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+
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.