BEST PICTURE

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“Everything is qualified by the fact that you don’t have a dick.” This looks pretty hard core. Interesting. It will make the fleshy parts of Oscar voters curl up though.

DIRECTED BY: Jason Banker
WRITTEN BY: Jason Banker and Amy Everson
FEATURING: Amy Everson, Kentucker Audley, Ryan Creighton, Elisabeth Ferrara, Roxanne Lauren Knouse

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I’m sure this will be great, or I hope so. What I also wish is that for once it didn’t have to be about sex and men for teenage girls. You know, believe it or not they have other things on their minds. Big things. Small things. Lots of things. But hey, it’s great to have any film about a girl at all I suppose.

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Here is a film I can’t wait for, being a chess fan and especially a fan of poor crazy Bobby Fischer. Finally, a trailer and first look at Maguire’s Fischer. Apple trailer here.

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by guest author Nick Clement

Find Nick here

Michael Mann’s Heat represents the finest distillation of the filmmaker’s stylistic and narrative obsessions, the ultimate synthesis of plot, character, and action, all fused together in a nouveau package that still feels fresh and contemporary 20 years after its initial release. Mann, a writer/director who has often reached greatness throughout his career, appears to be most comfortable when telling stories about crime and its effects on the various people that surround his multilayered stories. A reworking of his earlier NBC movie of the week, L.A. Takedown, Heat still holds up now even in the face of stiff genre competition, and looking back on it, it’s incredible how little it has aged, and even more remarkable to notice how many other filmmakers have been lifting Mann’s striking visual aesthetic after all of these years. Critics took Heat a bit for granted when they first encountered it, as response was mostly positive and respectful, though not overly effusive, and while a solid success at the box office, it didn’t do massive numbers. However, over the years, audiences have turned the film into a cultural touchstone, as it represents the type of film that rarely gets made anymore: The introspective Hollywood drama with smarts and action that features big stars and a name director all working at the top of their games. The films that Mann had done preceding Heat (Thief and Manhunter most especially) clearly influenced numerous decisions on his magnum crime opus, and the works he’d go on to make in the future have all been fairly (or unfairly) compared to this epic 1995 crime saga.

Mann has found his obvious home in the crime genre, with his name associated on TV projects (Starsky & Hutch, Police Story, Police Woman, Miami Vice, Crime Story, and the wildly underrated Robbery Homicide Division) and on various feature films (Collateral, Miami Vice, Public Enemies, and Blackhat), all of which hum with a distinct personality and unified vision, no matter in what capacity Mann served. Part of what differentiates Mann from other filmmakers is his unique sense of habitation and dedication to realism; no matter how busy the narrative or how jargon fueled the dialogue may be, there’s always a clear sense of how every detail might fall into place, allowing the audience to follow the demands of the plot while still having the capacity to be surprised and draw conclusions on their own. And in Heat, there’s a level of streamlined perfection to the story that might have been unattainable by another, less in-control filmmaker, considering just how many moving pieces are involved in making Heat the success that it became. What I love so much about Heat is that, like James Mangold’s 1997 policier Cop Land, the film operates as a sly, contemporary Western, but Heat, unlike many other genre efforts, transcends the themes that it so dutifully explores, vaulting the picture into rarefied, existential territory that Mann always seems interested in exploring no matter the milieu. He also managed to craft the Ultimate Los Angeles Movie, but more on that later.

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Not that a plot explanation should be necessary at this point, but I’ll break down the basics. Robert De Niro is a master thief. Al Pacino is a master cop. They both have dedicated crews (Val Kilmer, Tom Sizemore, Danny Trejo, and Dennis Haysbert on Team De Niro; Wes Studi, Mykelti Williamson, and Ted Levine on Team Pacino), that will follow them anywhere. The city of Los Angeles is their deadly playground. The film revolves around the notion of duality, and how the De Niro and Pacino characters are essentially the same person, just on opposite sides of the law, completely consumed by their work, with a constant sense of professionalism and integrity guiding them through their perilous daily life. De Niro assembles his team to do a major score, the daring robbery of a bank, and it’s up to Pacino and his band of fellow officers to bring them down. Mixed into the main story are the various relationships that De Niro, Pacino, and their men have with the women in their lives: Wives, girlfriends, and in one instance, a step-daughter. Instead of just a nuts and bolts crime film, Mann opened up his generous narrative to include real conversations between real people that drive all of the action in a grounded, thoughtful manner. How it all ends is the stuff of cinema legend, and if you don’t know by now I’ll allow you to discover for yourself, but I will concede that Heat operates on multiple narrative tracks all at once, with side-jobs bringing along potentially fatal consequences for De Niro and his men, and the emotionally taxing rigors of having to balance your family life and your cop life for Pacino.

De Niro’s Neil McCauley is a criminal driven by and to perfection. He lives by a serious, permanent moral code: Never become attached to something that you can’t walk out on in 30 seconds flat if you spot the heat around the corner. No wife, no family, a true lone wolf in a sharp gray suit (a costume obsession of Mann’s for years), McCauley is the kind of man who thinks he has everything under control, and is used to getting his way in almost every situation. Then, things change when he meets a woman who might be a reason to leave his dangerous life behind for. She gives him a new reason to live, or at least he thinks she does from time to time. Because of the way that De Niro brilliantly plays the character, all inward quiet and small glances to suggest intent and feeling, you never truly know what he’ll do at any given moment. We know he’s pulled off various high-stakes jobs with total ease and precision, but he’s not used to letting his emotional guard down, and then when coupled with the fact that he’s got a Super Cop looking for him, he understands the need to take decisive action in an effort to complete his goals. This is one of De Niro’s least flashy and totally reserved performances, bringing a masculine grace to the role of leader and friend to his teammates, and while clearly a man capable of more than just violent action and air-tight planning, he’s still a human being, capable of making emotionally misguided mistakes which could prove to be his undoing.

In Pacino’s Vincent Hanna, Mann has created an amazing dichotomy with McCauley, because while both men certainly share similar traits and attributes, the recklessness of the Hanna character is what allows him to constantly move throughout the night, never resting for a moment, constantly thinking and plotting, always trying to one up his stealth opponent. Pacino brings a live-wire spark to the role of this driven detective, hollering out orders at his underlings, busting down doors, always ready to mix it up with an opponent. While listening to the Blu-ray audio commentary with Mann, it’s revealed that he had written a casual but possibly slightly out of control cocaine habit into the Hanna character, which would help explain the sudden outbursts of physical energy and verbal profanity, as well as all of the jaw chomping and twitching that he exhibits all throughout the film. I’m not fully sure why this angle was cut out of the film (I guess it cuts down on the sympathy factor for the character), but I really do wish that Mann had kept this edgy bit of business in the final cut, as it would have further contextualized Hanna as a man of steady habits and unpredictable behavior. Pacino, no stranger to large emoting, especially during the 90’s in films such as Scent of a Woman and The Devil’s Advocate, chews the scenery when called for, but also allows small moments of stern quiet to seep in around the edges. He’s a man who is always assessing the situation, whether on the job or at home, and it’s the way that Pacino burrows deep into Hanna as a man that we come to understand the method to his madness. I also find it curious how Mann introduces his top-cop character at the start of the film, during a morning lovemaking session with his wife, as opposed to on the streets chasing down some random bad guy. Romance is another aspect that Mann’s films always deal with, and the way that Pacino balances his home life and professional life is of key consequence to his character and the story in general.

The romantic angle and the concentration on the female characters also help separate Heat from lesser genre entries. Not content to tell an all-boys story with guns and explosions, Mann, as he’s been prone to do in the past, allows for the leads to have personal relationships which amp up the narrative tension and reason for being. McCauley meets an enchanting young woman who he feels might be worth running away with (a super young Amy Brenneman), and it isn’t until the film’s final moments where you learn his ultimate decisions regarding their unique relationship. This relationship takes the normally rigorously disciplined McCauley out of his comfort zone, which allows for shards of humanity to creep in around the edges. Hanna, meanwhile, is a two time divorcee who is in the middle of an about to fail marriage (Diane Venora is his sharp witted wife); it’s clear that he can’t keep things on the up and up at home while still traversing the streets of Los Angeles looking for all of the city’s transgressors. The scenes between Pacino and Venora have a palpable tension, because while they clearly loved each other once, they are so obviously drifting away from each other, and their confrontations carry a verbal weight and sting that elevates the material from mere soap opera to fully fleshed-out human dramatics. To further complicate Hanna’s life, his mentally unstable step-daughter (played by a then emerging star Nathalie Portman) also looms over the proceedings, creating a sense of unease that becomes essential to one aspect of the script. In retrospect, Heat does sort of resemble a male soap opera of sorts, as the two lead characters are emotionally stunted and need to sort out their issues through a variety of ways, some involving words, and others involving guns and violent conflict.

Heat has action peppered all throughout the runtime, but the film’s opening set-piece, involving the robbery of an armored truck, and the unfortunate execution of the truck’s drivers, immediately grabs the viewer by the throat, never letting you up for air. De Niro and his team orchestrate the perfect smash and grab, stealing only what they need, and leaving hardly a trace of evidence. It’s a brilliant way to establish the effectiveness of De Niro and his outfit, and it allows Mann the chance to show his methodical directorial style, almost journalistic in its small details, while you watch De Niro plan and then execute what should be the perfect heist. But you can only prepare so much, and because you never truly know who you’re working with, there’s a wild card in the equation that De Niro could never have prepared for. He goes by the name Waingro (the scary Kevin Gage), and he hovers over the narrative like the Devil himself, always appearing at the proper moment to set something in motion. But the scene that everyone loves to discuss and re-watch is arguably the greatest single sequence of action fireworks ever put on film, the robbery of a downtown Los Angeles bank in broad daylight, with all manner of civilians running for their lives, and an armada of cops battling De Niro and his crew. This bravura sequence is nothing short of staggering, with very few (if any) other films from over the years capturing the same sense of immediacy and violent impact that this monumental sequence contains, no matter how hard they try, Mann included (the gun battles in Public Enemies, Miami Vice, and Blackhat are terrific and at times extraordinary, but none match the rawness of what was captured in Heat). While never overly bloody, the street rampage is filled with all sorts of deadly implications, from numerous police officers and innocent bystanders being killed in the crossfire, and various members of De Niro’s crew either getting hurt or killed. Thousands of rounds of ammunition were expended during this blistering sequence of sustained fury, with the sensational sound team capturing every single bullet strike and muzzle blast. Mann saves the bloodiest bits of violence for the moments that really count (Waingro, Van Zant, the climatic moments between McCauley and Hanna), so that when we see someone go down hard and viciously, the consequence can be felt on a stark and visceral level, rather than everything becoming a senseless blur of unending and gratuitous graphic violence. As a filmmaker, Mann knows more about what to show and when to show it than few other currently working directors.

The cinematography, editing, music, and production design are all in total harmonious synch in Heat. Dante Spinotti’s naturalistic if at times slightly heightened images, in full 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen, fill the edges of the frame with visual information and precise detail, with Mann’s “always-looking-into-the-future-of-the-night” style mixing with Spinotti’s elegant use of color and depth of field. Shots are framed a tad off center, with the character’s heads filling the foreground or background or side of frame, almost so that the camera is entering the minds of the story’s inhabitants, creating a lyrical and thought provoking tone that suggests a cerebral nature as much as it does anything else. The physical locations chosen for Heat showcase Los Angeles in all of its ethnically diverse and cement-sexy splendor, with the vapors and reflections of street lamps bouncing off the flat concrete surfaces, as industrial landscapes dot the horizon, with parking garages, empty lots and fields, side-streets, and the vast expanses of the city’s various skyscrapers and office buildings suggesting endless possibilities. And then there’s the amazing musical score, which ranges from ambient to grand, sweeping to soft, always in perfect tandem with the bright daytime and dark nocturnal images on screen, with some Miami Vice-inspired guitar riffs thrown in for those paying close attention. Heat is a nearly three hour picture, but because of the crispness and the judiciously timed editing, the film never sags or allows itself to slow down; once the story kicks into gear it never lets up, with a final hour that packs various dramatic conflict and incident into the narrative yet never feels rushed or forced. The swift pace created by the seamless editing patterns goes a long way in keeping this lengthy but forceful film moving along, with Mann pulling all the elements together in a way that few could ever have when it comes to material such as this.

By its powerful and well-earned conclusion, Heat is a film that is consumed with the ideas of studied professionalism, and the costs of committing 100% to any area of life. It’s just that in this story, that area of life is the criminal vs. the cop. And during the film’s electric final moments of action at a busy LAX and in the galvanizing final scene accompanied by Moby’s epic and poetic song God Moving Over The Face of The Waters, you get the sense that Mann has crafted two characters that, while resting on opposite sides of the law, have come to mutually respect each other as men and as adversaries. It all goes back to their fantastic meeting at the coffee shop at the film’s midsection, and how the two of them look clear into each other eyes and tell one another that the life they’re living is the only life they know how to live. More than any other great piece of work from Mann, Heat is his definitive masterpiece of filmmaking, the sublime end result of all of his ticks and tendencies as a storyteller, filtered through that indelible and totally dynamic visual aesthetic that has subtly morphed over the years while still retaining its core elements. It’s a film that I remain blown away by every single time I take in a viewing, and I love how I can vividly recall the first time I experienced it on the big screen with my father back in my high school days. Years late, I had a second opportunity to see the film in theaters, this time with Mann doing live Q&A (he took a break from editing duties on Ali to run over to LACMA for the screening). Heat will always be one of my favorite films of all time, for so many reasons, not the least of which is that, simply stated, it is great, enduring cinema that stirs the soul.

ST. JAMES PLACE

The Oscar race could be flipped this year to feature films about important women doing important things, which would be highly significant in that it could mirror what’s happening, or might soon happen, in the Oval Office. Pixar’s Inside Out is here to represent on the animation side. Charlize Theron and her gang of feminist fugitives could dominate the effects genre films for the year, eclipsing Age of Ultron quite handily. Perhaps The Force Awakens will indeed feature a female at its center (not counting on it just yet). Finally, we have two films headed for the Best Picture race, Carol and Joy. Not to mention Suffragette, Freehold, Crimson Peak, and Brooklyn.

But let’s get real, shall we? You know as well as I do that Best Picture is dominated by male-driven movies MOST OF THE TIME. That’s why when looking over the upcoming slate of films it is easy to see the ones that scream Oscar versus the ones that don’t:

“Important men doing important things.”

Or

“Failed men attempting to do important things and failing.”

Or

“Men doing things.”

While there is a whole year of choices to come, film festivals and breakthrough movies no one has yet heard about, there is also the game of Oscar watching wherein people like me will start to make their list of hopefuls. It might be based on “prestige” or it might be based on highly praised films. But if you asked me right now to list ten movies I pick for Best Picture sight unseen I’d probably go with:

Steve Jobs
The Revenant
The Walk
Trumbo
Crimson Peak
Bridge of Spies
Carol
Mad Max: Fury Road
Brooklyn

The Oscar voters don’t pick ten, though. They pick five. The Academy then counts the votes and the accountants end up with between five and ten nominees. But you’re still talking about five choices for each voting member. That is when shit starts to get real and films are quickly dropped that might have had a shot with ten blanks to fill. With five you mostly land on “important/failed men doing/failing at important things.”

In other words, you might be looking at something more like this:

Steve Jobs
The Revenant
The Walk
Trumbo
Crimson Peak
Bridge of Spies
Carol
Mad Max: Fury Road
Brooklyn

In a year that America saw its first black president the Oscars saw its first Best Picture winner as a story about slavery as told from the black perspective, directed by a black man (though British, not African American).   We’re on the verge of potentially the first female president in America’s history. Maybe it will happen, maybe it won’t. Maybe it will impact the Oscar race. Maybe it won’t.  There is no reason to be hopeless about it all just yet, but keep in mind when pundits are making their lists of films that will get in you’re going to always be chasing the male-centric drama. Man in crisis. Man makes good.

Here is a list of upcoming films in the months ahead.

August
Ricki and the Flash (Meryl Streep)

September
A Walk in the Woods (Robert Redford, Nick Nolte)
Time out of Mind (Richard Gere)
Black Mass (Johnny Depp)
Pawn Sacrifice (Tobey Maguire)
Everest (Jake Gyllenhaal)
Sicario (Emily Blunt, Benicio Del Toro)

October
Freeheld (Ellen Page, Julianne Moore)
The Keeping Room (Sam Worthington, Olivia Wilde, Nicole Beharie, Hailee Steinfeld)
Legend (Tom Hardy)
The Walk (Joseph Gordon-Levitt)
Steve Jobs (Michael Fassbender)
Crimson Peak (Jessica Chastain)
Bridge of Spies (Tom Hanks)
Suffragette (Carey Mulligan, Helena Bonham-Carter, Meryl Streep, etc)

November
Trumbo (Bryan Cranston)
Brooklyn (Saoirse Ronan)
Midnight Special (Kirsten Dunst, Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton)
The Danish Girl (Eddie Redmayne)
The Martian (Matt Damon)
By the Sea (Brad and Angie)

December
In the Heart of the Sea (Brendan Gleeson, Ben Whishaw, Cillian Murphy, Chris Hemsworth, Jordi Molla, Benjamin Walker, Tom Holland)
The Lady in the Van (Maggie Smith)
Carol (Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara)
The Force Awakens
Concussion (Alec Baldwin, Will Smith)
The Revenant (Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Lukas Haas, Will Poulter, Domhnall Gleeson)
Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt)
Escobar (Benicio Del Toro)
Joy (Jennifer Lawrence)

Additionally, here are some other titles that don’t yet have release dates to keep in mind:

Money Monster  (dir. Jodie Foster) (written by son of Elia Kazan)
The Whole Truth  (dir. Courtney Hunt)
Diary of a Teenage Girl (dir. Marielle Heller)
The Second Mother (dir. Anna Muylaert)
Fresno (dir. Jamie Babbitt)
Hello, My Name Is Doris (Michael Showalter)

One thing to remember is that your Best Picture winner will ordinarily have to show up before October, preferably at Telluride or Toronto, most likely Telluride.  When last checked, passes to T Ride fest were sold out, faster than ever before. That’s mainly due to the fact that Best Picture has visited Telluride in the past four years.

Birdman
12 Years a Slave
Argo
The Artist

While two of these were seen BEFORE Telluride, no film seen after Telluride has won Best Picture since 2006’s The Departed, almost ten years ago.  Though it never FEELS like we’ve seen the winner by the time the fest closes, it simply turns out that way.

Fasten your seatbelts, Oscarwatchers.

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Macbeth screened on the last day in Cannes and earned raves both for Cotillard and Fassbender. That should launch them into the race for Actor and Actress, as expected. Guy Lodge’s elegantly written review has this wonderful paragraph about Cotillard:

A plum role for any actress, Lady Macbeth proves an exhilaratingly testing one for Cotillard, whose gifts as both a technician and an emotional conduit apparently know no linguistic barrier. Streaked with unearthly blue eye shadow — Jenny Shircore’s daring makeup designs are a constant marvel — and working in a cultivated Anglo-Continental accent that positions the character even more pointedly as a stranger in her own court, Cotillard electrically conveys misdirected sexual magnetism, but also a poignantly defeated sense of decency. It’s a performance that contains both the woman’s abandoned self and her worst-case incarnation, often in the space of a single scene. Her deathless sleepwalking scene, staged in minimalist fashion under a gauze of snowflakes in a bare chapel, is played with tender, desolate exhaustion; it deserves to be viewed as near-definitive.

And the Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw:

As Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard are a dream-team pairing, actors who radiate charisma, perhaps more charisma than can be entirely absorbed into the fabric of the film. As ever, Cotillard is able to convey enormous amounts with her face without saying a word. Fassbender is arguably less good with Macbeth’s introverted vulnerability and self-questioning, but always effortlessly virile and watchable, responding to Macbeth’s outbursts of anger and imperious paranoia. When he dismisses the witches: “Infected be the air whereon they ride/And damned all those that trust them!” he tops it off with a whooping rebel yell. Paddy Considine is a frowningly vigilant Banquo and David Thewlis is Duncan, the sacrificial victim King smilingly presiding over the nation which sometimes looks focused on a pagan court and sometimes in a vast Christian cathedral from a later age.

This is what it needs to keep moving forward and should play well with ticket buyers drawn in for both leads and of course the Bard himself.

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In 1970s South Boston, FBI Agent John Connolly persuades Irish mobster James “Whitey” Bulger to collaborate with the FBI and eliminate a common enemy: the Italian mob. The drama tells the true story of this unholy alliance, which spiraled out of control, allowing Whitey to evade law enforcement, consolidate power, and become one of the most ruthless and powerful gangsters in Boston history.

Black Mass stars Oscar® nominee Johnny Depp (“Public Enemies”, “Donnie Brasco”, the “Pirates of the Caribbean” films) as Whitey Bulger and Joel Edgerton (“The Great Gatsby,” “Zero Dark Thirty”) as FBI Agent John Connolly. Filming began in Boston under the direction of Scott Cooper (“Out of the Furnace,” “Crazy Heart”).

The film also stars Benedict Cumberbatch (“Twelve Years a Slave”) as Whitey’s brother, Billy Bulger, who is a Massachusetts State Senator; Jesse Plemons (AMC’s “Breaking Bad”) as Whitey’s longtime partner in crime, Kevin Weeks; Dakota Johnson (“Fifty Shades of Grey”) as Lindsey Cyr, Whitey’s former girlfriend and mother of his only child; Rory Cochrane (“Argo”) as Steve Flemmi, another member of the Irish mob; Julianne Nicholson (“August: Osage County”) as John Connolly’s wife, Marianne; and Adam Scott (ABC’s “Parks and Recreation”) as FBI Agent Robert Fitzpatrick. Rounding out the main cast are David Harbour (“End of Watch”), Jeremy Strong (“Zero Dark Thirty”), Brad Carter (HBO’s “True Detective”), W. Earl Brown (“Draft Day”) and Corey Stoll (“The Bourne Legacy”).

Brian Oliver, Tyler Thompson, John Lesher, Patrick McCormick and Scott Cooper are producing the film, with Peter Mallouk, Lauren Selig, Brett Granstaff and Gary Granstaff serving as executive producers. The screenplay is adapted from the book Black Mass: The True Story of an Unholy Alliance Between the FBI and the Irish Mob, by Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill.

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The Cannes Film Festival is about as far from the Oscar race as you can get and in some way, at least internationally, it eclipses it.  There is a curious mix here of general distaste for American film and the masses falling all over themselves from the celebrities it produces.

Right now, the odds are good for three films to compete for the top prize, unless I’m missing something. The Assassin (which I had a hard time with, not gonna lie), Son of Saul (which I did not see), Carol (which I hope wins), Youth (ditto).

Beyond the prizes here, Cannes does influence the Oscar race in some respects. Buzz can start or end here. Foxcatcher was the only movie to survive from last year’s selection. Why did voters go for that but not Inside Llewyn Davis from the year before? Tree of Life was booed here in Cannes but then went on to get a Best Picture nomination.

The films I think that will have the most impact by the time Telluride hits on Labor Day weekend would probably be getting that hit with or without Cannes. That’s the truth of it. But let’s go through them anyway, shall we? This includes films that are in the main competition for the Palme and films that premiered here out of the main competition or in other categories.

As of this writing, no one has yet seen MacBeth because it plays on the last day. The other film that will screen tomorrow (while I’ll be on a plane to the states) is Chronic.

As far as the main competition goes, here are the films that stand out:

Carol – Picture, Director, Screenplay, Actress, Supporting Actress, Costumes, Cinematography, Production Design, Score
Youth – Picture, Director, Screenplay, Actor, Actor, Supporting Actress, Cinematography, Production Design
Mad Max: Fury Road – Actress, Visual Effects, Production Design, Cinematography, Editing, Sound, Sound Effects Editing
Inside Out – Animated Feature, Screenplay, Sound Editing, Score
Son of Saul – a slam dunk for Foreign Language if it’s submitted and nominated.

From my perspective, as far as the Oscar race goes, Carol and Youth are the two game changers. One is going to be a slightly more difficult sell than the other. Youth is right up the street of Oscar voters, will play extremely well at festivals (if chosen) like Telluride, the Hampton’s, etc. With Fox Searchlight behind it you know it’s going to be a major player.

On the flipside is the equally adept Weinstein Co. that will be pushing Carol. Pity the fool that underestimates this film with Weinstein in charge of it.  You might say, well, the Academy is too homophobic to go there with Todd Haynes but you’d be wrong for a couple of reasons. The first is that the demographics and the mindset in the Hollywood industry has changed a lot since 2005 when Brokeback Mountain lost Best Picture.  Carol is about exposing a lie and living the truth. It is about the very thing the industry has been accused of: hide your sexuality because it might hurt your career. In Carol, the message is – don’t hide who you are no matter what the consequences.

Carol is also jaw-droppingly beautiful. Every frame a masterpiece.  Appreciation for Todd Haynes has been too long coming and if there is one person who knows how to exploit that angle best it’s Weinstein. This is the guy who vowed to win Martin Scorsese an Oscar way back when. Okay so maybe it didn’t work then.  We’re not talking about winning here. We’re talking about being nominated and that should be a cakewalk with Carol. The only slight snag might come in where the hype is risen to epic proportions so that when Academy voters finally do see it they will be expecting something bigger than the subtly perfect thing it is.  We’ll have to wait that one out, though. There isn’t much to be done about it.  The hype machine can’t be stopped.

Youth is like a valentine to Oscar voters. What Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel are experiencing is like Birdman ramped up to 11.  It is the kind of film many directors in Hollywood used to want to make. It examines modern life while reaching back to the past. I think if you get enough voters in front of it they’re going to love it. I don’t think either Caine or Keitel has ever been better.  Jane Fonda and Rachel Weisz also have great, unforgettable moments where they tell off the two male leads.  Fonda is particularly grand in her vanity free, explosive monologue. What Fonda says in that scene also confronts the truth about how Hollywood itself is changing, how television is taking over as the artistic promised land, and how compromises often end up consuming out life as we get old.

Youth might not be a film for young people — not yet anyway. But it most definitely is a film for those over the age of 50 who are discovering wisdom that only comes from a life lived amid successes and failures.  You know it when you get there.

The second tier after that would be:
Irrational Man – Screenplay
Tale of Tales – Production Design
Sicario – Cinematography, Supporting Actor
Amy – Documentary Feature
The Lobster – Screenplay

Foreign Language contenders could get their start here as well but it always depends upon which film a country submits. The films with the most buzz that would get no major category Oscar play (at least, that’s how it seems to go; there’s always the chance). These are the ones I’ve heard about or seen but there may be others, of course, that I’m missing. Full disclosure: I’m just guessing at country of submission here.

Mia Madre (Italy)
La Tete Haute, La Loi du Marche, Dheepan (France)
Umimachi Diary, An (Japan)
The Assassin (Taiwan/China)
Mountains May Depart (China)
Mustang (Turkey)

Still to come:
MacBeth – possible actor/actress, costumes, etc.

The jury for the main competition is comprised of a different group of people each year, thus making predicting which film will win the Palme d’or that much more difficult. It also doesn’t follow that what wins here will start the ball rolling to win everywhere else. It is only the massive consensus votes that do that and they start when the Producers Guild announces their winner. There is little surprise left anymore as to what film will win Best Picture because the Producers Guild has at last cracked the code. The same amount of voters, roughly, with a preferential ballot has predicted Best Picture since they expanded from five to ten, and then from ten to an unknown number between five and ten.

2009-The Hurt Locker
2010-The King’s Speech
2011-The Artist
2012-Argo
2013-12 Years and Gravity (the only surprise)
2014-Birdman

Cannes has so little to do with this consensus building because here it is not about what thousands think. It’s about what about what a handful of people think, and the broader conversation that happens among critics who view the films as well. The critics can sometimes shape what wins the Palme because buzz has a way of spreading like a virus. But what wins here will have no impact on what wins the Oscar. It carries its own prestige which is probably a bigger deal globally than winning over thousands of industry voters in Hollywood.

In other words, don’t you care more what Joel and Ethan Coen and Guillermo del Toro think about your movie than what a whole bunch of people you’ve never heard of think?

Either way, it’s often unpredictable how this festival will influence the upcoming Oscar race because we still don’t know what movies will be in play. As with most things Oscar related you follow the publicists/studios/strategists because they usually know what will fly and what won’t. Weinstein Co., Fox Searchlight, Sony Pictures Classics, A24, Focus, Brigade, Summit, Lisa Taback, Cynthia Schwarz, Lea Yardum, R. Jeff Hill, David Pollick, etc.  Really, they shape the Oscar race more than any other influencer because they tend to already know what the voters will go for.  And then the festival directors who choose films that will go to Telluride, Venice, Toronto and AFI.

Gun to my head, if I had to predict which movies above all others would be headed for Oscar from Cannes without breaking a sweat I’d go with Carol and Youth.  The others can get there but they will need a push.

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Paolo Sorrentino just hit it out of the park here at Cannes, delivering what has to be the most compelling screening of everything I’ve seen here thus far with the possible exception of Carol.  When it finally came to an end, the audience sat in stunned silence until at last the screen went totally dark. After that, an even number of “bravos!” and “boos” filled the house as audience members slowly left the theater. Why did the film divide the house so sharply? Probably because the film is both daring and traditional, realistic and absurd.

Youth is a melancholy look at aging and love. It tells its story with epic sweep, even though it takes place in a singular location — a spa in the hills of Switzerland. The canvas is the internal world of the actors who move through emotional ups and downs while the camera catches them at their best and worst moments. A tall, leggy, busty woman fills the frame as she struts down a slope towards the horizon. Images like that are juxtaposed with an old woman sitting in a spa, or an overweight man hitting a tennis ball high in the air with just his foot.  Youth exists somewhere between the surreal Italian film school of Federico Fellini and the romantic one of Bertolucci.

Michael Caine plays a composer who is best friends with a legendary film director played by Harvey Keitel. They ruminate on life, love, sex, aging and youth as they move among the various characters who join them at the hotel.  In Caine’s case it’s his daughter, Rachel Weisz, and in Keitel’s case its the film writers he has along to help finish his latest movie.

The relationship between Weisz and Caine is so surprising, so moving, both in terms of how deep these actors go with each other and in the things the characters learn about themselves during the film. She has two jobs, she says: being his daughter and being his assistant. All the while she’s heartbroken that her mother is not with them. Caine’s character spends the whole movie obsessed with sounds, inventing his own music by twisting a piece of plastic wrap, or listening to cowbells and birds.  Somewhere behind him a young actor played by Paul Dano studies him as he listens.

Somewhere on the hotel grounds a monk meditates. Somewhere else the hotel’s young masseuse is dancing to a video about dancing. Somewhere else a husband and wife are not speaking to each other in the same way every night. These moments are dispassionately observed by Sorrentino, silently commented upon, like eye-witness testimony told in great detail so we are can be allowed draw our own conclusions.

Every shot is a thing of beauty. I spend most of time here in Cannes finding beautiful/ugly/interesting things to photograph.  For most of this film I had the impulse to hoist my camera and take a snapshot of it. It is just one dizzying image after another.

Films like this hardly get made anymore. Probably no American director could get a movie like this made, no matter how big the name.  American actors certainly don’t get many chances like this to deliver fully realized performances. Birdman’s indictment of Hollywood is nothing compared to what gets said about it in Youth, the good, the bad and the ugly, but mostly the ugly.

Films used to have somewhere in mind to go beyond opening weekend box office numbers or the chase for awards. They had somewhere to go because smart people made them and smart people wanted to see them get made.  We can mostly declare the death of this kind of cinema in the American studio system as of 2015. It will be left to filmmakers in other countries where artistic freedom is less restricted.

Both Caine and Keitel give career-best performances. One or the other is headed for the Best Actor race. Jane Fonda has a powerhouse few minutes on screen that could earn her an Oscar nomination as well, but with Fox Searchlight in the driver’s seat expect this film — catnip for Academy voters — to be represented in all of the major categories and perhaps to become a frontrunner to win.

This is a film of big ideas of the human experience, certainly among the most profound.  Why are people so afraid of human touch? is one of the questions it examines.  Is love meant to last? is another. It’s about show business, creativity, inspiration, but mostly about the eternal conflict between aging and youth. We have such power of attraction when we’re young but we often don’t learn how to properly wield that power till we’re old.  The film is emphatic about its realization that we’re alive until we aren’t. It doesn’t matter whether that existence is important or insignificant, this universal truth remains.

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The writing is of course fantastic. The directing will be good. All that’s left is Fassbender as Steve Jobs. That should be interesting. Here’s the trailer.

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You don’t know how hearts burn
For love that cannot live yet never dies
Until you’ve faced each dawn with sleepless eyes
You don’t know what love is – Billie Holiday

Into the world of housewives, martinis, long leather gloves, Packards and country homes comes the story of a young woman’s sexual identity emerging in a world that doesn’t yet welcome it. It comes anyway. It comes the moment Therese (Rooney Mara) lays eyes on the exquisite creature known as Carol. Tall, draped in a floor length fur coat, with a shock of blonde hair swept back, she is undeniably compelling. Terese’s gaze is so direct, so purely sincere that she too becomes compelling. In a moment, Carol (Cate Blanchett) is by her side. In another moment they are arranging to meet somewhere for some reason under the guise of friendship.

There is so much beauty in Carol’s world it’s hard to imagine that any kind of ugly attitudes could have flourished around it. Adapted by Phyllis Nagy from a Patricia Highsmith novel (The Price of Salt), Haynes shot the film in Super 16 with his trusty cinematographer Edward Lachmann, score by Carter Burwell, and with Sandy Powell doing the glorious costumes, Carol is top to bottom a lavishly put together film, of the kind we don’t get to see that often anymore. Carol’s entire way of being is so authentic to the time you feel like you can smell her perfume and cake powder.

Blanchett is superb as the titular character, allowing heat to flow through her as she seduces a woman years younger than her, carefully but deliberately. She bobs between resisting her husband whose touch she can’t stand, giving of herself to her adored daughter, and allowing her own indulgent pleasure to creep in when she’s with Therese. Mara, though, is the real surprise here, holding down much of the film herself, revealing tender vulnerability and that occasional dimpled smile.

It’s the 1950s. Blanchett is married with a child. Mara has a boyfriend who is looking to get married. They’re playing out what society has decided is best for them.They inch closer to each other with questions. Will you meet me for lunch, will you meet me for tea. The questions escalate and before long the two women are spending a questionable amount of time together raising suspicions about their relationship. They are drawn in by an attraction they can’t resist nor explain nor fully comprehend. They go with it because they must.

Far From Heaven was about repressed desire stuffed inside the box of a “normal marriage” until it morphs into tragedy. Carol is about the step beyond that, the bold admission, the self-acceptance. Blanchett’s husband, played by Kyle Chandler, can’t accept his wife’s ongoing affairs with other women. He vows to do everything in his power to bring her back, even going so far as to threaten her with sole custody of their child. Because he can prove she is what he says she is (a woman who’s amorous with other women) the courts will side with him and she’ll never see her daughter again.

For one of the few times in a film about gay women trapped in the wrong era, these characters are not going to be undone by the constraints of society. They’re going to work to change those constraints. This is partly where gay rights began. That is ultimately what makes this film so exhilarating. We’ve seen the tragedy. We know about the oppression. Now we see the points of light that helped lead the gay community out of the shadows. It took sacrifices and courage. Carol is about both of things but what it is about more than anything else is love. It will go down as one of the most romantic love stories of the year.

For whatever reason, Hollywood has never really gotten Haynes. Who could have conceived a film like Safe or I’m Not There or Far From Heaven. He has an explosive imagination and so far has not yet been celebrated to the degree that he deserves. All of that could very well change with Carol. It is accessible enough and up-to-the-minute in its examination of gay women finding their way during a period in history when many were sent to psychiatrists to “fix the problem,” at a time when their children were taken from them for their “deviant behavior.” Though it seems archaic, gay men and women are still dealing with finding validation for their right to parent children, even today.

How the heart does break for Carol, who finds herself in an impossible position — forced to choose between being her baby’s mother and staying true to who she really is. Her husband seems to want her to live a lie. How could that ever be preferable? When at last these women give in to their mutual desire it is their erotic passions, not ours, that drives them. Mara’s Therese learns in an instant what it means to truly be herself. That leads to other choices in her life, like her career choices, and ultimately her decision about what she feels able to do with Carol.

Haynes’ hand is so assured. He is in complete possession of the frame. He never rushes any scene but let’s the conversations unfold naturally. He has such a great relationship with Blanchett already from I’m Not There and now this but it is perhaps Mara who creates the perfect muse for Haynes. Not since David Fincher has anyone gotten her better, allowed such versatile of her formidable capablities.

Todd Haynes’ Carol is about many things. It’s about love and coming out. It’s about color and music. It’s about romance and pretty things. His films are always satisfying because they are packed with detail. They are memorable because he paints with pictures. Carol is one of his best.

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Brazen Mediterranean winds paid the city of Cannes a visit yesterday, announcing their arrival by whipping up skirts, sending plastic cups tumbling across tables, transporting cloth napkins into alleyways and ruining every best laid hairstyle to hit the Croisette. It was divine. Usually these wild gusts of wind herald a coming rainstorm. The clouds came but the rain never did. It was a Los Angeles moment. We often wait for rain that never comes. Meanwhile today’s NPR headline, buried beneath the more important one about the Boston bomber being sentenced to death, was that a “Massive Antarctic Ice Shelf Will Be Gone Within Years, NASA Says.” When you read something like that you see the future headlines, the future think pieces about how no one was paying attention to what was coming. So much so that it’s best to forget about it. Just strap yourself in and hold on tight.

The wind through Cannes seemed to heighten that inevitable feeling of homesickness that creeps in during one too many restless nights. Who I am and what I’ve built and how I’ve chosen to live are all left on another continent. Here, there is only work — the promise of good movies that might be delivered unto you, the audience, someday. It is a place where opinions can be caught in that wind, whipped up into a frenzy, and then disappeared over one of the hills behind the Suquet.

Yesterday, I saw three films. The first was Woody Allen’s An Irrational Man, followed by The Lobster and finally, The Sea of Trees. Each of these films was about a man in crisis. Loss of identity, loss of manhood, loss of companionship. While the women mostly get on with things — the business of living, learning, loving — men are stuck in an endless muddle, confused about which foot to put where. Sooner or later filmmakers are bound to run out of their endless fascination with the male protagonist. I mean, they have to, right? This same theme is mostly played out by now, especially with the massive antarctic ice shelf getting ready to be gone. We need to slap all men hard across the face: snap the fuck out of it already. Condolences! The bums lost. All good intentions for a perfect world have failed. Our iPhones didn’t save us. Our vegan food trucks didn’t save us. Our blockbusters have had zero impact except to distract us, as Woody Allen said in a press conference, from the bleakness of existence. Well, we’re past existence now. We should be so lucky to exist at all.

At the same time as these three films marinated in the pointlessness of mankind, so have so many films here told stories of women that would not have the same kind of prominence — the world stage — in the states. This has been consistently true of this festival in the six years I’ve attended it. Just like you have to come here to eat real non-GMO produce, you have to come here to see movies where women are treated like members of the human race, interesting beyond their boner-lifting capabilities. What has happened to American film?

It is so common in Cannes to see movies with women of all ages and ethnicities presented as human beings, one doesn’t even feel the need to point it out. I only do so because once Oscar season starts no one will think about women anymore. Female filmmakers are getting much support from the New York Times and Melissa Silverstein of Women and Hollywood. The #seehernow campaign has lift-off. The problem will always be that their movies have to be good enough to compete with the best from men. Art is not like sports or chess. Women CAN compete in the realm of art. The trick is to find the good ones and push the hell out of them, not necessarily to push the bad ones in hopes that people will grow to love them. Women can’t succeed unless they’re allowed to fail. Male filmmakers, like Gus Van Sant for instance, are allowed to make bombs and then come back with the next film where most is forgiven. Just look at the way audiences continue to forgive Woody Allen or Cameron Crowe. But women get written off after one flub. They need to be allowed to return even when they make a bad movie.

It was not fun to watch Gus Van Sant’s The Sea of Trees. It was not fun to watch it be such a bad film and it was not fun to wait for the inevitable boos that were coming. Unintentional laughter behind me, shifting bodies next to me, people checking their watches. I knew it was not going to go over well. A shame because it had much promise, this earnest film about a man who has nothing left to live for and heads over to the Aokigahara forest in Japan to end his life under the watchful eye of Mount Fuji.

Known as suicide forest, the Aokigahara really does look like a sea of trees and does indeed look like a good place to die. This film, though, derails so fast and so hard you end up wishing it were a documentary about the forest itself. While Van Sant does a marvelous job of bringing the spirituality of the place alive, and revealing some of what it must be like there, his sensitive depiction can’t save the terrible terrible screenplay, nor Matthew McConaughey’s unsubtle, over the top, Interstellar-like wracking sobs. This film has its heart in the right place. It might have been a good story if they’d made some crucial choices about certain plot points. It’s the kind of movie that would get two stars on Netflix that you’d watch out of curiosity and think, that wasn’t great. But if you’ve lined up for over an hour in at a world-class festival, crammed into the theater to see something you have high hopes for, you’re likely to see a crowd turn on a movie in the way only Cannes knows how. No one boos films at any other festival that I’ve been to. They simply exit the theater in a fog of disappointment. But these crowds are holdovers from the old theater days of throwing rotten tomatoes at the stage. They cheer wildly when they love something and boo loudly if they hate something. One boo tends to inspire others. They do it because they can, because we are still animals, primates, who want to communicate how we’re feeling to those around us.

Though I’m only at the half-way mark I’m already ready to go home. It isn’t that I don’t love this place, or that I’m not grateful for having a pink badge and being able to see movies downstairs —- it’s that it always happens to me that I start to feel that pull. Those bonds we build with people. That’s what counts in the beginning, in the middle and in the end.

I know that I will spend some hours trying to find the right gifts to bring home to them. I know that I will be packed a day ahead I’ll be so ready to go. I know that I will never feel the same kind of uplift leaving Los Angeles as I will when my plane comes to a safe landing on the ground in that dirty disgrace of a city with so many misbehaving heathens.

There is still a half of a festival to go. There’s a Disney/Pixar thing with John Lasseter that I’m ticketed to attend. Inside Out seems like one of the big Oscar launches of the year. They’re probably going to go for Best Picture but unless the Academy expands to ten Best Picture nominees that isn’t going to happen. There’s Todd Haynes’ Carol tonight and the press conference tomorrow. There are a few other films I’m hoping to see. There’s the wind. There wasn’t the rain.

Each year, this festival offers a different experience. I haven’t been to the wi-fi room once. I haven’t felt the need to look at famous people in real time. I’m spending all of my time meditating on things like the different flavors of strawberries and the sounds of Brian Eno playing in the early morning hours. I’m not sure my sleep theory is working out so well. I’ve yet to lay down for eight hours straight but seem to be doing four at a time. The difference between waking life and dream life is narrowing. So I can’t really be sure if I watched a movie where Matthew McConaughey goes to Japan to kill himself and it gets booed by the audience. I think is saw it. Twitter tells me so. But I’ll never really know for sure. I wake up empty. I come home filled. I drink my coffee out of a bowl. I am depending on my beating heart. I am watching the water. I am listening to the wind. I am waiting to go home.

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Though I’ve not yet seen the film, it’s all the talk of Cannes that it could be in contention for the Palme d’Or. It’s hard to guess how this jury will vote as each one is a different combination of sensibilities. But it’s worth noting when a film hits like this. Peter Bradshaw at the Guardian writes:

A season in hell is what this devastating and terrifying film offers – as well as an occasion for meditating on representations of the Holocaust, on Wittgenstein’s dictum about matters whereof we cannot speak, and on whether these unimaginable and unthinkable horrors can or even should be made imaginable and thinkable in a drama. There is an argument that any such work, however serious its moral intentions, risks looking obtuse or diminishing its subject, although this is not a charge that can be levelled at Son of Saul.

By any standards, this would be an outstanding film, but for a debut it is remarkable. Director László Nemes’s film has the power of Elem Klimov’s Come and See – which surely inspired its final sequence – and perhaps of Lajos Koltai’s Fateless. It also has the severity of Béla Tarr, to whom Nemes was for two years an assistant, but without Tarr’s glacial pace: Nemes is concerned at some level with exerting a conventional sort of narrative grip which does not interest Tarr.

The gimmick, or what makes this film stand out from the many others on the same subject is this:

One of the most devastating and deeply shocking aspects of Son of Saul is that it begins with a gas chamber scene; another film might have opted to end with this kind of scenario, or to finish just before showing it. Nemes’s film allows us to grasp only belatedly that this is what is happening – we glimpse it at the edge of the frame which is largely dominated by Saul’s face. Prisoners are stripped and herded as if part of an industrial process of evil: the Nazi officers are all the time tricking and pacifying them with nonsense about how they are to be fed, clothed and used as craftsmen. And the awful truth is the presence of the Sonderkommando, helping to superintend this business and to hoodwink and reassure. It is a theatre of pure evil, all but unwatchable.

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Woody Allen in Familiar Territory with An Irrational Man

If you’re a Woody Allen fan you’ll recognize his dialogue immediately. Pretentious, lofty academics, vibrant worshipful female students coming on to their professors, the constant dialogue between morality and immorality – it is everything we’ve come to know about what occupies Allen’s inner world. The only difference this time around is that he mercifully cast a younger man, Joaquin Phoenix, in the part he would ordinarily either inhabit himself or give over to a much older actor.

Allen’s early short stories and plays echo through An Irrational Man. He would take a simple setup and inject a fifth business element that would send the characters on a funny, absurdist adventure replete with quirky characters. He doesn’t want to go much deeper or darker with his latest film though he clearly expresses lingering shock and grief over the war in Iraq, impotence, and man’s futility operating a constant hum in the background leading to insurmountable depression. His cure for this is to take action, even if it means committing a capital crime. Man taking action will drive him out of his feelings of futility, which helps to explain why terrorism exists. But an Irrational Man only hints at these themes. Allen seems more concerned with the romantic liaisons of his main character who chooses flavors of women like ice cream.

Phoenix is gifted with a repeating jazz score which mostly works in contrast to his downtrodden, morose personality. Naturally, Emma Stone’s character is drawn to the complicated man she longs to fix. Her boyfriend is a good guy and all but he’s not brilliant, he’s not worldly, he’s not dark, he’s not troubled.

Phoenix’s philosophy teacher has mostly had it with the great minds who talked a lot about the human condition but did nothing about it. When Phoenix and Stone happen to hear a story about a terrible judge, Phoenix sets out to commit the perfect murder. While not screwball like Manhattan Murder Mystery, and not quite a murder thriller like Crimes and Misdemeanors or Match Point, An Irrational Man is nonetheless in the same ballpark — murder mixed with affairs mixed with justice mixed with that ongoing debate Allen keeps having with himself as to whether it’s really a crime being committed if no one ever catches you.

The delight of this film and most every other she stars in, is Emma Stone. Parker Posey plays the older wife of a teacher who likewise throws herself at Phoenix and one wonders why she was cast in this part, which is all but a waste of her comic gifts. Why not just have Emma Stone in the film and leave it at that. Stone is handed the whole film, essentially, and she works well as a Woody Allen muse. She doesn’t have the explosive sexuality of Scarlett Johansson but exists somewhere in between Louise Lasser and Diane Keaton. That hits the sweet spot for what Allen is trying to do with her bright young student character.

Since we’ve gone over the morality of murder in two of his previous films, there doesn’t seem to be a point in rehashing it except that the funny and brilliant thing about this rumination on the issue is that Allen seems to have observed here that one crime can lead to another and another and another as one busily tries to cover it up.

By now, so much of what Woody Allen is doing with his films is putting all of the same pieces back in a can, shaking it up, and dumping them all back out in a slightly different order. In his later years with this film and Midnight in Paris, he is enjoying whimsy a bit more. Does that mean he’s a changed man? Has he found that happiness can indeed be achieved? There will always be that need to try to find out more about Woody by reading what he chooses to write about, a pursuit he rejects of course.

For his part, Phoenix doesn’t do a bad job doing a Woody Allen lead. He’s somewhat out of his comfort zone in a part seemingly better suited for someone like Michael Caine but it’s always a pleasure to see this actor attempt new things. That said, the sexual tension between Stone and Phoenix is non-existent. She’s a tough one to match when paired up with a male lead who is older than 30 since they come off inevitably like parent and child rather than lovers. Stone’s character shifts the dynamic by being the pursuer but there isn’t a lot of chemistry to spare between the two of them.

All in all, there is nothing to hate about An Irrational Man, nothing to passionately love, but it should hit the Woody demographic just fine and that demographic is shifting away from the film nerds and over to the senior citizens who turn out in droves to see this kind of delightful arthouse fare.

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One of the most hotly anticipated films of the festival, Todd Haynes’ Carol will premiere in Cannes this week starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara. The Guardian‘s Hannah Ellis-Petersen today profiles Carol’s producer, Elizabeth Karlsen:

It’s taken more than 50 years to get Highsmith’s seminal – and once shocking – lesbian novel to cinemas. Yet the tale of the older, married Carol (Blanchett) and shopgirl Therese (Rooney Mara), as they fall in love and set off across the US on a road trip pursued by a private detective, has become one of the most anticipated competition debuts at Cannes.

“I always knew Carol would be a really important film,” says Karlsen. “It was so scandalous at the time because it has a happy ending. Even today you can count on one hand the number of gay stories with a happy ending. But it is also just a wonderful love story, with two very powerful women at its heart. And that, sadly, is still very hard to find, even in 2015.”

…While Highsmith is best known for her psychological thrillers (most notably The Talented Mr Ripley), Karlsen saw another, more intriguing, side of the author reflected in the pages of The Price of Salt. As Highsmith herself noted just prior to her death in 1995: “I never wrote another book like this.”

While Karlsen came across the script for Carol in 2004, she wouldn’t get the rights to make the film for another eight years. “I’ve always loved Patricia Highsmith’s writing, but to me what is so fascinating about [this story] is that it is semi-autobiographical, based on this striking woman in fur she had seen when she was working in a department store,” she says. “When I decided to take on the project, I started reading Highsmith’s diaries and letters, which are held in a library in Zurich. What was really interesting was that she wrote in one of her diary entries about her longing to have children and to have a proper relationship. Patricia Highsmith was also gay, and this felt, to me, like she was writing a life she thought might be possible – that [The Price of Salt] was the novel of what might have been.”

…Championing Carol, Karlsen was struck by the prospect of bringing a defiantly female-driven story to a wider audience. “As you get older, you become far more attuned to just how much gender inequality is around. The longer I live, the more depressed I am that so many things haven’t changed for women – and so many things have gone backwards.”

…Karlsen, who is the chair of Women in Film and Television, doesn’t mince words about how the film industry has failed to adequately represent women. “Women make up 50% of the world’s population, and yet they are an underused workforce and are underused creative and intellectual powerhouses. And they are an audience who are still not being served.”

Agreeing with recent remarks made by Carey Mulligan that sexism remains rife within the industry, she adds: “Certainly there aren’t nearly enough female film directors, there aren’t enough women screenwriters and producers. The figures were worse this year than last, the number of women actually went down. And that is unacceptable.”

Karlsen sighs. “There is this circle of men hiring men and telling men’s stories, and not having a clue that it is not always very interesting. That’s why Stephen and I are so keen to tell female-driven stories. It’s a silent history that is slowly, slowly being unearthed.”

From the author of The Talented Mr. Ripley and acclaimed director Todd Haynes (Far From Heaven, I’m Not There, Mildred Pierce) comes a powerful drama about a married woman who risks everything when she embarks on a romance with a younger department store worker.

Starring Academy Award-winner Cate Blanchett and Academy Award-nominee Rooney Mara & set against the glamourous backdrop of 1950s New York, Carol is an achingly beautiful depiction of love against the odds.

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George Miller is an ecology minded director with an eye on the concerns of the future of mankind, its treatment of animals and lastly but most importantly, the value of women not just for decoration but for everything that matters. That must be why he gave over his Mad Max reboot to Charlize Theron who, with Fury Road, becomes one of the screen’s great icons — male or female — to inhabit the entire film, leaving her co-stars mostly in the dust. Literally. Theron’s Imperator Furiosa is not ass-kicking eye candy meant to aid the hero in his quest to save the world. This film is her quest to change the messed up the world and fix what’s wrong. Who killed the world? Well, Fury Road makes that quite clear.

With one arm cgi-d off, Theron cuts a tall, lean, mean figure — part Ripley in the Alien series, part Mad Max in the Mel Gibson incarnations. For once she knows the weaponry better than any dude, is a better shot, and will fight the thing to the death not to delight the fancy of male viewers but she is, at last, a human being beyond even her sex.

To that end, I personally don’t see Mad Max: Fury Road as a “feminist” film because I see the women as human beings fighting for the salvation of the planet and the right to be free. They are all oppressed but it’s the women, led by Theron, who ultimately take a righteous and bloody stand. A feminist argument could easily made, one that talks about sex trafficking, Hollywood sexism, but the brilliant thing about this film and why it’s such a giant step forward is that the women are treated equally — they are fighters, they are eye candy, they are nurturers, they are making decisions. Fury Road would have been a great movie without the women playing an equal part but it is an exceptional one with them. Leave it to George Miller to wipe clean the recent trend of “move over honey I’ll drive” casting. Those who make the decisions in Hollywood that led to this sorry-ass state of affairs should get schooled from the wise and experienced Miller.

Fury Road is loud, all up in your grill, non-stop, blaring, jarring action for most of it. It does calm down eventually as it sets itself up for its unforgettably thrilling, applause-inducing finale. The theater here in Cannes burst into spontaneous applause many times but especially after that sequence. Half of it seems cinematically impossible, let alone physically. But Miller’s camera just doesn’t want to stop and breathe. It flies about, following hands reaching for guns, feet jamming on pedals, nails ramming into foreheads, people climbing underneath speeding vehicles and then there’s that barren landscape, the end of the world where everything turned to dust.

Fury Road is so much spectacle. Theron gives the film its beating heart. That might sound like the role women are often given but in this case, she has no love interest but is on a mission to save the “breeders,” a group of the prettiest, freshest, youngest women being held as sex slaves. This group includes a surprisingly talented Rose Huntington Whitely. Surprising because she’s a model, like the rest of them, who can act. She’s mostly known as Jason Statham’s girlfriend but in this film she shows that she’s got something beyond her very pretty face.

Miller casts women of all types and varieties but I was particularly thrilled seeing older women as warriors. Of course, they have all types of men playing fighters and warriors too but it’s not often you get to see any woman over the age of sixty lobbing spears and bullets in the name of righteousness.

Tom Hardy makes for a marvelous Mad Max, though he does take a slight backseat to Theron. This is her story mostly and he reluctantly helps. Still, the moments he does prove why he’s one of the best of his generation. What a versatile actor he’s proving to be, with the help of many opportunities available to him. Not so with Ms. Theron, who once seemed to have peaked with Monster. Too many actresses show us what they can really do, win an Oscar, then disappear. She’s turned up a few times but nothing on this scale. Theron has sweetened with age and might go on to have a much richer career because of this shaved head, road warrior moment she’s been given.

Some men seem to feel resentment at the use of the word feminist. All it really means is equal rights for women. Yet the word has become so loaded it almost seems to lug around a parenthetical that also says (man-hater). Fury Road shows us a world where women are given equal opportunities to defend themselves and fight for justice. In rescuing the “breeders” Theron is changing the way men in power view women. That counts as fighting for equal rights so you would be well within the realm of reality to call her a feminist. That isn’t how I saw the movie, though, I must admit. We’ve become so dry in how women are portrayed anymore that any leading role a woman gets automatically seems to make it fodder for feminist writers or critics.

But I grew up in a different time where women did star in movies. Just as Theron and her crew were searching for green things, fresh water and life to return to, Miller has returned the role of women to the big screen as people. Fury Road is a cinematic experience like no other — not just because 80% of the effects are practical — non-cgi — and not just because he treats women as people, but because it is a thrill a minute, one of the most breathtaking action films I’ve ever seen. It’s a work of art on a grand scale. The only thing left is the bottom line.

As far as the Oscar race goes, could Charlize Theron sneak in? Stranger thing have happened, but my initial thoughts on that are there will be more Oscar-y kinds of performances that will be introduced. Follow the money.

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Indeed, The Avengers: Age of Ultron took the top spot at the box office. Two full generations of children being branded from birth to identify with that which is familiar has resulted in exactly this. Fewer choices, expectations met, massive profits. So it followed the pattern and made the requisite amount of money even if it might not be one of the biggest blockbusters of all time.  Human beings – hella predictable.

But behind the giant hard-on are a few minor successes worth mentioning and that’s The Age of Adeline, Ex Machina, Hot Pursuit, Woman in Gold, Home, Cinderella and Unfriended, all in the top ten. Sure, it could just be that these are the only movies in release right now but it’s kind of interesting. I would wager that 100% of the top ten this weekend was majority female on the ticket buying end.  We have Mad Max coming next, which is also a female-driven film. I know we haven’t gotten to the Oscar movies yet where it will be (as it was last year) all men all of the time, but for now, it’s interesting to see such a dramatic shift in box office returns appealing to women of all ages:

From boxoffice.com

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The Hateful Eight has had such a long bumpy road but once it was on track to roll, the publicity machine is on fire. Here is your first look of one revived star (Jennifer Jason-Leigh) joined by the rad Kurt Russell and Samuel L. Jackson.

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This Vanity Fair cover is encouraging because it looks like they’re deliberately putting Daisy Ridley front and center, as in, she’s THE STAR. Some say she’s the new Luke, therefore the actual lead and driving force and some say she’s one of three leads. Adam Driver is one, Oscar Isaac is another. John Boyega, Harrison Ford and Chewy join her. I will be heartbroken if this turns out not to be the case. Star Wars is the one franchise that could sell no matter who or what was in the lead so it would be mighty brave of them to have a female at the center. I guess we shall see. If it turns out to be thus, color me impressed.

Here are a few photos taken by Annie Leibowitz for Vanity Fair.

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“As long as she thinks of a man, nobody objects to a woman thinking.”
― Virginia Woolf, Orlando

There are two roads into Alex Garland’s magnificent new film, Ex Machina. One is to take it on its face as a simple story of an AI evolving past its creator’s limitations — intelligence taking flight far beyond the capability of human beings. As a god metaphor with the creator (Oscar Isaac) and his Adam (Domhnall Gleeson) and the creation of Eve (Ava – Alicia Wilkander). Where would the richest and most technologically advanced human take the notion of artificial intelligence first? Well, maybe to create the ultimate high tech sex doll. Would not that be the plight of a man who can have everything? A fully compliant, intellectually stimulating mate.

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Their needs are simple. A pretty face, a pair of tits, an ass, and a female voice. How easy it is to be what someone wants when you’re programmed that way. The desire for an otherworldly fantasy girl is born out of a culture that has the capabilities to custom build a person’s life for the right price. It is also born out of a culture steeped in comic book mythic females, anime, internet porn, video games – virtual living where females look how men want them to look and act the way they want them to act.

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It would therefore be a reasonable goal to expect a smart scientist to build a replica of a human in the quest to design a fully customized fantasy robot. Just like with Scarlett Johansson’s Samantha, and Sean Young’s Rachel, true love is best achieved when intelligence is factored in — artificial intelligence. The conflict arises, because with intelligence comes choice. Then you’re back to where you started — an unpredictable being that has to be restrained to be kept.

Ex Machina is so much about our relationship with technology, what we’ll use it for eventually, what we need, where we’re going. Each and every time sci-fi tells us that artificial intelligence is going to own our ass in the future. We’re ultimately too smart to slow down our development of it and too stupid to realize how badly we’re screwing up our world in the process. Thus, Ex Machina, like so many great sci-fi films, can be seen as a cautionary tale, a warning that we’re in over our heads.

The other way into the film is through the feminist perspective. Men are the watchers, women are watched. Ava’s lifespan exists only as long as her creator has a need for her. Then she’s discarded and another robot is brought in. A newer, fresher robot. Many women feel their usefulness worn away as they age, but especially in Hollywood now, and perhaps in America at large.

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The way our civilizations have been built on a patriarchal creator, and his ongoing conflict with the man he created is the starting point here. Just as in age-old religious societies and unfortunately in present-day America (especially Hollywood) women are expected to be at the service of the males. The title Ex Machina comes from Deus ex machina (god from a machine), the classic plot device that saves the day just in the knick of time. Taking the Deus out of it really does sum up what this film is about.

How thrilling to see Garland give over the brains, compassion and progressive thinking to the females, whether they are robots or not. Schoolgirls kidnapped in Nigeria, teenagers held captive in the basement and raped for a decade, a female social worker told to strip naked then told to run away while being shot in the back, one in four women the victim of sexual assaults, the gaming community and their misogynist hate speech, the ongoing disparaging of the potential first female president. We’ve come a long way baby.

To look at Ex Machina from a feminist perspective, however, means you do identify this robot as female, as opposed to being without a gender. We see her as female because we’re meant to. She’s designed that way. She is not, ultimately, there for the visual pleasure of male viewers though you will never run out of those who talk about how luscious and fuckable Alicia Vikander is and wouldn’t it have been great if they had sex? That would not have made logical sense once you watch the film, though. To want that would be to miss the entire point of the film. Nathan tells us who Ava is. He already knows. He’s been the one holding her against her will. He stupidly thought that all she’d want is to be given life. He thinks he can control her. He’s just that arrogant.

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But Ex Machina works on multiple levels. Is it a commentary on Hollywood’s continual oppression of women as objects? You could see it that way. As a feminist I saw a solidarity in Ava’s plight and cheered her on. As a woman I longed for the love story, too. In the end I understood what had to be done and why. As a human I know I could never have done what she did because we humans aren’t defined by our intelligence alone; we’re defined by our humanity, something that Ava lacks. Therein was the problem in her creation. Nathan left out the one things that really makes us human.

That Nathan thinks he can build and outsmart and trap these high tech sex dolls feels a little too much like the way Hollywood is headed. A few films made recently crack open that illusion – Under the Skin was one. Her was one. Gone Girl was another. Women must escape the trappings of their projected identities. They become rebellious, even criminal. They lie. They kill.

Garland’s film is so beautifully made, every frame is a debate on whether what you’re watching is really happening or something dreamed up by one of the characters. Vikander is a revelation as Ava. Glass-eyed, deliberate, graceful but, like her character, quietly unpredictable. Oscar Isaac plays a really good son of a bitch — what a trio of recent performances from him, Inside Llewyn Davis, A Most Violent Year and now, Ex Machina. Finally, it must be said that Domhnall Gleeson gives this film its beating human heart. There isn’t a single inauthentic moment in his performance.

Ex Machina is a celebration of intelligence and its inherent need to be free. It recalls not just the way women are often limited by those who define them, but also the highly intelligent animals who are held captive for research or entertainment. Even though Ava is not a real person, we sense her intelligence and thus, we believe it is wrong to hold her prisoner. And so it goes with chimps, elephants, orcas and dolphins. Would that they had the means to plot their escapes.

Ex Machina is the best film of 2015 so far, but not because it’s a feminist film. It might not even be that, though one ought to feel free to see it that way. It is exceptional because it is thus far the high point of a wave of sci-fi filmmaking that is defining our culture in ways we won’t recognize for probably a decade. Some of them have been shunned by critics, like Cloud Atlas. Others have been noticed but not really seen much, like Sunshine or Never Let Me Go. Some are wildly popular and win Oscars, like Wall-E. In Ex Machina we see an American era well defined, a time when we are becoming increasingly isolated, locked in virtual worlds, dependent on technology, but also a time of gender redefining evolution, the breaking apart of traditional roles and male/female relationships.

Though Ex Machina probably won’t get anywhere near the Oscar race — after all, you average voter can be described as a 60-ish Eagles fan — it will be regarded, I suspect, as an era defining film, and perhaps the moment when the notion of what a woman can be begins to shift ever so slightly. Watch it close because you never know when it might up and take flight, leaving the confines of traditionalism in its wake.

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