Weekend Recap (Part 2): The Second Trip To The Movies – “Clouds of Sils Maria” + A New-To-DVD Release – “The Seven Five” (6.7)

Clouds of Sils Maria - Poster

Today marked my fourth movie of the weekend, and the second I ventured out to the theater to see. Olivier Assayas’ “Clouds of Sils Maria” had been on my radar since it was picked as the opening night debut film at last year’s Cannes Film Festival and was up for competition as a Palme d’Or nominee. Not only that, but I had seen many of the French director’s previous works: films like “Irma Vep” (1996), “Demonlover” (2002), “Boarding Gate” (2007), and 2010’s epic masterpiece “Carlos” – which was presented in 2 forms: as a cable TV-Miniseries or a shortened 2-part film. Assayas is another in the long list of French directors (Gasper Noe, the Dardennes, and Jacques Audiard) (to name a few) that I anticipate their releases with much enthusiasm as I become more and more familiar with their body of work.

“Clouds of Sils Maria” boasts an incredible female cast with Juliette Binoche (probably the most famous French actress of our time), Kristen Stewart (whose career trajectory post the “Twilight” franchise is showing some serious promise), and Chloe Grace Moretz (of “Let Me In” and the “Kick Ass” movies). It revolves around a famous movie and stage actress (played by Binoche) who is given the opportunity to play a lead part of an older woman in a play that brought her international success when she played the other lead part in the same play of a much younger woman 20 years prior. The playwright unexpectedly dies as she’s in route to give an acceptance speech in his honor. This devastates Binoche’s character as this was a man who she essentially put her on the map and of whom she owes her career to. The playwright’s wife, not being able to stand being in her deceased husband’s house, allows Binoche and her assistant (played by Stewart) to stay at in their beautiful home in the Swiss Alps while she prepares for her upcoming role in the play which she hesitantly agrees to sign onto. Throughout the preparation process for her role she discovers a lot about who she is, finding a number of truths about both herself and the part in which she’s agreed to play.

If my bare bones synopsis of the film doesn’t sound appealing, that don’t be fooled. This was a remarkable film with incredible performances by Binoche (whose performance could earn her a spot on next year’s red carpet if this movie winds up being considered a 2015 release), Kristen Stewart (who has never been better here and is a shoo-in for Best Supporting Actress at next year’s Academy, having already won the Cesar award for the same category at this year’s French Oscars), as well as Chloe Grace Moretz who does her best Lindsay Lohan impression as a young starlet whose private life is tumultuous and widely documented over the internet. Assayas depicts some of the most breathtaking cinematography that I’ve seen in almost any film this year. Further proving why he’s one of the best directors to have come out of France in the past 20 years. As for the story and script, it’s spot on, and both Binoche and Stewart create some great on-screen chemistry as the aging actress and her assistant. Stewart puts in a career best performance here that is equally impressive seeing as how she has to act off of an actress as talented as Binoche. This is a film that has gotten praise from most critics, and deservedly so, that I was glad that I caught in the theater as I found myself both intellectually and emotionally invested in throughout. This should please fans of both more commercial and art house audiences alike. [B+]

Second up was the new-to-VOD crime documentary “The Seven Five”, about the dirtiest cop in NYC history, Michael Dowd. These kinds of documentaries, particularly as of late, having just watched HBO Documentary films like “The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst” (2015) and “Tales of the Grim Sleeper” (2014) both of which I found utterly fascinating in their depictions of ruthless criminals. A part of me was a bit reluctant going into this one, because to be honest, I’ve seen the dirty cop formula done in a plethora of different feature films like Abel Ferrera (1992) and Werner Herzog’s (2009) “Bad Lieutenant” films. But what got me sold on this one was simply the poster’s tagline – “In 1980’s Brooklyn The Most Notorious Gangsters Were New York City Cops”.

The documentary instantly grabs you from the beginning, when in 1992, New York City police officer Michael Dowd testimony is shown in archival footage as he faces indictment on charges for both racketeering and drug trafficking. The judge asks him a serious of questions of just about every crime that an individual could possibly commit, never mind a police officer, which Dowd says yes and pleads guilty to just about every single one. Flashback 10 years earlier, and we are shown how the young Dowd, not being satisfied with his measly $600 a week paycheck, was allured into getting himself involved in just about every single criminal act of corruption that a police officer could get themselves involved with. He stole money, burglarized homes, held up places where he knew large amounts of money were, etc…to support a lifestyle where he could do just about anything he wanted, bringing in and involving other officers, particularly one by the name of Ken Eurell, who would become his both his police partner and partner in crime as he commits the countless acts of corruption over the ten-year period (1982-1992).

This was another fascinating story of police corruption told through a series of candid interviews mostly focusing on the recently released Dowd (who served 12 years in prison) and his ex-partner Eurell. It’s not only a great examination of police corruption at its highest level but also says a lot about the cop “ethos”, which is to never rat someone out no matter what level of corruption they’re involved in. Cops live by a sort of “moral code” to protect one another and it is talked about and depicted here and brazenly truthful honesty that makes it one of the first documentaries I’ve seen to really delve into and explore this to such an extent. The trajectory and pacing of the film is well done as we’re almost sold on Dowd’s reasons for abusing his power, seeing his climb to greatness, only to see the downfall of his decline. For fans of the crime documentary this is one worth recommending, even if its presentation of the material seems a bit scattered it’s one that’s both compelling and riveting to warrant a recommendation. [B]

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A Trip (Back) To The Movies – Review: “Spring Breakers” (2012) 4.5.15

Spring Breakers Movie Poster

I was excited when I saw that our local college student run movie theater was showing this as the first film of their spring season. I’ve always been a firm believer that movies aren’t always better, but deserved to be witnessed on the big screen. It’s an entirely different experience from that of the privacy of your own home. The great thing about living in a city like Portland is you can re-experience or experience something for the first time at one of our many local area theaters that show older films, so that those of us can get a chance to revisit older films as they were intended to be seen – on the big screen. I remember seeing this film twice in theaters when it got a limited wide release early in 2013 and was so impressed by it that it made my “Top 10 Films of 2013”. First off, I have always been a fan of Harmony Korine’s work. Though like other directors (Lars Von Trier comes to mind), his films have always been a bit esoteric. Korine is a provocateur, who seems to be always pushing the envelope, which is essentially what he’s been doing ever since he first gained notoriety when he wrote the screenplay at the age of 18 for Larry Clark’s “Kids” (1995). A landmark achievement of a film that explored the daily lives of a group of New York City teenagers as they did well, what teenagers did at the time and still do – consume. Whether it’s by having copious amounts of sex, partying, or drinking and drugging their way through adolescence. It was one of the most controversial films of the decade but while it was shocking and explicit, it also was a revealing depiction of what it’s like to be a teenager and the types of poor choices they make in their more formative years because let’s face it – teenagers think they’re invincible. “Kids” was and always will remain a deeply important film because it depicted a slice of life that most of us experienced as we numbed ourselves through our formative years for no other reason other than that it seemed like “the thing to do”.

“Spring Breakers” is essentially a companion piece to “Kids”. Korine’s screenplay seems to explore similar ideas and themes, just set in more current, modern-day times. This time focusing on a group of college students (played against Disney typecast by Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Benson, and Korine’s own wife – Rachel Korine) as they take a spring break trip to hell. The film starts with a brilliant opening montage that looks like something out of a “Girls Gone Wild” video set to a loud and abrasive Dubstep piece by the king of the EDM/Dubstep scene – Skrillex (who collaborates on the film’s score with who’s arguably the best film composer in the business – Cliff Martinez). It’s filmed in slow motion and shows countless crowds of college students engaged in just about every act of spring break debauchery – drinking beer bongs, girls flashing just about every body part, guys pouring bottles of beer on them, everyone flipping off the camera, etc. This does a great job in setting the tone for the rest of the film. It then flashes back to the four female central characters eagerly anticipating the end of the term so that they can join the ranks of college students who flock each year down to exotic locations in chase of some sort of cathartic experience in which they can go all out without any care in the world for any repercussions for the lewd behavior in which they choose to engage in. The four girls take a trip down to Florida in hopes of searching for the “American Dream” (as you’ll often hear Spring Break referred to in the film) winding up in some kind of nightmare as they experience the dark side of what happens when you wind up in the aftermath of Spring Break. It’s within the film’s second half, when the girls are taken out of the Spring Break culture after being arrested and bailed out by the film’s most integral character, Alien (played by a scene stealing, career best performance by James Franco, complete with cornrows and a full grill on his teeth). It’s within the second half of the film that I felt like Korine really starts to explore some of the underlying themes of the film and his intentions for doing so.

“Spring Breakers” is a vile and repulsive film about our generation’s fascination with sex, violence, consumerism, and over consumption. It seemed liike many people didn’t quite know what to make of the film as Korine does an expert job at mis-marketing it to look like something it’s actually not. While also being his most accessible (which is easy coming from the director of films like “Gummo” and “Trash Humpers”), commercially successful (it was the top grossing limited release of 2013), and also his most satirical and misunderstood film to date. One thing I realized during my third viewing of the film, is that you kind of have to be looking through Korine’s lens and the world in which he depicts, to understand the film’s subtext. Korine is in no way glamorizing or sensationalizing the world in which these characters exist in. Rather quite the opposite. He is repulsed like you or I are. This is clearly exemplified by the lifestyle of the film’s protagonist (if you want to call him that) Alien. Alien represents everything our current youth and adult culture idolizes – excess and the allure of money. He appears to have it all that any young person could want on the surface – lots of money, a fast car, a beautiful home on the water, endless supplies of drugs…the list goes on and on. But he’s also a byproduct of living in a society of consumerism and endless consumption. For all of his many materialist riches his life is void of anything or substance or meaning. There’s a segment in the film that many people laughed at but which I found downright deplorable. While in his home he shows off his many “riches” – money scattered everywhere, an artillery wall for his guns, an endless supply of drugs, a bed made of art, swim shorts in every color (look at my SHIT!). He embodies everything almost any young man or women could want, or at the very least, would want to be around (hence his appeal to the four female leads). Franco plays the character to a T. In one of those iconic roles that you really can’t picture any other actor being able to pull off. It’s a total transformative performance that ranks up there with some of the best of the past few years.

While the first half of the film is filmed like some sort of dream complete with rich candy colors (Korine and DP of photography Benoit Debie, who’s prior work on Gasper Noe’s “Enter The Void” (2009) was a cited influence for the “look” of the film).The film’s second half is filmed in slightly more muted colors, with many of the scenes taking place at sunset or night (a nicely, rather intentional decision of contrast by Korine). The way in which it’s filmed also has a Terrence Malick-esque feel (“The Tree of Life”) as the cinematography takes on a free-floating, soaring, stream-of-consciousness quality to it with many scenes using voice-over narration in showing multiple shots and quick edits of its characters. The film goes from Girls Gone Wild sex romp in its first half to semi-tragedy in its second. I could go on and on about the satirical elements Korine seems to want to get across to his audience. But I’ll end by saying this, like Bobcat Goldthwait’s biting satire – “God Bless America” (2011) did, Korine does a good job at putting up a mirror to our generation’s cultural climate, where we see ourselves in, but are too ashamed or embarrassed to admit it. Which is essentially what I think turned most people off to this film. It’s my favorite of all of Korine’s work to date, and in years to come, will be discovered as a dug up artifact to remind the future of the materialistic, self-serving, superficial, and hopeless reflection of both the times and society in which we currently live in.

[A-]

Review: ‘Bastards’ 11.7.14

I deliberately chose to revisit this film for 2 important reasons. One, because it currently holds a spot on my top 10 films of 2014, and two, because I never got around to writing a review for it. Paris born writer/director Claire Denis has just about as diverse of a résumé as almost any other international filmmaker that I can think of. She first caught the eye of the filmmaking landscape with her debut breakthrough film – 1988’s “Chocolat”. She made quite a few films throughout the nineties, all of which admittedly I haven’t seen. But starting with around the turn of the century is about when I caught on and got interested in her work. Her incredibly controversial body-horror picture “Trouble Every Day” (2001) was my real first introduction to her. A film that stands out as one of the pioneering films of the French New Extremity movement. That film resonated with me so much to the point that I still think about it often when talking about my conversations on film. Then
my next taste of Denis was with 2008’s “35 Shots of Rum”. A rich, poignant family drama about a bi-racial daughter and her recently widowed father. Then only to be swept up once again the following year with 2009’s “White Material”. A film about a young woman trying to stay alive in a war-torn post-colonial Africa. One thing that stands out at least to me in relation to Denis’ work is not only her ability to make such a diversity of different films within her body of work, but ones that are always risk taking and seem to challenge her audience. Having really liked the 4 previous films I had seen of hers, mixed in with the fact that it received a Un Certain Regard nomination at last year’s Cannes Film Festival I knew this was one I wasn’t going to miss.

The film starts right off the bat with a suicide. The man’s wife is questioned and believes she knows why her husband went to such lengths. We flash forward a year, and the story introduces us to Marco (the great French actor Vincent Lindon) who moves into the apartment building of his now widowed sister and dead brother-in-law. Marco also takes an interest in one of the other building residents. A rich heiress whose husband was the business partner of his late brother-in-law. A man who Marco feels is responsible for his death and the suffering and financial debt he put his sister in. Though Marco seems to have quite a fascination with the man’s wife, and the two soon develop an affair. Meanwhile his grieving sister’s daughter goes missing and is found brutalized after an accident in the hospital. Marco’s focus then shifts to finding out who could have possibly done such a thing to his niece while still continuing his affair with the man’s wife who he think’s is responsible for his dead brother-in-law. Did her husband really have something to do with it? Why did his niece get into the accident and wind up in the hospital? Are the two interconnected in some way? This is what the film goes on to explore in its second half.

What can I say other than I absolutely loved this movie. And consider it to be Denis’ best film to date. Given that Denis is now in her late sixties and even though probably has a few films left in her, it almost felt like a culmination piece in relation to the rest of her body of work that I’ve seen. It’s a noirish and nightmarish vision that’s shrouded in mystery. Like some of her more controversial pieces (ala “Trouble Every Day”) it’s a grand statement on the dark side of humanity and the depths to which people out there can go. Except it’s not intentionally nihilistic like the films of her other French counterpart Gasper Noe. Denis is much more of a psychological director whose movies contain quite a bit of mystery. It’s reminiscent of films like George C. Scott’s “Hardcore” (1978), David Lynch’s trilogy of films about mistaken identity – “Lost Highway” (1997), 2001’s “Mulholland Drive, and “Inland Empire” (2007), alas mixed in with a taste of Joel Schumacher’s “8MM” (1999). It’s incredibly dark, erotic, and perverse much like those films were. Also, like most of Denis’ work she seems more interested in really challenging the audience to think more than anything. Which who anybody that knows me knows how much I value that aspect in terms of how I view film. Lastly, is the film’s last act which contains some unabashedly truths about the innately evil and unspeakable horrors of the dark side of humanity. Totally taking me by storm and one which had me sitting there not knowing exactly what to do with myself once the credits rolled. This is an unforgettable film, but only for people who like their films to be both dark and challenging. If this sounds like your cup of tea, well, then there’s really not a better foreign film I can recommend to you that I’ve seen all year. This is one that currently stands high on my list of the top 10 films of 2014. One in which I’m pretty confident in saying that I think should hold out and remain there by year’s end.

[A-]

Review: ‘Nymphomaniac Vol.1’ 9.4.14

Those of you that know me well enough know that I have a deep respect and admiration for Lars Von Trier. As someone who considers themselves to be a student of film, there is no other director (except maybe Stanley Kubrick or David Lynch) that has had as much of an influence on my developing taste in film particularly during that of my more formative years. I remember clearly, it being well over a decade now, when I first saw LVT’s “Europa” (1991). The opening tracking shot of a murky train track with a brilliant voice over narration by Max Von Syndow telling the viewer “to sit back, relax, and let the images take over”, which enduced some kind of a trance; was my first introduction to this writer director. Much like David Lynch and Gasper Noe, LVT seems to be much more interested in entering the viewer’s subconsicous from the get go than anything else. What has been the focus of so much controversy over the years is what LVT’s intentions are once he gets in there. As Bjork, the famous Icelandic singer who worked on one his films (2000’s brilliant “Dancer in the Dark”) said – “it’s almost as if there’s this sort of psychological robbery or robbery of the soul that takes place when working on and seeing a LVT film”. In fact, she had such an awful experience working with him that she vowed never to act in any other film again (ironically though, she won the best actress award at Cannes for her spellbinding debut performance). LVT, while maybe difficult to work with, has an uncanny gift for bringing out great performances in actresses. Emily Watson’s performance in 1996’s “Breaking The Waves” and Nicole Kidman’s in 2004’s “Dogville” are two outstanding performances in not only what are 2 of my favorite LTV films, but 2 of my favorite films of all time. I think what Bjork was quoted as saying is indicative of a lot of LVT films. He goes places and shows you things that you have such an immense emotional reaction to, that an exercise in one of his films can be very off putting to some. With that said, I’ve always found his boundary pushing, penchant for the taboo, and challenging material; specifically emotionally, to be his biggest strong points. He is a provocateur who bullies his audience. Again, a criticism that many people have of him that I just don’t happen to share. I want to be shocked, perturbed, angry, and completely emotionally and psychologically devastasted when watching a LVT film. And believe me I’m not a masochist or sadist, nor am I a misogynist (which LVT is often referred to as). I just like films that explore the dark side of the human condition that bring me to places where there’s no pre-established contract set up. Which is why I gravitate to the type of material and stories in which Von Trier often chooses to write about.

When I first heard that LVT had announced to Stellan Skarsgard (an often LVT collaborater who appears in the film) that his plan after 2011’s mostly superb, end of the apocalypse art film – “Melancholia”, was to write and direct a 5-hour porno movie. My first reaction was one of intrigue, but my second and most important was, how the heck was he going to pull it off. Then, after being screened throughout the festival circuit last year and garnering mostly positive praise. I once again grew a sense of anticipation and excitment that I often times do with a lot of LVT films. Well, after some procrastination I finally got around to watching Vol.1 last night. In typical LVT fashion it was another addition to his ouevre of ever growing, boundary pushing, esoteric films. A loose synopsis is that it follows the sexual exploits of Joe (played by Charlotte Gainsbourg, another LVT frequent collaborater) from the age of 2 through her teenage and young adult years, as she recites them in a series of flashbacks to Skarsgard, who just happens to help her at the start of the film when she is most in need. The film uses this tale of her sexual odyssey to explore underlying themes such as temptation, jealousy, relationship power dynamics, male vs. female ego, control, obsession, and love vs. lust. There is a fair amount of explicit sex yes. But one can probably induce that already by the title of the film. What’s important to point out is there is nothing stimulating about the sex we see on screen at all. LTV uses this concept to explore sex as an addiction, something we use for selfish reasons, or are constant need to be in control, and as an ultimately   unsatisfying way of relieving all of the tension we build up. This is all effective and done well. However, while it was intellectually stimulating, it didn’t really strike a chord for me emotionally or psychologically that some of LVT’s prior work has. It all felt very topical in its examination. It felt like he could have gone further and probed deeper into the material (which I hope is the case with Vol.2). The script also had its flaws, in that I found the constant metaphors (and there were far too many of them) and symbolism to be a bit unecessary and self indulgent. I feel like had LVT made things a bit more subtle and not so obtrusive, I probably would have liked the film quite a bit more. Still, and I’ll refer to Von Trier here as I often refer to the films of Woody Allen. A sub par or mediocre LVT film, as with Allen, is still better than 90% of most other directors better works. Or better yet, certainly more worthwhile than whatever’s showing this week at your local IMAX theater.

Grade: B-

Looking Back On: ‘Enter The Void’ (2009)

There is no other working director, be it in America or internationally, that makes films quite like Gasper Noe does. He’s maybe the biggest boundary pusher on the scene today. Both in terms of his innovative style and the level of controversy that surrounds his films. Both 1998’s – ‘I Stand Alone’ and 2002’s ‘Irreversible’ (maybe in my top 25 favorite films of all time) blew me away and instantly made me a fan. One of my favorite things about Noe is his ability to enter into and fully takeover his audience’s subconscious. “Enter The Void’ is also one of the first films I’ve seen that it could be 20 minutes into it or an hour and 20 minutes in, and you literally wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. It’s as if you were stuck in a time warp. One thing that I particularly enjoyed about the film this time around, was that it felt very much like a companion piece to the ‘Tree of Life’ (my favorite film of 2011). They both explore a lot of the same existential themes (creationism, birth, life, death, reincarnation, etc). Though unlike Terrence Malick, Noe looks at these same themes from the opposite paradigm. Malick may look a bit more into the beautiful aspects of birth, life, death, and everything in between, while Noe looks at these same things from a very nihilistic point of view. He’s not afraid to show you things that you don’t want to see, which I personally think is very commendable. There is some very disturbing imagery within each of the social contexts, characters, and themes explored in this film. Drug dealers and addicts, strip clubs, sex/prostitution, homelessness, car wrecks, death, family separation, abortion, the list goes on and on. He is depicting the underbelly, the nastiness of life, in an unflinching way, and he is the only filmmaker on the planet who has the audacity to do so. This probably wouldn’t make my top 25 films but definitely my 50 favorite films of all time, which says a lot. Highly recommended if you haven’t seen it already.

Grade: A/borderline A+