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 To The Movies: Review – “Black Souls” 5.2.15

It’s becoming more and more apparent to me that there seems to be somewhat of a paradigm shift going on in the crime genre that’s been happening over this past decade. I referred to it recently as a “subversion” to somebody in which we’re experiencing a point in time in crime films where filmmakers themselves seem less interested in telling stories that are loud, overstated, excessively violent crime pictures made not to entertain by the stories in which they choose to depict but are more focused on the psychology component of them instead. The distinction can be made by looking at Martin Scorsese’s “Goodfellas” (1990) or Quentin Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction” (1995). Both were monumental achievements that undeniably made their mark on cinematic history and often times are the two most recognized films of the crime genre outside of Francis Ford Coppola’s “Godfather” trilogy (1972, 1974, 1990), the first two who many consider to be the greatest crime films of all time. All films that ultimately were immensely successful and instrumental in terms of their influence on just about every movie to come out of the genre since. But within the past 10 years or so, there seems to be a stark contrast to those films within a new crop of international filmmakers coming out of the genre looking to explore new territory within it, without the typical glamour and style of the “post-Goodfellas” era crime film. Films like Paolo Sorrentino’s “Il Divo” (2008), Matteo Garrone’s “Gomorrah” (2008), Jacques Audiard’s “A Prophet” (2009 – still in my opinion, the best crime film made post-2000), and David Michod’s “Animal Kingdom” (2010). All seemed to be exploring new ideas of the genre by focusing on varied components and themes around different types of crime circles. From political ones, to ones that deal with crime as a way of life, to being educated on becoming a crime lord, to the decimation of the crime family, and how crime exists from a business perspective while living in a Capitalist society. These are just some of the themes contained within what I call the “new wave” of crime film. In where the characters and their depicted lifestyles are meant to be more cerebral and looked at as being flawed than the crime films of the days of old (once again excluding “The Godfather” trilogy of course). These characters and the way in which they live aren’t even remotely appealing or alluring, but rather sad and devastating. All of the latter films I mention exemplify this distinction quite well, and when I saw this film advertised and it being quoted as “the best Italian crime film since “Gomorrah””, plus my overall love for the genre, made it an instant “must see” upon its release here in theaters this weekend.

“Black Souls” is the based on a true story account of the real-life mafia clan (known as the “Ndrangehta”) out of Southern Italy, the Carbone family (nope not the Corleone family), who consisted of three brothers – Luigi and Rocco, who are involved in the business of international drug trade, and Luciano, who has escaped the lifestyle in favor of living in a remote mountain town herding goats while trying to raise an honest, hard-working family. Though Luciano has a son, Leo, who is a high school drop out and seems to want to follow in the footsteps of his two crime affiliated uncles, particularly that of Rocco, who the boy clearly seems to idolize. Upon hearing that his family has been defamed by one of their rival families, takes matters into his own hands seeking payback and in doing so sets off a blood feud and a series of tragic events that forces all of the family members to become involved.

This was a riveting, compelling, and brilliant entry into the crime genre by Italian director Francesco Munzi. Who seems to know his influences well but sets out to make something deeper with more of a focus on the tragic-like nature of the crime world and how it affects a family from generation to generation. It really does a great job probing into the minds of the three Carbone brothers, two of whom are totally immersed in the lifestyle and the other who took a much different path and seems to know the real truth and is willing do whatever it takes to save his son from growing up to be a criminal. The relationship between the young boy Leo and his uncle Rocco as is the sibling rivalry that takes place between Rocco’s brother and Leo’s father Luciano is expertly drawn out and feels believable and authentic, and presents the family’s quarrels both within their own and outside of as realistic and utterly devastating. Only three major acts of violence occur throughout the entire film, but similar to how I mentioned in my review of “A Most Violent Year”, when the violence erupts, packed both one hell of a punch and was unpredictable, as well as hitting me on such a deep emotional and guttural level, that at times I was borderline shedding tears. As I was really that invested in the story and so moved by the tragic events that unfold. Which I thought was the film’s greatest strength and a true testament to Munzi’s adapted screenplay and deft hand at directing in how it enabled me to be so invested in the story. From a technical point of view it’s very well done, especially in terms of its cinematography, lighting, and dark contrast between the urban city of Milan and the brighter Italian countryside. But what really did it for me was how the character of the farmer brother Luciano, a man who lives by a strict moral code and value system in trying to make an honest living, and in by knowing of the truth, winds up confronting himself in an ending that left me practically speechless. As far as current, modern day crime films go, this a very solid entry that will most likely will be overlooked but demands to be seen.

[strong B+]

A Trip To The Movies – Review: “’71” 3.14.15

Okay I’ll just come flat-out and say it – “Jack O’Connell is the best twenty-something actor, stateside or international, that is currently working in the film industry today”. The last time I felt like I discovered an actor of his caliber was when I was first introduced to Tom Hardy (who coincidentally enough I draw a lot of comparisons between the two) in Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Bronson” (2008), who as I predicted, like I do with O’Connell, would be a household name in just a few years from then once American audiences started to take notice of these highly gifted young actors. Also, like Hardy, I first caught wind of O’Connell in 2013’s “Starred Up” (another prison drama like “Bronson” which I considered the best post-2000 film of the genre outside of Jacques Audiard’s “A Prophet” (2009) ). O’Connell puts in a breakthrough performance that rivaled that of his co-star, the immensely talented Ben Mendelsohn (who’s pretty much been the best part of everything I’ve seen him in). O’Connell was so good in that, that I vowed to myself that I would follow this very promising and undeniably gifted young actor in every project he does from this point forward. And at the young age of 24, he shows the potential to be just as good, if not better, than someone like a Tom Hardy or a Matthais Schoenaerts, but should achieve their same level of fame about a decade younger than they did, those actors being well into their thirties. O’Connell is basically still just a kid, which makes the anticipation of what he’s going to next all that more exciting. And so far, in just the past 2 years, he’s played the lead role in the aforementioned “Starred Up” (2013), last year’s Angelina Jolie directed “Unbroken” (which I still haven’t seen but that has recently moved to the very top of my queue simply because it stars O’Connell), and now this film. Which without giving away what I thought about it too prematurely, let’s just say I wasn’t disappointed by it.

‘”71″ is the new feature film by first time director Yann Demange (I could have sworn when I first read that name I thought it was a pseudonym for the “Muscles From Brussels”) starring Jack O’Connell in the lead (and in fact the only lead, as the rest of the roles I would barely even consider “supporting”). The film is set in (you guessed it) 1971 Northern Ireland and jumps right into the story without little to no setup other than that he’s a British solider who happens to be fighting for the Irish Army. After a quick orientation depicting his squad going through some rigorous training, it jumps right into his specific unit being briefed that they’re being deployed to a dangerous area of Belfast, where an ongoing war is taking place between 2 rival religious factions – the Protestants and Catholics. In one of the more well shot and gripping segments of the film, O’Connell’s unit lands in a war-torn area of Catholic territory, and since the Army is more aligned with the Protestants, to say the townspeople don’t take to their presence well would be a grave understatement. In fact, a full on riot ensues, which is expertly shot using a guerilla-style filmmaking style that makes you feel like you’re right there in on the action. O’Connell’s character, amidst the chaos, gets separated from the rest of his unit, and since his squad is being overpowered by the Catholics, they leave in a hurried rush without him with members of the Catholic militia on his trail (and a chase scene as good as anything I can remember on film since the Keanu Reeves/Patrick Swayze bank robbery foot chase from “Point Break” (1991) ). The rest of the film plays out like a game of cat and mouse where O’Connell’s character, who starts off as the hunter, now becomes the hunted, as just about every character within the film seems to want him dead. The rest of the film takes several twists and turns, which takes a hold of you in its firm grip and doesn’t let go until the film’s closing shot

This was a mightily impressive debut from director Yann Damange and yet another brilliant performance by O’Connell, who seems to be in just about every frame of the film and who is clearly the meat and bones of the picture. The film itself is gripping, taut, and engaging from start to finish, and has an incredible sense of pacing. One thing that stood out to me was that while I went into it thinking I was going to be watching a War film. It rather deftly combined other elements into it that made it an equal parts thriller, political espionage cat and mouse game evoking the works of writer John le Carre, historical drama (1969’s “Z” and 2005’s “Munich” acting as reference points throughout the film), as well as a crime film (my fellow movie companion said it felt a bit like David Michod’s “Animal Kingdom” (2010). Which I didn’t get at first but when he started to explain the levels of corruption by all members of society, I could see why he drew the comparison and understood how he could tie it in. The camerawork was also stunning, and shot in a style reminiscent of the recent films of Kathryn Bigelow (“The Hurt Locker”, “Zero Dark Thirty”) which made it feel authentically real. The only few very minor criticisms I had of the piece was that they didn’t really provide much back story into O’Connell’s character. That and I found many of the interlocking characters from the different facets of society a bit difficult to follow. Kind of how I feel about Asian films depicting the Yakuza – certain characters are difficult to tell apart as many of them appear similarly. Lastly, I think the film could have been expanded on and went further into its story which seemed to go across by quickly at a rather brisk 99 minutes. Those few minor criticisms aside though, this was a well acted, thoroughly engaging, and gripping meta-film about a time and place in history that prior going into the film, I knew little to next to nothing about. And in summation, it was only the second film I’ve seen this year outside of “A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night” that I was so engaged in that I didn’t take a bathroom break because I couldn’t bear the thought of missing even a second of this well constructed and incredibly tense film. That had me on the edge of my seat from its start to its nicely poetic and emotional finish.

[B+]