourning the death of his mother on the day of her funeral. In a shaken mindset and working against the clock to arrive at the ceremony -- already attended by his sister and daughter -- he accidentally hits somebody in the middle of a dark street along the way. Coupled with his time constraints and questionable standing with the homicide department, Detective Gun-soo instead decides it'd be better to hurl the body into his trunk and dispose of it later on, unbeknownst of who the person is and the caliber of the obstacles that await him. Just as it seems as if he might pull off the cover-up, a phone call arrives at the precinct from someone who witnessed the incident, proceeding to threaten the detective's livelihood unless he cooperates. Reluctantly, Detective Gun-soo tries to investigate the blackmailer while also troubleshooting the caller's demands: to bring them the body.

The premise sounds pretty grim -- the accidental homicide and blackmail following around a grieving single-father detective at a time when he really doesn't deserve it -- but A Hard Day frequently uses that tone as a vehicle for deadpan humor and outrageous suspense. Kim Seong-hun's script injects levity into the ominous situation with renegade remote-controlled toy soldiers, inopportunely-placed cellphones, and strategically-placed batches of balloons, drawing one's attention to the possibilities of what other shenanigans the scenario could feasibly produce. On the other hand, they also distract from the numerous lapses in practicality within the situations that Detective Gun-soo and the deadweight of his cargo get cornered into, leaving the film scurrying in the middle ground between the realistic mechanics of the situation and elevated shock-value antics. This results in unpredictable, engaging thrills that muster a lot of raw black-comedy energy, never veering into boredom with the directions taken.

A lot of what happens in A Hard Day ends up being the result, the fault, of Detective Gun-soo being wrapped up in a corrupt police department, leaving one uncertain of how to feel about the main character and the trouble he brings upon himself later on. To bolster the film's pace and keep those watching from dwelling on the particulars, director Kim Seong-hun conveniently cuts away and jumps ahead during critical junctures in the detective's problematic twenty-four hours, unjustifiably getting him through road blocks and internal affairs' investigations when they really should've complicated his life much more than they do. The film also has the tendency of executing just enough police work to spice things up yet not enough to actually get the job done, where the connection of events predominately relies on the errors of law enforcement to keep them moving along. None of their dull corruption -- bribes and other under-the-table dealings -- accomplishes much more than making them seem dirty and unskilled, though, enough to excuse the cracks exposed by Detective Gun-soo's situation.

A Hard Day also struggles in communicating the panic of the detective's cover-up maneuvers and the degree that it goes unnoticed around his fellow cops, touching on the complicated balance between what to show the audience and how to maintain a believable atmosphere. From the moment he plows into his John Doe, Lee Sun-kyun telegraphs a twitchy, alarmed performance that should naturally draw a lot of suspicion in a precinct full of corrupt cops -- especially in the midst of Internal Affairs scrutiny -- yet it largely gets disregarded or outright overlooked. The exchange, of course, comes in the fact that we're allowed to observe the unfiltered anxiety of a guy dealing with stress beyond his threshold, yielding a lot of gratifying surges of sweaty, wide-eyed suspense amid ringing phones and rifling through evidence at the office. His persona practically broadcasts that he's hiding something, though, and only so much of that can be brushed aside due to the loss of his mother, another example of the writer-director leaning on an unconvincing excuse to keep the thrills coming.

And come they do, especially once the identity of the blackmailer steps into the light. Yet, like many other mysteries, A Hard Day gets too wrapped up in the inventiveness of zany circumstances to nail its landing as a credible whodunit, relying on peculiar happenstance to fuel the motivations of Detective Gun-Soo's foe. Following a reveal that's both anticlimactic and erroneous, the tension continues to escalate with a loosening grasp on practicality, weakening the detective's grasp on the situation and beefing up his antagonist's physical and strategic capabilities to significant degrees. Chaos takes over in a rambunctious conclusion that checks off necessary boxes -- a brutal fistfight, a monumental explosion, power fluctuations between the two up until the bitter end -- which, by way of Lee Sun-kyun's direction, never loses energy nor its ability to surprise as it stays true to the film's title. Alas, it's hard to shake off that our detective's day really wouldn't have been so hard with a little more cleverness and less naivete.