SEX, DRUGS & BICYCLES – movie review

SEX, DRUGS & BICYCLES
Gravitas Ventures
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Jonathan Blank
Writer: Jonathan Blank
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC,
Opens: February 26, 2021 on PBS

“Sex, Drugs & Bicycles” really is about sex, drugs and bicycles with the implication throughout the documentary that the more you have of each, the happier you will be.

Considering the high taxes of countries with Holland’s social welfare programs and policies, you might be surprised to find out that in their lust for life, the Netherlands joins the equally social democratic countries of Scandinavia. This might seem surprising to people here in the U.S., often called the world’s richest country (as though that leads to happiness as does the night the day), but the view of our Republican politicians and the moderate Democrats who sometimes resemble them is that socialism is the monster you found under your bed when you were six years old.

Directed, written, edited and whatever by Jonathan Blank, whose sense of humor is most like that of Michael Moore, this doc moves forward like a stiff dose of amphetamines with a love for Holland that might make you think that Blank is high on Ecstasy. As for the multiple organisms and the ease of finding partners to achieve same, who’s got the time to worry about the headaches of owning cars when bicycles are the favored mode of travel and the most serious crime that Blank finds in his favorite nation-state is that the two-wheelers often get stolen. Since there are more bikes than people—which means there are more than seventeen million of ‘em—who has the need to add another to their stable?

With snappy and often hilarious animation where Blank morphs into Rembrandt, “Sex, Drugs & Bicycles” lauds, among other things, the four+ weeks of holiday that the Dutch are required to take, even getting paid for their extra month off. And unfortunately for us cinephiles, director Blank seems to have taken far more time off than that. His previous picture, “Anarchy TV,” which features teens doing nude television on the station that they capture, was released twenty-two years ago. It’s therefore not at all puzzling that Blank includes an annual naked bicycling day as one of the great things going for the Dutch.

And how can they pay attention to the windmills, which are the most notable symbol of the Netherlands, when there’s so much sex to concentrate on? Every traveler knows about the sex shops where sex workers, fully legal and licensed, get to parade their wares on storefronts in the tourist-heavy neighborhood that is the main attraction. Not only that. Kids get sex education beginning in primary school, and perhaps as a result, the Dutch abortion rate is much lower than that in our country.

As for medical care, it’s not free but it’s mandatory. Basic coverage is required and 99% are insured. Insurance is sold by private companies, and you can kick in extra cash to get more than the usual services. Even in the land of windmills, there’s no such thing as a free lunch. Marijuana can be sold in legal neighborhood coffee shops, such as the one on display named “Smokes.” Teens also take drugs on TV, though Blank briefly mentions that Holland had a problem with legalize hard drugs and pushed back somewhat against it.

Bernie Sanders might be considered a “moderate” by Holland’s standards. Does Bernie believe that transgender surgery should be covered by the government health plan as do the Nederlanders? How about sex workers making the disabled happy? Holland is in the forefront of LGBTQ equality, so there’s none of the fanfare such as here when Barack Obama had to say that he’s “evolved” on his position regarding gay marriage and LGBTQ protections.

Blank takes little time reviewing what’s bad, though he does point out that the liberal policy on accepting Muslim refugees has brought right-wing politicians out of the woodwork. The press notes state “Is having month-long double-paid vacations, no fear of homelessness and universal healthcare the nightmare we’ve been warned about?” More a wet dream than a nightmare, though Holland has an increasing problem of homelessness. According to the Wikipedia article “Netherlands and Homelessness,” in 2018 there were 39,000 without roofs over their heads, afflicting mostly Muslim refugees.

As you might expect, Holland’s seventeen million people would be lost if traveling outside their borders if Dutch were their only language. Everybody interviewed in this doc spoke perfect English. So…if you’re a Michael Moore fan and you had not heard of Jonathan Blank before (as stated, he had no released a film for twenty-two years), you are likely to enjoy this movie’s eight-five minutes and get depressed when you realize that the U.S. ranks so low in the developed world in education, affordable health care (though Medicare is fantastic making it great to be old), and harbors a puritanical fear of recreational drugs.

85 minutes. © 2021 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – A-
Acting – B+
Technical – B+
Overall – A-

MAFIA INC. movie review

MAFIA INC
Film Movement
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Daniel Grou
Writer: André Cédilot, Sylvain Guy, André Noël  Mafia Inc: The Long, Bloody Reign of Canada’s Sicilian Clan by journalists André Cédilot and André Noël,
Cast: Sergio Castellitto, Marc-André Grondin, Gilbert Sicotte, Mylèlen Mackay, Donny Falsetti
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 2/7/21
Opens: January 29, 2021

Mafia Inc Large Poster

Names of countries and provinces are flying here as though the actors are playing a game of geography. Lugano, Switzerland, Italy, Sicily, Lichtenstein, Venezuela, Quebec, Canada, Montreal, Cayman Islands. All of these areas (even Venezuela in better times) accommodate people who want to launder money, to hide deposits from the authorities. It’s a wonder that mafia members ever get caught, but Daniel Grou’s “Mafia Inc” shows what many of us in the audience know. Fallings out within gangster families in addition to wars between rival gangs lead to actions, reactions, and these guys don’t fool around. They get revenge when somebody squeals to the cops, when others are found to wear wires to lessen their sentences, and in the case of this movie, when one commits a crime so horrible that even his fellow members ostracize him.

The Quebecois director Daniel Grou, whose “Miraculum” is an ensemble work about people exploring their passions, deals now with people at least equally passionate, though a subplot around a controversial romance is thrown in to complicate a story that, like “Miraculum” is an ensemble piece. There are many characters with so many conflicting emotions and desires that a second showing may be needed to assemble the puzzle.

The two principals are Frank Paternò (Sergio Castellitto), the godfather of an ethnically Italian clan living in Montreal, and Vince Gamache (Marc-André Grondin), a young member committed to violent actions meant not only to earn great sums of money (by hiding drugs inside corpses with removed organs and smuggling them through customers), but also to impress Frank. The film is based on a true story uncovered by Canada’s Woodward and Bernstein-like journalists André Cédilot and André Noël. The action takes place in Montreal in 1994 with flashbacks to 1980 to show the lives of upcoming mafioso Vince.

The godfather is played by a smartly-dressed, articulate, person who you might think is the CEO of Italian airlines and whose idea of making money is not by Bonnie-and-Clyde bank heists but by getting involved in a proposed bridge between Sicily and Italian mainland. You would not be surprised to see that the smooth-talker is proud of his anticipated construction as he frequently refers to his roots in the “motherland.” What will eventually take down the scheme is that Frank’s son Giaco (Donny Falsetti) is the man he wants as his successor, and ambitions of rival Vince, who is the son of a tailor (Gilbert Sicotte) known for custom-dressing the Paternò clan.

These are not a pleasant ensemble of people but Vince, a firebrand on his way up, believes more than the others that the end justifies the means. His is the idea of crashing a school bus in Venezuela sacrificing children to pick up bodies to transport drugs through customs. The romance between Giaco’s brother Pat (Michaela Ricci) and Vince’s sister Sofie (Mylène) adds complexity to the story, which features large groups of people in ornate houses and reception halls, a concrete sign of the millions sent by the families to banks around the world.

As in “The Godfather,” which is probably the best known classic film on the subject atop a slew of others like “Once Upon a Time in America,” (an almost four-hour look at a Jewish prohibition gangster coming to terms with his life), “Eastern Promises” (a Russian crime family), and “Scarface” (a Cuban immigrant in Miami takes over a drug cartel). If we are to believe the two journalists who covered the Quebec-based mob, their story involves everything you expect in an action drama, including the blowing up a custom men’s wear shop with a pipe bomb, shootouts that make “High Noon” appear like a child’s game of tiddle-de-winks, dancing by ornately dressed couples in the most gaudy reception rooms, and the like.

What is different here is that the gangsters easily adapt their perfectly accented speech among Quebec French, English and Italian. The film also shows what’s left of the mafioso humanity: they may cry when family members wind up dead and they are sentimental about budding romances among the clan. “Sicko,” one of Michael Moore’s documentaries, purports to show how civilized Canada is when compared to the U.S. Some of us here in America have fantasies that the Canadians, with their seeming cooperation among political parties and normal prime ministers, must be an idyllic place to live. “Mafia Inc” however points out the flaws within the boundaries of our neighbors to the north and does a more than adequate job albeit with some confusion.

In French (or should we say “French”), Italian, and English with English subtitles where necessary.

134 minutes. © 2021 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B-
Acting – B+
Technical – B
Overall – B

MOST WANTED – movie review

MOST WANTED
Saban Films
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Daniel Roby
Screenwriter: Daniel Roby
Cast: Antoine-Olivier Pilon, Josh Hartnett, Stephen McHattie, Jim Gaffigan, J.C. MacKenzie, Rose-Marie Perreault
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 6/4/20
Opens: July 24, 2020

When I was in third grade in 1945 I learned that the policeman is my friend. In fact the teacher said that we should call policemen “officers,” and “police” and never use the word “cop” because that was a slang term that the authorities would not like. It means we do not respect them. Things have changed since 1945 when the worst thing a policeman would do was to get a doughnut in the local coffee house and not pay for it.

In June, as though the coronavirus was not enough of a burden for us, the country faced an uproar of protests against the senseless killing of a suspect who was murdered by four cops for the horrendous offence of paying for cigarettes with a counterfeit twenty dollar bill. The idea that there is a thin line between a cop and a criminal, that a policeman can either way, may be extreme, but on top of that we have racist officers not just in the south but in a midwestern blue state, Minnesota. For those who still doubt that the law can be a rogue, just check out movies like “Training Day” (2001), “Bad Lieutenant” (1992), and “Internal Affairs” (1990). A new, sad tale of corruption among the people who are supposed to protect act comes out of Saban Films, and it’s “Most Wanted” written and directed by Daniel Roby, following up “Hold Your Breath” about the struggle of a family to survive while Paris fills with a deadly gas. “Most Wanted” is more down-to-earth with some enlightening shots of Bangkok, surprisingly filmed on location though one would expect the Thai government would object to having a scandal rubbed into its face.

“Most Wanted” is inspired by a true story that takes place mostly in 1989, when Daniel Léger (Antoine-Olivier Pilon), a low-life heroin addict with no criminal record, is set up by rogue cops in Vancouver, though the police are not so much interested in entrapping the usually penniless guy than in having him negotiate the purchase of ten kilos of heroin—for which they could get far more money in Canada than they would have to pay in Bangkok. Légar was caught, found guilty, and escaped the death penalty for heroin smuggling by pleading guilty (after his conviction!), then sentenced to one hundred years in a jail that would make you wish you had not pled guilty and accepted the death penalty. (For stark contrast compare the jails in Norway where prisoners get their own private rooms with cooking equipment.) He would have been incarcerated still were it not for Victor Malarek (Josh Hartnett), a journalist who acted as a one-man Innocence Project, searching for a way to get a page one scoop for his newspaper, desperate for money since he had just had a baby.

Convincing the editor to finance a trip and warned that if he did not come back with a scoop he would never find a job again in the newspaper business, he is motivated even more when his gut tells him that the man may still be guilty, but that as an ameliorating factor the police had paid for his trip from Vancouver to Bangkok: hotels, meals, the works. The film meanders with several time changes, catching up with Légar as he gets a job on a fishing boat from Picker (Jim Gaffigan) who seems like a nice guy but who is involved with the conspiracy to get the heroin. Similarly guilty are a trio or quartet of shady police who, together with Picker pay so much attention to a loser like Légar that he gets sucked into the sordid plan.

Best performer is Montréal-born Antoine Olivier Pilon as Daniel Léger, with twenty-three film credits in his résumé, quite an accomplishment for a twenty-three-year old. Josh Hartnett exudes the electricity running through his body when he is on a mission, buffeted by several roadblocks. However, the movie is so spliced up that you might have to watch for a half hour before you realize the zig-zaginess of the editing. For that reason, “Most Wanted” cannot be enthusiastically recommended.

125 minutes. © 2020 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B
Acting – B+
Technical – D
Overall – C+

THE LAST TREE – movie review

THE LAST TREE
ArtMattan Films
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Shola Amoo
Screenwriter: Shola Amoo
Cast: Sam Adewunmi, Gbemisola Ikumelo, Denise Black, Tai Golding, Nicholas Pinnock, Ruthxjiah Bellenea
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 6/23/20
Opens: June 26, 2020

The Last Tree (2019) - IMDb

Distributed by Artmattan Films which boasts” films about the human experience of people of color,” “The Last Tree” is a coming of age story that focuses on the changes that form the boyhood and teen years of a British man with Nigerian roots. The drama is the second feature of Shola Amoo whose “A Moving Image,” about gentrification in Brixton, England, blurs the line between reality and fiction by incorporating real people affected by gentrification and who consider a young artist to be a symbol of a revitalization that excludes them.

In this latest project, the writer-director gives approximately equal time to Femi as a child (Tai Golding) and to him as a teen (Sam Adewunmi), hinting that we in the audience might take sides as to which incarnation is the more enjoyable. You can’t help noting that the young Femi is the more adorable fellow, his charm arising largely from the happy childhood he enjoys in a bucolic British suburb with Mary (Denise Black), a white foster parent. Femi fits in just fine with white friends his own age. We never find out why Yinka (Gbemisola Ilumel), his biological mother, could not take care of him, but unlike the foster children we hear about on the 6.30 news who had been taken in by exploitative women out for the money, this lad has clearly lucked out.

Too bad, like so many things, his halcyon home life takes a bad turn when his real mother, coming to see him for what is promised to be merely a visit, wants him back. You’ll think that Yinka lacks the stability to keep him for long, the boy remains in the less promising atmosphere of a London slum (“Careful—there’s pee,” warns his mother). After the passage of ten years, Femi, who spent years in what so many children can only dream about, has become sullen. He no longer has white friends, and Mace (Demmy Lapido), presumably a drug seller, has taken a shine to him, coaxing teen however reluctantly into joining a small gang.

Femi treats his mother like an enemy, not only for taking him away from a loving foster parent in a pleasant suburb, but also because she beats him if he does not take care of the house while she is away working as a cleaning woman. While he tries to avoid Mace—a rotund man with a ready smile—he alienates a few other locals by rescuing Tope (Ruthxjiah Bellenea), bullied because of her dyed-blue braids and her studiousness. While his dedicated teacher Mr. Williams (Nicholas Pinnock) takes time out to visit Femi at home, suspecting that he is ignoring his studies and is likely to drop out, the teacher is a good role model, telling the boy that he was not always a preppie and an old, boring teacher, but was once headed in the bad direction of his student.

Stil Williams sharply photographs the bucolic neighborhood, comparing it to the near slum of an inner city, and Segun Akinola’s music may swell at times but is not intrusive. In what amounts to a long coda that changes the tone of the picture, we find Femi and his mother abruptly in Lagos, Nigeria, where he meets his biological father. Though dad is a pastor, he is living in a house that bears comparison to New York’s Trump Tower with his golden staircase, polished marble floor, and enough space to take in a dozen foster children should he so desire. These final scenes are such a precipitous break, the story cries out for some explanation but never finds it.

It’s easy for us in the audience to relish Femi’s good luck as a child with a ready smile, we may find it difficult to empathize with the dour teen. Nonetheless, we leave the theater optimistic that Femi will soon “find” himself. Once that’s achieved, we need not worry about him.

English subtitles on the link that I used are superlative, clear, bold and easy to read, an important feature when those of so many movies and cheap and difficult to read.

99 minutes. © 2020 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B+
Acting – A-
Technical – A-
Overall – B+

STUBER – movie review

STUBER
20th Century Fox
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Michael Dowse
Screenwriter: Tripper Clancy
Cast: Kumal Nanjiani, Dave Bautista, Iko Uwais, Natalie Morales, Betty Gilpin
Screened at: AMC Empire, NYC, 7/2/19
Opens: July 12, 2019

Stuber Poster 2019 Movie Dave Bautista Kumail Nanjiani Film Print 24x36" 27x40" - 11x17" / 27.94x43.18 cm

Nobody expects “Downton Abbey” or “Last Year in Marienbad” to open in the summer. We expect movies to take in our air conditioning with violence, with sitcom romances, maybe a few Marvel Studio entries. But “Stuber” represents a new low even for a July opening. It has the violence, the comedy, even a romance of sorts, but the funny parts aren’t, the violence leans toward the non-stop, the romance involves one of the principals emailing a woman he’s been dating, the woman virtually harassing him to come right over and they’ll “have sex.”

Co-star Karachi-born Kumal Nanjiani is best known as a stand-up comedian and for his role in “The Big Sick.” Time magazine calls him one of the hundred most influential people in the world, presumably because he is Pakistani-American, and newscasts rarely focus on Pakistan as one of the world’s centers for comedy. “The Big Sick” deals with cultural barriers; Nanjiani co-wrote that film with his wife Emily Gordon. This time, however, he faces off with a big guy who insists “I’m not white” the difference being of personality rather than ethnicity. Vic (Dave Bautista), a cop, is obsessed with finding and bringing to justice a drug dealer, Teijo (Iko Uwais) who killed his partner during one of the several fight scenes in the film.

The never-ending set-up for jokes takes off from Vic’s Lasik eye surgery, which leaves him legally blind for a day and obviously affects his ability to catch the drug dealers. His daughter Nicole (Natalie Morales) sets him up with a phone app to allow him to spend the day Teijo-hunting, but Vic, a virtual techno-phobe, instead hails an Uber driven by Stuber (Kumal Nanjiani), which is not his real name but a combination of “Stu” and “Uber.” The two share a fragile bond: if Stu does not do what the cop says, he may die at the hands of the criminals. Even worse, he will get a one-star review on Yelp, which could sink his career, as he had received a stack of one-star comments from racist passengers.

Believe it or not, in this comedy based on physical violence that has people slammed into walls, shot at, racing around to catch up with Teijo, there is a sentimental core. Two people who only intermittently show themselves not to be dumb as doornails advise each other on dealing with significant others. Stu is in love with Becca, a friend with benefits (Betty Gilpin), but is afraid to declare his secret love for the lass. Vic lets Stu know how to get around the dilemma. To square away an obligation, Vic is required to listen to Stu’s cajoling: Vic does not pay enough attention to his daughter, a sculptor, who in one scene has opened a show, her work going far over her dad’s head.

This road-and-buddy moves along the two drive around California, hitting spots in Koreatown and Compton among other areas. A struggle in a veterinary office, in which Vic winds up adopting a pit bull, does not lead to an arrest, and police captain McHenry may be other than she seems. The story, which lacks anything in the way of nuance and fills the screen with the kind of violence that some audiences are unable to get enough of, may remind you of those Amazon reviewers who say “I would have given this product zero stars if I could.”

105 minutes. © 2019 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – D
Acting – C+
Technical – B
Overall – C-

 

COLD PURSUIT – movie review

COLD PURSUIT
Summit Entertainment
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net by: Harvey Karten
Director: Hans Petter Moland
Screenwriter: Frank Baldwin, Kim Fupz Aakeson, loosely based on Moland’s 2014 movie “In Order of Disappearance”
Cast: Liam Neeson, Laura Dern, David O’Hara, Tom Bateman, Tom Jackson, Emma Rossum, Domenick Lombardozzi
Screened at: Dolby 88, NYC, 1/29/19
Cold Pursuit - Poster GalleryOpens: February 8, 2019

 

 

If you’ve given up sugar because you think it’s white poison, what can you use as a calorie-free substitute? Try a movie with a theme of revenge. It’s sweet, so they say, and the public must love the theme or why else would there be umpteen pictures about it? Yet happily, “Cold Pursuit” is not just one of those umpteen pictures about revenge. This is no horror tale written and acted for the benefit of teens and sadistic high-school kids who want nothing more than for heads to roll. Of course heads do roll in “Cold Pursuit,” or how could you otherwise call it a revenge picture? But using Frank Baldwin and Kim Fupz Aakeson’s screenplay, director Han Petter Moland is able to weave in quite a bit of wry humor, self-deprecating manifestoes, and down-home looks at what two of the good guys (they’re police) talk about when they don’t talk about crime.

Hans Petter Moland is known for “In Order of Disappearance,” taking place in the snowy peaks of the director’s Norway, involving igniting a war between a vegan gangster and a Serbian mafia boss. The mere mention of “vegan gangster” in his 2014 black comedy clues you in on a director who would not be content with running a cast through the motions of a genre gangster movie, and in fact “Cold Pursuit” highlights a regional drug lord who is a loving father to a 10-year-old boy who micromanages the kid’s diet. (Never mind that somehow the boy downs a bowl of Fruit Loops.) “Cold Pursuit,” following the themes of Moland’s previous movie, pits a regional drug lord in Denver and surroundings who becomes involved in a turf war with an indigenous gang and who, by killing the innocent son of a man whose job is to keep the roads clear in a Kehoe Colorado ski town, in tracked down by the lad’s father out for blood as well.

Dramatic action begins when the son of snowplow driver Nels Coxman (Liam Neesen) and his wife Grace (Laura Dern) is kidnapped on the orders of Viking (Tom Bateman), injected with heroin, and dumped in the snow to lead authorities to believe he overdosed. Knowing that his boy was never a druggie, Nelson “Nels” Coxman (Liam Neesen) is determined to find the killer or killers, setting out in Kehoe, Colorado, to bring justice in a place where you could not expect much from the two town cops Gip (John Doman) and his partner (Emma Rossum). Gip in an early scene dissuades his partner, aggressive about upholding the strict word of law, to ignore a group of kids smoking weed. “I know it’s legal to buy and smoke, but only in your own house,” she demurs.

As Nels proceeds to pick up the gang members one by one, including the owner of a bridal gown establishment who, upon seeing Nels suspects the man’s motives and reaches for his gun, the various groups chit chat, building a character study to what could have been a juvenile horror tale. Officer Gip encourages his partner to get back together with her boyfriend leading her flirtatiously to converse with the ex on the phone promising a good time if he would give me information on the perps. Viking for his part must negotiate custody for their ten-year-old son Ryan with his estranged wife, who appears to be the only person not worried about the consequences of dealing with a serial killer.

The whole ensemble rises to the occasion with particular credit to White Bull (Tom Jackson), who is as determined to get rid of the white gang in a turf war as is Nels.

This is a first-rate thriller designed to bring in the crowd that would never bother with simple revenge movies and features terrific scenery captured by Philip Øgard in the town of Kananaskis Alberta, and Fernie, Victoria and Vancouver in British Columbia standing in for the Colorado ski resort. The outstanding performance from Liam Neeson should surprise no-one, yet who would have suspected that a 66-year-old actor could play through a great role as the angel of vengeance, taking down some gangsters with his bare fists?

118 minutes. © 2019 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B+
Acting – A-
Technical –B
Overall – A-

A PRAYER BEFORE DAWN – movie review

A PRAYER BEFORE DAWN

A24 and DIRECTV
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director:  Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire
Screenwriter:  Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire
Cast:  Joe Cole, Billy Moore, Preecha Vithaya, Pansrigarm, Pornchanok Mabklang, Panya Yimmumphai
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 7/20/18
Opens: August 10, 2018
Hurricane Films » A Prayer Before Dawn
Prisons in Norway allow even murderers to have their own rooms complete with kitchen knives and the accoutrements of middle-class living.  If you think those cells are more comfortable than the jails in Thailand, you’re just guessing, aren’t you?  To check your answer, you’ll have to see “A Prayer Before Dawn,” based on the memoir written by Billy Moore in 2014 which went on to the best-seller lists.  One might wonder whether the horrors of the Klong Prem prison in Thailand, nicknamed the “Bangkok Hilton” by people who are aware that Senator John McCain stayed for five years in the so-called Hanoi Hilton, can be brought out by the book. After all, with  Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire’s movie, the pure physicality is in your face.  Sauvaire, whose freshman narrative feature “Johnny Mad Dog” deals with child soldiers in an African country, is the obvious man to chart the true story of a British boxer and heroin smuggler who, in Thailand, becomes addicted to ya ba (a particularly potent Thai crack cocaine) and makes a living selling drugs.

The book cannot replicate the punches and kicks and the torment from fellow prisoners at Klong Prem, but with some imagination, the powerful writing of Billy Moore draws you into the violence you’ll see in this film.  Take for example this wording: “The first time Billy Moore walked into his cell packed with seventy prisoners, the floor resembled a mass grave, with intertwined arms and legs, and the smell of human feces was so strong he almost vomited.  That night, he slept next to a dead man.  It wouldn’t be the last.”

Sauvaire does indeed show Billy sleeping next to a dead man, who is carted off nonchalantly by the staff, and the most horrific scene does not take place in the boxing ring where the Thai brand of fisticuffs is called Muay Thai.  It is Billy’s brutal gang rape that forms the prison’s rite of initiation.  Though the editing is itchy, you get the point that you’re better off going straight all your life.

The film does frustrate the viewer in that we don’t know why Billy Moore (Joe Cole) went to Thailand where he appears to be the only farang, or foreigner, but his memoir notes that he went abroad to escape a life of heroin addiction and alcoholism in England.  That’s strange.  Would he not be better off staying in Western Europe to attack his demons?  Perhaps he thought that indulging in Muay Thai, which allows pugilists to use stand-up striking along with various clinching techniques, would draw the drugs out of his system. This discipline is known as the “Art of Eight Limbs” because it is characterized by the combined use of fists, elbows, knees and shins.  And the masochists who indulge are lucky if the Thai promoters bother giving you a mouth guard, but I would not personally indulge even if they gave me knee pads, a helmet, a bulletproof vest, and an opponent who weighs 90 pounds.

When Billy is not in the ring, he is tormented by the prisoners, who have contempt for a foreigner who doesn’t speak a word of Thai, has no money, allegedly has no family, and cannot even let a fellow bum a cigarette.  The boxing is filmed in the usual way with restless editing, which may be necessary if you want your actors to emerge alive but which can nonetheless be frustrating.  Some of the Thai dialogue has English subtitles but most of the palaver of the prisoners can be understood without translations.

This is all about Billy’s redemption, a man who emerges after three years in a Thai hell-hole, then serves time in the UK.  He converts to Islam; strange since 95% of Thais are Buddhists and most of the rest Islamic.  As principal actor Joe Cole has had prominent roles in other physical dramas, a standout being the character Reece in Jeremy Saulnier’s “Green Room” which finds a punk rock band forced to fight for survival after witnessing a murder at a neo-Nazi skinhead bar.  “A Prayer Before Dawn” shows him with mostly neutral emotional makeup, until he gets a legitimate chance to let it all out in the ring.  In a final scene we see Billy’s father who in real life is…Billy!  He looks terrific but who needs to go through the crunches and the displaced bones before being redeemed?  Outside of Joe Cole, the actors are all Thai and, I believe, mostly former prisoners. You can catch an interview with the director here: https://deadline.com/2018/03/a-prayer-before-dawn-jean-stephane-sauvaire-sxsw-interview-1202339121/

Rated R.  116 minutes.  © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B
Acting – B+
Technical – B+
Overall – B

REVIEWS

Take Your Pills Movie Review

Photo from Take Your Pills.

Take Your Pills

TAKE YOUR PILLS
Netflix
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director: Alison Klayman
Screenwriter: Alison Klayman
Cast: Dr. Anjan Catterjee, Dr. Carl Hart, Dr. Wendy Brown, Dr. Martha J. Farah, Nicolas Rasmussen, Stephen P. Hinshaw, Eben Britton, Michael “Blue” Williams
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 3/14/18
Opens: March 16, 2018

The principal theme: Adderall and Ritalin allow users to focus clearly without distractions for hours on end.

In Sonnet 103 Shakespeare warns, “Were it not sinful then, striving to mend, To mar the subject that before was well?” In other words, the perfect is the enemy of the good. If only people especially in America would honor the wisdom of the Bard and instead live the way Italians do with their five weeks’ vacation, ample time for parental leave, and leisurely lunches under the Duomo in Rome! Instead we rush through salad-bar offerings at our desks and remain always wary of the competition, of the people who appear to have more drive than we do and might be on the fast track to the Executive Board (or the graveyard). This striving for perfection and productivity may have catapulted the United States to its current prosperity, but at the same time the U.S. has been judged by a reputable poll to stand only eighteenth in happiness, well behind all the Scandinavian residents.

This striving to do quicker, better, best begins for some in pre-school where parents are already pushing their four-year-olds to prepare for Harvard, but now, in college—if you believe the young women interviewed by this documentary, “Everybody does it.” Does what? Hooking up? No. Nobody mentions that but we know that ambitious college students have no time for dates and romance, so quickies will do. Everyone takes pills, probably not heroin, maybe not cocaine, but the title drug, Adderall. The drug is amazing, and in fact though director Alison Klayman—known to cinephiles most recently for her “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry” about the Chinese artist and activist who regularly clashes with his government—presents so much evidence for the positive effects of Adderall that despite warnings from doctors about its side effects, viewers will want to experiment.

Adderall (mixed amphetamine salts) is prescribed for some, Ritalin (methylphenidate) for others, all with the purpose of treating ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder). We probably know Ritalin because it’s being used by kids from grade school through high school because they have been reported by their teachers for fidgeting, restlessness, running around the room. Some of the parents speak to Julia Liu’s lenses with mixed feelings, worried that their youngsters would become addicted. But for academic circles, more time is given to college students, the ones who say “Everybody does it,” because there is pressure in college not to relax and have a good time but fiercely to compete with one another for the jobs in white shoe law firms, Silicon Valley, and the medical profession. Once again: Adderall and Ritalin allow users to have a clear focus with no distractions and to continue at a single task for hours on end.

We’re also aware that in professional sports, doping is de rigueur (see the Oscar-winning movie “Icarus” about Russians eliminated from competition because they’ve been stimulant positive). NFL player Eben Britton used Adderall to boost his game, and often went beyond the usual limits because of the high he received thereby sustaining multiple injuries.

If you’re a Marxist, you’re likely to blame capitalism for the special interest that New Zealand and the U.S. have in Big Pharma, as the only countries in the world to allow TV commercials for pharmaceuticals. When you’re tapping away at your computer in the office, you’re next to someone on your left and on your right who might be faster; more productive; willing and even eager to work a sixteen-hour day, so what’s a person to do to get ahead? Be like them. With sports, school, and business, with the emphasis on competing as a factor more important than relationships, with all the money we dole out for health insurance, real estate taxes, Beemers, two or three kids, who can relax? Take your pills.

Here’s one caveat: don’t think all the schoolboys and schoolgirls are killing themselves with study, soccer practice, big league sports, and the like. From my 32 years’ experience as a high-school teacher, I have found that only the academically brightest, those who get put in honors classes and who are likely to be tutored for the SAT and stay up nights studying, are pushing themselves. The others either don’t know what they’re in for when they “grow up” or do know and have simply given up.

The film is loaded with humorous animation including excerpts from “The Simpsons.”

 The major problem with the doc is that it is far more likely to encourage non-users to play up to their doctors and request scripts for Adderall than to serve as a warning, as do the movies that get shown in high schools every year talking up the side effects. The harmful effects of Adderall and Ritalin are skipped over lightly: this kid gets headaches and can’t sleep; maybe somebody’s liver is attacked and destroyed as alcohol might do. But that’s it. Just a scant few minutes in this 86-hour presentation on what’s bad, and you’re likely to skip over that and go for the pills.

Unrated. 86 minutes. © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B
Acting – B
Technical – B+
Overall – B

 

GRINGO – movie review

GRINGO

Amazon Studios/STX Entertainment
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director:  Nash Edgerton
Screenwriter:  Anthony Tambakis, Matthew Stone
Cast:  Joel Edgerton, David Oyelowo, Amanda Seyfried, Charlize Theron, Yul Vazquez, Thandie Newton, Sharto Copley, Harry Treadaway
Screened at: Park Ave., NYC, 3/1/18
Opens: March 9, 2018

Gringo

A cartoon that appeared the other day in the New Yorker magazine online finds a husband reading the newspaper and saying to his wife, “February 29 flew by without a single mention of corruption in Washington.”  We’ve gotten so used to corruption in government since the Trump administration took over—and some of us have been around enough to know about Richard Nixon’s forced resignation—that we are no longer shocked in the slightest when the next wave of same ol’ news comes around.  Government is hardly the only agency of malfeasance: corporations have long done everything to evade a responsible watch by our representatives, but “Gringo,” which is Nash Edgerton’s new movie, shows that while  bosses finagle to line their pockets, employers are out to make financial gain by crook as well as by hook.

The venality of big business, in this case Big Pharma, covers the screen, the theme being a worthy one about the corruptibility of formerly honest people who turn crooked.  Harold Soyinka (David Oyelowo), treated as a friend of Richard Rusk (Joel Edgerton) and Elaine Markinson (Charlize Theron), becomes frightfully disillusioned by listening in to captured conversations by his two employers running a company about to sell weed in pill form. With Elaine using her wiles on customers and Richard’s assuring clients of the value of his product, the two will do whatever they can to get out of their company’s financial difficulties.  Harold, a mild-mannered businessman, worries that a prospective merger of his company that would find his skills redundant, hits upon a plan.  He will fake a kidnapping in Mexico, using two dorky managers of a Mexican fleabag hotel to serve as actors.  He will shout to Richard and Elaine that he has been kidnapped by drug lords demanding $5 million in ransom and, when released will pocket the money himself and take off.

Though “Gringo” has enough twists to confuse the audience as to who is getting money from whom, the surprises are on a juvenile level.  Harold winds up actually kidnapped by a drug lord who thinks the poor guy is the real boss who knows the combination to a safe hiding the recipe for the weed.  He is turn switched from one group of bad guys to another.  The entire picture is on a level appreciated by an audience of adolescents in both age and intelligence though it features David Oyelowo who, considering his previous role as the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in “Selma,” could feel guilty about his starring role in a movie that recycles car chases, crashes, and a surrounding group of cartoon characters.

Rated R.  110 minutes.  © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – C-
Acting – C+
Technical – B-
Overall – C