Kicking the Tweets
Search
Sunday
Oct162011

Footloose (2011)

The Politics of Dancing

The problem with remakes isn't that they're often terrible, but that they're ubiquitous. It seems that every few months we're assaulted with a repackaged hit from the 1980s, and I can count on both hands the number of times I've heard groans in the theatre whenever the trailer for one of these things hits.

So, why is that a problem? The danger in flooding the market with this kind of uninspired trash is that when a genuinely interesting and exciting update comes along, there's a chance not as many people will give it a shot. Case in point: Craig Brewer's Footloose, a rousing film that's as much about the emotional rigors of parenting as it is about teen rebellion. It's full of sharply drawn characters, poignant but not heavy-handed social commentary, and dancing so otherworldly that it sometimes looks as though the performers are having an out-of-body experience.

Full disclosure: I've never seen the original Footloose in its entirety. Go ahead, revoke my Child of the 80s card. I've never seen Flashdance, either. Something about music-heavy dance flicks never grabbed my attention as a kid; sad to say it wasn't until the Glee era that I was even half-interested in the art form. I don't see this as a handicap when reviewing the remake, though, as Brewer's version is a solid enough film that the other one may not as well exist (no offense to Misters Ross, Bacon, or Loggins).

Speaking of Glee, it's easy to imagine Footloose 2011 as a studio exec's wet dream: a brand-recognition-fueled teen picture with built-in soundtrack sales that captures the zeitgeist of both the toe-tapping musical drama and choreography-driven reality TV crazes. It's a mouthful, but I'd bet dollars to donuts there's a memo in some Hollywood tool's Inbox containing that exact phrase.

Fortunately, there's not a cynical note in Footloose. And while it's not a perfect movie, its gigantic heart is in the right place. This may have to do with the fact that Brewer co-wrote the screenplay with Dean Pitchford, who penned the 1984 version, which allowed both originator and re-inventor to keep the spirit of the story intact while bringing it to life for a new generation.

Their story follows Ren MacCormack (Kenny Wormald), a brooding Boston teenager who transfers to Bomont, Georgia during his senior year of high school. His mom has just died of cancer, and he moves in with his Uncle Wes and Aunt Lulu (Ray McKinnon and Kim Dickens, respectively), as well as their brood of adorable young daughters. Ren quickly learns that Bomont is nothing like Boston, especially in the three years following a horrible drunk-driving accident that claimed the lives of five students. The city council, guided by Reverend Shaw Moore (Dennis Quaid), introduced twelve strict laws aimed at local minors that include the prohibition of unsupervised dancing and playing "lewd" music.

It's clear from the outset that Ren's a good kid who finds small-town strictures ridiculous. His refusal to back down to a kid who bumps into him in the school hallway leads to a touching bromance with Willard (Miles Teller), who in turn introduces him to football team captain, Woody (Ser'Darius Blain). Soon, Ren has a small group of friends who teach him that not all Southerners are the backwards Mayberry hicks he'd assumed they were. Likewise, his confident but easygoing nature lets Bomont's teens know that not all Northerners are elitist snobs (Ren quickly dispels jokes about his background as a world-traveling gymnast with tales of the hot, Russian women he met on the circuit).

Ren also meets Ariel Moore (Julianne Hough), the quintessential preacher's daughter: daddy's angelic church mouse attends underground raves and runs around with her older, racecar-driving boyfriend, Chuck (Patrick John Flueger), when she should be studying. You don't have to have seen the original film to know that Ren and Ariel will fall in love after several snarky go-rounds, or that Chuck will not be happy about it--or that the kindly, old Reverend will frown upon his daughter's infatuation with the pouty-lipped, troublemaking Yankee.

The surprises in Footloose don't come from the main plot points. The gems are in the details, in the surprising character beats that make this a somewhat complex drama instead of just a teenybopper cash-in. That Brewer is at the helm should be a dead giveaway. In films like Hustle & Flow and the criminally underrated Black Snake Moan, he explores the South's modern identity crisis--at once steadfastly proud of a questionable history and also struggling to adapt to an encroaching, technologically and ideologically different future. The teens in Bomont are Internet savvy; they love hip-hop as much as they love new country music; and they dress in American Eagle-chic (which, sadly, gives lie to the scene where Ren struts into school on his first day and turns heads with his choice of clothes). Many of their parents were children of the 70s, and are hip enough to know (for the most part) what their kids get up to, but are so bound by concern for their safety that they resort to passing laws and doling out stern warnings--in short, acting like they think adults are supposed to act.

The characters in Footloose are as close to fully realized people as I've seen in a movie aimed at younger viewers. The filmmakers know that many in the audience will roll their eyes and tune out at the first sign of a moral--especially a Christian one--so they couch the story's lessons in honest debate between people of faith and people who aren't so sure. The film's resolution comes not from conversion, but from mutual understanding as to the meaning behind both scripture and the law as it relates to the confusing, heartbreaking process of growing up (both for the parents and their children).

A great deal of the movie's success comes from its lead actor. Wormald brings sincerity to a character that could have easily been a one-dimensional afterthought. His Ren MacCormack is sensitive without being mushy, tough without being showy. Wormald is a Beantown James Dean, a rebel with a cause; it's easy to see how he could get a town full of strangers on his side to help right a wrong that was enacted with the best intentions. He's also a hell of a dancer. I got excited watching him flip and contort himself into near-gravity-defying moves. My only gripe is that the scene where Ren demolishes an abandoned warehouse by acting out his frustrations via dance stepped just over the line into ridiculous territory--I can just see that being parodied on next year's MTV Movie Awards.

The film's second great discovery is Teller as Ren's redneck sidekick. Brewer and Pitchford save their best comedic lines for him, and I credit this genius trio for making me laugh out loud five times in the theatre (for those of you who know me, that really is something). I can't recall the last time I saw this warm and natural a chemistry between two male leads; Teller and MacCormack play so well off of each other that I half wished Hough had been a non-factor--I'm not saying the filmmakers should have taken Footloose to another level entirely by making the film's hero gay, but I would've applauded their efforts had they chosen to do so.

That leaves us with Hough. There's a black hole at the center of Footloose and she's it. That's not to suggest she does a bad job; in fact, she's wonderful in a later scene where Ariel confronts her dad on his hypocrisy. But not for one second did I buy her as a teenager born and raised in small-town Georgia. She looks and speaks like she hopped off a plane from Los Angeles. Aside from Quaid, she's also the only actor in the movie who doesn't speak with a thick Southern accent (aside from Wormald, of course). There are a hundred factors that might explain such a phenomenon. But when dealing with movie shorthand, if you're not going to bother with these particulars, you'd better work a dialect coach into your lead actress's contract.

On a related note, I had a difficult time with the film's first fifteen minutes. The drunk-driving sequence that opens the picture plays almost exactly as it does in the trailer, with as much character development and sense of time and place as is allowed in a two-minute spot (none). Had Brewer shaved a couple minutes off his boot-scootin' opening credits montage and given us some history between Ariel and her brother--who was one of the five killed in the crash--it might have made her character more palatable; at least I would've been able to care about her before the movie's three-quarter mark.

Nitpicks aside, Footloose is a truly wonderful film. Everyone involved in the production should be very proud for having redefined what a remake can and should be: relevant and necessary. Like many of the songs in the movie, this is a re-interpretation of a classic--a cover, if you will--that retains what I imagine is the spirit that captured a generation's imagination, while building something new and special for the millions of people who will encounter this story for the first time. As a cynical film critic, rare moments like this put a much-needed spring in my step.

Saturday
Oct152011

Sudden Death! (2010)

Indie Wired

If you're like me, the phrases "comedic musical numbers" and "student film" cause your feet to instinctively turn in the opposite direction of whoever uses them in the same sentence. Fortunately, in the case of writer/director Adam Hall's amazing, uplifting short, Sudden Death!, I was trapped in a makeshift screening room last weekend with co-star Doug Jones. Under normal circumstances, I would have missed out on this movie, which helped change the way I think about independent film.

Don't let the songs, lab coats, and stunning, redheaded lead actress fool you: Sudden Death! is not a rip-off of Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog. This is a wholly original production that stands shoulder-to-shoulder with Joss Whedon's breakthrough Internet sensation. The production design, lighting, choreography, acting, and, yes, music, are all top-notch--the work of a passionate visionary who, unlike the creator of Buffy and Firefly, hasn't been at this for years. Sudden Death! was Hall's thesis project for USC film school.

The movie finds the city of Los Angeles overtaken by a fast-acting, fatal disease whose symptoms include spontaneous bursts of singing and flash-mob-style dance numbers; victims often conclude their performances by dropping dead--if they even make it through the entire song. Scientists Nathan (Matt Lutz) and Rachel (Autumn Hurlbert) have little time to find a cure, as members of their lab begin dropping like attention-starved flies. It also doesn't help that the two were almost lovers once, and that this end-of-the-world scenario has rekindled their dormant feelings. Frustrated lab supervisor Dr. Wright (Jones) has the unenviable job of stepping over bodies while keeping his star researchers on task and off-key.

Delving further into the plot would ruin the joy of discovery. There's a great celebrity cameo that will probably make you smile pretty widely (almost as wide as when you find out the actor's role in the plot), but that's all I'll say. Hall and songwriters Kahle McCann and Kenny Wood have a lot of fun with their morbid farce, inventing fresh takes on Airplane!-style sight gags and non sequiturs. It's a warm reminder that such comedies used to ignore the lowest-functioning members of the audience, before the era of Scary Movie 4 and Vampires Suck.

The funniest thing about Sudden Death! is that Hall and his producers made this twenty-minute gem with only $35,000 of strictly donated funds. I've seen at least five multi-million-dollar romantic comedies this year that look as good as this film, and none of them were half as entertaining. The takeaway: one doesn't need all the money in the world to create a memorable motion picture--ambition, imagination, and a little bit of seed cash can get you just about anywhere. There's a blurb on the Sudden Death! Web site about how Hall hopes to use this film as a calling card in Hollywood. He's accomplished so much working outside the studio system that I imagine he could revolutionize the way big-budget productions are made, if given the chance.

Buried just under the surface of this movie is a more important message. Unintentional though it may be, there's a very valuable lesson for aspiring filmmakers: You have to care, and you have to try. In this marvelous digital age, filmmaking runs the full spectrum of affordability. One no longer has to be Steven Spielberg to make a movie. Just rent or buy a digital camera, some lights, and a sound rig; bribe some actor friends with beer and screen credits; and convince your digital-artist buddies that your backyard sea-monster epic is the gateway to WETA--Boom! Indie filmmaking gold! On-line distribution is a relative cinch, meaning that there's barely a cost to getting your movie in front of millions of eyeballs all over the world. There are thousands of low-budget movies floating around now; but how many of them are great? Hell, let's start with "passable".

One of the keys to becoming a successful filmmaker is acting like one. Precisely because half of America not only wants to be a big-screen multi-millionaire but now has the equipment at their disposal to make that dream a reality, only the truly dedicated will stand out. Adam Hall's script is smart and very funny. The music in his film is catchy. Sudden Death! looks like the people behind it wanted to turn out something that could be aired on TV or screened in a movie theatre. Not only are there no cut corners here, it's evident that Hall and company assembled a crew of really talented people to perfectly execute a singular vision. And they did it for what I imagine is less than the quarterly lunch budget of a third-tier Hollywood studio.

You're right to assert that I'm neither a filmmaker nor a Tinseltown mogul--what the hell do I know about making it big? Not much, practically. But I see enough movies and follow enough careers to know the landscape, and to understand why no one sees some indie movies and why others lead to the fabled "big break". I'm rarely inspired by these smaller films because they're so often terrible. Sudden Death! is wonderful, through and through, and has raised the bar so high that I can't imagine being impressed by anything for a long, long time.

Wednesday
Oct122011

The Human Centipede 2: Full Sequence (2011)

Graft and Corruption

Don't ever say you love film as much as I. I think we've found your limit.

--Bill Hicks, Relentless

I'm pretty sure you have yourself to blame for The Human Centipede 2: Full Sequence. Whether you've seen the first movie or not, writer/director Tom Six has reached deep into our collective unconscious and pulled out a gooey, nasty answer to the question, "How far is too far?"

Let's take a step back.

The original Human Centipede is not a gross movie. The premise is unnerving, but I'd single out maybe a minute-and-a-half of ninety as being more than a little "out-there". People either stayed away from Six's movie about a deranged surgeon who kidnaps three people and fuses them together, mouth-to-anus, in order to create a new life form--or they flocked to art-house theatres and the Internet to see what such a thing would look like.

I still have arguments with people who tell me how offended they are by the film's over-the-top gross-outs--all of whom admit to never having watched it. When talking to fans of The Human Centipede, much of the conversation centers on how tame the movie is; indeed, how disappointingly tame. A director choosing to film a man shitting into a woman's mouth can either go the Two Girls, One Cup route, or make a scatological My Dinner with Andre. Relative to the concept, and with minor exceptions, the first film is pure Louis Malle. 

For his sequel, Six succeeds in blowing up mainstream cinema. Full Sequence is both smarter, more artsy, and far, far (far, far, far) more graphically obscene than its predecessor. The story follows a proud tradition of meta-horror films--such as Wes Craven's New Nightmare, and, um, Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2--by making the reality of the first film into a fictitious work admired by characters in the sequel. We see the closing minutes of Part One, when poor Jenny (Ashlynn Yennie) finds herself stuck between two dead people, trying to scream for help in a sound-proof house in the middle of nowhere. The credits roll, and the cameral pulls back to reveal the movie playing on a laptop belonging to a slovenly, British car-park attendant named Martin (Laurence R. Harvey).

Martin is a huge Human Centipede fan--literally and figuratively. Everything about him is fat, glistening and weird, from his bulging lizard eyes to the manner in which he fetishistically licks his chubby fingers before turning the pages in his secret Human Centipede scrapbook. Yes, he has a giant binder full of promotional artwork, magazine clippings, and his own notes on the film. The centerpiece is a collection of red-carpet-style photos of Yennie, looking happy and proud of her work. Almost instantly, we know Martin is more than just a bit unbalanced: spying a young couple arguing on his suite of surveillance-camera monitors, he heads into the garage with a crowbar and pistol and renders them unconscious.

Later, he rents part of a run-down warehouse, where he begins dumping his hapless customers. These include two party girls, his tattooed bully of an upstairs neighbor, and a very pregnant lady. Martin nabs twelve people in all, visiting their bound and moaning forms when he's not either working or stopping by his apartment to take abuse from his elderly, bitter mother (Vivien Bridson). From their interactions, we learn that Martin is mentally challenged--which explains why he never speaks in the film, only uttering squeals of delight, frustration, or terror--and that he sent his father to prison by testifying in a sexual-abuse case. Mom blames him for breaking up the family, and passively plots a murder-suicide between cups of tea.

Much of The Human Centipede 2 is a character study of Martin, a man whose back story gradually comes into focus and evokes...sympathy isn't the right word. Neither is empathy. But given his upbringing, limited acuity, and unsupervised obsession with a movie about extreme psycho-sexual domination, it's not surprising to see him act out like he does. Remove the kidnapping and battery angle, and you have a bona fide Oscar contender.

Alas, we must contend with the kidnapping and battery--and the actual creation of the new human centipede, which doesn't get under way until the last twenty minutes. Leading up to this is a brilliantly funny sequence in which Martin convinces Ashley Yennie's agent that he works for Quentin Tarantino's production company. The actress flies out to London for an audition and meets her "driver", who takes her to "the set". In playing a version of herself, Yennie amps up the Vacuous American Tourist routine she played so irritatingly well in Part One. It's hard to imagine a twisted sitcom scene in the middle of a movie like this, but there it is. And it's spectacular.

Yennie's reward for having crappy management is to be placed at the head of the centipede--meaning she gets to keep her teeth and doesn't have to inhale methane the way she'd pretended to in the role that made her a star. The other eleven aren't so lucky. In the "meat and potatoes" portion of the film, the crowd-pleasing stretch, Martin rips out knee tendons and saws open butt cheeks in a shoddy re-creation of Dieter Laser's techniques. The problem is that Martin is dealing with both real life anatomy and the ineptness of a car-park attendant--leaving him to abandon the skin-flaps-and-staples grafts in favor of dozens of roles of duct tape.

The result is a sloppy, blood-splattered monstrosity that Martin is able to control for about five minutes--before one of his discarded subjects (the pregnant lady) surprises him and makes a break for the outside world. This leads to one of the most tasteless moments I've ever seen in a movie (hint: her escape scene really delivers); rather than getting offended, I marveled at Six's twisted imagination, and his ability to one-up his bizarre gross-outs twice in as many minutes.

I'll leave the rest for you to discover, if you dare. And I use the word "dare" in all seriousness. If you're a passive moviegoer, there's probably no reason to watch The Human Centipede 2. You're likely right in assuming it will be the sickest, most unconscionable thing you've ever seen in your life--precisely because you don't watch enough movies to know better.

But if you're really into movies, why not watch this one? Yeah, I know there are thousands of other Important Films that "deserve your attention", but I promise that most of them will not challenge your expectations and notions of what constitutes a solid film the way this one will. Tom Six isn't just a cheap, freak-show huckster. He's a genuine artist pushing the boundaries of taste while making great-looking, thought-provoking movies. Sure, there's a strong sense of playing to the peanut gallery (HC2 is presented in black-and-white, but portions of the film are tinted during the human centipede's first meal--a scene that is, thankfully, not presented in 3D), but, as I said before, you could chop thirty minutes off of this thing and have a critically acclaimed, Tom Hanks-produced weepy about overcoming adversity.

Hell, this isn't even the most upsetting movie I've seen in the last couple years. That honor goes to August Underground, Fred Vogel's "found footage" masterpiece that could easily pass for a genuine snuff film. Six, in his meta-narrative and fantastical imagery creates a filmic wall of safety around his movie that August Underground absolutely does not have. If anyone is up for the challenge--and to losing an itty-bitty piece of their soul--watch August Underground, followed by Human Centipede 2, and tell me how depraved you think Tom Six is then.

I know ninety-nine-point-nine percent of you won't take me up on that. The point isn't to offend anyone's sensibilities, but to help put movies into a clearer perspective. Roger Ebert called Human Centipede 2 "artless", and while I respect him as the king of all film critics, I have to wonder if he was mentally writing his review during the screening instead of paying attention. If your concern is not simply aesthetics but also coherent storytelling, interesting characters, and a grander message that seeps through the work itself, I would place this film far below movies like Contagion, Moneyball, and Drive in the list of "artless" movies.

But, hey, I'm just a guy who loves The Human Centipede 2.

Tuesday
Oct112011

Real Steel (2011)

Ones and Heroes

For years, mainstream filmmakers have struggled to recapture the magic of the 1980s. "Magic of the 1980s" probably made some of you laugh, but most of modern pop culture is a booming nostalgia market that's ripe for the tapping--as evidenced by this decade's glut of remakes. Original hits like The Wedding Singer and Hot Tub Time Machine parodied Reagan-era comedies by fetishizing its music and fashion--all the while smirking with ironic hindsight. On the horror front, Hatchet, The House of the Devil, and Hostel stepped back from the ADD-addled CGI fake-outs of contemporary horror to focus on the deliberate pacing and over-the-top practical gore effects of the VHS heyday.

To my mind, only The House of the Devil succeeded in its mission, thanks to director Ti West's keen understanding of what made the 80s so special to millions of film buffs. Whereas we may look back and see only excess, shoulder pads, and DeLoreans, the heroes of classic films from that era often struggled against materialism. There was very much a spirit of rugged individualism at play, a sense that the little guy could triumph over the faceless, grinning beasts of corporatism and communism.

A second category, equally as popular, was the well-to-do wiseguy messing with a system that threatened to consume him. The main characters in Back to School, Ferris Bueller's Day Off, and Top Gun, though not all millionaires, certainly had deeper pockets than the gang from Porky's and Gremlins--but shared a moral solidarity and disdain for authority that made them relatable to audiences both middle class and highbrow. Sure, The House of the Devil is a horror movie about a college girl who house-sits for demonic cultists, but in its every detail lay the conflicting enticements of Yuppie-ism and activism.

Which brings me, finally, to the film at hand, Shawn Levy's Real Steel. Not only is this one of my favorites of the year, it is also the perfect example of what so many others have tried and failed to do in evoking the 1980s spirit. In part, Levy does this by incorporating elements from Sylvester Stallone's Over the Top and Rocky IV, but mostly it's the lack of cheeky cynicism in writers John Gatins' screenplay (based in part on a short story by sci-fi staple Richard Matheson) that instantly evokes the plucky determination of what many consider a more innocent time.

Real Steel also creates a wholly unexpected future America that enveloped and astounded me at just about every turn. Set in 2025, the movie stars Hugh Jackman as Charlie Kenton, a former boxer with a promising future whose career was snuffed out when technology replaced human fighters with real-life Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots. Now he travels the country, pitting sad, salvaged droids against better robots (and even actual bulls) in underground matches for food and gas money. As envisioned by Levy and Gatins, the future looks a lot like the present, but with more poverty, pollution, and high-tech distractions.

While evading a vicious debtor, Charlie learns that the son he abandoned years ago has become fully orphaned. He shows up for a custody hearing to sign his rights away to the boy's wealthy aunt and step-uncle, and winds up cutting a deal to take little Max (Dakota Goyo) on the road for the summer in exchange for $100,000 (as opposed to releasing him to the state). Of course, father and son don't get along. Max is a brat, but not obnoxiously so--he acts as the sassy conscience of his deadbeat, scumbag dad.

With the help of lifelong friend/ex-girlfriend, Bailey (Evangeline Lilly), Charlie buys a refurbished fighting 'bot and takes Max along to its big, breakout match. Max insists that Charlie offer their fighter up for the lower-profile battles so that they can see what it's made of, make a little bit of money, and split. Charlie ignores him and talks his way into the title fight--where his nuts-and-bolts avatar gets smashed to pieces.

Once again broke and desperate, Charlie and Max break into a scrap yard to find something that they can either rebuild or infuse into their existing, broken heaps. Max stumbles on an old sparring robot called "Atom", and coaxes dad into fixing him up. You can pretty much map out the rest of the picture from here, especially if you've seen the trailers: Charlie and Max work their way up the circuit-board circuit, eventually coming face to face with world-champion Zeus--a black-metal monster with borderline artificial intelligence designed by pouty Japanese mastermind Tak Mashido (Karl Yune). The only surprise, plot-wise, is how Real Steel ends; it plays to a fighting-movie tradition, but not necessarily the one that springs to mind right away.

Though the story and character beats will be familiar to anyone over the age of twenty-five, Real Steel feels fresh, thanks in large part to the fantastic lead trio of Jackman, Goyo, and Lilly. I can't recall another instance of chemistry this good, this natural, in a genre film. Jackman wrenches a likable, moving character out of the melting-hearted hard-case cliche. Rather than getting by on great looks, he walks right up to the line of actorly sincerity and tiptoes into the kind of shrugging showiness a crowd-pleaser like this requires. Lilly gives a heartfelt performance as the girl who had to break away from they guy she loved, rather than join him on a downward spiral of self-pity and corruption; but she never gave up on him, nor on her feelings. She acts as a mother figure to Max, nurturing the positive aspects she once saw in his father and steering him away from the bad.

Max is the key to Real Steel, and Dakota Goyo is a real discovery. I was only briefly distracted by his resemblance to both Jake Lloyd and Anton Yelchin and soon found myself in love with his pluck and smarts. I'd imagined the kids of the future to be even less tuned-in than they are today, but Max is resilient and outspoken, with a sensitivity that drives the picture. Max pushes Charlie to get over himself and do something great with his life, in the back-of-his-head hopes that he'll evolve into an actual father. It's a deceptively complex role that shows Goyo to be an impressive actor, not just an impressive child actor.

Wait, isn't this a big, dumb robot movie? Nope. Not even close. The Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots jokes began flying ever since the Real Steel teaser debuted earlier this year (hell, I made one myself just a bit ago). But if you take the colorful machines out of the equation, you still have a classic boxing movie and a powerful father/son drama. Don't worry, though: there's plenty of awesome pummeling to be found here.

The effects in this movie are simply astounding. The robot designs are crisp and interesting--exactly the look that Michael Bay should have employed for his Transformers saga. Most impressively, they were designed to be boxers, meaning no special sliding compartments with hidden buzz saws or lasers. Their only advantages are varying degrees of hydraulic fists and articulation in the lower limbs that promote agility in the ring. I haven't looked up how exactly the effects team pulled off these beautiful cyber-creatures--how much of the performances were motion-captured, how much of the robots were actually built versus being modeled and animated in a computer--mostly because I'm not ready to peel back that curtain yet. Watching the film, I full believed in the reality of Levy and Gatins' 2025.

Real Steel is a smart effects extravaganza. If this future world is defined by Blade Runner-style skyscrapers, we never see it. This is a rural picture, with lots of golden fields and tree-lined horizons. It's quiet in a way that I didn't expect, with the serenity of Charlie and Max's cross-country adventures contrasting with the climactic high-tech-arena show.

I can't speak for anyone else, but Real Steel is the first movie I've seen in awhile that rekindled the joy of watching the earnest sci-fi fantasies of my youth. In this era of irony and snark (you can't see it, but I'm raising my hand), it's refreshing to see a filmmaker reclaim the wild, adventurous spirit of the time in which he grew up. Intentionally or not, Shawn Levy has delivered a perfect slice of nostalgia in his unapologetically sincere and rousing picture.

Monday
Oct102011

50/50 (2011)

Chemotional Wreck

Hey, Seth Rogen! It's over! Stop it!

Ahem. More on that in a minute.

You may cry a lot during 50/50, but don't automatically credit the film for that.  Cancer claims the lives of hundreds of thousands of people in the US alone every year. Chances are, you've known someone who died or is dying right now. And one of Hollywood's dirtiest little secret is that turning on an audience's waterworks is often as easy as playing the right, folksy guitar chords over the right, attractive actor wearing nothing but a hospital gown and a glum expression.

I know, I'm not supposed to speak ill of writer Will Reiser's remarkable triumph over spinal lymphoma. But this is a fictitious account that's been smushed into the Based on a True Story mold. Reiser's on-screen avatar, Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), is an unlikable priss surrounded by soul-dead monsters--a major detail that actively made me wish this dramatization would forego the real-life happy ending. I was reluctant to see 50/50 because the poster and trailers made the movie look like a dumb buddy-comedy about cancer. It's so much worse than that.

The main problem is that we meet Adam about five minutes before his cancer diagnosis, meaning that it's nearly impossible to tell how much of his snarky bitterness, anger, and intimacy issues have to do with the disease--as opposed to just being characteristics of a lifetime asshole. I found it impossible to connect with him. Adam is such a hipster construct that I don't believe for a second he could have ever existed; if he did (or does), he and his ilk are precisely the reason so many people are concerned about the current generation's prospects in perpetuating our species.

Take cancer out of the equation, and Adam could be the hero of a Starbucks-produced sitcom: He works at Seattle Public Radio; he never learned to drive because of car-fatality statistics; he talks to his Prius-driving artist girlfriend on his iPhone 4; and not once in twenty-seven years has he told a girl he loves her*.

He also has only one friend. That's right--one friend. And if you can tell a man's character by the company he keeps, Adam's bromance with Kyle (Rogen) is proof-positive that there's not a whole lot for the cancer to devour. Kyle is Seth Rogen--because it's impossible for any character played by Seth Rogen to not be Seth Rogen (more precisely, the Seth Rogen archetype). He's a loud, pot-smoking womanizer who says inappropriate things in the manner of a five-year-old boy who's just discovered the word "cunt". What's Kyle's solution for helping a lifelong bud get through his few remaining years? Help Adam shave his head** and hit the bars as the new superhero, Cancer Boy: The Human Pussy Magnet (the name is made up, but the effect is real), of course.

Let's back up a second. Do you know anyone who has one friend? I don't. Even the surliest storm-cloud in my circles has his own confidants, and I find it both sloppy and irresponsible that Reiser doesn't give his protagonist a support group, or even a drinking buddies who freak out and abandon Adam when the going gets tough. Either option would paint 50/50 as a relatable film instead of the lone, Christ-figure fantasy of a kid showily typing away in a coffeehouse.

(To those of you who answered "yes" to my previous question, allow me to pose a new one: Thinking objectively, if you didn't know this person, would you honestly pay to watch his or her life story for 99 minutes?)

Because 50/50 is essentially a rom-com with a dick, Adam meets and becomes romantically involved with his young therapist, Katherine (Anna Kendrick). I was going to type that he "falls in love with her", but watching the movie, I got the impression Adam has never been in love with anything except his image as the Tortured Urbanite with Mommy Issues. Katherine is a doll, the only character in the movie who isn't utterly despicable on some level (except for Adam's Alzheimer's-afflicted dad--do you hear violins? I hear violins.). Adam is her third patient, and she stumbles a lot in establishing their doctor/patient relationship. Katherine's sincerity is a refreshingly alien beacon on the film's barren landscape. My only gripe is that she ultimately falls for Adam's bullshit emo sensibilities in what is supposed to be a happy ending.

If you haven't figured it out yet, Adam beats cancer, just as Reiser did. He also gets the girl and patches things up with his overbearing mother and asshole best friend. 50/50 ends with a scene that is both playhouse and art-house: Kyle dresses Adam's wound with lots of obnoxious, "Oooh, gross!" protestations. Katherine shows up a few minutes later for a date and asks Adam, "What's next?". The camera goes in for a cool, smiling, "Anything's possible! I'm ALIVE!" close-up on Adam's face as we fade into a Pearl Jam song over the end credits. It's the easiest, cheesiest Lifetime-movie ending I've seen in awhile, and I can only hope that director Jonathan Levine had intended this barf-inducing closer to be a chemotherapy metaphor.

Yep, I'm being really harsh on this movie. But not unnecessarily so. A lot has been made of this being the first comedy about cancer, but I'm still waiting for the first smart, emotionally honest comedy about cancer. The film yanks at the same strings as those Sarah McLachlan-backed animal-rescue commercials; it's all surface and no heart. I would love to see a film tackle this serious issue with wit and grace that run deeper than the word "cancer". 50/50's timelines are confusing, its characters are unbelievable, and its gags are top-of-the-head insulting (Q: What's the most effective, morally ambiguous alternative to the Date Rape Drug? A: Emotional blackmail and medical marijuana!).

In case you're wondering, I've lost loved ones to cancer and am related to cancer surviors. Still, this movie did nothing for me--except make me question how a person could, in good conscience, turn their harrowing personal journey into a pot-jokes-and-profanity-laced Cliff's Notes picture. 50/50 doesn't prove that one can make an effective comedy about cancer. It just shows that not all cancer stories are worth telling.

*There's nothing inherently wrong with any of these things. But we never see Adam as anything more than an insular collection of hipster accessories. He's a modern-day Patrick Bateman whose murderous tendancies are focused inward for reasons we never come close to understanding.

**You bet your ass those clipping shears are covered in Kyle's pubic hair!