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The year is beginning with promise, as the years almost always do, because the movies that are released now star women. The “Oscar movies,” as such, star men. That is how we find ourselves in this crazy predicament where the Oscar race for Best Picture is often defined as:

Men doing important things (The King’s Speech).
Men failing at attempting to do important things (Birdman).
Men doing things (every other movie in the race).

Many of these early released films that feature women don’t factor in to the Best Picture race the way things are now because voters only have five slots to nominate Best Picture and those five slots usually go to male-driven films but for an occasional exception like Gravity, Philomena or Zero Dark Thirty here or there.

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First up for Best Actress are the two lead roles some of us have already seen, Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett from Carol. Mara picked up the Best Actress prize in Cannes but it seems likely both actresses could find themselves hovering within sight of a Best Actress nomination. It would be better for the chances, though, to separate them as lead and supporting. In supporting, Mara might actually have a chance at the win. One of the marvels of Carol is how much director Todd Haynes’ spends on the internal worlds of these women before cutting straight to the sex stuff. In fact, the sex isn’t the main course at all, as might be the temptation here. Other things about these partners matter so much more as we watch them fall in love. It isn’t so much an uncorking of eroticism as it is a discovery of who they are. That, of course, inadvertently makes it all the more erotic. Either way, both women are given a full range of emotional expression here.

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The third strong Best Actress contender right now has to be Charlize Theron in Mad Max: Fury Road. Although not your traditional “Oscar performance,” Theron has the benefit of creating one of the most iconic females in action films along the lines of Sigourney Weaver in Alien. To my mind, Theron’s is one of the year’s standouts but we know our pesky actors branch will likely go for the more “important” or “serious” fare. Either way, she’s on the list at the moment before any of the other movies roll out.

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There are two films about women right now that could be headed for Best Actress at least if not Best Picture. One is Suffragette and the other is Joy. Joy seems the more likely, sight unseen, because David O. Russell when paired with Jennifer Lawrence have an impressive batting average — three nominations for Picture three years in a row. And still no win.

Lawrence should top any early Oscar predictions but she is already an Oscar winner. Hilary Swank and Jodie Foster are two actresses who earned lead acting wins fairly close together but for someone as young as Lawrence it would be a rare feat. Even still, you can bet with Best Picture heat driving the thing (unless it’s terrible), Lawrence will be prominent this year.

Carey Mulligan is another actress who has earned Oscar cred with so many brilliant performances already under her belt. She has Far From the Madding Crowd already this year but seems to be the real juice of Suffragette, at least in the trailer:

And look, it’s great women doing great things. Whoda thunk it? Suffragette is directed by Sarah Gavron who has directed one feature and co-directed a documentary. Hey, you have to start somewhere, right? It’s written by Abi Morgan who wrote the Invisible Woman and The Iron Lady. The best thing it has going for it, other than coming out at a time when our country might see its first female president, is what will be a significant push by Focus Features.

David O. Russell’s Joy puts a woman at the center for the first time in the director’s career. It’s no shock that it’s Jennifer Lawrence who has worked well with Russell since Silver Linings Playbook. Joy tells the story of Joy Mangano, the single mother of three who invented the Miracle Mop. It will likely be high satire, as co-written by Russell and Bridesmaids’ co-writer Annie Mumolo.

Two French actresses find themselves hovering in the Best Actress arena and both are already previous Oscar winners – Juliette Binoche for Clouds of Sils Maria and Marion Cotillard for MacBeth. It is unlikely that both will get in but both are certainly worth taking seriously.

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It could also be a year for four strong veteran actresses to launch into the race, including Helen Mirren for the box-office surprise hit Woman in Gold, Lily Tomlin in Grandma, Charlotte Rampling in 45 Years and Maggie Smith in the Lady in the Van. Of those, my gut tells me that Smith will have the advantage. But no predictions can be made until the films are seen, of course.

Meryl Streep will have a shot at her 20th Oscar nomination with the Jonathan Demme/Diablo Cody joint Ricki and the Flash where Streep will play a has-been rock n’ roller trying to have a second shot at motherhood. Streep always delivers; thus, she’s a force to be reckoned with whenever she stars in a film.

These are Anne Thompson’s current predictions for Best Actress — factoring in only films that she herself has seen:

Performance by an actress in a leading role
Frontrunners:
Cate Blanchett (“Carol”)
Rooney Mara (“Carol”)
Helen Mirren (“Woman in Gold”)
Bel Powley (“Diary of a Teenage Girl”)
Lily Tomlin (“Grandma”)

Contenders (plus films she hasn’t seen):
Juliette Binoche (“Clouds of Sils Maria”)
Marion Cotillard (“Macbeth”)
Greta Gerwig (“Mistress America”)
Jennifer Lawrence (“Joy”)
Carey Mulligan (“Far from the Madding Crowd,” “Suffragette”)
Charlotte Rampling (“45 Years”)
Maggie Smith (“The Lady in the Van”)
Alicia Vikander (“Tulip Fever,” “The Danish Girl”)

Thompson is floating Bel Powley for Diary of a Teenage Girl. Viola Davis is starring in Lila & Eve alongside Jennifer Lopez about two women pursuing justice outside the law. I don’t know about you but, Oscars or not, I can’t WAIT for this one.

Other names on the fringe besides those mentioned here include Vikander also for Ex Machina, Rinko Kikuchi for Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter. Greta Gerwig stars in Mistress America, another madcap goofball performance by Gerwig which may or may not capture the attention of voters. Z for Zachariah stars Margot Robbie as “a young woman who survives on her own, fearing she may actually be the proverbial last woman on earth, until she discovers the most astonishing sight of her life: another human being.”

Mia Wasikowska stars in Guillermo Del Toro’s Crimson Peak about “an aspiring author who is torn between love for her childhood friend and the temptation of a mysterious outsider. Trying to escape the ghosts of her past, she is swept away to a house that breathes, bleeds…and remembers.” Saorse Ronan stars in Brooklyn, which was already seen at Cannes. Anne Thompson presumably saw the film but does not list Ronan on her predictions.

Patricia Clarkson will star in Learning to Drive in which she plays a woman learning to drive with teacher Ben Kingsley. Already seen is Emily Blunt in Sicario starring opposite Josh Brolin and Benicio Del Toro. A strong performance from Blunt is likely, but we will have to wait on the reviews to see how far she can go with it.

Casualties of the year thus far (killed by the critics) include Emma Thompson for Effie Gray and Jennifer Connelly for Aloft, Kate Winslet for A Little Chaos.

Choosing five Best Actress contenders won’t be that hard as the months roll along. It is about the performance but it is also about the friendships and alliances in Hollywood, as with any other category. It is about publicity and it is about buzz and backlash. How annoying was last year’s epic fail of critics who pounced on Jennifer Aniston’s dramatic turn in Cake. They blamed her for being a successful movie star who dared to help produce a film to star in that would showcase her range. This is really what almost every actress in Hollywood must do to not only work but to get any attention whatsoever for their work.

More and more actresses from other countries are obliterating American actresses who seem to either lack the prestige factor or are discarded as the next fresh new face comes along. The critics, though, felt the need to bolster Marion Cotillard once work got out of an imaginary controversy involving Harvey Weinstein and the film The Immigrants. A mini revolution was held and the critics stubbornly pushed Cotillard and shat on Aniston. Cotillard, as you can see from this year or any other doesn’t have a hard time getting roles. She works because she’s absolutely great and deserves all of the praise and success she has coming. But. It’s harder for actresses over here in America to get the same kind of cred as Cotillard does from critics. The role in 2 Days and 1 night was better than Aniston’s role in Cake but I don’t think Cotillard’s work towered over Aniston’s. So color me unimpressed with that shit show went down last year.

If I had to pluck five names out of a hat based on what I know about how the race works and a vague sense of what some of these films might be I’d go with these five names:

Cate Blanchett, Carol
Rooney Mara, Carol (but she might go supporting)
Carey Mulligan, Suffragette
Jennifer Lawrence, Joy
Meryl Streep, Ricki and the Flash
Alts. Charlize Theron for Mad Max, Lily Tomlin in Grandma, Maggie Smith, the Lady in the Van

That’s just spitting in the wind, of course. There is no real way to tell how the race might go as there are months and months left.

Next up, the Supporting Categories.

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These days, when looking for Best Actor, follow Best Picture. Or rather, when looking for Best Picture, follow Best Actor.  For most of the past twenty years, but mostly since Oscar changed up to more than five nominees for Best Picture, Best Actor has been tied to Best Picture.  Even when the lead actor from the Best Picture nominee hasn’t been nominated, they still anchor the Best Picture contender.  This is the New Normal where Best Pic is concerned but for the odd year here or there.

The first half of the year has produced at least five notable performances that may or may not make it by year’s end, but the majority of performances have not yet been seen and could wipe the slate clean. How do we know this? For the past few years, maybe decade, films in the Oscar race have been driven by a singular male performance. This trend has not slowed, even if you count this year where there are so many female driven films packing the first half of the year. It’s funny that you will find more women this time of year in contention than men but that’s because the Oscar-bound performances are going to be found in the Big Oscar Movies coming to a film festival near you.

1. The race as it stands now, however, has one performance out front and that’s Paul Dano‘s in Love & Mercy. It helps that the film has already opened in theaters. The other four best actor contenders so far star in films that have only been seen at Cannes or Sundance.

Although Dano shares the spotlight with John Cusack in Love & Mercy, his is the more fully realized performance where Cusack’s might be seen as a supporting turn. Both could be considered Best Actor but if voters go down that road neither will be nominated.

Dano plays the young Brian Wilson who is is discovering his own ability to emerge as an artist in a band that seems committed as a hit machine. There is no denying the power of the Beach Boys and their catchy, unforgettable tunes but there was more to Brian Wilson’s composing. Dano is brilliant at conveying someone who was simply too gentle and passive to withstand the forces mounted against him — and those forces include controlling and abusive people and the progression of his own eventual mental illness.  Dano takes us down each road with compassion. Cusack, too, approaches his role with compassion and neither of them makes too much or too little of the demons that overtaken Wilson’s internal world. Dano has showed us so many different sides of his acting ability, which is often way over the top. But here, he illustrates that all of that talent can be harnessed more specifically. It’s a marvel to watch and deeply moving. Paul Dano has never been nominated for an Oscar, unbelievably.

2. Jake Gyllenhaal in Southpaw takes the number 2 spot even though I’ve not yet seen him in the film. He’s supposed to be great in it, though, and has Harvey Weinstein ushering him through Oscar season.  Gyllenhaal is another one of Oscar’s forgotten talents, having received only one nomination for his brilliant work in Brokeback Mountain. He almost made last year’s race with Nightcrawler. His transformative work here, becoming a beefed-up fighter, will most certainly be enough to push him through.

3. Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel for Youth – where you have Dano and Cusack needing to split, you can’t really split up Caine and Keitel, mostly because they are just too damned famous.  Caine is already a two-time Oscar winner with six nominations. To say they love him would be an understatement. Keitel has only been nominated once, as supporting actor for Bugsy. Does that mean they don’t like him? I don’t know. Either way, both have fully realized, deeply meaningful career-topping performances in Youth, Paolo Sorrentino’s film backed by Fox Searchlight. Unless the film is destroyed by critics (currently it’s mixed to positive on Metacritic), it should emerge as a strong Oscar contender in all aspects. I say “if” because there is no way of telling how a movie will land. This is a film about Hollywood but more than that, it’s about artists working in Hollywood — old-school vets who make up the majority of Oscar voters. Youth, like Birdman, is a lament of things past. It’s a condemnation of and celebration of “the new” while also a condemnation of and celebration of the gone and forgotten.  If all goes well, both actors should have an equal shot at landing a lead nomination.  Jane Fonda and Rachel Weisz will be strong contenders for supporting. Paul Dano makes an appearance here in a supporting role — the one thing to note about this performance of his vis-à-vis Love & Mercy is just what a better actor he is becoming as he evolves.

5. Michael Fassbender for MacBeth – this is another one I did not see in Cannes but by all accounts the reviews were good enough to put Fassbender in contention for lead actor.   Macbeth is faring slightly higher than Youth in aggregate scores but critics these days tend to be a younger bunch, not so much interested in the same things that interest Oscar voters (85 on Metacritic so far). That it’s Shakespeare, that Fassbender is a respected actor, make him at the very least a contender, at least for now. Once things start to roll his might be the one that gets the chop.

 

Which actors are waiting at the gates to threaten these? They are mostly actors playing real-life people (highlighted in red). Hollywood seems to never tire of true stories about great or famous men — they celebrate and reinforce the patriarchy while doing so. How long will this trend last? It’s hard to say.

1. Leonardo DiCaprio in The Revenant

2. Michael Fassbender competing against himself in Steve Jobs as Steve Jobs.

3. Tom Hanks in Bridge of Spies

4. Eddie Redmayne in The Danish Girl

5. Will Smith in Concussion

6. Johnny Depp as Whitey Bulger in Black Mass.

7. Ben Foster as Lance Armstrong in The Program.

8. Bryan Cranston as Trumbo in Trumbo. 

9. Tobey Maguire in Pawn Sacrifice, as Bobby Fischer

10.  Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Philippe Petit in The Walk.

11. Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Edward Snowden in Snowden.

12. Ian McKellen in Mr. Holmes. The great McKellen has been all too often overlooked by the Academy.

13. Benicio Del Toro in Escobar. Del Toro is also in Sicario but probably will go as supporting, giving the chance of a double nomination year.  

14. Bradley Cooper in Adam Jones.

15. Michael Shannon in Midnight Special.

16. Richard Gere, Time Out of Mind.

17. Jason Siegel, End of Tour as David Foster Wallace.

There will no doubt be other names added to this list, and names removed from it as we barrel towards the end of the year. It will be the most competitive of the acting categories, with Best Actress coming up a close second. We’ll be covering Best Actress later today.

As usual, it will be difficult to know this early whether the films already seen will have any chance as the race surges forward. Because Best Actor is so closely tied with Best Picture, the nominees from last year (all except Steve Carell in Foxcatcher) were from films that were nominated for Best Picture.

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Coming up next, Best Actress.

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Hope springs eternal when there are so many options for Best Picture before the Big Oscar Movies hit. A recent discussion on Twitter brought up the question as to whether or not Pixar’s sublime Inside Out (our review here) could make the cut. Variety’s Steven Gaydos said it was on his list since seeing it at Cannes.  

Not so fast, Marshall Flores (Statsgasm) and I said.  We know how it goes. By the time the summer is over and fall season starts, momentum is much harder to gather. That, and the Academy is mostly ruled by actors, their biggest branch by far, and actors usually like movies with real people in them saying lines. They don’t much like being replaced either by animation or by performance capture. No matter how hard they are pressured to accept these new modes of acting, their faces are their bread and butter, thus animation often gets sidelined, especially now since it has its own category; back when Beauty and the Beast was nominated for Best Picture there wasn’t a separate category.  Since then, only during the years where voters had ten nomination slots could animated films get in and they did – Up and Toy Story 3.  When the Academy switched back to five nomination slots, however, animation was once again shepherded back into its own category, which is where we are today.

Inside Out is exceptional beyond the Oscar meme of late (male in crisis), stands for originality amid a sea change of sequels, is about something worthy (loss of childhood, what goes on inside our heads as children, as adults, and other creatures), and maintains the Pixar standard of animation that goes beyond “kids stuff.”  Thus, it’s fair to say that Inside Out ought to be considered the first major Best Picture contender of the year, even if we know by the end of the year it will likely be selected out.

Just look at these reviews:

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There may be films that will equal Inside Out but it’s going to be tough to find one that can beat it in terms of reviews alone.  As has been pointed out, its box office will be hampered by the juggernaut that is Jurassic World but it should still do well in summer season. Word of mouth will ensure it does well, even if it doesn’t have the opening numbers.

There are two other films that should also be considered seriously for Best Picture at this point and that would be Love & Mercy, the story of the Beach Boy’s Brian Wilson overcoming mental illness.  Love & Mercy is one of those films that people “out there” continue to talk about. It isn’t just that many of the Oscar voters will have a personal relationship with the Beach Boys music, it’s that the film itself is stirring thanks to the performances of Paul Dano and John Cusack as Wilson.  It has set the bar high for films coming out at festivals like Venice, Telluride and New York.

The third strong contender for Best Picture is George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road. Hurting the film is its position as an installment in the Mad Max franchise. It is also hurt by it being an effects-driven film, though the effects will likely give Star Wars a run for its money come Oscar time.  Mad Max might have to settle for a nomination for Charlize Theron, but its reviews, money made and cultural impact put it in the Oscar zone.

It’s too soon to tell about the Oscar-friendly films that showed at Cannes, like Youth, which hits the sweet spot of Oscar voters as it’s about industry people in the twilight of their brilliant careers.  It is being pushed by Fox Searchlight, which definitely makes it a potentially formidable contender in some respect, if not Best Picture.

The other big film from Cannes would be Todd Haynes’ Carol, handled by the Weinstein Co. and absolutely a film that could go all the way in multiple major categories.  Carol has the velvety feel of an Oscar period piece but deals with 2015 issues about self-acceptance and the courage to stand behind who we really are.

Brooklyn was a potential contender out of Sundance which may or may not be remembered. Ex Machina was one of the early treasures of the year but is probably just outside the Academy’s comfort zone.

Oscar season really starts around early September. By October, your Best Picture winner will have been seen, if recent history is any indicator.  It was released into theaters or seen at festivals but it will not be one that comes out of nowhere to win. It’s just not possible to rally contenders late in the game anymore, not even Clint Eastwood can do that (though he almost did last year). Voting starts so early and with the time crunch voters won’t watch all of the movies. They only watch a few. They only have to name five so picking their favorites gets kind of easy, most of the time.

Last year is a great example of how the latecomers like Unbroken, Into the Woods did not figure into the race while the films seen early like Birdman did.

Here is how it went last year–

Birdman (Venice, Telluride)
American Sniper — LATE, AFI
Imitation Game — Telluride
Grand Budapest Hotel — early release
Selma — LATE, AFI
Theory of Everything — Toronto
Whiplash — Sundance

Two of those films made it into the race, neither had a chance to win simce both were hit with controversy that, if given enough time, could have been overcome. With no time to settle, the films had no chance to really gain momentum as winners.

The same pattern might follow this year. It’s too soon to tell, really. This “early is better than late” pattern has held true for almost a decade. Not since Million Dollar Baby has a movie come in at the last minute and won Best Picture.

One thing worth noting about our first half check-in is that the three strongest contenders are all female driven stories – Inside Out, Fury Road and Carol. That’s significant. Love & Mercy and Youth are more male-driven, thus more Oscar friendly.

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And here we are again. There are two films that were screened in Cannes that will very likely be named by many authorities as two of the best films of the year but are also two that don’t fit the Academy’s formula for what defines a Best Picture contender. Why? Because one is an animated film and the other a genre movie. While it’s true that Gravity and Life of Pi managed to make the cut in previous years, they are both heavy on emotion and character, while depending heavily on visual effects.

Quick primer on how Best Picture works for those who don’t know the history (it is confusing to many). In 2009, the Academy expanded their Best Picture lineup from five nomination slots and five nominees to ten nomination slots and ten nominees. In those magical years the wide array of films that were selected prove that the Academy members can expand beyond their comfort zone if given enough room.

In 2009 and 2010 voters were given ten nomination slots and ten Best Pictures. There were two films per year directed by women. There were several films nominated about women. There were animated films (Up and Toy Story 3) and genre films (District 9, Avatar, Inception). Sure, the male hero feelgood drama still dominated but there was room for more than just that.

Beginning in 2011 and up to present, the Academy has done away with the ten nomination slots and shrunk it back down to five. They still allow for more than five Best Picture nominees (an even 9 except last year). Voters had to stick to five nominating slots, making it nearly impossible for an animated film, no matter how good it is, to get a Best Picture nod.

This is the single reason that Inside Out can’t be considered a likely Best Picture nominee. The chances of it making the top five lists of enough voters is slim to none. Not only that, but it has to compete with Pixar’s other movie coming out this year, the Good Dinosaur which will feature state-of-the-art visuals as well, and will be more traditionally about your misfit male hero. Pixar against Pixar.

Once again, it would behoove the Academy to open up the Best Picture race and make it a REAL race again. While it’s true that ten sort of obliterates the unification of Best Picture and Best Director or any film ever sweeping the Oscars again, it does help address the way Hollywood has changed.

Devin Faraci wrote a nice piece about Inside Out where he says how much more meaningful the story is because the stakes are higher:

As the two emotions try to make their way back to Headquarters they are shocked to discover that Riley’s Islands of Personality – the emotional epicenters of who she is, and the things that define her as a person – are unstable. More than unstable, some of them begin to completely fail, falling away into the Memory Hole, from which nothing returns. Joy and Sadness have to get back to Riley’s Headquarters before all of the Islands collapse, changing her into someone unrecognizable.

These stakes are enormous. The world isn’t going to end, no one is going to die and the future of the human race aren’t on the line here, but the film firmly establishes that what’s going on inside Riley’s head is important. The film established that Riley is a good kid, and that Riley deserves something as basic as a smile on her face. Watching the movie – often through a film of tears – I cared more about whether Riley would keep playing hockey than I cared about whether Chris Pratt would escape the dinosaurs at my previous night’s screening.

Stakes come when we care about characters, and the biggest stakes are how things will impact those characters. We all know that Sadness and Joy will eventually make it back to Headquarters, but will they get there in time to help Riley maintain the things that make her her? And how the heck will they manage to make the journey in time? As each Island of Personality crumbled and collapsed I felt more tension and concern than I did seeing a hundred CGI cities laid waste over the last few years.

When a film cuts this deeply it’s worth considering it as one of the year’s best, whether it is animated or not.

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Kyle Smith of the New York Post has written a piece declaring “women don’t get GoodfFellas.” He first cites his doomed relationship as the perfect example: “Just kidding. (We split up because I was a jerk.)” That single sentence is the most illuminating part of the whole post but we’ll get to that in a minute. He then mansplains writes:

But women don’t get “GoodFellas.” It’s not really a crime drama, like “The Godfather.” It’s more of a male fantasy picture — “Entourage” with guns instead of swimming pools, the Rat Pack minus tuxedos.

It’s not really a crime drama like The Godfather? Gee, Kyle, can you also explain to me what you’re supposed to do with those long plastic tubes they hand out with soft drinks?

He then sets about paying tribute to a movie he clearly loves, trying desperately to shove it into a box that he understands. This is the movie he wants it to be, like so many of Scorsese’s films. They work on multiple levels and often one can see in them what they want to see. Kyle Smith is choosing to see a reflection of himself. His description of the film is proof that he’s the one who really doesn’t get it. He seems only to see the obvious layer, ignoring everything else going on underneath. Or maybe he’s dumbing it WAY down for his female readers.

“Ball-busting means cheerfully insulting one another.”

That’s funny because I thought it meant laying out your scrotal sack on a pool table and then pounding each ball with the thick end of a pool cue.

“Women (except silent floozies) cannot be present for ball-busting because women are the sensitivity police: They get offended, protest that someone’s not being fair, refuse to laugh at vicious put-downs. In the male fantasy, all of this is unforgivable — too serious, too boring. Deal another hand, pour another drink.”

Da fuq? What the fuck is he talking about? Did he see Bridesmaids or Spy? Oh right, he wouldn’t get Bridesmaids. Has he watched Amy Schumer? Oh, right, no. In his world women are dumb as doorknobs.

To a woman, the “GoodFellas” are lowlifes. To guys, they’re hilarious, they’re heroes.

Pushing aside this absurd generalization, one that doesn’t reflect reality in any way, Smith is just flatout wrong here. Only a certain type of man watches Goodfellas and comes away with “these guys are heroes.” This is the same type of guy who breaks his neck watching a Burger King commercial with a big-titted model shoving a fat greasy pile of meat and cheese into her tiny mouth. The same type of guy who worships Walter White and Tony Soprano, mistaking the subtle narrative and inserting their own projections. “That’s the kind of guy I want to be.”

In fact, guys like these often misinterpret Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA as a chest-beating anthem of patriotism. And the kind of guys who all too often mistake Scorsese’s form of satire. These are the guys who take Wolf of Wall Street literally, who laugh along with Joe Pesci when he’s shooting Spider.

Goodfellas, like Wolf of Wall Street is funny. It’s funny until it isn’t. If you miss this subtle distinction with all of Scorsese’s films you miss everything.

They completely miss what makes Goodfellas a masterpiece because to them it’s a funny movie they can drink beers by. If all goes well they will order a woman to suck their manhood later in the evening, their bellies full on beer and brats.  Oh yeah, tastes so good, don’t it honey?

As “GoodFellas” shows us, guys hanging out together don’t really like to talk about the women in their lives because that’s too real. What we’d much rather do than discuss problems and “be supportive” is to keep the laughs coming — to endlessly bust each other’s balls.

At this point, the separation between the Goodfellas in the film and Kyle Smith is indistinguishable. He has now launched himself into the film – aka Scorsese’s worst nightmare.  And here, he lays out just how profoundly confused he is about the film Scorsese tried to make:

At its core, “GoodFellas” is a story of ball-busting etiquette, which we first learn about in the improvised early scene based on a real experience of Pesci. Tommy turns his attention to a laughing Henry after telling a funny story and threateningly says, “Am I a comedian? Do I amuse you?” Tommy appears to be dangerously angry. Henry saves the day by returning the ball-busting: “Get the f - - k outta here.”

At its core? Really? I guess this shall be Scorsese’s legacy in a certain part of the country where men pat each other on the backs over the terrible things they do, where a morality tale is no more than “I should not have bought her all those drinks if she was going to bust my balls all night.” Except that Karen gets a pass from Smith because she bust Henry’s balls and therefore keeps the party going. To Smith, that’s what Goodfellas is about:

“The rule is, be a man, be tough, and always keep the party going.”

Yes, if you want to miss entirely what the film is about, by all means think of it like that.

Billy Batts (the unfortunate fellow in the trunk, and surprisingly not dead, when the movie begins) breaks ball-busting etiquette in two ways. One, he’s not really one of the guys (he belongs to another crime family), and two, in the guise of breaking Tommy’s balls, he brings up something serious, something that truly bothers Tommy: that he once worked as a shoeshine boy. Billy must die. Later, Morrie, the wig merchant, must also die for improper ball-busting.

Again, whoosh. Right over poor Kyle Smith’s head.

Of course, there’s always the chance that this article is a parody, written in the voice of one of the film’s characters where self-delusion and perpetuation of fantasy rules the day. That would make Kyle Smith one of the smartest writers on the internet. There’s also the chance that this is just clickbait to get out all of his aggression on women he really doesn’t seem to understand — he thinks people like me will write articles of outrage and point at him for 15 minutes. 

He’s be right about us there. We do get mad at articles like this one even if everyone would be well advised to ignore clickbait. I am less offended as a woman (as if) than I am as a Scorsese fan, reading such a mind-numbingly bad interpretation of a film I love so much.

So yeah, good thing Smith’s girlfriend dumped him. At least he can admit he was a jerk, whether or not he’s keeping the party going. By all means, keep it going, whether it’s ruining your life or not.

Paul Dano, Brian Wilson, and John Cusack pose for a portrait during press day for "Love & Mercy" at The Four Seasons on Tuesday, June 2, 2015 in Los Angeles. (Photo by Casey Curry/Invision/AP)

There are two brilliant performances in Love & Mercy, well, four if you add in Paul Giamatti and Elizabeth Banks in supporting roles. Paul Dano and John Cusack together make one whole complete lead performance, so says Jeff Wells of Hollywood Elsewhere, who also folded in the same kind of thing with Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara in Carol. Mara ended up winning Best Actress in Cannes but it is a coin toss as to which actress stands out the most. Likewise with Dano and Cusack.

Usually partnered performances like that are divided up into lead and supporting, putting contenders either where they have the best shot at winning (or getting the nomination) or whose ever star shines brighter. In the case of both Rooney Mara and John Cusack they might have an easier road to Oscar because in Carol and Love & Mercy they are showing sides of themselves we’ve never seen before. They are too important to be “supporting” characters yet they are defined that way by star power (Blanchett) or by how much they dominate the film (Dano).

This is a pickle, no doubt about it. Both films may suffer from being seen early and won’t have the advantage of feeling “fresh” by the time the other movies roll out. My first thought with Carol was that Rooney Mara was the standout. That is, I was most impressed with her work overall because I’ve only really seen her in full wingspan display in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Now she’s been given an equally powerful role to show us what she can do and it’s quite something to behold. Cate Blanchett, on the other hand, has an entire career of these kinds of performances behind her — after playing Bob Dylan in I’m Not There, Jasmine in Blue Jasmine, Queen Elizabeth in Elizabeth, and on and on it goes – how much more surprising can Blanchett be?

Likewise, Paul Dano has pulled out the stops so many times before in films like There Will be Blood and 12 Years a Slave that my first viewing of Love & Mercy put my attention more on Cusack, whom I’ve never seen so vulnerable and exposed as he is here. So to me, on first pass, Cusack was the one I thought had the better chance at a nomination — not for lead, mind you, but for supporting. But then I saw the movie again. The second time through, Dano’s performance emerged much more. So much so that I think he could be a strong contender not just to be nominated for Best Actor but maybe to win. It’s just a masterwork from Dano who tends at times to go a bit over the top. He doesn’t do that here. Both actors capture Brian Wilson’s gentle spirit and inherent sadness. Both actors show in such a subtle way how Brian Wilson tried so hard to beat back the voices and the demons.

While it’s true both actors make one complete performance, if it were me, I’d go for Dano for lead and Cusack for supporting. I say this for two reasons, primarily. 1) the Best Actor race is going to be so crowded by Oscar nomination time and 2) it will be hard to make sure this film is remembered at all because it’s being seen so early.

For those reasons I think you have to split up the paired contenders. One has to be lead and one has to be supporting.

Let’s look at a few other films that had the same kind of thing going on and how they were ultimately divided up. When there is a man and a woman they go in different categories so we’ll take that off the table and look at films where two performers of the same gender had equally powerful roles. Usually if the actors go in for the same category one is NOT NOMINATED, like Amy Adams in Julie & Julia. You always have a much better chance if you split the categories.

Training Day: Denzel Washington lead, Ethan Hawke supporting
August: Osage County: Meryl Streep lead, Julia Roberts supporting
The Help: Viola Davis lead, Octavia Spencer supporting
Chicago: Renee Zellweger lead, Catherine Zeta-Jones supporting
Wolf of Wall Street: Leo DiCaprio lead, Jonah Hill supporting
The Master: Joaquin Phoenix lead, Phil Seymour Hoffman supporting
Moneyball: Brad Pitt lead, Jonah Hill supporting
The Social Network: Jessie Eisenberg lead, Andrew Garfield supporting
Frost/Nixon: Frank Langella lead, Michael Sheen supporting
Mystic River: Sean Penn lead, Tim Robbins supporting
Pulp Fiction: John Travolta lead, Samuel L. Jackson supporting

And by contrast:
Django Unchained: Jamie Foxx not nominated, Christoph Waltz supporting
The Kids Are All Right: Annette Bening lead, Julianne Moore not nominated (she was campaigned for lead)
The Devil Wears Prada: Meryl Streep lead, Anne Hathaway not nominated
One True Thing: Meryl Streep lead, Renee Zellweger not nominated
Foxcatcher: Steve Carell nominated, Channing Tatum not nominated
The Insider: Russell Crowe nominated, Al Pacino not nominated
Philadelphia: Tom Hanks nominated, Denzel Washington not nominated

Obviously, it’s a crapshoot how things will go down. No one yet knows if anyone from this film will get recognized. There is a whole season still to go. They have four acting contenders in this film: Paul Dano, John Cusack, Paul Giamatti and Elizabeth Banks. They all did great work. That’s what matters to them. I’d still run Dano lead, Cusack supporting, along with Giamatti and Banks.

At the end of the day, Love & Mercy is one of the major standouts of the year so far and if the Oscar race defines itself by picking the best, god willing, voters will remember it.

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Sure to be on the top of the Oscar pile is Robert Zemeckis’ The Walk, just announced to open the New York Film Festival (September 25 – October 11).  Official release following. The New York Film Fest has become a great way to launch an Oscar film, though last year’s big get Gone Girl proved too successful with audiences, had a female screenwriter and actually starred a woman. Naturally, the Oscar voters rejected it. It’s a man only club, don’t you know, no $150+ female driven projects need apply. But I’m not bitter.

Joseph Gordon Levitt joins the ranks of yet another year of a packed Best Actor race but lo, French accent alert. With Zemeckis behind the wheel we can be sure it will be a visual feast.

The Walk, though, is right in their wheelhouse, so to speak, and early word is it’s great.

A true story, the film is based on Philippe Petit’s memoir To Reach the Clouds and stars Golden Globe nominee Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Petit, the French high-wire artist who achieved the feat of walking between the Twin Towers in 1974. The Walk will be the second 3D feature selected for the Opening Night Gala since Ang Lee’s Life of Pi in 2012 and also marks Zemeckis’s return to the Festival after Flight, the 2012 Closing Night Gala selection. Today’s announcement coincides with the release of the film’s trailer, which can be viewed at movies.yahoo.com. The film will be released in 3D and IMAX 3D on October 2, 2015.

New York Film Festival Director and Selection Committee Chair Kent Jones said: “The Walk is surprising in so many ways. First of all, it plays like a classic heist movie in the tradition of The Asphalt Jungle or Bob le flambeur—the planning, the rehearsing, the execution, the last-minute problems—but here it’s not money that’s stolen but access to the world’s tallest buildings. It’s also an astonishing re-creation of Lower Manhattan in the ’70s. And then, it becomes something quite rare, rich, mysterious… and throughout it all, you’re on the edge of your seat.”

Robert Zemeckis added: “I am extremely honored and grateful that our film has been selected to open the 53rd New York Film Festival. The Walk is a New York story, so I am delighted to be presenting the film to New York audiences first. My hope is that Festival audiences will be immersed in the spectacle, but also to be enraptured by the celebration of a passionate artist who helped give the wonderful towers a soul.”

Sony Pictures Entertainment Motion Picture Group Chairman Tom Rothman said: “On behalf of TriStar and Sony, I want to thank Kent and the NYFF for this great honor. The Walk is a love letter to the Twin Towers, which through the unique magic of cinema, come back to vibrant, inspiring life. But it is also a universal story of the determined pursuit of impossible dreams, told by one of our greatest living filmmakers, and the NYFF has always been a place where such dreams come true.”

The film also stars Academy Award® winner Ben Kingsley, James Badge Dale, Ben Schwartz, Steve Valentine, Charlotte Le Bon, Clement Sibony, Caesar Domboy and Benedict Samuel. Directed by Zemeckis, the screenplay is by Robert Zemeckis & Christopher Browne, based on the book “To Reach the Clouds” by Philippe Petit, and produced by Steve Starkey, Robert Zemeckis, and Jack Rapke.

The 17-day New York Film Festival highlights the best in world cinema, featuring top films from celebrated filmmakers as well as fresh new talent. The selection committee, chaired by Jones, also includes Dennis Lim, FSLC Director of Programming; Marian Masone, FSLC Senior Programming Advisor; Gavin Smith, Editor-in-Chief, Film Comment; and Amy Taubin, Contributing Editor, Film Comment and Sight & Sound.

NYFF previously announced Luminous Intimacy: The Cinema of Nathaniel Dorsky and Jerome Hiler, the first-ever complete dual retrospective of the experimental filmmakers works that will include the world premiere of Dorsky’s Intimations, a new untitled work, and New York premieres of Summer, December, February, and Avraham.

Tickets for the 53rd New York Film Festival will go on sale in early September. Becoming a Film Society Member at the Film Buff Level or above provides early ticket access to festival screenings and events ahead of the general public, along with the exclusive member ticket discount! To find out how to become a Film Society member, visit filmlinc.com/membership.

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How the culture is changing, why it’s changing, when or if it will change again are questions people in Hollywood should be asking themselves right now. New generations are coming of age in a world that is not politically correct enough for them and Hollywood should be prepared for this. There will be a lot more policing of casting choices and Twitter activism that push towards a more diverse and full spectrum depiction of the human experience. Though white people maintain a slim majority in both the American population and ticket buyers that is changing fast.

So when Cameron Crowe innocently based a character in Aloha on a real-life red-headed islander who doesn’t look the least bit Hawaiian it sent a shitstorm through social networks shaming him for that “racist” decision. Does anyone really think Cameron Crowe is a racist? I don’t think so. I hope not. But does it illustrate how little people want to accept the continual Hollywood whitewashing of minorities? Yes. Again, Hollywood is on notice.

Crowe offered this apology on his site:
Thank you so much for all the impassioned comments regarding the casting of the wonderful Emma Stone in the part of Allison Ng. I have heard your words and your disappointment, and I offer you a heart-felt apology to all who felt this was an odd or misguided casting choice. As far back as 2007, Captain Allison Ng was written to be a super-proud ¼ Hawaiian who was frustrated that, by all outward appearances, she looked nothing like one. A half-Chinese father was meant to show the surprising mix of cultures often prevalent in Hawaii. Extremely proud of her unlikely heritage, she feels personally compelled to over-explain every chance she gets. The character was based on a real-life, red-headed local who did just that.

I actually know the writer Lisa See quite well. Her paternal great-grandfather was Chinese yet so much of what she writes about is the Chinese experience both in China and here in the US. She has red hair and doesn’t look Asian. So for me it wouldn’t be hard to swallow Emma Stone as a character named Allison Ng. On the other hand, I do understand the continual complaints of Hollywood’s choice to always cast a white person in place of any character of color and this would have been an opportunity to actually hire an Asian actor.

Add to that the ongoing depiction of Hawaii on film with stories about only white characters. Sure, that ensures they make more money but it also ensures a shitstorm of controversy. So it just depends on what they want to do with the many opportunities to have it both ways — cast a bunch of white actors, make money, while also paying closer attention to the ways they obliterate or erase minorities in film overall, and suffer the inevitable backlash. My two cents.

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Wouldn’t it be nice if genius came with operating instructions, protective care, and safety would be guaranteed. All too often, though, genius roars into the world with too many forces of opposition working to derail it. In the best of circumstances, it finds its way out one way or another. Such was the case with the very talented Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys when his father noticed how well he could play instruments as a small child. This abusive, controlling and task-master of a father would guide Wilson, for better or worse, towards success. Without that, there are many different ways he might have drifted but with his father’s rigid direction, Wilson, his two other brothers, Mike Love and Al Jardine became one of the major forces of pop music in the mid 1960s and 1970s.

Brian Wilson famously struggled to maintain sanity with voices echoing through his head as a young man. He suffered numerous nervous breakdowns, battled with drugs and eventually ended up in the hands of another controlling, abusive force, Dr. Gene Landy. Though Wilson was eventually wrestled from the grips of Landy, that relationship is where the new movie about Wilson begins.

In Love & Mercy, Brian Wilson is played with tender loving care by two actors, John Cusack and Paul Dano, both of whom have done their research on Wilson, in every possible way, delivering an authentic, moving portrayal of the idol who once was and the man he would later became. That gives the film, directed by Bill Pohlad and written by Oren Moverman and Michael Lerner, the chance to show us Wilson’s gifted musical evolution as a young man and member of the Beach Boys, then fast forwarding through his life to someone trapped behind his crippling mental illness and the immovable force that was Gene Landy.

NY Times photo of Cusack and Wilson
NY Times photo of Cusack and Wilson

Pohlad’s flourishes elevate the film from conventional biopic to an impressionist’s version of Wilson’s life. The three years Wilson spent in bed in his bathrobe are turned into a montage of memory, sound, fears, flashes of who Wilson was at certain points of his life, as often is the case when we are left with nothing but solitude and the oppressive companionship of our never-ending demons.

The film plays with sound in clever ways. Since Wilson’s world was built not just on sound but on sound loss, being specific in that department was key to portraying this subjective telling of his life. In one great and disturbing sequence, the young Wilson (Dano) is unable to listen to anyone speaking over the clang clang clanging of glasses, forks and knives on plates until it consumes him. His obsession with sound would lead him towards brilliant musical compositions we all know and love, but also towards voices in his head and other things he couldn’t unhear.

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Atticus Ross composed the score, sans Trent Reznor, and it’s pure ambience – discordant at times, moody and horrifying at other times. This works beautifully in contrast to those catchy Beach Boys sounds we all associate with Brian Wilson. It’s another great work by Ross.

Watching the young Wilson create his original music, as played by Dano in yet another brilliant incarnation, is so much the thrill of Love & Mercy. Playing piano strings with bobby pins, or hearing a dog bark. It will heighten one’s appreciation of what the Beach Boys were doing once you drill down past the fun-in-the-sun surface layer. Have a listen to Brian Wilson magnificent track from Pet Sounds, Let’s Go Away for a While, and you can clearly see what kind of genius they were dealing with. Wilson, though, was pushed towards generating hits, and generate them he did.

The bullet to the heart in this film is John Cusack’s heartbreaking, unforgettable turn as the older Wilson. Disarmingly sweet and gentle, he captures Wilson to an astonishing degree. He is Wilson once the music went away, once the rights to that music were sold by his father, in the grips of Landy, convinced that he had no mind of his own. You can see glimpses in Cusack’s performance that Wilson wants out but has no ability to do it on his own. He is simply grateful to be out of bed. What he wouldn’t do for Landy who helped him do at least that much.

It isn’t until he meets the beautiful ex-model/car salesperson Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks) that Wilson finds someone who will help him escape his own life. In real life there were other people involved in helping Wilson detach from Landy but this film is a deliberate love story because it is love that eventually saves Wilson’s life.

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As Melinda Ledbetter, Banks has never been better. She is a formidable match for Cusack, delivering a career-best performance. So much of the work Banks is doing is internal. What she’s thinking, how she responds to Cusack says so much more than the lines she’s given to deliver, which are minimal, to make way for those powerful wordless reactions.

Finally, Paul Giamatti is appropriately menacing as Landy. There’s nothing funny at all about his monstrous performance, a nice variation in his growing canon of character work. Though the film belongs to Cusack/Dano and Banks, Giamatti is necessary to show where Wilson came from and where he is now.

Driving home from the screening I blasted The Beach Boys at full volume. I defy anyone to listen to Don’t Worry Baby, Good Vibrations, Wouldn’t it Be Nice and Don’t Worry Baby and not smile. For a man so consumed with sadness the music of The Beach Boys was a happiness factory — helping the rest of us indulge in the light and color of a simple summer afternoon. Those songs were strands of my hair that tasted like salt water falling into my mouth. They were sunburned shoulders and suntan lotion. They were bikini tans, beach towels laid out on the sand. They were towheaded surfers strolling by with their wet suits hung past their waists. They were summer. They were freedom. They were pure joy and still are.

Nonetheless, there was much more to Wilson, more that he wanted to do musically that was sacrificed in the name of the top 40 hit. His second act would give him that chance. He couldn’t have gotten there without love — those who looked out for him, found him when he was lost, and gave him what he needed all along. Mercy because Wilson doesn’t feel full of blame, even for those who committed unforgivable crimes against him. The film is a tribute to Wilson and Ledbetter’s love story, an explanation of Wilson’s triumph over mental illness, and a chance for the entire Academy theater to rise to their feet in enthusiastic appreciation of this great, great artist. Wilson, it was said, had tears in his eyes during this ovation. That he was surprised by it is what defines this humble man, ripped wide open by genius and sewn back together with love and mercy.

Undated yearbook photo of Hae Min Lee, which  Justin George copied from one of Hae's former teachers at Woodlawn High School.

Sarah Koenig today updated fans of the wildly popular, game-changing podcast series Serial with an update on the new shows, yet another award they won and the recent news about the case against Adnan Syed. Syed was the subject of the podcast and is currently serving a life sentence, 15 years in, for the murder of his ex-girlfriend, 17 year-old Hae Min Lee.

While there have been plenty of websites salivating over the recent update on Syed’s case, including Huffington Post, The Frisky, and a few others, there is still a glaring flaw in the story that began with Serial and continues with the media covering the story.

What was never covered? That this was a domestic violence case. Violence against women is and has always been off the charts, particularly in relationships. Usually there is prior abuse but in this case there wasn’t any. Or was there? Serial left out almost every single piece of evidence that pointed to Syed as someone who was possessive, controlling and unable to let go of Hae Min Lee. Koenig left it out probably because she didn’t want to incite a mob but it’s something the media has never covered. They treat this case like your standard wrongful conviction case, like The Thin Blue Line or the Memphis Three. In fact, the case against Syed is strong. The evidence overwhelming. Why isn’t anyone in the media talking about this?

When the website The Intercept covered the story from a different angle, two of its reporters Natasha VC and Ken Silverstein found that the state indeed had a strong case. They interviewed the prosecutor, Kevin Urick, and the state’s witness, the one upon whom everyone freely lays blame, Jay Wilds.  Once it was known that Glenn Greenwald’s site was defending the state and not the victim, Adnan Syed, the two were put through turmoil and resigned.  That’s how badly the media wants this to be — NEEDS THIS TO BE — a wrongful conviction case.  The thing is, okay, if that’s so, show me.  So far, no one – not the lawyers on Undisclosed (the self-appointed defense team’s biased podcast that is working to sway public opinion and rip apart the case), not Koenig’s Serial. After all of this time, Asia McClain is what they’re going with.  That and Adnan Syed never being given the chance to appeal his case.

You have to do some digging on your own because you won’t find it listening to Serial (unless you listen multiple times and carefully). You have to read the trial transcripts and pore over the interviews. You have to look logically at what happened that day, where the cell phone pinged (butt dial my ass) and who lied about what. Further complicating matters is that there are many missing pages from the transcripts that many have been trying to obtain to fill the gaps. These have yet to be released and there is some speculation that they are being deliberately withheld to mitigate potential damage until the courts work through this latest appeal.  Maybe there is nothing on the missing pages. Maybe there is something. With this case, the more you read the more damning the case against Adnan Syed becomes. Most people don’t know this.  The journalists writing their updates stories on or about the case certainly don’t know this.

What is unforgivable both in Serial’s coverage of the story and in the recent coverage by the media is to overlook what likely caused Lee’s death and many women and girls just like her.

Here is what Serial just put up on their website about the Syed update:

Adnan appealed the circuit court’s decision to the Maryland Court of Special Appeals, and was due to have a hearing next month. But last week, the Court of Special Appeals essentially paused the case, saying that Adnan can ask the circuit court to re-open his post-conviction proceeding so he can present a new statement from Asia. In January of this year, after Serial finished airing, Asia reiterated in an affidavit that she’d seen Adnan at the public library on the day Hae Min Lee went missing in 1999. And she also stated that Kevin Urick, a prosecutor, had discouraged her from testifying at Adnan’s post-conviction hearing. “Urick convinced me into believing that I should not participate in any ongoing proceedings,” Asia says in the affidavit.

Once again, Serial talks about Asia McClain without bringing up the contradictory evidence that she says, on Serial, “I would not have remembered if not for the snow.” She then adds “It was the first snow of the year.” Well, it didn’t snow on January 13th. There was an ice storm in the early morning hours of the 14th but no one would have noticed it on the 13th, certainly not waiting in the library.  The first snow of the year and also a day school was closed was the week before, January 8th.

Serial did not check the weather before recording episode 1 and only updated their website to report on the weather. Even they conclude it probably wasn’t the 13th, yet no mention of that here on Koenig’s update which seems to suggest that Serial is responsible for the swaying of public opinion and/or pressure on the courts to allow McClain’s testimony to be examined.

Even more problematic for McClain as a witness, though, and the prosecutors have made this abundantly clear in their response to the recent inclusion of McClain, her testimony was conditional. She made it clear numerous times that she would only testify in Adnan’s favor if she knew for a fact he was not guilty. She offered her “help.” Yeah, no. The truth doesn’t work that way. You were there, you weren’t. You saw him, you didn’t.”  She was such an unreliable witness, Syed’s defense attorney would have been a rookie to put her on the stand. The prosecution would have eviscerated her.

And finally, McClain might have even seen Syed in the library – that doesn’t exonerate him from having murdered Hae Min Lee. They don’t want to find something to exonerate him. They don’t need to. They merely have to show that he did not get a fair trail and hopefully get him out of jail.

Whether he gets out of jail or not is not my concern, personally. I do care about the truth and I do care about the murder of a promising, intelligent young 17 year-old.  And I do think Serial and every piece of mainstream media coverage that has come after it has ignored what very likely happened to Hae Min Lee and continues to happen to women all over the world every minute of the day.

Here are the pieces of the story Serial left out, inexplicably, and what everyone else is leaving out – completely ignoring the dynamics that might have led up to the murder.

In order to find proper coverage of the relationship I had to dig down deep in the main Serial Reddit sub to find a post that lays out things pretty clearly – a statement by “Debbie”–

Adnan was very over protective of Hae. He never made her sustain from seeing her friends but he did suggest she spent more time with him. He wanted to know where she was going, when she was going, who was she with, almost like he was her father.

From Hae’s Diary:

The second thing is the possessiveness. Independence (indiscernible). I’m a very independent person. I rarely rely on my parents. Although I love him, it’s not like I need him. I know I’ll be just fine without him, and I need some time for myself and (indiscernible) other than him. How dare he get mad at me for planning to hang with Aisha?

Serial leaves out “possessiveness” when covering this. Koenig writes it off by saying Hae then says “he brought carrot cake!” In every instance where she could have told Hae’s story a little better she deflects any possible suggestion that he was a controlling, possessive kid who could not handle his girlfriend dumping him for an older man.

Serial also leaves out that Hae once hid from Adnan and had a teacher lie for her when he showed up looking for her. She was due to work with the teacher but opted out, trying to avoid Adnan.  The teacher, by the way, is never mentioned on Serial at all, nor is any of her testimony.

Even with all of that deflection, though, Serial cannot exonerate Adnan Syed.  Everything they checked checks out. They flail around at the end with Nisha call, finding some tiny print that YES, maybe it could be a butt dial for over two minutes.  That is just one improbability.   To find Syed not guilty you have to accept the least probable situation all the way down the line.  No one has yet calculated the percentages on that but I’m guessing they would be up there with getting struck by lightning.

As a fan of Serial I am so amazed and appreciative that Sarah Koenig kicked ass as she did. As a mother, a woman and a feminist I’m heartbroken that they could leave out something so important as Adnan’s behavior leading up to the murder.  While it started out telling Adnan Syed’s story it never adequately told Hae Min Lee’s. They tried but never got there. They owed it to Lee’s family to bring up the issue of domestic violent homicide – to even use those two words together on the podcast. They never did.

These are important words to “leave in” considering the prosecution thought of this as a “domestic violence case” but how many listeners of Serial got that? How many reporters writing their update stories the case even bother including that? Adnan is treated as the victim again and again.

Because public opinion is shaped by the media, and the media wants this to be a wrongful conviction case, this story will keep rolling along until the public gets what it wants. Adnan Syed’s verdict will be overturned, he’ll go free. Sarah Koenig and Serial will take partial credit. Rabia Chaudry and her Undisclosed podcast will take the rest of it. Fan letters will pour in from all over the world. Syed will be on every network news programs – morning, noon and night. This is the direction the story wants to go in.

It doesn’t want to go in the direction of the even bigger tragedy.  Probably the most thorough read on this has been covered by only one person, as far as I can tell, and that is Ann Brocklehurst who wrote “Serial podcast rehabilitated a schoolgirl’s murderer, so where’s the feminist outrage?” Read it.

Where is the feminist outrage? Completely missing in action.

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Check it out — taking action via social media, Ava DuVernay’s AFFRM will host a 12-hour long Twitter takeover “with over 40 black feature filmmakers to raise awareness for AFFRM’s mission called Array Releasing. AFFRM + ARRAY’s amplifies varied voice and visions in film and is currently in the middle of a member drive at www.arrayaction.com.”

Filmmakers from far and wide are standing with AFFRM + ARRAY from hot festival favorites like Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station) and Rick Famiyuwa (Dope) to studio stalwarts like Tyler Perry (For Colored Girls), Gina Prince-Bythewood (Beyond The Lights) and Malcolm Lee (The Best Man) to filmmaking legends like Euzhan Palcy (A Dry White Season), Haile Gerima (Sankofa) and Julie Dash (Daughters of Dust). This 12-hour Twitter takeover will be hosted by AFFRM founder and SELMA director Ava DuVernay. Each filmmaker will take questions from fans on Twitter to shed light on their talent of filmmakers of color and the need for diversity in cinema.

If you’d like to participate, use hashtag #ARRAY.

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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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When the high heel controversy hit Cannes, my first thought was unless you’ve been here it’s impossible to know how steeped in tradition it is. There’s that iconic image of a beautiful woman on the red carpet at Cannes. She ain’t wearing flats, my friends, I can tell you that. She’s wearing high heels. Men in tuxes, women in glamor and heels. The mistake isn’t that they want women to dress up — it’s that they turn others away for choosing not to. There is a tradition to it. You might argue that the tradition needs to die but then we all have to stop salivating over the beautiful women and their beautiful clothes on the red carpet. If it doesn’t matter.

Either way, Cannes, like a lot of European cities, preserves its past in its food, in its architecture. Cannes is not a progressive city as far as I can tell. The shops change on Rue d’Antibes, maybe the technology changes but change is slow. This is a city with doors and walls and structures from the medieval period still intact. They have rules and you are expected to follow them. For example, after doing some souvenir shopping this morning I went to the Palais hoping to get my shuttle voucher. I’d come down with a cold in the middle of the night and barely slept. I took that as a sign that my Cannes experience was mostly done and done. When I got to the press office they told me that I’d have to wait until 3pm to pick up my ticket. That was that. There is no sense in arguing because you won’t win. They don’t care if you are a whiny entitled American or not.

We kind of do what we want in the US. That’s the great thing about life in America and maybe the terrible thing about it. We’re free and we like to conspicuously demonstrate that freedom in so much as our society is built on consumerism. As consumers we have the ultimate power. We have laws that must be followed (most of the time) and we wait in line and drive according to the rules of the road but if something doesn’t make sense to us we tend to scream and yell about it until it gets changed. Our individualism is our barbaric yawp. This has blown up in our faces with the climate crisis, factory farming, pollution — we’re monsters globally, giant consuming, discarding walking horror shows. Having stricter rules would mean to many that we were bowing to socialism but just between you and me if you want to save the world you’re going to have to tame stubborn American individualism. Good luck with that.

This entitlement thing Americans have is probably really annoying to people in other countries who must deal with us. I’m sure once a European lives in the US long enough and gets a taste of that entitlement? They’re probably kind of excited about it. It feels good to have your temper tantrums attended to. It sucks to feel ignored. C’est la vrai.

Meanwhile, my Airbnb host had informed me that I would have to leave my place clean or else face a 30 euro charge for cleaning. I spent much of the day cleaning the flat, vacuuming up bread crumbs, wiping down the water spots in the bathroom, shining up the stovetop, dumping my coffee filters, throwing out my uneaten food from the tiny fridge, and stuffing all of the souvenirs I bought into one of my suitcases. This could potentially lead to a disaster of epic proportions as one of the wine bottles might crack, or something might pop open and spill out, ruining all of my clothes. I hoped that I packed things neatly and securely. With my luck, skill and history, though, chances are that something terrible will happen somewhere along the line.

My trip to Cannes this year has been different from last year. It’s not just the films that seemed different. One thing that will never change, though, is there never being enough time to see everything, never enough time to write. Half of your trip is beating back jet lag. When that goes away you suddenly realize how much more you still have to do.

There were some rumblings about about how this season at Cannes wasn’t as good as it’s been in years past. I wondered if people have that impression because so many the stories were so much about women. Is there a fundamental truth now that women’s stories have become irrelevant? Not as important? Can it never be “hard core” unless there is some singular male in crisis?

But then I remembered how Blue is the Warmest Color shook up the festival last year. A powerful moving drama that honestly didn’t even need the sex scenes to be erotic or highly charged. I don’t know the answer except to say that I didn’t think this year’s selections were any worse or better than previous years. I don’t have the one year I hold up against all others and say, that was the best one. Okay so maybe there wasn’t a moment like seeing All is Lost for the first time, or Tree of Life — or other unimaginably brilliant films playing to a packed house awash in total silence and awe (and then maybe boos).

I was thoroughly dazzled by Carol, though I wish it had been screened in the big theater and not one of the smaller ones. Youth was a life-changer for me, one of the most important movies I’ve ever seen about art and life and aging. Inside Out and Mad Max: Fury Road rocked the house. Mad Max received rounds of applause after each action scene. That was a thrill to see.

All the same, I did feel a distinct sense of melancholy. I don’t know what I would have done without seeing some friendly faces like Patrick Heidmann, Pete Howell, Jeff Wells, Anne Thompson, Erik Kohn. Mostly, though, as usual I liked taking pictures of the place and especially of its dogs. I realized that my morning “commute” has much to do with how I experience Cannes. When I stayed above the train station I would walk through the tunnel every morning. It would tell me so much about the place — a sleeping family of homeless Gypsies, a discarded bottle of Dom Perignon. This year’s walk is around the corner, down to the dock and straight through the tourists to the Palais. I mostly see visitors to Cannes, not residents. I wonder what it would feel like to wake up in the Hotel Splendid or Hotel du Cap. If a car drove me into Cannes how would I see the city?

As time wears on it speeds up. It seemed like the blink of an eye coming this year after closing out last year. After all this time I haven’t come to the big reason I bother with this expensive festival every year. I’ve taken all of the pictures, eaten every type of food available, shopped, driven, stayed in various parts of it. I don’t know if returning to a place year after year is the right call for anyone, least of all someone who has reached what hopefully is the half-way point in life. But something pulls me back every year. As much as film critics annoy me in general I find them inspiring in how they attack difficult movies and how they stay up late for midnight shows and how they kill themselves to see everything.

I’m finishing this in the Nice Airport, one of my favorite places on earth because birds fly through it. I don’t know where they come from but over the din of conversation and announcements I can hear their chirping. I’ve finished a foamy cup of coffee and have a long flight ahead. I know that I’ve always got so much to say but end up saying very little of it. A young German girl is laughing so loudly I’ve had to put on headphones. Bob Dylan’s Most of the Time starts playing. It reminds me how I think of Cannes after I leave:

She ain’t even in my mind
I wouldn’t know her if I saw her
She’s that far behind
Most of the time
I can’t even be sure
If she was ever with me
Or if I was with her
Most of the time

…Most of the time. By this time next year I’m sure I will be in this same place, writing similar words, so happy to be getting on a plane heading home to see my daughter who will be turning 17 on Monday. Nothing is better than hitting the ground at LAX after being gone so long — that big, ugly city of dying dreams is home to me and always will be.

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There are so many people here better at the film festival than I am. They see the right movies. They get in line at the right time. They have the right take on Twitter. They write up a review that is balanced and cautious. I stumble in at the last minute, sunglasses affixed to the top of my head, badge flying from around my neck, my body finding new places to sweat and blister, camera hoisted over my shoulder. I get in line too late. I always have to check my camera, which adds a few more minutes to the seating free-for-all. Inevitably I sit next to someone who is going to bother me for the next hour and a half. They talk. They snooze. They check their watches and cell phones. They sometimes leave early. This is true whether you’re upstairs or downstairs, yellow, blue, pink or white. You can’t really do anything about it. It’s a mixing of cultural norms here. You just have to roll with it. It always makes me realize how hermetically sealed my own life has become, how I just mostly avoid crowds anywhere, anytime I can.

My morning begins early. I wake up around 5 or 6am. I boil water in my tea kettle. I pour it through a filter I brought with a heaping mound of Starbucks French Roast (I know, the horror, the horror). I sometimes eat some baguette from the day before dipped in jam. If I eat scrambled eggs I won’t be hungry until dinner time. I sit down and work and by work I mean surf Reddit and Twitter. I write what I have to write before hitting the shower. My shower is an odd contraption that has a mind of its own. It took me a few tries to get it down but once the water starts to spray out of it the nozzle becomes a wild serpent, twisting and writhing in the shower, spraying water everywhere. I’ve tamed it by now, though. I no longer spray water on everything else in the bathroom when I take a shower.

I often have abstract thoughts about a plugged-in blow dryer, a medusa showerhead and this mortal coil. I’m at the half-point in life now so anything could take me, from pure chance to organ failure. Now there’s two words no one really likes to hear. A good friend of mine wrote to tell me that his father had gone into severe cardiac arrest and was put in the hospital. It was a tough time for him and somehow my goofy time schedule worked out so that I could make cyber contact at least.

My usual morning walk has me leaving around 8am for the fifteen minute trek to the Palais. This morning it was sprinkling a little. Then it felt like it was going to rain. I knew I had an umbrella back at the flat. The question was whether it would continue to rain or stop. I decided to double back to retrieve the umbrella, figuring it wouldn’t matter if I delayed my route by ten minutes. I hurried back upstairs and grabbed it. By the time I left it had stopped raining.

A day or so ago it was around 90 degrees, beach weather. I live a few steps from the beach where all of the locals were out frolicking in the waves. I thought about finding anything that would pass as a bathing suit and going for a swim. I knew it was one of those once in a lifetime things, what with possible electrocution by blow dryer awaiting me. I J. Alfred Prufrocked through the moment, wondering how nice it would be to feel the Mediterranean on my feet, or to submerge fully, seeing my own apartment from the water. I didn’t do it. I wish I had. Now the weather has turned and there will be no more beach days. The moment passes. It’s there for the taking or it’s there for the regretting.

I make my way down Rue du St. Georges Clemenceau, down a staircase that leads to the dock. I follow the dock all the way down to the Palais, dodging all manner of people who are never in the same kind of hurry and tend to just stand there until you dart around them and keep moving. I usually get there with a few minutes to spare. Once inside, the familiar sound of jazz, lots of people talking and the refrain, “Mesdames et Messieurs – ladies and gentlemen, please take your seats. The screening is about to begin. Please do not use your mobile telephones during the performance.” I could be paraphrasing. I’ve only heard it at every screening for six years now.

Once the morning screening is over, a person who is good at the festival heads to the wi-fi room or their own hotel to write up the review. But instead I wade into the shopping area, finding myself continually drawn to the little shops that sell pretty things. The Farmer’s Market calls out my name and before long I am loaded with shopping bags headed up the hill into the Suquet and back down the hill towards my flat. Once inside, I unpack the goodies. Blackberries, strawberry jam, fleur de sel, souvenirs for back home.

A young woman in one of the bakeries has been making fun of me. Once I asked if the little orange cakes had been baked aujourd’hui? She laughed and said in a thick French accent, “no, they were baked four weeks ago and we’re only selling them now.” Of course it would be funny to a French person that they might sell something older than one day. But not to an American, baby. We rarely get same day freshness for anything, let alone bread and cakes.

I struggled through a conversation with a woman selling nougat and finally she just said “you speak English?” And I said, “yes.” “All right, let’s just speak English. I speak Spanish.” It’s funny that Europeans almost always know at least two languages but sometimes more than that. Most Americans, it goes without saying, do not. But at least I could say “muchas gracias.”

I usually can manage two screenings a day, 8:30am and 7pm. That gives me plenty of time in the middle to do other things, like sleep. Sometimes it’s a three movie day if there is an 11am showing of something. Today’s big event is the John Lasseter Pixar presentation. To attend the presentation I was to walk down to the Carlton hotel and pick up my ticket. Here in Cannes you are confronted with the very very rich and the very very poor. You might see someone illegally begging with a drugged up cat and dog lying on a blanket on the same block as the Carlton, where they have fresh flowers as statues in the foyer. Somehow movie studios have convinced them to allow garish ads to decorate their exterior. Beauty matters up to a point where money trumps it. Money trumps everything everywhere.

I have decided that it’s a bucket list thing to stay at the Hotel du Cap, where all of the famous people and oil-rich Middle-Easterners stay. It’s around 1k euro a night on the off-season. It’s where you see the celebrities swimming while here. It sits on the nose of a land mass, enveloped by the sea around it. It is every Gatsby’s dream of the good life.

Last night I caught Shan he gu ren (Mountains May Depart) a gentle film about three decades in a Chinese family’s life, specifically a young woman who goes from carefree teenager to divorced mother who loses custody of her son. The film then flashes forward to 2025, where she’s left back in a small town in China while her son has mostly abandoned his Chinese heritage. After the film, one of the best to screen here, I saw Manohla Dargis, Scott Foundas and Todd McCarthy all sitting together, aka all of what remains of film criticism anymore. Then I saw Anne Thompson in the lobby, her face still recovering from tears. I gave her a really awkward mommy hug right there in the lobby. She probably thought it was silly but you can’t really turn off the mommy impulse even if you tried. I wondered what it was about the movie that brought her to tears. The ending was bittersweet, which I won’t spoil here. That I didn’t cry made me wonder if I was broken inside. If so, the blowdryer might as well take me.

On my way back home I saw a booth selling crêpes. I hadn’t had one since Paris in 2009. My daughter and I had four days in Paris, which remains one of the greatest times of my life. I remember the orange syrup oozing down my wrist. I stared too long at this booth wondering if I should eat a crepe. Dare I eat one? I was J. Alfred Prufrocking the way I had with swimming in the ocean. Everything was wrong about eating a crepe at 9pm but I walked over there anyway and I ordered one for 4 Euros. It was so like tasting a cloud flavored with sugar cane. If our lives are about living them without regret, I was winning half the time.

My friend said his father had mostly stabilized. That was good news. The online world was churning with conflict. Too many controversies that would evaporate within minutes. A bunch of rednecks with guns shot each other in Texas. The internet outraged because no one called them thugs. Shut it off, I thought. Just shut it off.

My morning would begin anew once I closed my eyes. Two days left to close out another year. Our lives move in one direction. We have moments that pass, even if we preserve them in a photograph or with words. They become sweet memories of where we were once. There isn’t any better way to pay tribute to time other than to live through it. We are all part of things living and dying. The only thing we know for sure is that sooner or later time runs out.

So somewhere in the abstract I am swimming in the sea here, my body weightless, my eyes watching the sky for so much of this and every other thing that almost was.

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Panic set in once I realized I was going to miss the Mad Men finale while in Cannes. Complaining about that, though, is like going to the moon and complaining about having no reading material. You have no problems. You’re in France. By the Mediterranean. About to have champagne in the same room as Cate Blanchett. None of that matters to an entitled American. I was in the Mad Men groove. I could not abide being online for one second knowing everyone else had seen the final episode but me. I didn’t want to see the cute memes or hear the revelatory tweets. I didn’t want to see the think-piece headlines and the social justice complaints. I didn’t want to deal with anyone who was let down by something so grand. The whole final episode could have been Don sitting on the toilet for a solid hour saying nothing and it still would have been one of the best shows on television.

This was weighing on my mind from the moment I departed LA. I kept saying stupid things to myself like it didn’t matter. I had to shut up about it already. No one else seemed to be in a panic. Someone wrote an article somewhere that said something like “why do we care if TV shows end?” Maybe it’s less about the show ending and more about being part of something that is happening for a lot of people while you are on the other side of the world caught in a time zone that doesn’t allow US television to be shown anywhere. Nobody wants piracy yet we live in tangle of international economic restrictions that sometimes demands it. You do the math.

I’ll come back to this. Meanwhile, on the Côte d’Azure…

Saturday was Carol Day here at the festival — my quiet trade-off for missing Mad Men. I would get to see the new Todd Haynes movie. Are you kidding me? Not only that but Haynes himself would be in attendance, along with Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara and cinematographer Ed Lachman, not to mention screenwriter Phyllis Nagy and producer Christine Vachon. To ensure I got a seat close to the screen I stood in line a full hour and a half early, yes, even for a pink badger.

The temperatures in Cannes this year have been unusually warm. Many days in the high 80s, beach days even. Weather here can be unpredictable so one always has to bring a variety of clothes. The day of the Carol premiere was sandals and loose fitting clothes type of weather. Those of us standing there early in line were being pelted by the blazing sun. A woman in front of me, 60ish, from Hungary, turned to me and said she didn’t bother putting on makeup and even took her sunglasses off to show me. I thought, she looks just like me.

She was talking about the festival and how she’d only seen one or two movies so far, Nataline Portman’s among them. That was unusual, I thought, she must not be press. Turns out she is press but she’s Hollywood Foreign Press, otherwise known as the HFPA, otherwise known as the Golden Globes. She’d already been ushered around and been given very exclusive treatment by publicists to ensure she got pointed in the right Oscar direction. We were chatting about nothing all that significant, maybe how elegant Natalie Portman was, when Vulture’s Kyle Buchanan joined us in line. His spot had been saved by Vanity Fair’s Richard Lawson, whom I’d never met. As soon as the HFPA figured out they were legit print press she dropped me like a hot potato and began talking to them about parties and asking them for their business cards.

“If you need anything, let me know,” she said. She runs a television show that is broadcast in Hungary. Kyle put a hand on my shoulder and started talking to me. I found this to be an extremely kind gesture and it made him my hero for the day. It isn’t that it has to be all about me, it’s just that this woman suddenly acted as though I wasn’t there, which was strange. It was my fault though for just telling her “I run my own website.” I should have made myself sound more important. The truth was I wanted to grill her for inside info without her knowing who I was because you get more candid dish that way. She said she thought Best Actress was going to come down to Blanchett for Carol (sight unseen) and Jennifer Lawrence for Joy. She’s probably right but who knows. Both have recently won Best Actress so I’m going to bet no on that one. She talked about how wonderful Blanchett is, how elegant, what a great actress she is. Kyle Buchanan said that he thought she was a great external actress where so many others today were more internal, more subtle, but Blanchett is fully expressive in a way others are not.

The HFPA woman said something like “she should have won for Elizabeth but do you know who won instead? And look where she is today.” Buchanan stuck up for Gwyneth Paltrow by saying “She’s doing just fine.” That shut down the conversation pretty quickly.

Jeff Wells saved me a seat up near the front though I’d gotten there so early it was no problem. The film fully lived up to expectations, with audience members shouting “Bravo” after it was over. The formal premiere later that night would end with a 15 to 20 minute standing ovation. The trick will be to keep a tight reign on the excitement about Carol until the end of the year. If the hype is too strong too soon it will kill it. At the press conference Todd Haynes was his usual kind and generous self. Blanchett held court, making the room bursts into laughter and applause on occasion. She cleared up the silly ripple that she had inadvertently helped create in the press. An incomplete remark that led some people to believe she’d been involved in several sexual relationships with women. Carol took nearly 15 years to get made and should break open an important dialogue about living an honest life. That was what Phyllis Nagy later told me at the after party. Live honestly, even if not loudly.

The Carol party was a way for those who attended the premiere to spend some time with the filmmakers and stars. Ed Lachman was there. Sandy Powell was there. Todd Haynes, Blanchett and Mara were all there. Harvey Weinstein and Peggy Siegel were there. I spent the night talking with and drinking with Patrick Heidmann and Steve Pond. At one point I told Pete Hammond I was going to follow him around with a camera but after a couple of drinks that concept collapsed. At one point Anne Thompson joined our conversation and the talk turned to Oscars. She has a lot of confidence in Mad Max: Fury Road, more than any other mainstream film so far this year. We debated whether or not Academy members were going to go for Carol. But it’s too soon to talk about that here. Way too soon.

Patrick, Anne and I finally made it out around midnight. Cannes was still wildly alive with diners and party-goers. We dropped Anne off at her hotel, then Patrick, and I was the last back to my room.

The following day would be Mad Men Day. I knew that over the next 24 hours everyone who wanted to see the finale, nearly everywhere around globe, would find a way to do so. Since I knew of no good options I tried not to think about it. I saw a couple of films, bought some strawberries and headed back to my flat for a long nap. After asking people on Twitter whether it would be possible to see it anywhere online, Ryan Adams came through once again. If all went according to plan, I would be able to see it by the next morning, just after it aired in the states (already Monday morning in France, still Sunday evening in the USA). A text from my daughter woke me up at 5am. She’d gotten locked out of iTunes using the incorrect password. I fixed that for her. Right after that Ryan emailed to tell me that he had found a source, and Mad Men was indeed ready for me to watch.

I find I don’t give enough credit to Ryan for always being there and making sure things get online, cleaning up my shitty grammar and typos, and finding ways to do the impossible. I would have stopped coming to this festival long ago if not for his support.

I made myself a bowl of coffee, relieved that I had no hangover to speak of, and settled in for the goodbye to this beloved series like a full-fledged member of the pop culture community, someone who would be able share my thoughts on Twitter without feeling left out. I belonged!

The farewell episode of Mad Men itself was a satisfying way to conclude the stories of so many characters we’ve grown to know so much about. How strange to care about characters as if you knew them — but this show has had such an impact because it was never simply about fictional characters in the show. Each character seemed to represent someone we knew in real life, maybe a family member, maybe someone from our youth, maybe a past we never got to taste but longed for. Whatever it was, we said goodbye to it all last night.

That Matthew Weiner chose to end the show with a refrain on advertising proved he never dropped the ball. He stuck with what the show was about to the bitter end. Advertising has shaped and influenced our lives in ways we can’t even comprehend. That the peace-out “me” movement of the 1970s was turned into a coke commercial tells you all you need to know about how much of our lives and ourselves are for sale. Most people walk around with some kind of advertisement emblazoned on them, not to mention seeing ads everywhere. Mad Men was about so many things but its beginning and its end was about one thing: advertising and the people who built empires on a lie that things and products will not only bring us happiness, they can fill a void where natural happiness is absent.

Of course, true happiness is found, as Mad Men also emphatically demonstrated, in timeless things like fulfilling work, happy kids, great relationships. You can’t buy your way into it. We build our little lives, temporary monuments to stability, in the hope that everything will turn out okay. Though sometimes cracks appear in the foundation. While walking home from the Carol party with Patrick he was telling me that he and his husband would like to adopt a baby but that the laws of Germany don’t yet allow for that. As Blanchett said, we still live in conservative times and anyone who thinks otherwise is being foolish. Maybe the laws will change soon enough. Maybe they won’t. It’s saddening when happiness is more accessible to some than to others.

Last night I heard the gentle waves free of human bodies as I unbolted my door, walked down my dark hallways and locked myself away from the still-awake city. Another day in the can. My head hit the pillow almost immediately and I was Don Draper splayed out on the sheets. Out cold.

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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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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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An – a film about sweet red bean paste and the simplicity of happiness

Naomi Kawese’s film An, which translates to Sweet Red Bean Paste, is one of the surprises, at least for me, at the festival so far. The film examines the relationship of three unlikely people coming together over the cooking and eating and appreciating of Dorayaki. The quest for the perfect red bean paste eventually brings the chef and his elderly teacher to form a close bond, as both of them discover how they’ve been trapped for too long in places that confine them.

An begins with a man (Masatoshi Nagase) in a small cafe cooking red bean paste inside pancakes, otherwise known as Dorayaki. One day an elderly woman asks him for a job. He reluctantly accepts, thinking she is too old and too tired to do the work. She teaches him the fundamental art of cooking red bean paste and eventually his dorayaki become so legendary his cafe is making a tidy profit. That is until it is found out that the old woman Tokue (Kirin Kiki) once had leprosy.

The teacher and student relationship becomes somewhat of a maternal one, while a third person, a high schooler becomes curious about Tokue. The young girl, the old woman and the grown man discover together Tokue’s backstory, being confined and exiled at a young age, never given a chance at a real life, while her only truly happy moment was helping to cook the dorayaki. It is really that simple, that beautiful. If swaying cherry blossoms are something you could look at for many silent minutes in awed appreciation, you might be enlightened enough to take on this film.

Kiki is delightful as Tokue, someone who has every reason to be a bitter and angry person yet chooses instead to tread lightly, smile often, and give of herself whenever possible. That is how she draws two introverts to her, by seeing them as they are and teaching them who they might become.

Because the film is about being trapped inside, much of Kawese’s imagery involves the beauty of outside, even the quiet mostly unacknowledged beauty of something so simple as the wind spinning a plastic bottle or water trickling down a stream. Kiki’s light works well with Nagase’s dark. Though he has no stigma of disease separating him from society he has nonetheless shut himself off, doing nothing but cooking all day and passing out at night after drinking too much.

With Mad Max this morning and An in the evening, I was treated to two films here in Cannes that depict older women in important roles. Not just older as in 40 something, but older as in 70 something. Do they ever appear in American film except to play grandmothers? What a missed opportunity to pretend they don’t exist. Kawase’s film finds the story in this invisible woman. It is a story that matters, one that is rarely told if at all.

How great to see old age treated as what it really should be — experience and knowledge is passed down through stories. Here in America we think of old age as care facilities, Depends, Alzheimer’s and dementia. We don’t think of the value of someone who has lived so long and learned so much passing on to us what we know.

Kawase’s film depicts a world where we are surrounded by so much beauty even if we choose the cage over freedom. It’s there if you know where to look, if you know how to listen, if you’re willing to see it.

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