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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Review – ‘Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger’ 10.18.14

Extra Large Movie Poster Image for Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger

In what was probably my second most anticipated documentary of the year behind “Life Itself”. Joe Berlinger’s (“Paradise Lost” Trilogy) “Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Burgler” tells the story of James “Whitey” Bulger, the notorious South Boston crime boss who Martin Scorcese based Jack Nicholson’s character off of in his film “The Departed”. Brought to us by CNN films, a brand new subsidiary of CNN that focuses primarily on documentary features, and who has released both last year’s excellent and haunting “Blackfish” and this year’s “Life Itself” (currently at my #1 spot for both best documentary and best film of the year). They seem to be at the current forefront of financing specific documentaries so that they can be released to a wider audience. And so far, I can say I am very impressed with the types of documentaries that they’re producing. But even more reason why I was excited because this was by documentarian Joe Berlinger, the director of such acclaimed films as his superb 1992 documentary “Brother’s Keeper”, which focused on a the trial of a semi-illiterate farmer, the 1996, 2000, and 2011 “Paradise Lost” Trilogy, about the unfortunate long and drawn out trial of the West Memphis 3. Which mind you are three of some of the best documentaries I have ever seen. Then 2004’s probing look at the band Metallica in “Metallica: Some Kind of Monster”, and finally 2009’s intense examination of the South American oil trade “Crude”. Berlinger is right up there with the caliber of documentary filmmakers like Werner Herzog (“Grizzly Man”), Alex Gibney (“Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room”), Steve James (“Hoop Dreams”), Davis Guggenheim (“An Inconvenient Truth”), Errol Morris (“The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara”), James Marsh (“Man on Wire”), and Ken Burns (“The Central Park 5”). All documentary filmmakers who are at the top of their game and whose documentaries almost never fail to disappoint.

The film starts off by introducing us to several South Boston residents, most of whom were either eye witnesses or victims of families who were terrorized by “Whitey” (aka James Burgler otherwise known as “The Irish Godfather”) who reigned and was king of the organized crime world in the United States for almost 25 years going back to the mid seventies and staying in power until the late nineties, which at that point he went on the lam for 13 years until his capture in 2011. Whitey was the boss of the infamous Walter Hill gang, a band of Boston wiseguys who were completely and utterly ruthless, menacing, and terrorizing in equal respects, and who also were responsible for dozens of murders. Whitey’s ring grew so big that by the late nineties to early aughts he landed a #2 spot on the FBI’s Most Wanted. Second to that of only Osama Bin Laden. But here’s the kicker – he had also been an FBI informant for years. Whitey was let free to run wild and become the head of the most notorious gang the United States has ever seen. All while under the knowing eye of the Federal Bureau of Investigations. Only to be informed by the same organization he helped out to essentially flee, then land on their list of Most Wanted, until his capture in 2011. Where at the age of 83 he would go on to be tried for 19 murders. The documentary focuses on Whitey’s rise, his reign of terror, his relationship with the FBI, wiseguys, informants, trial lawyers, eye witnesses, and families of victims; mostly in and around the Boston area. And asks the central question – how could a Mob boss who headed a gang that was so ruthless possibly have also worked for the United States government?

There is a little something for everyone in this documentary. Being in that I have always been fascinated by the Mob. Like most guys I know who were at a young age. I was always interested in people like Al Capone and John Gotti. That and I loved films like Frances Ford Coppola’s exemplary “Godfather” Trilogy (1972, 1974, and 1990), Brian DePalma’s 1987 film “The Untouchables”, and what still might be arguably the best film made about the Mob – Martin Scorcese’s “Goodfellas” (1990). Anybody with even the faintest interest in any of the above people or films will most likely find this documentary worthwhile. It’s filled with informative interviews from members of the Boston community who were in some way involved with Whitey, be it by association with the Mob or by ways of being a victim of them. It also contains some great archival footage, voice recordings, and eye witness testimonies. Furthermore it’s a compelling and thought provoking look at both his rise and fall as well as the deep, multi-layered levels of government corruption. Particularly by that of the FBI. The amount of protection this guy received from one of our supposed to be most trusted government organizations is appalling. Lastly, I thought it did a fairly good comprehensive job at depicting Whitey’s run from his rise to his fall, as well as the court proceedings that took place when he eventually was captured in 2011. The only couple of criticisms I had were at times it felt like an overload of information that I personally had a hard time following. Similar to when I watch Asian films about crime families. Just the sheer amount of people involved from all aspects, while important to depict, can often times be overwhelming and can wind up confusing the viewer. Which at a few points happened to me here. It also felt slightly one-sided, in that most all of the testimony you see or hear from people in the film are from people who are against Whitey and want to see him put in jail. Which is totally understandable. I just thought to myself there had to still be some Whitey supporters that they could have interviewed to go along with it which would have made it seem a bit more balanced. Those two criticisms aside, this is a well thought out, comprehensive, thought provoking depiction of one of the most notorious crime bosses in United States history and his own
government who protected him.

Grade: B

Looking Back On: ‘Dead Snow’ (2009) 10.15.14

As we enter the second half of October in the final 2 weeks leading up to Halloween, you’re going to start noticing some new changes to the site. One is a “Spotlight On” section featuring specific directors whom I admire and the other being a “Looking Back On” focusing on older films that I’ve seen and recently revisited. Many of which leading up to Halloween will be horror films. A genre that if done correctly is probably my favorite of them all. First up is the granddaddy of the horror-comedy genre. One that I’ve seen probably a dozen times and each viewing gets better and better than the last. Tommy Wirkola’s genius 2009 “Dead Snow”. I remember it vividly like it was yesterday when I first saw the trailer for it prior to it coming out and my initial reaction was wow. “Nazi zombies are awakened from the dead to prey on a group of unsuspecting vacationers”. I’ve seen just about everything but I’m not sure I can quite put my finger on something like that. I watched and rewatched the trailer over and over again. Then when it was time where I actually was able to finally sit down and see it, it was if all of my dreams for how I had hoped it would turn out had come true. This Norweigian delight has just about everything for fans of the genre. But in order to discuss it with any sort of fair amount of credibility. One has to mention the film that preceeded it and has had more influence on the genre than any other film of its kind. That being Edgar Wright’s brilliant and incredibly influential 2004 film “Shaun of the Dead”. What’s really in most film circles considered to be the granddaddy of the post-aught horror-comedy genre. I personally think “Dead Snow” takes the cake though. Because for someone like me it’s almost like a Master’s level piece within the genre if you look at it right.

The basic premise is a simple one. And just expands on the tagline I already mentioned above. A group of medical students on winter break decide to take a trip to the mountains to go skiing. Their seemingly normal vacation starts out fun enough – they go inner tubing, play Twister, and drink beer. A typical college break. That is until one night they meet a weary old traveler. He informs them that (get this) – During the Second World War, the grounds their cabin is on was a gateway for the German army. That and it’s where they stored all of their riches in gold coins (yep). The opposing enemy eventually invaded and a Colonel by the name of Herzog (an obvious nod to the German director Werner) and a group of followers escaped into the mountains. Cut to the present, next day, and the vacationers find a treasure chest (uh huh) of gold and silver. This is when the fun really starts.

What impresses me so much about this film is how Wirkola (only 30 years old at the time the film was released) seems to be in complete control of every aspect of the film. The difference between this and say “Shaun of the Dead”, a film I referenced earlier, is that this movie does everything that could possibly be done right from a cinematic stand point, on an incredibly small budget. Sure a lot of it looks cheap and fake yes, but that’s all part of the point. Wirkola knows it does, but he revels in mastering everything that he has control over, which is all of the aspects of the film – one of which I find to be one of the best location decisions I’ve seen in horror. Filming all the chaos and madness against a pure white snowy backdrop is highly effective and an absolutely perfect choice for setting. Second, the music plays a pivotal role in that we get everything from old classical style music “The Dance of the Sugarplum Fairies” (which takes on new meaning) as well as Norwegian punk and metal music that’s infused into it. In many ways it can be looked at as a “punk rock horror film” as it totally goes all out balls to the wall and gives a big middle finger to everything that anyone could even conceivably think of as censorship. Nothing and I mean nothing about this film holds back even in the slightest. There’s a little something for any horror movie lovers delight: from decapitations, to chopped off limbs, eye gouging, brain splitting, intestine cliffhanging (oh yeah), the ripping off, biting off, and pulling off of skin, head smashing, self amputation, all with chainsaws, mowers, hammers, and shotguns. Literally every possible limb on the human body is torn to pieces at one point or another during this movie. It’s probably the goriest, bloodiest, and all out crazy horror-comedy film that I’ve seen next to maybe Sam Raimi’s “Evil Dead 2” (1987) or Peter Jackson’s “Dead Alive” (aka “Braindead”) (1992). This is a must see for fans of the genre. And one, in front of “Shaun of the Dead” and “Tucker & Dale vs. Evil”, earns my coveted #1 slot of the best horror-comedy I’ve seen since the year 2000.

Grade: A-

Review: ‘How I Live Now’ 9.22.14

Scotland born director Kevin Macdonald (“The Last King of Scotland”, “Marley”) is one in a slew of directors who work in both the feature film and documentary formats. Some notable others including the granddaddy of the crop, Werner Herzog (“Grizzly Man”, “Rescue Dawn”, “Cave of Forgotten Dreams”, “The Bad Leiutenant: Port of Call – New Orleans” ), followed closely by Spike Lee (“Do The Right Thing”, “4 Little Girls”, “Inside Man”, “When The Levees Broke”), Steve James (“Hoop Dreams”, “Life Itself”, “Prefontaine”), James Marsh (“Man on Wire”, “Red Riding: In the Year of Our Lord 1980“), and Joe Berlinger (The “Paradise Lost” Trilogy, “Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2”) just to name a few. Macdonald is that rare breed of filmmaker like Herzog or Lee that are just as proficient making feature films as they are documentaries. In the documentary format, Macdonald wowed myself with both 2003’s “Touching the Void” and 2012’s “Marley”. As for the feature format, I found myself both really liking 2006’s Academy Award winning “The Last King of Scotland” as well as 2009’s underappreciated “State of Play”. So I saw it as only be befitting that I would see whatever it was that he came out with next.

We first meet up with the central character, Daisy (yet another bold performance by Saoirse Ronan), as she’s getting off a plane in what appears to be a war torn London. She is picked up and driven to some sort of compound, where shortly after we learn is inhabited by the sister of her estranged father, who seems to be some sort of extremist fighter. Daisy is a closed off, irritable, angst ridden teenager; who has a very difficult time warming up to all of her many cousins who live at the house. She also has quite a few phobias. She’s deathly afraid of bacteria, washes her hands incessantly, and has a mind that seems to be in a constant state of overdrive. While at the compound, she meets a young man named Eddie (played my George McKay), who has an almost unspoken language and communication with animals and who, coincidentally, can also hear Daisy’s thoughts. She begins to take a liking to and forms a bond with him. But just as soon as they can fall in love, a radio announcement is received declaring a Civil War throughout all of Britain. The compound soon becomes under attack, and the military detains them splitting the men from the women. Diasy declares that no matter what situation she finds herself in or no matter how far they take her, she will come back to find her true love. Her younger cousin and she are then taken to a kind of foster home where they plan their escape. At a pivotal moment when they’re just about to do so without any risk of harm or violence, a devastating turn of events takes place at a checkpoint, and the two are left to flee which is when their journey really begins.

I really have nothing but good things to say about this film. Even though I did find the ending to be a bit contrived and stayed a little bit too close to Hollywood tropes. From an artistic stand point, Macdonald does a magnificient job at filming the war ravaged English countryside, capturing some stunning photography in both the beauty of its nature and the devastation of its ruin. Macdonald also expertly jumbles a film that takes on many parts – it’s part War film, part Romance, part Drama, and part Action/post-apocalyptic film in equal measures. As mentioned above it also features a fine performances by its two leads, Saoirse Ronan and George McKay, who also provide the center of the love story and whose relationship and on screen chemistry feels genuine and without artifice.  I also found that it was both engaging and moved at somewhat of a quick pace while evoking a sense of urgency, dread, and suspense throughout the entire proceeding. My one or two criticisms of it had to do mostly with the ending as I mentioned above. I felt like it laid the sentiment on a tad too thick and came across as slightly overmelodramatic. That aside, this was a solid film that I had a lot of fun with and enjoyed many aspects of it. Thus proving once again my belief that if a director does you right more often times than he does you wrong, then chances are that much greater that you’ll walk away satisfied with their next film.

Grade: B