“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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The map of Woody’s New York tracked his own meandering transformation from outsider to insider. The finest of his east coast films rise as landmarks that climb ever higher on the city’s skyline marking his own ascent to Manhattan’s best addresses. He reached the peak of that exclusive plateau where he wanted to be — and then, after finally arriving, he left it. Now in Blue Jasmine he looks back and condemns the club he so badly wanted to join and in so doing has made his best film since Crimes and Misdemeanors. Blue Jasmine is the first of Allen’s late-career films to revisit potent themes of conscience, money and morality — his trademark obsessive questioning which got diluted after more mundane personal anxieties consumed his loftier philosophic ones.

Many fans of Woody Allen’s films were shocked to find a man of seemingly high moral character take such a dramatic fall when he fell in love with, and married, the sister of his own son (Soon-Yi Previn the adopted daughter of his 12-year paramour, Mia Farrow). After that, Allen’s films ceased to seek such stringent moral probing. Perhaps he felt like a hypocrite. After that, Allen’s films ceased to seek such stringent moral probing. Perhaps he felt like a hypocrite. Perhaps he was trying to rationalize and resolve his own behavior with his sense of right and wrong. Either way, he seems to have finally reconciled it in his own mind and has returned, with Blue Jasmine, to the much-needed moral high ground, but this time there is no fuzzy ambiguity, no internal debate about whether murder is still a crime if no one ever catches you. What Bernie Madoff and the other banksters of Wall Street did to the working class was wrong. Period. Wrong when measured against the law, wrong when measured against our collective sense of justice.

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Official site for Blackfish, with screenings and info is here.

Most of us don’t know what goes on behind the Sea World propaganda curtain. For over twenty years they’ve been selling the animal stunts at Sea World like it was Disneyland — they sell stuffed whales and tiny bursts of happiness to children.

In Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s unforgettable new documentary Blackfish we come to know one whale, Tilikum, a giant, 4 thousand pound orca who killed a trainer in an incident that made headlines and stripped away the truth about whales in captivity. Though it would have been forgotten, and the Sea World empire held intact were it not for Cowperthwaite’s film. In horrifying detail, the unimaginable life of Tilikum is played out. Back in the ’70s fishing boats hunted orcas and stole their babies from them to sell at amusement parks.  When they would do this, the entire family of orcas would hover nearby, speaking to their young. When one of the hunters saw this he burst into tears. To this day it’s the worst thing he’s ever done, he said.

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Kenneth Turan’s review in the LA Times is of one 7 perfect scores of 100 on Metacritic so far.

Fruitvale Station is a portrait of a life cut short. Made with assurance and deep emotion, Fruitvale Station is more than a remarkable directing debut for 26-year-old Ryan Coogler. It’s an outstanding film by any standard.

Featuring a leap-to-stardom performance by Michael B. Jordan, “Fruitvale’s” demonstration of how effective understated, naturalistic filmmaking is at conveying even the most incendiary reality. It’s as hopeful as the story it tells is despairing.

“Fruitvale” won both the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award at Sundance, as well as the Un Certain Regard Prize of the Future at Cannes, and its story is a true one, a narrative that created national shock waves when it happened.

More after the cut. Here’s Sasha’s May 16 review of Fruitvale Station from Cannes.

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Across the wide, bleak expanse of Nebraska Alexander Payne cuts two charcoal figures — Will Forte and Bruce Dern. Nebraska is a name that stands alone. It’s the name of one of Bruce Springsteen’s best albums and it’s now the name of one of Alexander Payne’s best films.

As Woody Grant prepares to check out for good, he is driven by the singular goal of cashing in on a Publisher’s Clearing House letter that promises, “You have won $1,000,000!” His wife (the shrill and effective June Squibb) can’t handle him anymore so she calls upon her younger, compassionate son David (Will Forte) to come and take care of the old man. David agrees to drive Woody to Lincoln, Nebraska to cash in on the hope of a lifetime’s dream.

David isn’t a son who’s determined to change his father, get some last-chance validation from him, or argue with him over his ruinous alcoholism. It’s not that kind of story. They are past all that. All David wants now is to help his father chase what remains of his dignity. Payne almost got there with About Schmidt, which was about a retiree with too much time to contemplate his place in the universe, but Woody is far beyond contemplation. He is simply trying to make sense of the full day.

As they close in on the ugly truth that companies lie to millions of Americans every day, forever dangling the bait of the American dream, father and son settle upon an understanding of who they once were to each other and what they’ve now become. Woody’s complicated past emerges belly-up when they hit his hometown. Everyone there thinks he’s struck it rich so those he owes money to come out of the woodwork. Little by little, a man’s whole life in a small mid-western town is colored in. At the tail-end of that life it seems that all Woody’s got left is a wife who can barely tolerate him, two sons still trying to wriggle out from under his shadow, and a simple dream that never materialized. In a town like this it’s all the more humbling when a man’s dream might amount to no more than a brand new truck.

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The story of my festival-going life tends to be that I miss the one film that winds up on everyone’s lips. It’s some kind of uncanny anti-radar that never fails. This time though, I managed to catch one that had everyone buzzing to the extent that people were turned away at the door of the next morning’s pick-up screening. La Vie d’Adele (Blue is the Warmest Color), Franco-Tunisian writer/director Abdellatif Kechiche’s Palme d’Or candidate, is a three hour telling of the emotional and sexual coming of age of a young woman loosely adapted from Julie Maroh’s graphic novel. I waited an hour and a half in the rain with no coat or umbrella knowing only it was from the same filmmaker behind 2007’s widely praised arthouse favorite The Secret of the Grain. The irony is that I think I’m the only one who ultimately found the earlier film a little bit disappointing. Not so La Vie d’Adele. Driven by a subtle and naturalistic star-making (and possibly Cannes award-winning) performance from its young lead Adele Exarchopoulos, this is the kind of film experience you hope to have when you come to a film festival.

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lay dying

I don’t know when it happened exactly – maybe it was his non-performance hosting the Oscars – but the worm has definitely turned on the general enthusiasm for James Franco. For a while, everything he touched was a source of endless media fascination, but that’s pretty much over. No one I talked to here at Cannes going in was particularly excited about seeing his adaptation of William Faulkner’s challenging novel As I Lay Dying and those who were assigned to it weren’t looking forward to it. The thing is, it’s not Franco’s fault that every artistic doodle he’s tossed off and each creative whim he’s followed has been treated with such reverence. And his name still has cachet. Would As I Lay Dying have ever been chosen for the Un Certain Regard section at Cannes or would it ever have even been made without Franco’s name front and center? No, it wouldn’t because unfortunately it’s not very good.

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Nicolas Winding Refn’s follow-up to Drive takes him farther away from traditional narrative and deeper into abstract expressionism. His painter’s eye makes Only God Forgives something beautiful to behold, awash in deep reds and geometric, carefully thought out shot compositions. But what it amounts to, in the end, is the careful work of a serial killer — not literally out there killing women but indulging in one bloody killing after another, practically licking the knife afterwards. The crowd here in Cannes clapped enthusiastically. It will be the runaway favorite of the art house crowd, no doubt.

Ryan Gosling is given even less dialogue in Only God Forgives than he had in Drive, where he also played an ambient hottie automaton saving the vulnerable Carey Mulligan from the horrors of evil. Here, there is no such goodness afoot, or whatever goodness there is become swallowed up by casual evil. No need to muddy the waters when the money shot is exposed ribs with blood gurgling out.

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Audiences will go in to Shield of Straw hoping for something other than what director Takashi Miike has in mind, especially devotees of this director’s more violent, cult-horror style. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The worst thing a filmmaker can do is stagnate, relying on the same formula. There is no danger with that with Miike, who often dips into different styles throughout his prolific body of work. His latest, in competition at the Cannes Film Fest, will likely be another step in a new direction. It could leave viewers less than satisfied as it adheres to its objective, refusing to ever give his audience the blood lust they seek and is so seldom given.

Shield of Straw is about a police security team hired to protect a loathsome criminal, in custody for brutally raping and killing a 7 year-old girl. Disgusted, her grandfather offers a bounty to anyone who can successfully kill him. He adds two conditions — it must be sanctioned by the police and it must be considered “involuntary manslaughter.” But those conditions don’t appear to be on the minds of those who want the billion yen reward for carrying out the execution.

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I’m going into each film here at the festival knowing as little in advance as I can possibly manage. I’m not even reading the official catalog entries so I wasn’t sure what exactly to expect from prolific Japanese director Takashi Miike. My only hope was that he’d help blow off a little mid-festival langueur and he certainly did that with Shield of Straw, a brisk crime thriller that sneaks in a uniquely Japanese cultural punch. Every year, Cannes manages to work one or two nifty genre exercises in between the Important humanist tone poems and this year Miike fit in nicely.

Two excellent cops, a man and a woman of similar skill but different personalities, are assigned to escort a child murderer from Fukuoka to Tokyo. The hitch is that the man has just been let out of prison for his crimes, but DNA evidence at a new crime scene points directly at him. When the victim’s super-rich industrialist grandfather offers up a billion yen reward for the suspect’s murder, just about everyone in Japan all the way up the echelons of the police force, want a piece. As attempt piles upon attempt, it becomes increasingly clear someone connected is leaking the whereabouts of the transport.

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You have to appreciate a film festival that would put a movie as strange as Alex van Warmerdam’s Borgman in main competition. Though it often feels like the cast and director are making it up as they go along, it features memorable moments that are ultimately hard to shake.

Warmerdam aims to position itself as a kind of Occupy-ish revenge fantasy on the upper class. We first meet Borgman (Jan Bijvoet) at his starting point: literally a hole in the ground. He and two of his partners live in holes they dug with beds and caves underneath. But if you think that somehow is the key to everything, it isn’t. Perceptions are quickly formed and just as quickly dispelled about who Borgman and his wrecking crew really are. They might even be dogs for all we know. Yes, dogs.

You have to toss all preconceptions and watch the dream play out. It isn’t just any dream, but one of those bizarre, rambling, vivid dreams that startle you awake in a cold sweat — like a naked man straddling you, staring at you while you sleep making you dream terrible things about your husband as you’re being seduced by Borgman. That is but one of the recurring images that cling to the psyche.

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Llewyn Davis

Those of us who know Bob Dylan’s story well can point to his profound influence on the folk music scene in Greenwich Village in the early sixties. What is remarkable is how Dylan had shaped his own unique style from an amalgam of folk singers of the time, borrowing what he needed from Woody Guthrie and absorbing the best of the rest from everyone else. That doesn’t explain his genius, nor does it explain his subsequent break with traditional folksinging — going electric, infusing his lyrics with rock-n-roll poetry, and refusing to be lumped in with the protest folkies of the time. Dylan’s shift from conversational to confessional is the crux of his musical evolution. While none of that may seem to matter in Joel and Ethan Coen’s melancholy meditation on the time before Dylan changed everything, awareness of the split that was brewing makes the movie all the more potent. Inside Llewyn Davist captures a distinct moment in time when a scraggly young man from Hibbing, Minnesota struggled to find his place on the brink of a wayward movement about to be forever altered.

Watching the folk singers in Llewyn Davis, it’s easy to see how a guy like Dylan could completely overwhelm everything else on offer at the time. How do you justify hard-knock ballads about your life when the guy right behind you is Bob Dylan? A man who shows up at the mic playing his guitar like everyone else but departing the traditional laments of folk music to write lyrics like you’ve never heard before. For better or worse, the thing that stands out about early folk music is how genial and predictable it all was.

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le passe

William Faulkner once wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” This is the thrust of Asghar Farhadi’s Le Passe (The Past), which screened today at the Cannes Film Festival.

The Past is the kind of film that leaves you changed by the time the credits start to roll and like everything else in this filmmaker’s style, the credits take their time, disclosing a moment that is as important as every other. Farhadi’s A Separation was among the best reviewed films of the year when it debuted two years ago. That film was about the new and old Iran, about separating from an oppressive culture that could not move forward. The Past is about another kind of separation, how we let go of past loves, how children learn to cope with new families as they pick up the pieces from broken marriages.

Like A Separation, The Past dives in and out of different storylines, filling in seemingly meaningless bits of information until each one is put together like pieces of an intricate puzzle, one that ultimately reveals a vivid truth. The film opens with two people reconnecting after time apart. We don’t know anything about them except that they knew each other once. An excellent Berenice Bejo, displaying ten times the range she showed in The Artist, plays the lost love of Ahmed (Ali Mosaffa) who has come back for reasons unknown. Those reasons take their time to be divulged because Farhadi prefers to have us get to know the characters before we hear of their troubles.

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You see a lot of movies and most of them are pretty ordinary. Once in a while you see one slightly above average and it’s a cause for celebration. On rare occasions you see something truly outstanding and you’re reminded why you love cinema in the first place. It’s the nourishment that keeps you going through the day-to-day ordinary. That happened this morning at Cannes with the debut of Asghar Farhadi’s The Past – all the more remarkable because the film comes with such high expectations following the Iranian filmmaker’s Foreign Language Oscar-winning A Separation. If anything, Farhadi has topped himself. The Past is a richly rewarding human drama of seemingly infinite depth and nuance.

The raw narrative material exploring a couple in the throes of a breakup is similar to A Separation, but Farhadi manages to dig deeper and reveal even more nuances of human experience. The emotion of The Past is also not quite so front-loaded as it was in A Separation. It’s a slow burn that reveals itself in layers, almost as a matter-of-fact mystery, each new detail reshaping the complexion of the story and upending your expectations. The pleasures come largely from these subtle turns and to itemize each plot point in an attempt to describe the film would be to ruin it.

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How do you measure the importance of a life? Do you look at a man’s contributions to society, his success, his wealth, his prominence in the community? Are some lives worth more than others? Up-and-coming filmmaker Ryan Coogler addresses that question, showing both the troubled side of 22-year-old Oscar Grant, who was accidentally shot on a subway platform in 2009 while being subdued by police, and the more hopeful side, a man committed to raising his daughter and living a cleaner life.

Whatever Oscar Grant’s troubles may have been — whether he’d been convicted of felonies for drug dealing, whether he’d been previously tased by police, whether or not he went to college — none of that should have mattered when measuring the value of his life. He was someone’s son, father, boyfriend, friend. Oscar Grant, by all accounts, was a good guy trying to make his way in a world that thought it already had him figured out before he even had a chance to show who he was. Black kid from Oakland? Drugs? You know the score.

The beauty of Fruitvale Station is that it shows what life is like on the other side of the tracks when the police break up a fight between black kids and what they might have done if kids doing exactly the same thing had been white. Fruitvale Station shows what can happen when cops have already made up their minds about you before they even know who you are. Most of White America has no idea what it’s like to grow up like that, to be presumed guilty of a string of crimes before you’ve even committed them. Why else would the cops have reacted in such an extreme manner? Handcuffed, thrown to the ground, never given a chance to explain.

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