By William Wolf

PETERLOO  Send This Review to a Friend

Writer-director Mike Leigh usually likes to make revealing intimate films. With “Peterloo” he has opted ambitiously to portray an epic event in British history, the slaughter in 1819 in Manchester, England, of protestors demanding representation. While he observes the larger picture of how the atrocity developed, he is also using his expertise to focus on individuals on both the demonstrators’ side and among the callous perpetrators determined to shut down the protest and teach those demanding rights a lesson.

The carnage took place four years after the victorious battle of Waterloo in 1815. For his role in winning, the celebrated Duke of Wellington was given 750,000 pounds, tough to swallow for the working class struggling to exist. The title “Peterloo” derives from Peter’s Field, where the demonstrators were attacked, and obviously the film’s title is a play on the battle of Waterloo. The situation is personalized by the site of a bugler who survives Waterloo and wanders in a post-traumatic haze back to Manchester, where we follow him until he is ironically caught up in the onslaught.

A massive protest rally is called to express in a peaceful manner the will of the people who are demanding representation. Women and children as well as men stream en masse into the area. The focal point is an address by Henry Hunt, played by Rory Kinnear, a renowned liberal speaker who travels there to lend his weight to the protest. Leigh builds suspense by showing how Hunt deals with the various factions involved in the demonstration, always insisting that the protest be peaceful. No weapons, he decrees. On the other side, Leigh focuses on the various characters running Manchester, a nasty lot who ultimately succeed in getting the cavalry to ride into the crowd and disperse it.

The lethal mayhem that results is depicted in great detail, as people are trampled by horses and cut down with swords in a horrible following of orders with no mercy given. The toll is at least 11 people killed and the wounded figure rises to some 400. Leigh is adept at displaying the full horror of what happens and engendering disgust at seeing peaceful people crushed by the establishment.

“Peterloo” is a mighty film that honors a long-remembered event in British history. However, it has one flaw. The ending is cheapened by looking in on royalty to show how disgustingly those who approved the killing act. Gleeful, buffoon-like behavior is a ridiculous caricature totally at odds with the realism of the rest of the film and comes across as a silly scene out of sync with Leigh’s otherwise mastery.

However, such is the overall power of “Peterloo” that the massacre is what will be most remembered from the film, as well it should be. Chalk up another important accomplishment for Mike Leigh. An Amazon release. Reviewed April 5, 2019.

WORKING WOMAN  Send This Review to a Friend

An engrossing film from Israel powerfully nails the problem of sexual harassment at the office. The film doesn’t shout its theme, but achieves enlightenment via the experience of one woman, Orna, played with great intelligence and overall appeal by Liron Ben Shlush. Step by step, the film, directed convincingly by Michal Aviad, who co-wrote the screenplay with Sharon Azulay Eyal and Michal Vinik, follows Orna’s humiliating experience and the need for her to move forward from it.

Orna is the wife of Ofer (Oshri Cohen), a chef struggling to run his own restaurant. She is the mother of three young children and wants to get a job to help Ofer and the family finances. She is attractive, very smart and learns quickly, so although she has no real estate experience, she is hired by an ambitious real estate developer, Benny (Menashe Noy). Recognizing her ability, he gives her a key opportunity, of which she speedily proves worthy by her talent and makes progress for Benny’s company.

It soon becomes clear that Benny is attracted to her and sure enough, he makes an advance by trying to kiss her. Orna, in this uncomfortable situation rejects him, but the battle ground is set, and Benny doesn’t give up. The cruncher comes when he asks her to join him in Paris to lure French buyers into an Israeli apartment construction in Israel. Orna must accept as part of her job.

When he pushes his way into Orna’s hotel room, Benny, acting like a pig, assaults her. The way in which the scene is depicted gets to the heart of a basic conflict in which women can find themselves. Orna resists, but pinned against a wall, physically overpowered and not knowing how to escape, she allows him to relieve himself rubbing against her.

Orna feels terrible about having permitted that to happen and the question is what and whether to tell her husband about her employee experience with Benny, and the film also explores that avenue.

Orna, although needing the money, decides she must leave, which angers Benny, who refuses to sign a letter of recommendation she needs for a new job. Orna’s courage in going to his home, where his wife is present, to seek his signature is an important step in recovering her self-esteem. I left the picture with a memory of the perfectly filmed, suspicious, knowing look on the face of Benny’s wife (Dorit Lev-Ari). A savvy touch.

“Working Woman” is not only a particularly fine film from Israel, but the drama it entails so efficiently speaks to women everywhere, and also to men who are in a position like that of Benny and need to know the pain they can inflict on a woman if they pursue temptation and become guilty of assault. Congratulations to those bringing this film to our country. A Zeitgeist Films release in association with Kino Lorber. Reviewed March 27, 2019.

HER SMELL  Send This Review to a Friend

Eisabeth Moss tears up the screen in her all-consuming role as Becky Something. Moss, a versatile actor, really is something as a 1990s punk rock star on the skids with her addiction to drugs and drink that sends her into a downward spin. One can read into her character in this film written and directed by Alex Ross Perry a resemblance to other rock wrecks.

The trouble is that “Her Smell” is mostly harrowing to watch. Becky is abusive to virtually everyone around her. The tantrums she throws as a result of her being such an emotional mess take their toll. One can sympathize with Becky, but watching her is distasteful, at least until we see a more peaceful side late in the film when she has managed to change.

Becky’s band colleagues are played by Agyness Deyn and Gayle Rankin, and the women go through hell. Becky has a baby daughter and is hardly equipped to care for her. Other characters include Becky’s mother, Becky’s ex, as well as the owner of the company that produces Becky’s records.

The film acknowledges Becky’s rock talent, but the portrait is one of not only talent going to waste, but of a human being disintegrating before our eyes. Despite the film’s expertise and candid observance of self-destruction and Moss’s go-for-broke performance, one can grow tired of watching such a depressing drama.

We do get some relief when we see Becky in her improved state. But there has already been enough ugliness for more than one movie. Still, the performance by Moss will deservedly be remembered. Reviewed April 15, 2019.

THE LAST  Send This Review to a Friend

Jeff Lipsky likes to make films that are different and with his latest, “The Last” he has gone all out. The film is not only unusual but it is likely to rile many viewers even though they may become absorbed in what’s going on. Consider what Lipsky puts forward in his drama.

A 92-year-old woman who came to America supposedly as a Jewish survivor from World War II confesses to a great grandson who has loved her that she is not really Jewish. What’s worse is that her mentor, Carl, a gynecologist to whom she looked up to, asked her to be a nurse at Auschwitz, where she assisted him in experiments on women and where he bore responsibility for many deaths. What’s astounding is that she still considers herself solidly German, refuses to apologize for her past, and even complains about over-emphasis on the Holocaust when so many others died besides Jews.

What’s tricky here is that the woman, Claire, is brilliantly acted by Rebecca Schull, and apart from what she has done—and that’s a big apart—comes across as contrastingly somewhat sympathetic, mainly because of the astute performance. Also, she reports that she has a terminal brain tumor and plans to die with help by going to Oregon, where someone has agreed to assist her.

Backtracking, the film delivers a view of a Jewish family and much discussion of religion with various views. There is Harry Dorman (Reed Birney), an agnostic and an artist, his Conservative wife Melody (Julie Fain Lawrence ), who writes obituaries for a local paper, and their Orthodox son Josh (AJ Cedeño), married to Olivia (Jill Durso), a Catholic who enthusiastically decided to convert to become a Jew.

The essence of what takes place occurs at a beach where Josh and Olivia have gone, and they connect with Claire, who, as they get into conversation, step by step tells of her past, including the sad background involving the death of her mother, and her encountering Carl, who looked after her as she grew up, eventually had sex with her and took her to Auschwitz. She feels justified in doing what she had to do to survive.

Josh is totally shocked. For one thing, he not only learns that he is not Jewish, but that, given the exposed family lineage via the daughter Claire had with Carl, his great grandfather was a Nazi war criminal. So was his beloved great grandmother, whom he would now like to be put on trial in Germany or Israel. The truth, of course, jolts others in the family.

More sympathetic, Olivia decides she wants to travel to Oregon with Claire to help her die there.

I don’t usually like scenes in which people talk aloud to the dead at cemetery graves. There is an overly extended one in which Melody visits the grave of her mother, who it turns out knew about Claire’s back story, and berates her as well as pours out a rush of feelings. Despite the convincing acting by Lawrence, the scene is grating as a device for letting us know her state of mind. Mom can’t hear her.

The saga of Claire isn’t supposed to be based on any real-life person. However, the film notes at the end that there was a real Dr. Carl Clauberg involved in war crimes, which apparently is the reason for the name of Claire’s Carl.

The calmest reaction to Claire’s confession is that of Harry, who decides to make a graphic novel of her story. As for an audience, despite Lipsky’s expertise and boldness in making the film and Schull‘s superb performance, there is basic discomfort in confronting the unrepentant character of Claire that Lipsky has invented and presented to us in another, unusual dimension of dealing with the aftermath of the Holocaust. A Glass Half Full Media release. Reviewed March 29, 2019.

ASH IS PUREST WHITE  Send This Review to a Friend

A fascinating look at social strata in modern China emerges via the personal stories told in writer-director Jia Zhang-Ke’s new film, “Ash is Purest White,” which was shown in the 2018 New York Film Festival and is now going into commercial release. The film provides a look at underworld characters bonding in their lifestyle of petty crime. It is also a love story. Importantly, it reveals fading old industries, much as occurs in mining areas of our own West Virginia, and there is eye-catching, sweeping cinematography of sections in China’s northwest. We see upscale types too, and displays of liking for Western-style music and dancing. There is much to behold in so many ways in Zhang-Ke’s striking achievement.

A special treat is the performance by actress Zhao Tao in the pivotal role of Qiao, a woman in love with local gang boss Bin. Tao, who is beautiful, portrays a strong woman who displays the stamina to withstand a five-year prison sentence after she fires shots in the air to rescue Bin from rival young hoodlums even though that reveals her illegally having a gun, but which is Bin’s. She insists the gun is hers and takes the rap for him.

Qiao is also a woman who must use her wits and determination after being released and finding that Bin has moved on in a relationship with another woman. Tao endows Qiao with special dignity in her determination to confront Bin. There is much pleasure to be found in Tao’s stunning performance.

Actor Liao Fan is also excellent as Bin in capturing the gangster’s need to be a big shot in his circle. He must have status, or otherwise he feels he is a broken man of no worth. It is a sensitive performance that earns some sympathy for Bin even though he is a thorough louse for abandoning Qiao after she sacrifices years of her life in prison after having saving him from a severe beating that could have resulted in his death.

Even with all of that heavy plotting, “Ash is Purest White" has its humor. While on a boat after her release from prison, a woman steals her purse and money. Qiao prowls among upscale family events and confronts a man with a story of a girlfriend being pregnant and needing money. After a rebuff by the man who has no such girlfriend, she hits on a guy for whom the story fits and makes him fear embarrassment, and she comes away with considerable cash. It is a funny but nervy display by Qiao.

(Her ploy reminds me of the joke that surfaced during the U.S. great depression, when hungry guys would pretend to be relatives or acquaintances to crash a wedding so they could be fed. “Are you on the bride’s side or the groom’s side?” an interloper was asked. “The bride’s side,” he ventured, only to be told, “Get the hell out of here—this is a bar mitzvah.”)

Qiao is ever resourceful and makes us feel for her when she finally does confront Bin, whom she still loves. In a delicate scene with long pauses he rejects her, but that is not the end of the situation. The film moves on in years and Bin, now a physically handicapped stroke victim, is back with the old group. So is Qiao.

If this were just a love story, the film would be arresting but comparatively limited. What’s special is how much we observe of the life in that part of China as we follow the story. The film is an eye-opener, and very rich in that respect. Supporting characters are well-played, contributing to the feeling of realism. The title itself, as I understand it, is metaphorical, referring to a conversation Qiao and BIn have about ash turning white when a volcano erupts, just as there is fallout when human life emotionally erupts. A Cohen Media Group release. Reviewed March 11, 2019.

THE CHAPERONE  Send This Review to a Friend

A roundabout take on the story of famed silent film actress Louise Brooks, “The Chaperone” approaches her life via a drama involving a woman who takes the responsibility in 1922 of accompanying young Louise to New York. The film is more attuned to the experiences of the chaperone, as the title implies.

The setting starts out in Wichita, Kansas. Norma, played by Elizabeth McGovern, is a prim and proper woman who longs for some adventure. Louise, 15 at the time, shows promising talent and gets the opportunity to study dance in New York. Norma becomes her chaperone. She doesn’t realize what a handful Louise will quickly become.

Louise, portrayed with much teenage spirit by Haley Lu Richardson, is hell-bent on having fun and becoming older than her years. She likes to flirt, live it up and throw off restraints. It’s the era for hell-raising, and Norma finds Louise more than she can handle.

Of course, what develops in the screenplay by Julian Fellowes, based on a book by Laura Moriarty, is what happens to Norma in her new surroundings far from Kansas. Director Michael Engler follows the trail with restraint, and we are meant to become wrapped in Norma’s life even while following the fortunes of Louise.

As the years pass, Norma still feels a responsibility to her charge. Eventually, when Louise has descended into malaise, Norma visits and tries to steer her into bouncing back. The film by that time also needs to bounce back from its failure to ignite deep emotional interest in either of its main characters, although the sincere performance that McGovern gives merits respect. A Masterpiece Films release. Reviewed March 29, 2019.

THE AFTERMATH  Send This Review to a Friend

In “The Aftermath,” directed by James Kent and adapted by writers Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse from a novel by Rhidian Brook, there is a mix of charisma and lack of credibility. The result is a film that gains from its star performances but seems thoroughly contrived.

The setting is bombed out Hamburg in 1945 after the defeat of Hitler. A high-ranking British officer, Lewis Morgan, played with authority by Jason Clark, has commandeered a large country house that stands in stately fashion in contrast to the city ruins that have left Germans scrambling for food and protesting in the streets.

Lewis has sent for his wife, Rachael, played by the ever-fascinating Keira Knightley. She arrives with bitter hostility toward Germans, fueled, we eventually learn, by the loss of their son in a German bombing of Britain. Her wrath is immediately addressed toward Stefan Lubert (Alexander Skarsgård), owner of the house, who has moved upstairs with his rebellious daughter, Freda, played by Flora Thiemann. Stefan’s wife and Freda’s mother has been killed in the war and both continue to be grief-stricken.

This is the sort of film in which the minute you see Rachael’s anger toward Stefan, you know that she’ll wind up having sex with him. Horniness very quickly overtakes hatred. Even allowing for the overwhelming power of sexual attraction, the speedy switch in Rachael’s emotions seems unlikely.

All occurs against a background of Rachael and Lewis being deeply wounded by the loss of their son and driven apart by feelings of guilt and blame. That is supposed to explain and justify Rachael’s cheating. In this kind of film, one also can assume early on that there will be eventual healing. Predictability is a hallmark of “The Aftermath.”

There is a subplot involving Stefan’s daughter’s romance with a young still-committed Nazi and his desire to kill Lewis, which introduces a weak thriller aspect.

There is a lavish look to “The Aftermath,” with Rachael’s wardrobe contrasting to the poverty in the streets of Hamburg.

All three leads—Knightly, Skarsgård and Clarke—are compelling actors. While they connect with us as performers, they cannot vanquish the contrived story that is basically just a romance film set amidst the ruins of war and the ruins of the screenplay. A Fox Searchlight Pictures release. Reviewed March 15, 2019.

HOTEL MUMBAI  Send This Review to a Friend

Having once stayed at the elegant hotel Taj Mahal Palace in Mumbai, India, before the much-publicized terror attack, I was naturally curious about seeing “Hotel Mumbai,” director Anthony Maras’ take on the coordinated slaughter that occurred in the city of Mumbai in November, 2008. The screenplay was written by John Collee and Maras.

The result is a taut drama that stresses victims and heroes against the background of Islamic terrorists from Pakistan who believe what they are doing will make a difference in the world. There is the ordinary technique of recounting events as hostages are taken and the terrorists become hemmed in, and that is set against the wider background of parallel terrorist actions within the city during four days of carnage.

The basics are laid out in a recounting of what various characters were doing that day. For example, Dev Patel plays Arjun, a waiter who is threatened to be sent home because he is wearing sandals. But his superior relents. The waiter will become a hero.

Foreigners are particularly targeted. They include Armie Hammer as David and Nazanin Boniadi as his wife Zahra. They have a baby, which brings in Tilda Cobham-Hervey as their nanny, Sally. She is to look after the baby as the parents dine in a fancy restaurant at the Taj. You know they all will go through hell.

The trouble with the film is that much is predictable in the saga, in which some 174 people, including terrorists, were killed and 300 wounded in the various operations in Mumbai before the terror could be brought to a halt. One interesting aspect is that the terrorists in the hotel are in touch electronically with their commander who keeps urging them to kill and take hostages, especially foreigners. There are only momentary doubts among the invaders, one of whom may not want to die for the cause.

The film depicts how the counter-attack is hampered by the long delay in forces arriving from Delhi. But the battle rages on, taking us on a suspenseful journey in the various parts of the hotel under siege and the efforts on the part of the staff to find sections of safety for the guests and to free hostages. The events are depicted efficiently, including the massive rescue efforts. In the end one comes away with the chilling realization of how vulnerable society remains when committed terrorists armed to the teeth with guns and explosives are willing to sacrifice their lives to carry out a mission of inflicting the maximum casualties. A Bleecker Street release. Reviewed March 22, 2019.

THE HUMMINGBIRD PROJECT  Send This Review to a Friend

The competitive Wall Street world of high finance provides a platform for Jesse Eisenberg to go all out as an actor, from conspiring to get a time advantage to his falling part emotionally from the stress of what he is attempting. It is a role that enables Eisenberg to pull out all the stops.

The film by writer-director Kim Nguyen is built around a scheme that Eisenberg as Vincent Zaleski concocts with his spacey cousin Anton, played by Alexander Skarsgård. Michael Mando as Marc Vega has the tech savvy needed.

Vincent has been working for the company run by Salma Hayek as Eva Torres. She is not someone to cross. When she gets wind of what Vincent is up to, she musters her know-how and determination to wage a vigorous battle to foul up Vincent’s dream.

In the world of stock market trading time is of the essence. Vincent has figured out that by running a cable from Kansas to stock exchange connections in New Jersey, he can have a brief speed-trading advantage that can earn millions of dollars. But the engineering is formidable. The line must cross extremely difficult terrain above and below ground. A little thing like a mountain can’t stand in the way. Also required is a backer lured to cover mounting expenses.

With the battle lines drawn, we watch Vincent working feverishly and step by step coming apart. But will he succeed? The film works up a degree of suspense, but the entire scheme seems too outrageous to pull off from its very start. Hayek makes the most of her obstreperous role. A The Orchard release. Reviewed March 15, 2019.

GLORIA BELL  Send This Review to a Friend

Director Sebastian Lelio, with an adapted screenplay that Alice Johnson Boher wrote with him, has remade his poignant “Gloria,” shifting the story from Chile to Los Angeles and presenting Julianne Moore in the title role of a divorced woman looking for happiness.

Moore is a formidable actress, who makes Gloria come vividly alive as she loves to dance and hopes to meet a nice guy. Moore’s performance contributes freshness to this reincarnation, although my memory is that the story set in Chile had a harder edge. John Turturro is compelling as Arnold, the man who comes into her life. Together they give the film heft and poignancy, and the overall effect is that “Gloria Bell” seems thoroughly original and stands on its own as if one had never heard about or seen the original.

The problem Gloria faces is that Arnold, who says he is divorced from his wife but not his two daughters, is that his loyalty to those daughters trumps his loyalty to Gloria, whom he sincerely comes to love.

He feels humiliated in a scene in which Gloria, who has two grown children of her own, attends a birthday party at which her ex-husband and his new mate are there, and pictures of Gloria and her ex are dragged out, which much chatter about when they were in love. Arnold quite properly feels totally left out and ignored and quietly leaves.

There is a breakup and a reunion, and Arnold takes Gloria on a trip, but it turns out to be a disaster when he gets a demanding call from one of his daughters. Gloria must find a way to assert herself and carry on as a woman composed with a new sense of dignity even though her quest for love is still unfulfilled. There is a very funny send-off into the next phase of her life, which we don’t see, but might make for a sequel.

In the course of her sexual relationship with Arnold, there is a scene in which Moore sits for a long time with her breasts exposed. Is that really necessary? Moore seems to be cool with that sort of exposure. In a film by Robert Altman she stood with her lower body exposed and subsequently quipped in an interview that Altman received a double boon because, she noted, her hair is naturally red.

Nudity aside, Julianne’s performance is profound and touching one that earns sympathy and hope that Gloria will permanently find Mr. Right, who would lavish her with the love and respect that she deserves. Turturro’s Arnold almost makes the grade but emotionally he simply isn’t free. An A24 release. Reviewed March 13, 2019.

  

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