Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Toronto 2011 Diary, Day 3

Today started at 7:00am with profoundly good luck at the box office. Sometimes, additional tickets for a screening go on sale that morning, and I was hoping this would be the case for a screening of George Clooney’s The Ides of March and the gala premiere of David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method. Amazingly, I scored tickets to both. Combined with the tickets I already had, this meant for one full day of film going.

Film: The Ides of March

Director: George Clooney, who I suspect needs no introduction. But this is his fourth film as a director, following Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Good Night, and Good Luck, and Leatherheads.

Notable Cast and Crew: Ryan Gosling stars, with Clooney, Paul Giamatti, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Marisa Tomei, and Evan Rachel Wood all turning in excellent supporting work. Clooney and his writing partner, Grant Heslov, adapted the screenplay from a stage play.

The Gist: In the days leading up to the Ohio democratic presidential primary, a political strategist (Gosling) experiences a crisis of self when he realizes the governor (Clooney) he works for may not be the perfect candidate he believed.

The Goods: This is a flawlessly crafted film, with absolutely top-notch performances and great dialogue to feed them. But the two real stars here are Clooney’s direction and Gosling’s emotional range. Everything about this movie’s visual style—framing, lighting, angles—indicates that Clooney has completely arrived as a director.

But the movie still wouldn’t have worked without Gosling’s ability to portray his character’s internal conflict. The real arc of the film is about Gosling’s strategist coming to grips with the realities of politics and what it takes to get to the top of that world. For Ides of March to succeed, Gosling’s changing reality has to be conveyed in his eyes, and it is. The film ends with one of the best closing shots I’ve seen in this year or most others.

The one flaw with the film though, is it’s just not as thematically profound as I get the feeling it hopes to be. The ultimate message of the movie (Politics are dirty! You have to cut deals and screw people over to win!) will probably fall a bit flat for anyone that isn’t hopelessly idealistic. But even still, that doesn’t take much away from what is otherwise one hell of a good political drama.

The Grade: A-

Film: Pearl Jam Twenty

Director: Cameron Crowe, a former rock journalist who became immersed in the Seattle music scene of the late 80s and early 90s. Crowe is also the writer director of Say Anything, Singles (which helped break Pearl Jam), Jerry Maguire, Almost Famous, and Vanilla Sky.

Notable Cast and Crew: The only real cast is Pearl Jam, but Chris Cornell (former lead singer of Soundgarden, Temple of the Dog, and Audioslave) is also featured in interviews.

The Gist: A documentary celebrating Pearl Jam’s 20th anniversary, and covering the entire history of the band.

The Goods: Pearl Jam Twenty manages to succeed on every level of ambition it shoots for. It’s a lively and informative career history and one hell of a great listen. But more importantly, this film manages to convey why Pearl Jam was a band that mattered. Pearl Jam became the lead spokesmen for an entire generation of disaffected youth, and they did it by refusing to ever sacrifice their principles or their integrity. Even as their career momentum dwindled to a halt in the mid-to-late 90s because of the way they tightly controlled their exposure, they refused to ever give in for success. They are the ultimate “band of the people” because they persistently valued loyalty to their fans more than loyalty to success.

If Ides of March was all about the way people end up sacrificing their integrity, then Pearl Jam Twenty is about the way you hang onto it. In a present day interview, guitarist Stone Gossard even talks about the “birth of no” for the band, and how they collectively decided they would no longer allow themselves to be victims of overexposure. (And just wait until you see Gossard talk about the Grammys!) One of the real treats of the film is seeing the band perform “Alive” at their second ever show, revealing how great they were from the moment of inception. Unlike most bands that form as teenagers and go through years of growing pains, Pearl Jam came together when the members were all in their mid-twenties, and greatness was right there for the taking. Lucky for us, they took it. This is everything you could want from a career spanning rock and roll documentary.

The Grade: A

Film: A Dangerous Method

Director: David Cronenberg, a thirty-year veteran of edgy filmmaking. Most of his early career was spent making psychological horror films, such as Videodrome, Scanners, Dead Ringers, and The Fly. But he’s entered a late career renaissance with his last two films, A History of Violence and Eastern Promises, both outstanding dramas about the effect of violence on the human psyche.

Notable Cast and Crew: Viggo Mortensen, Michael Fassbender, and Keira Knightley. Christopher Hampton (Atonement) wrote the screenplay, adapting his own stage play.

The Gist: A historical drama about history’s two greatest psychologists, Sigmond Freud (Mortensen) and Carl Jung (Fassbender), who see their relationship change when a new patient (Knightley) comes between them.

The Goods: This is a very well done and compelling period drama, with impeccable acting (and Knightley absolutely steals the show—she’ll be contending for an Oscar), but there are some flaws. First of all, the movie is too short. A Dangerous Method isn’t simply one biopic, but it’s actually about the relationship between two of the most important minds of the 20th century. Clocking in at barely over 90 minutes, it just feels like more could have been mined out of such a weighty subject.

But more importantly, this never really feels like a Cronenberg film. Most of the director’s work has always been about the common ground where horror, violence, sexuality, and the human mind all intersect. Method has the latter two, but not the former. And while that gripe alone might not make this seem like an underwhelming film, here’s what does: It’s undeniably ironic that a movie about the birth of modern psychology turns out to be the least psychological movie Cronenberg has made in a long time.

The Grade: B+

Film: Drive

Director: Nicholas Winding Refn, the Danish director behind Bronson and Valhalla Rising.

Notable Cast and Crew: Ryan Gosling stars, with Carey Mulligan, Albert Brooks, Bryan Cranston, Christina Hendricks, and Ron Perlman in supporting roles.

The Gist: Gosling stars as a mechanic and movie stunt driver by day, getaway driver by night. Working on a deal to start professional racing with Cranston and Brooks behind him, he gets caught on the wrong path when trying to help a beautiful neighbor’s husband square his debts.

The Goods: Drive is a fun and captivating action noir film, mixing the car chase exploitation flicks of Roger Corman with the existential French new wave crime films of Jean-Pierre Melville. Gosling’s character (who is never named) preserves his mystique by not speaking much, but the toughness and action star quality is conveyed quite well. What’s frustrating about Drive (and no, I’m not holding the unoriginal plot against it—that’s to be expected from a car chase movie) is that the violence just gets so over the top in a few sequences that it’s remarkably distracting from the movie. So much so that when the end credits roll, the daiquiri mix-like blood spurting might be the image of the film most firmly stamped in your mind. And that’s a shame for such a compellingly cinematic action movie.

And for those of you keeping track at home: In the past two months, Ryan Gosling has successfully played the lead role in a great romantic comedy (Crazy Stupid Love), a great political drama (The Ides of March—see above), and a pretty good action movie. Even while resisting the temptation to overly hyperbolize Gosling, it needs to be asked: How many actors could do that? When was the last time a leading man displayed that kind of range? Kevin Costner made Bull Durham, JFK, and Revenge in a 3-year span, which might be as close as it gets without going back to Hollywood’s Golden Age. It may be easy to forget now, but from about ’87-’93, Kevin Costner had one of the greatest leading man hot streaks Hollywood has ever seen. And Gosling looks primed to challenge that. Stay tuned.

The Grade: B

Up next: Q and A time with Francis Ford Coppola, celebrating 20 years of Sony Pictures Classics, the new Almodovar film, and a fantastic new Indie comedy.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Toronto 2011 Diary, Day 2

The first full day of the 36th annual Toronto International Film Festival saw me harness my U2 media pass and attend my first ever press conference. Answering Twitter questions about the From the Sky Down premiere the night before, director Davis Guggenheim, Bono, and The Edge sat down with TIFF Documentary Programmer Thom Powers for a lively hour-long chat.

Many worthy quotes and tidbits were revealed, and you can watch the whole thing on U2’s website, but here are some highlights…

When asked how realistic a break-up might have been during the making of Achtung Baby, The Edge replied that a total crash and burn wasn’t that likely, but “what was really at stake was an ending of the trust the four of us had in each other. In a weird way, that probably would have been more sad.”

When asked about the reasons for doing the film, Bono replied that the band is dangerously close to irrelevance, and it was useful to look back at how they’d dodged that outcome before.

And when David Guggenheim was asked if he still had any questions left for the band after spending so much time with them, he looked over to Bono and The Edge and said “Do you like me?”

I attended two screenings in the evening, one of which received the first standing ovation I’ve ever seen at TIFF. It was called…

Film: The Artist

The Gist: The Artist is a black and white silent film set during the era when Hollywood made the transition to talkies. Chronicling the declining fortunes of silent film star George Valentin and the rise of the beautiful Peppy Miller as Hollywood’s new “it” girl, The Artist lovingly honors and recreates cinema’s first golden era.

Director: Michel Hazanavicius, a veteran of French TV (and he also wrote the screenplay)

Notable Cast and Crew: The two leads are both French actors, Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo. Great supporting work is provided by John Goodman, James Cromwell, and Malcolm McDowell.

The Goods: A lot of people will have a hard time convincing themselves that they want to see a modern day silent film, and I was certainly in that group. But the film was beloved at Cannes and Dujardin took home that festival’s Best Actor prize, so I felt like I had to give it a shot. And I can now tell you, firsthand, The Artist was a profound cinematic experience that I’ll likely never forget. This film exudes such a contagious joy that it’s almost indescribable. The full crowd at TIFF hung on the film’s every moment, and there was a palpable feeling in the room that none of us will ever see another movie quite like it. I confess I have no idea whether this film will find an audience when it gets a theatrical release. Reviews and word of mouth will be behind it (and several critics think it will receive some Oscar nominations—Picture, Director, and Actor all seem feasible), but how many ticket buyers will give it a chance? I hope you do, because The Artist is not to be missed.

The Grade: A

Film: The Hunter

The Gist: The story of a scientist hired by a biological research corporation to go to Tasmania and find the alleged last remaining Tasmanian Tiger.

Director: Daniel Nettheim, making his first feature film after a prolific decade in Australian TV.

Notable Cast and Crew: Willem Dafoe stars as the title character, with Sam Neil in a supporting role. The film was adapted from a novel by Julia Leigh.

The Goods: The Hunter is a deeply ruminative film about man’s role in trying to control nature, and the consequences we pay for it. Much of the conflict in the film is internal to Willem Dafoe’s character, and a huge visual draw for audiences will be the gorgeous Tasmanian wilderness. The movie was very reminiscent of the Robert Redford classic Jeremiah Johnson, and while it’s definitely beautiful and compelling, the resolution feels a bit unsatisfying on levels both practical and philosophical. But there’s a great scene with a Bruce Springsteen song.

The Grade: B

On tap for tomorrow: The premieres of the Cameron Crowe documentary Pearl Jam Twenty and the Ryan Gosling action noir Drive, as well as my attempt to score a ticket to the premiere of the Freud/Jung biopic A Dangerous Method.

For more frequent info on TIFF and more, follow me on Twitter @thirdmanmovies

To see this post on Detroit's Metro Times blog, click here

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Toronto 2011 Diary, Day 1

I arrived in Toronto today a little after 2pm and immediately had to start scurrying. It was a big night, after all. The U2 documentary From the Sky Down, about the making of 1991’s Achtung Baby, was opening the festival at 6:30, and I was responsible with doing coverage for the band’s fan site, In the meantime, all I had to do was shower, change, pick up my tickets and press pass, and get across town to the Elgin Theatre. Easy, right? Well, for those of you that have never seen the ticket line for the opening day of a major film festival, it looks a little like the apocalypse. Just picking up will call tickets took an hour and a half. And would you have guessed that I had to pick up my press pass and my press accreditation (two separate things, I might add) in two entirely different buildings? Yes, the world’s largest film festival does have some minor organization and efficiency problems.

I ended up getting to my seat at the Elgin just as Piers Handling (Director of TIFF) was coming out to introduce the film. But luckily, the initial panic of my first 4 hours in Toronto quickly dissipated, and by the end of the night, I had seen two fantastic films.

Film: From the Sky Down

The Gist: A documentary about the making of U2’s landmark 1991 album Achtung Baby, interspersed with footage of the band revisiting the songs at this summer’s Glastonbury Festival, where they celebrated the album’s 20th anniversary.

Director: Davis Guggenheim, who has arguably been the best documentary filmmaker of the last decade. He won an Oscar for 2006’s An Inconvenient Truth, took on America’s school system with last year’s Waiting for Superman, and held the world’s greatest guitar summit in 2009’s It Might Get Loud.

Notable Cast and Crew: Well, the band, for one. But insightful interviews are also conducted with producers Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois, engineer Flood, and manager Paul McGuinness.

The Goods: From the Sky Down is a film about trying to turn massive mainstream success into a meaningful artistic career. Many regard Achtung Baby as U2’s greatest and most important album, and this film adequately and profoundly explains why. By the end of the 1980s, U2 had become the most successful band in the world, and The Joshua Tree was, to many, the decade’s best album. But the band had become the very type of “big rock” they hated, and they knew that they couldn’t repeat the same formulas if they wanted to have sustained creative success. So they went to Berlin, and changed their look, their sound, and their attitude. This intimate look inside that creative process is worth the time to anyone that thinks rock and roll is an important form of artistic expression. If the film has a flaw, it’s that it tries to do too much. The first half is mostly devoted to why the band needed a reinvention, and then by the time you throw in the present day footage of the band getting ready for Glastonbury, there just isn’t enough time to show the actual reinvention.

The Grade: B+

For a more in-depth look at the film, see my coverage for atu2 HERE.

Film: Le Havre

The Gist: Taking place in the eponymous Normandy port city of the title, Le Havre is a French dramedy about a poor shoe-shiner who takes in an illegal African immigrant boy on the run. When a police inspector begins to suspect the shoe-shiner of harboring him, a humorous cat and mouse game ensues.

Director: Aki Kaurismaki, a Finnish director who has been making movies in France for decades, most notably 2002’s The Man Without a Past.

Notable Cast and Crew: Kaurismaki typically uses the same cast and crew for all of his films. Andre Wilms is the star here, but Jean-Pierre Leaud (veteran actor of numerous Francois Truffaut films) also has a small role.

The Goods: A truly wonderful film that goes in directions—both in story and in style—that you don’t expect, it manages to be both relevant and a whole lot of fun. Kaurismaki uses a mishmash of styles that at times recalled Douglas Sirk, David Lynch, and Wes Anderson, but never felt like it was copying anyone. The humor in the film is a bit dry but always feels genuine, while the easy moralizing is mostly avoided. Plus, there’s a great rock and roll segue featuring a local legend named Little Bob. This was my first Kaurismaki film, but it definitely won’t be my last.

The Grade: A

On tap for tomorrow: A press conference with Bono & The Edge, silent film homage The Artist, which was a sensation in Cannes, and The Hunter, starring Willem Dafoe on the hunt for the last living Tasmanian Tiger.

For more frequent info on TIFF and more, follow me on Twitter @thirdmanmovies

To see this post on Detroit's Metro Times blog, click here.

Friday, August 26, 2011

In Theaters: The Names of Love

The Names of Love

Directed by Michel Lecrlerc

The Grade: B+

The Names of Love is a delightful new French comedy about the generations worth of baggage so many of us carry within the origins of our names. Jacques Gamblin and Sara Forestier star as an unlikely romantic couple trying to come to terms with how their ethnic backgrounds inform and/or impede on their roles in modern French society.

Gamblin plays the boring and uptight Arthur Martin, whose painfully common name (we learn there are over 15,000 Arthur Martins living in France) hides the fact that his mother is an Auschwitz survivor descended from Greek Jews. Arthur falls in love with the beautiful but chaotic Baya (Forestier), who makes sure everyone knows she has an Algerian father. Baya is on a life mission to convert her political opponents by sleeping with them—as Arthur put it, “she uses her body as a weapon of mass destruction against the fascists.”

Forestier, who won this year’s Cesar Award (the French Oscar) for Best Actress in the film, is absolutely fantastic as Baya, who wears not just her heart, but her entire cultural being on her sleeve. We see her choose “whoring” for the greater good that she thinks it can do for the nation’s political climate, and then we watch the upheaval of her world when she falls in love with Arthur. In a particularly memorable moment, we learn why she holds herself responsible for the election of (current French President) Nicolas Sarkozy.

Even if some sequences feel a bit too rushed, the film maintains its grounding via a humorous running commentary by adolescent versions of Arthur and Baya. In his first major film behind the camera, writer/director Michel Leclerc does a wonderful job of finding the whimsical comedy behind a weighty subject matter, and he approaches it with a grace and maturity that point towards a bright future.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Big Man, I'll Miss You

Hiding on the backstreets

Where we swore forever friends

On the backstreets until the end

-Bruce Springsteen, “Backstreets” (1975)

As I write this, I’m on my seventh hour of watching old Springsteen concert DVDs—an evening spent on the couch, with a 6-pack of beer, and precious time spent with remembered friends. The E Street band has been keeping me company virtually every minute since the news hit… The Big Man had passed away due to complications from the stroke he suffered last week.

People always debate things like who the greatest rock guitarist is (Hendrix? Clapton? Chuck berry?), or who the greatest rock singer is (Lennon? Daltry? Jagger?). Even greatest rock drummer debates have been known to cause serious throw-downs between Keith Moon backers and John Bonham backers (For the record, it’s Moon). But Greatest Rock And Roll Saxophonist? No one argues that one. At first it may seem like a minor achievement, but think about it. How many people can die saying they were the greatest EVER at what they did? Clarence may be gone, but his legacy looms just as large as he always did on stage.

The great critic Greil Marcus once wrote that rock and roll had become “too big for any center. It is so big in fact that no single event can be much more than peripheral.” But continuing, Marcus wrote that Bruce Springsteen “performs as if none of the above were true. The implicit promise of a Bruce Springsteen concert is that This Is What It’s All About.” (Note: the above is actually taken from Dave Marsh’s quoting of Marcus; I have never encountered the original source.)

But where Marcus uses the term “center,” I prefer to say community. Rock music started as “The Counter-Culture,” but counter or not, it was still a culture. It was a community of people who felt they had a common set of values and shared experience. As rock (and popular music in general) expanded, this sensation evaporated.

But a concert by Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band was different. It was about re-establishing the community feel that rock music had so long ago abandoned. It was about uniting under the cause of rock and roll ecstacy that seemed to have disappeared. As Bruce himself said in the recent documentary The Promise, rock was about capturing that “never-ending now.” On stage, the E Street Band was there to give it to us.

No one personified this more than Clarence Clemons. In most bands, the frontman exists apart from the rest of the band; the frontman captivates the audience, the band plays the music. But from the cover of Born to Run 36 years ago all the way through the last time they shared a stage, Clarence proved that you don’t need to sing in order to work the crowd.

The first time I saw the E Street Band as an adult was October 2007, towards the beginning of the Magic tour. I went with my girlfriend at the time, Megan, and we showed up early so we could try to get in the pit. The lottery shined in our favor and we ended up about 15 feet in front of stage left, right where Clarence stands. When the band came out, they broke into “Radio Nowhere,” and Clarence started out unassumingly, banging the tambourine. All eyes were on Bruce, and Clarence knew it. After a minute or two, Clarence grabbed his sax and walked up towards the front of the stage. There was a low murmur of excitement from the crowd in anticipation of our first sax solo, but it wasn’t enough for the Big Man—he wanted more. He came right up to the edge of the stage, getting the attention of everyone on his side of the pit, and then started motioning his right hand in a come hither motion with all five fingers. As he amped up the enthusiasm, so did we. “Give it to me,” he was saying. We gave it to him. Everyone in our area stopped paying any attention to Bruce and just went ape-shit crazy cheering for the Big Man. Finally, once we had reached the decibel he demanded, he nodded to us in approval and then went into his solo.

It was one of my favorite random moments from any concert I’ve ever been to. Clarence Clemons had that true sense of the moment that only the best performers ever really understand. When all eyes were focused on Bruce, he brought some attention to himself with just a few flicks of his fingers and a knowing smile. Anytime I hear Clarence referred to as a sideman, I think of that moment, and know that no other sideman in the world could have pulled it off. Clarence Clemons loomed so much larger than life that life just couldn’t contain him any longer.

Rest easy Big Man, and do so knowing that you really were “King of the World, Master of the Universe,” just like Bruce always called you on stage.

Friday, March 11, 2011

In Theaters: Even The Rain

Directed by Iciar Bollain

The Grade: A-

When the Academy Award nominations were announced this year, many were puzzled at the absence of Even the Rain from the Foreign Film nominations, and now I understand why. Selected as the official entry from Spain, the film actually takes place in Bolivia during the water supply protests of 2000. Gael Garcia Bernal and Luis Tosar play Sebastian and Costa, the director and producer (respectively) of a Spanish film crew who journeys to Bolivia to make an epic movie about Columbus’s voyages to the Americas and his exploitation of the native population. Choosing Bolivia for its appropriate scenery and cheap labor, a local named Daniel is cast in the pivotal role of an Indian who leads an insurrection against Columbus. But as the water company stiffens the price on the local supply, fact and fiction begin to blur as Daniel leads a protest against the local authorities, saying that if the people refuse to act, then “even the rain” will be taken from them.

The opening scene shows a helicopter transporting a giant wooden cross high over the Bolivian countryside, and we’re immediately reminded of the opening of the Fellini classic La Dolce Vita, in which a large wooden Jesus is flown over a Roman beach. This is clever foreshadowing, as La Dolce Vita was partially about the self-absorption inherent within the activities of the upper class—a theme that would repeat itself in Even the Rain. A fascinating tale about the summoning of morality, it’s also somewhat reminiscent of the underappreciated Gulf War film Three Kings, as we see well-to-do foreigners initially try to exploit local resources for selfish ends before getting swept up in the problems of the populace and forced into choosing a side. But even Three Kings didn’t have the successful dual narrative employed here, as the central conflict of the characters in the fictional Columbus film echo what’s happening in the real life of the extras cast in it. During one scene of the film within a film, an advisor says to Columbus “Look into an Indian’s eyes. Are these not men? Do they not have rational souls? Are you not obliged to love them as yourselves?”

Written by Paul Laverty, the Scotsman who wrote 2006’s The Wind that Shakes the Barley, and directed by Iciar Bollain, a popular actor and director in her native Spain, Even the Rain creates realistic drama that moves us without ever manipulating us, and the characters each find themselves at a crossroads where their actions will forever define who they are. Bollain uses an interesting tactic during the Columbus film scenes of not allowing the film crew to be seen, thereby lending a greater level of gravitas to the fictional portion of the meta-narrative. The proceedings feel especially poignant because of the beautiful score by Alberto Iglesias, the great Spanish composer who works mostly with Pedro Almodovar, but who also received Oscar nominations for The Constant Gardner and The Kite Runner. The only complaint I can really levy is that the brisk 98-minute running time might have been too short.