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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Billy Mize and the Bakersfield Sound


Cowboy elegance.

Cowboy elegance.

(2014) Music Documentary (Old City) Billy Mize, Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, Dave Alvin, Ray Price, Buddy Neal, Maxine Crofford, Buddy Mize, Rose Vegas Waters, Gerald Haslam, Tommy Hays, Red Simpson, Cliff Crofford, Martha Mize, Karen Mize, Jimmy Phillips, Scott B. Bomar, Ray Urquhart, Bobby Durham, Monty Byrom, Dr. Diane Kendall, Dr. Jay Rosenbek, Dr. Ricardo Gonzalez, Leslie Gonzalez-Rothi. Directed by William J. Saunders

Florida Film Festival 2015

Even for country music fans, the name of Billy Mize isn’t necessarily a familiar one. One of the progenitors of the Bakersfield Sound, which came to rival that of Nashville on the country music scene in the 50s (and continues to be a huge influence on modern country music even today), he helped launch the careers of Merle Haggard and Buck Owens, both of whom made their television debuts on television shows in the Los Angeles-area that Mize hosted.

Mize had all the tools to be huge himself; good looks, a self-effacing downhome attitude, legitimate talent both in musicianship and songwriting and a silky smooth voice. However, he made a choice early on to forego touring and concentrate on television as a means of promotion in order to stay close to his family. It’s not easy to say whether Mize was aware of the cost of that decision, but certainly it did contribute to him not achieving the status he should have had.

His life wasn’t one of glamour and prestige although he lived comfortably enough; it was one that had a great deal of heartache. He performed until he was 59 years old, when a massive stroke robbed him of his voice. I can’t imagine a hell any more terrible for a singer than to be without a voice.

Yet he still manages today, performing on guitar at local clubs in the Bakersfield area where he continues to live. His ex-wife Martha remains a loyal friend, sitting next to him during interviews for this film in which he speaks haltingly but displays a great deal of humor.

Most of the film revolves around an impending tribute concert at Buck Owen’s theater in Bakersfield on the occasion of his 80th birthday. He had been continuing speech therapy in an effort to sing again and was hoping to sing for the first time onstage in more than 20 years at the concert as a kind of birthday present to himself, his fans and his colleagues.

It should be said that the music here is mostly Mize although we do get some performances of other artists performing Mize’s songs. This kind of country music may not be your cup of tea – it isn’t mine – but I found myself appreciating it more than I expected. Part of the attraction, I think, is knowing that this is some of the finest music of the Bakersfield variety that has ever been performed.

Buck Owens is, for many, the mainstay of the Bakersfield scene and he certainly brought the sound into the mainstream, but he isn’t as well-regarded within the community as either Mize or Merle Haggard. I found that interesting to say the least. It should also be said that there are plenty of performers outside of Bakersfield who appreciate and are influenced by Mize .

Mize is regarded with affection by many in the country music community, particularly those who are based on the West Coast. As an influence, the man looms large in Bakersfield and beyond. As they illustrate in the movie, the Bakersfield sound originated in honky-tonks more than in recording studios and the music was built for people to dance. While the movie relies a bit overly much on standard documentary format and too much on talking head interviews, it certainly will motivate even those (like myself) who aren’t particular fans of country music to get up and dance for a man whose story deserves celebration.

REASONS TO GO: Compelling story about a performer many have forgotten. Surprisingly relevant music.
REASONS TO STAY: Relies too much on talking heads. Those who hate country music will likely not find a reason to watch this.
FAMILY VALUES: Some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Saunders is actually the grandson of Billy Mize.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/21/15: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Muscle Shoals
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Mad Max: Fury Road

Last Vegas


What happens in Vegas...

What happens in Vegas…

(2013) Comedy (CBS) Michael Douglas, Robert De Niro, Morgan Freeman, Kevin Kline, Mary Steenburgen, Jerry Ferrara, Romany Malco, Roger Bart, Joanna Gleeson, Michael Ealy, Bre Blair, April Billingsley, Stephen Scott Scarpula, Andrea Moore, Noah Harden, RJ Fattori, Aaron Bantum, Phillip Wampler, Olivia Stuck, Ashley Spillers, Karen Ceesay, 50 Cent. Directed by Jon Turteltaub

When I was a kid, 30 sounded pretty old to me. When I was a teen, 40 was over the hill. In my 20s, I thought that decrepitude started at 60. Now half a century on in my life, I realize that age is just a number, but aging is inevitable for all of us.

How we age largely depends on how we feel about aging. Some of us continue to be active and do things, get out of the house and live full bore as much as they did in their 30s. Others give in to their aches and pains, hunker down where they live and wait for the end of life to claim them. We do have a choice in the matter, although sometimes we are dealt some pretty nasty hands.

Friends since their boyhoods in Brooklyn, the Flatbush Four have gone their separate ways but the kind of friendship they had 60 years earlier has endured for the most part. Billy (Douglas) is the ladies man and the confirmed bachelor of the bunch. He’s a big successful Hollywood type and at last has met someone that he is willing to marry, although his proposal is  a bit unorthodox. Never mind that he’s in his 70s and his fiancée is just barely 30. Love happens when it does.

He can’t wait to share it with his friends and immediately calls Archie (Freeman), recovering from a minor stroke in the home of his overprotective son Ezra (Ealy) and Sam (Kline), who is suffering from depression and can’t seem to get motivated to be happy about anything. Everyone agrees that an epic bachelor party in Vegas, thrown the way only the Flatbush Four can, is in order.

The fourth member however, Paddy (De Niro) is conspicuously missing. That’s because there’s a great deal of bad blood between him and Billy that has caused a gigantic rift between them in the past year. Paddy is also mourning the death of his lovely wife Sophie, the unofficial fifth member of their childhood group and basically stays at home in his bathrobe much of the day, other than to receive a regular dosing of really bad soup from his well-meaning neighbor. Getting him to Sin City is going to take some doing.

However all of them manage to make it there one way or another. Sam arrives with a blue pill and a condom that was given to him by his epically understanding wife who tells him “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.” She misses the fun-loving guy she married and hopes that a fling in Vegas will bring that guy back.

Things are still awkward between Paddy and Billy but they manage to get around it as they find ways to party on. They also meet a sexy sixtyish chanteuse named Diana (Steenburgen) who has reinvented herself from being a tax lawyer. All four of the men are immediately drawn to her including the prospective groom.

Their VIP host at the Aria, Lonnie (Malco), helps them put together the kind of party that even the most jaded Vegas performers will remember forever, with a female impersonator (Bart) with a surprising secret, as well as Cirque du Soleil performers, a bachelorette party and even a cameo appearance from Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson. They even have their own personal gopher (Ferrara, with a completely different kind of Entourage). But history is threatening to repeat itself. Can their friendship withstand Las Vegas and more to the point, will Las Vegas survive the Flatbush Four?

There’s no need to tell you that this is an impressive cast. Any one of the four male leads would make this a movie I’d be eager to see. Even though I had reservations about the plot and the script, I still wanted to see this just to see Douglas, De Niro, Kline and Freeman all perform. This isn’t the best work of any one of them – nor did I expect it would be. Still, they’re all pros (as is Steenburgen) and they all give performances that won’t disappoint anybody beyond the most jaded and cold-hearted of critics.

The script is as you might have guessed from the trailer not particularly scintillating. They aren’t re-inventing the wheel here nor do they have to. While I could wish they would have pumped up the funny a little bit, the personality of the leads more than makes up for it. While there are some off-putting moments (a male crotch gyrating in De Niro’s face during a bikini contest), for the most part there is nothing terribly sinful going on.

What surprised me was how touching the script was. These aren’t geriatric actors doing the standard old man gags. You know the sort – the kind that are like “Tee hee hee. Oh look at the adorable old man, he’s so horny, he’s using drugs, he doesn’t know how to use a computer tee hee hee.” Something tells me if the Flatbush Four had been anything like that, they wouldn’t have gotten actors of the caliber that they did. These are men dealing with the sorts of things the those entering old age actually deal with – grief, loneliness, a loss of virility/sexuality, being treated like an imbecile and/or porcelain doll by the well-meaning.

While the comedy might appeal to those who don’t see a lot of movies, it’s that charm of treating the aging with respect that won me over. Yeah, watching Freeman bust a move after drinking a Red Bull and Vodka in a Vegas nightclub might have been a bit patronizing but for the most part, it is the friendship between the Four that endures and makes this movie worth seeking out. It isn’t the greatest movie you’ll see this year, but it will be better than you’d expect – unless you fall under the jaded and cold-hearted category.

REASONS TO GO: Five veteran pros (the four leads and Steenburgen). Surprisingly heartwarming.

REASONS TO STAY: Fairly cliché and the humor is a bit low-key for modern comedies.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s a bit of sexual content and a few bad words.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The scenes set in Brooklyn were actually filmed in Atlanta.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/13/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 44% positive reviews. Metacritic: 48/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Grumpy Old Men

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT:

Quartet (2012)


Professor McGonagall at the Hogwart's 50th Class Reunion.

Professor McGonagall at the Hogwart’s 50th Class Reunion.

(2013) Dramedy (Weinstein) Maggie Smith, Tom Courtenay, Billy Connolly, Pauline Collins, Michael Gambon, Sheridan Smith, Andrew Sachs, Dame Gwyneth Jones, Trevor Peacock, Michael Byrne, Ronnie Fox, Patricia Loveland, Eline Powell. Directed by Dustin Hoffman

Going from the spotlight to obscurity must be an incredibly hard situation to accept, particularly when it is age that has relegated you thus. Even the most beautiful and bucolic of environments may pale when compared to the limelight.

Beecham House in the English countryside is certainly a beautiful environment. Named for the noted British conductor Sir Thomas Beecham, it is now a retirement home for professional musicians – opera singers, popular vocalists, chamber musicians and the like. Like many such institutions, it faces economic difficulties and relies on benefit concerts staged by its residents, many of whom still have names that resonate on the English music scene.

The upcoming concert marking the birthday of Giusseppe Verdi is the occasion for a kind of organized panic overseen by Cedric Livingston (Gambon) – who pronounces his first name See-dric, not Seh-dric as he reminds Wilf Bond (Connolly) regularly to his great exasperation.

Otherwise, things are pretty much as normal at Beecham House where friends and colleagues Wilf, Reggie Paget (Courtenay) and Cissy Robson (Collins) live a quiet life of looking back. Wilf though is just as concerned with chasing skirt as his libido remains in full flower even if the bloom has withered a bit on the rose. Cissy is growing increasingly forgetful but it is just a part of the indignities of old age. The somewhat courtly Reggie gives lectures to opera to schoolchildren who are more interested in rap. Everything is more or less peaceful.

But things are turned upside down on themselves and into an uproar when the pretty but harried Dr. Lucy Cogan (S. Smith) introduces the newest resident – the diva Jean Horton (M. Smith), one of the most famous and beloved opera singers of her day. However, she had a tumultuous marriage to Reginald that ended with her infidelity. They haven’t spoken in decades.

But worse still Cedric wants a reunion between Jean, Reggie, Wilf and Cissy whose quartet of Rigoletto‘s “Bella figlia dell’amore” was one of opera’s greatest moments ever and has recently been re-released on compact disc – which in itself is a bit anachronistic. Jean however wants no part of it and Reggie while understanding that the revenue such a reunion would generate might well save their home is understandably unenthusiastic for such a grouping. However, he’s game and sets out to change the mind of the diva.

Cissy for some reason seems particularly motivated to see it happen and she befriends Jean who seems somewhat lost and soon the reason for Jean’s reluctance becomes clear – she’s terrified that her voice is gone, that in doing this performance her fans will always remember her for a last debacle instead of the great career she enjoyed. And as the time draws nigh for the performance, it appears certain that there may not be a home for her to live in for much longer.

This is Hoffman’s directorial debut (technically he directed Straight Time for a few days back in 1978 but withdrew after he found it too difficult to direct and act simultaneously – he doesn’t appear hear as an actor for that reason) and he chose his material wisely. As a director he’s smart enough to keep things fairly simple; there aren’t a lot of camera tricks here, the storytelling is simple and elegant. While he doesn’t show anything extraordinary neither does he make any mistakes.

This is based on a play by screenwriter Ronald Harwood, a Hollywood veteran whose résumé includes The Dresser, The Pianist and Being Julia. Like many of his works, Quartet shows Harwood’s fascination for performers and their venues. This shows performers in the twilight of their careers which you’d almost expect from Harwood who is himself a septuagenarian.

The material here holds some interest but it is the actors who really elevate the work. Connolly, one of Scotland’s great treasures, is at his very best here – a charming Lothario who has no problem expressing his sexuality, seemingly fascinated that he still has any. Wilf claims that a stroke left him without any sort of filter so he says what’s on his mind which the others seemingly forgive him for, although the wily Scot may well be just saying that so he doesn’t have to waste time and energy prevaricating.

But Courtenay will be the one I remember here. His quiet gentility has a timeless quality to it. When I think of English gentlemen, it is Reginald Paget that will come to mind. He’s polite and gentle, but also shows fits of outrage and wounded pride from time to time. More than the others he’s accepted who he is and his place in the universe. His mind is still active and seeks to learn more about the world around him but he isn’t especially eager to seek out the world in general. He wants a “dignified senility,” he tells Wilf and you can imagine nothing but for him. Courtenay is one of those actors who has appeared onscreen only periodically over the years but every time he does you find yourself wishing he would appear more often.

Maggie Smith, who received a Golden Globe nomination for her work here, delivers a haunting performance as a diva who is terrified of a future of anonymity and decay. “I used to be someone, you know” she says and it is perfectly clear how important that status was to her, to be someone. Her harsh exterior hides that insecurity that she’ll be forgotten in the end, a fate worse than death for someone like Jean. Smith, who last year performed in Best Exotic Marigold Hotel which some have (quite erroneously I think) compared this to, shows once again her extraordinary range as an actress. There are a lot of layers to the character and she nails them all, never hitting a single false note.

Veterans Gambon and Collins also deliver in their roles. Hoffman in a showing of finesse, fills much of the cast with actual retired British musicians and in a bit of a grace note during the end credits shows the mostly elderly cast with their stage credits along with pictures of them from their glory days. Hoffman shows some promise as a director if this acting thing doesn’t work out for him.

I found myself really liking this movie early on from the absolutely magnificent gardens and spaces in Beecham House and environs to the charm of the actors. While there were a few spots which seemed to be a bit on the too-sweet side, for the most part this is a really good movie that has to do with aging gracefully which I suppose anyone could do if they had a place like Beecham House to do it in – a place filled with music in all hours and in all corners. I could certainly retire happily to a place like that.

REASONS TO GO: Connolly is a gem. Courtenay, Smith and Collins are very much underrated who make the most out of every opportunity. Gambon is marvelous. Beautifully shot.

REASONS TO STAY: Can get treacly in places.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are a few bad words here and there and some mildly sexual suggestive dialogue.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the second movie of the same title that Maggie Smith has been in; the first Quartet came out in 1981 and is completely unrelated to this one.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/5/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 79% positive reviews. Metacritic: 64/100; solid reviews here.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: How About You?

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

NEXT: Intermedio

Amour (2012)


Love can be a scary, terrifying thing.

Love can be a scary, terrifying thing.

(2012) Drama (Sony Classics) Jean-Louis Trintignant, Emmanuelle Riva, Isabelle Huppert, Alexandre Tharaud, William Shimell, Ramon Agirre, Rita Blanco, Carole Franck, Dinara Drukarova, Laurent Capelluto, Jean-Michel Monroc, Suzanne Schmidt, Damien Jouillerot, Walid Akfir. Directed by Michael Haneke

For most of us, our fondest wish is to find someone to grow old with. We look at growing old as a pleasant thing, our hair turning white and our skin wrinkled, holding hands with our loved one as we are surrounded with children and grandchildren, living lives in retirement of quiet pride in a life well-lived.

Growing old though is no golden-hued trip down an autumnal lane. It’s not for the faint of heart and even though we may have the company of someone we love, it isn’t necessarily a Hallmark card.

Police break down the doors in a Paris apartment and are immediately are met by an unpleasant stench. They search the room and find a decomposing corpse. There had been a nurse but she hadn’t been seen around lately. Mail had been piling up.

We flash back and see a piano concert. More to the point, we see the audience, rapt and moved by the impassioned playing of Alexandre (Tharaud), who is a former pupil of Anne (Riva). She and her husband Georges (Trintignant), both Parisian music teachers now retired and in their 80s, attend the recital and go backstage to greet Alexandre but he is surrounded by well-wishers and so they leave gracefully and return home.

At breakfast though, Anne suddenly stops reacting. Her mind seems to go away and when it comes back she has no memory of having gone despite several long minutes having passed. Georges is concerned but Anne has a pathological fear of hospitals…but when she has a major stroke, she is forced to stay at one for awhile. When she returns home, her right side is paralyzed.

At first it’s a bloody inconvenience. Anne is still much the same forceful, strong woman she’s always been but now she must rely on Georges for more and more. Soon it becomes necessary to hire a nurse (Franck). Georges and Anne’s daughter Eva (Huppert) who is a touring musician herself, visits from New York with her obsequious English husband Geoff (Shimell) and is aghast but seems more concerned with the physical deterioration than with the emotional burden that both George and Anne are bearing. They both know where this is going and how it inevitably is going to end.

This is the Austrian submission for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar this year although it was filmed in Paris and French is predominantly spoken (some dialogue is in English). Haneke is an Austrian and the film was produced by French, German and Austrian sources. It also is the rare movie that also netted a Best Picture nomination – every movie that previously got that double nomination has won the Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award. Riva also has a Best Actress nomination while Haneke got Best Director and Best Screenwriter nominations as well.

The story is a very personal one for Haneke who watched it happen in his own family. Nearly all the action (other than the scenes in the recital hall early in the film) takes place in the apartment and in that circumstance the movie could easily feel stage-y or claustrophobic but it never does. This has become their entire world. It gives us a good sense of how their world begins to shrink down to just the two of them.

Riva is amazing here. It’s a gutsy performance because there is no glamour whatsoever to it other than initially. The indignities of becoming infirm are well on display and Riva, best known here for her sexy turn in Hiroshima Mon Amour shows them with an unblinking eye, allowing you to share in her despair and frustration. She’s been one of France’s top actresses for half a century and here you see why.

Trintignant came out of semi-retirement to act in this movie. Also one of France’s leading thespians (with astonishing performances in A Man and a Woman, Z and Red) his performance here is central to the film. It is harder to watch the deterioration of a loved one than to be the one deteriorating in many ways, and you can see his pain and frustration in his eyes. His work here has largely been overshadowed by Riva’s and in all honesty deservedly so but that doesn’t make his performance any less important or less commendable.

The scene in the concert hall is masterful and I think a fairly defining shot for Haneke. We don’t see the performance but merely the reactions to it. We are voyeurs as it were, watching the watchers Georges and Anne among them, their faces drawing you to them even though at that point in the movie you don’t know who they are. While the scene may appear to be innocuous and non-germane to the overall story, it’s a moment that stays with you and then long after the credits role you realize that Haneke was telling you what your own role in the movie is about to be. It’s brilliant and reminds me once again why he’s perhaps the best filmmaker in the world that you’ve never heard of.

This is one of last year’s most acclaimed movies and justifiably so. There are some shocks and some moments that may be uncomfortable for you – it can be argued that we are given too much access. There are those who will find Anne’s deterioration depressing but to be truthful it is a part of life. Old age as I said earlier isn’t necessarily a Hallmark card. It’s indignity and infirmity, aches and pains, organs breaking down and senses not working right. It is a natural progression in our lives but it isn’t an easy one.

The title is well-considered. Love is easily described as never having to say you’re sorry but that’s just the Hollywood version. In truth love is not those easy moments where you have make-up sex, or a snuggly Sunday morning. Love is caring for your partner when they are incapable of caring for themselves. Love is changing the diaper on the woman you used to make love to. Love is hearing them berate you and understanding it’s the situation and the pain talking and refusing to respond in kind. Love is being there until the bitter end and sometimes, doing something so painful that your soul shrivels and dies inside you but if it takes away the pain of the one you love, it’s worth it.

REASONS TO GO: Thought-provoking. Deals with real world issues in a relationship and in aging.

REASONS TO STAY: Some may find it a bit depressing although they will be missing the point if they do.

FAMILY VALUES:  The themes are very adult. There is one scene that is graphic and disturbing. There are a few bad words and a brief scene of nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Riva is the oldest woman to be nominated for an Oscar at 83; she received her nomination the same day that Quvenzhane Wallis became the youngest nominee at age 9 for Beasts of the Southern Wild.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/20/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 94/100; the reviews are excellent.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Away From Her

FINAL RATING: 9.5/10

NEXT: The Myth of the American Sleepover