Movie Review – Mr. Turner

Mr. Turner (2014)
Written & Directed by Mike Leigh

I loved Mr. Turner! We’re in an age of the most cookie cutter formulaic biopic. Look at films like Bohemian Rhapsody, which follows a rigorous plot structure that doesn’t provide insight into its central figure. It’s not a new problem; it’s just so prevalent. Mr. Turner has no interest in exploring the early years of the English painter J.M.W. Turner, there’s no scene which shows him picking up a paintbrush for the first time as if guided by a divine hand. When we meet the main character, he’s in the last 25 years of his life, past a broken marriage where he doesn’t claim his two daughters, and whose only human connections are with his manager/father and an occasional tryst with his psoriasis riddled maid Hannah. This is not a pretty story but an honest one.

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Movie Review – steve jobs

steve jobs (2015)
Written by Aaron Sorkin
Directed by Danny Boyle

Heroes can often be rotten people behind the scenes. Steve Jobs, while often canonized as a saint of American industry and technology, was not a very nice person, especially to the daughter he denied for decades. When making a film about the creator of the revolutionary Macintosh computer, it would be easy to go the usual biopic route that displays all sorts of corny and cliched foreshadowing that can make the audience think themselves clever. Instead, writer Aaron Sorkin structures this film like a three-act stage play with each act being the minutes before one of Jobs famous unveilings. 1984’s Macintosh reveal, 1988’s embarrassing NeXT launch, and 1998’s glorious return to glory iMac announcement. There are repetitious refrains, almost like a piece of music, characters as themes returning in variation. All of this adds up to a brutally honest portrayal of Steve Jobs that doesn’t seek to frame him as a “great man” but a flawed man with some great ideas.

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Movie Review – Foxcatcher

Foxcatcher (2014)
Written by E. Max Frye & Dan Futterman
Directed by Bennett Miller

Mark Schultz is three years out from his wrestling gold medal win at the ‘84 Olympics and is feeling the pain of being quickly forgotten. He’s also stuck in his brother, Dave’s shadow, who also won gold and is now working as a coach at Wexler University while preparing for a bid at the ‘88 Olympics. One day Mark receives a phone call from eccentric multimillionaire John Du Pont. Du Pont has decided he wants to support Mark and the Olympic wrestling team with hopes of another gold. He opines about the loss of “American greatness” but as time wears on it becomes clear Du Pont sees himself as the leader, coach, and comrade of these wrestlers. An unhealthy power dynamic develops between Mark and Du Pont that only worsens when Dave arrives to act as the “assistant coach.” It’s clear this arrangement is heading for disaster.

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Movie Review – The Grandmaster

The Grandmaster (2013)
Written by Wong Kar-wai, Zou Jingzhi, and Xu Haofeng
Directed by Wong Kar-wai

Ip Man was a Cantonese master martial artist, specializing Wing Chun. He would go on to become the teacher whom Bruce Lee studied under, but this film focuses on his ascension to becoming a grandmaster and his fall from grace during the Japanese occupation. The film begins in the 1930s when Gong Yutian, the grandmaster under whom the southern and northern schools united announces his retirement. He chooses Ip Man as his heir in the south and Ip goes through a series of challenges to prove his worth. Yutian’s daughter Gong Er feels her family has been dishonored by losing this position and sets out to defeat Ip. She loses but a friendship begins that is cut short when the Japanese invade. Ip loses two children to famine and starvation while Gong Yutian faces betrayal at the hands of former students. The rest of the film tries to incorporate way too many events in Ip Man’s life that it ultimately becomes hard even to keep track of what is going on.

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Movie Review – The Tale

The Tale (2018)
Written & Directed by Jennifer Fox

Jennifer Fox is a successful documentarian and film professor, in her 40s living in New York City. Life is great for her. Then her mother calls upset because she found one of Jennifer’s short stories she wrote when she was in middle school. She sends the story to her daughter who suddenly begins to recall the summer of her thirteenth year that she spent living with a horseback riding teacher, Mrs. G. A neighbor, Bill, was having an affair with Mrs. G and worked as a running coach to make sure Jennifer and the two other girls attending kept in shape. But Jennifer doesn’t remember what happened completely right and as she speaks with others her memories shift and change. She had thought she was fifteen at the time — the details of Mrs. G and Bill’s relationship blur. Also, most important of all Jennifer remembers having a relationship with Bill as well. The deeper she goes, the more she uncovers and clarifies.

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Movie Review – Vice

Vice (2018)
Written & Directed by Adam McKay

Dick Cheney served under three of America’s presidents before getting to sit as vice president during George W. Bush’s administration. His path to power was made possible by his wife Lynne who spurred Dick on despite his proximity to many political scandals in Washington. When he finally reaches the highest levels of power in America, he calls in a series of friends and associates to help him commandeer control of the executive branch. President Bush doesn’t seem to mind and happily hands off the reins power leaving Cheney to mastermind the whole of foreign and energy policy for the next eight years. This is the story of the shadow president who transformed our nation forever and increased the reach of the office of the President for generations to come.

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Movie Review – A Prayer Before Dawn

A Prayer Before Dawn (2018)
Written by Jonathan Hirschbein & Nick Saltrese
Directed by Jean-Stephane Sauvaire

Billy Moore is an Irish expatriate who finds himself Muay Thai boxing tournaments on the streets of Bangkok. He’s also using and dealing yaba (a mixture of meth and caffeine). Eventually, the law catches up to Billy, and he’s sent to prison where his difficulties multiply. He witnesses the brutal rape and subsequent suicide of a fellow inmate. He’s forced to try and go unnoticed by the violent gang in his cell block. What makes all of this worse is he has no one on the outside to provide him with money so he can have resources to use inside. Two things become his guiding lights: a ladyboy named Fame, a fellow prisoner who works in the commissary and the group of inmates training for Muay Thai tournaments within a prison circuit. Moore may never escape this nightmare, but he is going to battle his way to survive.

A brilliant decision was made in the adaptation of this real-life story which was to withhold Billy Moore’s backstory. There are no flashbacks to Ireland or long expository soliloquies. We begin right as Billy goes into a fight and have to piece together through the images that follow who is and what is happening in his life. Despite much of the dialogue being in Thai, we provided few subtitles unless necessary. In that way we’re in the shoes of the protagonist, trying to decipher the commands being barked at him and feeling confused in a place that is dangerous and unfamiliar. The film does an excellent job of showing us Billy’s progression in communicating, listening intently as his fellow inmates/boxers tell their personal stories and he is confirming that he understands out loud. The supporting cast is composed mostly of real-life former Thai inmates which add both to the reality of the violence but also the depth of humanity.

In the same way, Billy grows as a communicator; we see his boxing technique becoming refined. When we watch his first match, he’s frenetic, infused with yaba, and chaotically beating away at his opponent. The coach inside the prison emphasizes the techniques and the muscle memory needed to become a good fighter. Billy strains to adapt at first and then a moment comes in the middle of the fight where you see it all click, and he becomes something more than he started as.

Director Sauvaire doesn’t shy away from showing us the brutal nature of life in prison. Moments of violence are filmed naturalistically, no sense of exploitation but neither holding back from what is happening in front of us. Yet, he also uses that naturalism to highlight the beauty and sensuality of rare moments. Billy’s trysts with Fame are also not exploited but showcase the intimacy and tenderness these people are sharing in the midst of darkness. Boxing also becomes a display of intimacy, the ring a place where a small group of prisoners can unleash their anger at their situation while bonding closer as a family. When they finally decide to initiate Billy with his first tattoo, they circle him, holding his hand, his shoulders. When the tattoo is finished, the artist offers a quiet prayer over this new brother. Billy finds the family he is missing within the walls of hell.

A Prayer Before Dawn plunges you into this particular place and this very specific experience, positioning the camera just over Billy’s shoulder for large portions of the film. We walk with him into the waiting maw of the prisoner, and we follow just a few steps behind as he moves toward the ring for a fight that will define him for the rest of his life. Billy Moore is a troubled man, and the movie doesn’t choose to end at the moment where he triumphs. Instead, our denouement has him transferred to a new prison but after he actively makes a choice not to escape. He knows he can’t connect with the world outside those walls anymore. It was the world around him in Ireland that pushed him to run, and when he ran to somewhere else, he only fell into a darker hole using drugs. He is free, in an odd way, inside a prison where he can devote himself like a monk to developing control of himself through boxing.