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+]

DVD Review: “Top Five” 3.15.15

I stumbled cross this movie after seeing a trailer way back in December before seeing another film in the theater. I’ve always liked Chris Rock – in not so much looking at his career as an actor, but more as a comic. He was part of some of my favorite years on Saturday Night Live (1990-1993),  and his HBO stand up performances were up there with some of the best from the list of some of the best Black comedians – Bill Cosby, Richard Pryor, and Eddie Murphy to name a few. I also thought he was perfectly cast in his role in the documentary “Good Hair” (2009). I’ve always looked at Rock and considered him one of the last few remaining Black comedians that can actually write. And it was interesting that just the other day, I was going back and forth with one of my co-workers, who has an encyclopedic knowledge of Black entertainers, particularly those of the mid to late 20th century, who stated that he felt like the death of Black comedy ended with Richard Pryor. Which I think is true to some extent. While I like guys like Dave Chappelle and Rock, the majority of Black entertainers, especially comedians, in our current climate, just aren’t very funny (I’m looking at you Kevin Hart!). However I did bring up to said co-worker that I liked Rock, and considered him to maybe be the last in the short remaining list of Black comedians with real talent whose career has longevity (sorry Chappelle but you came onto the scene much to fast and left much too early). So when I first so the trailer for this film I took note of it when it said “written, directed, and starring Chris Rock” and was almost immediately sold. But what actually sealed the deal for me was that it looked like it was something that was clever, with real creativity, that separated itself from what you might expect of a Chris Rock film (and certainly that of any Tyler Perry movie). Given my being a semi fan of Rock as a writer, I decided to check this one out as soon as it became available on DVD.

Rock plays a fictitious film actor named Andre Allen (the last name being an overt nod to Woody) in an opening scene that involves a long tracking shot of him walking down the streets of New York City with a reporter (played by the always reliable Rosario Dawson). He spouts diatribes about the ever-changing times in America (his stabs at politics and president Obama are hilarious and only something that could come from the mind of Rock). The Dawson character is trying to convince Rock to allow her to do a piece on him for the New York Times, with him not really wanting or willing to commit. You see his career has hit a low point, and he strives to do something more dramatic but he’s been typecast into doing films like the “Hammy” franchise (imagine Smokey the Bear but with an AK-47!). He’s currently promoting his first foray into dramatic acting territory with a serious film called “Uprize” that looks like something Steve McQueen might have made if he set out to make “12 Years A Slave” a comedy. This on top of trying to juggle the press and his flailing career, as well as upcoming marriage to reality TV star (played by Gabrielle Union) and the days leading up to which is all going to air on the Bravo network. An obvious choice for his media hungry wife which he seems to be conflicted about but goes along with it anyway. Andre finally commits to allowing Rosario’s reporter to cover and do the piece, in hopes that maybe she’ll write something that will revitalize his career and give it some rejuvenation. Throughout this process she uncovers many truths about Andre that have yet to be revealed. Many of which involve deeply personal aspects of his life. That’s where the film really starts to build in terms of story, and much of what we learn about Andre’s deeply troubled past is shown in a serious of flashbacks (most of them downright hilarious) as the two of them stroll around the city working the press junket and getting ready for his big wedding.

There was a lot of strong elements encompassed in this film which as I expected, mostly came from within the writing and script departments. Rock gives us his version of Federico Fellini’s “8 1/2” (1963), Woody Allen’s “Stardust Memories” (1980), and something that clearly seems influenced by the Richard Linklater “Before” Trilogy. It starts off and mostly stays solid with one joke after another, with many (and I mean many) cameos from just about everyone we’ve seen Rock be involved with in the number of different projects he’s done over the years. Like the films of Woody Allen, there’s a cynical undertone to a lot of the dialogue in the script, but with more satire involved in what it means to be an entertainer in the increasingly demanding film industry. Some of the flashback sequences I spoke of above are simply hilarious, particularly the ones involving Rock with Cedric The Entertainer, Dawson’s journalist revealing her more brazenly honest sex life in some of her past relationships, as well as Andre’s bout with alcoholism. The latter of which takes on a funny but sad tone that comes across as a bit more honest even despite the confounding situations that it got him into. It maintains a serio-comic edge throughout its almost entire duration when even if at times it seems a little overstuffed with ideas. That and about two-thirds of the way through there’s a revelation that came across as being a bit contrived which takes place while another shift in plot is formulating that also seems cliché. Though to Rock’s credit the razor-sharp script and witty dialogue mostly make up for it falling into typical romantic comedy movie tropes. I also thought it handled and straddled the line between serio-romantic comedy and drama rather well. With a script that came across as both original and inventive. For those of you looking for a comedy with a bit more of an edge like one of Rock’s comedic contemporaries, Louis C.K., then this might just be the comedy for you. It’s smart, funny, and refreshing, and even if you don’t necessarily like the film’s feel or tone, I can assure you it will at least be worthwhile for the sheer amount of great cameos in it. Let’s hope that Rock has more tricks like this one up his sleeve.

[B]

Review: ‘Begin Again’ 11.5.14

Ireland born director John Carney hit the scene in the mid-aughts with his breakthrough film “Once” (2006). A movie that at the time of its release captivated and moved audiences with its depiction of 2 Dublin lover/musicians that was both equal parts sweet, touching, and moving. It garnered a Best Original Song Oscar the following year, and it’s 2 leads went on to become successful internationally well-known touring musicians. A feat that doesn’t really happen but every so often in that its 2 lead central characters went on to become something bigger than their screen selves could have ever possibly imagined in their wildest dreams. It’s really stuff that miracles are made of, especially considering that it was an independent film made on a small budget. Enter 2013 after a 6 year hiatus and Carney is back once again, but instead of giving us another story about more street musicians living in Europe he takes what at first glimpse appeared, at least to me, to be a familiar formula from his previous film except for that fact that this time taking place in America using mostly a bigger cast of American friendly and familiar faces, and takes another stab at the feel good music drama formula.

“Begin Again” opens with introducing us to our first of our 2 main leads – a down on his luck, poor excuse for a father, barely holding on music producer played by the always superb Mark Ruffalo (who in thinking about is right up there with my slew of favorite actors). He is an alcoholic and as the story slowly stars to unfold, we begin to see how his old days of success and increased drinking has had on his music producing partner (played by Mos Def), his daughter (“True Grit”‘s young and obviously very talented Hailee Steinfeld), and ex-wife (the always puts a smile on my face Catherine Keener). Both his personal, family, and professional life seem to be in serious jeopardy. That is until he meets a recently split from her famous musician boyfriend (Maroon 5’s Adam Levine) and also vulnerable, down on her luck musician/muse character Keira Knightley. After some convincing her that he is her meal ticket to stardom. Knightley seems to equally need Ruffalo’s character as does her he in order for them to try and start both their lives over again.

I found myself really enjoying this film despite its somewhat predictable elements that we more or less have come to expect from a genre piece of its kind. The performances are all well written and acted, particularly that of Ruffalo’s character which I found to be an almost pseudo character study. He once again shines here as he did with his brave turn as an AIDS activist earlier this year in HBO’s “The Normal Heart”. Ruffalo always seems to somehow take a decent script and character and make it better because of his proficiency as an actor. The supporting turns by Mos Def, Catherine Keener, and Hailee Stenfield feel authentic and well cast. Also, Keira Knightley, who I can’t say I’m particularly fond of as an actress in a lead role does a pretty effective and convincing job here. And the 2 leads present a pretty believable on-screen duo. What felt slightly off to me here to go back to the predictability factor that I touched on earlier, was the clichéd storyline that propels us into an idea that the two leads come up with in hopes to achieve success. It felt slightly preposterous but because of my engagement in the story and having a keen sense of the genre of which it falls into, I found myself willing to suspend its plausibility factor. Lastly, and what I found to be the strongest element of the film, was Carney’s obvious knack of understanding the spellbinding power that music has on us all as human beings. The way in which music drives all of the characters portrayed, particularly of Knightley and the rag-tag group of street performers she’s set up with, has a certain energy and sense of inspiration that I thought was a strong point in a movie that is essentially an exploration of the power of music and how it can be a universally loved art form that has the potential to bring us joy in our lives when sometimes we can feel void of true feelings and inspire us to feel joyous, celebratory, and give us the power to feel like nothing else bad in the world actually exists. I thought at the core it captured that component quite well. Which is another credit to Carney and the way in which he seemingly understands this “universality of music” concept and applies it to his script and characters. Despite a couple of minor flaws I found this to be a mostly entertaining musical thrill ride. One that I can see both music lovers and aficionado’s alike enjoying as well as those looking for just a feel good musically themed drama with a fair amount of heart, spirit, and inspiration at the core of its story.

[B]

Review: ‘The Normal Heart’ 9.9.14

Another gem in a string of exemplary made for TV films by HBO. Which, I personally think are just as good as any feature films that get a theatrical release and in some cases, sometimes better (last year’s “Behind The Candelabra” being one that comes to mind). This piqued my interest after having seen it rack up Emmy nominations and/or wins in almost every category – Outstanding Television Movie (won), 1 Best Actor nomination, 4 Supporting Actor nominations, 1 Supporting Actress nomination, and also nominations for Directing, Writing, and Cinematography. So at the very least I knew I was getting myself into something that was going to be worthwhile. That, and I am really passionate about the subject matter, which is the HIV/AIDS virus that sprung up in the early 1980’s and became one of the worst health crises in the history of America. I am particularly interested in why the United States government chose to neglect treating millions of unhealthy patients, because they thought them to be “sick” (figuratively speaking that is). How an atrocity of this proportion could have possibly occured has always and will continue to always fascinate me. As depressing as the topic may be.

This focused on the beginning years of the epidemic. Which essentially took place between 1981-1985, when the HIV virus had just started to be detected and people started to become aware of a disease that would ultimately wind up killing millions of lives. Shown through the eyes of its central character, played by Mark Ruffalo (in yet another knockout performance), a gay writer, who recognizes early on that his life’s calling is in AIDS awareness and activism. He eventually becomes the Co-Founder of an organization called the Gay Men’s Health Crisis. We are shown the relationship between him and his brother, played by Alfred Molina (one of the strongest dynamics in the film), who has never agreed with his brother’s lifestyle which pulls them further and further apart especially as his brother gets deeper and deeper and more passionate about the cause. Another key player is one of the pioneering doctors in AIDS research, a stand out performance by Julia Roberts (I haven’t seen her in anything this good since 2000’s “Erin Brokovich”), who at a very young age contracted Polio, and is bound to a wheelchair and who joins the fight with Ruffalo. Other relationships that are particularly strong outside of the aforementioned 2 are that of Ruffalo and his lover, who contracts the disease and perpetuates Ruffalo’s fight to find funding for the research needed. That as well as the relationships between himself and the other members of the organization, whose political ideals tend to shift over the course of the film.

I felt like this was a fascinating and well researched glimpse into the AIDS/HIV epidemic and what the early years of the disease looked like through the eyes of its central character. Someone who put his entire life into the cause and did everything he could possibly do that was within his capacity to try and bring AIDS awareness to the people. The ensemble cast were all fanstasic, hence the amount of Emmy nominations it received. Even if it did tend to fall a bit on the over melodramatic side at times (after all, it’s cable programming we’re talking about here). But the story was filled with so much heart, so much energy, and so much passion for its subjects, that I was able to overlook that one criticism. This is one, if you didn’t get a chance to catch it when it first premiered, or are like me and don’t have HBO, that I would encourage you to check out. Especially if you have even the slightest bit of interest in the source material.

Grade: B/B+