By William Wolf

ASH IS PUREST WHITE  Send This Review to a Friend

A fascinating look at social strata in modern China emerges via the personal stories told in writer-director Jia Zhang-Ke’s new film, “Ash is Purest White,” which was shown in the 2018 New York Film Festival and is now going into commercial release. The film provides a look at underworld characters bonding in their lifestyle of petty crime. It is also a love story. Importantly, it reveals fading old industries, much as occurs in mining areas of our own West Virginia, and there is eye-catching, sweeping cinematography of sections in China’s northwest. We see upscale types too, and displays of liking for Western-style music and dancing. There is much to behold in so many ways in Zhang-Ke’s striking achievement.

A special treat is the performance by actress Zhao Tao in the pivotal role of Qiao, a woman in love with local gang boss Bin. Tao, who is beautiful, portrays a strong woman who displays the stamina to withstand a five-year prison sentence after she fires shots in the air to rescue Bin from rival young hoodlums even though that reveals her illegally having a gun, but which is Bin’s. She insists the gun is hers and takes the rap for him.

Qiao is also a woman who must use her wits and determination after being released and finding that Bin has moved on in a relationship with another woman. Tao endows Qiao with special dignity in her determination to confront Bin. There is much pleasure to be found in Tao’s stunning performance.

Actor Liao Fan is also excellent as Bin in capturing the gangster’s need to be a big shot in his circle. He must have status, or otherwise he feels he is a broken man of no worth. It is a sensitive performance that earns some sympathy for Bin even though he is a thorough louse for abandoning Qiao after she sacrifices years of her life in prison after having saving him from a severe beating that could have resulted in his death.

Even with all of that heavy plotting, “Ash is Purest White" has its humor. While on a boat after her release from prison, a woman steals her purse and money. Qiao prowls among upscale family events and confronts a man with a story of a girlfriend being pregnant and needing money. After a rebuff by the man who has no such girlfriend, she hits on a guy for whom the story fits and makes him fear embarrassment, and she comes away with considerable cash. It is a funny but nervy display by Qiao.

(Her ploy reminds me of the joke that surfaced during the U.S. great depression, when hungry guys would pretend to be relatives or acquaintances to crash a wedding so they could be fed. “Are you on the bride’s side or the groom’s side?” an interloper was asked. “The bride’s side,” he ventured, only to be told, “Get the hell out of here—this is a bar mitzvah.”)

Qiao is ever resourceful and makes us feel for her when she finally does confront Bin, whom she still loves. In a delicate scene with long pauses he rejects her, but that is not the end of the situation. The film moves on in years and Bin, now a physically handicapped stroke victim, is back with the old group. So is Qiao.

If this were just a love story, the film would be arresting but comparatively limited. What’s special is how much we observe of the life in that part of China as we follow the story. The film is an eye-opener, and very rich in that respect. Supporting characters are well-played, contributing to the feeling of realism. The title itself, as I understand it, is metaphorical, referring to a conversation Qiao and BIn have about ash turning white when a volcano erupts, just as there is fallout when human life emotionally erupts. A Cohen Media Group release. Reviewed March 11, 2019.

THE AFTERMATH  Send This Review to a Friend

In “The Aftermath,” directed by James Kent and adapted by writers Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse from a novel by Rhidian Brook, there is a mix of charisma and lack of credibility. The result is a film that gains from its star performances but seems thoroughly contrived.

The setting is bombed out Hamburg in 1945 after the defeat of Hitler. A high-ranking British officer, Lewis Morgan, played with authority by Jason Clark, has commandeered a large country house that stands in stately fashion in contrast to the city ruins that have left Germans scrambling for food and protesting in the streets.

Lewis has sent for his wife, Rachael, played by the ever-fascinating Keira Knightley. She arrives with bitter hostility toward Germans, fueled, we eventually learn, by the loss of their son in a German bombing of Britain. Her wrath is immediately addressed toward Stefan Lubert (Alexander Skarsgård), owner of the house, who has moved upstairs with his rebellious daughter, Freda, played by Flora Thiemann. Stefan’s wife and Freda’s mother has been killed in the war and both continue to be grief-stricken.

This is the sort of film in which the minute you see Rachael’s anger toward Stefan, you know that she’ll wind up having sex with him. Horniness very quickly overtakes hatred. Even allowing for the overwhelming power of sexual attraction, the speedy switch in Rachael’s emotions seems unlikely.

All occurs against a background of Rachael and Lewis being deeply wounded by the loss of their son and driven apart by feelings of guilt and blame. That is supposed to explain and justify Rachael’s cheating. In this kind of film, one also can assume early on that there will be eventual healing. Predictability is a hallmark of “The Aftermath.”

There is a subplot involving Stefan’s daughter’s romance with a young still-committed Nazi and his desire to kill Lewis, which introduces a weak thriller aspect.

There is a lavish look to “The Aftermath,” with Rachael’s wardrobe contrasting to the poverty in the streets of Hamburg.

All three leads—Knightly, Skarsgård and Clarke—are compelling actors. While they connect with us as performers, they cannot vanquish the contrived story that is basically just a romance film set amidst the ruins of war and the ruins of the screenplay. A Fox Searchlight Pictures release. Reviewed March 15, 2019.

THE HUMMINGBIRD PROJECT  Send This Review to a Friend

The competitive Wall Street world of high finance provides a platform for Jesse Eisenberg to go all out as an actor, from conspiring to get a time advantage to his falling part emotionally from the stress of what he is attempting. It is a role that enables Eisenberg to pull out all the stops.

The film by writer-director Kim Nguyen is built around a scheme that Eisenberg as Vincent Zaleski concocts with his spacey cousin Anton, played by Alexander Skarsgård. Michael Mando as Marc Vega has the tech savvy needed.

Vincent has been working for the company run by Salma Hayek as Eva Torres. She is not someone to cross. When she gets wind of what Vincent is up to, she musters her know-how and determination to wage a vigorous battle to foul up Vincent’s dream.

In the world of stock market trading time is of the essence. Vincent has figured out that by running a cable from Kansas to stock exchange connections in New Jersey, he can have a brief speed-trading advantage that can earn millions of dollars. But the engineering is formidable. The line must cross extremely difficult terrain above and below ground. A little thing like a mountain can’t stand in the way. Also required is a backer lured to cover mounting expenses.

With the battle lines drawn, we watch Vincent working feverishly and step by step coming apart. But will he succeed? The film works up a degree of suspense, but the entire scheme seems too outrageous to pull off from its very start. Hayek makes the most of her obstreperous role. A The Orchard release. Reviewed March 15, 2019.

GLORIA BELL  Send This Review to a Friend

Director Sebastian Lelio, with an adapted screenplay that Alice Johnson Boher wrote with him, has remade his poignant “Gloria,” shifting the story from Chile to Los Angeles and presenting Julianne Moore in the title role of a divorced woman looking for happiness.

Moore is a formidable actress, who makes Gloria come vividly alive as she loves to dance and hopes to meet a nice guy. Moore’s performance contributes freshness to this reincarnation, although my memory is that the story set in Chile had a harder edge. John Turturro is compelling as Arnold, the man who comes into her life. Together they give the film heft and poignancy, and the overall effect is that “Gloria Bell” seems thoroughly original and stands on its own as if one had never heard about or seen the original.

The problem Gloria faces is that Arnold, who says he is divorced from his wife but not his two daughters, is that his loyalty to those daughters trumps his loyalty to Gloria, whom he sincerely comes to love.

He feels humiliated in a scene in which Gloria, who has two grown children of her own, attends a birthday party at which her ex-husband and his new mate are there, and pictures of Gloria and her ex are dragged out, which much chatter about when they were in love. Arnold quite properly feels totally left out and ignored and quietly leaves.

There is a breakup and a reunion, and Arnold takes Gloria on a trip, but it turns out to be a disaster when he gets a demanding call from one of his daughters. Gloria must find a way to assert herself and carry on as a woman composed with a new sense of dignity even though her quest for love is still unfulfilled. There is a very funny send-off into the next phase of her life, which we don’t see, but might make for a sequel.

In the course of her sexual relationship with Arnold, there is a scene in which Moore sits for a long time with her breasts exposed. Is that really necessary? Moore seems to be cool with that sort of exposure. In a film by Robert Altman she stood with her lower body exposed and subsequently quipped in an interview that Altman received a double boon because, she noted, her hair is naturally red.

Nudity aside, Julianne’s performance is profound and touching one that earns sympathy and hope that Gloria will permanently find Mr. Right, who would lavish her with the love and respect that she deserves. Turturro’s Arnold almost makes the grade but emotionally he simply isn’t free. An A24 release. Reviewed March 13, 2019.

GRETA  Send This Review to a Friend

The reason you may want to see “Greta,” directed by Neil Jordan from a screenplay he wrote with Ray Wright, is the compelling performance by Isabelle Huppert. Not that the other main cast members aren’t proficient, but Huppert, no matter what kind of a role she plays, is always superb. She must have had an enjoyable time playing Greta Hideg, a lonely, deranged woman with a friendly but lethal smile masking her psychotic behavior. Huppert is photographed full face on the screen as if she were full of honey. But beware. Huppert has a storehouse of acting technique to define this bizarre character.

The film itself is a thriller that can grip one’s attention, yet it is fatally filled with moments when sensible action might have derailed the plot and caught up with Greta. It also strikes a humorous blow against being too good a citizen. If you should see a lonely purse left on a seat in a subway car, take it right to the authorities. After seeing “Greta,” you may think twice about trying to find the owner.

Chloë Grace Moretz as Frances McCullen, a kindhearted young woman, makes the mistake of personally delivering a purse to the owner, Greta Hideg, who, Frances subsequently learns to her chagrin, meets women that way and pulls them into her needy emotional clutches. As the plot escalates, Frances becomes Greta’s target and can’t get rid of the ever-present and demanding woman. Erica Penn, Greta’s roommate, is played firmly by Maika Monroe, who becomes increasingly alarmed.

The story typically builds into a blaze of horror. Frances’ father, when realizing that his daughter has gone missing, hires a detective (Stephen Rae) to investigate. Too bad for him. As is the case with such thrillers, you figure things will have to work out for the heroine, but getting there takes quite a while and many avoidable complications.

But it is worth the price of admission to watch the great French actress Huppert do her stuff in a role that, while overshadowed by some of the fabulous parts she has had in more significant films during her long career, displays a different side of her talent that provides a load of evil charisma thoroughly enjoyable to watch. A Focus Features release. Reviewed March 7, 2019.

WOMAN AT WAR  Send This Review to a Friend

Don’t miss one of this year’s new and important films—“Woman at War.’ It is a unique one from Iceland that not only is moving and entertaining, but taps smartly into a major issue of our times, protecting the environment. It does so in a special style that director Benedikt Erlingsson uses to involve us and make the film’s important points.

You will see a terrific actress, Halldóra Geirharôsdóttir, in the role of Halla, a choral director who decides to wage a personal war against companies fouling the environment. We watch her at the outset armed with a bow and arrow and prowling the countryside to shoot down communications wires on towers and thus thrust companies into darkness and stalled activity.

This is a leading lady with a strong face and an athletic physique, someone with whom you can enjoy connecting. If that were not enough, she also has a look-alike sister, Ása, who becomes a major part of the plot. Geirharôsdóttir plays both parts, with the characters smoothly integrated via editing when they are shown together.

There is also another side to Halla. She is planning to adopt an orphaned little girl from the Ukraine, bring her home and raise her. As you might guess, Halla’s war will complicate her goal.

The director uses music for the film in a very creative way. In the background of many scenes musicians are playing, almost as if following the heroine around. The band consists of a sousaphone player, a drummer and either a pianist or an accordion player. There is also a group of three Ukrainian singers. This concept is not only amusing but endows the film with sort of a fairy tale tone that allows for broadness and is much different than the traditional method of having a score in the background.

A foreign tourist keeps getting arrested by mistake, which offers some comic relief and provides a further dimension that illustrates the bumbling in attempts by police to capture the anti-pollution warrior.

We see Halla on the run and using her wiles and instincts to accomplish her missions. She finds cave-like cavities below mounds of earth in which to hide when pursued in her countryside (beautifully filmed) escapades. The screenplay by director Erlingsson and Ólafur Egill Egilsson skillfully integrates Halla’s personal and warrior life and makes her a very appealing character. In her home are inspirational photos on her wall of Gandhi and Mandela.

“Woman at War” couldn’t be timelier. It should impress those who are battling to protect the environment, and instead of a polemical treatise, it is an imaginative drama that encourages individuals to take whatever actions they can do to their part in the battle to save the planet. Three cheers for Halla and a film that emerges as one of the best in 2019 thus far. A Magnolia Pictures release. Reviewed February 27, 2019.

FERRANTE FEVER  Send This Review to a Friend

The novels of Elena Ferrante, which is a pseudonym, have enthralled many people, especially women who find insight into character portrayals set in Naples. The documentary by director Giacomo Durzi comes across as a lavish salute to the author.

The method is to present an entourage of testimony by various authorities praising Ferrante for the insightful stories and discussing why they have attained such an international following.

The problem is that these tributes go on endlessly with the points being made over and over again, so that the film suffers from overkill. It would have been much more interesting if the director had spent extensive time exploring the question of the real identity of the author.

There has been plenty of speculation on the subject. There have been attempts to identity the writer, but they have been shot down. It has been mainly taken for granted that Ferrante is a woman. But what if the author were a man?

The argument against that is the way in which the writer gets into the hearts of women, their feelings and life experiences. However, remember that the great Swedish film director Ingmar Berman made extremely perceptive films about women.

Whatever the case, an inquiry into the mystery of Ferrante’s identity would have made the film more fascinating above and beyond the valid but repetitive tributes. A Greenwich Entertainment release. Reviewed March 8, 2019.

TRANSIT  Send This Review to a Friend

Written and directed by Christian Petzold and based on Anna Segher’s 1942 novel “Transit Visa,” this is a film in which if someone simply and logically told the truth the plot would collapse. The setting for “Transit” at first is Paris being overrun by Germans, which necessitates for many the need to get out of the country quickly.

Franz Rogowski, whose acting is compelling, plays Georg, a German who has escaped from concentration camps and is on the run. When he discovers a novelist whose death is mysterious, he takes the man’s writings and identify papers, and off he goes to Marseilles in hope of gaining an exit visa that will enable him to flee France.

Enter Paula Beer as Marie, who is searching for her husband, the dead novelist. Georg falls in love with Marie, but doesn’t reveal what happened to her husband. Why not? If he did, the murky complications that develop would be undercut.

What is writer-director Petzold up to? He seems to be driving for an existential film that explores the concept of refugees attempting to survive whether at the time of the occupation by the enemy or, by inference, today. There is constant danger, with suspense involving getting transit visas from consulates with wary functionaries, the issue of love versus the importance of surviving, and the possibility of self-sacrifice to help another.

While the plot becomes dense, an element that rivets one’s interest in “Transit” is the charisma of the stars. It is fascinating to watch Rogowski and Beer. Also, the overall atmosphere created is reminiscent of film noir. Those ingredients give “Transit” its cachet, whether or not you feel the plot makes any sense. A Music Box Films release, Reviewed March 1, 2019.

JOSEPH PULITZER: VOICE OF THE PEOPLE  Send This Review to a Friend

We hear a lot about the Pulitzer Prize and winners for exceptional journalistic feats. But who was Joseph Pulitzer? This documentary, directed by Oren Rudavsky, both explores his history and what he brought to the world of communication.

Pulitizer (1842-1911), a Jewish immigrant from Hungary, was publisher of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the New York World. Along with William Randolph Hurst, he had a great influence on journalism. The World was especially aggressive in its exposure of corruption, and it also was a pioneer in the sensationalism of its day.

The paper became a champion of the underdog and immigrants, and it built a loyal following that brought large circulation. However, there was also the taint of “yellow journalism” that was criticized as exploitative. Pulitzer got into a major battle with President Theodore Roosevelt over Pulitzer’s charge that the Panama Canal project was an example of colonialism. Sadly, in his later years Pulitzer lost his eyesight.

How does a film deal with such a life? To personalize it, the director has actor Liev Schreiber speaking as Pulitzer, complete with accent, to give life to Pulitzer’s words. The film also uses a trove of archival material, plus an array of comments by assorted notables and authorities.

Not only is this a biography, but it offers a view pf journalism in the latter part of the 19th century. It practically invites one to make comparisons with today. Think New York Post. But in the period when Pulitzer flourished the territory was new. In the final analysis, as he film demonstrates, he is remembered for the positive side of his contribution to the growth of journalism as a fundamental freedom of our society. A First Run Features release. Reviewed March 1, 2019.

BIRDS OF PASSAGE  Send This Review to a Friend

Unlike other films related to the drug trade, “Birds of Passage” combines a look into a remote culture with growing marijuana as well as coffee beans and tribal traditions, family honor and feuds. Violence is interwoven with the lifestyle and as a result the film is illuminating as well as jolting.

Directors Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra escort us into a part of Colombia inhabited by the remote, indigenous Wayuu people, who have their own language, and who, as detailed in the story, become involved in the drug business. Despite the dangers, profits are to be made. We see a mix of interesting characters, and also deadly rivalries that explode in inevitable killing.

The screenplay has been written by Maria Camila Arias and co-director Gallego. The film is stunning to look at, as we are transported into the attractive countryside setting for the events that occur, both within families and in relation to drug-buying contacts. The peaceful look of the area contrasts with the passions that rage in the context of traditions and the lurking dangers.

In the midst of it all is a planned marriage. The bride to be is the youg Zaida, played by Natalia Reyes. The groom to be is the more worldly Raphayet, portrayed by José Acosta, who becomes involved in the marijuana trade in quest of money that he needs.

One of the film’s more interesting characters is the matriarchal Úrsula, who is Zaida’s controlling mother, played by the impressive Carmiña Martinez and exercising her will as the story unfolds.

Be prepared for the film’s mounting violence. But the reward is a look at a part of the world about which you are likely to know little and which certainly merits the dramatic exploration to be found in “Birds of Passage.” A The Orchard release. Reviewed February 13, 2019.

  

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