JUST MERCY offers inspiration and urgency but wants for a nuanced dissection of hope

Based on a true story, ‘Just Mercy’ is at its most effective when it highlights the disconcerting ways the bar of justice and decency for black people is lowered to upsettingly low levels. It tells the story of Harvard law graduate Bryan Stevenson’s (Michael B. Jordan) idealist charge towards righting some wrongs on the death rows in 1980s Alabama prisons.

Probably the film’s most affecting moment when Bryan meets a black prisoner and delivers a simple message to him. Bryan tells the prisoner he won’t be facing execution within the next 12 months. “That’s the best news I’ve heard in a long time” the prisoner replies as he holds back the tears. Bryan looks on with a hint of bewilderment as we get a sense of how scarce and precious a commodity hope is.

Hope is also very fraught here, a byproduct of the oppression in a racist penal system and society. The first of many victims of a broken America we meet is Walter “Johnny D” McMillan (Jamie Foxx), who is picked up by police one night on his way from his work for a murder he didn’t commit. Director Destin Daniel Cretton films this encounter with minimal fuss as the groundwork is laid for not only Foxx’s understated but stellar performance but also the sense of urgency that accompanies such stories.

By the time Bryan catches up with him a few years down the line, Johnny D is facing death by the electric chair after being wrongly convicted of the murder of a white woman. He is also wallowing in cynicism after being failed by a few other lawyers. This cynicism puts a dent in Bryan’s confidence. Indeed, audiences may be tempted to surrender to Johnny D’s exhaustion and resignation to the corrupt system as he delivers a distressing manifesto of the disenfranchised.

All this happens in the first 20 or so minutes and by the time Johnny D walks away from his first meeting with Bryan, ‘Just Mercy’ feels like an almost perfect short film that weighs heavy on one’s emotions. What follows is a brisk walk towards a resolution we have some idea of. Hope will blossom into justice and all will feel well, if only just for a few minutes. We’ll then get the archive pictures outlining the great work the real-life Bryan Stevenson has done (135 death row inmates’ lives took a turn for the better after meeting him).

But it’s the different faces of hope I would have loved to have seen Cretton prod at more surgically. It’s the one thing you feel our young hero doesn’t fully understand. He gets its value but takes for granted that others with law degrees have wielded it and perhaps abused it when sitting across inmates on death row. It is this level of nuance that ‘Just Mercy’ lacks as Cretton plays the safe hand and rides on audiences’ own idealism. It doesn’t help that we are reminded a few times, admittedly purposefully, that is the town (Monroeville) Harper Lee wrote ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ in.

We also get the cliché’s that accompany such films; the intimidation of the man fighting system, the scene where a fake bomb threat sparks some panic from our heroes and the righteous courtroom speech. It is perhaps instructive that all these happen when we are away from the prisoners on death row, their sense of community and the small horrors they have to endure with a noose permanently around their necks.

For most of the final two acts, ‘Just Mercy’ is concerned with unraveling the racist twine wound tightly around Johnny D’s conviction. Bryan supported by Brie Larson’s, Eva Ansley, who’s worked with the real-life Mr. Stevenson for the past three decades.

Through it all, there is a strong dynamic between Jordan and Foxx to hold on to. After the rough first meeting, their encounters assume much more warmth and empathy. There are layers to Jordan too, who does well to embody the purpose of the man who founded the Equal Justice Initiative.

There was a sequence early on I was surprised was taken straight from Bryan Stevenson’s memoir; where he is denied access to clients at a prison unless he submits to a strip search. The range of emotions Jordan goes through here; defiance, anger, but also fear and humiliation, are impressive. It got me boiling and I wanted to stay angry. Cretton thought otherwise and the film is tamer for this.

The zestful BAD BOYS FOR LIFE proves life can begin after 50

We are partying like its 1995 in ‘Bad Boys For Life’ as Belgian directing duo Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah inject streams of wit and vitality into a series that left a sour taste in many mouths some 17 years ago. The only way was up for the iconic Will Smith-Martin Lawrence vehicle when it became clear Michael Bay would not be lending his increasingly corrosive touch. Our filmmakers here have this awareness and affection for the IP that adds that something extra to this buoyant experience.

The world, of course, revolves around Miami cops Mike Lowrey (Smith) and Marcus Burnett (Lawrence) and their camaraderie. The former’s past deeds come to haunt their present as the film takes shape as a cartel thriller. Our source of ill intent comes in the form of the ruthless cartel maverick Armando Armas (Jacob Scipio auditioning for a role in the next John Wick film).

He is on the path of vengeance carved out by his mother (Kate del Castillo) and is taking out all persons involved in the death of his drug lord father. Armando is more than up to the task adept from range with a sniper rifle or in close quarters combat with knives.

The screenplay doesn’t try to overthink things. It shoves Smith into the role of a suave action star and understands that Lawrence is a comedian at heart and thus allows him the runway to just be funny and ease the. But our two leads play off each other to touch on some of the film’s core ideas about aging and its accompanying fears; like Mike refusing to settle and find some emotional substance to balance his existence.

Without playing to tropes, Mike is basically the boy refusing to grow up, the probably 50-year-old who dies his greying goatee black. Opposite him, Marcus, decidedly chubbier, is embracing being a grandfather and father in law as his daughter gives birth to a son and marries her boyfriend last seen being bullied by the two cops in THAT doorway scene that justifies the sorry existence of ‘Bad Boys II’. The only thing Marcus seems in denial of is his fading eyesight.

Marcus is also thinking about retiring to Mike’s chagrin. It’s the form of infidelity in their bromance he won’t tolerate. It’s supposed to be “bad boys for life,” we told time and time again but it is clear the bad boys are more Roger Murtaugh and less Martin Riggs here.

Also ready to move on is the Miami Police Department which has a new techy unit called Advanced Miami Metro Operations (AMMO) featuring the likes of Vanessa Hudgens, Alexander Ludwig and Paola Núñez adept at flying drones and gunning down henchmen with machine guns, sometimes at the same time.

Badboys-For-Life-Main

Adil and Billal are channeling more Tony Scott than Michael Bay thankfully as they go about their direction. They avoid the quick manic cuts of Bay’s Chaos cinema and go the functional route opting to for decent wides and longer takes to highlight the smooth staging and choreography of the gloriously R rated action. We do get the classic slow tilt cum 360 pan that has been a staple of Bay films.

When it’s all said and done Lawrence comes out as the MVP. He serves as the perfect conduit to elevate ‘Bad Boys For Life’ from a good action film to a great buddy cop romp. A whole new generation is being introduced to Lawrence’s delights and he is given enough moments to milk fire moments of physical comedy that will certainly make this one of the funniest films of 2020.

And oh, judging by how shockingly good this film is and the bank it is making, we should be taking the ‘Bad Boys For Life’ title a little more seriously.

THE INFORMER ticks the box for serviceable January action fare

‘The Informer’ offers more genre thrills that its lame title would have you think. This Joel Kinnaman led vehicle is the kind of January action cinema fare we have come to expect, packaged in a semi tedious confidential informant drama that finds its feet when it finds itself within the confines of a prison movie.

Duplicity is ‘The Informer’s’ calling card and the film’s hero and ex-con Pete Koslow (Kinnaman), sets the tone for us in the early moments. He is knee-deep in the New York-based Polish mob and is also working with the feds to free himself, his wife (Ana de Armas), and daughter from the drug game.

Pete’s FBI handler (Rosamund Pike) is honing in on the Polish mob boss, who goes by the General, and has a sting operation planned to the hilt. But things go wrong with the operation, leading to the death of an undercover cop. Then a sense of desperation begins to take hold; from Pete, the mob and even the FBI.

There is a deficit of rationality at play as Pete is asked both his string-pullers to leave his family and go back to prison. The fine print differs but the promise of freedom from the FBI is what makes the risk worth it. As the story unfolds, an NYPD detective (Common) gets in the mix because of the murder of one of his men.

Directed by Andrea Di Stefano, ‘The Informer’ is based on a Swedish novel called Three Seconds. This probably explains the Kinnaman connection. I haven’t read it though so I can’t tell if numerous plot turns are a hallmark of the novel. The first act almost feels like the final act of a different thriller before we get the prison movie section which offers the brightest spots.

The Informer, Rosamund Pike, Clive Owen
Credit: Aviron Pictures

The film falters when we spend too much time with law enforcement, some of whom, are conflicted and burdened by gratuitous guilt others who are more villainous than the General. Pike’s self-serving boss (Clive Owen) is a step away from being the main baddy in ‘Enemy of the State’ here as he looks to clean up the mess following the death of the police officer. There is zero personality to them save for the abiding cynicism that runs through this film.

But the script undercuts its cynical tone with the way it tries to make certain characters more redeemable than they actually are. It’s not enough that Pete is a loving family man. We have to be told that he is an honorable military vet who was only thrown in jail for manslaughter because he defended his wife in a bar. He obviously did not see con air.

The Informer feels low rent until we get our first eruption of prison violence as the finale begins to take shape. Di Stefano begins to serve us levels of tension and anxiety that resemble something novel as a boxed-in Pete becomes the frantic wild animal we know he can be.

Pete is attacked in the mass dorm where he sleeps and what our director finds most interesting in this gritty scene are the inmates who merely shrug and reset their pillows as a man fights to the death in the background. This sequence is followed by prison lockdown fittingly scored to a blaring alarm as our bloodied hero scampers with purpose towards the light.

The script is again a little too stingy with the amount of intelligence he grants law enforcement so prepare to suspend belief as you root for our protagonist and his family in the execution of a desperate endgame. The reasons for his desperation and the cheap facsimile of stakes are clear enough, though not artfully conveyed to us.

In the end, ‘The Informer’ props down satisfied with its cynical disposition. We all move around with dirt. Those who survive are the ones willing to go to the hilt and make the most of whatever unfair cards are given to them to stay above water. It’s a nasty truth I begrudgingly accepted.

GOLD COAST LOUNGE offers fleeting pleasures despite an undercooked script

Is Afro-noir going to be a thing after ‘Gold Coast Lounge’, the latest cinematic offering from writer-director Pascal Aka? Film noir serves as the obvious inspiration for this post-independence crime flick which is rife with distracting anachronisms brought on by budget constraints and drab archetypes given life by an undercooked screenplay.

Whilst the aesthetic and visual sensibilities feel like a novelty, the path of noir has been trodden on somewhat in contemporary Ghanaian cinema. Shirley Frimpong Manso’s ‘Potomanto’ exhibited some of the genre conventions that aligned more comfortably with neo-noir given the obvious character staples like a private eye and a femme fatale navigating morally ambiguous waters.

Peel away the noir-tinged shell of Gold Coast Lounge’, though, and we get a film with ideas that reach beyond the noir workings to the neo-realist sensibilities that defined classic African cinema. There is ambition from Aka. But ambition will only take one so far when there is a decided deficit of craft and scale that betrayed the big screen and gave affairs a televisual feel. It’s never a good thing when a film feels like a backdoor pilot.

Talking of feel, ‘Gold Coast Lounge’ is at its best when it’s divorced from reality. The film opens to moments of quiet with our protagonist, Daniel (Alphonse Menyo), reveling in the simple delights of a slice of chocolate cake in a secluded section of the eponymous establishment. The cake is a nice symbol of Daniel’s refinement over the years from village thief smitten by bofrot to trusted lieutenant in a crime family.

For the first few scenes, Daniel is even atop this crime family, quite possibly living one of his few dreams, because the boss of this gang is enduring a short stint in prison. But reality soon bursts through to reveal discord and resentment slowly festering to the surface. We get acquainted with Zynnell Zuh’s haughty and entitled Akatua, an estranged member of the gang who is pushing her weight around by organising illegal brawls in the lounge. Trying to pull some strings in the background is the erratic Wisdom (Aka), who has been Daniel’s rival since they were pups.

On the surface, the tensions arise from Daniel’s efforts to steer the lounge and the criminal enterprise into legit waters. This direction is endorsed by the returning boss, John Donkor (Adjetey Annang) who is given three weeks by the government to cut out the criminal aspects of their organization and prove the club can exist as a wholesome enterprise. The foundation of the new lounge is to be showbiz. John’s eyes fall on Rose (Raquel Ammah) a comfort girl of sort looking to leverage her voice and the lounge’s new direction for a brighter future.

It is contrivances galore when we start to get a feel for the characters. Rose and Daniel have history; a history revealed to us by mere exposition and brief flashback, a tool Aka employs quite frequently. But, and no prizes for guessing, she is firmly in John’s clutches, so close yet so far from Daniel for the time being. Daniel also has a fraught relationship with his past, a point the film hits at ever so slightly before dropping the weight of the past on us in the final act.

There is a tediousness and lack of cohesion in the way the key characters are framed, almost like they were plucked from different films at the last minute. The central tension between Daniel, Wisdom and Akatua; who all want to take control of the lounge, seldom packs an emotional punch even though we have a rough outline of their motivations.

Wisdom, who reminds us taught Daniel to read, feels passed over though his sense of entitlement is misplaced because he is cut from your typical insecure and erratic cloth. Akatua views the lounge as her inheritance because of her blood ties. The more assured Daniel is all but the chosen successor because he simply bests Wisdom in a brawl to John’s delight.

John is supposed to be a father figure here and this made me question the casting of Annang, who distractingly looks and feels more like a big brother. Fred Amugi also shows up in the film and I imagine the complexion of the film is changed completely for the better if he is the one lending his gravitas as a more fitting patriarch to this crime family. The irony here is this is the most comfortable I’ve seen Annang on screen, in what could count among his better performances. He metes out wisdom and threats in fluid Ga and generally gets the better end of the dialogue stick.

The other end of the dialogue stick leaves a lot to be desired, much like other aspects of the screenplay. Not to delve into details but the main problems are that Aka’s story is bloated and more importantly, doesn’t show enough of its working. I wouldn’t call some of the characters turns or twists ludicrous but he is using a calculator to jump from point to point instead of serving the minutia of character-building moments and the process of this organisation.

Consider how the film makes ill-conceived jumps to explain some back story to Daniel and also Akatua. In quick bursts, we learn about their fraught family ties but like much of the film, they exist only move characters from one point to another and explain actions they are yet to take. For most of the film, there is a B-movie vibe to proceedings and you get the sense Aka and his largely functional eye would rather be directing a straightforward action film.

But there are a few moments our director levels up; the moments when he strikes the right balance between subtext and fantasy; like when he ventures into the richly inspired surreal asides or when he follows the white-hat Daniel onto cloud nine in the section of the film where he peaks as boss of the lounge. There is an invigoratingly edited stretch where Aka sucked me in completely with its tactful mimicking of the energy of newfound independence. It’s a shame that art mirrors reality in the way that its downhill from that point on.

My favorite pictures from 2019

Ash Is Purest White

Liao Fan, center, with cigarette, plays a mobster in “Ash Is Purest White.”

This list is no particular order but I would cite Jia Zhangke‘s ‘Ash Is Purest White’ as my favorite of the year. I went into 2019 certain ‘The Irishman’ and its legendary components would be irresistible cinema never fails to surprise. There is something meta about ‘Ash Is Purest White’ beating out Martin Scorsese’s gangster epic because Zhangke’s film looked like it was gunning to be the best gangster film of the decade in its first act but instead digs deeper for more immersive layers of its central characters and Chinese society. Led by a terrific performance by Zhao Tao, what we get is a riveting exploration of gifts and curses of time that leave ineffaceable marks on its setting.

‘The Irishman’

THE IRISHMAN is a haunting epic about the passage of time and the erosion of humanity (3)

‘The Irishman’ isn’t as seamless as it could have been but it is a masterfully made picture concerned not with the violence and appeal of the crime world but with humanity and the state of one’s soul. The reflective and largely melancholy tinged coming together of Martin Scorsese, Robert De Niro and Al Pacino make it a humbling cinematic landmark in its own right, made that much more monumental by its embracing of streaming distribution via Netflix.

US

Us

Some of the most interesting films of 2019 have been about class and the horrors of exploitation. Jordan Peele’s ‘US’ set the tone for the year with his unsettling horror pastiche, high on metaphors, that flies the flag of genre filmmaking in remarkable fashion. Lupita Nyong’o gives one of the best performances of the year and begs the chilling question; how hard would you fight to hold on to your privilege?

Atlantics

Atlantics (1)

As haunting as it is beautiful, ‘Atlantics’ is a remarkable debut from writer-director Mati Diop. This contemporary neo-realistic look at contemporary Senegalese society still has a pan-African heart in the way it conveys a heartfelt story about loss and longing, filtered through a mystery and supernatural lens, that seems to traverse time and space for black people everywhere.

Ad Astra

ad-astra-review

‘Ad Astra’ is an earnest exploration of a father-son relationship and once you buy into this, I don’t see how you walk away not being overwhelmed by the film’s very intimate outpouring of emotion. Directed with stunning grace by James Gray, there’s something truly powerful in the metaphor of the son (played with utmost restraint by Brad Pitt) traversing and conquering literal space to bridge that gap with his father.

 

The strong pull of the safe and familiar sinks THE RISE OF SKYWALKER

There is a moment in ‘Star Wars: The Rise Of Skywalker’ where Adam Driver’s cracklingly compelling Kylo Ren has the helmet he smashed beyond recognition in ‘The Last Jedi’ repaired. The end product looks whole but is clumsy and grotesque with its fiery fissures, backed by minimal innovation and even less purpose as the helmet is discarded in the blink of an eye. The same is true of the J.J. Abrams’ conclusion to the Skywalker saga.

Most painfully, Kylo Ren’s reconstruction of his helmet is also a marker for the film’s decision retreat into the shadows of the past; in stark contrast to the philosophical highs of Rian Johnson’s brilliant, bold and wholesome helming of the divisive ‘The Last Jedi’. Johnson lit a path onto the exciting unknown, which is all Star Wars patriarch George Lucas wanted for his franchise. But this light is dimmed by Abrams’ succumbing to the pull of the familiar and lazy.

To the film’s credit it serves us the bitterest pill early, confirming to us Emperor Palpatine’s return as the big bad in the Star Wars universe. The least said the better. The film’s only saving grace is the absorbing dynamic between Kylo and Daisy Ridley’s Rey, who has to wrestle not only with the pull of the dark side but the equally imposing spectre of her past which looms more ominously as the saga nears its conclusion.

Rey is still linked through the force with Kylo, transcending space and sometimes time. We first get this sequence where she is distracted by him during her Jedi training under Leia (Carrie Fisher). Then their connection grows stronger, constantly testing the limits of “force time” until that magnificently staged and savage yet oddly sensual lightsaber duel which fittingly takes place in the ruins of the Death Star, scored in part to the violent crashing of roaring waves.

‘Rise of Skywalker’ never loses sight of the inner conflict and the internalised battle between good and evil that rages not only in Kylo, as we’ve seen in the previous films, but slowly in Rey. She now has fears that it is her destiny to fall prey to the dark side and this angst puts her in positions where she learns the wrong lessons from her first Jedi teacher Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamil).

We now see the once resolute Rey on shaky ground; the ground we most associate with the unstable Kylo. Her relations with her friends seem fraught as she becomes more of a lone ranger, making the kind of rash decisions expected of the unraveling Kylo, whose arc dangles the prospect of redemption before us.

Speaking of Rey’s friends, Finn (John Boyega) spends most of his time with Poe (Oscar Isaac) and Chewie (Jonas Suotamo) following crumbs across the galaxy that will ultimately lead to Palpatine who resides in uncharted Sith territory. These characters ride the coattails of the plot, offering nothing by way of character development. That’s more than we can say of the likes of Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) who is sidelined altogether.

The sense of what could have been in ‘Rise Of Skywalker’ is inevitable not just because Colin Trevorrow was initially expected to direct this film but also because of the absence of Carrie Fisher. There is a Leia shaped hole in the film as big as the Death Star and I wonder if the film would have been better served just killing her off in the opening scrawl as quickly as it resurrected Palpatine. What we get is a portion of further grief and agony watching her wander aimlessly in the film, a notch above a hologram when we know she could have been so much more under different circumstances.

There are some new characters too like Keri Russell’s Zorii Bliss, who has some heated history with Poe; Lando (Billy Dee Williams) who’s return I wish wasn’t ruined by the trailers; Babu Frik (Shirley Henderson), who someone on Twitter swore was cuter than Baby Yoda; Jannah, the leader of a company of ex storm troopers whose explosion of natural hair is more interesting than her actual use in the story.

These are characters we come across in three visually arresting and distinct settings, the lush and colorful Forbidden Desert of Pasaana, the Stalin-era Russia-inspired (I honestly don’t know what this comp means) Kijimi and the roaring terrain of the grave of the Death Star in the Endor system.

One of the benefits of Palpatine’s early intro is that I came to accept his place in the story as the 142 minutes running time crept on. The stakes are simple even though why they came to be isn’t easy to explain. Like the dark side, online rabbit holes on how Palpatine could have survived to call out to me. I don’t expect that any of them will make sense. All we know is that the now decrepit Emperor has a massive world-ending fleet at his disposal to establish the Final Order.

Some of the positives in the Rise Of Skywalker will become more prominent with time but I doubt they will ever overcome the secondary infection that comes with the sense that it exists to undo ‘The Last Jedi’. Some of the storytelling decisions here are not just clunky but plain anathema in the way they directly or indirectly feel subservient to the fan backlash. Not to get into spoilers but this film even seems to mock the Holdo maneuver.

Things are operating on a meta-level in the way audiences are asked to choose between the draws of the narrative frustrations and the wondrous depth-laden flourishes. Like the matchup between the resistance and the evil empire onscreen, negatives seem to overwhelm the good this film has to offer. But the good remains earnest and heartwarming even if it lacks in imagination.

Though it easy to take attempts at scale and wonder for granted in 2019, Abrams really never comes close to reaching the highs of ‘The Force Awakens’, which he directed, or the ‘The Last Jedi’. There are moments of astute direction of note, like his composition of the desert encounter between Kylo and Rey, infusing such dexterity and grace into the basics of establishing time and space.

But the direction of the action especially wanted for more inspired visual flourishes. I thought the Knights of Ren existed in service of a fight scene to rival ‘The Last Jedi’s’ crimson delights in the throne room eruption of violence with the Praetorian Guard but that was not to be.

Is ‘Rise of Skywalker’ the worst Star Wars film? I can’t say. But it is by far the most disappointing given the ironclad foundations that manifested in a hollow shack of a story. The Skywalker Saga alas ends with a whimper. But we can take solace in the fact that a money-making franchise like this machine will offer more than enough avenues for redemption down the line.

ASH IS PUREST WHITE surrenders to the power of time in absorbing fashion

Love, crime, and change coalesce into a sprawling feat of storytelling in director Jia Zhangke’s ‘Ash is Purest White’. Of the three elements that make up the film, change is the purest, standing the test of the fiery narrative forge Zhangke presents. For as alluring as the criminal underworld gets and as absorbing as the fraught love affair at the centre of the story is, it’s the passage of time that leaves a searing mark.

‘Ash’ has three distinct sections, starting in 2001 and running through to 2018. The film’s different time periods and ideas are given cohesion by a stellar performance from Zhao Tao who plays Qiao, a coalminer’s daughter from Shanxi in northern China.

There is an air of odd realism; a sign of things to come, as the film opens in a rumbling bus ride with Qiao’s head bobbing in slumber. We then get this sprawling shot of the mining city of Datong, seemingly lagging behind the urbanisation we see in the horizon. Zhangke is giving us a taste of what is to come; the elements he expects us to think deeply about. But for at least for the next 40 minutes as the film begins to glide with a swagger that had me thinking ‘Goodfellas’.

Minutes in, Zhangke tracks Qiao as she romps through an underground mahjong parlor, only distracted for a short while by a magic act. She returns to course passing a slew obsequious men as she makes way to her boyfriend and boss of a crime brotherhood Bin (Liao Fan). She’s the only woman in the room but appears to have the most power. It’s all a facade though as she is ultimately a projection of Bin’s own influence.

Qiao’s childlike glee is riveting. Her face is an incredibly expressive canvas for Zhangke to work on. A grin spreads across her face and her beady eyes sparkle as she partakes in some liquor within the testosterone fest. All fun for her it seems. The real power lies with Bin, as evidenced by the way he lays down the law during a debt dispute between two of is men, a dispute that gifts us a sly Chekhov’s gun.

This moment also aligns Bin as some quaint soul fighting to keep older peace-time ways alive. Even after he is attacked in a park as part of some vague turf war, he defies the genre conventions and sits by as Qiao lets the young offenders off with a warning.

But this incursion of youth knows nothing but escalation. First, an older friend in the real estate business Bin tries to help out is stabbed to death. Things come to a head when Bin is attacked by a slew of these rival gang members in the street one evening. It’s a brawl that turns real bloody for Bin and as his head being bashed on the bonnet of his car, Qiao steps in. She fires an unregistered gun to scare off the thugs and ends up spending five years in prison because she refuses to rat out her boyfriend.

All of a sudden Qiao’s vibrancy is gone. She seems to age a decade while in prison, worn by time and heartache. As soon as she gets out of prison in 2006, she takes a boat via the Yangtze River (then the scene of the massive Three Gorges project) in search of Bin. On her way, she gets careless and is robbed by the woman sharing her cabin. It’s a small reminder that Qiao only basked in the glow of the Jianghu and snuggled in the warmth of Bin’s shadow.

Liao Fan, center, with cigarette, plays a mobster in “Ash Is Purest White.”

But in a bid to confront Bin, Qiao really starts to become a Jianghu. She starts small; worming her way into a wedding buffet to satisfy her famished self. She then pulls a ballsy scam in a restaurant for some money. Then to finally get the face to face with Bin she desires, she gets the better of an “okada” rider in thrilling fashion, executing a well thought out plan . We see it in her face as the measured percussion on the score booms and she rides off through the rain, her focus drowning out traces of a smile, towards what would eventually be more heartache.

Time may not heal wounds but it can nurture ambition and power. We hit 2018 and Qiao, like China on the global stage, is no longer a pretender. She has settled back in Datong and seems to be the sole force flying the banner of the Jianghu in what, at times, feels like an act of futile resistance and at other times a longing for the old way of life.

It’s Zhangke’s fascination with time in ‘Ash’ that makes it such a thoughtful film experience brimming with some sociological curiosity. I found myself pausing to think about what storms time wreaked in my society as it is the ultimate force here; displacing love, power, tradition, architecture and more.

I found Zhangke’s subdued direction to be quite exquisite. Take out the pop and anachronistic razzmatazz in the first act, which dropped Finzi Contini’s groovy Cha Cha Cha into my life, and we find that he is overseeing a slow patient film more interested in giving us time to wring out meaning from each frame.

He even spares some time for the surreal. There is a bizarre Fargo Season 2 moment with a mysterious flying object that gives odd context to a moment of painful vulnerability earlier on. There is a temptation to overthink this moment that is at odds with the social realism but all that matters is that it brings comfort to our heroine when she’s at her darkest point.

‘Ash’ looks great and features the most picturesque use of smoke, whether from numerous cigarettes or sticks of incense, I can remember seeing on screen. It’s all but part of the set design giving a real tactile sense to the feel of the film.

There is some absorbing framing in the scene with the volcano in the backdrop as Bin explains the metaphor captured in the film’s title, a metaphor she will soon come to embody.

There’s a warm empathy with which Zhangke films people trying to connect; people ultimately doomed to loneliness, like Qiao’s encounter with an outwardly gregarious but desperately sad stranger on a train. And it’s moments like this that make you wonder if Zhangke wanted the love story to bear more fruits with audiences.

But by the end, it’s the transformation of a society that resonates, which was an overwhelming surprise for someone looking for a pulpy Chinese gangster flick.

Mati Diop’s ATLANTICS is a textured supernatural mystery about love and longing

It’s unfair the amount of baggage I took to ‘Atlantics’, French-Senegalese director Mati Diop debut feature. This film has already appeared in some best of 2019 lists after winning the Grand Prix at this year’s Cannes Film Festival where Diop, became the first black woman director to be in contention for the Cannes Film Festival’s highest prize, the Palme d’Or. So naturally, expectations were quite high. And oh, she happens to the niece of one of Africa’s filmmaking greats Djibril Diop Mambéty.

The Paris-born Diop is as close to filmmaking royalty as it gets in Africa. The basic mechanics of ‘Atlantics’, which is playing on Netflix, nodded ever so slightly to her uncle’s iconic ‘Touki Bouki’; two lovers torn apart by fate in a neo-realist tale concerned with love, separation and the sociopolitical texture of a pivotal time in African history. But probe further and we see Diop ultimately charts her own path from ‘Touki Bouki’; substituting the surreal with the supernatural, the thrills with mystery and the intimacy with longing in this hauntingly beautiful tale.

‘Atlantics’ opens with a scene all too familiar. We are on a construction site where a group of men agitates after working for over three months without pay on an incongruous skyscraper along the coast of Dakar. It’s an edifice that towers over slums and the hustle of the hand-to-mouth of the average city dweller. Moments later a few of them are in the back of truck driving on beach road with the crashing ocean calling out to one of them; the glum Souleiman (Ibrahima Traoré), who looks like he’s being delivered of demons.

I thought nothing of this early scene on first viewing as focus soon shifts to Souleiman’s alluring 17-year-old girlfriend, Ada. It’s an exquisitely filmed scene at a rail crossing when we first meet her. She’s beaming as she looks across savors every glance at her boyfriend through the quick windows the gaps in the passing train afford her. Diop cuts back and forth between Ada and Souleiman scored to the rumbling of the locomotive. It’s a warm scene at first till we realize the sight of his girlfriend has done little to wipe the troubled look off Souleiman’s face.

These details linger because of how the story unfolds. Though we quickly get a scene of Ada and Souleiman making out in on the beach and in an uncompleted building she has no idea that she may be turning a corner away from the best days in their relationship. That night, when Ada sneaks out of her home to a popular oceanside club, we learn that Souleiman and several of his fellow laborers have left Senegal on a small boat bound for Spain.

The scenes in the club capture a deafening bareness that I imagine prevails in rural areas that suffer from rural-urban migration. Life seems to have come to a standstill and has this eerie feel of the aftermath of an alien invasion, somehow enforced by the sleek oddity of the skyscraper they were working on. Shots of skyscraper are sprinkled in as the film rolls in visuals not too dissimilar from the ghastly presences the spiders hovering over Toronto evoke in Denis Villeneuve’s ‘Enemy’.

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The barrenness soon turns to frustration and then anger and then a coven of mourning for the girls. All this is replaced by hope as the club owner says all we can do is pray the boys make the arduous journey to Spain in one piece.

‘Atlantics’ is based on Diop’s 2009 short film, ‘Atlantiques’, which drew from the real-life experiences of young African men setting out dangerous trips to Europe. But Diop pivots away from the exploration of the migrant crisis and harsh realities of such a journey to the idea of separation and the heartache of the women that stay behind waiting for a victorious call from a number with a European code.

This inversion is one of the clever turns that keeps Diop’s script (co-written by Olivier Demangel) a step ahead of audiences most of the film. Her direction and film’s lensing assume this hypnotic effect as we wander into the unknown following but the subtle snaps of our director’s fingers. Diop cares little for the conventional and this film offers more of a reward if you go in as cold as possible.

Focus shifts to the arranged marriage Ada has been tacitly rebelling against. She is to wed a wealthy man called Omar (Babacar Sylla), who’s smug aura would have been a turn off on its own were Ada not in love with another man. The wedding, which feels more like a funeral, eventually comes off and it would have been impossible for Ada to look more unhappy; her beautiful curious eyes now a window to an abyss of disdain and despair as some of her friends simmer with envy on the fringe.

It is at this point Diop starts to work her magic with minimal fuss. Omar and Ada’s plush white matrimonial bed (which emits an oppressive vibe) is set on fire under bizarre circumstances and the mystery elements start to sprout. A troubled young police detective, Issa (Amadou Mbow), is brought in to catch the arsonist and his prodding clouds the narrative even further.

‘Atlantics’ becomes truly remarkable when it embraces genre conventions and immerses itself in the supernatural; starting to resemble something like Carol Morley’s ‘The Falling’ but with a 2000s Nollywood-ish exploitation horror spin. It will be interesting to find out what Diop’s influences here were as she presents disturbing scenes of possessed girls with unnerving white eyes walking the night in zombielike unison with a purposeful vengeance.

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I got high on the sense of the unknown. It is at this point that I surrendered to Diop’s deft direction, fingers crossed in hope that she steered her ship safely through the ghastly waters she had conjured. To reach for the support beam of logic was to sink further into her cauldron of mysticism, that somehow manages to maintain a strong socio-political spine.

Diop is still concerned with the sense of exploitation even as she films an incursion of possessed girls on a man who owes them wages – a more direct-than-we-think link to the agitations by Suleiman’s and his fellow workers in the film’s opening. The shift to the mystical has an air of ‘Emitai’ about it; when Ousmane Sembene makes a hard cut to an ethereal dimension to debate the contextual merits of resistance against pillaging French soldiers against the backdrop of a fear of the unknown.

Questions about gender and oppression emerge as further beats on the exploitation thread as Ada is all but reduced to an object for sale required to be the latest servant of the patriarchy. She is chastised for not having a love dovey tone towards her arranged fiancé and taken for a virginity test like a car to a mechanic for a look under the hood before a purchase.

‘Atlantics’ ticks so many boxes it shouldn’t work. It mish mashes genres and throws cohesion out of the window but still feels too precise to be called avant-garde. Clarity here comes not from making sense of plot but bowing to the mesmerising imagery that elevates humanity and reminds us time and time again what this film ultimately is: a story about separation, longing and love.

I do have questions that bug me, like what the rules are behind the possessions and whether that conceit undercuts our director’s concern with the agency of women. The police detective, Issa’s arc has some holes and seems to exist in service of cheap twist. But all these dwarf in comparison to the main overpowering twist that showcases Diop’s sublime storytelling, which manages to give a vibrance and stakes to innocuous images like the still ocean or a sunset.

This being the “Year of Return” in Ghana, marking 400 years since the arrival of the first enslaved Africans in Jamestown, Virginia, there is an added layer that lingers. I can’t help but ultimately think about the ominous power the ocean evokes in our part of the world. To cross the threshold of the ocean was traverse into an ultimately hellish dimension. The harrowing doors of no return led to the Atlantic and make no mistake, Suleiman, like my ancestors had no choice. The heartache left behind seems to have traversed generations and the desire and force of will to return has not dimmed centuries on.

There is a deep meta sadness to the sense that the only closure, the only healing for some wounds may only come via the fantastical wonders of the medium of cinema. But I like to turn to Dumbledore in moments like these. Just because it’s happening in my head, or on-screen or in the dazzling reflections in the mirror does not make it any less real.

THE IRISHMAN is a haunting epic about the passage of time and the erosion of humanity

The profound final shot of Martin Scorsese’s gangster epic ‘The Irishman’ evokes key elements in the codas to the first two Godfather films. Traces of fear and regret, loneliness and longing, loss and retribution are conjured in the haunting ending simultaneously piercing bone and marrow with laser precision only leave a seed that explodes into emotional disquiet.

‘The Irishman’ times struts with the swagger of Scorsese’s other mob classic ‘Goodfellas’ but slowly reveals itself to be a film more in line with the spiritually attuned ‘Silence’; concerned with ideas of loyalty and betrayal. The inspired final shot is not too dissimilar in spirit to Andrew Garfield’s apostate priest clutching a small cross in death. It means nothing but, yet still, is everything.

Not to retire the 77-year-old Scorsese before his time, ‘The Irishman’ is the kind of summation of a subset of this master director’s long career that leaves you with a feeling of completion. The only glaring blemish here is that the film is called ‘The Irishman’, not ‘I Heard You Paint Houses’ which is a damn great title.

Central to this achievement, which is adapted by writer Steve Zaillian from Charles Brandt’s book ‘I Heard You Paint Houses’, is one part of the holy trinity of Crime Cinema, Robert De Niro, who plays truck driver turned Mafia hitman Frank Sheeran with restrained aplomb. Seemingly alone in a retirement home, his memories are the launching pad for the screenplays interesting structure that starts with a pivotal drive to Detroit for a wedding and then goes back further to year zero of Sheeran’s ties to the mafia.

All roads seem to lead to the purported demise of truck drivers union leader Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino) as the story tries to mesh crime and politics in a way not too dissimilar to ‘The Godfather II’. As an aged Sheeran walks us through time with his disputed but enthralling narration, there’s something fitting about the iffy de-aging tech that is supposed to make 75-year-old De Niro look how old again? Memories aren’t perfect and sometimes strained, would be my defense, much like De Niro’s labored gait on the streets of Philly when he is meant to be a spry young man.

Questionable physicality aside, we never doubt Sheeran’s propensity for violence; from his time during World War II to his first of many hits for the mob under the patronship of Joe Pesci’s mafia boss Russell Bufalino.

More pivotal to the essence of the story, however, is the sequence that sees Sheeren beats up a grocer in defense of his daughter Peggy (Lucy Gallina). She doesn’t love him more for it. It terrifies her. And from then on her side eyes become more lacerating as the film progresses culminating in that searing “why?” delivered by Anna Paquin as the grown-up Peggy, who cuts a spectral presence, sucking the air out of a room with subtle ticks.

Like the final scene in David Cronenberg’s ‘A History of Violence’, I felt like I was being asked to pass judgment on Sheeran’s ways. And for all the kills he makes during his largely fortuitous rise in the Philly mafia, the sin that will haunt him the most is his betrayal of the bond of brotherhood.

We’re in a complex spot with Sheeran though as his loyalty to the Mafia is matched only by the strong friendship he develops with Pacino’s Hoffa. They share rooms, have heart to hearts and spend time with each other’s family (Peggy tellingly has strong affection towards him). It’s a special kind of joy to see De Niro and Pacino in moments of warm intimacy onscreen sharing hugs or even just having a bedtime convo in their pajamas like a couple of nine-year-olds would.

There are also so many great moments that enforce Sheeran’s brotherhood with the Mafia, like the scene with Sheeren and Russell conversing in Italian and breaking bread and wine; a symbolic first supper. Notably, it’s here the story flashes back to Sheeran’s time during the war and the borderline war crimes he committed in the name of the flag, setting the tone for a deficit of morality.

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The Mafia takes the place of country for Sheeran. It’s a new calling ready to tap into our anti-hero’s flawed nature and history of violence. So it makes it a worthwhile exercise to consider how Sheeran contextualized all his kills. Perhaps, murdering a rival mobster is almost the same as executing unarmed Axis soldiers in a forest.

History is an essential part of ‘The Irishman’s’ plot and it is more concerned with the politics of that time than it probably needs to be. The time spent dropping historical Easter eggs about Castro’s rise in Cuba and the CIA’s failed attempts to overthrow him could have been whittled out. These threads are a byproduct of the time spent with Hoffa and his fraught relationship with the John F. Kennedy administration. “He’ll never forgive me for giving Nixon money,” Hoffa hilariously blurts out as a simple diagnosis of his troubles.

Could the time spent in hearings or showcasing the Forest Gump-esque qualities of the film be spent fleshing out the women characters? I think so. And I’m not referring to Paquin, who is deployed in a very calibrated role for extreme narrative efficiency. There are a few other women in the lives of the men we spend time with. The film starts off with two of them, Russell’s wife Carrie, who I only seem to remember as being overly addicted to smokes, and Frank’s second wife Mary, who leaves no impression whatsoever. The least said about Frank’s first wife the better.

I rewatched ‘Goodfellas’ right before ‘The Irishman’ and I’m never ever prepared for the explosion of vitality that hits when the brilliant Lorraine Bracco’s perspective takes hold and her voice-over (as mesmerizing as De Niro’s here) ushers us through a version of the crime world Scorsese definitely glamorises. And even Pesci’s character’s mother in ‘Goodfellas’ has memorable and fun moments of substance carved out for her in the flow of the story and these are beats this script could have aspired to.

The shades of ‘Goodfellas’ in ‘Irishman’ resonate early on when the film is, in more quieter ways, about excess. Consider how Frank gets in with the mob after going from stealing a few pounds of meat he delivers to losing a whole consignment. And then there’s the killing, encapsulated by the cache of murder weapons in that underwater dumping spot, which goes on and on until the perceived ultimate sin.

Scorsese keeps up that ‘Goodfellas’ energy for the first half or so. It’s to do with the how engaged his camera us with the Italian Philadelphia crime family; the short pans from gangster to gangster then a quick glide across the room to an important piece of action as if all the characters we had just been staring at were alluring distractions. We meet supporting players like Harvey Keitel as Philadelphia crime boss Angelo Bruno, Bobby Cannavale as “Skinny Razor” DiTullio and Ray Romano as a union lawyer Bill Bufalino, all who are generally used as markers in Frank’s journey.

The supporting acts that really get to cook offer little surprises. Pesci is in regal form as Frank’s mentor showcasing warmth and muted menace in what is an extremely chill performance. The character that approaches the iconic hot head territory of Pesci past is the electric Stephen Graham as Tony Provenzano, a rising union leader who gets into real beef with Hoffa and is the centerpiece of some of the film’s most fun moments.

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Bringing the real spice is Pacino, who gives the showiest performance, albeit one with a tonne of substance underneath. Ideas about the passage of time first seem to flow through the volatile Hoffa, who goes from probably the second most powerful man in America to blinding delusional entitlement to something he built. But it’s a level of entitlement we understand as he tries to reclaim his spot as the Godfather of the teamsters, just like we understand the extreme reaction it sparks from the mafia.

The process that leads this reaction is something Scorsese is extremely interested in on a macro level. This interest in process translates to the smaller moments like the fantastic build-up to the Crazy Joe hit where Sheeran delivers a crash course in choosing cutlery for a date with murder. The slickness to Scorsese’s direction later gives way to brilliantly tense sequences that evoke more dread and melancholy as the stakes for Sheeran start to weigh heavy and penance for his sins beckon.

‘The Irishman’ slows down in its deeply moving final act. It becomes quieter, lonelier and everything is stripped away when Frank gets to the part of his story where it’s just him. What we find is sadness, emptiness and guilt. There is this humbling idea that the most seismic thing you do will barely register as a breeze as the years go by. The current day Sheeran narrates the story to us in a world where the average person has forgotten Hoffa and era that left him with his emotional scars.

With every new Scorsese film, I always wonder what Roger Ebert would think and contribute to the culture by way of insight. In ‘The Irishman’, I suspect Ebert would have been floored by the outpouring of humanity. The story is darkly funny and the set pieces masterfully crafted but when the music stops, all I think about is elderly Frank Sheeran fighting finality and fighting to stay remembered by those he should have loved. But “he doesn’t feel anything at all” and that is the most terrifying part of this eulogy.

21 BRIDGES falls short of a gripping story but endears with its genre thrills

‘The Fugitive’, ‘Serpico’ and ‘The French Connection’ are some of the films cited as influences by Chadwick Bosman, star of thriller ’21 Bridges’. These are lofty ambitions that this Russo Brothers produced film does not quite hit. To be honest, on final product, it doesn’t really look like it had any intention of committing the necessary investments in character. What it does commit to are effective surface level jolts of adrenaline that do not disappoint.

Directed by Brian Kirk, cliché’s seem to define the structure of the New York-set ‘21 bridges’. Army vets, Ray (Taylor Kitsch) and his partner Michael (Stephan James) look to execute small heist with the reward of 30 kilos of cocaine. Things take a turn when they realise there was an ominous mix-up. They discover 300 kilos of cocaine instead. A few scenes and a blitz of action later, eight cops are dead duo are on the run.

Detective Andre Davis (Boseman) smells something fishy. The rest of the police officers are just out for blood after the death of one of their own. As it turns out, Davis’ dad was killed on the job and this has shaped his no-nonsense reputation towards cop killers. He teams up with Sienna Miller’s narcotics detective Frankie Burns to catch the killers within an about-five hour window during which the island of Manhattan is completely locked down.

It’s actually quite the efficient setup. Ray and Michael, with their military training and heightened angst, are no ordinary fugitives but Davis has the smarts and the killer instinct too. Plus there’s the added mystery of a possible set up which both sides are wary of. It’s a clever beat that blurs the line between cop and robber as we become more invested in who’s behind the curtain pulling strings.

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‘21 Bridges’ does not get more textured than this as it places most of its chips on its brisk pacing, fine shootouts, and gripping chase sequences. The highlight is a particular set piece primarily involving Boseman and James which showcases our director’s excellent fundamentals and razor-sharp editing that birth spurts of action on par with the best the Bourne films have to offer. It’s really to do with the way Kirk seems to launch his set pieces from a sound sense of time and space.

We also low-key has a great cast, with J.K Simmons also pitching into the ensemble which generally drips with charisma. There are moments where you wish there would have been more layers to the characters that moved the story forward as opposed to the tedious plot-driven film lumbering towards the reveal we see coming from a mile away (save for one which caught me off guard).

Davis is broadly defined by an incident in his childhood, where his police father was killed on the job. This trauma evolved into his affinity for pulling the trigger when cop killers are involved as noted by his current troubles with internal affairs. But we never doubt Davis’ moral standing. He is as true blue as they come.

Ray and especially Michael are drawn with greyer strokes and if you squint really really hard, you get why Boseman would link ’21 Bridges’ to ‘The Fugitive’. But there is a lack of storytelling texture that lowers the ceiling of this film. Lack of depth notwithstanding, the gloss is enough to make this thriller a worthwhile hang.

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