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

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The Blood of Wolves (Korô no chi)


Sometimes you can’t tell the cops from the criminals.

(2018) Crime Drama (Toei) Kôji Yakusho, Tôri Matsuzaka, Gorô Ibuki, Yoko Maki, Yôsuke Eguchi, Hajime Inoue, Megumi, Tarô Suruga, Renji Ishibashi, Takuma Otoo, Kyûsaku Shimada, Junko Abe, Marie Machida, Takahiro Kuroishi, Eiji Takigawa, Pierre Taki, Shun Nakayama, Joey Iwanaga, Tomorô Taguchi, Ken’Ichi Takitô, Tomoya Nakamura, Katsuya, Issei Okihara. Directed by Kazuya Shiraishi

In movies there are actual touchstones; Hitchcock for thrillers, Chaplin for comedies, Ford for Westerns and Scorsese for gangster movies. Scorsese himself was influenced in turn by Asian crime dramas which in its own way is somewhat ironic and circular.

Shiraishi says that the 1973-74 five part series Battles Without Honor and Humanity was his main influence for his work but that in turn was influenced by some of Scorsese’s earlier work such as Mean Streets. This film, based on the novel of the same Japanese name, is set in Hiroshima in 1988 at the height of a gang war. The Odani-gumi Yakuza gang have been in control for 14 years; the Machiavellian leader of the Irako-kai gang (Ishibashi) has cut a deal with the volatile leader (Shimada) of the Kakomura-gumi to retake the territory the Irako-kai had lost – and then some.

Trying to stave off what would be another bloody gang war is a cop as rumpled as the packs of cigarettes he smokes incessantly Shogo Ogami (Yakusho) who has just been saddled with a naive straight arrow partner named Shuichi Hioka (Matsuzaka). They are investigating the disappearance of an accountant from a financial institution that is actually a Yakuza money laundering front. As tensions between rival gangs grow, Ogami – who never met a rule he wasn’t willing to break – utilizes informants including his best friend Ginji Takii (Taki) who is a low-level guy for the Odani-gumi to get closer to the rival gangs. Soon Hioka suspects that Ogami is protecting the Ogami as well as himself – there are rumors that the last gang war ended because Ogami, then a uniformed officer, murdered a top man for the Irako-kai. That has been neither forgotten nor forgiven.

In between chasing down sadistic Yakuza and indifferent bureaucrats, Ogami and Hioka hang out in a bar administered by the beautiful but volatile Rikako (Maki) whose past is key to the last gang war and what is leading to the next. Sake will flow and blood will spill – sometimes in buckets – in this brutal, bloody Yakuza film.

Very often during a movie there will be periods where my interest wanes and my attention will wander a little bit. Not so with The Blood of Wolves – there wasn’t a moment that my attention wasn’t focused to the goings-on onscreen. While there is a fairly large cast of characters and many are essentially disposable Yakuza foot soldiers and cops, the main characters are well-developed and especially veteran actor Yakusho deliver some marvelous performances.

As here in America, the gangster film has fallen on hard times in Japan. Once a staple of their film industry, in recent years the Yakuza film has been relegated to the periphery. This particular one is old school and has that epic quality that the best films of such genre greats as Scorsese and Coppola possessed. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t some good examples of the genre still being made in the Land of the Rising Sun and this is an example of it. It has already screened at the New York Asian Film Festival this year but as the powerhouse Toei studio is behind it there is a pretty good chance further American audiences will get a chance to see it and this is absolutely worth seeing; it is one of the highlights of the Festival this year.

REASONS TO GO: The comparisons to Scorsese are unavoidable in a good way. The story keeps you riveted to the screen. Yakusho gives a compelling performance.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the violence may be too much for the squeamish.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a ton of brutal violence and some over-the-top gore; there is also plenty of profanity, some nudity, sexual situations and references and drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie is based on a novel that is itself a fictionalized version of a  actual gang war that took place in Hiroshima and the neighboring suburb of Kure.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/9/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Gangster’s Daughter
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Rock in the Red Zone

Destined


In any reality, there are some guys you just don’t mess with.

(2016) Drama (XLRator) Cory Hardrict, Margot Bingham, Robert Christopher Riley, Jesse Metcalfe, Jason Dohring, Hill Harper, Zulay Henao, Mo McRae, La La Anthony, Demonte Thompson, Paula Devicq, James McCaffrey, Curtiss Cook, Robert Forte Simpson III, David Bianchi, Terri Partyka, Ricky Wayne, Sarab Kamoo, Martavious Grayles, Karen Minard. Directed by Qasim Basir

 

There is a theory that there are an uncountable number of realities, each one changing due to a different outcome in a pivotal moment; a choice made, a road not taken. Every outcome creates its own reality. This was explored somewhat in the romance Sliding Doors in which a missed train led to life-changing consequences for Gwyneth Paltrow.

Here, a young teen drug courier flees from the police. In one reality, he escapes and goes on to become Sheed (Hardrict), a ruthless drug kingpin who rules urban Detroit with the help of his volatile right hand man Cal (Riley). In the other, he stumbles and is caught by the police, straightens out his life and becomes an architect Rasheed (also Hardrict) who with the encouragement of close friend Calvin (also Riley) prepares to demolish his old neighborhood and erect gentrified condominiums in its place.

The two realities are differentiated by camera filters; in the Sheed story there is a warm, orange filter; in the Rasheed story the filter is more of a cool blue. Once you figure out the difference, it is generally pretty easy to tell which story is which although occasionally there is some confusion which might just be a continuity issue.

I did like the concept a great deal, which is meant to illustrate how a seemingly random change can have an earth-shattering effect on an individual life but some of the differences between the two realities seem to be inexplicable. In the Rasheed reality, Dylan Holder (Metcalfe) is a corrupt corporate type who works with Rasheed; in the Sheed reality, he is a relentless police officer looking to put an end to the reign of a drug boss. It doesn’t make sense that an arrest could have such a polarizing effect on Holder. Also, in the Rasheed reality his mother (Devicq) is a drug addict reaping the benefits of her son’s underworld status; in the other she is supportive and clean. How would her son’s arrest change her from a junkie to mother of the year?

In a lot of ways the Rasheed tale is much more interesting than the more generic Sheed story. The erosion of Rasheed’s conscience in the name of ambition resonates with me more. We’ve seen characters like Sheed in a number of thug life movies and he doesn’t really add a whole lot to the mix. Rasheed on the other hand is someone who is struggling between making a better life for himself but begins to wonder if the cost is too high. Most of us have to choose from time to time between the greater good and self-interest.

In each reality, Sheed/Rasheed are ambitious and ruthless, both willing to do whatever it takes to make that big score that will set him up for life. In each reality, he is pining for Maya (Bingham), a childhood friend who is trying to better herself. Either way, Sheed/Rasheed has an appointment with a loaded gun which seems to indicate that no matter what you do or how you live, you’re still going to end up at the same destination which seems to defeat the purpose of the whole film.

Hardrict is a compelling presence who could join actors like Michael B. Jordan, Chadwick Boseman and John Boyega as big stars. He shows some rough edges here but with a little more experience and the right roles he has unlimited potential. His is definitely a name to remember coming out of this film.

Basir also utilizes the bleak urban war zone landscape of Detroit to full effect; in the Rasheed stories, he shows a dilapidated high rise being torn down as a kind of metaphor. The Sheed storyline packs a few too many clichés of the urban crime drama – the hip hop club where drug lords go to have a few drinks with their entourage, glare at one another, start wars with one another and argue with their nagging girlfriends. They don’t seem to be there to have a good time as we never see much dancing. There’s also the hotheaded pal who becomes a rival for power within his own gang. And so on. And so forth.

This is far from being a complete success. There are definitely signs of talent and imagination behind the camera and in front of it but Basir and crew don’t quite pull together a solid movie. Part of the issue is that the two stories don’t intertwine well; they need to flow together more smoothly and harmonize, each story complimenting the other. Often the movement from one story to the other seems somewhat arbitrary and without purpose. When the final credits roll, the viewer is left wondering what the point of the movie was other than as acting as an exercise in filmmaking that will lead to bigger and better things for all involved. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but it’s hard to recommend for viewing a movie that at times feels like a practice run.

REASONS TO GO: The concept is a good one, although not original. Basir does a good job of delineating between the two realities.
REASONS TO STAY: There are a lot of stock urban crime tropes. The ending is somewhat anti-climactic.
FAMILY VALUES: There are all sorts of profanity, violence, sexuality and occasional drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: One of the producers is Rick Rosenthal, director of two movies in the Halloween franchise.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/19/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Sliding Doors
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Big Sonia

The Godfather


Marlon Brando teaches Al Pacino how to make an offer nobody can refuse.

Marlon Brando teaches Al Pacino how to make an offer nobody can refuse.

(1972) Drama (Paramount) Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, Diane Keaton, James Caan, Robert Duvall, Richard Castellano, Abe Vigoda, Sterling Hayden, John Marley, Richard Conte, Al Lettieri, Talia Shire, Gianni Russo, John Cazale, Al Martino, Ruby Bond, Morgana King, Lenny Montana, Simonetta Stefanelli, Alex Rocco, John Martino. Directed by Francis Ford Coppola

There are a number of film buffs in the world who would say that The Godfather is the greatest motion picture ever made and they’d have a pretty compelling defense of their assertion to offer. There’s no doubt that the movie is a cinematic classic, if not the very best then for sure among them. This movie which had a good deal of trouble getting made and saw production nearly shut down at least twice had to overcome incredible odds just to make it in front of the camera at all.

The Godfather is cinematic opera, passionate and full of tragedy and triumph. Certainly it had its share of controversy – there are Italian-Americans even today who feel the movie reinforced negative stereotypes about the Italians as Mafiosi, largely violent and criminal minded with all of the women being tramps or mamas. It’s not exactly a fair complaint but there is some merit to it.

That there were (and maybe still are) families like this is certain. However, the Corleone family has influenced nearly every crime family depicted on the big screen and small ever since – there would be no Sopranos without them. However not every Italian family has interests in illegal gambling, black market sales and prostitution. It is only a small number that do but there is something fascinating about them. Perhaps it’s that fierce devotion to their families which in their cases comes with a healthy “up yours” to everyone else’s family. As Don Vito himself explains, their family is merely providing a service. Things people want and maybe even need. In a just world, these things would not be illegal. However, they are and so it falls to the bold and the strong to provide them. At least, that’s how I think he justifies what he does.

This is a cast that comes together only once in a lifetime; Brando as the wily and powerful Vito Corleone who plays him with an odd vulnerability that shows through unexpectedly; Caan as the hotheaded Sonny who is as ruthless as he is fiercely devoted. Pacino as the coldly logical Michael, a war hero who didn’t want to be part of the family business until circumstances dictated otherwise. Keaton as Michael’s WASP girlfriend who acts as the audience surrogate, an outsider allowed access to a dangerous and fiercely private world. Cazale as Fredo, the oldest brother and the weakest. Duvall as the consigliere, the legal arm of the Corleone family and often the voice of reason. Castellano and Vigoda as the underlings, genteel and sweet old men on the outside but killers on the inside. Martino as the Hollywood star who the Don owns. Rocco as Moe Green, the Vegas casino owner who discovers he’s not as powerful as he thinks he is. Montana as the fearsome Luca Brazzi.

There are so many memorable moments in this movie that it’s impossible to even list them all. Murder and mayhem discussed at the family dinner table. Scenes of incredible violence and incredible tenderness. Tragedy on an operatic scale and triumph on a lavish scale. The montage of murder during the christening of Michael’s godson and nephew is perhaps the best scene in any movie ever. It’s so well-choreographed and so well-directed that you can only sit back breathlessly and admire it. There have been numerous attempts to duplicate it but none have ever even come close.

If you haven’t seen this movie – and chances are you have – this should be the next one you make a point of renting or streaming. If you love movies, I’m officially giving you the excuse you need to revisit it. Either way, you owe it to yourself to spend an evening with the Corleone family. Pass the marinara.

WHY RENT THIS: A must-see for everyone who loves movies. One of the best (if not the best) of all time.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some may find the violence off-putting.

FAMILY VALUES:  Lots and lots of bloody violence, foul language, sexuality and some nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: There is actually a town in Sicily called Corleone and Al Pacino’s maternal grandparents actually emigrated from there. However by the 1970s the town was too developed to be used in a 1940s period so filming set in Corleone was actually done in the village of Savoca, outside of Taormina.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: Be warned that editions which contain the individual films tend to be fairly sparse with extras. If you’re looking for extras you’re better off picking up the trilogy boxed sets in either DVD or Blu-Ray which include some scintillating material as it relates to the trilogy plus it is a cost-effective way to get all three films in the saga. However if you want to skip the third film and are just interested in the movies themselves without the bells and whistles, buying them individually is the way to go.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $245.1M on a $6M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Citizen Kane

FINAL RATING: 10/10

NEXT: Homefront