I watched The Force Awakens from two perspectives. One as a die-hard Star Wars Fan (A New Hope, Empire Strikes Back and then it loses me), and the other as a concerned human worrying about what Hollywood is doing, what message they’ve been sending to young girls about their worth for a couple of decades now, in the wake of the impact of action franchises. Sure, the Hunger Games and other films like it are bringing the females into the theaters but there is still this idea that there is a separate world for boys and girls somehow decided as movies became more expensive and made more money. This will not do.
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“Done so many evil things in the name of love, it’s a crying shame
I never did see no fire that could put out a flame.
Pull your hat down, baby, pull the wool down over your eyes
Keep a-talking, baby, ’til you run right out of alibis.
Someday you’ll account for all the deeds that you done
Well, there ain’t no man righteous, no not one.” – Bob Dylan

Ghosts haunt Alejandro G. Inarritu’s poetic, splendid rendering of the moment Europeans had a choice to pull back, or to forge ahead in their conquest of North America. There was no way our species would have stopped. Not with all of that virgin landscape to plow through – we’d already spread out over most of the land masses, killing nearly 75% of large mammal populations in our endless quest for more. More meat. More territory. While native populations were mostly living in self-sustaining environments – nature pushed back hard against them, the settlers weren’t going to have any of it. There was a moment. We had a choice. The Revenant is about that choice.
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The first frame of the original Rocky, as the famous music comes up, the date: November 25, 1975. You probably had to live through the Rocky phenomenon to understand just how big that movie was, what it gave audiences, and why it won the Best Picture Oscar in 1976, besting All the President’s Men, Network, Taxi Driver and Bound for Glory. What most people don’t realize about that year looking back was that Sylvester Stallone – the unlikely lottery winner of that year – never won an Oscar, even though he wrote the script for Rocky.

How could he have beaten William Goldman for All the President’s Men or Paddy Chayefsky for Network? He couldn’t have. Both of those films, and Taxi Driver, launched a thousand filmmakers. A generation of filmmakers wanted to make movies that good, that revered. People like me spent many hours lamenting Rocky’s Best Picture win over the other, presumably better movies. That it won was a thing that the movie forever had to live down.

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carol 878th

Opening in limited release tomorrow in just 4 theaters, Carol is receiving glowing reaction from East and West Coast critics. With 25 reviews now collected on Metacritic, over half are perfect scores of 100 and only one is lower than 80.) As so often happens, a lavishly conceived film has inspired equally rich analysis.

Los Angeles Times, Kenneth Turan:

“Carol” universalizes from the particular, and it does so with exceptional skill and style. This is a love story between two women set at a time and place when that relationship was beyond taboo, but as its bravura filmmaking unfolds, those specifics fade and what remains are the feelings and emotions that all the best movie love stories create. And make no mistake, “Carol” belongs in that group…

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“Even the losers get lucky sometimes.” – Tom Petty

If you watch Adam McKay’s uniquely brilliant film The Big Short and attempt to review it without giving it some time to settle in, you do yourself, the film, film criticism overall and the world of cinema a disservice. This happens too much lately. We need snap judgments. We need a thumbs up or thumbs down. We need to know if it succeeds or fails. But The Big Short is a movie that throws so much at you it requires time and contemplation to settle in. You might walk out saying, “Wow, that was great,” but still have no idea what you just saw. You might walk out – as a Bernie Sanders supporter might – saying, “Yeah, those evil crooks on Wall Street, those 1%ers really stuck it to the poor people! Fix it Bernie!” Or you might walk out saying, “What the fuck was that?” The Big Short flies by like a truck of headless chickens dancing to Uptown Funk. You think you know what you just saw but what did you really just see?

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For I have known them all already, known them all:—
Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,
I have measured out my life with coffee spoons;
I know the voices dying with a dying fall
Beneath the music from a farther room.
So how should I presume? – TS Eliot

It doesn’t happen often to me, hardly ever at all by anything created by human beings. Sure, I can watch as a hummingbird flutters downward and points its beak suspiciously at me, and maybe behind it the sun is burning up the clouds making an electric sunset just as the wind kicks up in a dramatic gust to take the hummingbird somewhere else. For a brief moment, everything stops because, goddamn it, that’s a beautiful thing.

Charlie Kaufman has the ability to dwell somewhere between the sweetest love song and the darkest night of the soul. We’re not talking just your ordinary dark night of the soul, like contemplating one’s own mortality or the death of true love, or shaking off of futility. We’re talking soul sucking blackness – we’re talking the unbearable surreality of it all – the mostly ugly nature of humans and all of our collective humiliations.

And that’s if we have the luxury to even notice how surreal and humiliating it all is. There’s a chance we could have been born in a place where our daily obsession is finding a crumb to eat, or to not be that person who is chosen to strap on a suicide vest and wander into a shopping mall. In our lives, in our mostly isolated, pampered, protected lives, we have the luxury to notice how insane it all is anyway.

In the sweetest parts of Kaufman’s work, though, there always exist the most endearing female creatures. She might be someone anyone would fall for, like Kate Winslet’s Clementine in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, or she might be someone you’d pass by every day and never notice, like the wonderful Lisa (voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh) in Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson’s blazingly brilliant new film Anomalisa. It is the sweetness of Lisa that undoes Kaufman’s bleak condemnation of the human condition.

Anomalisa is about Michael Stone (David Thewlis) who lives inside himself and can’t really connect to anyone else. He doesn’t want to talk to anyone else because he keeps hearing the same voice over and over (all voiced by Tom Noonan). No one is different. Everyone is the same. No one talks about anything that really matters – they just fake a friendly attitude, which seems like it would suit Michael well, being that he’s a customer service “expert.”

Customer service in America is a way of making a person feel important even when – especially when – they are anything but. It is a distinctly American phenomenon that only faintly exists elsewhere. Michael is British, which is neither here nor there since he lives in America and has adopted American attitudes, otherwise he couldn’t have written the bestselling book on customer service.

He is a man without joy; without the ability to find it in a world that apparently doesn’t have it. He reaches for and briefly clings to women in the hope that they can bring him out of his inner cage. But that only works briefly, because sooner or later they too become one of “them.” The people “out there.”

When Michael meets Lisa he falls immediately in love with her unique voice, which stands out since all of the characters are voiced by Noonan. Leigh’s Lisa is a rambling, insecure, funny wallflower who comes from a world without any sort of distinction. She somehow is the distinction, the anomaly, with her passion for pressing buttons and her love of Cyndi Lauper songs. Ah Lisa. The sweetest thing. The nicest thing.

This is it, he thinks. This has got to be it. This is the one person who can save him from the long echo of misery. It is in the moments with Lisa that Anomalisa opens a tiny door to a secret world of fragility. The tender way Michael woos Lisa, the funny/sad/sweet way she lets him illuminate how true love feels, especially in that first moment of white-hot light and heat when you can’t get close enough to this person you want. That feeling, that first flush of love and lust is, we humans know, temporary. It’s not built for happily ever after, though we all wish it were. It’s there for a moment – held aloft by impossibly fast, invisible wings – something we can’t control.

In the end, though, this is a Charlie Kaufman story. Therefore the tussle between forever happiness and forever inner torture are bound to do battle. If you’re a fan, you know what usually wins out. There is a distinct difference between Michael and Lisa. If he is always looking to be carried away by something not built to last, she is always looking at what’s most promising, always saying yes to what is without wanting what could be. He can’t make her unhappy. Her can’t bring her into his void. That, too, makes her an anomaly.

How could these puppets come to such living, breathing life in front of our eyes? They’re puppets! Surely we know they’re puppets. And yet, here it is – the genius of these animators to invest their time at a great cost, and to invest their emotions in an unreal world they had to make real. And it is real. It feels real. Because those puppets are containers for the writer, the actors, and anyone else who touches them. What lives inside them brings them to life.

At the Q&A afterwards the publicists brought out the real puppets of Michael and Lisa. “Charlie doesn’t like to look at the puppets,” Johnson said. When asked why not, Kaufman said that to him they felt like real people and to see them so still and slumped over was too hard. I had to agree. They did feel real to me too.

When Jennifer Jason Leigh saw the film, she told EW, “I even forget they’re puppets, especially during the sex scene, which is so incredibly embarrassing. Even though it’s not my body, it’s not my face, it feels like the most explicit sex scene I’ve ever done.”

Much will be made of the graphic sex scene. Much will be made of the real looking penis, pubic hair and breasts. It is only a part of what makes Anomalisa feel authentic. They’re puppets, yes. They were held up by strings, their feet nailed into the floor to take each step and yet, there isn’t a moment in this film where you stop being invested in their outcome.

Even as I write that, I can see it turned into a blurb on the poster, “one of the best films ever made,” and it sounds like hyperbole. I’d run out of words trying to describe how great this movie is and nothing I could write would be able to explain it properly. It’s simply a movie that has to be seen, preferably on the big screen where you can see the teeny tiny effects that are barely noticeable and wouldn’t be noticeable on a smaller television screen.

The film, like so much of Kaufman’s work, is that eternal battle to hold on, to fight back, but to eventually surrender to the idea that we’re not meant to be happy all of the time. In fact, we wouldn’t know happiness if we had it all of the time. To notice it at all – even when it’s flying right in front of your face, and even if it doesn’t last, even if you can’t hold on to it and keep it close, even if it can’t transform you – is the true and enduring miracle.


Steven Spielberg is evolving as a man, a filmmaker and an American legend. While he’s never shied away from the “big issues” humanity has faced — like the Holocaust — he is at heart a great entertainer. With Lincoln and now Bridge of Spies his work has turned inward, to the place where questions of right and wrong are decided in the human heart. Does the new Hollywood still have a place for such quiet contemplation? Bridge of Spies will soon put that to the test.

Bridge of Spies is about an unlikely hero, James Donovan (Tom Hanks) who is tasked with defending public enemy number one, a caught spy Rudolph Abel (Mark Rylance). Abel is caught when he retrieves a hollow coin that contains KGB information. The film doesn’t declare Abel a spy and therefore immediately leaves his actions suspect. The point here is that Donovan doesn’t know if Abel is a spy or not, and he doesn’t even ask. What matters is that the accused has a right to due process under the law. Turns out, Donovan is the only one who believes that. We watch Abel watch Donovan, wondering whether this man’s integrity will collapse under the growing wall of fear built up during the Cold War.

In the end, this is a film about that formidable integrity that doesn’t waver but holds honorable men true to the principles around which our laws were written and upon which the country was founded. In the wake of post-WWII fear and hysteria, America itself became a mirrored reflection of its enemy. There were no clear cut enemies, but myriad perceived ones. Defenders on both continents fight their side because they have to. The film is a mirrored reflection of those two sides, like the hollow coin that gets Abel arrested in the film’s first scene — two sides of the same coin. Spielberg, and his screenwriters Matt Charman, and Joel and Ethan Coen, have little interest in telling that story. What they aim for and ultimately achieve is to hold up a mirror to Americans and our psyche as we are in 2015. Donovan and Abel strike up an unlikely friendship amid hostility flying at them from both sides. Spielberg references the theme both visually and thematically. In one beautifully shot scene both Abel and Donovan take their sides in the mirror. Spielberg’s eye and Janusz Kaminski’s camera repeatedly set up these two sides of the same coin.

The film takes its time. First examining Abel’s case, and then it moves to Berlin where the wall is coming up between East and West. Those desperate to escape the trap that East Germany became will risk life and limb to climb the wall, the wall that has since been torn down. The wall itself another reference to the two-sided coin, or the mirrored reflection between East and West Germany. In Bridge of Spies, reality comes second to appearances. Guilt or innocence is often determined simply by how someone looks because back then no one’s word could be trusted.

The difference is, Donovan is a man who doesn’t accuse and condemn based on appearances. He stresses that there is a moral line that a person must never cross. Do the right thing, no matter what the cost because eventually history will right itself and you want to be on the right side. Donovan was a stand-up guy who took on a difficult task and saw it through to dutiful result. For that, this film remembers him and shines a hopeful beacon for anyone who goes against public opinion in the name of justice.

Like Oskar Schindler and Abe Lincoln, Spielberg’s vision of Donovan is that of a good man who cared more deeply for others than for his own fate. If each of these three films ends with a trace of lament about the hopelessness of that trajectory, it’s only the stoic resolve for what we know about the way of such things and how impossible it is to give our doomed humanity that tacked on happy ending.

The literal and figurative bridge between the two sides — where prisoners are exchanged and favors are traded so that some kind of peace and security can be maintained — is ultimately the only solution to ongoing division. Once again, the coin, the mirror, and the bridge invoke the two sides of the same quandary — a shadowy interpretation of what can be seen, rather than what or who is really there.


While watching The Martian last night I was thinking not about Alien, although those moments popped up here and there, but rather Thelma and Louise. The same way Scott’s camera glides over the dry vast Arizona/New Mexico terrain in that film is a lot like how we see the red planet — all dusty plains and orange peaks. The shots of Matt Damon clad in his astronaut suit trudging over that terrain — one man all alone on an entire planet with no other visible life forms — is part of what makes The Martian one of the best films of the year so far. There is something about a Ridley Scott movie when it’s perfectly contained that just knocks it out of the park. This is obviously true of his two masterpieces, Alien and Bladerunner, but true of Gladiator, Thelma and Louise and Black Hawk Down.

The Martian is a breezy space epic that does not terrify like Alien nor plunge you into emotional despair like Gravity. Instead, it keeps the subject matter squarely focused on one thing and one thing only: the wonder of science and the importance of the space program. You could also say it’s about survival but it’s really more than survival. It’s a group of people who get off on solving problems. This is what, if you’re asking me, humans beings do best. With our massive brains and our ability to think and invent things we soar to magnificent heights when put to this kind of test. Need to manufacture water? Okay, done. Need to grow food to survive? There is a way to do it if you think hard enough. Count how much food you will need to survive if stuck on Mars for X amount of days? Here you go. Spend any time around scientists and you’ll see how they “poke at it” until they achieve a result. This requires risk-taking and failure. You have to start somewhere. You have to never stop trying.

The Martian is what my friend David Carr would call a “movie movie,” meaning it’s designed for massive box office both domestic and international. It is an accessible film for “Joe Popcorn” but smart enough to skim the surface of the the prestige film race. It is one of those entertaining, satisfying movies really only Hollywood can make. It is what American film really does best.

It is a well oiled ensemble with supporting turns by Jeff Daniels (whose awards get this year is really in Steve Jobs), Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kate Mara, etc. But the two standouts are Jessica Chastain as the commander of the ship that first must abandon Damon’s character but then reverse course to retrieve him. And Matt Damon, it must be said, holds this whole thing together in a singular performance that gives Damon a chance to do what he really does best: be funny. On occasion, the dialogue plays as a little glib and a tad unrealistic given the circumstances but again, if you know how scientists talk, this is kind of how they talk. Everything is glib. Nothing is taken all that seriously because they operate in the realm of absurdities and implausibilities.

The Martian has a similar tone to Argo, more so than any other film that’s been compared to it this year. This one really is funny, dipping occasionally into seriousness. Scott keeps it on the level of excitement rather than bordering on tragedy. The Oscar race needs more movies like this — movies that are actually fun to watch over the limited holiday break voters get to pick their nominees. Does that mean they will pick The Martian? Hard to say. Will it get PGA? Yeah, probably. DGA? Maybe — they love them some Ridley Scott. SAG? It’s not outside the realm of possibility but probably less likely. If you build Best Picture branch by branch you have many branches represented here: sound, editing, production design, visual effects, writing, directing, acting. It’s liked well enough by the critics but it isn’t going to win any of their major awards. This is most definitely a film for the people, not the critics.

The film’s bigger and more subtle message is that if our human indulgences got us into the mess of ruining our own habitat, perhaps it is our human ingenuity and our intelligence — and most importantly our faith in science and scientists — that could get us out of it. If there is a will there could be a way.

I loved The Martian enough that I will watch it many times. As it is I watch Ridley Scott’s Alien at least once a month. I think it is a perfect film top to bottom and is my favorite Ridley Scott movie. It’s great to see him back in space where no one can hear you scream.

They asked me how I knew
My true love was true
I of course replied
Something here inside cannot be denied
They said “someday you’ll find all who love are blind”
When your heart’s on fire,
You must realize, smoke gets in your eyes
So I chaffed them and I gaily laughed
To think they could doubt my love
Yet today my love has flown away,
I am without my love (without my love)
Now laughing friends deride
Tears I cannot hide
So I smile and say
When a lovely flame dies, smoke gets in your eyes
Smoke gets in your eyes

Andrew Haigh’s 45 Years is one of those films that tells the truth about the human experience. It does it in such a pointed yet subtle way, you might find yourself unprepared for how moving it ultimately is. 45 Years is like perfume that clings to a scarf locked away in a drawer, and when pulled out the again the scent is so familiar, so uncomfortably captivating you can do nothing but surrender to all that it recalls. What we keep from our past tells us who we are as we age. What meant enough to us for us to record, photograph, store in boxes is all we have, really, when the door begins to close on our lives.

The role of Kate Mercer seems to have been written for the film’s star, Charlotte Rampling, whose emotional journey as she discovers more about her husband Geoff (an excellent Tom Courtenay) than she really ever needed to know. It’s written on her face — a legendary face now worn with age and time.  This is not a woman who lived out loud. This is a woman who came to her marriage with very limited experience. She was young, she was beautiful and she loved only one man who took her from her father’s house and spent the next 45 years as her husband.


As the couple head for their 45th anniversary party, a long buried secret is revealed. The body of the husband’s former girlfriend, or perhaps wife, “Katya” has been found. She’d fallen into an icy crevasse while the couple was hiking and died there. Whatever dreams Geoff once had with her died there too. He went on with his life as best he could; then met and married Kate. That we’re dealing with a “Katya” and a “Kate” probably tells you more than you should know walking into this fine, fine film.  It was based on a short story by David Constantine which laid down the framework for what would become a much bigger — yet still somehow quite “small” — story.

The suspense in the movie is wrapped up in the expressions on the couple’s faces as they work through their daily routine — the quiet of their childless lives, with only dogs and each other for comfort. He goes to work. She takes walks. They see friends. They eat dinner together. They brush their teeth and make a good attempt at making love. It is a perfectly fine life.  Most of us don’t sign up for perfectly fine lives, though, do we? We are aching for true love, if it exists.

Watching Rampling go through the business of living, all the while pondering what might be going on with her husband once the news of “Katya” emerges. After the news, he seems almost like a different person. She suddenly notices that there aren’t any photographs of them around, and none of her. She talks of wishing they’d captured more memories. He talks about rhow beautiful she once was. But with no photographs to remember those times, they are stuck with the present and all that it brings in the too quiet late, late nights in the countryside.

Rampling is exquisite in the part of Kate. Funnily enough, it might be the performance of the year for any actress. Is it showy enough? Is it too subtle? Those will be the questions people ask when it comes to the Oscar race.  None of that means anything, of course. Not in the real world of how art can move us so powerfully we leave the film changed. As beautiful as the past images Rampling conjures in our mind’s eye, this somehow seems the exact right moment when she is at her most beautiful. Her kindness and generosity towards her husband, her sudden realization of how he sees her — are astonishing.

That is what is most heartbreaking  about 45 Years. We all throw ourselves into love to be seen. We aren’t really the sum total of our memories, or photographs of who we once were. Kate is a knockout still, 45 years after her husband said she was one. How can we ever know we are really being seen? We hope that when the time comes to pay tribute — when they ask us how we knew our true love was true? We will get the answer.



The rain’s been pouring the last two days at TIFF but hopefully the skies will clear before this year’s Telluride giants arrive to build on the buzz they created a few weeks ago. I’m looking forward to the way Spotlight, Beasts of No Nation and Room will fare with everyone here.

This time last year in Toronto, everyone was talking about Whiplash, and the thunderous applause it garnered at the Ryerson theater. This year it’s all about three Cannes favorites: Sicario, Son of Saul and The Lobster. Everywhere you go people are asking if you’ve seen these three movies. They are the standouts of the fest thus far, but there are still 5 days of premieres left and we’re all hoping for a surprise to take over the fest and get some fresh buzz going. James Vanderbilt’s Truth is said to be that movie, if you believe the select few who have seen it. We’ll know for sure as early as Tuesday when the press screening will take place at the Scotia Bank theater.

Johnny Depp gives his best performance in almost 10 years in Black Mass. He’s almost guaranteed a nomination, but prospects for the film are uncertain. Director Scott Cooper lets Depp take change of the proceedings as Irish gangster Whitey Bulger — a role that ticks all the boxes for Depp to finally win that much eluded Oscar. We already knew that just by watching the trailer a few months ago. Joel Edgerton co-stars as the FBI agent — who happens to be Bulger’s childhood buddy — and convinces the gangster to become an informant for the FBI. Edgerton is actually a talented filmmaker in his own right. He directed this summer’s sleeper The Gift, a superb movie.

The Lobster is a wholly original vision by Greek director Giorgos Lanthimos. It will be divisive for many reasons: When Sasha saw it at Cannes she wrote “I don’t know if Lanthimos 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.” The first half of the film is great, before it narrows its focus a little too tightly in the second half. That’s been the main observation by many who saw it at Cannes and it is my main issue as well. Lanthimos is a true talent, Dogtooth is one of the great movies of the past half decade. He encompasses and creates worlds unlike any other. Did he get super baked to write this picture? If so, more directors should meet his dealer. The visual and surreal nature of the first hour is a breath of fresh air, the hotel in which these strangers stay in is gorgeously thought out and a world which I wish the film dealt with at greater lengths. This is a film that is truly a breath of fresh air amid some of the stuffier Oscar fare playing here.

The Danish Girl premiered at Venice but did not travel to Telluride. Directed by Tom Hooper, it stars Eddie Redmayne as Lili Elbe, one of the first persons known to undergo gender reassignment surgery. Surprisingly, the role shares many similarities with Redmayne’s Oscar-winning turn in The Theory of Everything, focusing on a marriage where the wife makes extraordinary concessions for her husband’s sudden dramatic crisis. Redmayne’s performance in The Theory of Everything was harrowing and brilliant. In his second run in a row for Best Actor, he’s more tender, gentle and sensitive. Hooper shoots the film exactly as you would expect him to: safely, dependably, elegantly and somewhat guardedly. Although Redmayne’s performance will be the main attraction for most people, attention should be paid more thoroughly to his co-star Alicia Vikander who gives a brilliant performance as Gerda Wegener, the wife. Vikander is a star in the making, just like Felicity Jones was in Theory, and provides much needed artistry to the film’s masterpiece theater setting. The subject matter is provocative, Redmayne’s transformation is convincing, Vikander is hot and an actress to be reckoned with.

Jacques Audiard’s Dheepan won the Palme D’Or this year at Cannes and caused a slight backlash because of it. Don’t listen to the critics; this French film is top notch. It features a great performance from lead Jesuthasan Antonythasan, who plays a former Sri Lankan Tamil warrior fleeing his native country along with two Sri Lankan women, seeking refuge in what they think is a peaceful neighborhood in France. Many refugees in the film have lied to get away from the civil war in Sri Lanka. Dheepan and his companions pretend they are a family of three, but in reality they are not father, mother and daughter. Understandably, there’s ample reason for tension between the three of them, which is clearly felt in every scene.

The film tells what transpires when title character, a former Tamil Tiger, takes a job as a caretaker in a crime- and drugs-ridden apartment block in the Paris suburbs. Many immigrants have fled the strife of their own country, only to find themselves embroiled in deadly struggles of a different kind. As a caretaker of a rundown building, Deephan is faced with problems he clearly doesn’t see coming, since the place has been overrun by gangsters who conduct their business with brutality on a nightly basis. This doesn’t sit well with the main character, who’s clearly dealing with a case of PTSD, so he decides to take matters into his own hands. In the end, the peaceful caretaker Dheepan is forced to become a fierce fighter once again.

The film is raw and one of the very best to address the Sri Lankan Tamil conflict. Audiard has sometimes struggled to give his great films a proper climax (A Prophert, Rust and Bone) and Deephan is perhaps another example of that. The last several minutes may be divisive, but the resonance the film leaves for the viewer is rare in cinema these days. It provokes, asks questions, and provides an emotional experience that is hard to shake.


Boy Soldier

What a smile! One large lamp for a face,
smaller lanterns where skin stretches over
bones waiting for muscle, body all angles.
His Kalashnikov fires at each moving
thing before he knows what he drags
down. He halts movement of every
kind and fails to weigh whom he stops
dead or maims, his bullets
like jabs thrown before the thought
to throw them, involuntary shudders
when someone, somewhere, steps over
his shallow, unmarked, mass grave.
But his smile remains undimmed,
inviting, not knowing what hit him,
what snuffs out the wicks in his eyes.
Except that he moves and a face just like
his figures like him to stop all action
with a flick of finger on the trigger. —Fred D’Aguiar

The violence in Cary Fukunaga’s exquisite Beasts of No Nation is graphic. But so is its purity of heart. In America, young white boys are told that the world owes them something just by virtue of their being born. Once they become teenagers it starts to dawn on them that this plan isn’t going to work out. Their lives haven’t lived up to the promise of the American dream, of all of the animated and live action films aimed at them that reinforce the idea that they are special, that they matter. Most of them just go on to live their unadorned lives anyway. Some of them pick up a weapon and shoot people before taking their own lives. Contrast that bizarre, aberrant phenomena with child soldiers in Africa and other places where boys are given no other choice but to pick up a weapon and start shooting people. That’s if they’re lucky. That’s if they aren’t killed first.

Written, directed and filmed by wunderkind Cary Fukunaga, Beasts of No Nation lasts 133 minutes and throughout its duration it depicts one horror after another, with fleeting moments of humanity. Appearing like unintentional daisies in a landfill, our young soldier clings to those moments as they are taken away one at a time, his own existence proof of the absence of God.  This is the childhood of an ordinary boy soldier raised to further some war lord’s cause. Poverty and corruption go hand in hand in places most Americans pretend not to know exist.  This brilliantly made, wholly original war epic belongs on the same shelf as Apocalypse Now and yet was rejected by every studio until Netflix came to the rescue.

Now the film can have a chance to play in a small number of theaters for those lucky enough to live in major cities; now it can be seen at the same time online by serious film lovers who search in vain for great cinema at multiplexes in thousands of small towns; and it will eventually become a film that continues to stun anyone who scrolls past bland options on a Saturday night, anyone who comes across it deliberately or chance discovery, a great movie made widely available for anyone who has the curiosity to find it and the guts to stick with it.

Anyone who watched the first season of True Detective knows what this director can do. That alone should have motivated the studios to have faith in him.  But fear set in and no one wanted touch it because they thought no one would watch it. Studio execs think we’re too busy wasting time on Facebook or watching The Biggest Loser to care. It’s all about money and where is the money in this?

There might not be money, but there is beauty.  Beauty in watching a seriously talented artist deliver an uncompromising work of art. This film, in fact, is a moving poem.  One scene to the next immerses us more deeply into the jungle, as we get to know the faces and the unwritten rules of this kind of warfare.  Are we asked to care? Does it even matter? We have angry young white men in America who walk into churches and theaters to shoot innocent people in Bible study and on date night, and yet it’s these guys 5000 miles away that we cal barbarians? The truth about Americans is that they don’t care to look at the truth most of the time.

Idris Elba is the big name attached. He plays the commandant who “adopts” young Agu (the incredibly talented Abraham Atta). Fukunaga never lets you forget you are watching a child whose life was ripped apart when his family fled his village as rebels rode into town. The book the film is based on, and the press packet synopsis, calls the rebel army “unnamed,” meaning, there are so many of them cropping up out of poverty and desperation that naming them is almost pointless. Their crimes follow a familiar pattern. Young boys are forced to join armies, women and girls are routinely raped, all in the name of grabbing power in places crippled by progress, where many first-world corporate giants have robbed all the natural resources, leaving destitute people to fend for themselves, chasing scraps and getting what they can, while they can.

What is so remarkable about this film is how Fukunaga holds it all together so that, even at its two-hour plus running time, the film never drags. Each moment in young Agu’s life matters because he is evolving from an ordinary child into a monster.  Because Atta is the right actor chosen to play the part, we feel a connection to young Agu.  We never forget he’s a child because his eyes remain vulnerable, even as he’s aiming his weapon, even as he’s shooting bullets through a woman’s head, even as he’s made to bring the machete down on an innocent man’s skull. He’s made to do these things because that is what you do or else you’re one of the dead. He makes a friend and the two of them comfort each other after sexual assaults by the commandant (hinted at but never graphically shown). That relationship, though, like all good things in Agu’s life, is just another casualty.

So much of the film drifts by like a surreal dream — even though the narration is that of a child, we would not need to hear that narration to know we are witnessing the unthinkable from a child’s point of view.  As director and cinematographer, Fukunaga does not need to translate or have his ideas interpreted through another collaborator. He films what he sees in his head. That somehow makes Beasts of No Nation feel wholly original, unlike anything that will play in a movie theater this year or the next ten years. It might not be right to call it entertainment, but it is art.

There was a time back in the 1980s and 1990s when Americans cared about child soldiers in Africa. The occasional celebrity cracks our distracted bubble and mentions it as some distant event where photos are taken and put on fan sites. Art can do more than that. It can rip away protective covers and embed itself in ways you can’t shake off. There is no website at the end of this film to tell us where to donate to help. There is no petition we can sign so that we can click a button and go on with our day. There is no invitation for us to care about anything beyond whether or not we can sync our iPhones with our new computers.  It asks nothing from you except to look and see.

A great filmmaker builds worlds with their own language.  They are so skillful you never doubt where they’re taking you even if it is so painful to watch it turns your stomach and makes you flinch. This film does not draw from anyone else’s playbook.  It is a wholly original masterpiece that no person who claims to love film should pass up. Don’t not watch it because you think there is no way you can help young boys who are violated in so many different ways. We here in the first world have the luxury of getting depressed about it.

When the film at last comes to its closing moments, after we’ve seen what life is like from a child soldier’s point of view, Fukunaga hits us with the film’s true meaning. Agu asks himself whether he’ll ever be able to return to the world of children. Of playtime and ice cream cones, of teasing each other with flashlights, of finding love and friendship in places where something as basic as good drinking water is hard to get. Can he ever regain that purity of heart, that goodness each child inherits at birth? The truth is that he doesn’t yet know if he can after what he’s seen, after what he’s done, after all of the death that has become his everyday reality. What does he know? He once had a mother, a father, sisters and brothers. They loved him. All he knows is that he was once something closer to a real human being, kissed and carried, and maybe never forgotten.


“I’ve looked at life from both sides now
From win and lose and still somehow
It’s life’s illusions I recall
I really don’t know life at all” – Joni Mitchell

With Steve Jobs, Aaron Sorkin adds another chapter to his hopefully ongoing saga of American tech. First, Mark Zuckerberg went from quirky Harvard nerd to friendless billionaire, changing the way people connected for better and worse. Now, Steve Jobs goes from Apple inventor, to Apple reject, to Apple savior. We all know the story of Apple, those of us who grip our iPhones, type on our MacBooks, listen to our iTunes, tap on our iPads. We know these beautiful items are credited as the milestones Jobs introduced to reinvigorate Apple when he was brought back to save it from bankruptcy. We also know the withered cancer victim who fought back death until it finally carried him under. This film isn’t about those stories. It isn’t about how nature casually discards even the most valued among us. As Bob Marley was quoted as having said, “all the money in the world can’t buy you a minute more of life.”

Sorkin’s Steve Jobs is about how we measure success and failure. Jobs could not really achieve greatness without recognizing the most important thing in his life: his biological daughter Lisa Brennan. His success could not be measured by the pretty toys alone. His success had to come from his willingness to connect with his own flesh and blood. Much is made in the film of Jobs’ adoption as one of the main reasons he’s having so much trouble with his own daughter. This damaged relationship is played out alongside Jobs’ career highs and lows. None of his successes will matter in the end if he can’t do the right thing, which means more than just writing a check. That is probably the most surprising thing of all — how Danny Boyle and Aaron Sorkin launched an excavation to find Steve Jobs’ heart.

Danny Boyle’s version of Steve Jobs looks very different from what David Fincher’s would have looked like. It’s impossible to say whether one is better than the other would have been. Boyle gives the film over to the writing and to the film’s lead performance, a stunning knockout by Michael Fassbender as Jobs. Boyle gives us breathtaking shots of Jobs in various stages of his professional life. He filmed nearly the whole thing in three different theaters in San Francisco and much of the action is confined to those spaces.

Boyle is strong on humanity in his work, which helps explain why this telling of Jobs life is rooted so deeply in the women he’s surrounded himself with — chief among them, Kate Winslet as Joanna Hoffman, a key figure in helping Jobs hold his business together. She is more here — work wife, mother figure, teacher. Winslet has one of the film’s best scenes where she can’t watch this man mistreat his daughter for one more minute. Either fix it, she says, or I’ll go work … “anywhere I want.”

Fassbender spits out Sorkin’s dialogue like an ice cube maker — each withering insult sticking its landing. Jobs suffered no fools. This is not a story that sugarcoats his past. He is, in many ways, a monster who feeds on ego and builds machines that do not cooperate with other machines but are closed systems unto themselves. Fassbender’s Jobs is focused on one thing: making his work a success. What friendships he has are mostly about his work. He isn’t freed from the theater to go live his life, not ever. What life? Jobs has nothing but Apple. That is, until he eventually figures out that there is one thing he helped bring into the world. He has to change to access that primal human relationship.

Steve Jobs has the look and feel of a three-act play with a stage, a backstage, an adoring crowd and lots and lots and lots and LOTS of dialogue. Sorkin and Boyle have found a way to tell this familiar story as a kind of talk opera. Dramatic speech and monologues take up so much room there isn’t much left for anything else. It’s a high wire act that might leave some feeling left behind. Somehow, though, Boyle pulls it off not by backing off the speechifying but by leaning into it and allowing it to sing.

Boyle brings out memorable turns from the supporting actors, Seth Rogan and Jeff Daniels among them. As is almost always the case with Sorkin’s work they are all speaking the same language drawn from the same rhythm and vocabulary. To some this is Sorkin overkill but the same could be said for the best of them — David Mamet, Edward Albee, Paddy Chayefsky and even William Shakespeare. Sorkin is not trying to do anything but write in his own style, thus the film’s exceptional dialogue leaves its mark as profoundly as Jobs himself left his.

With propulsive score by Daniel Pemberton, and cinematography by Alwin H. Küchler, Boyle is not working with his usual team on Steve Jobs. Boyle is trying something new here in making a film built almost entirely on dialogue. This is a film made up of what Danny Boyle called “gestures” to the real people involved. They aren’t trying to make a biopic here but rather depict a kind of symbolic, ongoing conflict between the icon and the man. There are playful moments in the film and emotional highs that catch you off guard. Boyle’s enthusiasm and zest for life combined with Sorkin’s energy and verbal swordplay make Steve Jobs breathtaking and relentless at the same time.

In America we want our heroes to shimmer. We want them to emerge as gods, not monsters. We want them to tell their story of success that celebrates the tenants of the American dream. We need that dream to come true. A film like this one is a reminder that you can’t pick and choose the builders of this country or that dream. They sometimes emerge as broken people, whose humanity is buried underneath layers of ambition. When the spark of genius does emerge, however, one can do nothing but stand back and applaud with admiration a man who could do that much with his imagination.


It is an astonishing thing, to know there was a time when women weren’t valued enough to be allowed governance of their own rights. It took us so long, and the struggle is never-ending, because to fight requires sacrifices that are near impossible to make. Fighting and protesting means being exiled, alienated, belittled, resented, hated. You see it today on the internet where misogyny reigns supreme. You see it coming from both men and women, always with the message: shut up and sit down. In the face of all that, it would have been easy for Suffragette to turn into an angry screed, but Gavron isn’t much interested in focusing on the anger. Women in the twilight of the 19th Century did not have the luxury of indulging in anger because they were in enough trouble as it was.

Mulligan plays a good wife and mother who works in a laundry, suffers sexual harassment, long hours and much less pay than her male counterparts. She is reluctant to join the movement until its cause becomes too urgent — and the injustices too egregious to ignore.  She joins a group of women who are fighting for the vote — and with it, the right to declare that they are worth “no more and no less” than men. This is a film about what Mulligan’s character endures on the treacherous path to equality.

Gavron holds Mulligan’s face in tight closeup through the film, rarely pulling back for long shots. No director has ever done that with this actress, so that avid quality that might once have projected vulnerability throughout her work is transformed here into tenacious inner strength, a keen resolve that the camera can only catch when it pulls in close. With her half smile, her heavy lidded sad eyes, Mulligan’s Maud Watts is her best performance to date.  Carey Mulligan is the number one reason to see this film and she’s the thing that will make this film impossible to ignore come awards time. She carries it the way actresses used to do back when more women were given this kind of opportunity.

The supporting cast are all top notch, including Helena Bonham Carter, Romola Garai, and Anne-Marie Duff. Each one of them more than capable of having better parts and better roles written for them. With so much talent packed into two hours, it is a reminder of how few films like this exist anywhere. Telluride is unleashing the full force of the feminine this season, with this film, He Named Me Malala, and Carol. These are films about the sort of empowerment that means more than finding oneself on a spiritual journey. These films confront some of the forces that have oppressed and continue to oppress women the world over, including Hollywood itself.

Meryl Streep — who was in attendance the premiere, received a standing ovation. She had maybe five minutes of screen time but Streep knows full well what a movie like this means. Produced, written, directed by and starring women, this isn’t one the Oscars can pass by and sleep easy at night. The direction is unpredictable, moody and never goes for the easy emotional cheat. That one big crescendo is absent here, and in its place what is meant to be read as an ongoing struggle for women’s rights. One need only look at the presidential election to see how women are both on the precipice of equality and at the same time judged by a different standard, still measured by what they look like and whether or not they smile.

The costume design by Jane Petrie recalls an authentic, grimy London lifestyle that goes well with the no-makeup look of the film’s stars and the gritty cinematography by Eduard Grau. Once again, Alexandre Desplat outdoes himself with one of the film’s best assets — it’s suspenseful score.

Indeed, Suffragette will be recognized as one of the year’s best films not because it makes you beat your chest and celebrate women having won a hard-fought battle but because it may be one of the few films on the subject that makes it point by showing what individual women had to go through on a person level. It is Mulligan’s story but how many more women like her were punished for even thinking about wanting more.

Gavron is a relative newcomer with feature films but finds in Mulligan the perfect focal point. She could have told this story with any actress in the lead and it would have been good. With Mulligan in the lead the film becomes great. It becomes great because Gavron immerses us fully in this world — we can smell it, we can taste it, we can feel it wrap tightly around our necks until we want to scream. Suffragette is a master work.


“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:


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.



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.


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.

Screen Shot 2015-06-03 at 9.05.51 AM

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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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