Reviews

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“The truth will set you free but not before it’s finished with you.” – David Foster Wallace

To really get the depth of the performance Jason Segel delivers as David Foster Wallace in James Ponsoldt’s The End of the Tour you have to watch David Foster Wallace himself. Segel has perfected Wallace’s unique dialect and subtle style of speaking but if that was all it amounted to then The End of The Tour would be nothing very special. Yet another masturbational deep dive into an enigma that can neither be understood nor explained. Indeed, if you are looking for rabbit-hole like truths to emerge from The End of the Tour you will be just as lost when the journey ends as you were before it began. The quality Segel captures that is bigger and more important than the way Wallace sounded is the expression of the type of person who sees everything, hears everything, feels everything.

The level of sensitivity Wallace possessed is the kind that is often unable to survive this hideous world. It is no wonder that depression took its toll and took his life. Depression can be the result of chemical imbalance but is also, often times, the only reasonable response to the fundamental corruption inherent in the American system. It’s not a corruption you can see and touch. It’s not actionable. It is woven into the fabric of our upbringing as Americans, the raw deal we’re sold on who we are supposed to be as defined by what we are supposed to buy. Clearly, Wallace saw it all, felt it all and had trouble eliminating it from his mind when he needed to.

Segel’s portrayal of Wallace, then, isn’t so much an explanation of who this brilliant writer was but rather, an artist’s rendering, an impressionist’s take, on what kind of person could have lived like that and wrote like that.

Jesse Eisenberg plays David Lipsky, an author and Rolling Stone journalist who is tasked with interviewing the elusive Wallace as his book tour for Infinite Jest is coming to a close. The two become kind of friends in that weird way a journalist invited to take part in intimate conversations can become your friend. You know it’s mostly all on the record, even if you beg for it not to be. You know that the story will always matter more than the friendship. Always. You know that there is a good chance you’re going to feel screwed because you can’t control the way they see you and you can’t control what their editors want them to write about you. You can’t control “the story.”

Eisenberg is playing a guy whose biggest claim to fame will be that he was that close to greatness. He’s like that young writer who followed F. Scott Fitzgerald around during his last days as a drunken Hollywood screenwriter, or anyone who had occasion to party with Hunter S. Thompson, or enjoyed a brief affair with JD Salinger. Their purpose in recording what they witness is either to help build a legend, or tear it down. The point is, they were there with the sober eyes of someone who CAN live in a world that their subject (and temporary friend) cannot.

It is always a pleasure watching Eisenberg on screen and you will be hard pressed to find two actors who play so harmoniously off of each other as he and Segel do here. Like most movies we will be studying this year as it heads towards the Oscar race, the women involved don’t really count except in the ways that they prop up or help transform the men. Still, the symbiosis of these two writers is interesting enough to hold the movie together with such equitable rapport that it never feels like a lopsided telling of the human and the artistic experience.

What Segel does best with his incarnation is to illustrate the constant affliction Wallace clearly suffered by being self-conscious and feeling like a constant outsider. This passage exemplifies how he wrote:

CHAPTER ONE

YEAR OF GLAD
I am seated in an office, surrounded by heads and bodies. My posture is consciously congruent to the shape of my hard chair. This is a cold room in University Administration, wood-walled, Remington-hung, double-windowed against the November heat, insulated from Administrative sounds by the reception area outside, at which Uncle Charles, Mr. deLint and I were lately received.

I am in here.

Three faces have resolved into place above summer-weight sportcoats and half-Windsors across a polished pine conference table shiny with the spidered light of an Arizona noon. These are three Deans – of Admissions, Academic Affairs, Athletic Affairs. I do not know which face belongs to whom.

I believe I appear neutral, maybe even pleasant, though I’ve been coached to err on the side of neutrality and not attempt what would feel to me like a pleasant expression or smile.

I have committed to crossing my legs I hope carefully, ankle on knee, hands together in the lap of my slacks. My fingers are mated into a mirrored series of what manifests, to me, as the letter X. The interview room’s other personnel include: the University’s Director of Composition, its varsity tennis coach, and Academy prorector Mr. A. deLint. C.T. is beside me; the others sit, stand and stand, respectively, at the periphery of my focus. The tennis coach jingles pocket-change. There is something vaguely digestive about the room’s odor. The high-traction sole of my complimentary Nike sneaker runs parallel to the wobbling loafer of my mother’s half-brother, here in his capacity as Headmaster, sitting in the chair to what I hope is my immediate right, also facing Deans.

The Dean at left, a lean yellowish man whose fixed smile nevertheless has the impermanent quality of something stamped into uncooperative material, is a personality-type I’ve come lately to appreciate, the type who delays need of any response from me by relating my side of the story for me, to me. Passed a packet of computer sheets by the shaggy lion of a Dean at center, he is peaking more or less to these pages, smiling down.

Segel embodies Wallace in ways interviews cannot. And therein lies the true genius of what Segel has achieved as a now serious actor. We know tragedy is comedy’s shadow. Thus, it should come as no surprise whenever so-called “comedic actors” try their hand at serious acting. There is never a false moment when you stop seeing David Foster Wallace, where you stop thinking about this gentle, talented, wildly brilliant man whose life ended too soon.

There is some talk that Segel will be in the supporting category because we all know how impossibly crowded the Best Actor field is going to be. Already I can see how these subtle, beautiful portrayals of Brian Wilson by Paul Dano and now Wallace by Jason Segel might be forgotten in the sheer number of Great Men Doing Great Things roles that will steal center stage in coming months. It doesn’t really matter of course whether either of them gets a gold statue. What matters is that people see the films an appreciate how these performances have preserved the vital contributions these men made to music and literature.

The premiere for The End of the Tour last night was low key, held at the tastefully renovated Writers Guild Theater in Beverly Hills. Afterwards there was a party on the rooftop of some swanky hotel. You could only get to the top by stuffing into a small elevator that took you there. It was packed, with partiers framing an aqua pool. The flat Los Angeles skyline surrounded us in all directions, blanketed with the twinkling lights of millions of people going somewhere, leaving somewhere, saying goodnight to someone. As much as David Foster Wallace would have felt awkward and out of place there, he likely would have appreciated that we were all there to praise Segel and his co-stars, and the film’s director for taking a tale that might have been simple and transforming it into mythology.

The End of the Tour at its essence is really just two people talking, each trying to sound smarter than the other, a journalist pretending to have an actual relationship with someone he’s supposed to be writing about, a self-conscious writer pretending to have an actual conversation and trying to resist hitting his internal panic button about how he’ll come off. They both are named David. They both are writers. One destined to be remembered for his genius and the other destined to be remembered for his brief brush with that genius. The dreadful irony always comes back to the simple fact that those who can write like a dream can rarely live a normal, happy reality. Those who live normal, happy lives can never write like that. It’s a truth worth setting free, but not until it’s finished with you.

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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.

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There is always that one movie in Cannes. It’s the “child molester movie” or the “father daughter incest movie” or the “Middle=aged women buying favors from impoverished sex workers .” Now we have the “brother and sister incest fairy tale.” That’s really sums it up pretty well, only bookend it with a young woman telling that story to a room full of intently focused children in an orphanage.

Good, now that we’ve got that part out of the way we can talk about the movie itself. Author Jean Gruault wrote a screenplay for Francois Truffaut called History of Julien & Marguerite, the true story of a brother and sister who were executed for adultery and incest. Truffaut had planned to make it a sweeping epic in the 1970s.

Decades later, director Valérie Donzelli took up the project. The film will be released in France and perhaps in the US, though I suspect it will have a somewhat more difficult time stateside. It must be said that Donzelli is a already a brilliant director. If anyone says women aren’t visual and that’s why they don’t make great films, check out this movie. It is magnificent in many ways but most especially in how it looks.

The brother and sister generate palpable sexual tension and do a good job depicting intense, unbeatable, unrestrainable love. They are soulmates. Their love defies all convention. There is no point in trying to fight it nor destroy it by separating them. Death would be the only separation. Donzelli makes a few crucial choices, though, that probably doom the film for critics (in my screening there were many walk-outs and a few boos at the ending).

The first thing she does is make it a children’s story. That is problematic since when we think about fairy tales we don’t think about incest, particularly. Surely back in the times of the French aristocracy it wasn’t so rare. Anne Boleyn was accused by Henry VIII of sleeping with her brother (probably falsely). Today, of course, it’s a different matter entirely but most especially where impressionable young ears can hear.

The second thing Donzelli does is really go there with the sexual tension. There probably won’t be a more erotic film playing at this year’s Cannes film fest than this one. Probably some of the walk-outs were due to people feeling turned on by something they shouldn’t. Marguerite and Julien tease each other by sucking on toes, necks and ears. They stare longingly into one another’s eyes. They whisper “toujours” to each other. While some might find this offensive, no doubt others were intrigued.

She plays with the frame reminiscent of the way Martin Scorsese has done, with several out of joint flourishes that also could throw people off since they happen at random and not consistently. In those moments, where she allows herself and her camera to step out of the traditional filmmaking, she really shows us what she can do.

There is an especially interesting moment when the siblings are caught. She films their capture in millennial paparazzi style stills, all of their romantic illusions stripped away, made to look like deviants. She throws a helicopter in there too just to make sure you know this is a movie you’re watching and not real life. All the same, the humor is too intermittent to make it as stylized as, say, A Clockwork Orange or Trainspotting, which would have suited the material a bit better than a period romance.

Even given the film’s missteps, it’s impossible to ignore how talented Donzelli is. Her visuals are arresting, both in terms of how she captures moments on faces, and how she captures atmosphere. Here’s hoping this film makes money and that she continues working.

Anaïs Demoustier and Jérémie Elkaïm are both excellent as the doomed lovers who can’t live without each other. The cinematography by Céline Bozon is exquisite as are the costumes by Elisabeth Mehu. Other than a co-writing credit by Elkaim and co-producing credit for Edouard Weil this film is written, directed, produced and filmed by women.

Marguerite & Julien hints at what this director is capable of creating. While this outing didn’t soar she’s worth keeping an eye on. It reminded me of the latest film to show here by Maiwenn, Mon Roi. Both films are about relationships. Both films showcase talented directors whose films were enjoyable and entertaining even if not perfect.

At a festival where the majority of the best films have been centered on women, where women are competing for the Palme d’or, times, at least here in Cannes, could be changing. Here’s hoping.

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Pixar has taken a whole heap of crap for only casting males as their protagonists. The rat, the fish, the robot, the toy and its owner — all boys. The female characters that surrounded them were all richly drawn and memorable, like Eve and Dorrie, to name two but never had a film to call their own. Brave was the only film released by Pixar to feature a female lead but there were annoying complaints coming from the Pixar fans that it wasn’t up to the level of their other works. With the latest from Pixar star director Pete Docter (Up, Monsters, Inc.) Pixar has both created one of their very best films and one with a female lead.

The glorious and imaginative Inside Out takes a basic concept of a young girl’s emotional development at birth and opens up a whole universe inside her head. There’s “joy” and “sadness,” “fear,” “disgust” and “anger.” They fight each other for control over the girl’s emotional well being with joy fighting the hardest to win out over the other emotions. This is a kid who is generally happy so her “joy” is a dominant character.

Amy Poehler is the voice starring as Joy, which makes her always funny and sometimes irritating, deliberately. She’s full of life and smarts and eventually learns that it can’t always be all joy all the time, that other emotions play a part in shaping who we become. Watching the young girl grow up and lose much of her memories and happiness, and even the things she used to love like sparkly rainbow unicorns is bittersweet, to be sure. This is, in a way, a reboot of Toy Story from a girl’s perspective because it involves a whole bunch of little creatures focused on the happiness of one child. But a person’s inner emotional life is boundless in what kinds of corners are available — like the subconscious (scary), or the imagination (surreal).

As we watch our young ones grow and discard all that made them children, we watch a different person emerge in adolescence. That is, in the end, what Inside Out is about. But it’s also about the magic and daring of Pixar, a company that encourages originality and bursts of creativity like this. They make it work somehow by creating whole worlds we’ve never seen and making us believe they exist. You might find yourself checking your own sadness and joy after viewing the film. I know I did.

Despite seeming like a silly romp aimed at younger kids, as it moves along Inside Out becomes deeper, darker and more moving. Ultimately it made most of the audience members around me cry. It’s a film that can soften the surliest of hearts. When it hits, it hits hard.

The animation is astounding, as expected, and the inside jokes aimed at adults whip by. They save one of their best moments for the credit roll but I won’t spoil those here because they’re meant to be surprises.

It has been mostly depressing to watch those movies that were planned so long ago by the uber gods at Pixar revolve only around male characters. That helped to set up a model that would be hard to shake. In some respects it was then in Pixar’s hand to help switch that. While audiences are still conditioned to warm up more to a male character than a female one, things are changing in that respect. Frozen became a phenom because it was such a good movie. It didn’t matter in the end that its leads were female.

The same can be said for Inside Out. It, like Mad Max: Fury Road in one fell swoop erases the impetus to tell stories where only men are important.

See, now, that wasn’t so hard, was it? All they really had to do is take a script they would have written for a boy character and flip the gender. She’s still a hockey player, for instance, traditionally a “boy sport.” They don’t rejigger her emotional life to make her more subservient or irrational. There isn’t any marker to identify her as a girl except that she’s a girl. This is where feminism wants to go, incidentally. We don’t want to take over the world we just want to know we exist and that we matter, as people.

Inside Out is funny and full of life. Growing up is hard. Watching young ones grow up even harder. Too many animated films romanticize childhood without acknowledging that bumpy roads make us more interesting. This film helps us to remember how oddly complex and unique from one another we are because of the way we build our memories. For an animated film it slyly goes deep. It will melt your heart and make you laugh. It will surely be one of the year’s best.

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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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Yorgos Lanthimos launched his career with Dogtooth, a strangely disturbing film about the fears of raising children. Now the writer/director turns his attention to human relationships in a futuristic satire called The Lobster. Why is it called The Lobster? Because Langthimos and his co-writer, fthymis Filippou, smoked a whole bunch of weed one day and thought, what animal would I be if I could be any animal? Oh, I know, a lobster because they live for 100 years and they swim in the ocean and can maintain their fertility their entire lives. Yeah, except for the part where poor lobsters are caught in traps, boiled alive and then their flesh sucked off their poor sad bright red carcasses. Thus presents the dilemma of modern love, modern life and human existence. We think we’re the happy kind of lobster but in reality, we’re part of the machine.

I don’t know if Langthimos got baked to write The Lobster but it does seem like the stoned ramblings of someone brainstorming about an imaginary world where people must form couples or else be turned into animals. At a hotel in the mountains men and women don similar clothing, are forbidden from masturbating, and must try to find something in someone else that they themselves have. One woman gets nosebleeds so her mate must also get nosebleeds. The worst of these is a “heartless woman” who literally has no emotions and does a thing in the film that almost made me walk out. I stuck with it, though, until the bitter end and was glad I did as the film becomes something worthwhile in its final third.

This isn’t what you’ll hear from the majority of film critics, however. They are complaining about the last third of the film, preferring the icky surreality of the first part. But I don’t know if style is enough to overcome what is pretty much a one-note joke. Despite the cast of very fine actors, including Colin Farrell, John C. Reilly, Olivia Colman, Ben Wishaw, Rachel Weisz, and Lea Seydoux, the film’s satirical metaphors only take you so far. It is not until near the end where the film’s meaning begins to emerge. That meaning, as it turns out, is true love finding its way out.

The first half of film takes place at a hotel for couples to bond in a certain amount of time or else be turned into animals. If they reject that competition they are exiled into the forest with the rest of the “loners.” The couples then go on shooting sprees to kill the “loners.” It turns out these two worlds aren’t all that different. In one, only controlled love is allowed. In another, no love at all, and certainly no sex. Weisz and Farrell manage to find each other somehow and the rest is, well, the rest.

Who would have thought that this odd movie would end in love but that’s where it goes. Because what it wants to say is that love can’t be controlled nor planned nor policed. It doesn’t follow logic, nor is it based on any set formulas. It crashes upon you and there isn’t much you can do about it. This film, this odd, ugly, painful film is as romantic as Romeo and Juliet though you really do have to reach into a bucket of shit to find its riches.

The Lobster is wholly original, bravely vulgar and funny. Really funny. The cruelty to animals was the part of it I could not tolerate. Violence against human adults barely registers but children or animals? Forget it. Thus, I could not recommend The Lobster to anyone who feels as I do about animals. There is one image in the film I’d preferred to have gone my entire life without seeing or knowing about. I have that right as an old person, to try to filter out things that cause me distress.

I will admit that the film’s last third sold me mainly due to the performance of Rachel Weisz. She is such a good actress that she found the vulnerability and humanity in the automaton symbol she was supposed to be playing. Weisz looked for and found the key motivator to everything she did while most of the other actors functioned as puppets with Langthimos pulling the strings, cackling all the while no doubt.

The Lobster held me in its grip by the end because we humans, and mammals overall, are driven by key primal urges — like survival. But love is so essential to our well being, even if it is just nature programming us to mate and care for our offspring to ensure their survival. Even if the lobster is caught and boiled that doesn’t mean he isn’t born in the first place. Life goes on, love can’t help but happen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Fairy tales used to be cautionary stories for children, darkly symbolic to spark a child’s imagination so they could sift important moral lessons from the myths. The lessons were simple but essential. Often that lesson boiled down to this: don’t grow up to be a terrible person or terrible things will happen to you. Modern day animated films dance around the same notion but much of the terror has been toned down. In today’s fables, heroes are rarely subjected to serious tragedy, humiliation and schadenfreude, because most parents choose to withhold those harsh realities from kids when they’re young. Our American brand of happiness is less Grimm and more happily ever after. The boy has to get the girl. The bad guys have to get caught. Life has to be idealized so maximum happiness is achieved. But the deepest, most disturbing storytelling never lets us off so easily.

Matteo Garrone is known for telling real world morality tales, as he did with Gommorah, a naked depiction of who and what the modern mafia have become.  Exposing the way a predatory brotherhood of dangerous men recruit neighborhood youth. It’s surprising that his latest film, which screened tonight at the Cannes Film Festival, has him delving into sheer fantasy. That Garrone dedicates the film to his own two children is even more surprising; just try to find any American parents brave enough to show this movie to their kids. Tale of Tales is easily a hard R by American standards and yet it depicts, ridicules, and celebrates the good, the bad and the ugly of human nature in ways the Brothers Grimm would find familiar.

Adapted by Garrone and three other screenwriters, the film is loosed based on The Tale of Tales or Entertainment for Little Ones, written by Giambattista Basile at the dawn of the 17th century soon after the devastating Renaissance Wars had ended. Garrone’s adaptation takes a bit of time to hit its rhythm, switching back and forth between stories in a kingdom of forest witches, black magic, giant fleas, ogres, and kings and queens.  We aren’t eased into the absurd here — we’re plunged right in and expected to keep up.   

That the film is in English, not Garrone’s native language, is all the more surprising as the humor here is so subtle many in attendance seemed to wonder if they should laugh at certain scenes that were clearly meant to be funny. Because the tone shifts from funny to sad to tragic to violent — it won’t be an easy film to pin down, particularly for US distributors who can’t aim the film at kids and might have trouble defining its ideal niche for adult ticket buyers.

Salma Hayek plays a controlling queen who is so eager to become a mother she must follow the bizarre ritual of finding a virgin to eat the heart of a lizard before her baby can magically appear. Vince Cassel plays a debaucherous king who can have any woman in the kingdom yet still seeks out the only one he’s never seen.    Hayek and Cassel are joined by Toby Jones, John C. Reilly and the actress who mostly steals the movie, Bebe Cave, as the princess waiting for Prince Charming.  Like all the characters in the film she will either be brought down by her desires or else triumph unexpectedly.

We’ve become conditioned to a kind of standard paradigm for storytelling, especially where children’s movies are concerned, but this film has no interest in following such a paradigm. It freely goes where it wants to, resulting in a kind of amalgam of Ken Russell and old school Disney. The moral of these stories may be unsatisfying to some because they deliberately refuse to give the characters what they want — instead, they get what they need.

Tales of Tales is a reminder that a captivating story can hold us in thrall much longer than any kind of visual effect, no matter  how masterful.  The themes are broad and archetypical, with women’s fear of aging, men’s fear of them aging, falling in love versus arranged marriages of royals, a mother’s possessiveness of her son. All the while the film displays lavish dreamscapes as breathtaking in their scope as they are alive with phantasmagorical imagery. Compared to the kind of expert tech displayed in American film, the effects, costumes and cinematography of Tale of Tales aren’t on the level of a Lord of the Rings or a live-action Disney film. This doesn’t detract from the movie, though some may be expecting visuals on that order.

Mostly Garrone seems to be having a lot of fun with this exploration, this building of fantasies and nightmares. He indulges in displays of nude female bodies, depicts graphic sex scenes, and never shies away from the violence and hardcore brutality that made him famous.  Though the film take place in a fairy tale world, it feels more truthful about the human experience than any film aimed at children released in America in the past thirty years, with the possible exception of Guillermo Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth.  That’s probably because it isn’t a film whose sole aim is children.

Fairy tales did not originate as the soothing comfort blankets to kids that they’ve become today. Even the early Disney movies were full of darkness, so much so that many adults can remember being traumatized by them. The therapy generation gave rise to helicopter parents as panic set in about the best way to guide our kids — what if we screw them up? Little by little, movies began to cater to the idealized lives we’ve invented for children, devoid of warnings where bad guys roll up in cars and try to lure you with a puppy, where things you eat could kill you in your sleep. We’re so full of fear and paranoia at all times about protecting our children that we’ve opted for this newly minted fairy tale reality where every problem is solved in the end and the loser almost always wins the day.

Tale of Tales turns those expectations inside out and trips the light fantastic with astonishing poise.  It’s breathtaking to witness Garrone take such an unforeseen leap.  Ideally, the best directors don’t get trapped by the type of films that made them famous, but rather have the stuff to roll the dice and try something new. It helps if you’re making movies anywhere but in the USA, where there is no way this film would have ever gotten the green light as is.

With the same trust in its audience that made the first fairy tales so compelling 400 years ago, The Tale of Tales is a film for those who still believe in the power of the viewers imagination, who haven’t surrendered their curiosity to safe rides on narrow tracks that work out the puzzles for you.  It is a film about opening hidden doors and climbing upside down staircases, about the dread and the exhilaration of losing control whenever we try to manage fate.  Most of all it is a reminder that the fairy tale, above all other things, still retains its gutsy power to shock, dazzle, teach and entertain.

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American cinema has tackled rock & roll in numerous ways over the years. Just look at the deluge of biopics that have been made in the last few decades: Ray Charles, Johnny Cash, James Brown, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis, The Doors, Ike & Tina and of course this summer’s the highly anticipated N.W.A biopic have all been given the hollywood treatment. To say that not even half of these movies were artistically successful portrayals of these legends is a downright disappointing. If you made a list of the best rock & roll movies, nearly half of it would be non-fiction films. This is why it is a cause for celebration to have a Brian Wilson biopic coming out on June 5th that is actually pretty tremendous.

I’m an avid Beach Boys fan. “Pet Sounds” is like my bible. Every song in that album could have only been created by a brilliant mind with ears that could hear sounds no other ear could. Brian Wilson is that man – an artist so consumed by his creativity and genius that it ended up haunting him forever. Not many artists were victims of their own creative brilliance, but Brian Wilson was. Consumed by the urgency to one up The Beatles and their revolutionary record “Rubber Soul”, Wilson set out to make something better, and he did, but it came with a cost. The Beatles countered back with “Revolver”. Wilson tried to counter with the brilliant and, as of then unreleased, SMILE, but that was the downfall.

In Bill Pohlad’s “Love and Mercy” two brilliant actors get to play Wilson in two different eras. Paul Dano is the “Pet Sounds”-era artist who had no idea what kind of masterpiece he was about to create. John Cusack is the aftermath, almost two decades later, highly medicated, taken advantage of by his manager and haunted by the sounds and voices that created “Pet Sounds”. Both actors are great and veteran film producer Pohlad (“The Tree of Life”, “12 Years a Slave”, “Brokeback Mountain”, “Into the Wild”) directs his first movie since 1990’s underseen “Old Explorers”. It’s an immeasurable feat for him as he tries the unthinkable – getting us inside Brian Wilson’s head.

The film has its bumps along the road, but the sheer ecstasy of watching Wilson record “Pet Sounds” in a studio with his bandmates is contagious and priceless. Yes, this is fiction, but Dano embodies Wilson so much in his performance that you actually do forget you are watching a movie. It really isn’t much of a surprise to know the 30 year-old actor of “Little Miss Sunshine”, “There Will Be Blood” and “12 Years a Slave” gives us another memorable performance. His depiction of Wilson is that of a wide-eyed kid being slowly stripped of his innocence by his obsessive creativity.

Pohlad wisely shifts the two time periods back and forth, and as good as Cusack is as the drugged up, lethargic Wilson of the 80’s – and boy is he fantastic in this movie – it’s Dano you want to see the most. His absence is clearly felt whenever not on screen, as is the freewheelin’ nature of the recording sessions. Cusack is as great as he’s always been in his career, never hitting a false note, showing an almost emotionless, tranquilized expression every frame, but keeping the pain Wilson felt in the eyes. It’s not easy playing a man who suffered through major depressions, schizophrenia and countless drug relapses.

This was clearly a labor of love for Pohlad and I do expect the reviews to be glowing for his wonderful film. I also fear that Dano’s memorable performance might be forgotten come awards time given the smale-scale, intimate nature of the film. It’s a delicate, sweet, but harrowing love letter to the art of creating. Who better as a subject than Brian Wilson? Dano is slowly becoming one of the great actors of his generation, all his work being done under the radar and without much buzz tied to his name. Throughout his career he’s refused to go down the hollywood route and has instead opted for a more adventurous set of roles. Will this movie be his big breakthrough? Quite possibly.

Watching Pohland try to recreate an iconic moment in music history got me thinking about some of the great Rock and Roll movies, both fiction and non-fiction. The translation from record player to screen has not always been smooth, and as much as I admired “Walk The Line” or “Ray”, I always felt like the narratives of those films didn’t capture the essence and boldness of the music created by the artists they depicted on celluloid. On the other hand, I truly enjoyed “Love and Mercy” because it never ran on conventional ground and didn’t go down the predictable biopic route, instead opting to provoke the viewer with a much bolder narrative, much akin to last year’s underrated James Brown biopic “Get On Up”.

What constitutes a great rock movie? There haven’t been a ton of great ones over the years. As I mentioned earlier in this write-up, the translation from record player to screen hasn’t always been smooth. Too many filmmakers have been caught delving into a formulaic narrative in telling their stories, choosing to have the music do the talking and forgetting about the filmmaking itself. Brainstorming through hundreds of titles I came up with five that truly broke the mold and rewrote the rules of the game. These are the iconic moments where film and music blended together and became one on screen. It is no surprise that most of the filmmakers on this list already had an incredible knowledge of music history before even making their movies (Demme, Scorsese, Crowe) and their movies really just speak for themselves. As Nigel from “This Is Spinal Tap” famously said “these go to eleven”.

1) The Last Waltz, 1978
Leave it to Martin Scorsese to make the greatest rock movie of all-time. “The Last Waltz’s” bittersweet tone is elevated by Scorsese’s effortless and simple direction as his camera swoops through great music being played by legendary artists onstage. Prime among them is The Band, performing their final concert together, in an altogether emotionally astounding performance. This isn’t just a concert documentary, it’s more than that. Its themes broaden as the story goes along, showing us the bond and friendship these guys built in their very short time together. Scorsese is no slouch to music docs; he’s the man responsible for great documentaries on Bob Dylan (“No Direction Home”) and The Rolling Stones (“Shine a Light”).

2) Stop Making Sense, 1984
You don’t have to love the Talking Heads to get swept into Jonathan Demme’s incredibly shot movie. Demme is no stranger to directing movies about musicians; he’s collaborated a number of times with greats such as Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen, but here is where it magically all fell into place. Never have you seen a concert like this before and never will you ever see one like it again. Demme’s camera takes advantage of the Talking Heads’ eccentricities and gives you a surreal experience.

3) Almost Famous, 2000
Cameron Crowe’s practically autobiographical film about his time as a teenager writing for Rolling Stone Magazine is an incredibly infectious experience. William Miller is given the task to follow fictional band “Stillwater” on tour, and of course what happens next is the epitome of sex, drugs and rock and roll, but Crowe directs every frame and writes every word straight from his heart and that’s what separates this from his other movies – it’s the most personal one he’s made.

4) A Hard Day’s Night, 1964
Definitely the most influential movie on my list, Richard Lester’s iconic fictional and non-fictional mashup of The Beatles on the road is a really fun movie to watch; to this day it has the same vibrant urgency it had more than 50 years ago. It not only revolutionized what we know now as the “music video” but it also influenced the language of cinema, the way a camera can be handled, and the way images can be edited and cut. Oh and one more thing, the music is not that bad either.

5) This is Spinal Tap, 1984
Rob Reiner and Christopher Guest exploited almost every possible rock and roll cliche in the book and turned it into one of the most quotable movies ever. Making fun of the “Hair Metal” movement at the time, this mockumentary is the essential/iconic title of the genre. No other movie was this gut-bustingly funny in the 1980’s. The vocabulary it created is iconic and the characters unforgettably infectious. You also learned a lot watching this movie, like how there are amps that can actually be turned up to eleven or how dozens of people spontaneously combust each year but don’t get reported.

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Clint Eastwood’s best war film is Letters from Iwo Jima. Its partner film, Flags of our Fathers is also very good though more sentimental, less precise, and less revered. American Sniper is far more like the latter, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have brilliance to it. It just means that it’s not the sweeping statement of war, or even the Iraq war, that people might be thinking it is. In fact, like Flags of our Fathers, American Sniper is a tribute to a fallen war vet, a sincere memorial to a brave soldier’s legacy.

The movie I had in my head, which doesn’t count for a hill of beans, was a statement against the war after this sniper killed a record number of men, women and yes, children in Iraq so that when he came home he was a hollow man. That Chris Kyle was then famously “accidentally shot” at a shooting range is a big part of his story, a profound irony for the military’s greatest sniper, yet for this film it is merely a footnote.

Eastwood was not interested in making Kyle’s death the biggest part of his story and was clearly devoted to the notion that the vet ought to be remembered for his heroic and traumatic service at war time. The story about the gun, the subsequent shootout with cops as they pursued Kyle’s killer opens a debate about gun violence in the US, a futile, pointless death juxtaposed against the 160 Iraqis Kyle killed. That’s an interesting dynamic but it is not part of American Sniper.

Instead, this film is about the difficulties fighting that endless, horrific war (which continues to rage on) and Kyle’s refusal to accept that he was afflicted with PTSD, struggling with survivor guilt seemed to torment him more.

All the same, it’s difficult to know what to feel watching the film, though I suspect if you believe we fought the good fight in Iraq or that our thousands of soldiers killed over there was worth it you will find this story resonates more than if you are someone who opposes the war and believes that we had no business going in.

The film draws a parallel between 9/11 and Iraq that, from Kyle’s point of view, he was amped and ready to go when the towers were hit, never mind that they were hit by Al Qaida – his country called him to fight and he believed that’s what he was fighting for.

Thoughout the film, Kyle rages against the enemy and that rage is never undone, as it is in Kathryn Bigelow’s anti-war film, The Hurt Locker. Eastwood clearly feels that this man fought for his country and paid a high price as he tried to fit in to the life he was supposed to have back home, a happy love nest with his wife (Sienna Miller) and their two kids.

Naturally, the war scenes are the most vivid thing about the film. They are terrifying. Eastwood does not sugar coat what Kyle had to do, which included shooting children, though that was clearly the thing that troubled him most. He had to shoot any kid who aimed weapons with the intent to kill Marines. In once bravura sequence, the soldiers are caught up in a dust storm – and only then do we see any sort of commentary on this ongoing war.

Miller does her best with what she has to work with but indeed, those scenes have less impact than the war scenes because she doesn’t have much to do – Eastwood is great with women on film, always has been, and despite the clunky dialogue he gives her some nice moments.

The real standout and the reason to see this movie, however, is Bradley Cooper as Chris Kyle. Cooper disappears into the role, illustrating remarkable versatility. He packed on the pounds and nailed Kyle’s accent. In a competitive year of great male performances, Cooper’s is a standout.

But American Sniper suffers, like all films around this time of year, from inflated expectations of Oscar bloggers who called it as a strong Best Picture contender early on. That is how we end up with the movies in our heads and why sometimes that can be a detriment to the film ultimately.

It also followed Ava DuVernay’s Selma on the night it premiered at the AFI Fest, a cinematic experience that was the best anyone could hope for. American Sniper will make lots of money, particularly outside the big blue cities and deep in the red states.

We must never dismiss nor take for granted what our soldiers have done in service of our country. We train them to take the mission whether they agree with it or not. What a shame that their fates are in the hands of people who make such bad decisions with their precious lives.

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“If you lose hope, somehow you lose the vitality that keeps life moving, you lose that courage to be, that quality that helps you go on in spite of it all. And so today I still have a dream.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.

Martin Luther King, Jr. was brought to vibrant life at the AFI Film Fest in Ava DuVernay’s extraordinary new film, Selma, about the civil rights protest that ultimately led to the historic Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Too many black men killed today; too many black men killed in 1965. Spike Lee wrestled with the opposing movements of the 1960s with “militant” Malcolm X and pacifist Martin Luther King, Jr. That conflict is also present in Selma, as it would have to be in an era that almost demanded violence be answered with more violence. But King had a dream. His dream was bigger than the small minds that bound it. His dream is alive today, a wavering flame always threatened by hot air from stupid people who have way too much airtime in 2014.

That dream was a dream for equality — that all men (and women) are created equal, with the same rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness regardless of the color of their skin. Many Americans probably don’t even know about the march on Selma. Indeed, when it was announced that DuVernay was making this film few even knew why it would be called Selma and what that represented in King’s legacy. The film dramatizes those very dramatic events as they unfolded. Like now, after Hurricane Katrina and Ferguson it took live TV cameras to show Americans what the racist authorities were doing to black citizens who were engaged in peaceful protests.

The irony of watching Selma last night was that it was featured preceding Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper the same evening. (more on that in a separate piece). In Eastwood’s film, insurgents were brutally murdering Iraqis who so much as spoke with Americans. In Selma, white protestors were beaten and murdered for standing alongside black citizens during the civil rights protests of the 1960s. The militant racist whites were as much terrorists as the insurgents and yet our government, our presidents, continued to look the other way until TV cameras brought it to America’s doorsteps.

In David Oyelowo, DuVernay has found the embodiment of her inspiration. His portrayal of King is not only one of the best performances of the year, but certainly the definitive portrait of the charismatic civil rights leader. Oyelowo said in the Q&A afterwards that he knew if he was going to play King he would have to “bang out a great speech,” and indeed, he delivers them ferociously. You can’t underplay what happened when King hit the mic — he isn’t considered one of the greatest orators in history for nothing. DuVernay and Oyelowo capture the man — the husband and father who found himself struggling with internal conflict of Christian pacifism and the growing fury at the obvious injustices unfolding daily in the South.

DuVernay, working from Paul Webb’s screenplay, gives us enough information about what was going on then, what was most important — the right to register to vote, which means the right to sit on juries, which means the rights to help legislate laws to help their own communities. Attempts to preventing the black vote was a huge problem in the 1960s, and led to many protests, beatings, murders — countless deaths and ongoing intimidation. Incredibly, shamefully, it is still a problem 50 years later.

Selma is an important film but more than that, it is a great film. DuVernay directs with confidence, not trying to emulate anyone but trusting her own instincts as a visual director who really invests in character and story. She takes her time and never gives any character the short shrift.

If you’ve seen Middle of Nowhere you are already familiar with how DuVernay directs — she captures electrifying expressions on faces, puts the camera in places you don’t expect. When King speaks her camera is not aimed downward from up on high the way Orson Welles filmed Charles Foster Kane – rather, King is shot eye level as a way of demystifying the historic icon to bring him down to earth. DuVernay’s sensuality is evident in the ways she films men, but also in how her characters are not robbed of their sexuality, the way so many are in today’s films. This is not a sanitized look at King’s life – DuVernay was after authenticity and she surely gets it.

Indeed, the house was alive with good cheer when DuVernay’s film screened. A standing ovation, prolonged applause and even fan cheers for DuVernay afterwards was a good sign that this was no ordinary director screening any ordinary film. This was an historic moment and everyone knew it, particularly since all we’ve been seeing an Oscar season brimming over with stories about white men doing important or unimportant things. Not only is Selma full of women but here is a woman who has made a film that does not shy away from the feminine in her directing and surprise, surprise, it never lapses into fantasy or imaginary fairy dust. It is a great story brilliantly told by a director who is just starting to hit her stride.

If you look at who King was, how he was brought up and who he became, and contrast that with the piece of shit who took his life you will see the irony of how Americans viewed black men back then and how they viewed white men. One was clearly a “wrong one” and a right one who couldn’t have been more white is the kind of story that haunts our American history again and again. King’s bravery in the face of death threats are addressed in Selma, as is his infidelity and internal conflicts with other civil rights leaders at the time. DuVernay was not interested in whitewashing his story or making him better than he was. His life needs no embellishment.

The right to vote, the right to be viewed as equal in cities where black citizens held the majority, was what Martin Luther King, Jr. fought for before his life was taken at the age of 39. We are woefully now without our Martin Luther Kings as the age of apathy has drowned us in our own excess. But Selma shows us a different time, when there was still hope for change, a belief that black children could grow up in a country that judged them “on their content of character and not the color of their skin.” That was King’s dream.

The right-wing propaganda machine that is Fox News, and even some of my liberal brethren are engaged in a long, slow high-tech lynching of our first black president, who has been obstructed, intimidated and treated with unforgivable disrespect, it is clear that King’s dream still requires a long hard fight, even if intolerant white supremacists in the deep south are a dying breed.

King in Selma is a player who leads the nation to a much bigger victory – voters rights. America has much to atone for, even today, with voter turnout a pathetic 36% in mid-term elections, the lowest since we were at war in WWII. Watching Selma might start to knock some cold hard sense into Americans that our democracy requires that we vote. Insidious powerful forces conspire to prevent us from doing just that – from apathy (“who cares, it doesn’t matter”) to illegal suppression, oppression and subversion.

The battle to uphold the Voting Rights Act continues to play out today. John Roberts’ Supreme Court recently undermined key provisions to immediate and devastating effect. Voter suppression continues unabated. Black citizens continue to be robbed of the right to have any power even when they are the majority of citizenry, as we’ve just seen play out in Ferguson, Missouri.

As a director, DuVernay has worked more intimately in the independent world. Middle of Nowhere won the Best Director prize at Sundance yet no amount of advocacy could earn DuVernay a screenplay nomination. But the publicity around Middle of Nowhere was enough to boost DuVernay’s profile — she’s now an Academy member. That was one of the reasons she was approached by Plan B to make Selma, a film on a much bigger scale than she had been accustomed or allowed.

Early word about test screenings on the internet was mixed. Someone on Facebook incorrectly told me the following, “Selma is not good in any way.” He later wrote: “Note, though, that the film has been re-edited, re-scored, color corrected, and had additional sound work since the version I saw.” After the first trailer appeared a week ago, the prevailing winds online shifted dramatically.

With a film like Selma, perspective is everything. That’s okay – whatever brings us to the trough is worthy grounds for debate. Still, trying to sell some viewers on a film like Selma is futile. It’s not wrong to say that some people have the disadvantage of being born into privilege. The film industry often revolves around and caters to their tastes. Perhaps they never felt the strong arm of oppression. They’ve never had a woman clutch her purse when they enter an elevator at the same time. They’ve never had to live down a legacy of being bought and sold like property. And they’ve never been unilaterally prevented from voting or registering to vote. They just choose not to. So forgive me if I mostly disregard the opinions of people like that.

The Oscar race is a silly game that purportedly honors the ‘highest achievements in film” but when critics and bloggers watch a film for consideration these days they are watching it with a quibbling eye, looking for any “flaws,” looking to be wowed out of their cynicism. That kind of criticism forgets that movies are made for audiences. Not critics. Not Oscar voters. That dismissive midset has led to bland Oscar watching that says no more than it says yes. Vanilla product inevitably emerges in the wake of it.

DuVernay is smart enough to know that she is coming up against the sort of groupthink that prefers, quite frankly, the white male narrative. As a one-woman film movement, DuVernay has started her own production company that promotes black filmmakers but she is also committed to bringing black audiences to the art house. DDuring the AFI Fest — and, frankly, every festival or screening I’ve been to in the Oscar race so far — white-centric viewership has been unified and dismally dominant. How refreshing to sit in the Egyptian amid so many black audience members. At the end, it was no surprise that the poker-faced mostly white media sat there while the rest leaped to their feet to cheer the film they had just seen.

I know what’s coming next. I hope I’m wrong. It’s a dirty game. The stakes are too low for anyone to care much but there’s a reason our political leaders today are so bland. When you become too critical of the little things you lose sight of the big things. Selma is a big thing for film in 2014. Maybe the biggest, or close to it. It is now up to film critics to establish its rightful place in the Oscar race. And if critics won’t, I bet Oscar voters will.

Every so often I’m so deeply moved by the courage some people have to tell stories when all odds are against them. You see, women do matter. We matter in life, in art, in film. When doors are opened to us, we walk through those doors with style, strength and grace. That DuVernay’s film was such a success at last night’s premiere turned me into a soggy mess and I’m not ashamed to admit it. I am woman therefore I cry. I am so proud to be alive to witness this moment of hers, alive to see a black woman auteur succeed — and I know I’m not the only one.

I have three favorite films this year. I’ve written plenty about my admiration for Boyhood and Gone Girl. Selma now joins them, one of the best films I’ve ever seen period, and one of the best film about civil rights ever made. You can’t watch Selma and not think about 2014. The drumbeat of change could once again be upon us. We have the tools because we have the vote. What we need are more leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. to help light the way. We lost Dr. King far too soon but his spirit is with us forever, as long as we have filmmakers like Ava DuVernay to bring him back to eternal, shimmering, unwavering life.

A Most Violent Year2

One thing that threads throughout JC Chandor’s work, with three films under his belt now, is that he devotes his time to organic filmmaking, the way movies used to be made and sometimes still are in the independent world. He has somehow bypassed the tsunami of showmanship or style over storytelling and takes his cues not from Tarantino and Cronenberg and Lynch but rather from Lumet and Cimino and Pakula. A Most Violent Year feels straight out of the time during which it takes place, the early 80s, and that makes it a bit of a salve for weary film critics who remember the days when movies were really movies and not the endless exploration into the boundaries of visual effects.

Visual effects are cool and all, but there’s something to be said for the need for storytelling – it is a vital human requirement, in fact, so that we can shape our past, present and future without always giving way to fantasy. Some of us go to the movies to be carried away to a different place but some of us go for somber reflection on who we are, what we’ve been through and what we fight for.

A Most Violent Year is about a man holding his business together when it is being threatened by competing thieves. Honestly, it isn’t the most exciting plot – but it isn’t so much the plot that matters. It’s the way Chandor slowly unravels the story, much the way he did in Margin Call, building scene upon scene until it all finally comes together at the end without giving any satisfyingly easy answers.

It is moody, quiet and contemplative, sometimes just letting the sound of breathing fill the frame. There’s a deep sadness to it, as though the main characters really don’t have much to hold onto at all because what they’re holding onto is slipping through their fingers. If Wolf of Wall Street was a story about success, A Most Violent Year is a story about success seeping out of its container. It doesn’t quite become a story of failure but these are not winners here. These are survivors doing what they have to do.

Naturally stealing the show is Jessica Chastain who indeed competes against herself, and frontrunner Patricia Arquette, for Best Supporting Actress. She’s ferocious in A Most Violent Year and that ferociousness becomes a bit of a problem for the film. One yearns to have the story be more about her – but once again, she is supporting. She’s great and no male writer out there is going to point this out because we’ve become accustomed and comfortable with great supporting turns by Chastain but isn’t it time she demanded and commanded more screen time? I think it is. But I’m not the one making movies and making decisions about those movies.

That doesn’t detract necessarily from the film overall, and no one reading this now is even going to notice because Chastain makes the most of her screen time. She is an actress who always makes a decision about where she is in a given scene, who she is and what her objective is. She is far more accomplished and talented than the younger women in the business for whom whole films are built around because they bring in the box office. Chastain isn’t quite there – she isn’t that tweener box office draw or the “it” girl. But she’ll be where Meryl Streep is one day. She will bring people to the movies just to see her in a film.

The versatile and talented Oscar Isaac holds the movie down with his singular performance. It is the polar opposite of his Llewyn Davis – you might not even recognize him as the same actor if you didn’t already know. The supporting cast are fine as well, including Albert Brooks in an understated cameo.

Chandor is such an unpredictable artist – when given the opportunity to write and direct he always takes us somewhere new and he does with deliberation and thoughtfulness. I always feel as though I’m in good hands with him because I know he knows where he’s headed. A Most Violent Year is, as all critics are deeming it, a “slow burn.” It falls in line, in that regard, with Foxcatcher, which is another slow burn of a film. Foxcatcher, though, leaves you with a chill at the end. A Most Violent Year leaves you with melancholy, the same kind of melancholy we’re all feeling a bit as our middle class collapses around us.

I think it’s too early to declare A Most Violent Year’s Oscar prospects, though I expect it will be among the best reviewed films of the year. I think Original Screenplay, Supporting Actress are most assured. Best Actor would be too except for Oscar Isaac is entering the most competitive category at the Oscars – which makes it a tough road.

Depending on what directors think, Chandor could be looking at a Best Director nod as well. We’ll have to wait and see how the film settles with critics awards and early precursors. For now, it goes on the list.

75-2

“So if you meet me
Have some courtesy
Have some sympathy, and some taste
Use all your well-learned politesse
Or I’ll lay your soul to waste” – The Rolling Stones

(slight spoiler warning)

When the economy began to collapse in 2008, a lot of Americans at last began to realize who was really running this country. That debacle left a lot of unfinished business in the trajectory of middle-class Americans on their way to fulfilling the promise of the lives they’d just barely started. Where at one time a young couple living in New York City with hopes of becoming famous writers felt confidence about the future, now they’ve left the city, moved to the country where there isn’t much to do but become clichés of the middle class, living out the failed dreams of their parents.

This was not going to be the fate of Amazing Amy – that type A bombshell women envied and men worshipped. Not the same Amazing Amy from the children’s books that set the bar for perfection parents in the post-Oprah, post-therapy, post-boomer generation strived for. Amazing Amy was a success in school and in life. Amy Dunne lived somewhere in her shadow, an asterisked footnote of the perfect child her parents really wanted. Self-esteem, that’s what counts in modern American child rearing. Only too much self-esteem can build monsters.

In a career making turn, Rosamund Pike is Amy Dunne in David Fincher’s new film, Gone Girl, Like last year’s Wolf of Wall Street, Gone Girl chokes on the American dream. That dream is usually afforded only to men. We don’t think about what women want out of it, do we. Women are bred to want to be rescued by a handsome prince, and then live happily ever after. Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck in a pitch perfect performance) arrives just time to rescue poor Amy from under the shadow of Amazing Amy. And aren’t they so happy together. Perfect man, perfect wife. Perfect life.

But as these things go, perfection has no place in the dirty job that is reality. Who can survive the pressure of perfection? What child raised today with parents hovering, with self-esteem injections hourly, sometimes medication to be perfect in every way.

Fincher introduced the notion of the double life in Fight Club, then manifested that outward illusion with The Social Network, which changed the way we presented ourselves to the world.

Fincher’s Gone Girl takes up where his Social Network left off. Both films are a meditation on getting those things we believe we’re all entitled to, by any means necessary. With Mark Zuckerberg that gold ring was success and a circle of friends. With Amy Dunne, it’s the perfect life she feels is owed to her. The Big Lie promises women that they will never be cheated on, that their husband will love them with unfaltering devotion and want to fuck them every night for the next 50 years. They want their husband to listen to their problems, appreciate their talents, admire their fashion sense, crave their cooking, and pose for happy photos they can post on social networks. It almost doesn’t even matter who that guy is, which is how Nick almost inadvertently fits into the picture. He’s Joe Anybody – a pretty dumbass Amy can plug in to her pretty little puzzle. The last essential piece.

The power of projection and manipulation of image is the new normal. One need look no further than how Kim Kardashian spent hours organizing the floral arrangement for the Instagram photo of her marriage to Kanye West, which broke the Instagram record for :most-liked.” Does anyone even care anymore if any of it was real? It doesn’t matter. Give the people what they want. Gone Girl eviscerates this disgusting new dimension of American culture.

We women live under the cloak of inadequacy every day of our lives. We eat that shit for breakfast (low carb please), and stuff our faces with it during daylight hours as we dutifully count our calories, contort ourselves in yoga class, shave our pussies, wax our legs, pluck our eyebrows, wear sunscreen, stuff our swollen feet into high heels and then vomit it all up before we go to bed at night. Some of us are driven to the brink of insanity, but none of us can ever really talk about it because to merely confess that it’s a struggle is to admit we’ve failed at being what society expects us to be.

And everywhere we look there are always prettier, younger girls. A monster is born in Gone Girl, a monster built from the cries of frustration from a hundreds million women. And that monster is prowling the quiet countryside operating from a handmade rulebook, a catalogue of justifications and entitlements, the end result of ranking high self-esteem as the utmost character trait.

Gone Girl continues a recurring theme in Fincher’s work that explores dual worlds: the world the characters show us and the one the director shows us. He gives us two versions of the truth. It’s our choice, in the end, which one to believe. His team of collaborators is right there with him on the same page, as always. This time around, the score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross echoes the duality of the film’s central theme, alternating between swoony romantic mood music and a disturbing thrum of psychosis. Once again Reznor and Ross create sounds so distinct from the industry norm, it’s almost a different language. Fincher gives away much of the movie’s rhythm and mood up to Reznor/Ross, trusting the composers to avoid manipulation – in fact, their manipulation in this instance is ironic.

Fincher’s film is a time piece wound to perfection, with each scene building to the next. Even if you know where it’s going, you’re still surprised where it goes. Every shot is a breathtaking example of how talented this director is with the camera, how well he knows the language of film. What makes Fincher exceptional as a director is his camera’s eye – and his ability to know people. Not since Hitchcock has there been a director who is so good at betraying who people really are as we watch them on screen. We see Amy’s parents, staring out at the camera vacantly. We see Nick’s twin sister, hovering somewhere between love and hate — an excellent Carrie Coon slinging out zingers and acting as the film’s conscience for the audience. We see Nick’s young hot fuck, an innocent ripe peach in the wrong place at the wrong time (the beautiful Emily Ratajkowski) – a subtle way Nick helps her get dressed recalls a parent dressing a child.

All the while what you’re seeing here is a world of people who don’t really know themselves very well. If Nick is our film’s heart, we find ourselves at conflict with that – this is not really a couple any of us can understand because what brings them together is what most of us would reject when confronted with it. Only Tyler Perry – very nearly stealing the show – gives the audience some comic relief in admitting how fucked up they really are.

But the film really belongs to Amy – as this is as much about this odd character invented and made famous by Gillian Flynn — as it is another masterpiece in the Fincher canon. Pike is glorious in the twists and turns Fincher and Flynn put her through. The film, and the book, are really about Amy – the worst than American self-esteem parenting has wrought upon society. Amy’s parents are glassy eyed culture puppets. Their daughter is merely inspiration for their books and even when she goes missing, they try to help find her by setting up a website, findamazingamy.com. Even when faced with losing her her life is still churned into PR for the books.

It is here that we sympathize with the devil — a modern American girl suffocated under the mask of the SuperChild in the post therapy, post Oprah America where parents don’t punish their children nor risk shaking their self-esteem because self-esteem is what it’s all about. We’re taught that feeling good about ourselves is the key to going out there and getting what we deserve.

Amy Dunne is not just the fears and anxieties of the American male embodied in a female, she is the sum total of women’s collective female fears too — that ideal we are all taught to strive for but can never attain. We women know what is expected of us by men and by ourselves. We wake up every day knowing it.

With her “cool girl” monologue Flynn busted open the dirty secret we women have always known about what it takes to “land a man.” Sure, there are always exceptions but for every exception of the perfect happy marriage there is that “here’s my dream man” Facebook status update that makes some of us think, “Yeah right. There’s a cool girl.”

Men always say that as the defining compliment, don’t they? She’s a cool girl. Being the Cool Girl means I am a hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker, dirty jokes, and burping, who plays video games, drinks cheap beer, loves threesomes and anal sex, and jams hot dogs and hamburgers into her mouth like she’s hosting the world’s biggest culinary gang bang while somehow maintaining a size 2, because Cool Girls are above all hot. Hot and understanding. Cool Girls never get angry; they only smile in a chagrined, loving manner and let their men do whatever they want. Go ahead, shit on me, I don’t mind, I’m the Cool Girl.

Men actually think this girl exists. Maybe they’re fooled because so many women are willing to pretend to be this girl. For a long time Cool Girl offended me. I used to see men – friends, coworkers, strangers – giddy over these awful pretender women, and I’d want to sit these men down and calmly say: You are not dating a woman, you are dating a woman who has watched too many movies written by socially awkward men who’d like to believe that this kind of woman exists and might kiss them. I’d want to grab the poor guy by his lapels or messenger bag and say: The bitch doesn’t really love chili dogs that much – no one loves chili dogs that much! And the Cool Girls are even more pathetic: They’re not even pretending to be the woman they want to be, they’re pretending to be the woman a man wants them to be. Oh, and if you’re not a Cool Girl, I beg you not to believe that your man doesn’t want the Cool Girl. It may be a slightly different version – maybe he’s a vegetarian, so Cool Girl loves seitan and is great with dogs; or maybe he’s a hipster artist, so Cool Girl is a tattooed, bespectacled nerd who loves comics. There are variations to the window dressing, but believe me, he wants Cool Girl, who is basically the girl who likes every fucking thing he likes and doesn’t ever complain. (How do you know you’re not Cool Girl? Because he says things like: “I like strong women.” If he says that to you, he will at some point fuck someone else. Because “I like strong women” is code for “I hate strong women.”)

Fincher uses the Cool Girl monologue as one of the film’s most exciting moments, though it’s impossible to discuss without giving away spoilers. Suffice it to say, he knew it had to be in there and boy is it in there. For me, that scene in Gone Girl is like Alex Kitner getting attacked in Jaws – a mini masterclass in what film directing is all about. You know when you’re watching a Fincher film you are watching a master at work, a master at the top of his game.

Gone Girl is about creating the perfect illusion because maybe then there can be the happiness the American dream promises. It is also a dumb world full of dumb people who fall for dumb stories. Don’t we just want the glossy story? We don’t care if it’s true. We need our villains and another pregnant missing white woman. We need to hate those who done us wrong and elevate the victim. We avenge justice with our remote control, our Twitter, our Facebook. We rise and fall on the daily hysteria the networks are more than happy to deliver. We do this almost every day on the internet and it plays out weekly on television. Gone Girl reflects that back at us, with haunting reminders of an America that once was and a lifestyle that might have to be experienced not on Main Street but on a dot com.

Can we, in the end, have sympathy for the devil? Can we forgive ourselves if our hopes and dreams are nothing more than a shimmer off on the horizon, too far away to reach, not far enough away to unsee. And so instead we crawl towards it, arms open, eyes closed, propelled by illusion.

With the middle class collapsing all around us, with global warming and the next fatal epidemic quickly spreading, Amy and Nick Dunne survive as a relic of what used to be but can be no more. Butterflies trapped under glass, captured by a director and a writer who are unafraid to show them as they really are, for better or worse, richer or poorer. Maybe this film is about the death of marriage in America. Maybe it’s about the death of that pretty little lie. One thing it’s not about is what almost every film coming out in the next few months is about. It’s not about men.

Fincher had the right instinct for Gillian Flynn to transform her own novel into the best adaptation of the year so far. The hard-working Flynn is not afraid of stepping into unknown terrain as she sprints out of the gate. In Fincher she has found someone with balls big enough to present hard truths, even if they make us squirm in our seats. Here, their collaboration results in nothing less than the best film of 2014.

birdman-

“I could hear my heart beating. I could hear everyone’s heart. I could hear the human noise we sat there making, not one of us moving, not even when the room went dark.”
― Raymond Carver, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love

Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman will go down as one of the best films of 2014. It will be written in ink, because the people who define these things already think so. What their reviews will tell you is that it is an astonishing feat of cinematic achievement and they will be right. Their reviews will say no one has attempted anything like this since Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope, and they will be (almost) right. They will say it unpeels the many rotten layers of the crazy cultural shift we’ve witnessed since celebrity obsession and the internet merged. And they will be right.

Another conversation that is about to happen is the same conversation that will swirl around Foxcatcher, Gone Girl, Inherent Vice and Maps to the Stars (if Maps is even being released this year). The conversation will be about whether these films will be “too much” or “too dark” for the Academy and industry voters. I will circle back to this in a bit.

All of this has to do with the precise sort of analysis Birdman so cleverly skewers.
We are asked to look at our culture mirrored onscreen. For underneath all of the camera tricks, the many inside jokes, the brilliant performances, the extreme emotional outbursts, the snark, the despair, the ugly moments, the thrilling moments lies an influential short story by Raymond Carver called “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” It is Carver’s most famous short story but it is also the current that runs through this magnificent film. An alternate title might be What Do We Not Do If We’re Too Busy Talking About Love? We do all sorts of things that add up to not looking after those who need and deserve our love. The very definition of the word is different from how we talk about it.

There is a great sign in Michael Keaton’s dressing room that says something to this effect: “A thing is a thing not what is said of that thing.” Raymond Carver provides the impetus for “washed up” superhero Birdman to adapt, direct and star in the Carver short story. Carver is a well-regarded writer but Birdman has been erased. He does not exist anymore because what he was — a Birdman — has been replaced and replaced and replaced. An endless cycle of superheroes for the consumption and discarding of forever young branded audiences. It turns out it’s easy to sell a brand to human beings. Follow the model of Coke and McDonald’s? You can become a billionaire by giving people fewer choices but always exactly what they expect. You can be a billionaire by convincing people that you have what they really want rather than what they think they want.

Keaton’s character somehow misses what’s right in front of him in a mostly futile attempt to bring the essence of his art — acting — back from the dead. Watching a man driven and then destroyed by his ego, we are confronted with this notion of what it is exactly that we want from celebrities. In an era where getting an erection on stage or running through Times Square in your underwear goes viral and gives you untold power on a different level? What’s really left? What happens if you don’t want to play that game. Or live in that world. What happens if you can’t erase who you are in public to live a “normal” life in private? You’re always that guy. You’re always the guy who used to be a superhero.

Keaton’s character parallels the abusive boyfriend in Carver’s short story, another guy who has run out of options and rounds out his life to mean mostly nothing. We get the sense that he’s a man rounding down in the same way, limiting his own options, losing any kind of hope. You might find yourself wondering how anyone could be that depressed when they’re luckier than most — until you remember men like Philip Seymour Hoffman and Robin Williams face demons beyond our comprehension.

The destruction in Birdman comes from within Keaton’s character but he was also set up to fail from the outset. In another story, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings” an angel gets trapped in the yard of a farmer. He’s a wounded angel. The townspeople come to see him and they fear him. That story, like this story, isn’t really about the angel at all but rather about the people looking at him. And so it goes with Birdman.

The beauty of Iñárritu’s film is not, as it turns out, just the camera trickery, though that alone would surely be enough to make it great. It is the way tendrils from Carver’s story are woven like vines through Birdman’s life that makes this film truly worthwhile.

What does it mean to be a hero? What is it to be a superhero? What does it mean to be a father? A husband? A boyfriend? An actor? An Artist? Let’s get back to the quote: “A thing is a thing not what is said of that thing.” Birdman is loved by people who matter and that is so much bigger than being loved by people who don’t.

What do we talk about when we talk about Birdman? Many will be talking about Oscars, starting with Michael Keaton’s fully realized, emotionally bare performance which will put him squarely in the eye of the storm to win Best Actor. Edward Norton and Emma Stone will likely round out the supporting nominations. Stone, because she has never been this icy. Norton because he has rarely been this funny (“You gonna get another actor for this part? Ryan Gosling?”).

Iñárritu has knocked it out of the park, and not just with his virtuoso feat of the extended long shot. Director, Screenplay, Cinematography, Editing – you get the drift.

What do we talk about when we talk about Oscars? We talk about what “they” will think. But Birdman is, more than anything, an actors movie. It’s a shoo-in for a SAG ensemble nod, a WGA nod, a PGA nod — A Best Picture nomination is the natural culmination. It doesn’t need all of the Academy members to like it, only a portion of them.

Birdman is a risky, messy, raw, beautiful triumph. Those are just words and they pale in comparison to the thing itself.

benedict-cumberbatch-as-alan-turing-in-imitation-game

The first day of Telluride was a rough one. Most of us were doing the big three: Wild first, after the Patron’s Brunch, then taking the gondola back down, racing over to the Werner Herzog for The Imitation Game, and then zooming back across town to catch Rosewater. That was the plan. Some of us made it, some of us didn’t. The only reason I made it was with the kind help of The Wrap/Indiewire’s Chris Willman, who had a car by some miracle and shuttled a few of us across town.

In Wild, Reese Witherspoon plays a woman who is recovering from the death of her mother, and all of the ways that unbearable grief destroyed her life when she stopped participating in the world. She decides to hike the Pacific Crest Trail, a two-month odyssey that is mostly left in the “more capable” hands of men. The silence of the trail, the endurance of the journey, the miles of untouched wilderness begins to uncover what’s been buried as she finds herself more than capable, ultimately, of accomplishing this seemingly impossible goal. Laura Dern plays her mother in flashback, a domestic violence victim who ends up raising her two children on her own, eventually going back to school to try to better her life. We learn through the film what her presence meant to her daughter, how strong that love really is. This is the worst nightmare for a parent — to imagine the grief of your children in the event of your death. Well, let’s say it’s the second worst nightmare for a parent.

Witherspoon is rough around the edges, raw as you’d expect, given Jean Marc Vallee’s style. She plays a slightly unlikable, prickly character who doesn’t mince words. We spend nearly the whole movie with her so the key to this film is whether or not her journey moves you, whether it connects on some meaningful level. I think the film achieves the goal it set out to reach and it’s refreshing, frankly, to see a movie that’s about a woman that isn’t necessarily about her relationship to a man. It is a film that celebrates the importance of mothers as teachers and isn’t afraid of the emotions that brings us. I personally have a mental roadblock against movies about a woman (or a man’s) inner journey to self-discovery. But it’s hard to complain about a film about a woman these days since we don’t really have the luxury of complaining. Plenty of people who came out of the Chuck Jones loved this film, including a prominant Academy member. I expect Witherspoon to be a strong contender for a Best Actress nomination, and perhaps Laura Dern for supporting. But this, like many films you see at a festival, will depend somewhat on how the critics respond to it, or if it makes enough money to silence them.

The Imitation Game, from Norwegian film director Morten Tyldum, is another true story. Alan Turing was a mathematician, philosopher, logician, cryptanalyst, and computer scientist, educated at Cambridge and Princeton. He led the team that reverse-engineered the German’s Enigma machine and created a computational device to crack the impossibly complex codes being used by Nazi Germany during World War II. The film is an inspiring account of Turing’s genius in building a device that allowed the Allies to know which specific targets the Germans intended to strike, as well as the deplorable story of a gay man outed, convicted of “gross-indecency,” persecuted, and publicly humiliated. Just last year, on Christmas Eve, Queen Elizabeth II issued a pardon for Turing. Any more plot details would be to ruin it for you. It is an involving, touching biopic of a man who was probably autistic or certainly on the spectrum of Asperger’s. Though the film chooses not to explicitly depict Turing’s relationships with men as an adult, it does explore his same-sex attractions in boyhood. For this, we can expect push back from some in the gay community who might have hoped to see a more frank portrayal of Turing’s sexuality to drive the point home. While that aspect of Turing’s life might be interesting in a movie focusing on that angle, The Imitation Game has other things on its mind. It was a crime to be gay back then, so much so that just looking at another man could land you in prison, as it does with this character eventually.

But Turing (and this should go without saying) was more than just his sexuality. Gay characters, like women and other minorities, are often defined by their various communities as needing that to be the only thing and the most prominent thing that defines them. They must carry the burden of their communities — to right the wrongs of the past, to educate the public on the right way to think. It’s a heavy load and a lot of responsibility. What I liked about the films depiction of Turing is the way it’s mature enough to know that being gay is but one facet of a person’s life. Yes, it’s a movie about a gay genius, but his gayness is incidental to his genius. His work and his accomplishments were far more important to him that his sexuality, and those accomplishments are rightfully the movie’s true focus. The same goes for the female character — her being a woman wasn’t the only thing that defined her — in fact, her own sexual needs come second to her passion for her work.

The critics are already throwing around those irritating catch phrases — flawed and uneven — as though this film, or any film, was not a work of art but rather a new product off an assembly line, expected to adhere to an agreed upon standard. What is that standard? It is the uniform tastes of those who call themselves critics. Film criticism has changed too much, so dramatically, one has no choice but to trust oneself anymore. Sure, long reads by great writers are always going to be welcome, but this panel of jury members waiting with their thumbs up, thumbs down? Not my favorite thing about Oscar season. Let the wine breathe for a minute before you drink it down.

What I loved about The Imitation Game was the rich development of the characters, particularly the two leads — the sublime Benedict Cumberbatch as Turing, and Keira Knightley, who plays what would have been Turing’s beard, had Turing been the kind of man to live that way. But to have a male lead in a film have interest in a female character for nothing more than her mind and her friendship? Practically unheard of in 2014. There is one scene with Knightley that was like knocking down every silly stereotype women in these types of films fulfill — the nurturer, the protector, the inspiration. No, this woman is there to do good work and to uncover the part of herself capable of doing that in an environment that was not friendly to unmarried women who were brilliant in math.

Cumberbatch brings bits of Sherlock into the role here, the part of that character that also chafes against social interaction while relying on his own connection to his high intelligence. But unlike Sherlock, Turing is far more vulnerable, and thus, much more sympathetic. Heartbreaking is probably the best word. Cumberbatch anchors this film through its rough patches, though I can see the reviews coming that talk about the “flaws.” We all look for perfection heading into the Oscar race (not our jobs), and thus, we sometimes collectively crush films that deserve consideration.

Knightley seems to be enjoying a fruitful career, given that she fits nicely into so many different types. All she ever really has to do is be her pretty self and she often fulfills what’s required of her. But every so often she steps outside her comfort zone and a strength emerges. She’s often fiery, and she’s often charming – but it is rare to see her handle so many conflicting feelings at once, her big brown eyes betraying hidden fragility. But it is Cumberbatch’s show, despite the strong supporting cast. You can’t take your eyes off him. It will be counted as one of the best performances of the year. As for the rest of its Oscar placements, we will have to wait for the reviews.

Finally, Jon Stewart’s Rosewater is the third true story of this first day in Telluride. To see this film and think it not Jon Stewart-y enough is to reveal how little one knows about Jon Stewart. To say this film would be ignored if Stewart hadn’t directed it is also wrong. It will be judged more harshly because Jon Stewart directed it. He is such a dominant presence in our American culture, so beloved, so funny, so woven in to how we interpret modern political analysis — it’s hard to separate Stewart from the brilliant film he’s made. Four years in the making, Rosewater was a labor of love for Stewart, whose own participation in the imprisonment of Maziar Bahari (Gael Garcia Bernal) might have been part of the reason he wanted to make the movie.

It’s a film about oppression of voice, the eternal and ultimately futile quest to destroy the brave act of bearing witness against corrupt regimes. The more people see it, the more they will know what the fuck went on in Iran during this time, but really, it is less about Iran specifically as it is about the nature of oppression and torture. Torture is not, Stewart said in the Q&A after the film, hidden away in grimy, dark rooms. It is institutionalized, accepted, and it’s everywhere.

Stewart approaches the work as he approaches his own career, refusing to define it as any one thing — humor is woven throughout, with much of the film looking like news footage we’ve seen and ignored every day of our lives as it blares out in monotone on international news programs like CNN. We just tune it out, don’t we here in America? Another day, another bombing. Another day, another journalist murdered. This matters to Stewart, the telling of this story. It is bigger than his own need to be validated as a director. It is about as far from an ego project as you can get. And even still, his primary goal will be to get his own celebrity out of the way to tell this story. Inexplicably, he more than accomplishes that here. Rosewater (along with Imitation Game) is not only one of the best films I’ve seen this year but one I will keep telling people to see and you know, the last thing I might say about it is that it was directed by Jon Stewart. Funny, that.

Stewart has already given back so much, when you consider everything he has done and continues to do just by being funny and occasionally biting and sometimes angry. But his sincerity here is equally effective in helping us edge closer to what is really important about our lives here and what isn’t.

All three of these films are anchored by vivid, memorable performances by actors who will likely be recognized by the end of the year, their true stories somehow shapeshifted into the Oscar publicity tour, one that is never easy to reconcile with the inside-out emotion the films themselves convey. A reminder that each of these films — and all great films — deserve to be regarded in terms above and beyond their “Oscar potential.”

So this is the good part. The bad part will be waiting on the reviews.

I will be writing longer pieces on all three of these films but this was my first take…

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“He stood at the window of the empty cafe and watched the activites in the square and he said that it was good that God kept the truths of life from the young as they were starting out or else they’d have no heart to start at all.”
― Cormac McCarthy, All the Pretty Horses

In most Hollywood movies, memories of childhood are played in flashback. Younger actors are chosen to play older ones. History is viewed in hindsight, with writers and directors paying careful attention to what lasted, what people still talk about. But Richard Linklater chose to do the opposite. He filmed a story beginning at boyhood and filming the big changes in real time, over the course of a twelve-year period. You’ve heard all of this, of course, if you’ve been listening to interviews and reading reviews. You’ve heard everything — how great it is, how moving it is, and how ultimately life-affirming it is. This cannot be argued. It is unequivocal. This is a great film.

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Boyhood is a story of a boy who comes of age before our eyes, played with spectacular depth by Ellar Coltrane. He struggles through bullies and the trauma of being a sensitive artist growing up in Texas where he’s expected to be a macho football player, at the very least. He is expected to be a “man.” The kind of man he will become is the best kind. But he won’t know that, and we can’t know that either, until he grows up and finds his way.

Despite the fact that Linklater had been filming this movie for 12 years it feels as fresh as if he’d filmed it in 12 months. He never loses command of this story, one he honed carefully over a decade. This was a deliberate telling of, well, life. You might be inclined to think it’s a stunt or some useless gimmick, like why would anyone bother with all of that trouble? But it ultimately makes such a profound imprint while watching it that it achieves what most art simply cannot — it gives you back what time has taken.

In the blink of an eye you raise a child. It feels like work at first because the car alarm is going off every five minutes — they’re crying, they’re hungry, they’re tired, they’re having a tantrum, vaccines, school clothes, lunch boxes, hurt feelings, failed tests, successes! Before you know it, your squishy helpless baby is all grown up. They pull away from hugs. They think for themselves. They fall in and out of love. Good things happen to them. Bad things happen to them. The most surprising part of it all is you realize how much you like them. You like them so much you might never want them to leave. You like them so much you want to do it all over again. All of it. All of the diaper changing and bad Halloween costumes, the cavities, the tangled hair — the lectures, the time outs. Suddenly it comes flooding back as all good memories. The thing you don’t expect is that you’ll look in the mirror when it is all over and see yourself, only much older. Much, much older.

At a time when Hollywood is body-slamming up against all that visual effects can do, Boyhood comes along and shows what kind of level of difficulty there is in simply capturing life in real time. It is more dazzling, more breathtaking than any visual effect you will see this year and that includes what’s opening against it at the box office, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, which arguably shows the best visual effects ever put on screen. In the end, what Dawn seeks is the same as what Boyhood seeks — to give us realism through the imagination to do what art does best: project whole human truths.

Linklater, it must be said, depends heavily on his actors. He chooses the right people for the parts, one of his gifts as a filmmaker. Ethan Hawke is once again Linklater’s muse, doing his best work. Patricia Arquette surprises at every turn, never playing the saintly mother as is so often depicted in any Hollywood movie written by male-centric dumb people. She is someone who wants to be a whole person on her own, to educate herself, take care of her kids and do some good in the world. She is also the someone who does the hard work of parenting while the absent father gets to slip in and out, and be the “cool” parent. The mother is often stuck with the harder job, all of the things that make her children not like her as much. The fun dad gets all of the credit usually, while the unfun mother is the drag. That is, until kids become parents and then they realize. Linklater is too smart, and Arquette way too smart, to let that cliche live and breath in Boyhood. What we see here is a mother who is also a person, capable of making terrible mistakes but also of raising two really wonderful kids. Linklater’s own daughter Lorelei is plucky and vibrant as the cooler older sister, and most of the other supporting characters are also so refreshingly real. Linklater was determined to mostly cast unknowns, although sometimes a few familiar faces show up.

Linklater also infused Boyhood with a love of music, which threads itself throughout the film in various ways, from marking a time and place in history (from Coldplay to Lady Gaga), to aiding some of the characters through stages in their lives. This entire story takes place within the framework of 9/11 and the two Iraq wars. Though that plays in the background to provide context, it does mark this film in history — we are probably too close to it now to see what that will ultimately mean.

What is probably most surprising of all about Boyhood is that it doesn’t hinge on the more dramatic life events — cancer or car crashes, cutting, suicide or rape — domestic violence at the hands of terrible stepfathers is the most drama we see here. The majority of this three-hour film is filled with the things about life that break your heart the hardest: the magic, the delirious beauty in the every day.

Each of us will come at Boyhood from a different perspective. I came at it as both a mother and a child who came of age under a parade of asshole boyfriends of my hard working single mom. I came to it as a woman who did not always have the best choice of men but who decided at some point to just not parade those men into my daughter’s life after one particularly bad one. I came to it as a mom raising a child and watching her grow so fast I kept wanting to hit the pause button. Watching Ellar Coltrane grow in Boyhood I felt the same way. Each time something happened, nothing particularly dramatic, time would jump forward and they’d all be older. I wanted to pause it, to stop it, to make him stop growing before my eyes. It was too fast.

My daughter who is 16 now came at it from a decidedly girl’s perspective. She wanted the movie to be more about the daughter, like, why didn’t we know what she wanted to do with her life? Girls have so much more on their plate than boys growing up — body image, period, the male gaze, mean girls. But I had to try to tell her that it wasn’t that story. It was more about Linklater’s experience coming of age. We paused to reflect the sorry truth that when it’s a man’s story it’s universal but when it’s a woman’s story it is marginalized. It felt like a scene out of the movie. I was awash in pride at my daughter’s ability to think that way. I told her to revisit the film when she gets older, maybe after she figures out what she wants to do with her life.

At the end of Boyhood my heart stopped and the tears were pouring out of my eyes. I felt like the most embarrassing kind of mom because I wasn’t crying out of sadness — but out of pride. I was so proud to see this boy become such a formidable man. And to be sitting next to my own daughter, a person I admire so much. Despite having grown with me, a single mother broke for most of her early life, despite the bad boyfriends, she is such a smart and compassionate kid. It all feels so accidental. You stand back in awe: what did I even do?

In real life we might wonder, is that all there is to it? We grow up at the hands of everyone we brush up against. Our parents, our siblings, our friends, our stepparents, our teachers, our girlfriends and boyfriends, strangers, good people, bad people, wars and presidents, sex, drugs and rock n’ roll. We are a mosaic of those imprints. They make their mark on us and eventually we emerge as who we are. Boyhood reminds us that much of life is figuring that out. It also reminds us that once we do figure that out we eventually uncover an even bigger truth: our lives are other people.

But you know, you can’t stop time. It’s one of two truths about this world. People die and time marches forward. But I guess you kind of feel like you can get a handle on it and that at some point you will not be carried forward by it but rather at the wheel of it, making it go where you want it to go. But this film, perhaps more than any other I’ve ever seen, shows you that you don’t and can’t control that part of time. All you can do is hope for the best and reach for what matters most in the wake of that truth.

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What we know about life: it lasts mere seconds by any measure. What we know about Roger Ebert: No one knew this better than he did.

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Ah, the horror and the beauty of this fleeting life. Time goes by too fast. There is too much beauty. Everywhere. The film about Ebert is a fitting tribute to a man whose life was so much bigger than movies but whose legacy is nonetheless tangled up in them. He loved his work, but more than that, he recognized that the work is the thing he’d leave behind so he didn’t waste a single minute of the remaining seconds, writing constantly, publishing reviews, books – building websites, using Twitter. But no amount of praise a person can heap upon Ebert isn’t said better in the film, Life Itself.

Drawing from bits and pieces of the legacy that is now Roger Ebert, his history as a self-made reporter, his ever-expanding world view, his partnership with Gene Siskel and the love of his life, Chaz, Life Itself puts Ebert’s work into proper perspective. Yes, in a way it was everything. In another way it couldn’t buy him a minute more of life. He beat back his own mortality as his cancer and the treatment of cancer simultaneously kept him alive and killed him. He gripped tightly to what remained.

It should not be missed. I started my website in 1999 as oscarwatch.com. What I would do is each time a film came out I would watch the critic reviews. There were so few then and their voices mattered so much it was easy to track them. Waiting on a Todd McCarthy or Kirk Honeycutt review was a nail-biter. What would they say? You see, back then it mattered what they thought more than it mattered what I thought. Back then, not just anyone could be a film critic, not like now. Owen Gleibermann, Lisa Schwarzbaum, Manohla Dargis, AO Scott, Glenn Kenny, Peter Travers – these were the tastemakers. So much has changed since then but Roger Ebert was always one of the major voices not just for films coming out but for the changing internet, which eventually swallowed up and destroyed film criticism as we all knew it then.

Ebert evolved as the internet evolved. That is what made him so ahead of the game. My entire experience watching Oscar for 15 years is woven with Ebert’s opinions all over it. Railing against him before he got sick, trying to not pity him after he got sick. I once got in an email fight with him about Crash vs. Brokeback. He was a supporter and advocate of Crash because he, unlike almost everyone else who writes about film, cared about the imbalance of white stories vs. stories about people of color. Only Ebert was both an activist and a film critic. Critics now do not take such things into consideration – as was witnessed last year with 12 Years a Slave vs. Gravity. Ebert would have loved both films but he would have been the only critic, and a powerful one at that, who would have really gotten the importance of 12 Years a Slave’s presence in the race at all. He got it because he watched film history for 46 years and because he cared more about the big picture than about his own limited perception of what he was seeing on the screen. Critics who see the bigger picture still exist but they are disappearing fast.

Life Itself tells Ebert’s story from Ebert’s perspective, and from the perspective of those who knew him, worked with him, were influenced by him. With a national audience at his fingertips, Ebert brought the genius of Martin Scorsese to the mainstream. Without Ebert’s early advocacy and support, who knows what might have happened to Scorsese. I watched with horror as critics spit on the brilliant work of Xavier Dolan, a very young up and coming artist, at Cannes – and I suddenly realized the impact someone like Ebert can have on film overall. Ebert saw Scorsese’s promise early on with Who’s That Knocking on My Door. He wasn’t the guy being flown out to see the fancy set of some powerful film director to help build up the fan base. He was recognizing talent and advocating for it.

At the same time the film doesn’t back off what an arrogant asshole Ebert could be – and that might be the final irony of what a fatal illness can do to a person. Petty things don’t matter anymore when you’re facing the big sleep. He found love. He found family. He found satisfaction in his work. He really had a wonderful life, too wonderful of a life that he didn’t want to let it go. Watching Life Itself is inspiring that way. In truth, we’re all just sitting around here waiting to die. But this film is like a battle cry to anyone who has the luxury of sitting around thinking about anything at all: get busy living or get busy dying.

He leaves behind him an unmatchable legacy and perhaps one that flourished because Ebert himself evolved with the changing times not by becoming part of the status quo but by defying it; he became a leader and pioneer, always, with each new phase of his ever-changing life.

If you miss Ebert, look for him. He’s everywhere. As Walt Whitman describes in Song of Myself:

I depart as air,
I shake my white locks at the runaway sun,

I effuse my flesh in eddies, and drift it in lacy jags.
I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,

If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.
You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,

But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,

And filter and fibre your blood.
Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,

Missing me one place search another,

I stop somewhere waiting for you.

Life Itself is currently playing in theaters and on VOD.

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As the Cannes Film Fest nears its close, one of the last major films to screen in competition is Xavier Dolan’s latest, teasingly called Mommy. Exuberant, unpredictable, and unconventional, Mommy pulls you into a corrupt relationship between mother and son which has long since ceased being a healthy one. This is not unfamiliar territory for the 25-year-old filmmaker, who seems endlessly obsessed with the oppressive, irresistible icon of Mother. Even still, much of this film moves beyond that relationship dynamic into a stylized world of human behavior as entertaining as it is revealing. Dolan’s camera springs to life, and in an instant it almost feels as though a new school of cinema is being born.

Overtly sexual, sometimes campy, bitchy and funny — Dolan’s writing has a unique thumbprint. You expect all of that from his films. But here, he takes you on a wild ride, dives and dips wildly into a claustrophobic world of almost-incest, mommy lust, mommy disgust and an exploration what happens when troubled parents raise troubled kids they then can’t control. With all of the drugged-up kids coming of age now and in the years to come, Mommy offers up a look at how some of these kids might turn out once they are forced to try their hand at life.
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