Reviews

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Oscar-winning director Michel Hazanavicius has shifted his focus from riffing on famous genres to making his most ambitious film to date, The Search. Chalk it up perhaps to him wanting to dig a little deeper than where he went with The Artist and deeper than he’s ever gone previously in his career, but this is his first real deep dive into a very serious subject — the human rights abuses and mass murders that went on in Chechnya around 1999 at the hands of the Russians.

Taking the side of the Chechens here, Hazanavicius risks criticism by many who continue to believe the Chechens are ruthless terrorists, much the way many Americans regard people from Iraq, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. In fact, the last terrorist bombing in Boston was at the hands of Chechen terrorists. But there is another side of the story to tell, one that probably not many are even aware of; after all, it took much aggressive protesting and advocacy to get the European forum on human rights abuse to acknowledge what happened to the Chechens at the hands of the Russians.

The story begins and ends with a clever and potent gimmick of sorts, but to say anymore would be too big a spoiler. We follow nine-year-old Hadji (Abdul Khalim Mamutsiev), who has been left orphaned after his mother and father are casually murdered at the hands of over-zealous Russian soldiers. While his sister is being raped, Hadji makes a fast getaway with his baby brother. After he deposits his baby brother with a family he knows will take care of him, Hadji begins a long, strange journey into some kind of safety zone. He ends up in a refugee camp and eventually under the care of Carole (Berenice Bejo).

The film, also written by Hazanvicius, cuts between three stories — Hadji’s sister who is alive and searching for her two brothers; a Russian youth picked up on the streets for possession and made to go into the Russian army; and Hadji and Bejo.

The most difficult scenes to watch are the treatment of the young man who joins the Russian army. While Hazanavicius paints the Russians as evil in almost a cartoony way, there is little point in denying what many of those Russian soldiers did to innocent women and children. Who were those people who committed those crimes against humanity? This is an attempt to explain how it could have happened. The dehumanizing of the military in certain parts of the world explains that. Surely, all Russian soldiers are not that evil but this is a film from a specific point of view and from that view only someone with an emptied-out soul could have committed the crimes we see at the very beginning.

Many of the French audience members here in Cannes booed at the end of The Search — probably because of the plot gimmicks like the bookend events, and for the heavy-handed emotion and sentimentality of the story; Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Woody Allen could get away with it, but Hazanavicius is being held to the fire over it.

But The Search ends up being so emotionally compelling because of Hazanavicius’ willingness to tell the story with sentimentality. Either you go with it or you don’t. If you do, you will forgive the film’s flaws — some stereotyping and perhaps unbelievable plot points. If you don’t go with it, you willfully overlook the importance of a story that seeks to bring our attention to just what happened to the Chechen people, much of which few people knows about. You will do this because the movie didn’t work for you, and of course, that is your prerogative. But sometimes there are things about a film that seem to matter a lot more than one viewer’s comfort level, at least to me they do.

This is the story Hazanavicius wanted to tell. To tell it, he assembled a cast made up almost entirely of women, save for the main focus of the story, the nine-year-old boy. What happens to him, who fights for his rights and the rights of other Chechen refugees, however, is left almost entirely to the women — chief among them, Berenice Bejo as Carol, a human rights advocate who takes the boy into her home and Annette Bening, who plays Helen, a weary social worker helping the orphaned Chechens.

Bejo is excellent, as usual — a woman not inclined towards mothering suddenly stuck with the care of a child. Bejo’s charm with the boy is undeniable, and as he gazes up at her with so much love and admiration in his eyes, she begins to see herself differently. Bening is also a standout as a social worker so exhausted she’s all but given up hope. Both women, in fact, are just about ready to abandon any faith they might have left that someone, somewhere will care enough about these tragedies to do something about them. Somehow this story with these orphaned Chechens helps to renew their faith that their work hasn’t been in vain.

Two decades later, not enough reparations have been made to recover what the Chechens lost — no rebuilding of utilities or towns, for instance. The Search is a hard look at a terrible war in a region so full of conflict peace may never be found. That Hazanavicius decided to tell this story after winning so big with The Artist in 2011 is an interesting choice. He’s now shown that he intends to become a serious filmmaker, whether the industry or the critics community will accept that change is a different story.

The Search is an imperfect film that ultimately succeeds because of the actors, and the director’s unflinching commitment to bring history to the forefront. It is also a solid story reminiscent of war films of the 1930s on through the 1950s and 1960s. It has echoes of the 400 Blows, Schindler’s List, even Saving Private Ryan. Here is a director, like Truffaut and Spielberg, who is pointedly not afraid of taking a sappy turn just as he’s not afraid of depicting raw and nearly unwatchable violence.

This is a film not for the critical elite but rather ticket buyers who might be looking for a little redemption, and a little uplift, and a little beauty amid the torment.

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“That’s why they call it the American Dream, because you have to be asleep to believe it.” ― George Carlin

When John Steinbeck wryly observed that most Americans disdained socialism as if they were “temporarily embarrassed millionaires” whose ship had yet to come in, he had no idea just how many millions of hard working self-made millionaires the country would someday spawn — how many would actually attain that American dream. In a strange reversal, much of American disdain is now aimed at millionaires, specifically toward those who believe this world is designed for them, those who believe they have a right to take whatever they want whenever they want it. In 2014 you don’t have to look very far to find these men – they are everywhere. Our government props them up, bends over backwards to cater to them, and the rest of us are left to fend for ourselves.

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“I started making plans to kill my own kind,” Violent Femmes

David Cronenberg is an artist unafraid of the dark side. One of the wondrous things about his work is just how deep and dark he will go. The Fly is an unexpected masterpiece about the agony of love and the arrogance of man. Dead Ringers is a little closer to the territory we see now with Maps to the Stars, probably Cronenberg’s best film in at least a decade, or thereabouts. Here, working with the talented literary satirist of Hollywood culture, Bruce Wagner, Cronenberg has hit his stride in a big way, nailing our celebrity obsessed culture and sickness it breeds, right to the wall.
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The Homesman works as both an entertaining western as well as a subtle commentary on a dark moment in our American history, specifically how the West was won, when settlers stole the land outright from Native Americans and justified their cruelty with Christianity. We took what we wanted with little regard for what was there before. The immoral behavior of a supposedly moral people is a shameful part of our American story we don’t often tell. The film uses the heartless treatment of women as its backdrop, with Native Americans cast as a savage specter to be feared. The truth is that much of what the pioneers needed to fear was the brutality they brought with them.

The Homesman is an intricately designed film, unpredictable in its execution and refusing to conform to genre expectations. If anything, it comments on familiar tropes of western films with cold rebuke. Laced with sardonic humor but primarily stark and tragic, The Homesman proves Jones has become a formidable director. Exploring a topic close to his heart, the evils of our own imperialist past and the echoes of that evil which haunts our history today, Jones delivers a sensitive exploration of the plight of the downtrodden, particularly from the vantage of women — an angle most Hollywood films have all but abandoned. The Homesman is about our past, the crimes committed under the cloak of manifest, but it is also about the little told story of what those events did to the women who either tried to settle a homestead on their own, or else were taken there as young brides and meant to provide children and wifely duties for men.
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One of the more memorable films here at the Cannes film fest will have to be French/Ivory Coast director Philippe Lacôte’s Run, about a man living on the Ivory Coast who finds himself on the run from many situations and complicated relationships. He runs when things get problematic and his name is also Run. That shouldn’t be too surprising, given the poetic nature of the writing here, which shifts freely from real-time dialogue to live spoken monologue, to voice overs. Run tells his story, what shaped him in his early life to become what he ends up being — an assassin.
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The romantic comedy genre has been gang raped by small-minded fantasy pushers. There was a time, though, when the best of them could entertain both men and women, drive them into deeper thought about the complexities of human relationships, explore both people equally without the need for a fantasy ending to reinforce the outdated notion that happy endings are the only worthy ones.

Some of the best romance films haven’t even needed the label of “romantic comedy” at all. Annie Hall springs to mind. The Apartment. It Happened One Night. A Philadelphia Story. Such is the case now with the sublime The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby. There are supposedly three parts to this story — the he, she and they parts. I believe what was screened here at Cannes was the “they” part of the story. Knowing nothing really about it, not having read any reviews, I came to the story fresh and what I found was something films have been sorely lacking for a few years now: women.

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How to Train Your Dragon is one of the best animated features ever to hit the Oscar race. It wasn’t going to win, of course. Toy Story 3 was destined to claim the prize in 2010 as a culmination of Pixar’s trilogy that had somehow gone Oscarless until then. Now four years later, the second installment of How to Train Your Dragon has retained much of the magic of the first but this time has shifted more emphasis to the dragons and less on the people. In this case that means the animators get to really show off what they can do. Turns out, what they can do is very impressive.

How to Train Your Dragon 2 feels like a giant leap forward with animation. It isn’t just the way the dinosaurs themselves are animated, which is otherworldly and unlike anything we’ve seen before, either in the first film or in any film like it. The diversity among the species, the array of features and color, it’s nothing short of spectacular. If you need any reason at all to see this film see it for the sheer artistry of the animation.
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I’m not really sure what the reasoning was behind accepting Atom Egoyan’s Captives into the main festival competition, especially after the hoopla around there being no female directors. There are probably twenty films directed by women, maybe some even directed by children, perhaps even some directed by chimps that are better than Captives. It only adds insult to injury to see a film like that, which has no business at all being here, taking the place of other worthy films.

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“Color is my daylong obsession, joy, and torment.”
― Claude Monet

With Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner, a perfect union of film biographer and subject has landed at Cannes. In his film about J.M.W. Turner, an English Romantic painter of landscapes who caught the subtle shimmer of light on water in ways the world had never seen, the director known for capturing the subtle grace of human behavior has delivered a masterpiece of his own. After decades of signaling that he had this kind of film in him, the usually humble and introspective Leigh has at last created the kind of portrayal that works both as biopic and self-portrait. Digging into the genesis of genius, the solitude of inspiration, the madness of the muse, Leigh reveals reasons that help explain why being a great artist and a great human aren’t always compatible.

Timothy Spall plays Turner, a grumbling discombobulated artist whose only abiding interest is in looking at light and finding innovative ways to paint with it. He is compelled to sketch anything he sees that ignites his fancy, no matter where the impetus comes from or how little sense it makes to anyone else. He does what many of the masters have done for centuries but particularly his Romantic peers and pioneers in the earliest years of the Impressionist movement — chase the elusive vagaries of light and let it take us to unpredictable places. The effect with Turner’s work were landscapes imbued with grave emotion, haunting imagery and sublime beauty, much like this film — every frame of which seems touched by a painter’s hand.

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Grace of Monaco does many interesting things but one thing it won’t do is enable Nicole Kidman to win an Oscar the way Olivier Dehan’s last major film, La Vie En Rose, enabled Marion Cotillard to win for her performance as Edith Piaf. That isn’t going to happen, and neither are many other Oscar nominations, with the possible exception of costume design.  But that doesn’t mean Grace of Monaco is without its rewards. Despite eruptions of inappropriate laughter throughout this morning’s screening, there is still nothing quite like watching an actress as skilled as Nicole Kidman sink her teeth into a role.

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scarlett hunter

First, a question: Who’s Twice as Hot as Scarlett Johansson? Answer: Scarlett Johansson and her twin brother Hunter. I wish I’d known Ms. Johansson had a twin brother on National Siblings Day. But none of you mooks ever told me, so now I have no real excuse for posting these photos. Do we even need an excuse? I suppose we could pad this out with some of the best reviews of the year for the female twin who stars in Under the Skin. (Rex Reed and and Lou Lumenik HATED it, a sure sign that it’s fantastic.)

Andrew O’Hehir, Salon: If I tell you that Jonathan Glazer’s “Under the Skin” is one of the strangest and most disturbing science-fiction films of recent years, it’s a true statement that points you in entirely the wrong direction. If I add that the movie also involves Scarlett Johansson taking off her clothes on several occasions, I’m leading you into a trap almost as surely as Johansson’s character leads the men she picks up on the Glasgow streets. It’s almost as if Glazer, previously the director of “Sexy Beast” and “Birth” and a bunch of music videos for Blur, Radiohead and others, has given himself an assignment: Make a visionary, haunting and utterly distinctive sci-fi picture featuring naked ScarJo, and make it unbearably frustrating for anyone who’d be drawn to that description.

More proof that advanced species exist, after the cut.

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“One of the saddest lessons of history is this: If we’ve been bamboozled long enough, we tend to reject any evidence of the bamboozle. We’re no longer interested in finding out the truth. The bamboozle has captured us. It’s simply too painful to acknowledge, even to ourselves, that we’ve been taken. Once you give a charlatan power over you, you almost never get it back.” ― Carl Sagan

This year Leonardo DiCaprio starred in two films about Jay Gatsby. The first was Baz Luhrmann’s version, or perhaps rape is a better word, of Fitzgerald’s profound rundown of the empty vessel that is “the good life” in America. The second is a better telling of a Gatsby parable. Slicing through the creamy good-life niceties of surreal fairytale to expose the rot that lies beneath is The Wolf of Wall Street, Martin Scorsese’s unapologetic search for the soul of a modern-day Gatsby. Emblematic of the new reality, Daisy is no longer an old-moneyed step up to first class validation. The object of desire today a leggy hot-rod whose mere appearance in your Lamborghini announces to the world that you have arrived. Vroom vroom, class be damned, validation is for valet parking. Having it all, to those who churn their cash to a froth to get more, is all about appearances. That what Jay Gatsby did to try to impress Daisy. Having it all, to those who churn money to a froth to get more, is all about appearances. That how Jay Gatsby tried to impress Daisy. What Jordan Belfort does in The Wolf of Wall Street is less about laying the world at a woman’s feet and more about a world where a woman has her feet in the air. Belfort only bothers to suck up to blue bloods if he can see a chance to suck them dry. It’s still the business of making money to spend money to make more money. But showing it off is now the mechanism — the smoke and mirrors of money magnetism.

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JC Chandor’s Oscar-nominated screenplay, Margin Call, took him ten years to write. It is a deliberate, careful study of what it takes for a man to survive on Wall Street. He’s applied the same deceptively simple writing and directing to his new film, All Is Lost, starring just one person: Robert Redford.

The film begins with a few plain-spoken words from Redford. From that point on, the film relies only on Redford’s actions, with no other dialogue spoken. Still, we learn much about his character from watching what he does. He reveals his character through a series of tests. He isn’t Job, nor is he Pi — this isn’t a film about questioning faith in a higher power, rather, about faith in one’s resourcefulness, faith in one’s self.

After all, we are born with these giant, fancy, spectacular brains. We never know what that intelligence is capable of achieving until we’re put to the test. Redford’s character brings to his challenge to survive decades of life experience etched on his face and lighting his eyes, along with basic education, courage, and good, old-fashioned wits. All Is Lost is a film about perseverance, not survival.

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i carry your heart with me(i carry it in
my heart)i am never without it(anywhere
i go you go,my dear;and whatever is done
by only me is your doing,my darling)
i fear
no fate(for you are my fate,my sweet)i want
no world(for beautiful you are my world,my true)
and it’s you are whatever a moon has always meant
and whatever a sun will always sing is you

here is the deepest secret nobody knows
(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life;which grows
higher than soul can hope or mind can hide)
and this is the wonder that’s keeping the stars apart

i carry your heart(i carry it in my heart)

— ee cummings

We’re living in an era where we are all alone together. We sit next to each other on the subway without trying to connect face to face — because we each carry our own customized self-contained networks of communication condensed to pocket-size devices. Scrolling through reliable circles of friends held in the palm of our hands, we can command a measure of control over these interactions. Does that make us any less lonely? Or are the brightly-lit screens merely a substitute way to feel comforted? Without them, would we be forced to engage with those people in our immediate surroundings? Would we have to deal with embarrassing encounters, awkward pauses, rejection? That moment when someone looks right into your eyes and then looks quickly away? Real life is oh so complicated. Virtual life, much simpler to manage with the swipe of a fingertip.

Our lives are idealized on our social networks, or as it was said recently on Portlandia, “those people who look like they’re having so much fun on Facebook aren’t really having that much fun.” We build the lives we wish we had, the selves we wish we were, the happiness we’re supposed to be chasing. Yes, the online world has given us a magic mirror — and how beautiful we look in it.
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GRAVITY

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“The body, she says, is subject to the force of gravity. But the soul is ruled by levity, pure.” – Saul Bellow

Gravity is a film worthy of being in the same room as Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 in that the visual effects are as groundbreaking as the message is deep. In truth, so many films I’ve seen here in Telluride have been an answer to what ails Hollywood. If the Academy had a category for effects-driven films (and they really should by now) Gravity would win hands down. Effects-driven films don’t have to be mindless and shallow. They don’t have to be what’s expected. Instead, they can reach you from a distance and pull you into them. They can expand the minds of audiences, challenge them intellectually as well as visually. Gravity accomplishes this.

Gravity is a film that feels like it’s almost holding you under water for 90 minutes. You don’t really breathe while you’re watching it — you kind of sip air, like wine, until it comes to a close. It is a spectacular feat of filmmaking, that doesn’t let up nor show you any mercy. The truth about this film is that it should be seen without you knowing anything about it. I already knew a major spoiler going in but it didn’t ruin the experience, still, not knowing in this case is better than knowing.

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Steve McQueen’s unflinching, almost surreal look at the evils of slavery inevitably pulls us flush up against today. You can change a lot of things about yourself if you’re a black man. You can be a well-dressed educated family man. You can even be a millionaire or a film director or a famous actor. But the color of your skin remains the same. On some streets in America, in some eyes, that’s what very nearly defines you.

In his third collaboration with Michael Fassbender, after the triumphs of Hunger and Shame, Steve McQueen once again takes his film in his own direction, following no preset formula, no well-traveled path. 12 Years a Slave is in no way Hollywood’s typical rendition of slavery. It is not told from the point of view of the white men in power, nor is it told from a white director’s point of view. There is no magical imaginary savior who rides in with a gun to slay the perpetrators, thereby absolving our collective cultural heritage of guilt in these crimes against humanity, or what Spike Lee has called his holocaust.

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Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue is the Warmest Color is a film I wish I’d seen in my early twenties. Rarely has a film delved into human sexuality with such attention to detail. Women are not really invited to explore their sexuality here in America. We are conditioned to divide ourselves into two types – good girls and bad girls.  The European position on Sex is decidedly less repressed. Nudity is very much a part of their natural lives, affection fluidly given.

There is something inescapably alluring about this film and it isn’t the sex. Sure, the sexual scenes are every bit a tribute to how great sex really can be – especially once you find a lover who pulls you out of your self-conscious bondage and shows you the moon and the stars. It isn’t what they do to you it’s what you do together. People like that come along very rarely in one’s life. I personally can count those partners on a few fingers. And when you are touched by that kind of potent desire and sexual chemistry, if you are rejected or you pass it by without realizing – it might haunt you for the rest of your life.

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The love story is really what drives Jason Reitman’s beautifully rendered film Labor Day, which stars Kate Winslet and Josh Brolin, from the novel by Joyce Maynard. Structure is key to the whys and hows of the plot. It might baffle a few waiting to see the usual formula unfurl. The timeline in this film is especially important, which you will (hopefully) discover when you see it. Don’t go in expecting Drive.

Reitman has pushed past many of his own limitations here, erasing the snark and the sarcasm. In its place, raw sentimentality that feels inevitable to an artist willing to step outside his comfort zone and take a risk. Both Reitman and Alexander Payne have, this year, really done what is much more difficult than delivering snark. Facing true emotion head-on ain’t easy. Facing the truth about the human experience, harder still.

But Labor Day is not a film, I don’t think, for the usual voices that dominate the film blogging scene. Fans of Reitman’s earlier work will want him to stay in that mode, like the Scorsese fans who only want to see Goodfellas or the Fincher fans who only want to see Fight Club. Reitman has gone beyond his reliance on having a joke for everything, where his characters never have to really feel anything very deeply or for long. That has changed with Labor Day.

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“I would hurl words into this darkness and wait for an echo, and if an echo sounded, no matter how faintly, I would send other words to tell, to march, to fight, to create a sense of the hunger for life that gnaws in us all.”
― Richard Wright, Black Boy

It’s unsettling to watch the critics weigh in on Lee Daniels’ The Butler. It’s been clear from the outset that The Butler isn’t a movie meant to cater to critics. In fact, whenever a film strays too far from whatever an insular group of people expect, they tend to dismiss the movies that don’t fit their preconceptions. A lot established critics want to impose demands on filmmakers and to punish those who don’t tow the line. Worse, when they can’t make a filmmaker meet their expectations, there’s an impulse to whip any mustang who can’t be indoctrinated. It’s a strict ritual of processing that begins to resemble a cult. Some critics seem to want to direct the movie themselves and start suggesting ways they would improve it. They want get out of their chairs and go sit in the director’s seat. I always think of Bette Davis in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, “But you ARE in that chair, Blanche. You ARE.” They are forever in the dark, the watchers, the observers, the inactive tastemakers. It’s the filmmakers out there putting themselves and their reputations on the line to raise money for projects and then direct the hell out of them. Sometimes they succeed, other times they don’t. But we must never lose sight that directors are the doers and we’re the ones confined to the chair.

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Now that Blue Jasmine has opened with the best premiere numbers of Woody Allen’s career, the film will be seriously considered for several Oscar nominations – Best Actress for sure, if not Best Picture. But there have been some rumblings in reviews and out of the mouths of well-placed New York film critics that it’s a modern-day update of A Streetcar Named Desire.  If Woody Allen had wanted to do a spin on that movie, he could have done so; after all, he made A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy.  But to draw a closer parallel and one that better suits the brilliance of this film we need only look at Stardust Memories to see how it corresponds so beautifully to Fellini’s 8 1/2. At the time, Woody was accused of being a Fellini (or Bergman) imitator. It was well known that Woody admired both directors so when Stardust Memories came out, in black and white, the same rumblings were heard: it’s Woody riffing on Fellini. But after all of these years, Stardust Memories shines as one of the director’s best and most accomplished films; the framework may resemble 8 1/2, to be sure, but the themes, the characters, the ruminations bear Woody Allen’s own unique imprint.

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