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 – “Still Alice” 2.8.15

A film that has been slowly building throughout all of last year, being shown at many of the major festivals and creating a lot of buzz around lead actress Julianne Moore’s performance. If you had of asked me back in August around the mid-year point I would have told you that Moore would be a frontrunner for the Best Actress categories at this year’s Oscars. Same goes for Michael Keaton. If you follow the film festival circuit like I do throughout the year, you start to notice a pattern where a lot of critics who attend predict months in advance who they think are going to land nominations and in some cases win. And a lot of the times they’re right. I had been waiting for this to come out for months having heard that Moore’s performance was nothing short of breathtaking. That and I’ve always found pictures that depict debilitating or degenerative diseases to be fascinating. Though I can’t really pin down the reason why. I guess maybe because the truly great ones teach me something about the disease that I maybe didn’t know about going into it. That, and in a lot of cases I know that somebody in my family will probably wind up with some sort of degenerative disease, albeit Dementia, or like in the case of this film, Alzheimer’s. These types of films, though they sometimes can be incredibly heartrending, also can act as an educational tool for something that either myself, my family, or somebody we all know will most likely encounter later in life. However, that being said, the real truth of the matter is I saw this film solely based on the fact that Julianne Moore is the frontrunner to win the Best Actress Oscar at this year’s Academy Awards.

Moore stars in the title role as Alice, a linguistics professor who quickly starts forgetting things and convinces herself she has some kind of brain tumor. She is surrounded by her family – her husband (Alec Baldwin), son, and two daughters (played by Kristen Stewart and Kate Bosworth). After she starts to experience lapses in memory more and more consistently, she seeks out the help of a neurologist. Who, after a series of tests, diagnosis her as having early onset of Alzheimer’s disease. Not only that, but it turns out to be genetic, and her two daughters also seem to have it as well. The oldest of the two (Bosworth) who is pregnant with twins on the way. Alice’s mental brain functioning starts to deteriorate day-to-day, hour by hour, as she tries her absolute hardest to fight the disease, utilizing a series of tests in which she creates for herself. But as the degenerative part of her disease begins to take over, she begins moving further and further from who she once was until she is barely but a small semblance of her former self.

Let me start by saying what an incredibly disappointing and underwhelming film this was. I really wanted to like it so much having heard all of the accolades surrounding Moore’s performance. And it’s a very fine performance indeed. I wouldn’t want anyone to think that I didn’t think she was great because that just wouldn’t be true. Because she really does give it her all in what is an otherwise weak script that gives formulaic a new name. It also did one thing that I can’t stand from movies of this genre and are a complete turn off in that it pandered to the audience and tried to tug at their emotional heartstrings. But here’s the real kicker, even despite watching Moore go through her mental disintegration and battle with the disease and see the effects it has on just about every aspect of her life, I felt a million miles away emotionally. In fact, I don’t think I could have been more detached from Alice’s deterioration. I cared but only at a very surface level. And I’m not desensitized and I do often tear up and cry at movies that either inspire me or that I find incredibly sad. But there wasn’t one point throughout any of this film that I was even on the verge of shedding a tear. This I think mostly had to do with the director’s “Hallmark 8 o’clock Movie of the Week” treatment of the material. Besides the shoddy, uneven script the film is often times shot through a white color filter that makes the images look fuzzy and muddled, on top of the fact that it was a strain on the eyes. Even “if” this was intentional to try to give us a glimpse into the lens of the world in which Alice sees through, this aspect of the way in which it was shot I thought was extremely poor. Sure there are some very powerful scenes involving Alice sharing her secret with the rest of the world. But as previously mentioned, I was so put off by the look, feel, and tone of the film that the emotional stuff never really hit me at all. But what I can say is it’s a pretty bravado Julianne Moore performance that is the meat and bones of the picture. Without her there would be no movie. It’s a borderline great performance in an otherwise mediocre film. That and I think it’s important to point out that if she gets the Best Actress Oscar like many are predicting, it’s going to have to do more with the subject matter that the film depicts than it’s going to have to do with the performance itself. Hollywood voters have a soft spot for portrayals of people suffering or dying from degenerative diseases. As if they think it might be an insult to the Alzheimer’s community at large if they didn’t give her the award. The last and final thing I feel like I need to say, especially in relation to this film, is a great performance alone doesn’t always make for a good movie.

[C]