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 (Part 1): A New-To-DVD Release – “Tales From The Grim Sleeper” + My First of Two Trips To The Movies – “About Elly” (6/5-6/6)

It was exciting news to me when I heard that documentarian Nick Broomfield had a new film out.Having alfeady seen many of his previous documentaries and liked; the Kurt Cobian/Courtney Love documentary – “Kurt and Courtney” (1998), his probing look into the life, work, and deaths of the Notorious B.I.G and Tupac in “Biggie and Tupac” (2002), and finally, one that he is probably the most known for – “Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer” (2003) about the trial of the Florida serial killer Aileen Wuornos which that same year later whose story was made into and released as a feature film in the Charlize Theron Oscar-winning “Monster”.

His newest documentary, commissioned by HBO films, “Tales of The Grim Sleeper” (which first aired on HBO in late April and continues to weekly, so get out your TIVO) brings the British documentarian to Los Angeles to try to uncover the truth about the infamous case of the serial killer known as the “Grim Sleeper”, otherwise known as Lonnie Franklin, who terrorized one small corner of the city for almost 25 years and is on trial for the murder of 10 women, but who was believed to be responsible for the death and or various other crimes against 170 more. The question the documentary poses is how could a man, who at the time of his arrest at 60+ years of age, manage to go on a killing spree for twenty five years without having ever been investigated into in all of that time? However many people in the very poor section of his lower, working class neighborhood (if you even want to call it that – 50% of its inhabitants are unemployed) and moreover why almost the entire community knew about it for most of his long 25-year run but never spoke up about it. And in turn asks questions about this section of L.A.’s local police force and why they stayed away and turned a blind eye for so many years to what was actually going on, while on top of that asking us as viewers should they have even cared. You see, Lonnie Franklin aka “The Grim Sleeper” focused solely on capturing, having sex with, and most likely killing young women, most of whom were prostitutes and addicted to crack cocaine. At the risk of sounding apathetic and for someone who values human life, no matter what their place and function within society is, are we talking about “disposable” lives here? That’s just one of the many questions the documentary poses (indirectly as it certainly doesn’t take the stance that the killings were somehow warranted). In typical Broomfield fashion this is another rather impressive, though bleak and at times difficult to watch viewing as we hear countless interviews from ex-prostitutes who encountered the man but somehow managed to get away. If you, like me, are into the “crime” documentary genre, this is something you should eat up as it’s thought-provoking, gripping, and does what only the best documentaries do – show a 2-sided argument that raises many questions, those of which you should be pondering over well after its final credits have rolled. [B+]

Next up we have the latest film, “About Elly” (or shall I say “re-release”, as the film was originally made in 2009 but not released theatrically in the States until just recently), by one of the world’s most renowned filmmakers – Iranian born Asghar Farhadi, who wowed critics, audiences and the Academy alike with his Oscar winning 2011 Best Foreign Language film – “A Separation”. A film many critics consider to be the best foreign film of the past 15 years (and rightfully so). I was almost equally impressed by his follow up, 2013’s “The Past”, another film about the devastating effects on what pivotal life decisions can have on all others involved in them. What I enjoy so much about Farhadi’s work, which admittedly was limited to just the two prior aforementioned films, is that they bring back the true essence of “family drama” and everything that the genre used to do so well. In fact, before being introduced to Farhadi I can honestly say the last high quality family drama that probeed into similar territory, which also happens to be one of my favorite films of all time, was way back in 2001 with the release of Todd Field’s Academy Award-winning “In The Bedroom”. A brilliant and breathtaking film with a deep emotional core that I find myself revisiting almost yearly in the past 15 years or so. Like, “In The Bedroom”, Farhadi’s films, again with the addition of his newest (or again shall I say re-release) mostly exists inside its own universe, tackling a single act and the tragic set of events that follow. As said events transpire in each film each of his characters are revealed, motivations, and agendas are exposed. But many of them are decisions that are steeped in moral values, ethics, and each person’s beliefs, many deeply rooted in a cultural code which permeates throughout each of Farhadi’s films. “About Elly” draws comparisons to “A Separation” and “The Past” in this respect, but rather than focus on a single family, as the other films do, here we find him exploring these same themes but within a much larger group of people consisting of college colleagues who visit the seashore and bring along one of the women’s children’s teachers, the titular character, Elly, who winds up going missing after a critical incident that takes place, and in its examination of events that transpire following, shows the effects it has on each of its characters. Like with all of Farhadi’s films, it depicts how we as people, tend to want place blame on any one other than ourselves, and shows how this can have devastating effects on everyone involved. It’s another impressive, yet minor addition to the Farhadi oeuvre, and while at times it felt a bit slight and overlong, it always was engaging and compelling enough to allow me to recommend it. Particularly because of the flawless acting on display and deep themes in which it chooses to explore. Yet, as someone who considers themselves to be a huge admirer of the director’s work, overall if felt a bit more like a precursor piece to his more recent work, the latter of which ranks among the best that international cinema has to offer. [B]