The top movies to see in March

The films that impressed Monitor film critic Peter Rainer this month include ‘The Highwaymen’ and ‘Ash Is Purest White.’

Courtesy of Netflix
Woody Harrelson (l.) and Kevin Costner star in ‘The Highwaymen,’ a retelling of ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ from the point of view of the lawmen who hunted the Depression-era outlaws.

A documentary about Orson Welles’ artwork and the fictional story of a convict who forms a bond with a horse are two of the films that won over Monitor film critic Peter Rainer during March.

‘Ash Is Purest White’ burns with quiet, incandescent force

In the extraordinary Chinese director Jia Zhangke’s “Ash Is Purest White,” there is not a moment when one does not experience the moment-to-moment passage of time, its slow sweep and quiet epiphanies. This is not the sort of movie that offers up immediate gratifications, though there are some of those. Instead, it moves along with a steady grace. Its ruminative power creeps up on you.

We are first introduced to Bin (Liao Fan), a small-time gangster, or jianghu, in the coal mining village of Shanxi. His girlfriend, Qiao, played by Jia’s wife, Zhao Tao, who has appeared in almost all of his nondocumentary movies, enjoys being a gangster’s moll. Bin is brutally set upon by a rival gang and she saves his life when she disperses the attackers by firing an illegal gun into the air. Because she was in possession of an illegal firearm, she receives a five-year prison sentence. Bin never visits her in prison and is a no-show when she is finally released. With an almost fated compulsion, she sets out along the Yangtze River, to a village at the foot of the Three Gorges Dam, to find him. Zhao is remarkable in a complex role that, by the end, reveals what she is fully capable of.

Jia’s movies, which also include “A Touch of Sin” and (my favorites) “Still Life” and “The World,” all express in varying degrees his abiding theme: China’s transition from traditionalism to the corruptions of freewheeling capitalism. He can be heavy-handed about this, and I’ve never quite understood why such a progressive artist should hold such nostalgia for a time when the Cultural Revolution was still in force. Thankfully, “Ash Is Purest White” is among the least didactic of Jia’s films. Grade: A- (This movie is not rated.)

‘Transit’ unfolds an imperiled world with echoes of our own

Christian Petzold’s “Transit” is a fascinating paradox: an anti-romantic romance. It may have the surface trappings of a “Casablanca,” but it’s closer to “Vertigo.” 

The source material, about French refugees fleeing the Nazis, is a 1944 novel, set two years earlier, by the celebrated German-Jewish expatriate writer Anna Seghers. By contrast, Petzold’s film takes place in a vaguely present-day limbo. Georg (Franz Rogowski, who looks remarkably like Joaquin Phoenix and has some of the same striking presence) is asked to smuggle identity papers to a famous German author named Weidel but he discovers that Weidel has committed suicide. Georg makes it to the sun-baked seaport of Marseilles with the intention of locating Weidel’s wife, Marie (Paula Beer). There he is mistaken for Weidel by the American consul. And so begins an impersonation that has the deliberate trappings of a Kafka nightmare.

If Petzold had simply filmed Seghers’s novel as a wartime period piece, it would have lacked resonance. But he recognizes the story’s expansive contemporary allusions. He’s too cagey a filmmaker to hit you over the head with these allusions, and yet there are moments when only the most blatant symbolism will do. Grade: A- (In German and French with English subtitles.)

‘The Eyes of Orson Welles’ focuses on director’s artwork

“The Eyes of Orson Welles” is a digressive, idiosyncratic, and altogether fascinating documentary by Mark Cousins. The focus of the new film is Welles’ little-known artwork: the sketches, watercolors, and oil paintings that he rendered throughout his life. It seems almost comically unfair that, given his great gifts as director and actor, Welles should also, as it turns out, be a marvelous artist. 

The crux of Cousins’ movie is that Welles the filmmaker was first and foremost a visualist. Still, Cousins goes in for a lot of wild speculation. He had access to a treasure-trove of material from Welles’ youngest daughter, Beatrice, as well as material from archives at the University of Michigan. They include storyboard sketches Welles made for several of his films. Seeing the sketchbook origins of a scene is like being privy to the first stirrings of a great symphony. 

I hope that, just as there was a book last year of Stanley Kubrick’s great early work as a still photographer, some enterprising publisher will see fit to grace us with a thick tome of Welles’ entrancing artwork. Grade: B+ (This movie is not rated.)

‘The Highwaymen’ retells ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ story

“Bonnie and Clyde” is one of the landmarks of Hollywood cinema, so it takes a healthy dose of chutzpah to revisit that territory. “The Highwaymen” does just that – sort of. Instead of focusing on the two elusive outlaws whose two-year bank-robbing spree galvanized Depression-era America, it retells the story from the point of view of the lawmen who ambushed and killed them. Is it as good as “Bonnie and Clyde”? Of course not. But it’s a solid, straightforward piece of work featuring a pair of first-rate, lived-in performances by Kevin Costner and Woody Harrelson that lift the film above its class. 

Movies about violence rarely deal with its psychological consequences. Just pull the trigger and move on. In “The Highwaymen,” the filmmakers give violence its due. The film also functions as a kind of counterweight to the folk hero myth that “Bonnie and Clyde” perpetuated. 

One more word about Costner: His performance in this film, coming after his fine work in TV’s “Yellowstone” as well as the films “Hidden Figures” and “Molly’s Game,” among many others, is yet another note-perfect rendition. At his best, Costner both exalts and complicates the strong and silent types who crowd, often to diminishing effect, so much of our American movie mythology. Grade: B+ (Rated R for some strong violence and bloody images.)

Performances in ‘The Mustang’ have the sharp tang of authenticity

The background for “The Mustang,” starring Matthias Schoenaerts, is a federal government program in which, to control overpopulation, several hundred wild stallions are periodically rounded into holding facilities and trained by prison inmates for sale at public auctions. This might seem like a fairly unpromising setting for a movie, but this debut feature by Laure de Clermont-Tonnere is a solid, if somewhat predictable, drama about a convict, Schoenaerts’ Roman Coleman, who bonds with a mustang while serving out his prison time in the Nevada desert. 

The director has a good eye for semidocumentary detail, and the performances, which also include Bruce Dern as a veteran trainer, Gideon Adlon as Roman’s estranged daughter, and especially Jason Mitchell as a fellow inmate and trick rider, all have the sharp tang of authenticity. Grade: B+ (Rated R for language, some violence, and drug content.)

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