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]

Review: “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them” 2.1.15

This was a film that I had been following throughout the festival circuit as it had opened to mostly positive reviews at the Toronto Film Festival in 2013. Shown as a 2-part film at that festival with the same title but differentiating each part by “Him” and “Her” it wound up popping up at last year’s Cannes Film Festival put together as one film – “Them”, for reasons I can only speculate on but can imagine the Weinsteins felt a 2-part film would be much more difficult to market and turn off audiences by the daunting task for watching (for further proof see Steven Soderbergh’s brilliant “Che” which was shown in 2 parts but was virtually unseen as it clocked in at just about 4 and a half hours). So here we have the 2 films packaged together in one part that I almost considered seeing in their original 2 parts, but decided to forego the idea and see the version that was released this year on DVD. I wanted to see this film for 2 major reasons, both of them having to do with the fact that I knew little to next to nothing about it other than I thought I had read a Stephen King book by the same name years back and without having researched it though it might be an adaptation of it. That and I really really like Jessica Chastain, who won me over in a number of recent films like “The Tree of Life (2011), “Take Shelter” (2011), “Zero Dark Thirty” (2012), and last year’s “Interstellar” (I’m also really looking forward to seeing her in the recently released “A Most Violent Year”). She almost never seems to disappoint and is one of the best actresses currently working in the film industry working today. I’m also a fan of James McAvoy. Liking his career trajectory and his choices of films he’s made with movies like “The Last King of Scotland” (2006), “Atonement” (2007), “Trance” (2013″), as well as his TV work in the original BBC version of the show “Shameless” (2004-2013). So not knowing much about it added to the fact that I really admire the 2 leads, was the real reason that led me to want to see it.

The film starts out by introducing us to its 2 leads – a woman named Eleanor Rigby (Chastain) and her husband Conor (McAvoy). The two appear to be madly in love which is seemingly quite apparent from the start. However, soon after, we find Eleanor jumping off a bridge and plummet to what we think is her demise. Though she lives the fatal accident, and returns home to her family, who don’t seem to know how to act or what to do or say since their daughter has just attempted to take her own life. Her father (played by the always excellent William Hurt) encourages her to go back to school to get her mind off of things and gets her back into a program she once dropped out of (for reasons that is uncovered as the story unravels) with the help of a professor (“Doubt’s” Viola Davis). Meanwhile James McAvoy’s character Conor, who runs a restaurant that’s a sinking ship, too goes home to his wealthy but distant father and receives little to next to no compassion other than a place to stay. He does seek solace in his best friend, the chef at his restaurant (Bill Hader, who I loved in last year’s “The Skeleton Twins”), but even he can’t seem to be capable of giving the help Conor seems to so desperately need. Conor begins to track down his ex-wife Eleanor as he appears to want nothing more than to have a conversation with her. Though Eleanor is completely shut off from both him and her family, but finds a bit of sympathy in Viola Davis’ college professor. The film then rears its head and gives us a bit more back story into what event ultimately led to the couple’s decimated marriage. Which is when we as the viewer are entered into a heart-rendering story about grief, loss, and the devastating effects it can have when people are confronted with it.

I wound up being slightly mixed about the film but thought it had more pros than it did cons. First off, it totally went against my expectations of being a mystery, suspense, or horror story and winds up a more conventional and straight ahead drama. Throughout it I couldn’t help but think about other films that I’ve seen that deal with similar themes like death, loss, the grieving process, and failed marriages like Todd Field’s “In The Bedroom” (2001 – one of my top 25 favorite films of all time) as well as 2 other films from 2010 – John Cameron Mitchell’s “Rabbit Hole” and Derek Cianfrance’s “Blue Valentine. All of which came to mind while watching it. The acting here, as one would expect from both of these two brilliant young actors, is top-notch. Chastain once again puts on a performance that’s a sight to see beaten down by her loss. McAvoy was also almost equally as good as her grieving ex-husband who has his fair share of demons. I also really liked its ruminations on grieving and how everybody deals with it differently, which is a credit to the writing team. Where it fell a bit short with me was its sometimes slow pacing in which it’s a bit confusing as to why Chastain’s character Eleanor or her ex-husband are in grief and mourning until about halfway through, when I personally thought the revelation could have come much sooner and been just as effective. It also felt a bit too familiar as the majority of us have probably seen this same subject depicted and explored before like in the films I mentioned above. Lastly, the ending felt a bit anti-climatic, that left me thinking what the overall message was that the writer and director wanted me to take from it other than grief and the coping of a loss can be incredible difficult. That being said, the two performances, at least to me, were both good enough and the story though a bit trite, was engaging enough that I’d consider it at least a worthwhile watch. Even if the end result leaves a little bit left to be desired.

[B-]