ASH IS PUREST WHITE – movie review

ASH IS PUREST WHTIE (Jiang hue er nü)
Cohen Media Group
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net by: Harvey Karten
Director: Jia Zhang-Ke
Screenwriter: Jia Zhang-Ke
Cast: Zhao Tao, Liao Fan, Xu Zheng, Casper Liang, Feeng Xiaogang, Diao Yinan
Screened at: Critics’ Link, NYC, 3/7/19
Opens: March 15, 2019

When I visited China in 1985 as part of a study tour, I found a country that had been wracked by a Cultural Revolution that ended a few years earlier. What I saw was as backward as you might expect for a state that had not experienced a global outlook. All felt provincial, with Beijing’s airport looking more primitive than even our own LaGuardia terminal and Shanghai’s equivalent of our Fifth Avenue coming across like a major road in Milwaukee. Even the best hotels were second-rate given that the big international chains were afraid to invest in a poor, Communist country. Today things have changed dramatically, though at the cost of making Beijing and Shanghai among the most polluted cities on earth. Instead of the quiet pace that found the older generation enjoying the camaraderie of the bathhouses, you now have ambitious young men more likely to bathe their Beemers or their Mercedes. The forty-eight year old Jia Zhang-Ke, easily China’s most celebrated filmmaker today and in the opinion of an NPR critic perhaps the best filmmaker at work in the world takes a look at how the changes affect a particular group of people. In 2001 they look like a bunch of small-time gangster nobodies socializing in a decrepit shack but calling one another “brothers” as a sign of undying loyalty. Seventeen years later life had caught up with them, the reversals symbolized in the characters of Qiao (Tao Zhao) and her boyfriend Guo Bin (Liao Fan).

Bin is the honcho of the underground society taking for granted the deference given to him by his brothers. Qiao is in love with him, a woman who is one of the boys, giving love punches in the back to two men and taking a bite from the shoulder of her paramour, Bin. The entire group must feel that their loyalty will be unchallenged for life while Qiao seems assured that her love for Bin and his for her will last forever as well.

Though Qiao considers ballroom dancing “too Western,” but the entire company dance to a rhythm that would be familiar here in the U.S. When Bin is attacked by young people from a rival gang, Qiao saves his life by firing a gun into the air. Since China is not Texas, she spends five years in jail for mere gun possession. It’s now 2006. Qiao is out of prison sailing the Yangtze. noting villages along the way that are going to disappear—not from climate change but from the building of a dam to give electric power to the community. There’s one change. From the narrative’s point of view comes another change. Bin has moved on to another girlfriend and refuses to see her, leaving her adrift and forced to use her prison-acquired scamming skills to get meals and money. (Telling some wedding guests that she is a friend of the bride and those of the groom is a technique sometimes used even here.) By 2018 Bin has become a different man entirely, sidelined by a serious stroke, wheeled around by Qiao who tells him that their love is gone. Yet Qiao is in no mood for schadenfreude despite being dumped by Bin while she is in jail.

The conclusion is one of great sentiment but not at all like the cheap kind you’d find in commercial Hollywood movies. Though Jia does not afford us in the audience the spectacular scenery found in epic films like Zhang Yimou’s “Raise the Red Lantern,” his cinematographer, Eric Gautier, supplies some panoramic shots around the Yantze and through the windows of a train—the latter being the backdrop of a humorous scene involving a passenger’s line that he is conducting research on a UFO project and would like Qiao to join him, offering her a job.

The film’s highlight is Jia’s expertise in the director’s chair but most of all from a shattering, albeit subdued (compared to what Hollywood would do to her) performance. “The years pass just like that” (snaps fingers) notes Gloria’s mother in Sebastián Leilio’s marvelous movie “Gloria Bell.” With those years, in China, there arrive momentous economic and social changes which, at the same time, make their mark against loyalties that had been expected to continue forever. Those wedding bells in our town may be breaking up that old gang of mine, but the simple passing of years does irreparable damage to familial ties in China. “Ash is Purest White” casts its eye on an exuberant but ultimately mournful setting in a particular spot involving two particular people, but its theme can stand in by extension for us all.

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

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

WIDOWS – movie review

WIDOWS

20th Century Fox
Reviewed for Shockya.com by: Harvey Karten
Director: Steve McQueen
Screenwriter: Steve McQueen, Gillian Flynn
Cast: Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki, Cynthia Erivo, Colin Farrell, Brian Tyree Henry, Liam Neeson
Screened at: AMC 34th St., NYC, 11/5/18
Opens: November 16, 2018

Widows Movie Poster

With our own midterm elections just behind us and with discussions that will probably linger for a few more weeks with the TV pundits, politics is very much on our minds. That makes “Widows” a movie which, while not dealing with Trump or Cohen or Hannity or Huffington, might be “ripped from the headlines.” While the concentration is on the mostly African-American ward in Chicago’s South Side rather than with the nation as a whole, “Widows” could stand in for goes on among the people who should be representing us but instead, surprise! are in the business for themselves.

Director Steve McQueen, whose “12 Years a Slave” is, like “Widows,” a look into the corruption of the American empire, then as a freed man is abducted and sold back into slavery, now tackles not only politics and ethics but focuses on problems with gender bias, racist thinking, and the contradictions of capitalism. “Widows” is brilliantly acted particularly by the awesome Viola Davis, but is marred by an overly complex, confusingly edited handling of the plot written by the director and Gillian Flynn.

McQueen opens the movie in the way that so many screenwriting advisors recommend: with a bang. With quite a few bangs, in fact. Mobster Harry Rawlins (Liam Neeson) and his wife Veronica (Viola Davis) are kissing in bed, standing up, and pre- and post-shower. Cut to the scene so common in blockbusters. A job has gone wrong, the SWAT team lets loose with automatic firepower, and Harry is killed. Problems are just beginning for Vernoica as a crime lord, Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry) determines that the two million dollars of his, now up in smoke , visits the grieving woman and demands that she pay him back within one month.

When Veronica is not grieving, she’s is carrying her small West Highland Terrier in her arms as though the dog were a stuffed Teddy, which makes you wonder whether the pup is a Mac Guffin or the key to the big twist that comes some three-quarters into the 130 minute movie. Occasionally grounding the dog–surprisingly phlegmatic for a terrier—she assembles other widows in a plot to get five million dollars. Linda (Michelle Rodriguez) a mother with a shop that has been taken over by the gang, Alice (Elizabeth Debicki), a tall, blond, Polish American whose own mother (Jackie Weaver) pimps her out, and Belle (Cynthia Erivo), a hairdresser assigned to be the getaway driver.

If that plot is not complex enough for you, much is made of the candidacy of handsome, slick Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell), driven to run for alderman by his racist father Tom (Robert Duvall) to keep the power in the hands of white people. His opponent, an African-American, refuses to withdraw from the race while both seek the endorsement of the ward’s leading preacher. Yet many African-American women will vote for Mulligan because he provided them with the loans (they were refused by the banks) to open their own businesses. But there’s a catch, and that brings in serial killer Jatemme (Daniel Kaluuya—the great actor who shined in last year’s best movie, “Get Out”, the only performer who could begin to match Viola Davis).

Confusing, needs a second viewing to unscramble the erratic editing, great acting, good visuals.

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

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

LOVING PABLO – movie review

LOVING PABLO

Universal Pictures
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director: Fernando León de Aranoa
Screenwriter:  Fernando León de Aranoa, based on Virginia Vallejo’s novel “Loving Pablo, Hating Escobar”
Cast:  Javier  Bardem, Penélope Cruz, Peter Sarsgaard
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 3/20/18
Opens: June 15, 2018

The most disappointing thing about “Loving Pablo” is that the Colombians, especially members of the drug cartel, mix their Spanish with a great deal of English.  It’s pretty certain that in real life they would not be speaking our language, so the suspicion is that the filmmakers were afraid that a major potential audience would resist reading anything that doesn’t come from their friends on iPhones.  Otherwise there is much to praise about the project, including an insight for us into the lives of people with vast sums of money and an array of weaponry that makes the standard police revolver about as potent as a cap pistol.

The movie deals with two realities in the life of Pablo Escobar: one is the cartel he ran in Colombia’s Medellin (now a cleaned-up, renovated tourist attraction); the other is his love first for his family, including his wife and two young children despite his broken promises to abandon the glamourous TV journalist Virginia Vallejo—whose novel has been adapted by writer-director Fernando León de Aranoa—he can’t get enough of Vallejo. (An English language edition of the book will be available May 29 of this year.)

Madrid-born director León’s film résumé includes “A Perfect Day” (aid workers resolve a problem in a conflict zone) and “Mondays in the Sun” (former dockworkers, now unemployed, treat every day as though it were Sunday).  He is not the sort of filmmaker interested in small romances.

“Loving Pablo” would be his most glossy film using the epic-style associated with the “Godfather” films given the number of incidents scattered throughout which can satiate action-adventure types of audience members.  At the same time the family drama  involves a major journalist who loses her job because of her connection with Escobar.

The opening party scene is loaded with glitz.  Escobar (Javier Bardem) flies Virginia Vallejo (Penélope Cruz) to his ranch home, making use of her to promote his reputation as a Robin Hood who is interested in feeding and housing the slum kids of the city and the homeless in general. (He will later arm the youths with powerful assault weapons to take out figures of authority as low in status as traffic cops.)  She is smitten with the man, though later he will ask her rhetorically whether he would have had a chance with her if he were an ordinary middle-class citizen.

The hands-down best action scene finds Escobar’s men using a large truck to block traffic on a 3-lane highway in Florida to allow a small plane to land with cocaine.  His men lug huge bags of the powder for shipment which, when cut and processed will be worth some 30 times more than the raw product.  The plane, likely to cost an average person’s lifetime income, is so unimportant to the cartel that it is abandoned on the highway when the powder is trucked away.

When Escobar causes mayhem in Medellín, his slum boys killing anything in a uniform while he, elected to congress, orders a hit on the Minister of Justice after a rousing speech calling for Escobar’s ouster from the House.  By the time DEA agent Shepard (Peter Sarsgaard) gets as much information as he can from Vallejo, she is desperate and feels in danger of his life.  Crime doesn’t always pay.

Bardem, whose weight was pumped up for the role and who shows off his hanging belly without shame, plays the gangster with a monotone, mumbling much of the time, which could make literate audiences wonder why they could not have seen this picture in Spanish with English subtitles.  Despite his speech, he is charismatic, a slimy goon despite the worth of his estate judged to be $30 billion in the 1990s, which would mean that by today’s standards his wealth would rival that of Bill Gates.  Just the deal he is able to make with the government in return for turning himself in (he doesn’t stay turned in) is the revocation of the extradition treaty that would allow American agents to seize drug criminals on the grounds that the product is sold in the U.S.

Rated R.  125 minutes.  © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B+
Acting – B+
Technical – B- (for use of English instead of the native Spanish)
Overall – B