Narco Soldiers


(2019) Crime (GravitasRafael Amaya, Carolina Guerra, Octavio Pizano, Ricardo Chavira, Ivo Canelas, Cody Kasch, Roger Cross, Carlos Naveo, Hector Anibal, Omar Patin, Axel Mansilla, Iban Marrero, Anika Lehmann. Directed by Felix Limardo

 

The world is often a strange place, particularly now. Movies reflect that, particularly now. How else do you explain Narco Soldiers? It is, in fact, a movie about how drug cartels can contribute to national pride.

Danny (Amaya) is a hired killer for a cartel run out of Puerto Rico by The Sarge (Cross). Now a free agent, he hooks up with Don Toribio (Chavira) to become a middle man in the Mexican and Colombian cartels. But Danny’s buddy Teo (Pizano), has a different idea; to create a cartel right there in the Dominican Republic. As his high-end girlfriend Marisela (Guerra) puts it, the Dominican has long been a place where other nations came to exploit with no benefit at all to the Dominicans. The cartels are just the latest in the long line.

As it turns out, Marisela is the brains behind the operation and she’s as ruthless as they come. Together, Teo, Marisela and Danny become a force to be reckoned with and build a cartel of their own. However, along the way they make enemies and you know what they say; the bigger you are, the harder you fall.

I like the Latin point of view here; most times, we get a more European look at the cartels, an American infiltrator or some such. Here, we see the bosses at the top. The problem is that they don’t really give them characters so much as roles; one is the muscle, one is the brains, one is the heart. We never get a sense of complete human beings behind the parts.

The script is also deeply predictable and even the action scenes don’t really add very much. That’s not to say that the action is done badly – it’s not – but there just isn’t anything that stands out. The plot is somewhat convoluted, but again, there’s a very “been there, done that” feeling to it. In fact, that could be the film’s epitaph; it’s okay, but nothing special. And it could have been.

REASONS TO SEE: Comes with a Latin point of view that is refreshing.
REASONS TO AVOID: Very basic and workmanlike.
FAMILY VALUES: There is lots of violence and profanity, drug references, sex and nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Amaya is best known for his work in the Mexican TV show Lord of the Skies.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/10/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Scarface (1983)
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
The Mothman Legacy

A Call to Spy


Virginia Hill wonders how come James Bond got a sports car and she got a bicycle?

(2019) War (IFCSarah Megan Thomas, Stana Katic, Radhika Apte, Linus Roache, Rossif Sutherland, Samuel Roukin, Andrew Richardson, Laila Robins, Marc Rissmann, Mathilde Olivier, Lola Pashalinski, David Schaal, Rob Heaps, Matt Salinger, Marceline Hugot, Cynthia Mace, Joe Doyle, Alistair Brammer, Helen Kennedy, Juliana Sass, Sigrid Owen, Gemma Massot. Directed by Lydia Dean Pilcher

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When we think of the heroes of the Second World War, we often think of lantern-jawed white men, aw-shucks farm boys, daring partisans and clever Englishmen, often played by such as Gary Cooper, Clint Eastwood and Tom Hanks. There were, however, many different kinds of heroes.

After France fell, there was a feeling of desperation in England, knowing that they were likely the next to feel the brunt of the Nazi war machine (America hadn’t entered the war at that time). Finding out what the Nazis were up to was paramount, and there were no reliable ways to get that information; spies were being discovered and executed by the SS almost as soon as the Strategic Operations Executive – the office of British intelligence during the early days of the war – could send them.

In desperation, Winston Churchill ordered that women be sent over to Occupied France. He reasoned that women might be able to move about more freely and attract less suspicion. Vera Atkins (Katic), a Jewish-Romanian immigrant and a secretary in the SOE office was tasked with recruiting women for the job by her boss, Maurice Buckmaster (Roche).

Atkins took the job seriously and went after women that the Nazis might not suspect of being spies. One of her recruits was Virginia Hall (Thomas), a secretary in the American embassy with aspirations to becoming a diplomat, although her wooden leg (she lost her leg in a hunting accident) seemed to be keeping her from achieving her goal. Another was Noor Inayat Khan (Apte), a Muslim-Pakistani of royal lineage who wanted to make a difference in the war for her adopted country.

It was obviously dangerous work; most of the women sent overseas never made it back home, but the work they did was invaluable. Buckmaster characterized it as “ungentlemanly warfare,” recruiting members of the resistance, relaying information back to England via wireless operators (like Khan) and committing acts of sabotage. They were surrounded by collaborators and counterspies, and many of the women were betrayed to the Nazis.

The movie, which was written by Thomas who also co-produced it, is largely the work of women behind the camera, which is to be celebrated. A story about women by women is something that cinema needs more of, particularly those about women whose accomplishments were largely lost to history. Thomas and director Lydia Dean Pilcher concentrate on the stories of Hill, Atkins and Khan. All three women were facing death at any moment – for Atkins, her citizenship was held up and she lived with the constant threat of being deported back to Romania, which was part of the Axis back then and almost certainly she would have been promptly executed had that happened. All three women were fighting against the preconceptions of men – Hill because of her disability, Khan because of her diminutive stature and nationality – as well as the Nazis.

The story is one worth telling, but that doesn’t mean that it is told particularly well here. The dialogue has a tendency to be eye-rolling and the movie takes on a Girl Power tone which, although understandable, was completely unnecessary; the accomplishments of all three women were impressive enough that they don’t need further “see what women can accomplish” hagiography. The movie would have benefitted from a simpler storytelling style.

The film is a bit muddled in terms of going back and forth between the three women, particularly in the second half of the film. It felt that there was so much to tell about these women’s lives that we got only the barest minimum to keep our interest; they would have been better served with a longer format which would have gotten us more insight to who they were, which would have allowed the audience to get more deeply invested in their stories.

That said, it isn’t often that a movie gets reamed for not being thorough enough, but that is the case here. I think the hearts of the filmmakers were in the right place, but taking on the project left them with a quandary; whose story do we tell, and how much of it? They chose three worthy women, but in the end, they should have concentrated on one or gone the miniseries route. I think the subjects deserved one or the other.

REASONS TO SEE: A rare look at some of the unsung heroes of the war.
REASONS TO AVOID: Probably should have been a miniseries.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a lot of period smoking, some graphic violence and scenes of torture, and some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: During shooting, Thomas ruptured her Achilles tendon that required surgery once filming had been completed.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, DirecTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/3/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 76% positive reviews. Metacritic: 67/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Catcher Was a Spy
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
American Murder: The Family Next Door

Nose to Tail


Cut off at the pass.

(2018) Drama (1091) Aaron Abrams, Lara Jean Chorostecki, Ennis Esmer, Salvatore Antonio, Brandon McKnight, Genevieve Kang, Caroline Bartczak, Lauren Collins, Jason Tome, Cody Black, Robert B. Kennedy, Brock Morgan, Rufio Luey. Directed by Jesse Zigelstein

 

In recent years, chefs have gone from being virtually unknown to becoming rock stars in their own right. A celebrity chef can pretty much write their own ticket, able to command the attention of foodies the world over who will walk across hot coals to get a table at their restaurant. For this, we sometimes excuse behavior we wouldn’t accept in our own workplace. If Gordon Ramsey were my boss, I’d be sitting him down in HR with a lawyer handy after one of his tirades.

Danny (Abrams) has gone from being the darling of hipster foodies, the hot young chef to being a dinosaur in his own bistro. His restaurant is hemorrhaging money and his past due bills are piling up; even though his restaurant is packed night after night, he is drowning in debt. The only life preserver on the horizon is his school chum Mark (Esmer) who has agreed to come to his restaurant for a meal with a group of potential investors who might prove to be the solution to his cash flow problems. He needs to wow the table or face the closure of a business he has spent ten years building.

The film chronicles the day of that dinner. Danny is already in hot water with Chloe (Chorostecki), his house manager and sometime lover who he stood up the night previous. He is perturbed because the new hot food truck with the new hip not chef (Tome) is parked cross the street from his eatery. His sommelier (Antonio) reports that none of his wine providers will extend any credit to him any longer. His landlord (Kennedy) has had it up to here with missed rental payments and bounced checks; he has to the end of the month to get caught up or Danny will be evicted.

To make matters worse, a supercilious food blogger (Collins) informs Danny that his talented sous chef Keith (McKnight) is jumping ship for the chance to become an executive chef in his own restaurant. And Danny has forgotten that his ex-wife (Bartczak) is bringing his son (Black) over because it is his day to watch him. Along the way, Danny will rant, scream, and berate his put-upon staff while pushing away the one person who seems to believe in him at all. As the night progresses, Danny seems to be falling apart. Can he pull it together to save his restaurant?

First-time feature director Zigelstein paints a realistic portrait of life in an upscale bistro, and of the challenges (that are sometimes insurmountable) that independent restaurants face. It is no secret that restaurants fail at a staggering rate; it is one of the toughest businesses to succeed at.

Abrams does strong work as Danny, a man whose own hubris is his own worst enemy. Danny believes that he is still the biggest and brightest star in Toronto; that belief has become increasingly delusional and everyone knows it except Danny. He’s not a pleasant person to be around and he’s certainly not a pleasant person to work for. He’s the stereotype of an asshole chef, the kind we see on TV and in the movies and whose behavior may be amusing from a distance, but if you are forced to deal with it day after day would no doubt provoke PTSD in a major way. Danny’s tirades and tantrums eventually grow wearying and by the time the movie comes to an end you may not give a ratatouille whether Danny saves his bistro or not.

That aside, the movie feels pretty authentic to me, but as I’ve never worked in a professional kitchen myself you might want to take that with a grain of salt. This is definitely not a film for Vegans (there’s a scene that is critical to the plot that involves the butchering of a hog, and it appears they use an actual hog carcass or at least a realistic facsimile of same) nor is it a film for those whose idea of a high class meal is the daily special at Appleby’s. Nonetheless, there’s enough here to merit a look-see and as the rental fee is extremely reasonable ($3.99 at most streaming services), you really can’t go wrong.

REASONS TO SEE: A realistic look at some of the obstacles restaurants face.
REASONS TO AVOID: There comes a point where the tantrums become tiresome.
FAMILY VALUES: There is all kinds of profanity and some brief violence. There are also images of meat being butchered that may upset vegans or those sensitive to such scenes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Both Abrams and Chorostecki had supporting roles on the excellent but lamentably canceled Hannibal.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/8/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 70% positive reviews: Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Chef
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Made in Italy

Robert the Bruce


The once and future King.

(2019) Historical Drama (Screen Media)  Angus Macfadyen, Anna Hutchison, Zach McGowan, Gabriel Bateman, Talitha Bateman, Brandon Lessard, Diarmaid Murtagh, Emma Kenney, Patrick Fugit, Melora Walters, Shane Coffey, Daniel Portman, Seoras Wallace, Kevin McNally, Jared Harris, Nick Farnell, Gianni Capaldi, Mhairi Calvey.  Directed by Richard Gray

 

In Scotland Robert the Bruce is a national hero, able to do what William Wallace could not – give the Scots their freedom from English rule – but it didn’t come easy.

Some ten years after the execution of William Wallace, Robert the Bruce (Macfadyen) is King of Scotland, but uneasy lies the head that wears the crown. That’s because other Scottish nobles, particularly the clan of John Comyn (Harris), also are claimants to the throne of Scotland. After an ambush at Greyfriars’s Church leads to the death of Comyn, Scotland is in chaos. The English, with whom Comyn had allied, have put a price on Robert’s head of 50 gold pieces. The unceasing wars against the English have led to a divided country; some support their King who is promising freedom, other weary of war that has claimed so many husbands, sons and brothers.

Pretty Morag (Hutchison) has lost a husband to the wars and a brother as well. Raising her own son Scot (Bateman) as well as her nephew Carney (Lessard) and niece Iver (Bateman), they live on a remote farm in the mountains. Robert, hounded by foes on every side, is ready to give up. He dismisses his few loyal remaining men, including his best warrior James Douglas (Murtagh) who thinks it is folly for Robert to be without protection. He is soon proven right as Robert is attacked by three of his own men, including treacherous Will (Fugit) and badly wounded. Scot finds him in the woods and the family of Morag bring him to their farmhouse to tend to him, much to the displeasure of Scot who blames Robert for his father’s death.

They know they are risking death and their uncle Brandubh (McGowan) is sniffing around the farm – he is looking for Robert, who he has discovered is in the vicinity, but he is also hoping to woo Morag who had married his brother. Even as Robert gets better, the king knows he is in dire peril and dragging this good family in with him. Can he escape and take the family who saved his life to safety?

In all honesty, I don’t know how apocryphal the story is. It could be pure fiction, or based on folk tales, or based on fact. I honestly couldn’t tell you, but I do know Macfadyen – who played the role memorably in Braveheart previous to this and co-wrote the script – has been trying to get this movie made for more than a decade. The 56-year-old actor is playing the King in a period when he was in his mid-30s; this Robert is more world-weary than the one he played in Braveheart and less fiery-eyed. There are moments, particularly near the end of the film, where we see the old Robert the Bruce and thse moments are welcome.

The elephant in the room is Mel Gibson, and I’m sure he wouldn’t be too pleased to be called an elephant. One of the things that made Braveheart such a classic, beloved film was the presence of Gibson, who was at the time at the top of his game and one of the biggest stars in Hollywood, and possessed of enormous charisma before later events derailed his career. Macfadyen is a terrific actor and he has plenty of screen presence, but I’m sure he’d be the first to tell you he’s no Mel Gibson and the movie feels the lack of that kind of star power.

It also feels a lack of Scotland in it. The movie was largely filmed in Montana which is a beautiful state, but it doesn’t have the same look as the Scottish Highlands. The largely American cast also has difficulty with the hard-to-master Scottish accent. Either it’s laid on too thick or not thick enough. Mostly, though, actors drop in and out of it willy-nilly.

That’s not to say there aren’t moments in this film that are worth waiting for. There isn’t a ton of action here in the two-hour film, and American audiences may have a hard time with that. It is not a fast-paced film either and American audiences will REALLY have a hard time with that. Still, if you are patient, there are some scenes that come close to recapturing the magic of the Oscar-winning Braveheart but it never quite does. This isn’t a sequel so much as a spin-off and it doesn’t have the budget to recapture the battle sequences of that film, so Robert the Bruce doesn’t have the epic scope of the previous movie. Still, the character is a big part of Scottish history and proud Scots will not want to miss this, nor will those who love that craggy land.

REASONS TO SEE: There are some moments that are pure magic.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little too slow-paced for this type of movie.
FAMILY VALUES: There is all sorts of violence and mayhem.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Mhairi Calvey, who played the wife of Robert the Bruce here, played a young Murron, the eventual wife of William Wallace, in Braveheart.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/25/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 40% positive reviews: Metacritic: 42/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Braveheart
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
True History of the Kelly Gang

Bohemian Rhapsody


Freddy Mercury in his element.

(2018) Musical Biography (20th Century FoxRami Malek, Lucy Boynton, Gwilym Lee, Ben Hardy, Joe Mazzello, Aidan Gillen, Allen Leech, Tom Hollander, Mike Myers, Aaron McCusker, Meneka Das, Ace Bhatti, Priya Blackburn, Dermot Murphy, Dickie Beau, Tim Plester, Jack Roth, Max Bennett, Felipe Bejarano, Neil Fox-Roberts, Michelle Duncan. Directed by Bryan Singer

 

For an outsider, Freddie Mercury became symbolic to a lot of people. To people of my generation, he was a peerless rock star, perhaps the very embodiment of one. To music historians, he brought grand opera into rock and roll, with all the silliness and grandeur that implies. To the LGBTQ community, he was one of their own who made it big on his own terms. He was the voice of his generation.

Of course, to play such a bigger-than-life performer, you’re going to need a bigger-than-life performance and fortunately, that is delivered here. Rami Malek, best-known at the time for the TV series Mr. Robot, won the Oscar for his portrayal of Mercury and justifiably so – it was one of the best performances of the decade. Malek inhabits the role completely and gets every little nuance right. It is as close to having Freddy back as we’re likely to get.

That said, the movie isn’t without its problems. Like a lot of music industry biopics, it tends to focus on the sensational – the parties, the lifestyle, the drugs and the sex – and while not ignoring the creative process completely, at least gives it less attention than it deserves. It’s easy to be caught up in the excesses, and yes, the band was known for them, but that wasn’t all they were.

They were (and are) also extraordinary musicians and incredibly creative, as the music attests. The film uses the music of Queen to great effect. The re-creation of their triumphant Live-Aid performance in 1985 after an absence of several years opens and closes the film. Many believe that it was one of the best rock and roll performances of all time and they’re not wrong.

Queen is remembered for merging rock and roll and opera, with all the silliness and high drama that it entails, so perhaps the movie was destined to have its share of drama – director Bryan Singer was fired and the film was finished by an uncredited Dexter Fletcher late in the process – but for those who loved Queen (like Da Queen, for example) this is absolutely required viewing. The real challenge for any musical biopic is that it have appeal not just to the main fan base of the act, but also to casual fans as well. I believe even those who weren’t necessarily Queen devotees will get something out of this film, if nothing else Malek’s incredible performance.

REASONS TO SEE: Malek gives the performance of a lifetime. Uses the music of Queen magnificently.
REASONS TO AVOID: Sometimes, a little gossipy.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of profanity, plenty of sexuality, adult thematic content and some drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Malek wore a prosthetic device to re-create Mercury’s famous overbite. After shooting concluded, he kept the prosthetic and eventually had it cast in gold.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, HBO Go, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/20/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 61% positive reviews: Metacritic: 49/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Rocketman
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Church and State

Colette


A woman in a man’s world determined to succeed on her own terms.

(2018) Biographical Drama (Bleecker Street) Keira Knightley, Dominic West, Fiona Shaw, Robert Pugh, Sloan Thompson, Arabella Weir, Máté Haumann, Ray Panthaki, Al Weaver, Virág Bárány, Dickie Beau, Kylie Watt, Janine Harouni, Jake Graf, Joe Geary, Rebecca Root, Julian Wadham, Eleanor Tomlinson, Polina Litvak, István Gyurity, Karen Gagnon, Alexandra Szucs. Directed by Wash Westmoreland

 

Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, who went by her last name as a pen name (Knightley), was one of the most successful women in the history of French literature. She emerged from La Belle Epoque as a virtual rock star, and her stubborn refusal to live on any other terms but her own remain an inspiration to women – and men – even today.

Colette, a simple girl from the Burgundy countryside, ends up marrying Parisian roustabout Henry Gauthier-Villars (West) who is better known to Parisian society as Willy. He is known for biting and acerbic theater reviews, essays and short stories but the problem is that he hasn’t written a word of any of that. He has an army of writers who supply hi with the material which he passes off as his own.

The most talented of these is his wife and her Claudine novels take Paris by storm. Relegated to a background role by her egotistical husband, at first she is content to write her novels but as Willy’s gambling debts and lavish lifestyle take a toll on their finances, he begins to resort to outrageous measures to force his wife to meet publishing deadlines, such as locking her in a room. His serial infidelity also begins to upset her; she responds by doing the same thing he does – sleep with other women. She also prefers to dress like a man, which was illegal in France at the time and was quite the scandal.

Eventually she manages to win her independence from Willy but it isn’t easy and it isn’t without pain. The real Colette was an admirable woman and this screen version can only scratch the surface of who she was, Knightley’s fine performance to the contrary. Her chemistry with West palpably sizzles, and the two make one of the best dysfunctional couples you’re likely to see on the screen for some time.

Westmoreland has a keen eye and fills the screen with sumptuous scenes of lush countrysides, lavish salons and decadent theaters. There is a lot of sex in the movie – ah, those lusty French! – which to be honest begin to get in the way of the story. It’s a bit on the long side and some of the decadence could surely have been cut out; we get the picture, after all.

This is a pretty decent biography, but it doesn’t do her justice at the end of the day. There are some fine biographies of her extant and you would do better to pick up one of those. It’s not really Westmoreland’s fault; a movie can only do so much justice to a life in just under two hours. Still, it is dazzling to look at and not just because of Knightley’s lustrous beauty.

REASONS TO SEE: Beautifully shot, both exteriors and interiors.
REASONS TO AVOID: Doesn’t really do justice to the subject.
FAMILY VALUES: There is sexuality and some nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first feature film to be directed solely by Westmoreland, who until then had always co-directed with his partner Richard Glatzer, who died of Charcot’s disease in 2015.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Kanopy, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/17/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 87% positive reviews: Metacritic: 74/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Coco Before Chanel
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
A Star is Born (2018)

Shadow (Ying)


Here comes the rain again.

(2018) Martial Arts (Well Go USA) Chao Deng, Li Sun, Ryan Zheng, Qianyuan Wang, Jingchun Wang, Jun Hu, Xiaotong Guan, Lei Wu, Bai Feng. Directed by Yimou Zhang

Perhaps the most acclaimed film director to come out of China is Yimou Zhang, whose wuxia classics Hero and The House of Flying Daggers have thrilled art house moviegoers for more than a decade. However more recently, missteps like his anglicized The Great Wall failed to connect with mass audiences. However, his latest is a return to form. Garnering massive critical acclaim from its debut at last year’s Venice Film Festival, the movie is once again familiar territory for the great action director, set during the Three Kingdoms period in China.

Commander Yu (Deng) is the beloved general of the Pei Kingdom’s armies who was gravely wounded in battle with the nearly invulnerable General Yang (Hu). However, he appears to be well on the mend and his somewhat prevaricating King (Zheng) is surprised to discover that his impetuous Commander has picked a fight with the man who recently wounded him with the city of Jing, which had been lost to the invaders of Yang Kingdom, going to the winner.

However, the King doesn’t want these events to lead to war so he instead offers his sister (Guan) as concubine to Yang’s son (Wu). What the King doesn’t know is that the Commander isn’t who he appears to be; he is a commoner named Jing (also Deng) who is serving as the real Yu’s shadow, or impostor. Yu has schemed to use the fake Yu as a diversion while a handpicked army of renegades retakes the city. Knowing that this will not only embarrass the king but also lose him what political capital he might have with the nobles, Yu expects to take the throne for himself. Complicit in the dealings is Madame (Sun), Yu’s devious wife. The machinations are almost Machiavellian – some would say Shakespearean.

Zhang as a director is known for his extravagant use of color but he goes in entirely the opposite direction here. Greys and whites and blacks make up the majority of his palate, giving the film an almost black and white look to the point that at times I wondered if he hadn’t shot the film in black and white. Extraordinarily, he did not – everything here is about production design and costuming. In itself it’s an incredible achievement. However, it does get distracting at times. There is also an awful lot of dialogue which isn’t of itself a bad thing but it forces us to be reading the subtitles rather than taking in the marvelous visuals. I’m not often an advocate for dubbing but here is an example where it might have gone better had they gone in that direction.

There is a good deal of gore here but the martial arts sequences are elegantly staged, often using the ubiquitous rainfall as an ally – Yimou even posits umbrellas being used as a weapon, giving the battles an almost feminine grace and a touch of whimsy – a group of battle-hardened warriors slide down a city street in overturned umbrellas in a kind of martial arts waterslide effect. In all, this is a return to form for Yimou and a must-see for any fan of Asian cinema, particularly of the wuxia variety. While it is for the moment on the Festival circuit, it is expected to be in limited theatrical release in May and through the summer. Start bugging your local art house programmer to book this one now.

REASONS TO SEE: The film is epic in scope. The ending is full of twists and turns and has a fair amount of gore for those who love that. The zither duel is absolutely spellbinding.
REASONS TO AVOID: The movie lacks color particularly in the palace scenes, a bit of a switch for Yimou.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a whole lot of martial arts and war violence and some brief sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The black and white tones that most of the film is shot in is meant not only to emphasize the relationship between light and shadow but to also follow in the style of Chinese ink wash paintings.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/13/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 91% positive reviews: Metacritic: 88/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The House of Flying Daggers
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Bring Me an Avocado

Ash is Purest White (Jiang hu er nü)


A loaded gun will get everybody’s attention.

(2018) Drama (Cohen Media Group) Tao Zhao, Fan Liao, Yi’nan Diao, Xiaogang Feng, Casper Liang, Zheng Xu, Yibal Zhang. Directed by Zhangke Jia

Qiao (Zhao) is the girlfriend of gangster Bin (Liao) and as such commands a position of high status in Datong, the provincial city in which she lives. When her boyfriend is attacked by a gang of vicious, bold youths she fires a gun into the air to stop the violence. She ends up being the one arrested for possession of an illegal firearm but despite the police interrogation, she doesn’t give up her boyfriend (it’s his gun). She’s sentenced to five years in prison. When she is released, Bin is nowhere to be found – in fact none of those who were part of the Jiang hu, the fraternal order of the underground who follow a rigid code of loyalty are to be found either. She hears that Bin has left the criminal life and has a new girlfriend; she sets out to find him, trying her best to survive in the meantime. Eventually she does find him and he is a different person as is she; therefore, they part and she heads back to Datong where it all started.

This latest film from virtuoso director Zhangke Jia takes Chinese gangster movies and turns them into a sprawling epic, but not in the sense of a Godfather film. This is more of an emotional epic that follows Qiao through her journey through triumph, betrayal, vindication and disappointment. As China goes through enormous changes in the 17 years in which this film takes place, so do the characters try to adjust – not always successfully. That’s kind of a hallmark of Jia’s films as is Zhao, his real-life wife who stars in many of his films. She is extraordinary here.

Some American viewers may not have the patience for a film like this; the pacing is very deliberate throughout and although there are some well-choreographed fight scenes and moments of vivid wonder, for the most part Jia is content to simply let things unfold at their own pace. Nevertheless, this is a wonderful movie that while not Jia’s best is certainly not a disappointment in the least.

REASONS TO SEE: There is an epic feel to the entire film. Zhao delivers a tremendous performance.
REASONS TO AVOID: The movie is slow-moving particularly throughout.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity and some violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Jia pays tribute to John Woo by utilizing the theme song from The Killers throughout the film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/4/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews: Metacritic: 79/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mr. Six
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Sorry Angel

The Age of Blood (Yeokmo – Banranui Sidae)


Don’t cross swords with this guy if you can avoid it!

(2017) Martial Arts (Storm) Hae-In Jung, Won-jong Lee, Cheoi-min Park, Seung-jin Hong, Ji-hoon Kim, Hae-Sung Kwon, Tae-Joon Ryu, Sua-a Hong, Lee-won Jong, Jo-jae Yoon. Directed by Hong-sun Kim

I had always thought that the Chinese and Japanese were the masters of the martial arts period movies but of late the Koreans have won a seat at that particular table and this film does nothing to diminish their newly found status.

Kim-Ho (Jung) is a master swordsman for the army of King Yeongjo (Ryu) who has returned home in shame after losing a battle to the rebel armies of In-jwa Lee (Kim) who was captured during the fight. To his  mortification, Kim-Ho is demoted to a prison guard at the equivalent of a federal penitentiary. To make matters worse, he becomes subordinate to his Uncle who has become very disappointed in his nephew, as has Kim-Ho’s daughter who inexplicably winds up going to work with him his first night.

And that first night turns out to be a really bad night for “take your daughter to work” night. In-Jwa Lee’s right hand man and master swordsman in his own right Min-chul Do (Yoon) is dead set on breaking out his boss from jail. The plan is to then take him to the Imperial Palace where he’ll have the opportunity to take out the King and, to his mind, restore the kingdom to righteousness. Did we mention that Yeongjo ascended the throne by poisoning his brother, the rightful heir?

But neither In-jwa nor Min-chul reckoned on the presence of Kim-Ho who is armed only with what is essentially a nightstick, his own sword being taken away by his Uncle who disdainfully explains that he won’t need it. Kim-Ho will have to take on an army nearly by himself, one that is set on killing every living thing in the prison, guards and prisoners alike. Heads will roll (literally) and blood will spill before the night is out.

This is a more than satisfying action film with some spectacular sequences and some nifty swordplay. Jung has become a star in Korea although he is not quite as well-known here in the States; he is better known for his boyish good looks and tends to play more romantic roles. In this film, he starts off with almost a comedic role but as the film wears on becomes a deadly warrior. This is, so far as I know, his first foray into martial arts action star territory and he shows he can handle it ably.

The movie also benefits from a very well-done animated opening that sets the scene, and terrific cinematography throughout, although some of the night scenes are too dimly lit. There’s also a strange penchant to go from color to black and white and back again without any rhyme or reason.

Although some of the characters in the film are historical (and a few based on historical figures) this is largely fiction. While you get a glimpse of Korea’s Joseon era – in many ways their golden age – this isn’t a history lesson per se. However it is massively entertaining and is everything you want from a martial arts historical piece. This doesn’t have American distribution yet and sadly their last screening at the New York Asian Film Festival is this afternoon but keep your eyes peeled for it at your local Asian film festival. Hopefully a savvy distributor specializing in Asian films will pick this one up.

REASONS TO GO: The cinematography is beautiful and the action sequences outstanding.  The movie changes drastically in tone from beginning to end which actually works really well. The animated opening sequence is outstanding.
REASONS TO STAY: There are strange switches from color to black and white without explanation or seeming reason. Some of the sequences are poorly lit.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a whole lot of violence and some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: King Yeongjo was an actual monarch during Korea’s Joseon era who ascended to the throne pretty much the way it was described here in the movie.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/4/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Curse of the Golden Flower
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
The Scythian Lamb

Beirut


It’s hard to tell the good guys from the bad in the desert.

(2018) Thriller (Bleecker Street) Jon Hamm, Rosamund Pike, Mark Pellegrino, Dean Norris, Shea Whigham, Douglas Hodge, Jonny Coyne, Leila Bekhti, Kate Fleetwood, Alon Aboutboul, Larry Pine, Sonia Okacha, Mohamed Zouaoui, Ben Affran, Ian Porter, Idir Chender, Nora Garrett, Mohamed Attougui, Anton Obeid, Jay Potter, Brahim Rachiki, Max Kleinveld. Directed by Brad Anderson

 

Lebanon has a history of being a cosmopolitan, beautiful country. Beirut was once described as the Paris of the Middle East. There were sizable Christian and Muslim communities but in the 1970s with an influx of Palestinian refugees Beirut became a powderkeg that exploded into Civil War that by the 1980s left Beirut the usual analogy for dangerous, hostile places.

Mason Skiles (Hamm) in 1972 was the Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy in Beirut. A disciple of Henry Kissinger, he was the fair-haired boy in the State Department, on his way to an ambassadorship of his own and at the very least becoming a major player in the diplomatic corps. Then, a terrible tragedy leaves his career in tatters and Skiles personally broken.

Fast-forward ahead ten years and Skiles works as an arbitrator in labor negotiations and not a very good one at that. Maybe it’s due to the fact that Skiles has fallen into the bottle and shows no signs of emerging. However, he is summoned to Beirut – the last place on Earth he wants to go – ostensibly to lecture at the American University there but in reality he is savvy enough to know that’s only a cover.

In fact, his good friend Cal (Pellegrino) has been kidnapped by a PLO splinter group and they will only negotiate with Cal for reasons that will become readily apparent. The problem is that Cal, who works for the CIA, knows enough to make life uncomfortable for the agency in the Middle East. Mason soon discovers that everyone in the American embassy seems to have an agenda of their own; nobody is trustworthy, not even the assistant/handler Sandy (Pike) who has been assigned to Mason. Getting Cal back alive will be no easy matter, not will it be easy for Mason to stay that way as well.

Veteran movie fans will note that Tony Gilroy wrote the script and won’t be surprised at the often convoluted plot – nor will it be surprising that the story is interesting throughout. Anderson is a strong director who keeps the pace brisk without going too fast and glossing over things. Despite having a plot that requires some concentration to follow, this is nonetheless an easy movie to watch.

.Hamm has been on my radar ever since he starred in Mad Men and I’ve always thought that he was going to one day be a big movie star; he’s just one good role away. This is the closest he’s come to that role; despite his character being deeply flawed, Hamm makes him sympathetic. He shows a great deal of charisma and onscreen charm from start to finish. In short, he’s the best thing about the movie which is saying something in a movie with Rosamund Pike in it.

The dialogue can be a bit noir-ish (which can be a bad thing) and the flashbacks can be jarring. Most negatively, there are sequences in which handheld cameras are used that are literally jarring. Those are all minuses to be sure but the pluses just edge them out enough to make this worth a shot.

REASONS TO GO: Hamm continues to show off star quality. The pacing is very crisp.
REASONS TO STAY: There are some unnecessary handheld camera sequences. The ending is a bit anti-climactic.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence, profanity and a brief image of nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Both Hodge and Hamm have appeared on the Netflix series Black Mirror.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/11/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 78% positive reviews. Metacritic: 70/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Syriana
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
The Feels