A PRAYER BEFORE DAWN – movie review


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

SHOTCALLER – movie review


    Saban Films/ Lionsgate

    Reviewed by: Harvey Karten, CompuServe Film d-based on Rotten Tomatoes

    Grade: B-

    Director:  Ric Roman Waugh

    Written by: Ric Roman Waugh

    Cast: Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Omari Hardwick, Lake Bell, Jon Bernthal, Emory Cohen, Jeffrey Donovan, Evan Jones, Benjamin Bratt, Holt McCallany

    Screened at: Park Ave., NYC, 7/10/17

    Opens: July 20 on DirectTV, August 18 in theaters

    Shot Caller Movie Poster 

    Prison sucks.  If you want to rob a bank and are looking to cover yourself in case you’re caught (and you might be caught, or else why would our jails be overcrowded?) go to Norway.  Anders Behring Brievik, the guy who in minutes killed 77 teenagers for the crime of being politically leftist, was sentenced to 21 years.  And like others of the clan, he likely received a private apartment with full kitchenware, including knives. (Read the book “One of Us” and seeing Michael Moore’s “Where to Invade Next.”) And he complained that he was denied the videogames he liked.  A mass murderer like that should be drawn and quartered in the opinion of most folks, but Norway is a progressive state unlike places like Mexico, Bangladesh, Iran and scores of other countries where convicts do not get apartments with kitchens.

    The U.S. is probably among the better prisons, though, for reasonably tolerant conditions, at least when compared to Bangladesh and Mexico.  Overcrowding results from overlong sentencing particularly for non-violent crimes, and overcrowding can turn reasonable offenders into bitter, vindictive-seeking hombres, just as you might expect some inmates in Gitmo might be innocent but could become become newly-honed ISIS members if and when they are released.

    Notice how many penitentiaries in America are called “rehabilitation centers” or “correctional institutions,” though the only thing they likely correct is their residents’ will to get honest jobs when they’re released.  Ric Roman Waugh, who wrote and directs “Shot Caller,” in 2008 directed “Felon”—about a fellow with a good future who unintentionally kills a burglar and is sentenced to a violent prison.  He is later transferred to a maximum security institution under the command a corrupt lieutenant.  You might guess that Waugh, whose qualifications to do prison dramas include his being a former stuntman, now looks to better box office, again writing and directing what he knows.  If we were to consider what Waugh is saying, it’s that prisons are the opposite of rehabilitation centers.  They are training grounds for violence both in the jails and outside.

    As in his previous movie, Waugh is laying into the prison system, with his principal character, Jacob Harlon (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) serving to show that there is something wrong with the way we deal with offenders. Harlon, a successful businessman, has the back luck to run a red light, accidentally killing his best friend sitting in the back seat of his car.  Because of the law which throws the book at people responsible for violent deaths, he is sent to a maximum security cell, initially offered a plea bargain that would send him away for sixteen months, ultimately for a term of life without parole.  How does this happen to a man who is presumably well educated and firm support of his wife (Lake Bell) and young son?  Simple answer: prisons can turn reasonably sane and well-educated people into savage beats.  It’s not the parole officers like Harlon’s (Omari Hardwick).  It’s not the warden or the guards.  They are just doing the best they can with a mixed and largely violent population.  It’s the fellow prisoners who could make life easier for themselves if they just quietly did their time. 

    Harlon quickly learns the ropes.  Racism is rampant.  Whites and blacks stay apart, socializing with their own, at least during those times that they are not literally at each other’s throats.  There’s a gang, there’s a rival gang, fights break out, knifings occur, the leaders are sent literally to small cages designed to break their spirit, and cons make plans for additional felonies when they get out.  When Harlon, now called by his nickname “Money,” tries to survive, he loses all sense of himself as a rule-following businessman, grows a fu Manchu mustache, combs his hair back, gets his body tattooed, and tells his wife that “it’s over.”

    But here’s the problem with the movie.  The director appears to want to evoke a masterful performance from his principal character, editing the scenes so frequently, shifting back to Harlon’s early life, then forward to his prison time, then back, then forward.  As we watch Jacob Harlon in both guises, we see how prison has changed him, made him a new and not at all better man.  This is done to such an extreme that the plot is confusing, requiring some viewers to see the movie again and maybe a third time.  I could have done without the saccharine scenes between Harlon and his son—who forgives his dad and follows the older man’s advice to “get on with life.”  Most of all though, notwithstanding the effective shots of gang warfare in a maximum security institution and the powerful performance by Danish-born Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (whom you will recognize as Jaime Lannister from “Game of Thrones”), the insistence on a compulsive shifting from his innocent times as a successful financier to his ultimate acceptance of life without parole is simply too garbled and chaotic.

    Rated R.  121 minutes.  © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

    Comments, readers?  Agree? Disagree? Why?

DAYVEON – movie review


Reviewed by: Harvey Karten, CompuServe Film d-based on Rotten Tomatoes
Grade: B-
Director:   Amman Abbasi
Written by: Amman Abbasi, Steven Reneau
Cast: Davin Blackmon, Dontrell Bright, Kordell “KD” Johnson, Chasity Moore, Lachion Buckingham, Marquell Manning
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 8/26/17
Opens: September 13, 2017
Dayveon Movie Photo
A recent issue of the leftist online magazine Counterpunch advises that we are not living in a post-racial society.  Never mind that white people alleviate their guilt by seeing African-Americans in top positions; Obama, Oprah, Beyoncé, and all those newscasters, white and black getting along famously, and act as though we are well beyond the days of white-only water fountains, hotels, restaurants. Black earnings are well behind those of whites on average, and perhaps the most depressing cases are African-Americans still living in the rural South, having never given up the ghost to move north into the cities  The folks in Amman Abbasi’s freshman feature are young blacks without jobs, who spend their time in the summer just chilling out, hanging, and living under the protection of gangs like the Bloods.  In Abbasi’s particular focus is the title character, Dayveon Buckingham(Devin Blackmon), coming of age with some characteristics of rural people who despite their lack of urban, so-called elite membership would hardly vote for Trump—even they even knew the names of the president and vice-president in their inward society.

Dayveon appears destined to wind up in jail, of at least the probation system, through a series of actions that are partly his own doing, but mostly a fault of his environment.  Even at this young age, he understands that there is something wrong with the way he is living, as in the opening scenes in which the boy rides his bike furiously through the tree-lined, rough roads, now and then chasing way the bees, and entertaining himself with a monologue about how stupid he finds everything in the town.  What’s more he has not gotten over his grief over the shooting death of his brother, often standing before a large colorful poster of the unfortunate victim of what is undoubtedly a senseless crime.  When he passes by members of the local Bloods, he is initiated into the membership by being beaten, showing his begrudging acceptance of the violence as it allows him to become one of them.  There are people who care for him in his own family, which is bereft of a mother,who apparently had a breakdown after the death of her son.  His sister Kim (Chasity Moore) takes care of meal preparation, and her boyfriend Bryan (Dontrell Bright) with whom he plays computer games, wants the boy to confide in him, though the relationship is mixed with some hostility by Dayveon, who considers the large man an interloper.

While there are a few melodramatic moments, such as a robbery of a convenience store in which Dayveon remains in the getaway car, this is a meditative drama which occasionally crosses the line into documentary.  The audience is presumably the small group that would go for David Gordon Green’s “George Washington,” in which George is part of a group of working class youths in North Carolina who, through a mistake, seek redemption.  Like Green’s year 2000 movie, this is a slow-mover which captures the rural south dialogue (subtitles would have been most helpful) and whose major feature is that the performers are non-professionals who, like many groups of young people seem to be all talking at the same time.

Unrated.  75 minutes.  © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
Comments, readers?  Agree? Disagree? Why

WOODPECKERS – movie review


    Outsider Films
    Reviewed by: Harvey Karten, CompuServe Film d-based on Rotten Tomatoes
    Grade: B+
    Director:  José Maria Cabral
    Written by: José Maria Cabral
    Cast: Jean Jean, Ramón Emilio Candelario, Judith Rodriguez, Fenando Rodriguez de Jesus Maya, José Cruz
    Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 8/29/17
    Opens: September 15, 2017

    José Maria Cabral’s movie gives new meaning to the slang term “pecker,” and what’s more it even finds a sexually neutral use for the word “wood.” This is almost surprising given that the narrative film takes place exclusively in a large prison in the Dominican Republic, alternating machismo with romance in a wholly believable way and with the two principal lovebirds exuding quite a bit of chemistry for inmates with little physical contact.  Since woodpeckers are known to peck-peck-peck their beaks into trees to gain footholds, “Woodpeckers” looks at men and women who are separated by fences and structures and who transcend the man-made “trees” to communicate with one another in sign language.

    Cabral, previously known for documentary shorts and for the feature film “Detective Willy”—about a small-town Dominican cop with a love for noir film—stays with the country of his birth and one that he knows well enough to round up scores of actual prisoners as extras.  The film crew, principally photographer Hernan Herrera, make their way safely through the twisted halls and corridors, their equipment presumably respected by some of the more violent men who make their home in the D.R.  The riots, noise and mayhem come across with such authenticity that it’s difficult to believe that the chaos is not actually taking place.

    Whether or not homosexual activity including rape takes place there is anybody’s guess since even Julian (Jean Jean) a newcomer considered a pretty-boy and a fish is not “courted” notwithstanding the absence of sex within the walls.  Instead, Cabral’s script finds Julian bullied by Manaury (Ramón Emilio Canderlario) who shows him who’s boss.  Manaury, who has been communicating with his sweetie Yanello (Judith Rodriguez) with sign language, climbing a wall like other men and pecking through an intricate vocabulary with their arms, to the women on a field some thirty yards away.  When Manaury is transferred to another wing of the Najayo prison, he trusts Julian to continue to flirt in Manaury’s name, but when the obvious occurs—Yanello transfer her affections to Julian—Manuary is out for blood.

    “Woodpeckers” exudes the usual atmosphere for prison movies—macho men, horny women, curt and pushy guards—but the pecking is quite the original concept. And it works.  We can believe that both men and women learn complex hand signals, carrying on conversations with people they may never touch.

    The usual flirtatious semiotics find women smuggling their panties to the boyfriends they’ve never met, and it’s no spoiler to state the obvious: Manaury discovers that his gal sent these unmentionables to Julian, resulting in lots of sparks, tensions, and a bruising climax as the men grapple with each other against the background of a full-scale riot.

    Najayo prison in San Cristobál, Dominican Republic, was the scene of a riot in 2014 in which two guards and two inmates were killed.  Yet despite its housing an overload of 2,000 convicts, mostly for drug trafficking, it is considered a model prison.  The guards we see on the screen are assertive but not brutal, the men appearing to adjust to their imprisonment as they play basketball, work out on the chinning bars, get food (mostly beans) efficiently dished out which they eat in relative peace.  “Woodpeckers” succeeds winningly given emotional performances by scores of extras as well as the principal trio, and might just make you wonder why society’s laws are too strict against non-violent drug pushers, failing in much the way that prohibiting alcohol (see “Boardwalk Empire” on Amazon video) did in our own lands.

    Unrated.  109 minutes.  © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
    Comments, readers?  Agree? Disagree? Why?