A Trip To The Movies: Review – “Mistress America” 9.1.15

I admit I’ve always liked Noah Baumbach and his films and have been following him since his start. Like the Andersons, Wes and Paul Thomas, he started his career as a writer director at a very early young age. He made his feature film debut at 26 with 1996’s “Kicking and Screaming”, an indie comedy about a bunch of upper middle class college post-grads, trying to decide what it is that they wanted to do with their lives. Then came the most passable work in his filmography, 1997’s “Mr. Jealousy”, a film that showcased the young filmmaker’s talent, but felt somewhat trite and slightly off-kilter in relation to his debut. Then at 36, came what I still consider his masterpiece, “The Squid and the Whale” (2005), that introduced the film world to Jesse Eisenberg, and was anchored by a career best performance by the seemingly odd yet perfectly cast Jeff Daniels. But let me backtrack a year in what I think was a pivotal and extremely important year in context for the writer/director, a year that brought both him, and one his other young contemporaries; Wes Anderson, together to co-write the screenplay for “The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou” (2004). What’s so notable about this collaboration, is it’s become to me; only by mere reflection, how much of an influence Wes seemed to have had on his sensibilities as a writer. “The Squid and the Whale” which, as previously mentioned, came out the year prior to “The Squid and the Whale”. And while I consider it to be a masterpiece, it’s mainly more for its performances than for its technical or writing achievements. The reason being is that it felt very much “like” a Wes Anderson film, including Wes’ trademark style and Anderson”isms”. Fair enough given that he had just worked with him on a film the year prior. Reflecting back, 10 years ago, I saw its influence but was able to separate it as a film among itself. Baumbach then shifted gears a couple of years later in 2009 with “Margot At The Wedding”, a dark dramedy which like its predecessor, explored the dysfunctional side of family inter-dynamics. “Greenberg” followed in 2009 – which I thought was an admirable film but certainly not a great film. What it did do was introduce both him and the film-going audience to its star Greta Gerwig and now frequent music collaborator James Murphy from the electronic funk outfit LCD Soundsystem. His next film, 2012’s “Frances Ha”, was probably his most successful from both box office numbers and critical praise (including myself) and wound up on many best of end of the year lists. It reunited him once again with new muse Greta Gerwig, sharing both a writing credit and cast as the film’s main lead. Then, come 2015, I heard Baumbach was releasing not one, but two films. “While We’re Young”, featuring his most recognized cast yet with both Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts, but the film I was most critical of his. So I was very hopeful for his next.

In his latest film takes place in his usual setting of New York City. It opens with a young, privileged freshman in college named Tracy (Lola Kirke – if you don’t recognize her name don’t worry neither did I – she’s new to the film industry). Tracy’s mom, who we meet early on, a divorcee who is soon to be wed to her boyfriend. Through marriage, Tracy learns that she will now have a stepsister, Brooke, played by Greta Gerwig, in her second writing and starring in collaboration with Baumbach after “Frances Ha”. Tracy is reluctant to get in touch with Brooke at first, as Brooke is almost 12 years older having just turned 30, and she seems to want to experience New York City and the college lifestyle on her own. But after that proves to be less than stimulating, she picks up the phone one night and calls Brooke, only to be quickly invited over to her house. From there the story line feels strikingly similar to “While We’re Young” except reversed as the younger Tracy being enamored by her soon-to-be older stepsister Brooke. Everything about Brooke’s lifestyle, to her many creative interests, hobbies, pursuits, and knowledge of New York City, washes over Brooke and the two form a quick bond that reveals both sides of their characters over the course of the short, 80-something minute film.

This film was pretty disappointing as I was hoping it wouldn’t, but it just reaffirmed my belief that Baumbach is become a one-trick pony, much like his other contemporary, Wes Anderson. It’s essentially a mix between themes that were already explored in both “Frances Ha” (2012) and the film he made earlier this year – “While We’re Young”. Gerwig’s character lacks a certain depth and all of her substance lays on the outside (much like Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried in “While We’re Young”). The story between soon-to-be stepsisters feels rehashed from out of “Frances Ha”. With newcomer Lola Kirke (the best thing about the picture) filling in for the best friend in that film. As the two mill about New York and try to fill their lives with everything it has to offer, only to expose how shallow that lifestyle really is. From a writing standpoint it feels more like any other Wes Anderson film (including “The Squid and the Whale”) in that it’s essentially filled with ruminations and quick punned one-liners, with every character introduced trying to be ironically witty and funny but all of whom contain a certain sadness underneath. The story arch itself never really does much of anything other than follow the two New Yorkers from setting to setting, and feels meandering throughout much if not all of its running time. To me, this seemed like a major step backwards for Baumbach, an indie writer/director who seems to be running out of ideas. I’ve always though his films were unique enough but now they seem like mere regurgitations. Sorry Baumbach, but this will probably be my last film I seek out of yours, unless your next film contains something that we haven’t already seen done over and over again.

[C]

Noah Baumbach’s – Mistress America – Starring Greta Gerwig

Tuesday, Sep 1, 2015, 6:30 PM

Living Room Theaters
341 SW Tenth Ave Portland, OR

6 Portland Film Enthusiasts Went

The newest from one of my favorite comedic directors – Noah Baumbach (“The Squid & The Whale”, “Frances Ha”) opens Friday at the Living Room Theaters. Tuesdays are $5 days at the Living Room!Synopsis: In this millennial comedy, Tracy (Lola Kirke), a mousy college freshman living on her own in New York City meets Brooke (Greta Gerwig), her stepsist…

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A Trip To The Movies (Double Feature): Reviews – “The Stanford Prison Experiment” and “Tangerine” 8.2.15

The Stanford Prison Experiment Movie Poster

The first film of my double feature was one that I listed in my “Top 10 Most Anticipated Films of the Summer Movie Season” section back in June. As someone who has an undergraduate degree in Psychology I find just about any and everything interesting that’s even remotely related to exploring why we as humans act and think in the way that we do. Most everyone I know with even the slightest interest in Psychology knows about the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment that took place in the 1960’s at the ivy league university. An experiment that set out to try to found out whether or not the personality traits between prisoners and guards was the chief cause for the abusive behavior between them. The test itself consisted of one very prominent Stanford University professor, some of his hand chosen colleagues, and a sample group of college students – each interviewed and handpicked prior to the experiment, each of whom were also told very little about the actual experiment itself other than that they would be getting paid $25 a day for their participation in it (not a bad day’s pay for a college student in the 1960’s) and that it would last 2 weeks taking place over summer break. The professor in charge, Philip Zimbardo, and his colleagues then hand-picked 24 students each to split up into 2 groups of 12 – one group which would act as “prison guards” and the other the “prisoners” in the basement of one of the university’s lecture halls that would be made up to resemble a prison. From that point forward for the next 2 weeks they would be put under surveillance and studied by professor Zimbardo and his colleagues 24 hours a day around the clock to study the psychology behind control and the abuses of power. As one unfortunate student (played by “We Need To Talk About Kevin” and “The Perks of Being a Wallflower”‘s Ezra Miller) gives prior to the experiment – “I hope I get chosen to be a prisoner”. When asked why he responds – “because it sounds like they’d have the least amount of work to do”. Boy could he have never been more wrong.

This was one of those films, at least in the opinion of this writer, that is catered towards a certain demographic. If you’re the type of person who is into Psychology like myself, and don’t discriminate as to whether it explores either the good or bad in people, well, then this movie should be just about right up your alley. It’s a strong, assured piece of work from its young director, 32-year old Kyle Patrick Alvarez, who tackles one of the more difficult topics with a sense of authenticity that I thought the other 2 films depicting the same experiment – 2001’s “Das Experiment” and especially the forgettable and passable “The Experiment” (2010) failed to do right. Where credit should be given first off should be to the film’s amazing cast. Billy Crudup as Professor Philip Zimbardo winds up being a great casting choice. As does some of the experimentees played by a slew of some of the more notable, young and up-and-coming actors in the business including the aforementioned Ezra Miller (always excellent and a scene stealer here), Tye Sheridan (“The Tree of Life”, “Mud”, “Joe”), and James Frecheville (who I’ve literally been waiting to see reappear since his fantastic work in 2010’s “Animal Kingdom”) as well as several other familiar young actors (I name those 3 specifically because they were the highlights of the film, at least for me). Director Alvarez, this being only the third film into his career, should also be given a fair amount of credit for tackling a rather difficult subject and making it seem real. His posterity and confidence behind the lens shows his mastery and commitment to the material. It’s shot almost clinically and sterile, as any movie about Psychology really should be. Evoking the work of Steven Soderbergh, with his use of oblique camera angles and in terms of its controlled style. The story looks like some kind of docu-drama, which is a true testament to Alvarez as a director and his ability to “reenact” the material with such precision as he does. All of the accolades aside, what I feel almost obligated to point out here is that the film is for “thinkers”, people looking to be challenged other than to be entertaining. The little I share with you about how the experiment winds up turning out (if you don’t have any familiarity with it already) the better. But what I will say is similar to how Craig Zobel’s “Compliance” (2012) depicted humans subordinance to authority figures, well this film explores the same terrain and does so in a way that’s more unflinching and shows it exactly for how it may have really unfolded. It’s a rewarding piece of cinema if you happen to be the right viewer. But for all others it may seem like a bit of an endurance test. Not because it’s slow, but it at times feels exploitative (which I think was/is the point), and to see human beings treating one another so poorly is almost a bit tough to watch. This is a feeling and tone difficult to describe in words, but the last time I felt something close to it was with last year’s “Foxcatcher”. This a great depiction of one of history’s most notorious experiments. But it’s an experience that’s more to be admired and appreciated than it is to be entertained by. Unless you’re some sort of sadomasochist.

[strong B]

My second film in my double feature, “Tangerine”, I had been a little bit skeptical of at first, having seen a less than impressive trailer but something that I’ve heard good word-of-mouth about as well as it garnering some great reviews. My reason for my skepticism was that the film’s poster billed itself as having been “a film shot entirely on an Iphone 5”. To me that felt like a gimmick. And being in that I’m an anti-technologist, that in and of itself turned me off to it. Then a friend of mine messaged me recently and asked – “hey, have you seen “Tangerine” yet”…I thought it was one of the funnier independent comedies I’ve seen all year”. It was simply based on this person’s recommendation of it that I decided to give it a whirl. Given that it was playing right at the same time as the film prior had let out.

“Tangerine” revolves around the story of a trans gender woman living in Los Angeles named Sin-Dee. A prostitute who at the beginning of the film is released from jail after a short month-long stint for a drug charge. She meets up with the other main character of the film, her best friend Alexandra, another trans gender woman, who spends most of her time like Sin-Dee does, turning tricks for cash. The basic story line is rather simple – Sin-Dee gets word that her pimp/boyfriend, Chester, has his time during her stint in jail in the company of another prostitute, Dinah, who she vows to find and pay her back for her wrongdoings with Chester. From that point forward we see, well, the daily lives of two inner-city trans prostitutes, as they weave their way in, out, and all around L.A. in their quest to find both Sin-Dee’s cheating boyfriend Chester, and the unfortunate woman who he’s been cheating on her with while she did time for him in jail.

This was a film that had some rather strong components of it but overall wound up being a flawed one as a whole. The first thing that came to mind as I was watching it was that it felt strikingly similar to Larry Clark/Harmony Korine’s “Kids” (1995). Except with an updated, almost contemporary feel that depicted the day to day lives of trans gender people living in L.A. as opposed to teenagers living in New York City. It starts off rather engaging with a hyperkentic style and use of editing that initially reels the viewer in to its story. Also, something should be said for what I called its “gimmick approach”. As a viewer the fact that it was shot “entirely on an Iphone” didn’t once cross my mind. As director Sean Baker does a rather deft job at making it look real and not grainy as one would expect, which I found quite inspiring from a technical standpoint as in this age of film and digital movie making, you can actually film a movie (and do it well mind you) with just your phone. As reluctant and apprehensive as I am to wanting to admit it. It also boasted a great, all-instrumental score of hip-hop, electronic, and otherwise “urban” music, which I thought lended itself quite well to the material and the images we were being shown on screen. Those things aside, It mostly fell flat in terms of its execution and where the story goes with its too main leads. It tries to introduce one too many subplots in its short 90 minutes that don’t seem all that believable or maybe better put, aren’t that engaging. The many subplots makes the ongoing shifts in the film’s tone jarring and simply not all that interesting. Added into the fact that there’s a third main character who is introduced about halfway in, a cab driver on the prowl solely for trans prostitutes (which does actually produce one hilariously funny scene where he unexpectedly pays for a “non” trans person’s services only to find out via “The Crying Game” that she (or “he” as he expects her to be, isn’t really who he thinks she is). But outside of the strong look of the film and glimpse into an otherwise unfamiliar contingency of people, the current trans world, I found it to be somewhat politically incorrect (without trying to bring politics into my analysis of a film), somewhat misogynistic, and also inflammatory against the gay community. As these characters don’t really have much or dimension to them other than that they are “trans gender prostitutes”. Added into the fact that the film’s “climax” (if you want to call it that) feels underwhelming and a bit too predictable as all sides emerge to intersect with one another coincidentally. This is a film more built around a good idea than it was in its execution. Not something I would necessarily recommend, but in some ways something that I could admire in terms of conceit over storytelling.

[C+]

Weekly Roundup DVD Reviews: “Hungry Hearts” and “Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck” (6/8-6-12)


This was yet another film much like the “Seven Five” documentary that piqued my interest mainly because of the comparisons in which it compared itself to as read by the poster’s tagline. “Reminiscent of Hitchcock and the earlier works of Roman Polanski”. Which is a bit of a dubious endorsement indeed, but one in which I found myself drawn to. Anyone that knows me well enough knows that I think of both Hitch’s films of the 1960’s – “Psycho” (1960) and “The Birds” (1963) and Polanski’s 1-2 punch of both “Repulsion” (1965) and “Rosemary’s Baby” (1968) to be the “birth” of American horror (as was George A Romero’s original “Night of the Living Dead”) (1968). So with that in mind I thought if this one lived up to half of the hype that it showed the potential to be, even despite its mostly less than favorable reviews, I almost considered it something just based on that alone to warrant my seeing it.

The film is a “meta-exercise” revolving around Adam Driver’s character falling in love with an actress who I was previously unfamiliar with prior to seeing this film, Alba Rohrwacher, who is really the star of the film even in spite of Driver’s great performance. It’s essentially a piece about mental illness and how the birth of a child’s couple can separate themselves from one another as each seems to have his or her own’s agenda of how it should be raised, in what starts off as a marriage that shows great promise which inevitably unfolds into two people who couldn’t be more different as told through their raising on the child, to a sort of cosmopolitan pseudo-horror film about the natures of inner fears and anxieties that drew a lot of comparisons, at least for me, to the two Polanski films mentioned above. Ti West used a similar structure beautifully in 2009’s “House of the Devil”. And while this film drew many comparisons, particularly to that and especially Polanski’s “Rosemary’s Baby”, I found it to be unique enough and singular to separate itself from those films. The story and direction by newcomer Italian director Saverio Costanzo should please film buffs and fans of earlier, more psychological horror, more than their contemporary counterparts. It’s greatest strong point (like the early Polanski films) depicting what it’s like to live in a big city (NYC) but one in which a very isolated world or bubble is created in which to protect your children (or in this case child) from. Driver, whom I was mostly unfamiliar despite his work in the past two Noah Baumbach performances puts in a rather performance here as a man on the verge of hysteria as he falls in and out of love with his wife (another great performance by newcomer Rohrwacher), in a film that probably was mostly misunderstood by critics, as it’s a nice companion piece to the psychological family horror films of old. Despite some low production value issues and choppy editing, along with a questionably predictable ending, this is one that’s definitely worth checking out even despite these relatively minor criticisms & somewhat jarring shifts in narrative tone. [soft B]

My second viewing of the week was the highly anticipated “rock-doc” about the life and work of Kurt Cobain – “Montage of Heck”. Admittedly I’ve seen just about every documentary, live concert, or stock interview footage of the late artist up to this point. However, seeing in that it was made and produced by HBO Documentaries and promoted itself as being the quitessential documentary on Cobain. An artist whose work, like legions of fans around the world, I deeply admire. As mentioned in the title of this piece, Kurt Cobain was without question Generation X’s version of John Lennon. Many people don’t realize this but Nirvana was the most successful band in the history of American music. And Cobain was their spokesperson. So to do a comprehensive documentary on an artist of his caliber must have been a daunting task to say the least. Especially considering how the media played such an integral role in how he was viewed and represented in the eyes of the public. So going into it I was a bit apprehensive and skeptical that they could possibly do justice to an artist whose like and work was and has been shrouded in such misrepresentation.

The documentary starts off strong presenting us with Cobain’s childhood in the small town of Aberdeen, Washington. Through a series of interviews we find out quite a bit about his biological mother and father, both of whom I hadn’t really seen speak much of if anything at all about their son Kurt until this film. It does a nice job explaining how his mostly nice upbringing was shattered by his parents’ divorce, and how he never really recuperated from that part of his life. It then quickly skims (one of my critiques of the piece – they show his despair of being a teenager – an outcast if you will, most likely because of family problems, to his jump 5 years later being a guitarist for Nirvana when they were first starting out. I would have liked to have seen more footage from family and close ones who were around for that period about how he even became a musician. Instead of just focusing on the unhappy, rebellious child that the film makes him out to be. It then leaps ahead in its second quarter to show us Nirvana’s giant leap from club act to Geffen signed artists, and the enormous popularity that they earned by their debut album – “Nevermind”. Once we as a viewer understand the international impact that Nirvana had on the scene at the time, which I thought was nicely told, it delves straight into the relationship with Cobain and Courtney Love, lead singer of the rock band Hole. This halfway point basically sums up the rest of the documentary, as the filmmakers place (and understandably so), the impact that Courtney had on Kurt’s life. They were a match made in heaven. Both pissed off artists manifested from the troubles of their youth. Whose goal seemed to be some sort of side show freak show circus act to let the public know how really little of a fuck they thought about them. Becoming slaves to heroin and garnering a lot of negative attention from the press.

It’s about as comprehensive of a documentary as I’ve ever seen into the trails and tribulations of the late Cobain, with a major emphasis on his marriage and child who was born (sadly) addicted to drugs. It also does a great job in depicting Nirvana and Cobain’s rapid rise to fame. While also painting a rather sad, depressing portrait of a man who succumbed to his own personal demons in the end. Which the film takes an unflinching look at while not being afraid to show the dark side of both Kurt and Courtney’s relationship, but also that of Cobain’s tortured soul. Anybody that knows anybody that has an appreciation of music knows how significant Cobain’s contribution was to music. But in the end, despite his undeniable talent, fame, and popularity, really all he was was just another junkie. [B]

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]

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+]

A Trip To The Movies – Review: “A Most Violent Year” 3.29.15

I can think of at least three people I know, that had seen this film prior to my seeing it, and all three had the same thing to say about it – “I really liked it, but I think it would be something that you would love“. I didn’t quite know what to make of the comments other than mostly everyone I know knows that I have somewhat of a particular eye for film, and that my tastes seem to be a bit more aligned with independent or what some consider to be art-house films. So I interpreted this comment to mean that maybe it fell a bit on the artsy side of the film spectrum. Though people also know that I’m a big Oscar Isaac fan and consider him to be amongst the very best in the crop of young actors currently working in the film industry (the only two actors out there right now within his age bracket who are as good as him are probably Joaquin Phoenix and Jake Gyllenhaal). What I don’t think a lot of people know is how much of a fan I am of writer/director J.C. Chandor. Who’s maybe one of, if not the most promising up and coming young directors, who also happens to be pretty brand new to the film industry but whose two feature films prior to this one I really enjoyed. In 2011 he released “Margin Call”, a mostly overlooked and underappreciated film about one long night revolving around a group of business men and woman the night prior to the economic collapse of 2008. I was almost as equally impressed with his last film – 2013’s “All Is Lost” about a shipwrecked man played by Robert Redford (which deservedly garnered him a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actor). Then I saw the trailer for his latest film, this one, and started to think this guy might be one of the next true auteurs, because not only does he write and direct, but I began to start to realize that he may be the next true “genre” director as all of his films seemed to be entirely different then the one previous to it. Which is incredibly rare these days inside the studio system because a lot of directors (and there are several exceptions mind you) seem to make a hit film and then make subsequent films that don’t really deviate or stray away from the formula that originally worked for them. Chandor, like Bennett Miller (“Capote”, “Moneyball, “Foxcatcher”) seems to not really care about anything other than making high quality genre pictures. So when I heard that his newest film was a crime drama taking place in New York City in the early eighties to say my interest was piqued would be an understatement. Especially considering the number of people who said it was a very specific type of film for a very particular audience, that being someone like myself, my anticipation for it grew quite considerably.

“A Most Violent Year” centers around an immigrant, Abel Morales (played by Oscar Isaac), who lives in New York City circa 1981. Which we’re soon told was one of the most violent years for crime in the city’s history. Abel is a hard-working man who owns an oil business and who seemingly is trying to make a name for himself. At the beginning of the film one of Abel’s oil drivers is beaten down after an interstate hijacking. Abel’s wife, Anna (played by the ever so reliable Jessica Chastain), also his bookkeeper/accountant, comes from a Mob-like mentality family, as does the local teamster’s union reps, pressure Abel to fight violence with violence. Which puts him at a sort of inner conflict because he wants to be a business man and not a gangster. To top off his precarious situation with his business, he’s also informed by the local District Attorney (played by “Selma”‘s David Oyelowo) that he is being investigated for a number of different illegal activities that they think he is somehow involved with. Abel seeks council from his lawyer (Albert Brooks – great to see him back in tbe first role I’ve seen him in since “Drive”) in an upcoming deal he has lined up with a Hasidic owner of a local fuel oil terminal, which is the kind of deal that he’s been waiting an entire lifetime for. This deal is the major plot device that drives the story. But can he close it under the pressure of the number of oil competitors, a loving but seemingly untrustworthy wife, unreliable employees, teamsters union, and the District Attorney. Who with the exception of his loving wife, seem to be willing to do just about everything possible to stand in his way to try to make sure the deal doesn’t go through.

This was a brilliantly well made and executed film that defied my preconceived notions and wound up exceeding my expectations and then some. This is writer/director J.C. Chandor paying homage to the classic Hollywood gangster/crime family drama. Incorporating just about every element we’ve come to expect from the genre. The acting is also outstanding. Particularly from its two lead performances, in what felt like it should have been an Academy Award nominated turn by Oscar Isaac who is nothing short of exemplary, as well as Chastain, who wound up receiving a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actress for her fine work here. Chandor does a masterful job at recreating the look of early 1980’s New York City, filmed in a brown/yellowish color palette (what I call “cigarette stain”) where everything looks broken down, dilapidated, and decaying. A look that I thought was perfect given the context of the film. In terms of feel it felt like some of the seminal films of the genre like Francis Ford Coppola’s first two “Godfather” films (complete with Isaac putting on his very best Al Pacino/Don Corleone impression), Brian DePalma’s “Scarface” (in terms of its underlying theme of an immigrant trying to become an opportunist in the pursuit of the American Dream), as well as some of the crime films of Martin Scorsese (though much more subtle). At times it felt like it shared more of a direct influence with David Michod’s “Animal Kingdom”, which also took a rather stark and bleak look at the decimation of a crime family. The major difference here is that unlike the Michod film, Abel is not a criminal in the same sense as the characters in that film were but rather becomes one as a mere byproduct of the turbulent times he lives in. I was also thoroughly impressed with its deft storytelling which had me thoroughly engaged from the opening credits through its final frame. Not once did I look down at my watch the entire time (which admittedly I’m sometimes guilty of doing even in other good films just to see how far along we are in the story). There was a tense underlying feeling of unease that permeated as the events that unfold give the film an almost paranoiac feel. Last but not least, don’t believe anything you hear about it being a bit of a slow-moving story with little to no actual violence leading some people I’ve heard go so far as to say they have a hard time even considering it being labeled an actual “crime” film. Well let me be the one to dispel those myths. It is very much a crime film, containing almost all, if not every component contained within the genre. Also, if by “slow” people mean a potboiler/nailbiter that takes its time telling its story than I’m sorry. You just may not have gotten the director’s intentions behind delivering the story in the way that he did. The violence may be sparse yes, but when it comes boy does it pack a wallop. I can’t even count on two hands how many times both my myself and the people around me gasped at some of the film’s more shocking moments (and there were plenty of them). This is writer/director J.C. Chandor’s best work to date, as was the case with its star, Oscar Isaac. It’s an old school, classic, crime drama, that if been given a proper release date of last year like it did almost everywhere else, it would have most likely wound up earning itself a spot on my list of the best films of the year. In a year where we saw a slew of director’s making their masterpieces, here is yet another one that deserved way more attention than it got, marking J.C. Chandor as the new poster boy of genre filmmaking.

[strong 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]