Weekend Recap (Part 1): A New-To-DVD Release – “Tales From The Grim Sleeper” + My First of Two Trips To The Movies – “About Elly” (6/5-6/6)

It was exciting news to me when I heard that documentarian Nick Broomfield had a new film out.Having alfeady seen many of his previous documentaries and liked; the Kurt Cobian/Courtney Love documentary – “Kurt and Courtney” (1998), his probing look into the life, work, and deaths of the Notorious B.I.G and Tupac in “Biggie and Tupac” (2002), and finally, one that he is probably the most known for – “Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer” (2003) about the trial of the Florida serial killer Aileen Wuornos which that same year later whose story was made into and released as a feature film in the Charlize Theron Oscar-winning “Monster”.

His newest documentary, commissioned by HBO films, “Tales of The Grim Sleeper” (which first aired on HBO in late April and continues to weekly, so get out your TIVO) brings the British documentarian to Los Angeles to try to uncover the truth about the infamous case of the serial killer known as the “Grim Sleeper”, otherwise known as Lonnie Franklin, who terrorized one small corner of the city for almost 25 years and is on trial for the murder of 10 women, but who was believed to be responsible for the death and or various other crimes against 170 more. The question the documentary poses is how could a man, who at the time of his arrest at 60+ years of age, manage to go on a killing spree for twenty five years without having ever been investigated into in all of that time? However many people in the very poor section of his lower, working class neighborhood (if you even want to call it that – 50% of its inhabitants are unemployed) and moreover why almost the entire community knew about it for most of his long 25-year run but never spoke up about it. And in turn asks questions about this section of L.A.’s local police force and why they stayed away and turned a blind eye for so many years to what was actually going on, while on top of that asking us as viewers should they have even cared. You see, Lonnie Franklin aka “The Grim Sleeper” focused solely on capturing, having sex with, and most likely killing young women, most of whom were prostitutes and addicted to crack cocaine. At the risk of sounding apathetic and for someone who values human life, no matter what their place and function within society is, are we talking about “disposable” lives here? That’s just one of the many questions the documentary poses (indirectly as it certainly doesn’t take the stance that the killings were somehow warranted). In typical Broomfield fashion this is another rather impressive, though bleak and at times difficult to watch viewing as we hear countless interviews from ex-prostitutes who encountered the man but somehow managed to get away. If you, like me, are into the “crime” documentary genre, this is something you should eat up as it’s thought-provoking, gripping, and does what only the best documentaries do – show a 2-sided argument that raises many questions, those of which you should be pondering over well after its final credits have rolled. [B+]

Next up we have the latest film, “About Elly” (or shall I say “re-release”, as the film was originally made in 2009 but not released theatrically in the States until just recently), by one of the world’s most renowned filmmakers – Iranian born Asghar Farhadi, who wowed critics, audiences and the Academy alike with his Oscar winning 2011 Best Foreign Language film – “A Separation”. A film many critics consider to be the best foreign film of the past 15 years (and rightfully so). I was almost equally impressed by his follow up, 2013’s “The Past”, another film about the devastating effects on what pivotal life decisions can have on all others involved in them. What I enjoy so much about Farhadi’s work, which admittedly was limited to just the two prior aforementioned films, is that they bring back the true essence of “family drama” and everything that the genre used to do so well. In fact, before being introduced to Farhadi I can honestly say the last high quality family drama that probeed into similar territory, which also happens to be one of my favorite films of all time, was way back in 2001 with the release of Todd Field’s Academy Award-winning “In The Bedroom”. A brilliant and breathtaking film with a deep emotional core that I find myself revisiting almost yearly in the past 15 years or so. Like, “In The Bedroom”, Farhadi’s films, again with the addition of his newest (or again shall I say re-release) mostly exists inside its own universe, tackling a single act and the tragic set of events that follow. As said events transpire in each film each of his characters are revealed, motivations, and agendas are exposed. But many of them are decisions that are steeped in moral values, ethics, and each person’s beliefs, many deeply rooted in a cultural code which permeates throughout each of Farhadi’s films. “About Elly” draws comparisons to “A Separation” and “The Past” in this respect, but rather than focus on a single family, as the other films do, here we find him exploring these same themes but within a much larger group of people consisting of college colleagues who visit the seashore and bring along one of the women’s children’s teachers, the titular character, Elly, who winds up going missing after a critical incident that takes place, and in its examination of events that transpire following, shows the effects it has on each of its characters. Like with all of Farhadi’s films, it depicts how we as people, tend to want place blame on any one other than ourselves, and shows how this can have devastating effects on everyone involved. It’s another impressive, yet minor addition to the Farhadi oeuvre, and while at times it felt a bit slight and overlong, it always was engaging and compelling enough to allow me to recommend it. Particularly because of the flawless acting on display and deep themes in which it chooses to explore. Yet, as someone who considers themselves to be a huge admirer of the director’s work, overall if felt a bit more like a precursor piece to his more recent work, the latter of which ranks among the best that international cinema has to offer. [B]

Advertisements

Weekend Recap: 3 New-To-DVD Releases – “The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst” (TV Mini-Series), “Winter Sleep”, and “Results” (5/30-5/31)

I thought I would change things up here a bit on the website and switch up the format so I could review several movies all in one as opposed to writing a separate review for each and every single film I watch. For a cinephile like myself, I’ve found that the prior format, while enjoyable, was a bit daunting for both myself as a writer and for my followers as readers. Also, I found myself skipping over reviewing certain films that I’ve seen entirely, as to review them all would just be much too much work for the amount of time that my life allows. This way, I can write shortened reviews which will make it more realistic time-wise for both myself, and condense them as well which hopefully will make them a bit more accessible for people to read. As always with anything I do with the site, any feedback that people have whether good or bad is always much appreciated.

The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst Movie Poster

First off was the 6-part documentary “The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst”, or otherwise known as simply “The Jinx”. This 6-part series debuted on HBO back in February, and since I’m about as out-of-touch with what’s on cable TV these days (I haven’t had cable in almost a decade) I just now got to this series that I had been hearing a lot about from many people whose consensus was that it was a must see. It’s directed by Andrew Jarecki, whose previous work was the 2003 Oscar nominated documentary “Capturing The Friedmans” as well as the mostly forgettable Ron Gosling and Kirsten Dunst box office flop “All Good Things” (2010). A movie that must have left so little of an impression on me that I didn’t even put two and two together that it was a fictionalized account of a based on a true story about New York City real estate mogul Robert Durst. Durst, unlike the film’s critics, was apparently so impressed by the film that he offered himself to be interviewed by its director Jarecki, hoping to clear his name after four decades and three accusations into murders that he claims he was innocent of (well, with the exception of one you could say, where it was proved that he did it but ultimately was acquitted of because it was found to be out of “self-defense” – one of the highlights but also one of the most disturbing parts about the story).

In a nutshell, this was one of the better documentaries I had seen in quite some time. The presentation of the material is spot on, and like last year’s Oscar-winning documentary about Edward Snowden “Citizenfour”, we are given unprecedented access to fly-on-the-wall interviews with Durst, juxtaposed with the presentation of all of the background material humanely possible, from the disappearance of both his first wife and the murder of his girlfriend, to the third victim, a neighbor, of whom I spoke of above. I thought the beauty of it lay in its presentation of the material, as each episode probes and plunges further and further into every single aspect and detail of all three cases, interwoven with candid interviews from almost everybody involved – friends of the missing and deceased, lawyers, private investigators, police, etc. But even more importantly, the intimate one-on-one interviews between documentarian Jarecki and Durst himself, who prior to this documentary, had never cooperated with the media never mind allow himself to be filmed over several interviews spanning over the course of a year. This is about as good as investigative journalism gets. And everything from the editing to the music, to the way in which the story unfolds, is top notch. Culminating with a jaw gaping conclusion which doesn’t necessarily come as a surprise, but the way in which it comes about needs to be seen to be believed. This is A rate documentary filmmaking and investigative journalism, in a story that I embarassingly admit I knew little to next to nothing about prior to my watching it, but following it’s final episode, I was like cement stuck to my couch as I really didn’t quite know what to make of the whole thing other than that I thought it was nothing short of exemplary. And currently stands at my #1 spot for Best Documentary that I’ve seen so far this year. [A-]

Next up was the Turkish film “Winter Sleep” by director Nuri Bilge Ceylan (2011’s “Once Upon a Time in Anatolia”). A film that took home the Palme d’Or (Best Picture) at last year’s Cannes Film Festival. Admittedly I had been pushing this one off for quite some time mostly because of its running time, which clocks in at 3 hours and 17 minutes. But considering how much I loved both “Once Upon a Time” and the director’s 2006 “Climates”, it was just a matter of time before I sat down and fully invested myself in it. The story loosely revolves around a philathropist who owns a hotel in the Turkish mountains outside of Istanbul and lives with both his sister and much younger wife. As well as several of the other townspeople. A recently released man from prison, his brother, and their son, are the other major players that encompass the central story within the film.

Like the works of the Russian director Andrey Zvyaginstev (“Leviathan”) and Asghar Farhadi (“A Separation”) the film explores very deep and profound themes involving interpersonal relationships between family, friends, and foes. While it involved many characters it mostly centers around its central character, the philanthropist and hotel owner Aydin, who sees himself as a man of strict morals and principles. Which are tested throughout the course of the film in what essentially becomes one conversation after another throughout it’s 3 hour plus run time. A lot of people, including myself, might be turned off by a film that’s practically entirely dialogue driven and very little happens in terms of action. That is if the dialogue wasn’t so damn interesting the character development so spot on and pitch perfect. As through each conversation the story reveals more and more about Aydin’s character, which I found utterly fascinating as the story progressed, I found myself more and more engaged to the point where I forgot about its running time. If you, like myself, are a fan of international cinema this is about as high up there on the ladder that it gets. Well deserving might I add of its coveted Palme d’Or win at Cannes 2014. [A-]

Last up was the indie rom-com “Results” which came out this past Friday on VOD, the same day as it was released in theaters. I had seen a trailer for it before a movie I had seen recently, and thought it looked surprisingly rather clever for a genre which I have a guilty pleasure for but am often let down by. It revolves around three central characters – Guy Pearce, the local owner of a gym (who never before has been funnier, here showing that he can do comedy just as well as he can do drama), Cobie Smulders (a breakout gorgeous talent, who reminds me of a Olivia Wilde or Rosemarie Dewitt) his late twentysomething personal trainer who he employs and consequently also has a fling on the side with, and Kevin Corrigan’s too rich for his own good bachelor, the aging fat schlub who reminded me of a character Paul Giamatti would have played back in his “American Splendor” (2003) and “Sideways” (2004) days. The three of them, by way of a series of hilarious events that transpire, wind up in a sort of menage a trois (not literally, but rather figuratively) with plenty of laughs galore. This was a smart, highly entertaining, somewhat satirical look into the lives of personal trainers, and one rich, seemingly naive man, who comes in and complicates the lives of those around him. Resulting in a comedy that’s cleverly written and much smarter than the average romcom. In fact, following on the footheels of last year’s films like “Obvious Child” and “Begin Again”, this was the best of its kind I’ve seen out of the genre since then. And is highly recommended if you’re looking for something lite or if you want to impress your significant other on a date night. It’s very funny, heartfelt, and touching enough, and so far, at least of the films I’ve seen so far this year out of the genre (which admittedly is very few) ranks among its best. [B/B+]

A Trip To The Movies – “Citizenfour” 11.22.14

I chose to take a trip out to the movies to see this for a number of different reasons. First, was that it was executive produced by Steven Soderbergh. Which who anybody that knows me well enough knows that anything he gives his stamp of approval on is an automatic must see. Second, was the aggregate score ratings that I was seeing on websites like imdb.com and metacritic.com. What struck me about this film in particular was that usually when a film is weeks away from its release, its aggregate score is much higher only to then drop considerably a few days prior when it’s screened for all critics. In the case of this film I saw that scores were actually rising weeks after its release. Which is both unusual and incredibly rare, that I figured what I was witnessing here was a film that was slowly building an audience by mere word of mouth. At that point I decided to go ahead and make plans to see it. Lastly, I had noticed that Oscar winning composers Trent Reznor from Nine Inch Nails and British composer Atticus Ross, fresh off their string of David Fincher films (“The Social Network”, “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo”, and this year’s “Gone Girl”), wrote the music for it. I thought that maybe I was on to something truly special here. But with something that was slightly shrouded in mystery since like I do with most films, including documentaries, I rely solely on who the director is for feature films and aggregate scores/ratings for documentaries. Not really knowing anything about it, even the topic or subject that which it chose to focus on, this was yet another film that I pretty much walked into with a blank slate hoping that I would be surprised.

The films opens with Glenn Greenwald, a British journalist for The Guardian, who’s comminicating with a man via the internet in a number of emails about potentially covering a story about one of the biggest news scandals of the 21st century which he hopes to expose. We then meet the second and single most integral person in covering the story, documentarian filmmaker Laura Poitras. After a series of instructions on where to find said source who hopes to expose the story both Poitras and Greenwald wind up in Hong Kong. It is there that we meet 29-year old Edward Snowden, a former NSA (National Security Agency) intelligence officer for the United States who has fled with numerous files of information showing the government’s role in breaking the law by setting up illegal wiretaps on almost every big telecommunication conglomerate in the United States. Which also happens to be one of the biggest human rights and civil liberties violations in the history of this country. Certainly that of the 21st century. Through a series of interviews in Snowden’s Hong Kong hotel room where he is hiding Poitras, Greenwald, and another journalist strategically plan out how they are going to leak this information to the rest of the world. As each day passes more and more information is collected, as is with each interview we listen to Snowden reveals more and more information about the shocking abuses of power of national security. While preparing himself for the inevitable witch hunt that is sure to follow once the information comes out.

This is an extraordinary documentary that resembles just as much of a non-fiction feature film that it does a conventional documentary. What I mean by that it seems to change the criteria of what we expect from the documentary format as a medium and includes elements that seem like they are straight out of a feature film. Unlike a conventional documentary, we are presented with evidence based facts coming straight from the subject himself, as it plays itself out in real time. Usually more conventional types of documentaries either talk about the subject post-humously with a serious of interviews from people who either know or knew about them thereby creating an agenda or a subjective opinion that sometimes is forced upon the viewer. This documentary is entirely different than almost any one that I’ve seen because we are shown the trajectory of the leaking of information exactly as it happened. That and we are given complete access to the whole proceeding, as the obviously very talented director Poitras is one of 2 sources; Greenwald being the other, who spend every hour of every day documenting the incredibly brilliant 29-year old Snowden. Something that is so rarely seen in documentaries. Particularly political ones that has this much riding on the line. This leak of information about illegal abuses of power by the NSA and other counterintelligence agencies is baffling. Because we are given unprecendented access to all of the information straight from the source we start to really understand how huge the whole thing really is. The interviews and access to information that Snowden provides us with is very well presented and pre-calculated. As the story unfolds and the information is leaked, the situation gets more and more desperate for Snowden, as almost every counterintelligemnce agency from America to Japan starts to target him as the main suspect, and pretty soon neither the director Poitras or the journalist Greenwald are allowed contact with him. As the entire counterintelligence world starts to slowly inch closer and closer to locating him. You yourself as an audience viewer experience the same (well, almost) level of fear and paranoia that everybody who’s involved with the whistleblower seems to be experiencing. Which is the film’s greatest strength, to put you right there in real time and acts as an almost emotional rollercoaster as the events before you take place. There were times that I was so engaged, with my mind’s light switch on tracing the story as it unfolded, that I literally had a physical response to it in that I felt my body temperature getting colder and just about every hair on my body raise up. Like something out of a psychological thriller or borderline horror movie. The last third of the film where the news starts to go viral and the tension surmounts to such a high level was probably the first time I had feelings similar to that since Soderbergh’s “Contagion” (2011). Another film that explores how fast something can spread (in the case of that film a disease) since we are all wired in technologically on a global scale. Regardless of how you felt about Snowden at the time this information was exposed, or are like me and were a Snowden “novice” before seeing the film. This is an essential piece of cinema that practically reinvents the documentary format, and bridges the gap between that of it and feature film. All the while presenting us with one of the most shocking revelations of the violations of civil liberties that’s taken place in post-9/11 America. This is a brilliant documentary that is one of the year’s best behind the Steve James Roger Ebert documentary “Life Itself” and is sure to please both feature film moviegoers and fans of documentaries alike. This is one that is sure to pick up a Best Documentary nomination at the 2015 Oscars. See it and I can assure you with no doubt in my mind that you won’t be left disappointed.

[A-]

A Trip To The Movies – Review: ‘Sepideh’ 11.2.14

This film was playing locally as part of a new series of films called “Human Rights: Voices in Film” which is playing out over the course of the rest of this month. It’s a series whose purpose is to shed light on and bring a focus on International cinema depicting different struggles, adversities, and people overcoming them. It happened to catch my eye not only because it sounded like a good story. But I genuinely believe that in order to call yourself a real fan of cinema. It’s essential that you integrate foreign films that center around important issues facing people of the modern day world if you’re really going to call yourself a true lover of film. So for this reason and just that it looked something interesting and slightly different than what I’m used to I made it a priority to see it.

The story centers around a young Iranian girl named Sepideh, who has a passion for Astronomy that’s pretty incredible and truly amazing given the culture that she is raised in and also for the mere fact that she’s high school aged. Throughout the film, we learn the challenges that Sepideh faces along with that of her family. In the part of Iran in which she lives in it’s very hard economically for anyone, like her loving mother, to wish for much of anything than to maybe own a piece of land someday. Never mind go to a university to become an astronomer with the hopes of one day becoming an astronaut herself and getting the opportunity to go into space. Like the first Iranian woman Anoushesh Ansari, who she happens to idolize and who goes on to play a key component in the film. Is this passion of hers a dream that is realistic or even something attainable outside from maybe Ansari, who was the first and only Iranian woman to take flight? All odds point against her, and what the movie then goes on to explore is if you truly are passionate enough about something to chase your dream; a feat that only a small contingency of people actually really go on to do, is it even possible when all of life’s forces seem to be working against you?

I thought “Sepideh” was a beautiful film. From its great cinematography and images of space, to its exploration of what women face, specifically that of a young woman, if they grew up in a culture where they’re born into a society where their life has already been predetermined for them. It’s an amazing story of how to chase your dreams while overcoming all odds. I also found it very interesting how incredibly bright Sepideh was given that she was only 16-17 at the time of filming. She’s incredibly well spoken, determined, and is very wise above her years. Unlike American girls her age you don’t find Sepideh chasing boys at her local shopping mall or playing on her smart phone (she still has to go to a computer lab to use the Internet). That would just be too juvenile for someone of Sepideh’s intellect. I found it’s treatment of both her and her family’s problems they face to be identifiable and really to be universal ones no matter what society, class, or culture you are raised into. Lastly, was the filmmaker’s ability to be able to bring you into Sepideh’s world straight from the get go and make you immediately care from her and really make you as a viewer go along for the ride in every step of the process where you really want to see her succeed. There were various points throughout the film where I personally shared both Sepideh’s emotions towards her achievements, setbacks, and overall hurdles; that I had a lump in my throat because it was so important for me to see her succeed. This was a real gem of a find and a film that really resonated with me long after the credits rolled. And even despite a mostly predictable ending, this is one film that I would call not even an important piece of cinema, but one that I’d even go so far as to call it a required viewing for those looking for a truly good and inspirational story that’s outside of the confines of what we unfortunately get more and more from out of Hollywood cinema these days. This to me, on a very simple level, was an incredible breath of fresh air.

[strong B]

Review: ‘How To Make Money Selling Drugs’ 6.8.14

Another incredibly insightful glimpse into the US Drug War, except this time with a specific focus on “the game” unlike its more recent companion pieces like ‘The House I Live In’ or ‘Narco Cultura’. This took a rather interesting approach in that it showed you by ways of a caste system (or in the movie they split them up into “levels”, almost like a video game) of how one can become a small-time street corner dealer all the way to owning and operating a drug cartel. At first I thought this was a “pro-drug” documentary, and I felt myself being a little turned off by it. It was almost like a “how to” of becoming a dealer which I found to be a bit of putting but moreover controversial, if seen by the wrong demographic. But then there’s a paradigm shift about two thirds of the way through, in which it starts to focus on the ever flailing (and failing) War Against Drugs, but also goes into great detail with intimate interviews about the decline of some of the interviewees, as a result of having been involved in the game. It’s got some great archival footage mixed with some good interviews with people such as 50-Cent, Marshall Mathers (Eminem), Susan Sarandon, and Rusell Simmons, all of whom have fought in recent years to revoke the “Mandatory Minimum Sentencing” laws, and/or have dealt with a drug problem in their lives. An insightful documentary, and one that you should seek out if you even have a remote interest in the topic. Seeing as every one of our lives have been and are affected by it, in some shape or form.

Grade: B+