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Films I Neglected To Review: The Wind And The Lying
by Peter Sobczynski

Please enjoy short reviews of "Ash is Purest White," "The Brink," "The Haunting of Sharon Tate," "Knife + Heart," "The Public," "Storm Boy" and "The Wind."

To read the basic description of ''Ash is Purest White,'' the latest work from acclaimed Chinese filmmaker Jia Zhangke, one might expect to find a standard-issue work ticking off the usual crime and romance genre cliches. That kind of stuff is there (though one of the most significant scenes involving a gun comes when it simply falls on the floor of a discotheque) but it only takes a few minutes to discover that not only is Jia attempting to do much more than that, he more than lives up to his outside ambitions with a work that simultaneously charts the evolution of a relationship over the course of the first two decades of this century with the physical and cultural changes hat that have occurred in China over that same time. Qiao (Zhao Tao) is the proud and bold girlfriend of Bin, a mid-level gangster who is neither quite as big nor as powerful as he likes to think he is. Still, they more or less rule the roost in their fairly provincial area of China until Bin is attacked in the street by young punks looking to take him down and Qiao fires an illegally obtained gun into the air to stop it, a move that leads to her being arrested and thrown into prison for five years. When she is released, she enters a world she barely recognizes--a ferry trip down the Yangtze River reveals the construction of the Three Gorges Dam as well as the displacement it has inspired--and is further discombobulated when she discovers that Bin has moved on and wants nothing to do with her. Now forced to live by her wits, Qiao prospers and when she returns to her former home in the present day and is reunited again with Bin, who has been broken both personally and professionally, the ensuing relationship ends up having a much different power balance than in the past.

''Ash is Purest White'' is not a film that is exactly driven by its narrative nor by intense action (though the scene where Bin fights off his attackers in a street brawl is a little masterpiece of expertly staged violence) and anyone focusing on those elements is likely to come away from the film feeling grossly dissatisfied. Instead, Jia is more concerned with charting the passage of time and the ways, both great and small, that it has affected both China and its populace. This is something that he accomplishes to such a startlingly effective degree that even though the actual shooting of the film did not span the nearly 20 years covered in the story a la ''Boyhood,'' there are more than a few moments when it feels as if that was exactly what Jia has done. It may not be ''exciting'' by conventional standards but I found myself absolutely caught up in it for its entire running time. Besides Jia’s stunning skills as a filmmaker and as a storyteller, the film also benefits mightily by the wonderful performance by Zhao, who is Jia’s wife and longtime collaborator and who gets perhaps her finest showcase to date here. Her transformation from swaggering moll with no thought for the future to the more mature woman renegotiating her place in the world is never less than strong, graceful and intelligent throughout. ''Ash is Purest White'' may be a sprawling epic—albeit one grounded more in emotion than spectacle—but Zhao proves to be the beating heart at its center that gives it life and makes it into something that you should not miss.

Why would anyone want to pay good money to watch an alternately vile and vain shitbag--imagine Tommy Wiseau's sex scene in ''The Room'' somehow gaining vaguely sentient form—for 93 minutes? This is the question asked by ''The Brink,'' Alison Klayman's verite-style documentary about conservative propagandist, political consultant and all-around scumbag Stephen K. Bannon, and while it never quite gets around to coming up with a satisfying answer, those in the mood to see a truly monstrous person receive his comeuppance almost entirely at his own hands should find it to be satisfying.. As the film opens, Bannon, whose work as a media provocateur helped land Donald Trump into the White House, has just removed from his position as chief strategist for the administration. Not content to lick his wounds, Bannon continues to push his faux-populist message by meeting with ambitious candidates who are hoping to use his dark magic to land themselves into office--one of the first people that he signs up with is the infamous Roy Moore. When he is cut out from conservative media outlet Brietbart for being too much of a hot potato, Bannon goes off to Europe and, along with his nephew and the editor of Brietbart's London office, he tries to use his methods to help conservative candidates there win elections, usually by adopting some form of anti-immigration rhetoric. Back home, however, he somehow manages to overlook the growing blue wave of voters prepared to rebuke what he sold them two years earlier and by the time it dawns on him that a change is in the air, it proves to be too late.

Why would Bannon, who professes to be one of the great political strategists of all time, consent to having a filmmaker follow him for more than a year and give her seemingly unfettered access as he goes about his sleazy business? Clearly he was under the assumption that he could manipulate Klayman in the same way that he has manipulated so many in the past with his undeniable sense of self-deprecating charm fueled by equal parts ego and Red Bull. Instead of confronting him head-on in a way that might make the resulting film seem too overtly partisan, Klayman prefers to hang back and let Bannon’s own words and actions speak for themselves. In doing so, he essentially hangs himself by demonstrating his message to be little more than offensive rhetorical bluster with absolutely nothing at its center. When Klayman does kick in with a question or observation, they are the kind that he cannot easily wriggle out of--the kind that the mainstream press should have been asking from the beginning--and as he further digs his proverbial grave, you get the sense that even he does not entirely believe what he is selling. For political junkies, ''The Brink'' may prove to be essential, even if you want to take a long ''Silkwood''-style shower afterwards, while others may regard it as an excellent modern illustration of the old saying about how pride goeth before the fall and, hopefully, a suggestion of things to come in another year or so.

Although many have decried Quentin Tarantino's upcoming ''Once Upon a Time in Hollywood'' sight unseen for being a cruel and crass exploitation of the murder of actress Sharon Tate, her unborn baby and several friends at the hands of followers of Charles Manson one August night in 1969, I (and others) am convinced that he has something a little more clever up his sleeve than just a straightforward reenactment of that horrible crime. That said, even if the film turned out to be a minute-by-minute of the entire atrocity set to the collected recordings of the Monkees, it would still not come close to being the most off-putting movie inspired by that crime to emerge this year. That deeply dubious booby prize goes to ''The Haunting of Sharon Tate,'' a spectacularly tasteless and dramatically inept take on the tragedy that tries to add an element of the paranormal to the proceedings in order to goose things up for reasons that elude me. Inspired by a quote that Tate supposedly made in an interview a year before her death in which she allegedly foretold her own violent demise, the film begins as the eight-months-pregnant Sharon (Hillary Duff) returns to her L.A.home while husband Roman Polanski remains in London to work on a script. She is not alone, however, as she has friends Jay Sebring (Jonathan Bennett), Abigail Folger (Lydia Hearst), Wojciech Frykowski (Pawel Szajda) and Steven Parent (Ryan Cargill) to keep her company. She is also haunted by increasingly violent nightmares and delusions (including one paying clumsy homage to Polanski's ''Repulsion'') that have her questioning her sanity. This is all prelude, of course, to the point when Manson’s followers break in and brutally slaughter all of them in excruciating detail. The thing is--this occurs at roughly the half-way point of the movie and it is here that the story takes several turns that will keep viewers in their seats to see how much lower it can possibly go. (Spoiler Alert--a lot lower.)

The film was written and directed by Daniel Farrands, whose previous film, ''The Amityville Murders,'' similarly took a famous and violent crime (the mass murder of an entire family at the hands of the eldest son) and then added a supernatural element to the proceedings that purported to explain what really happened that horrible night. That film was staggeringly awful but it was far too dumb to inspire any real offense. This one, by comparison, is far more repulsive, both in the way that it tries to position Sharon Tate as the unhinged one and by its determination to have its cake and cut it into pieces by giving us both a depiction of the murders as well as a potential alternative timeline in which Tate and her friends make a stand against the violent home invaders. Throw in a screenplay that appears to consist mostly of expository dialogue furnished by a Wikipedia knockoff, incredibly clumsy stylistic choices and some truly dreadful acting (I like Hillary Duff but her work here is so bad that the fact that she doesn’t look or sound a thing like the real Tate is the least of her problems) and you have a movie so trashy and inept and tasteless that even hardcore exploitation buffs will feel gross after watching it.

As controversial as the 1980 thriller ''Cruising'' was in the hands of director William Friedkin, one cannot help but wonder how many additional hackles it would have raised if Brian De Palma, who had once shown interest in the project, had been the one to tackle the violent and sexually explicit tale of a NYC cop going undercover in the city’s S&M gay subculture to ferret out a serial killer. The audacious new French thriller ''Knife + Heart'' seems to have been created by director/co-writer Yann Gonzalez to speculate on what might have resulted if the actual Friedkin version and the speculated De Palma variation were brought together in a combination further bonded by a heaping helping of giallo-style tricks out of the Dario Argento playbook. Set in 1979 in the milieu of the French gay pornography industry, cheapo film producer Anne (Vanessa Paradis) is trying to negotiate both her latest production and her recent breakup with her former lover/current editor Lois (Kate Moran). This becomes a little more difficult when one of the actors of her latest opus is brutally murdered by a masked stranger wielding a dildo with a knife hidden in it. Getting nowhere with the cops, Anne decides to do a more ambitious production inspired by the murder investigation that will feature her latest discovery (Nicolas Maury) but her cast continues to be bumped off one by one. While her increasingly frazzled actors want to stop while they can, Anne is determined to push on even as the body count continues to rise with the inevitable Grand Guignol-style finale occurring during the premiere of the project that is now known, perhaps inevitably, as “Homo-Cidal.”

Needless to say, ''Knife + Heart'' is about as far from a typical crowd-pleaser as you are likely to find in a movie theater these days and those without a high tolerance for fairly graphic sexual content and extreme violence should not even consider going to see it. As for the rest of it, it is easy to pick out a number of serious flaws on display--after the admittedly stunning opening sequence (an extended bit in which the murder of the first actor is juxtaposed with the editor working on cutting a scene that he appeared in) the subsequent murder set pieces never quite rise to that level of inventiveness, the story of the increasingly troubled producer never quite meshes with the mystery aspect and the eventual solution is crazy-go-nuts enough to make some of Argento's own wacko finales seem positively staid and plausible by comparison. That said, while the film does occasionally cross the border into outright silliness, I can’t say that I was ever bored with it and the stuff that I liked--chiefly Gonzalez's impressive appropriation of the standard gallo visual tropes and the performance by the undeniably charismatic Paradis, arguably her finest piece of acting since the vastly underrated ''Girl on the Bridge''--were more than enough to keep me going. Again, ''Knife + Heart'' is not for everybody or even for most people but those who do happen to be on its admittedly twisted wavelength should end up getting a kick out of it.

Emilio Estevez has now directed seven feature films and while he has yet to make one that I would actually recommend seeing, I keep hoping with every new one that he has finally pulled it off because the majority of his efforts are so earnest and well-intentioned that their clumsiness and ham-handedness come off as doubly awkward by comparison. His latest effort, ''The Public,'' is a case in point--a film that has both a good idea and good intentions going for it and absolutely nothing else. Set almost entirely within the confines of the main branch of the Cincinnati Public Library during a severe cold snap, it tells the story of a group of homeless people, who spend their days inside the library in order to stay out of the elements and make use of such services as the Internet, who decide stay in the building after closing time in order to avoid having to spend the night in the brutal cold. This sets up a battle of wills between the library supervisor (Estevez) who is firmly on the side of the occupiers, an ambitious politician (Christian Slater) determined to stop the occupiers in order to burnish his law-and-order credentials, a beleaguered crisis negotiator (Alec Baldwin) who would rather be using his time to search for his missing junkie son (no points for guessing where he turns up) and a news reporter (Gabrielle Union) who tries to gin up the story in order make a name for herself by covering a big story.

As you can see, the pieces are in place for a potentially entertaining and thought-provoking bit of rabble-rousing agitprop designed to shine a light both on the plight of the homeless and the ever-increasing importance that local libraries have begun to play in their communities even as funding for them is continually threatened by outside forces. The trouble is that while the film’s heart is certainly in the right place, its brain is clearly AWOL. Too many of the homeless characters on display--Michael K. Williams as the de-facto leader being the exception--are giving but a single distinguishing characteristic before being pushed to the side so that the Estevez character can take front and center too many times for the film’s own good. Estevez's screenplay further gums up the works by throwing in too many unnecessary side plots (do we really need a subplot about the mild flirtation between Estevez and Taylor Schilling, who turns up as the super of his apartment building?) and more references to ''The Grapes of Wrath'' than the actual film version of ''The Grapes of Wrath.'' There is a good cast here but too many of them seem to just be coasting through as if they are simply returning a favor--only Baldwin makes any discernible impact with a refreshingly dialed-down turn that serves as a reminder that there is still a powerful actor behind the goofy blowhard from SNL and too many YouTube videos to mention. Noble in concept but disastrous in execution, ''The Public'' is pretty much the cinematic equivalent of that old saying about the materials used to construct the proverbial road to hell. Some people might come out of this film feeling good about themselves but I can guarantee that you will feel a whole lot better if you just skip the film and maybe donate the ticket price to your own local library instead so that it can continue with its own good works.

''Storm Boy'' is one of those films that does certain things so right that it is doubly painful to watch all of the stuff that it winds up doing so wrong. Based on the 1963 children’s book by Colin Thiele that was the basis for a 1976 film, both of which are unfamiliar to me but which evidently rate about as highly in their native Australia that the book and film of “The Black Stallion” do here, it tells the story of a young boy named Michael (Finn Little) who, following the tragic death of his mother, now lives on a remote beachfront area with his emotionally wounded father (Jai Courtney). While exploring the beach one day, Michael is befriended by an aboriginal man known as Fingerbone Bill (Trevor Jamieson) and the two come across three pelican babies whose mother was killed by hunters in defiance of a local push for the establishment of a bird sanctuary. Michael rescues the three chicks and, with the help of his father and Fingerbone, nurses them back to health. He eventually returns them to the wild but one, named Mr. Percival, returns and sticks loyally by Michael’s side until outside forces threaten to tear them apart for good.

I confess I have never been a big fan of films involving kids and animals bonding but even I will admit that as long as ''Storm Boy'' sticks to this particular path, it is uncommonly good--the evocation of the largely unspoiled beachfront of the era is lovely without ever becoming too postcard-like, the depiction of the growing bond between the kid and the pelican is quietly convincing and the performances all around are so affecting and convincing that even Jai Courtney, who usually demonstrates all the range and charisma of a piece of treated lumber, is pretty good here. Unfortunately, the film also includes a modern-day frame in which a now-elderly Michael (Geoffrey Rush) is caught in a fight over allowing the company he started to lease precious land to a mining company--his son-in-law wants the deal to go through in order to reap massive profits but his idealistic granddaughter (Morgana Davies) is appalled that he would even contemplate signing off on such a thing. This frame is doubly disastrous because not only does it not add a single compelling element to the proceedings but it also destroys the momentum of the main story by cutting back to the older Michael and his granddaughter at random moments. It is close but the scenes in which ''Storm Boy'' sticks to the central story are so strong and affecting that I am willing to overlook the other stuff and give it a recommendation, though be prepared for a certain degree of restlessness among viewers, young and old alike, whenever it cuts to the present day.

With its admittedly eclectic array of ingredients--how many other horror-western hybrids with unabashed feminist overtones can you name of the top of your head--''The Wind'' is the kind of movie that one initially wants to applaud for no other reason than for its sheer ambition. As it turns out, that is pretty much the only real reason to applaud the film, a stylishly made but ultimately confused work that never comes close to hitting as strongly as one hopes that it might. Set in the late 1800s, the film centers around Lizzy (Caitlin Gerard), a woman who has settled to an especially desolate part of the frontier with her husband, Isaac (Ashley Zuckerman). The living is rough but they have grown used to it, which is more than can be said for their new and only neighbors, former big city resident Emma (Julia Goldani Telles) and her proud but rather inept husband, Gideon (Dylan McTee). Emma does not adjust to the change very well--discovering that she is pregnant doesn’t help matters much--and she becomes convinced that there is an evil presence contained within the ever-present brutal wind. Lizzy tries to convince Emma that it is all in her mind but when things take a turn for the tragic and she is left alone for several days, Lizzy begins to experience a number of increasingly terrifying disturbances that point to something else.

This isn't a bad premise for a film and there are stretches when you can sort of imagine the kind of atmospheric slow-burn wonder that director Emma Tammi, a documentarian making her narrative debut, presumably had in mind. The trouble is that the screenplay by Teresa Sutherland has inexplicably elected to recount the story in a non-linear fashion that seems to have chosen in order to allow the scares to be parceled out throughout rather than having nearly all of them turn up in the back half. Although the opening sequence is certainly jarring and effective, the gimmick offers fewer rewards as the film goes on as the slow burn approach that Tammi is going for is constantly being intruded upon by leaps back and forth in continuity. The film is definitely trying to do something different and the performance by Gerard is good enough to more or less survive the time-shifts intact but after so much narrative huffing and puffing, ''The Wind'' eventually winds up blowing itself down.

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originally posted: 04/05/19 08:34:11
last updated: 04/05/19 09:00:54
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