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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all is lost

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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“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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