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.

Movie Review – Menashe

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Menashe (2017)
Written by Alex Lipschultz, Musa Syeed, & Joshua Z Weinstein
Directed by Joshua Z. Weinstein


Menashe is a widowed Hasidic man whose young son is living with Menashe’s in-laws until the man can remarry. He works a dead-end job at a grocery store with a manager who cuts him no slack. Menashe was never delighted with his arranged marriage, though he misses his wife and loves his son. He attempts to take his son back, but this unravels into a conflict with his brother in law Eizik. Their rabbi decides that Menashe will keep the boy for the week leading up to his late wife’s one-year memorial. Menashe struggles with being the father his community doubts he can be and maintaining his sense of individuality within his tight-knit cultural group. Every day feels like a loss of his self to make others around him happy.

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Movie Review – 20th Century Women

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20th Century Women (2016)
Written & Directed by Mike Mills

20th century women

Jamie is fifteen years old in 1979, living in a crumbling manor in Santa Barbara with his older mother, Dorothea. Residing as renters in Dorothea’s large home are Abbie, a twentysomething photographer & cervical cancer survivor and William, a carpenter/mechanic who is helping renovate the house. Jamie is desperately in love with his long-time best friend Julie, who refuses to have sex with him because she believes it would ruin their friendship. Dorothea becomes increasingly convinced that the generation gap is so vast that she cannot connect with Jamie any longer and solicits the help of Abbie and Julie in raising him into being a good man. What follows is a series of episodes where Jamie begins to develop a better understanding of women and what kind of man he wants to be. Dorothea also begins to learn about how differently women are defined in the late 1970s, considering herself a Bohemian but learning how much more open and progressive times have become.

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Movie Review – The End of the Tour

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The End of the Tour (2015)
Written by Donald Margulies
Directed by James Ponsoldt

the end of the tour

Writer/journalist David Lipsky wakes up one morning to the news that David Foster Wallace killed himself. Wallace was a novelist who published Infinite Jest in 1996 and was a book that hit with tremendous impact on the literary world. Lipsky worked at Rolling Stone in the 90s and proposed going out to Central Illinois where he would follow the author on the last stop of his book tour. Lipsky arrives and finds Wallace to be a man not exactly comfortable with the fame his book has brought him. He seems very agreeable though considerably quiet and not having too many close friends, but lots of acquaintances. Over the course of a couple of days, Lipsky gets to know Wallace and probe into places the writer might not want to go.

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