A Prayer Before Dawn (2017): Action / Biography / Crime

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Dynamite!!! A film that doesn’t beautify violence and criminality. A true story that doesn’t glorify bad choices yet creates a hero through them. Through real mud, blood, piss, and shit, “A Prayer Before Dawn” tells the real story of British boxer Billy Moore who rose from it like Phoenix. Incarcerated in one of Thailand’s most infamous prisons, Billy Moore found the courage to reflect on his life, learn from mistakes in the worst possible manner, and literally punch his way out of there.

Shot with real Thai ex-inmates, (deliberately) occasionally subtitled, “A Prayer Before Dawn” breaks all Hollywood taboos. There are no easy ways out – actually, there is no way out – shockingly violent, hellish scenes that pass on the fear and agony that Moore had to endure, and masterfully crafted realistic, ostensibly non-choreographed fights. Moore, trained by the natives, showed them how it’s done, in a close-to-dying status.

Practicing muay thai myself for almost twenty years I have the deepest respect for Billy Moore who teaches, other than the martial art itself, life lessons on perseverance, human values, weaknesses and strengths, physical and emotional torture, regret, acknowledgment, paying back society, and more. I take my hat off to you Billy.

Last but not least, I applaud Joe Cole for his astounding performance. Look forward to seeing him in more brilliant films like this one.

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A-X-L (2018): Action / Adventure / Family

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I’ll be quick, and as this is a PG film, I’ll be lenient too…

Writing an “original” script nowadays is hard enough. Directing it in an “original” way, even harder. Oliver Daly, writer/director of the short film Miles (2015), pens the script and directs its feature version “A-X-L”. A kid and (not) his robotic dog’s adventure can be pretty much summarized as “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” (1982) meets “Transformers” (2007).

Decent story, offering nothing much to its development or its characters with more holes than a swiss cheese that a kid would scratch its head. I know women who would die to find out how after 48 hours of running around the makeup stays intact and the hair straight as an arrow. And I’ll sound like a broken record again, but… Producers… don’t hire only models for underwear.

David S. Goyer has been a brilliant writer and producer for the past three decades and still is. I guess hit-and-miss is part of every job.

Brawl in Cell Block 99 (2017): Action / Crime / Thriller

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Remember the “Wedding Crashers” (2005)? “The Break-Up” (2006)? “Couples Retreat” (2009)? Forget about them! And forget about that Vince too! Writer/Director S. Craig Zahler knocks on Vince Vaughn’s door:

S: Hey pal! Fancy making you look like tough as nails? Kick ass like it has never been kicked before?

V: Oh… WOW… How?

S: Right, check this story, yeah? You were a boxer, now you are a mule, and you get arrested. What happens next is a helluva new level of improbability that no one will give two s@£$% as you’ll be bashin’ heads in, smashin’ bones, ripping jaws, and more, with bare hands. What you sayin’, bro?

V. Uhmm… Give me a couple of days to talk about it with Ben (Stiller) while playing dodgeball.

OK… maybe it’s not exactly how it happened. What happened though prior to filming was Vince Vaughn training for 3 months as a boxer putting on fifteen pounds of muscle. And I kid you not, the final cut is an impressively choreographed, R-rated, constant, bloody, brutal brawl that will keep you entertained for over two hours.

Vince Vaughn is an equally brilliant comedian as he is a tragedian. He delivered an astounding performance in “True Detective” (2015) and he does the same here. On the other hand, the writer/director of “Bone Tomahawk” (2015) is an expert in raw violence and, I for one, am really looking forward to “Dragged Across Concrete” (2018).

What Happened to Monday (2017): Action / Crime / Drama

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Seven identical sisters are being hunted down in an overpopulated world where all families are limited to one child.

Noomi Rapace portrays brilliantly all seven identical sisters in this action flick that, overall, looks like “Orphan Black” (2013) meets “Minority Report” (2002) meets “The Matrix” (1999). Tommy Wirkola, an expert in the comedy/horror genre [“Dead Snow” (2009)], takes “What Happened to Monday” more seriously creating an interesting sci-fi which, interestingly enough, IMDb doesn’t classify as “sci-fi”.

Regardless of the semantics, Netflix hit the nail buying the copyrights for this dystopian thriller that despite its minor flaws, impossibilities, and fair amount of negative reviews, it manages to entertain, and raise certain ethical, social, and political questions that, when all motives are revealed, will make you think twice on who to cast your stone at.

Well done to the whole international cast and crew who managed to pull it off and bring out a Philip K. Dick and Isaac Asimov-like world.

First Reformed (2017): Drama / Mystery / Thriller

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Tormented by his own past, a minister of a local congregation, in the outskirts of New York, counsels a young couple with deeply unsettling results for everyone.

Paul Shrader, writer of “Taxi Driver” (1976), “Raging Bull” (1980), and more, comes back with yet another provocative film which he also directs. “First Reformed” is not for the average viewer. It is for the patient one and the one with the sheer will to understand that actions trigger incalculable reactions, be it on the planet or on the human psyche. Very slow-paced with no intention of impressing or pleasing anyone, “First Reformed”, becomes judge, jury, and executioner, standing up for the environment and God opposite religion and mankind. A character-driven story, with directing that clearly defines the editing pace and acting that shows you without telling you. And the few times it does, it shocks!

Rationalizing it might not be the best way to approach it as, other than the aforementioned, “First Reformed” puts under the microscope and subliminally scrutinizes sanity and how, unbeknownst to us, everything is connected.

Mandy (2018): Action / Horror / Thriller

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Producer Elijah Wood sets up a meeting with director Panos Cosmatos and actor Nicolas Cage and they wonder: How do we pitch “Mandy”? They scratch their heads for a while and then it hits them: “I Spit on your Grave” (1978) meets “Hellraiser” (1987) – OK, that didn’t happen.

A hippie cult and their demon rider attack a couple in their secluded cabin in the woods, savagely kill the wife, forcing the husband to watch. And all hell breaks loose…

A psychedelic journey to a sinister world of surrealism which makes acting chameleon Nicolas Cage go absolutely berzerk and pull every beloved face from the “Vampire’s Kiss” (1988) to “Ghost Rider” (2007). Linus Roach is right behind him giving it all! On the other hand, Panos Cosmatos offers a “Grindhouse” experience including his favourite trademarks: High film grain, characters on LSD speaking slowly and in a strange manner, campfires…

One could analyze its sequences separately and write essays on them. But that is boring, and you don’t care. There are certain films or directors (say, David Lynch) that must be watched and either left alone or processed internally. Analysis ruins it. Enjoy the experience. As for people who are hell-bent on pathologically giving negative reviews, maybe it would be best if they didn’t judge a film and rate it according to how they would have wanted it to be made. Maybe they should accept the diversity of cinematic schools of thought and realize how malleable visual storytelling can be.

Received a five-minute standing ovation at Cannes.

Headshot (2016): Action / Drama / Thriller

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Indonesian film school teaches action! Weaker than “The Raid” (2011), and “The Raid 2” (2014), yet “Headshot”, manages to impress with its realistic action. Still gory, phenomenal fighting sequences, still bloody killings, still men and women who just don’t go down, still Timo Tjahjanto, Iko Uwais, Sunny Pang, Julie Estelle. You can’t go wrong.

A man who has washed ashore with amnesia is trying to figure out who he is and what has happened to him while his past is hell-bent on wiping him out. The R-rated, Indonesian version of “The Bourne Identity” (2002), will not fail you and will prepare you for when the aforementioned team strikes back with “The Night Comes for Us” (2018) – the most brutal in this action saga yet.

Incident in a Ghostland (2018): Drama / Horror / Mystery

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Have you ever heard of it? I am afraid it is one of the “limited release” casualties that went under the radar. I guess it didn’t please the right people… but sure hope it scared the crap out of them…

After “Martyrs” (2008) and “The Tall Man” (2012), Pascal Laugier comes back with the psychological horror “Incident in a Ghostland”, only to project, once again, his terrifying vision on the darkness of the human psyche. The shock will hit you from the opening sequence. Two brutal invaders attack a mother with her two little daughters the night they move in the house they inherited. I say no more. What follows after, is a constant interchange between drama and horror which leads up to a non-linear, ceaseless, inescapable torture.

Hauntingly brilliant performances, sadistic unfolding, and a breathless twist are solid reasons to spend an hour and a half… in the dark.

P.S. My warmhearted wishes to actress Taylor Hickson who got injured while filming, and received several stitches.

Wonder (2017): Drama / Family

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Stephen Chbosky does his wonder once more – Yes, pun intended. Following the mind-blowing “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” (2012), he now pens the screenplay and directs “Wonder”. In a nutshell, a homeschooled child suffering from mandibulofacial dysostosis, also known as “Treacher Collins syndrome” (facial deformity), attends for a first time a public school, entering the 5th grade.

Julia Roberts and Owen Wilson do an amazing job as the parents who struggle as much as their kid, and Jacob Tremblay, being the kid, proves again he is a prodigy child actor. Izabela Vidovic, Daveed Diggs, and all the child actors shine in front of the camera, with everyone knowing who they are playing and why.

“Wonder” is the side of Hollywood which gives hope that studio films are not all about undermining human intelligence, explosions, or exploiting disabilities and minorities for profit. Its plot and subplots are bound together proportionally, creating a perfect equilibrium. It recognizes talent, maneuvres around and delicately avoids buffoonery, soppiness, kitsch and cliche, and definitely recognizes a$$holes when it sees them, in every shape, age, race or form.

Get carried away and let it appeal to your humanity. As reality is, unfortunately, far more inhuman…

The Nun (2018): Horror / Mystery / Thriller

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Rrrrriiiiiiiggggghhhhtttttt… At first, I couldn’t tell if I was getting old or if the jump scares were getting old. But… what if it was something else? Then by the process of elimination, I started crossing factors out. But that didn’t make much sense either. Individual departments worked well on their own. Directing, cinematography, production design, editing, acting… Hold on… And then it dawned on me… It was the story! Or the lack of it to be precise.

In “The Exorcist” (1973), Pazuzu, the demon that possesses Regan, unfolds gradually certain abilities: It controls her body and mind, launches things around in a telekinetic manner, reads her’s and everyone else’s soul, speaks every language under the sun (even the dead ones), and upon being cast out, it can possess someone else. For unnecessary complexities and their outcome, please see “Exorcist II: The Heretic” (1977).

In “The Nun”, Valak, can do all of the aforementioned plus… whatever the hell the studios decide that it’s convenient for the script. So, it always comes down to the bloody script! There is this side of Hollywood with the inexplicable mentality of a “financial shark” where, the moment producers “smell” success in something – “The Conjuring” (2013) and “The Conjuring 2” (2016) – they “attack”, blow it out of proportion, rip it apart, and move on to the next!

“The Nun” suffers from inscrutable improbability. As if it isn’t hard enough to specify the demon’s abilities… the ghosts (wtf?!), the heroes’ choices and actions, and an entirely fictitious chapter, in an otherwise “based on true events” saga, come into play amounting to a head-scratching, eye-bleeding nothingness beyond comprehension.

Producers: Stop seeing filmgoers as financial dairy cows and films as cheap canned food for mass consumption. I guess you are making money anyway so, why care…

Below, you can find my top 3 quotes on scripts. Maybe I’m not such a stuck-up snob after all.

  • Audiences are harder to please if you’re just giving them effects, but they’re easy to please if it’s a good story.” — Steven Spielberg
  • “To make a great film you need three things – the script, the script, and the script.” — Alfred Hitchcock
  • “You can’t fix a bad script after you start shooting. The problems on the page only get bigger as they move to the big screen.” — Howard Hawks