‘Ash is Purest White’ examines survival in modern China

Connecting the disparate provinces of China is the Yangtze River, whose centrality in the nation’s development cannot be overstated. From Still Life (2008) to Mountains May Depart (2014), it has figured as a leitmotif in the films of Jia Zhang-ke, a director who has observed the deepening wrinkles in China’s modernization with a quizzical eye. Ash is Purest White falls short of his best thanks to a murky second half. Yet the sharpness of Jia’s partner and stock company player Tao Shao’s performance and a couple of limpidly subtle sequences save the picture.

Tao is Qiao, a widow stuck in a failing coal town twenty years ago with her grouch father and a gangster boyfriend Bin (Fan Liao), who does more posturing over cards and drinks than killing, although he does that too. Jia shows an authentic feel for small stakes grubbing; none of these people will upset the leadership in Beijing (which may encourage this parochial kleptocracy, for all I know) but anyone within Bin’s orbit endures his whims. When a power vacuum turns Bin into de facto boss, Qiao saves his life. She takes the rap and serves five years in prison. Released in 2006, she wanders through Fengjie, a landscape. to quote Yeats, that has changed, changed utterly. People ceaselessly thumb their cell phones. American products sold in gift shops. Even the Three Gorges Dam, star of Still Life, looks more imposing.

Expert at capturing formal occasions as the makeup starts to congeal and the men get sodden with liquor, Jia must have needed a gas mask to film those Bin scenes without succumbing to lung cancer. In Ash is Purest White, though, the camera doesn’t capture so much as linger. For a director with such an unerring sense of pace, these scenes threaten to turn into sympathy. But the films awakens when Qiao, too long disconnected from the rhythms of proletarian life, settles into a grifter’s life — for example, playing the sibling of a girl whom a local boss got pregnant to extort dough out of him.

This is the strongest part of Ash is Purest White: Tao as Jeanne Moreau in Michaelangelo Antonioni’s La Notte, taking in the sights with increasing wonder and jadedness. Best is a reconciliation between her and a ravaged Bin set in a hotel room; the former couple submit to the gradations of resentment as Jia’s camera lingers just long enough on each actor’s face before moving at a snail’s pace to the next, a neutral advocate. Who’s right or wrong, he implies, no longer matters when the ashes of love need scattering.


Agnès Varda — RIP

To regard the late Agnès Varda as a painter and writer enlarges our capacity to understand how good filmmakers capture a sense of molecules in constant motion. Think of Mary Cassatt, of her portraits of arrested movement in all their embarrassment and capacity to surprise. In Varda’s debut feature Cléo from 5 to 7, the audience’s sharing a secret with Corinne Marchand’s title character, a singer who will likely die of cancer, lends a poignancy to her adherence to routine. The accidental poetry of the found object. The person as found object. Varda didn’t transform her men and women into people worth studying; her approach insisted that men and women as they are were all worth studying. Continue reading

In ‘Gloria Bell’ Julianne Moore shines as a woman making do

Few critics can discuss Julianne Moore without resorting to a physiognomic analysis, treating her face as the primary source for a master’s thesis. The interplay between smile and wanness, for example. In Gloria Bell, Moore gets the kind of role that actors relish. Playing a long-divorced professional woman in her fifties who has no qualms about ordering a martini too many and dancing till dawn, Moore gives a performance that relishes physical exertion and taps her talent for guilelessness. Continue reading

Ideas of love clash in ‘Sorry Angel’

Opening with a smash cut montage set to Massive Attack’s “One Love,” Sorry Angel seeks to recreate the headiness of falling in love with the idea of love. Christophe Honoré’s film, set in 1993 at the height of the plague years, shows how two men vastly divided by age but sharing an intellectual honesty come together. Continue reading

‘Us’ grins around the gore

Fans of Get Out for the intelligence with which it folded its critique of squishy white liberalism in a horror film may leave Us disappointed. As bloody as a rare filet, Jordan Peele’s second film is a genre film first and foremost. From the point of view of career sustainability, it’s the shrewdest move he could have made, dampening expectations from audiences primed to think Peele has something meaningful to say about The Way We Live Now. As a movie, though, Us remains faintly disappointing. Its strongest moments consist of — you got it — those when he folds his critique of white liberalism in horror film tropes. Continue reading

Narco saga ‘Birds of Passage’ has epic stirrings

Watching Birds of Passage a temporal unease occurs just about every few minutes. If it’s set in the decade of polyester, why do these members of the Wayuu tribe in northern Columbia speak of gods and spells and curses? If it’s a film about the violence of the drug trade, why does most of it occur offscreen? Directed by Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra with the detachment of a documentary, Birds of Passage accepts death and greed as forces to which we succumb and to whose consequences we must yield. Gallego and Ciro hold every narrative element in their hands. Birds of Passage is a tonal triumph, the strongest film of 2019 to date. Continue reading

Miami Film Festival 2019 — Van Dieman’s Land and Kael

On the sixth day of Miami Film Festival, the standouts include a documentary on the most influential American film critic of the last fifty years and a sophomore effort by a director who makes an impressive aesthetic advance.

What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael, dir. Rob Garver.

For critics who come to their trade late in life, the example of Pauline Kael still illuminates. After several decades of stalling as a playwright during which she resorted to supporting daughter/lifelong companion Gina James as, among other things, a seamstress, City Lights offered her a chance to review Limelight, one of Charlie Chaplins odd, dreadful talking films. If this has become the prevailing judgment, credit Kael — or blame her. Rob Garver’s affectionate documentary charts the film critic’s rise from radio and McCall’s to a twenty-year berth at The New Yorker, where her review of Bonnie and Clyde acted as a defibrillator after Bosley Crowther’s dismissal had put the Warren Beatty-Arthur Penn collaboration in cardiac arrest.

Peppered with testimonials from Quentin Tarantino and David O. Russell, who can afford to be generous because Kael had retired before she could scowl at their movies, What She Said eulogizes a moment when a monoculture comprising a handful of critics could rattle a few less ill-letttered distributors and Hollywood producers. Kael was as much a part of the remarkable sexual and political openness of American movies, Garver’s documentary argues, as Robert Altman, Hal Ashby, Bernando Bertolucci, and so on. Missing from What She Said, however, is what she didn’t say about Chantal Akerman, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, and other directors less dependent on kiss-kiss bang-bang. I suspect we know.

WHEN AND WHERE: Thursday March 7, 7:15 p.m. at Silverspot Cinema

The Nightingale, dir. Jennifer Kent.

The Nightingale‘s first thirty minutes contain the most stomach-churning violence I’ve seen in a film in a couple years. I won’t add spoilers, but viewers should know what they’re in for in this adaptation of Kristin Hannah’s novel set in 1825 about Clare (a poignant, intense Aisling Franciosi), who watches her family get slaughtered by British troops in her home in Van Dieman’s Land, now Tasmania. An Irish convict like many of the island’s residents who has worked off her sentence, Clare has to endure the contempt and sexual assault from the officer in charge of those men, Lt. Hawkins (Sam Claflin, unrecognizable). Her thirst for vengeance sends her on a cross-country journey in pursuit of Hawkins before he reaches Launceston: he’s after a promotion. She joins forces with an aborigine tracker (Baykali Ganambarr).

Writer-director Jennifer Kent also made the horror film The Babadook, but The Nightingale is by some distance the more accomplished work. Every shot shows a mastery over the material. Radek Ladczuk captures the moistness of the forests; even in the sunlight he suggests a sense of danger. She understands the violence done by the colonizers over the conquered, and the striations of class among the colonizers themselves; if more universities had courses devoted to post-colonial cinema, The Nightingale would deserve prominence alongside Lucrecia Martel’s recent Zama and James Gray’s Lost City of Z, and Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, Wrath of God. There’s a sense in which, however, that The Nightingale runs out of movie; the mix of sentimentality and violence in the last third is hard to stomach. Still, Kent has made a film that’ll shake audiences.

WHEN AND WHERE: Thursday, March 7th, 9:15 p.m. at Silverspot Cinema; Saturday, March 9 at 6 p.m. at O Cinema Miami Beach

Reviewing ‘Leaving Neverland’

When Pitchfork approached me last week about reviewing Leaving Neverland, I worried about accuracy. Fortunately for accusers Wade Robson and James Safechuck, so much of what they share is already in the public record. Dan Reed’s four-hour documentary offers detail, forensic in its specificity, about what these men said Michael Jackson did to them as elementary school-aged boys. Jackson’s most fevered supporters use Robson and Safechuck’s testimony under oath that Jackson never touched them. However, there’s no way the most fair-minded watcher can endure Leaving Neverland without concluding that the men told the truth now. Continue reading

Miami Film Festival 2019: Opening night

Since its debut in 1984, Miami Film Festival has served as the premier showcase for Latin and Iberian American filmmakers, and its timing during the moribund post-Oscar pre-spring season could not be more auspicious. This year new films by Olivier Assayas (Personal Shopper, Carlos), Jia Zhangke (Mountains May Depart, Still Life), and Zhang Yimou (Hero, Raise the Red Lantern) stand alongside fare by local directors — more than one hundred-seventy documentaries, features, and short films. Opening night documentary This Changes Everything examines the impact of #MeToo on a recalcitrant Hollywood.

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