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: “Slow West” 5.24.15

The American Western has taken on many different shapes since the days of old. The “spaghetti Western” that was made infamous by director’s like Sergio Leone in his “Dollars Trilogy” – “A Fistful of Dollars” (1964), “For A Few More Dollars” (1965), and “The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly” (1966) starring the “man with no name” played by Clint Eastwood. Simply don’t seem to exist anymore. Sure Quentin Tarantino did his best Leone “impression” a few years back with “Django Unchained” (2012). But that was more or less (like many of Tarantino’s films – a throwback or homage piece that paid a nod to the Westerns of old. It was somewhat of a dying genre throughout the latter half of the 20th century. One of the rare exceptions to the case being the Clint Eastwood directed “Unforgiven” (1992). Which is arguably one of the best Westerns of all time. But sprinkled throughout the nineties we saw dud after dud like Jim Jarmusch’s “Dead Man” (1995 – a film that did and still gets more credit than it deserves as the only good thing about it was the Neil Young score), then another film that same year by another prominent director Sam Raimi’s redo of “The Quick and The Dead” (1995 – also somewhat of a disaster) and only a year later came Walter Hill’s “Last Man Standing” (1996). All three films, at least in my opinion, that were disposable and shouldn’t have ever been made to begin with. Then, about 10 years later, came somewhat of a resurgence within the genre, in John Hillcoat’s “The Proposition” (2005) that combined classic Western elements while also seeming inspired by and incorporating elements of the independent film movement of the nineties, and breathed new life into the genre. Two years later another film came out the genre, which again like “The Proposition” combined elements of 1990’s indie film but one that contained more “art house” components. A film that still stands as not only my favorite Western, but maybe my favorite film of the 2000’s, Andrew Dominik’s “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” (2007). Which in the opinion of this writer, is almost a “prefect” film, and an incredibly strong contribution to what we know as Western. Since then, there really hasn’t been much but a few slightly above average films (2007’s “3:10 to Yuma” remake, 2008’s “Appaloosa”). But other than those two, the Coen’s remake of “True Grit” (2010) and “Django Unchained” (2012), I can’t really think of anything else that really stands out.

“Slow West” is another post-modern take on the classic Western genre. Boasting a rather impressive cast of Michael Fassbender (pretty much anything this guy’s in you can guarantee is going to be worthwhile –  2013’s “The Counselor” excluding), young and up coming Australian actor Kodi Smit-McPhee (best known for his breakthrough roles as the young boy in John Hillcoat’s “The Road” (2009) as well as the central character in Matt Reeves’ remake of the Swedish vampire classic “Let Me In” (2010)), and lastly, an actor I’ve been hyping quite a fair amount of on this site as of late that anybody whose been paying attention would know, Australian actor Ben Mendelsohn, who I recently labeled “the best character actor currently working in the film business”.

The set up is a rather simple one. In 1870’s America, a young man by the name of Jay (Kodi Smit-McPhee) has traveled overseas far and wide to find the love of his life, Rose, who he was once acquainted with many years back and has made it his mission to find her and get her to marry him. However, this is the rough, late 1800’s middle America, where Natives run amok as do bounty hunters. Not necessarily a place for a young man traveling alone. He soon comes across and befriends a freelance bounty hunter named Silas (Michael Fassbender) who takes the young man under his wing and for hundred dollars, agrees to bring Jay to be reunited with his once love Rose. Silas has his own motivations and agenda for doing so, and even though he is one of the best at what he does, he also just separated himself from a ruthless gang of bounty hunters led by the notorious Payne (Ben Mendelsohn). As their journey continues the two men and the rival gang meet, mostly of the same reasons which I won’t divulge, but that ends in a climax that will have you taken aback in your seat by how everything before it winds up building to the film’s grand finale.

This was a strong addition to the Western genre that was unique enough on its own to recommend. I thought the film’s marketing campaign of comparing it to Jarmusch, the Coens, and even Wes Anderson was way off the mark. In fact I would say it shared some with Hillcoat’s “The Proposition” but that was about it. It’s a slow-moving story even at a running time just under 90 minutes. But it’s stylishly shot and well acted (by all 3 of its main leads, though with Mendelsohn in a minor part who doesn’t really enter the film until about its 2/3 of the way through). First time writer/director John Maclean seems like a natural for this type of genre and films the rugged sand dune territory of the midwest with a deft hand. I found myself marveling more at the film’s excellent use of location and framing during the first half, which admittedly I found a bit slow content-wise. As both Jay and Silas’ journey is somewhat of a slow-moving one (hence the title). But like another film that was released last year, Jim Mickle’s “Cold in July”, once the story picks up and the violence starts erupting it really starts to reel in the viewer. Many, and I mean many lives are lost along the two’s journey to find Rose. Culminating in one of the most exciting climax’s in contemporary Western film since the end shoot out scene in “Young Guns” (1988). This is a film, like “The Proposition” and “The Assassination of Jesse James” that presents us with something new and original and a nicely welcomed addition to the genre. That being said, the film felt a bit slight, and is really solely powered by its rather incredible ending. So while the build up and ending climax was highly worth the wait, I thought the wait didn’t necessarily need to be stretched out as long as it was.

[B]

A Trip To The Movies – “A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night” 2.28.15

I’ll just flat-out start by saying this was probably the most highly original, inventive, and exciting film I’ve seen to have come along in a while. In fact, had it of come out last year, it wouldn’t most likely have, it would have, landed a coveted spot on my “best films of the year-end” list. What’s so interesting about this film is that it kind of came out of nowhere. In fact, I don’t even remember how I heard about it. Since I really don’t read any film news/review anymore that’s not where I took notice of it. I do however somewhat regularly look at cumulative scores and saw that this one was graded rather highly. Then I saw the name of the title and it piqued my interest. And merely based on that and that alone, plus seeing a tagline that it was “the first Iranian Vampire Western”, I thought to myself well at the very least this sounds interesting. What I “didn’t” know while watching it is that it’s an American film. Even though all of the characters in the film are Iranian actors who speak in the Persian language and it’s written and directed by an Iranian-American filmmaker Ana Lily Amirpour who has lived in America for practically her whole life. Which is ironic because the film feels totally foreign, and different from just about any other American film I’ve seen, bringing us into a poor desolate land known as “Bad City” which feels like a world far, far, away when in actuality it was shot right here in the States in Bakersfield, California.

The film opens with an old man, Hossein, a heroin addict who seems to be at the end of his rope in terms of his addiction. The only saving grace in his life is the assistance of his son, Arash, who is at his father’s beckoning call because like most sons (at least that I know) does just about anything to save his father. Anyways, Hossein owes quite a bit of money to the local town drug dealer, Saeed (whose look seems to be taken straight from Ninja of the rave/rap African group Die Antwoord). Saeed takes one of Hossein’s prize possessions much to the chagrin of Arash. Saeed seems to be the focus of the story, at least for about the first quarter of the film, along with his hooker, junkie, drug partner Atti. But one night Saeed happens to stumble across a young woman, called simply “The Girl”, that follows him to his apartment, which in that point in the story it shifts gears completely and this “girl” or young woman of whom I speak of becomes the central focus of the story. What’s even more notable is that said woman is a vampire, who goes around town wreaking havoc but does so with a conscience. She seems to only prey on the weak, sick, and degenerate members of society. It is by this chance encounter between the town drug dealer Saeed and the girl whom Arash crosses paths with, which involves the major subplot of the story, one that mirrors the one from “Let The Right One In” (2008) and the American version “Let Me In” (2010). But don’t be fooled, besides the reference, it’s undeniably unique enough (not to mention they’re adults and not children) to separate itself from those films. It is through their relationship that the rest of the story unfolds, and all of the characters previously mentioned are reintroduced back into (or out of, depending on how you want to look at it) the story.

As you can probably already tell by my comments at the beginning of my review I absolutely loved just about every aspect of this film. There is just so much I want to talk about that I feel like I would be doing it a great injustice to leave any of them out. But for the sake of not writing a novel, I will try to keep it to just the key elements of the film in which I really liked. First off was its stunning black-and-white cinematography. I’ve always thought a film is better when shot in black-and-white. As it takes the viewer away from the color palette and allows the images to speak for themselves. In this film this approach works brilliantly as it’s maybe the best looking black-and-white film since as far back as I can remember. This format also gives this chilling, noirish tale a look of authenticity that works perfectly given the content of the story. It’s also about as stylishly shot from a design angle and has a look and sometimes feel of an old Jim Jarmusch film (especially in the hipster department). The cool, sleek, and cold feel and tone matches the images on-screen magnificently. Another thing I think is important to point out, is that for a movie with this much style (Quentin Tarantino came to mind for me at times) it’s also loaded with substance. The central story and the many shifts in character arcs make it completely and utterly compelling from start to finish. There’s also a great “meta-ness” to the whole affair. While it certainly is a horror film at heart it also combines elements of film noir, westerns, comedy, drama, and romance. All genres that are balanced quite well considering how dense of a film it winds up being. The last thing I think that’s important to point out is that there is scene after scene of sheer beauty that seem like they have the potential to be iconic movie history (an example would be the dancing scene between John Travolta and Uma Thurman in “Pulp Fiction” (1995) – but imagine not just one but several scenes like that). Which had me looking up the screen with a shit eating grin for practically the entire film, so engaged by the style, story, and characters that I had to pass up a bathroom break in fear that I was going to miss whatever was next. This is hands down the most unique, stylish, and fresh take that breathes new life into what is otherwise a tired genre, that being the vampire film. It’s only two months into the year and this one has already secured a spot on my top 10 list of 2015.

[A-]

6 Days Until Halloween – 6 Of My Favorite Horror Films Of The Past 6 Years: #6: “Let Me In” (2010)

In what just may be the best horror remake in the never ending list of retreads, spin-offs, and sequels. Matt Reeves does something with his take on the Swedish version of the original by (almost) the same name “Let The Right One In”. He takes the source material, expands on it, and winds up making it better than the first. Where the original had an almost tepidly paced, art house feel to the whole proceeding. Which while although maybe made it beautiful to look at. I personally didn’t feel as if they really drived up the horror component in a way that they should have. Enter Matt Reeves straight off his impressive DIY debut “Cloverfield”. Which even though I can’t say I loved that film, I certainly appreciated the hell out of it. What impresses me most about the American remake in comparison to the original Swedish one is the way Reeves more or less stays true to the source material, while making it darker, scarier, and more terrifying. Which in turn ups the ante. But he’s able to do it in a way in which he still captures the alienation of youth, particularly that of the young boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee) and the love story that develops between both he and the young girl (Chloe Grace Moretz, perfectly cast here). But whereas that was the major focus of the original – here Reeves adds different elements like more of an emphasis on developing the character of the father (played by Richard Jenkins) which in retrospect I think the first one could have chosen to do which could have made it more effective, but chose not to. Second in Reeves’s version the violence is viceral and in your face, whereas in the original it was very subtle and heard but only off camera. Lastly, in what I hinted at above but I think is important to highlight again, is the sense of alienation of the McPhee character. The Reeves version really focuses on it and allows the viewer to really get a sense of how vulnerable the boy is and what leads him to seek solace in someone like Moretz. So even though I would almost equally recommend Tomas Alfredson original 2008 version. I can honestly say I would recommend this one even more. Which is saying a lot considering good, quality American horror films are so few and far between.

[B+]