Monday, October 31, 2011

Cinematics Anonymous

As Sir Derek Jacobi reminds us in his opening monologue for the feature film Anonymous, William Shakespeare is the most well known and successful writer of all time. With a written library consisting of some 38 plays, 154 sonnets, two epic poems and a multitude of other works of poetry, Shakespeare is without peer in just about every literary regard. Everybody knows his name. All high school teens are tasked with reading his works. The most famous lines by characters such as Marcus Antonius, Romeo Montague and Prince Hamlet are remembered (and on occasion misremembered) my millions. But why have no manuscripts of the bard ever surfaced? Why are we to believe that the son of a glove maker with a supposedly limited education was able to pen such beautiful poetry that we still absorb today? That has been a question posed over hundreds of years since his death, and there does seem to be an ample lack of evidence to prove that Shakespeare was indeed the author of those titles attributed to him. While lack of evidence is not evidence in itself, this has not stopped historians and others from naming Shakespeare as a pseudonym for politician Francis Bacon, fellow playwright Christopher Marlowe, and the Earl of Oxford Edward de Vere. It is de Vere's potential authorship of these legendary plays that inspires Anonymous, the newest film by Roland Emmerich. Yes, that's right; Roland Emmerich directed a political thriller ripe with intrigue. This is the same guy whose greatest cinematic triumph was the orbital destruction of the White House, way back in 1996. At first learning that he was in charge of a period drama, I admit that I had serious doubts, even while taking his brand of historical accuracy with a grain of salt. Still, as a potential dark horse in this year's awards race, I would be remiss to avoid this film, which still looked interesting despite its potential flaws.

Eavesdropper's Anonymous
During the reign of England's Queen Elizabeth I (Vanessa Redgrave), several factions are vying to name her heir as her final days approach. Her royal adviser William Cecil (David Thewlis) and his son Robert (Edward Hogg) believe that rightfully the next ruler should be James, the King of Scotland. However, there are other claimers to the throne, such as the Earl of Essex (Sam Reid), supposedly a bastard son of the Queen. The Lord of Oxford Edward de Vere (Rhys Ifans) supports Essex's claim, but urges a bloodless push for the crown. To that end, and having learned how easily the theater can influence a crowd towards a particular way of thinking, de Vere turns to his outlawed craft - the Puritan Church believes theater and art to be the Devil's work - and taps young playwright Ben Jonson (Sebastian Armesto) to produce de Vere's own plays under Jonson's name, using the stories to silently provoking the people of England to hate the Cecils and towards a monarchy under the Earl of Essex. Jonson however is hesitant to be part of this, and because of this, prospective actor Will Shakespeare (Rafe Spall) steals the limelight, assuming credit for de Vere's work and altering the very course of history in the process.

Overcompensator's Anonymous
The first thing to get over when it comes to enjoying Anonymous is the fact that any historical data is misunderstood at best, and outright false at worst. Obviously we can't assume that the main idea behind this film is true or false since the whole thing is speculative by nature. However, all one has to do is scroll down to the bottom of the film's Wikipedia page to see even a small number of inaccuracies that we DO know for fact. This is no surprise when you consider that Emmerich has always been a director that has emphasized the impact of the film on the audience, and would never let silly things like truth get in the way. Once you get past this notion that everything should be exactly like it was in real life and you realize that you're watching a MOVIE, you can appreciate how Emmerich has created a thrilling political drama with enough layers of narrative to be worthy of one of Shakespeare's originals. When  you compare it to critically overrated films like The Ides of March, there's really very little wrong with the director's execution of his intent when it is done so perfectly. 

Greenskeeper's Anonymous
Emmerich also defies expectations by avoiding particularly well-known actors in his pursuit of this film's cast. With the possible exception of Vanessa Redgrave, who's as top-tier as this film gets, most of the people cast here are recognizable from one or two major movie stints or have never made much of an impact before now. Redgrave herself is regal and dynamic as the legendary monarch Queen Elizabeth I. Walking a tightrope of many conflicting emotions, Redgrave really embodies everything that the character demands, and I wouldn't be surprised to see her nominated for some awards in future months. This would be yet another nomination for a Queen Elizabeth actress, following Dame Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett, fine company for an artist of Redgrave's caliber (I know she already is at that level, just give me that one). Welsh actor Rhys Ifans is a wonder to behold; as his calculating, emotional take on de Vere is simply amazing, with a mere glance more than adequate in conveying his entire portion of a conversation. When he does open his mouth, every word of every sentence is strained into the perfect form for your listening pleasure. Ifans proves here that he's an untapped resource, ripe for his role in next year's Spiderman reboot. Sebastian Armesto is our moral compass as Ben Jonson, watching both halves of the major narratives play out while being tugged one way and the other by those around him. Armesto does a great job, with an acting performance that is sadly out-shined by most surrounding him but would be more than adequate in any period piece. Rafe Spall on the other hand is absolutely delicious as the false bard William Shakespeare. Playing the poet as a clever, greedy and vengeful tyrant, Spall is fresh as one of the film's more charismatic villains. The other main villain, played by Edward Hogg, is far less charming but intentionally so, as Robert Cecil is so obviously supposed to be evil that he in fact is physically deformed. Hogg is still very effective, in fact overcoming the obvious oversimplification of his character to be a real menace, one with which to be contended. Finally, while an entire section of the movie devoted to flashbacks of young romance between de Veres and Elizabeth is in fact unnecessary, acting by Camelot's Jamie Campbell Bower and Redgrave's daughter Joely Richardson is at least welcome as that section's true highlight.

Bodice Anonymous
The film does have some minor flaws, even in pure entertainment mode. Some characters aren't explicitly defined, and when people are referring to the Lords of Southampton or Essex, it's not entire certain which performer corresponds to that name. While much of the plot and tale is properly introduced so that the audience can easily follow along the main story's path, I can't help but feel that there was much in the way of inside humor that only Elizabethan historians or enthusiasts could have properly understood. And despite being intrigued by Jacobi's acting, his introduction to the story as being a stage play in itself is a bit underwhelming, as unappetizing and unnecessary as the aforementioned flashbacks. If he's simply narrated over a blank screen to begin the film, I could have been more appreciative of his inclusion. Finally, the ending doesn't quite make sense, or it would have if it had been better constructed. Instead we get a shallow, half-finished finale that doesn't precisely explain how the idea of de Vere writing Shakespeare's plays is supported by any existing evidence. We're reminded that this is mere speculation, and while this is probably more realistic than say, Shakespeare in Love, it has no more basis in historical fact than that earlier Oscar winner did.

Poet Laureate's Anonymous
Still, as a filmmaker Emmerich really knows how to push an audience's buttons and evoke a response of pure enjoyment from what he produces. A clever-if-unfeasible study of one of history's bigger mysteries, Anonymous tucks itself in as the #7 movie of 2011. Great acting, a well-told story and more tales of the Bard than you would normally see under any roof other than that of the Globe Theater, this is that rare example of anything and everything working out much better than it probably should have Definitely worth a look.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Normal Norman

Well, I had a choice. Either I could see the uninspiring sequel to a little-cared about James Bond knockoff starring a famous British comedian, or I could see an indie film about a troubled teenager that can seemingly only have one destination. With all due respect to Rowan Atkinson (I loved the Black Adder series, but don't push your luck) and Johnny English Reborn, I'll go with the one that stars Richard Jenkins every time, and that's how I came to see Norman this past week. I had only seen the trailer a few days earlier, and was intrigued enough by such a shockingly honest take on disaffected youths that I made plans to see it as immediately as I could, before the wide release of four major motion pictures this weekend could prevent me from doing so. I knew of the film's theme - young disturbed man has a glimpse of hope while wallowing in depression - but the actual plot of the story was not yet known to me, and I was sure that my opinion of Norman would come directly from whatever choice of story director Jonathan Segal would decide to tell.

Teenager at school = social outcast
High school senior Norman Long (Dan Byrd) is going through a rough time. Okay, that's putting it lightly. It was hard enough losing his mother to a car wreck a few years back, an event from which he has never fully recovered. Now it is his father he is poised to lose, as patriarch Doug (Jenkins) suffers from stomach cancer that threatens to take him away at any moment. Unable to cope with this, Norman has withdrawn from just about everyone and has developed suicidal tendencies in response to the doom around him. Only the appearance of new student Emily (Emily VanCamp) seems to affect his life for the positive, as she truly appears to take a liking to him, and he to her in turn. With her help he can step away from the edge of Oblivion and start to take control of his life, but a lie of his own device threatens to undue all the good that has come of late, and Norman once again feels powerless in the face of overwhelming guilt.

Jeez, why did girls this cute never talk to ME in high school?
First and foremost, it's refreshing to see such topics as parental loss, first loves, depression and suicide taken as serious as they are, and told as such. Each is a major factor in the development of the Norman's script and characters, especially in the person of the film's namesake.Norman is no simply-depicted suicidal teen. Sure, he's got so much angst that it's practically leaking from his ears; with this much emotional trauma in one so young, who wouldn't? He also puts up a wall of self-deprecating humor, sarcasm and self-destructivism between himself and even those who would seek to help him, as he can't bring himself to face the hell waiting for him in the future. Hollywood doesn't usually depict its heroes this way. Sure, your average teenage sidekick might have more issues than David Pelzer could shake a stick at, but even they are never as depressed, mentally agitated and darkly cynical as Norman Long. And yet he has his good parts, brought out especially by the love he has for his father and his affection for Emily,. who is so much his perfect match it's scary (she quotes Monty Python at will; I wish I knew a girl who could do that). These qualities make Norman a young man you want to root for, despite his errors.

"The Talk" is always harder when you can't escape it
On the flip side of the coin, Norman's script and direction leave a lot to be desired. The film's big lie is the major problem: it's a cliched attempt at forcing conflict into a situation where one was not needed. Is the lie stupid? Yes. Are the people who have been lied to stupid for having believed it? Absolutely. But what makes the entire thing worse is that as bad as the lie is, Norman never tells Emily the truth until he absolutely has to, a grave sign of what's to come for anyone who has been in a moderately successful relationship. Is Norman stupid and inexperienced? Yes. Can this be expected? Yes, but the lie (or omission of truth, as it were) is such a huge mistake on his part that you can't help but be frustrated by his inability to come clean about the situation. While that's the worst part of Norman, the rest of the story is sadly slow and ponderous, only picking up interest when the lead is interacting with Emily or dear old dad. Too often you'll be checking your watch to see how much time has passed, a shame considering the film clocks in at a mere 97 minutes.

The best actor nobody ever talks about
A retinue of great actors at least stand front and center to do what they can with the minimal material laid in front of them. Byrd, who played a homosexual loner in 2010's feel-good teen drama Easy A, already has experience playing characters like Norman, which helps make his performance here authentic and beautiful. While Norman might at times be frustrating, it is the power of Byrd's work that makes us wish for better from his character, and hope that he can do better in the future. Jenkins is... well, he's Richard freaking Jenkins! Anyone who has seen him in the HBO series Six Feet Under or his Academy Award-nominated starring role in 2008's The Visitor already knows what a wonderful actor he is. Every time he appears in any role, I can't help but be excited about what I'm going to see, and Jenkins remains one of the few performers who never lets me down. VanCamp also impresses me with a surprising mix of maturity and nymph-like innocence that makes her not only a compelling love interest, but also a wonderful character in general. There is one scene in which she auditions for a drama club which is less than authentic (from one who was once a stage player, when you are on stage, you must "E-NUN-ci-ATE"), but that is a small gaffe in an otherwise strong performance. Secondary characters like Adam Goldberg as a frustrated high school teacher and Billy Lush as Norman's gay best friend are also deeper than they first appear on the surface, though the impact of both on the story as a whole is lost in it's muddling.

Is that a My Little Pony? What the hell?
I wish I could recommend Norman to you all, but sadly between the film's perpetually depressed state, dark themes, cliched storytelling and long stretches of boredom, the excellent acting and character development are all but brushed to the wayside. If a better story had been borne from this amateur attempt, I would raise it myself over the heads of truly fine filmmaking such as  50/50 and the like. However Norman instead appears destined to emulate the disaffected school students it honors by sulking off by itself and going generally unnoticed. I can't help but wish things had gone differently - especially with this cast - but one can only hope that these performers take what they learned on the set and become better for it in their future projects, which will hopefully be more memorable than this, the indie film equivalent of that silent kid in the corner.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Anything But Normal

Sometimes when a film is really, truly scary, that can be enough. The first Paranormal Activity film came out back in 2009, and with it a resurgence in the popularity of the "found footage" genre of horror films. Long pantomimed from the early days of The Blair Witch Project, the "found footage" films have varied in quality and success, but until Paranormal Activity, none ever came close to the legacy that Blair Witch had built. Like that 1999 horror classic, Paranormal Activity terrified and excited audiences to the point that a sequel was not only demanded, but inevitable. Unlike Blair Witch, however, Paranormal Activity managed to pull a successful sequel out of its wizard's bag, and even if Paranormal Activity 2 wasn't as well received or as financially profitable as the original, it at least stood toe to toe with its predecessor, and many have said that it was better in some ways than the first. And so comes Paranormal Activity 3, the latest in the low-budget thrillers that have so far formed into an unstoppable box office juggernaut. Though I've never seen the first two entries in this franchise, I hoped that going in fresh would mean a unique perspective to the series; after all, how much do you have to know to be frightened out of your wits?

Creepy kids = scary movie
Mostly a prequel to the first two entries, Paranormal Activity 3 looks at childhood videos of franchise stars and sisters Katie (Katie Featherston) and Kristi (Sprague Grayden) and the origins of the malevolent spirits that haunt them. In the tapes their mother's live-in boyfriend Dennis (Christopher Nicholas Smith) sets up a number of video tape recorders when he discovers strange things happening in their new home, from odd shadows to disturbing noises where there ought to be none. He quickly gathers evidence of otherworldly happenings in the house, especially around young Kristi, whose imaginary friend Toby seems to be more than just any old figment. Despite the dismissals by their mother Julie (Lauren Bittner) that anything off is happening, the family must soon contend with spirits with a plan, and what happens when you piss them off.

 Proof that nobody is pretty at 3 AM
The film was directed by Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost, and if those names sound familiar, it's because you either remember 2010's little documentary that could Catfish, or have recently read my review of it. It's easy to see how this duo could climb into the driver's seat of the horror franchise, as there there were certainly a few suspense-laden scenes towards the end of their 2010 mini-hit. Unfortunately, their biggest influence might not have been the best: Catfish had some pacing issues early on that slowed the film down considerably, and Paranormal Activity 3 seems to suffer the same fate, as the film seems to meander throughout the first hour with a coherent story seemingly out of reach. Worse, the explanation we are given for the strange occurrences is barely believable and leaves us with more questions than answers.

Yes. Because you will successfully RUN from a GHOST
At least the "horror" part of the series come through nicely. Sparse early in the film's run, the scares gradually raise in intensity the further into the story we get, even if many simply startle rather than actually frighten. Excellent effects mean that we the audience are able to catch even slight irregularities without them being explicitly pointed out to us. Schulman and Joost do a great job with the camera work, especially in  the deft video editing that shockingly makes the impossible possible, with seemingly little CGI or advanced trickery. Each moment is perfectly captured in almost random fashion, as every moment feels natural and honest, the people reacting to the absurdity put against them in realistic manners befitting normal people. That's what makes the Paranormal Activity series so frightening. These aren't insipid college co-eds or pretty people with problems; the victims in this series are families like any by which we were raised, making us feel like the events depicted could happen to any of us, in our own homes.

Let the Haunting commence!
Of course, this level of scare tactics wouldn't be believable without a genuinely talented cast to tell it. Films like this generally don't have the most talented (or most expensive) casts available, and while it would be wrong to say that they "make due", they do indeed have to take what they can get in terms of ability. That's why it's nice to see some undiscovered talents in this new Paranormal Activity installment, from the mostly-behind-the-camera film producer Christopher Nicholas Smith to disbelieving mother/girlfriend Lauren Bittner. Creepy kids are a must, and the children du jour played by Chloe Csengery and  Jessica Taylor Brown fit the bill perfectly. Beown is especially impressive, and though her showing isn't that much stronger than many children her age, that she is that good at all an actress is definitely most important to this film's successful storytelling.

Ah, the 1980's... that explains the towel color scheme...
All these element combine to make Paranormal Activity 3 one of the scarier films to be released in 2011. Sure, it's no Insidious, but to be fair that would be a very high bar to reach in any year. Still, in a world where Apollo 18 gets financed, Paranormal Activity 3 is a competent, well-made and well-acted horror tale, one that gets better the further along you watch, and you won't ever know what's coming (even to the point where the scenes shown in the trailer are mostly cuts that didn't make the final release), even when you think you do. I wish I could recommend this title more highly, but suffice it to say that if you love anything about the horror genre, you'll probably find something to appreciate here. If not, well, Puss in Boots comes out Friday.

Monday, October 24, 2011

All for One, One for the Junk Pile

Like most people, I have a day job. It’s not my first love, but it IS how I pay the bills. There are days where I love my day job, with my daily interaction with co-workers, employees and managers keeping me fresh and on my toes. On the other end of the spectrum, sometimes my day job can beat me down so badly that I’m desperate for any respite, any calm in the storm. This past Friday was one such day, on which I left work frazzled, tired and just a little out of my mind. On days like this, I feel that a good dumb movie can help to raise beleaguered spirits and help one feel better by forgetting all the stresses of the day. On this particular Friday, I went to see The Three Musketeers, in 3D.

“But, Mr. Anderson,” you’re saying with polite reverence, “You said GOOD dumb movies. The Three Musketeers looks like utter crap! And you hate 3D, you complain about it all the time!”

You’re not half wrong there. From my first viewing of the film’s trailer, I was quite certain that there would be little to no redeeming value left in the finished product. The title, the third major film based on the novel by French author Alexandre Dumas in the past two decades, looked to incorporate style over substance, with little explanation as to not only why a new adaptation was ever needed, but why on Earth It would need to be shown in 3D. As many of my readers already know, I abhor most 3D films with VERY few exceptions, as often the overhyped technology is too much money spent to far little effect. But, lately I admit that for several reasons I have developed a soft spot for this obvious car wreck. The first was director Paul W. S. Anderson (no relation), whose 2010 franchise sequel Resident Evil: Afterlife was one of the few 3D movies I absolutely loved. The reason for my appreciation was that Anderson actually filmed using the same technology that pioneer James Cameron did in Avatar, the title that reinvigorated the 3D discussion. Using Cameron’s RealD 3D technology, Anderson created the perfect comeback to a franchise that had struggled creatively in its previous outings. As such, this is a man who obviously knows how 3D technology is supposed to work in this day and age of modern wonders. Another reason was the casting. Unknown Musketeers aside, the care in choosing several secondary roles was key. Between the obvious casting decisions (Christoph Waltz as the evil Cardinal Richelieu) and those strangely against type (Orlando Bloom as a heavy), Three Musketeers hosted a surprising bevy of talent on its roster. And don’t forget Anderson’s wife Milla Jovovich as turncoat Millady de Winter. Sure, Jovovich isn’t the best actress out there, but she’s a gamer who does all that is asked of her and appeals to the audiences of her films thanks to her professionalism and obvious sex appeal. For these reasons I was willing to offer the film a mulligan, hoping for something that would outshine its obvious flaws.

Well, one of you is going to have to go
When Musketeer hopeful D’Artagnan (Logan Lerman) travels to Paris to join the King’s elite soldiers, the events that follow are very similar to that of the novel, as he makes early enemies of former Musketeers Athos (Matthew MacFayden), Porthos (Ray Stevenson) and Aramis (Luke Evans), only to team up with the trio against the soldiers of Cardinal Richelieu (Waltz), the man secretly ruling France while misleading the young King Louis XIII into believing he is in full control. Athos, Porthos and Aramis were removed from the Musketeers after being betrayed by Athos’ lover Milady (Jovovich), a double agent for the Duke of Buckingham (Orlando Bloom). Soon the four become privy to the plots of Richelieu, who has devised a plan to send France and England towards war, with the ultimate end of him in total command of the country. It is up to the four warriors to take up the challenge and fight soldiers on both sides to save France and their King.

Shouldn't have brought a cutlass to a flintlock pistol fight
Of course, that spectacle I mentioned earlier never really comes to pass. The Three Musketeers is about as far from a great movie as you can get without being downright horrible, but Anderson does manage to make it a close call as he tries to create an adaptation of the classic tale with as much spectacle and fury as he can muster while failing on just about every conceivable level. It doesn’t help that Anderson feels out of his element when taking on this classic novel, incorporating steampunk elements (such as airships) where none were really should have been needed. For the most part the implementation of 3D was wasted, surprising and disappointing considering Anderson’s previous experience with the technology. Anyone who has seen the shower scene in Resident Evil: Afterlife knows how amazing 3D could actually look (get your minds out of the gutter), and I was expecting more of that ingenuity here. Unfortunately, that doesn’t show itself except for a brief instance towards the end featuring dueling airships. Worse, it’s nowhere near as entertaining, as there is very little that could excite small children, let alone the young adults that are the film’s target audience.

Kissing the hand was scandalous ENOUGH
At least the film has solid acting, which was much more than I could have expected. The Musketeers themselves are all standouts, as MacFayden, Stevenson and Evans proudly play their roles to great effectiveness. Between the dour Athos, the proud and Strong Porthos, and the pious Aramis, the tiny shred of personality that the film possesses shines brightly. It’s a shame then that the three get relatively little face time, especially Porthos and Aramis, who get a few moments to impress but not nearly enough. Instead we see others pushed to the forefront, and those are unfortunately nowhere near as artistically stimulating. Despite his talents and seemingly a natural choice for the role, Waltz’s Richelieu is a disappointment, too campy and unthreatening even to adequately chew scenery. Despite being the film’s central antagonist, he gives far too much ground to his underlings, especially Mads Mikkelsen as the petty and cruel Captain Rochefort. Logan Lerman has no business headlining ANY film, let alone a potential blockbuster. His bland recitation of dialogue is one of the film’s main flaws, and with too much attention on him this is far too noticeable a one. Jovovich was in fact a mixed bag, with Milady’s impressive… um… “talents” often overshadowed by not even an attempt at actual acting. However, one that surprisingly stood out to me was Orlando Bloom, playing the snide and clever Duke of Buckingham. Bloom, who usually plays upstanding and generally friendly characters, is so out of place here that it gives the film a new lift whenever he is on screen. Sadly, whereas The Three Musketeers has only one Orlando Bloom, it could have used three or four more. He’s on screen far too little as a secondary villain to be a serious nuisance, though he comes off as more diabolical than Richelieu when given the chance.

I'm sorry, did you say something? I was staring at your chest
Despite some clever jabs that catch you off guard and tickle your funny bone, there isn’t a whole lot to recommend in seeing The Three Musketeers in the theater. The film’s saving grace was supposed to be Anderson’s 3D implementation, but with that being less than stellar, the title had to actually rely on the script and its performers to get by. The result is an un-clever stupid movie that might be decent for mindless fun, if your definition of “fun” is far more subjective than mine. A few good moments do not a movie make, and so I can’t bring myself to actually recommend this title to anyone. If you decide to ignore me and DO go to see The Three Musketeers, at least do yourself the favor of skipping the 3D showings. They, like another Musketeers adaptation, are thoroughly unneeded.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Get Your Dance On

I remember a long time ago reading the review of some dance movie (Center Stage, maybe?) and coming across an axiom that made perfect sense. The idea was that when casting for any film in which dance was a central component, you could either cast normal actors and hope they can learn to follow a beat, or cast dancers and hope they can act. While there are those few performers who can actually do both well, the act of corralling enough photogenic dancers into one room often proves far too difficult for studios to pull off. These days are a far cry from the 1980's, when you had legitimate movie stars in Kevin Bacon and Patrick Swayze who could act as well as they could move. Ask anyone who's seen The Eagle or GI Joe if Channing Tatum can really act. The answers won't surprise you. While they might do a decent job portraying pretty people with problems, most actors who appear in films like Step Up or Center Stage are barely passable when it comes to headlining major releases. It's lucky then that most people going to see these titles aren't interested in acting, at least not as much as they usually would be. When fans of the genre see a dance film, they're looking to see something new, a great stunt or move that will make them straighten up in their seats and ask "How did they do that?" Apparently that's now being sought in the past, with a remake of Footloose on the docket for today's review and Dirty Dancing announced for sometime in the foreseeable future. When the original movies are so beloved, is there anything more than bank to be gained by resetting the story in a new, modern era?

He's the annoyingly new kid on the block
When Boston native Ren McCormack (Kenny Wormald) moves in with his uncle Wes (Ray McKinnon) and his family in the small town of Bomont, he knew there would be some serious changes in his life. What he never expected was to find himself in the middle of a small town's battle between overprotective parents and their rebellious progeny. Three years ago, five high school seniors were killed in a car accident while coming home from an unsupervised public dance party. As a result of the tragedy, the town council led by Reverend Shaw Moore (Dennis Quaid) pushed into law a ban on public dancing, citing it as lewd and provocative and plain unhealthy for their children. Ren, a former gymnast and fan of dancing, leads his new friends - including best friend Willard (Miles Teller) and the Reverend's defiant daughter Ariel (Julianne Hough) - in an effort to repeal the ban, which threatens to permanently drive two generations apart.

Who knew Line Dancing could actually be fun?
The first thing to know is that while this is indeed a scene-by-scene remake of the original 1984 classic, care has been made to make this release more approachable to those who have no idea of the kinds of religious extremism that people still encounter first hand in some parts of the country. The concept to banning dancing and loud music is not solely based on religious belief, but also on the aforementioned tragedy acting to make the adults overly protective of their children to the point where they are smothering their expressive sides. The film and director Craig Brewer make a concerted effort to portray Bomont as a modern town that happens to be small, not an isolated community governed by conservative law. This often comes from characters protesting that they are not backwards hicks, that they have cell phones and computers same as any other town or city. There is even an early scene in which Reverend Moore questions what qualifies as progress, when that technology seems to be driving people apart rather than bringing them together. It's obvious that Brewer and his team wanted this idea to be a major driving force in the retelling, though sometimes it seems as if they try too hard (in one scene Ren finds a record of Quiet Riot, only to pull out his iPod and Voila!), especially since that focus in the story dies out about halfway through.

You don't mess with Quaid's "Don't Mess with Me" look
One element where the film definitely shows some progress is in the soundtrack, which remakes four of the original's songs (including a Blake Shelton adaptation of title track "Footloose") and includes eight new tracks all its own, eclectic in selection and even featuring some hip-hop, a by-product of the glut of street dancing films that have become oh so popular in the past decade. Every song is well chosen and produced, not surprising as Brewer was the director of the upstart hip-hop film Hustle & Flow which took Hollywood by storm and made a legitimate star out of Terrence Howard. Brewer knows music, and its clear that his influence is a good chunk of the reason that the soundtrack is as amazing as it is. That Footloose doesn't limit itself to country music is a nice change of tune, and makes each scene feel fresh and exciting.

Redneck vs. Ruffian...FIGHT 
It's a shame that the attention on the dancing couldn't be as focused. It isn't that the dancing portions of the film are BAD; on the contrary, it's quite obvious that Wormald, Hough and company are highly talented performers who put their all into every nuanced movement. The problem is with the film's camera work, which seems fearful of focusing on the person in action for more than a few seconds before changing to a different angle or close-up, throwing off the rhythmic balance of the dance itself. One scene featuring Wormald angrily dancing solo in an empty warehouse is so sabotaged by the camera not allowing him to finish a particular step as to be somewhat frustrating, as a little more cooperation between the two would have worked wonders. Still, there's no denying the talent on display, no matter how much they seem intent on making you forget it.

Say it with me now... "Dawwww"
Of course I began this whole conversation by talking about the usual lack of decent acting in dance films. Footloose doesn't do a ton to dissuade that notion, though the level of acting talent is actually much higher among its stars than you would initially expect. Wormald obviously couldn't escape his very real Boston accent (the original film's Ren was from Chicago) and unfortunately his acting chops aren't so great that he can carry the film on his shoulders as the filmmakers would like. Still, he stands out every time he's asked to bust a move, and is probably the film's most talented dancer. He's well paired with Hough (she the owner of Hollywood's most beautiful blue eyes), who as a two-time winner of Dancing with the Stars is a far better dancer than she shows here. She is a surprisingly strong actress however, and eloquently portrays the struggles of a self-destructive small-town girl who can't find any middle ground in her turbulent life. While they're not the best pair of romantic leads, where the acting Footloose really shines is in its supporting players. Quaid is a silently strong force, his stoic look perfect for the film's conservative and hard-nosed but burdened and worried parent. Ray McKinnon is also a treat, underused as Ren's uncle Wes, who seems to be one of the few adults willing to give Ren a shot and take him seriously. But the real scene-stealer is Miles Teller as Ren's new best friend Willard. Teller, who stole his share of acclaim in last year's Nicole Kidman vehicle Rabbit Hole, might be the film's comic relief, but his journey from two left feet to impresario is as funny as it is heart-warming.

The newest batch of "Late Night" host tryouts is a packed field...
In all, I really enjoyed this remake of Footloose, warts and all. A feel-good movie for teens, anyone going in expecting a perfect remake is in for a rude awakening. Poignantly cast, immensely enjoyable and acutely charming, the film manages to overcome its own issues and make us focus on the spectacle of the dancing, while giving us a new, completely fresh look at the small southern towns we might have thought cliche in the past. It's not nearly good enough to place as Top 10 material, but a spot in the year's Top 20 sounds about right. A little tweaking would have made it perfect, but fans of the original and neophytes alike can be pleased with the product in front of them, flawed though it may be.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

All Good Things

There are some things that don't appear to be completely thought out when it comes to Hollywood business ideas. Horror films set in space. Films based on obscure teen novels. Tom Cruise. All of these things are poor, poor concepts that continue to thrive in cinema thanks to the misguided notions of not very bright people; they continue to exist because the people in charge simply don't know any better. Possibly the worst of these offenders is the remake, long reviled by movie purists who use it as an argument that the film industry is all out of good ideas. That isn't to say that there haven't been good - or even great - remakes in the history of Hollywood. Between Oceans Eleven, 3:10 to Yuma, and Let Me In, Hollywood has had its fair share of successes in that particular department. One of the better remakes in history was one of the 1951 science fiction film The Thing from Another World. Though initially failing at the box office, John Carpenter's The Thing would eventually became a cult classic. While 2011's new entry The Thing is in fact a prequel of that title and not a true remake, not many people seem to have noticed this and the fact that it features the same shape-changing creature, Antarctic locale and "who can you trust" storyline doesn't help its cause. Still, it was for me a more compelling a theatrical visit than the new Footloose, so there was no question that I would see this over the weekend.

"We'll blind it... with science!"
In 1982, University of Colombia geologist Kate Lloyd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is invited to visit a science camp in Antarctica which has made a groundbreaking discovery. Deep beneath the ice, an alien spacecraft has been discovered after 100,000 years of solitude alongside an ancient intergalactic passenger frozen completely solid. Sure that they have made the discovery of the century, Kate and the science team are making preparations to take the creature home when the unthinkable happens, as the monster escapes and begins hunting the members of the team. With an ability to shapeshift into any human form and assume the identities of those it kills, it is not long before the survivors find themselves unsure who they can trust and whether they will be able to escape this nightmare scenario.

Winstead doing her best Ellen Ripley impression
When you're making a horror film, even one with sci-fi basis, there's nothing more cliche than the ragtag science team that can't understand what is happening to them. It doesn't help when the people you cast in these roles are so similar-looking as to completely blend into one another save for singular glaring differences. Still, there are a few standouts among them, allowing most of the cannon fodder to be killed off with little to no hard feelings. Mary Elizabeth Winstead proves herself a solid scream queen after impressing me with her perpetually-amused Ramona Flowers in 2010's Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. Here she plays much more serious a part but doesn't hesitate to carry the film's load squarely on her shoulders when needed. Winstead may not be a household name but with more solid outings like this she may soon be. Joel Edgerton is in just about everything these days. He became known to most American audiences though his small role in last year's Australian crime drama Animal Kingdom, though he had been making random appearances for years in film, including the much-maligned Star Wars prequels. But now he's making a name for himself, and even if his films aren't getting much attention (including the overlooked gem Warrior), Edgerton has succeeded in simply making people pay attention to him. Sure, here he plays the gung-ho American pilot (the Kurt Russell role, I call it), but he manages to take that role and make it his, which is a talent you can't teach. Ulrich Thomsen does his best Kenneth Brannagh impression as the antagonistic lead scientist who puts his own glory ahead of the common good. After that if you can recognize anyone not the black guy (Lost's Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) you've earned yourself a gold star. Most of the rest are a faceless pack, and don't do much to differentiate themselves before they are killed or transformed, which apparently happens whenever they leave our line of sight.

There's a lot of gun pointing going on
One thing to be said about advancements in technology is that what was impossible two decades ago can be reborn quite easily in this day and age. Of course, this also allows for you to get into more trouble if you have little idea what you are actually doing, and both sides of the puzzle are hit upon when it comes to The Thing's special effects department. Certainly the 1982 film built the perfect atmosphere that made the entire Antarctic environs so frightening - it was a classic Carpenter film, after all - but director Matthijs van Heijningen Jr manages to create a world arguably as stimulating if not more so thanks to today's leaps and bounds in technology and set design. Though some scenes, such as one in which Kate views the stars through the clear Southern sky, are beautiful to behold as can be, there are still a few flaws that haven't quite worked their way out. This was a criticism I had with 2010's top Oscar contender The Social Network, but the digitally-rendered frozen breath is more than a little distracting, as it looks no more real than the animated critters in the latest Indiana Jones flick did. Instead of trying too hard with the imagery, the budget for which was obviously heavily invested in the design and implementation of the monsters, perhaps turning down a thermostat would have been easier, cheaper, and more realistic. I have no complaints about the monster itself, which in many forms is rendered with amazing clarity, suffering not one whit when we see it in detail up close. Overall, the fog breath is a relatively minor quibble when the rest is almost masterfully pulled off by an obviously talented team.

In war films, they always run towards the enemy. This isn't a war movie.
Of course, if you've seen the classic John Carpenter thriller, there's little reason that this would need to be on your must-see list in 2011. With remarkably fewer scares, it's essentially the same tale presented here, with some additional back story for the creature and obviously different characters doing little to change the basic themes and ideas that the classic horror film instituted. This is an especially frustrating concept when your title in question is a prequel that feels more like a simple retread than it really should. Winstead and Edgerton may be stars on the rise, but they would have to be the MAIN reasons you want to see this movie, as a simple trip to the video store will gain you the same overall experience without paying out the nose for popcorn and a soda. Still, getting out to see The Thing proved to be an overall good time, so if you really do need an immediate horror experience and since there is literally NOTHING in that genre to see in the theaters right now, this should be right up your alley.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Electoral Foul-Up

To hear the industry tell it, Ryan Gosling is the hottest actor in Hollywood as you read this. While much consternation was raised earlier this year over Gosling’s apparent Oscar snub for his role in the indie drama Blue Valentine nobody can doubt the attention he has earned in 2011, in which he has had arguably his biggest year to date. In fact, today marks the third review I’ve written in three months that has starred the young actor, the first two being the romantic comedy Crazy Stupid Love with Steve Carell and the noir crime drama Drive. With The Ides of March, Gosling takes on the world of political intrigue in a film directed by co-star George Clooney. Clooney knows what it’s like to be the hot hand of Hollywood, as he has managed to build a strong career based especially on his charisma and excellent acting. Clooney has had twenty-five years to ascend to that status, with his starring turn in the CBS medical drama E.R. and a robust film resume that has seen plenty of misses but even more hits, and he was a huge reason films like Out of Sight, Michael Clayton and the Oceans trilogy were so well received. His directing career, however, has been a different story. While 2005’s Good Night and Good Luck was a true gem (and probably would have won its best picture nomination had Crash not come out the same year), other films directed by Clooney have been far from well received. Still, the good will Clooney has generated from audiences goes a long way, and his latest attempt behind the camera takes one of the more talented young men in Hollywood to see what he can do with Mr. Gosling.
Wait, does that sign say George Clooney is Evil? Blasphemy!
Based on Beau Willimon’s play Farragut North, the story follows Stephen Meyers (Gosling), the junior campaign manager for Democratic Presidential hopeful Mike Morris (Clooney). Having served on more electoral campaigns than most have by the time they are forty, Stephen is a true believer in the Governor of Pennsylvania. He believes that Morris is not only the best candidate for whom he has worked, but the only one who can and will actually make a change for the good of the country. Currently they are campaigning alongside senior campaign manager Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman) in Ohio, hoping for a victory in the Primaries here that will easily secure the Democratic nomination. But while this is going on, Stephen discovers a secret that not only throws his confidence in Morris in doubt, but could officially end the Governor’s political career. Now he must determine which is the better option: making sure his flawed man reaches the White House, or throwing in with the competition and rival Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti) to make sure that Morris doesn’t reach that goal.

Sadly, Clooney's inspiration did not help "Bring the Sexy Back" to the campaign trail
If you want to enjoy The Ides of March, you might have to love politics. I’m not saying this because the film is unapproachable to those who don’t, but the learning curve is certainly steep enough for the uninitiated. The actors involved toss out factoids concerning political history almost at random, and though they are no doubt at least somewhat essential to understanding the scene they are almost completely forgotten by the time the closing credits rolled. You can either take in these random bits of information as a pure sideline entertainment and by turn having a leg up on your fellow movie watchers, or you can ignore them completely and try to just follow the mood of the story as it goes along. The latter is certainly where most would tread, but unfortunately you can’t get the full campaign experience without trying to understand why the characters act the way they do. Thankfully the major themes are ones that EVERYONE should be able to understand, and that the film succeeds in not completely alienating its audience it a minor victory.

Presidential jaw, Presidential hair... you sure he's not a Republican?
Unfortunately, that’s about all this film can say went right, as even those political aficionados would have little reason to sit through The Ides of March’s entire 101 minutes. Doubtless there are any large number of conflicts in a Presidential campaign, but why on Earth did Clooney and company have to make the entire thing so DULL? Perhaps it’s not entirely his fault, and the Willimon play is at least part of the problem. That still doesn’t excuse the fact that a film full to the brim with devious schemes, political intrigue, scandals, deception, blackmail and revenge is so utterly uninteresting to watch. What should have been keeping me riveted to my seat instead kept me waiting for something, ANYTHING to happen. With surprisingly horrid pacing, I simply didn’t care about this candidate, this election or any of the underpinning issues that went into it, and that is certainly the fault of the filmmakers.

Some people will just never be happy
At least an excellent cast has been brought in to somewhat raise the level of the tepid script. Gosling once again argues that he belongs in Hollywood’s upper echelon. While not near as memorable as his previous starring roles, he is still perfectly cast as the closest thing the audience has to a hero. Stephen is smart, talented, charming and experienced, and should be easy to root for. Even when his character’s morals and methods change, Gosling is entirely in control. Easily the rising star of 2011, his dedication to roles like this should cement his future superstardom. Clooney as a Presidential candidate is not all that different from Clooney in the public eye: he’s charming, looks the part and can speak publicly with the best of them. In short, Clooney carries the perfect political persona. His performance might be a little on the nose (and therefore lacking the diversity to be interesting) but since many celebrity hounds already see him as a potential Presidential front runner, he was in fact the best choice for the role. Philip Seymour Hoffman has always been a strong character actor. Once again however he is an actor straining to be free from the confines of a singularly rote character, even one with some devious methods all his own. Hoffman is most certainly too much actor for the part he plays, but he still brings a ton of professionalism and talent to the cast. Possibly shining most brightly is Paul Giamatti as an unscrupulous campaign manager who tries to tempt Stephen to joining the other side. Smarmy and duplicitous, it’s easy to pin the main antagonist tag on his head, and it’s difficult to believe that this is the same guy who was the hero of this year’s indie dramedy Win Win. Like Hoffman, he’s one of the most talented character actors in Hollywood today. Others who contribute are The Wrestler actresses Marissa Tomei and Evan Rachel Wood. Tomei is a political journalist for the New York Times, while Wood plays an intern and romantic interest for Stephen. Both have their roles to play, and while Tomei is limited in scope for her character, Wood turns out to be almost a kindred spirit to Gosling, and the attention that gets focused on her is not put to waste in even the slightest fashion. Jeffrey Wright is another talented performer, but unfortunately his character – an Ohio politician whose endorsement would be essential to Morris’ victory – harbors too much of a vibe copied from baseball Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson (right down to the facial hair), with his own aspirations above that of the people he represents.

Sadly, Morris' other slogan "Hope" was already taken
Clooney might be responding somewhat to much of the populace thinking he’d be a great political frontrunner (and he might at that), but in The Ides of March he presents so jaded and dark a vision of the American political system that there is really no cause for even the smallest hopes of purity to arise. Between that, the bland dullness of a script, too many cliched characters and sheer lack of imagination (they reuse a famous scandal to try and move the story forward) take this film from being one of the big contenders of 2011 to somewhere amidst the pack of wannabes. When a political thriller doesn’t particularly THRILL, it’s a cause for serious concern, and this title has the feel of a half-baked drama that was rushed out the door. Sadly, this might even be the wrong time for The Ides of March to be released, as the demonstrations occurring across the country suggests that people have had their fill of corruption for the time being. The Ides of March is not Oscar worthy, but it does have enough going for it to perhaps fool many into thinking otherwise. If you’re big into politics and want to see a bunch of talented actors do what they do so well, this film will whet your palate nicely. If not, then when I see you next we can move on.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Metal Movie Mayhem

So there's this movie in which the history-rich sport of boxing, once ruled by superhuman personalities like Muhammad Ali, Joe Lewis and Mike Tyson, has evolved into a video game. Remote-controlled robots taking the place and punishment of those men who would enter the rings in the sport's heyday. And yet this isn't called Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots: The Movie, but the far more nonsensical Real Steel, starring Hugh Jackman and based on a short story by Richard Matheson. What's that, you say? Robotic boxing sounds like one of the stupidest ideas you've ever heard of as a plot device for a movie? How about a basic father/son reuniting storyline or every boxing cliche under the sun, brought to you by Disney? Still stupid, you say? Yup, I thought so too. Turns out though that more than million people thought this was worth seeing on opening weekend, proving that when it comes to cinematic entertainment, there really is no accounting for taste. It didn't hurt that Real Steel was all but unopposed this past weekend, with only the George Clooney political thriller The Ides of March approaching anything like a concentrated audience. Of course Ides is no family film, so while Real Steel prances about like a heavyweight fighter, it has only proven itself a bully in a middleweight contest for now. When I attended it earlier this week, it was only because the film was the best available I'd yet to see (sorry, Dream House) and to be honest, I really felt like I NEEDED to see a stupid movie after having my emotional core besieged by the wonderful 50/50. If Real Steel could provide cheap fun for the night, isn't that all it really promises?

We see a lot of this
Charlie Kenton (Jackman) is a former boxer who had to give up his honored past-time when the sport changed. More extreme fans and offshoots like UFC eventually forced boxing to adapt to the more ruthless, no-holds-barred entertainment that the people were clamoring for. Since the human body can only handle so much, robots eventually replaced the boxers of the world, and that forced guys like Charlie to make a change. Now the down-on-his luck performer is deep in debt to rough honchos, and has irreparably lost two robots to battle damage in two subsequent losses. Charlie's luck begins to change however, when into his custody comes his preteen son Max (Dakota Goyo), whose mother has recently passed away. While Charlie wants nothing to do with the kid and eagerly signs over custody of Max to the deceased's sister, he still has to care for Max while she is away in Europe. This leads to the boy discovering an old sparring bot while helping Charlie dive for spare parts at a junkyard, and soon the father and son team are touring the country with a bot named Atom that can take a huge amount of punishment while Charlie trains it to become a winner in the ring, Meanwhile, Max teaches Charlie to be a better man than he was.

It's the devastating "Whatsis Neme"!
So. Obviously there's got to be SOMETHING wrong with this film, outside of it's nonsensical existence. You're waiting for me to point out what that is, aren't you? Well, let's go down the list. The special effects aren't an issue. Perhaps I was blinded by the immense size of the IMAX screen on which I watched this, but Real Steel sports some of the best special effects this side of a Michael Bay blockbuster, with special care taken in the design and implementation of the robotic athletes. Unlike many films, actual robots were built for the story-focused scenes, and CGI used only in actually making them duke it out. A great attention to detail and excellent effort made to animate these beasts is the film's greatest accomplishment, a far greater feat than many a Summer thrill-ride was able to achieve in 2011. The world presented is also deep, with vast cornfields, wide open areas and very little urban sprawl used to hearken back to a less populated America, in a nostalgic effort to let us know that as much as the sport of boxing has changed, the world in which it had it's greatest moments remains the same or at least similar. Add atop this an excellent soundtrack by Danny Elfman (of Oingo Boingo and The Simpsons fame), and there is not an element visually or aurally that is out of place.

Previously on Lost
So the problem isn't in the special effects; those are up to snuff. Hmmm. Maybe it's the acting that is Real Steel's fatal flaw? Nope, sorry. While the cast could never in a million years be referred to as "perfect", there are also no obvious weak links to drag the whole ensemble apart. Hugh Jackman is his usual boisterous and charming self, and as the manliest man to ever sing "Oklahoma", it's too bad that he never seems to pick great movies in which to be the star. With the exception of his turn as Wolverine in the X-Men series of films, the vast majority of his career has been either poorly-criticized or poorly-attended. It's a shame, as he's obviously talented enough to be more than a mere action star, but too large physically to fully break away from that mold. At least he looks like he's having a good time making this film, which is a lot better than John Travolta has looked in the last half-dozen years. Most of the other actors come nowhere close, but are able at least to do a passable job for the genre. Some of the better actors, Anthony Mackie and Kevin Durand in particular, aren't given a lot to do beside being strong personalities. Seeing Evangeline Lilly in something not created by J.J. Abrams was intriguing enough, but she's not quite able explain why she thinks she wants to do this as a career. Sure she's spunky, but there's nothing new to see with her. Dakota Goyo has probably the closest thing the film has to a "why is he here" role, as his stubborn child character is hardly top shelf, even if it had been remotely unique. Still, these actors show up and are enthusiastic to be on the set, so it's nearly impossible to fully discredit their work.

Two men enter, one man leaves! Two men ent... oh... wait...
Hmm, that's two down. Really, do we need anything else to be wrong with Real Steel? The ridiculousness of the entire presented universe is far from intelligent, to start. Sure, there's the fact that a human body can do so much, but that isn't nearly enough to explain why boxing with robots would become so popular. Just ask any fan of fighting as sport: there's something exciting about seeing two humans beating the ever living crap out of one another. The same can't be said for two robots, especially when the concept of a "more extreme" form of the art is nullified by keeping many of Boxing's original rules. Even if robots aren't indestructible, why do they need breaks between rounds? Why ARE there rounds? Why not keep them fighting constantly? There are obviously a lot of questions that could be asked in that vein. So why does robot combat become so exciting? Who knows? Certainly the filmmakers never paused to consider that particular question, the way we're expected to just accept that crowds would go gaga for an "unbeatable" bot from Russia (at least, its owner is Russian) whose fights in person must be boring and predictable. But even this isn't a deal-changer, as escapism goes a long way to make your forget the inanity of the entire situation, and Jackman does his best to cover the rest.

Jackman talking to his agent about the announced Real Steel sequel
Okay, there really is a big problem with Real Steel that might be an issue for you as a viewer. Ever seen a boxing movie? Rocky? Raging Bull? Cinderella Man? Well, these filmmakers have seen all those movies as well, and more. With the exception of the fact that the robots are the big, bad fighters, there is not one unique story element to be found anywhere in this film. Walkout dad and stubborn son finding they have more in common than they thought? Complete with redemption angle? The aforementioned "unstoppable" champion bot? Charlie's unrealized fighting potential? Even the entirety of the cliched "championship match" at the whole thing's end? You'll find it all elsewhere. It would have been great for Real Steel to get a real story to match its random title, but unfortunately that wasn't given much consideration by director Shawn Levy. That's unfortunate since Levy's last film, the very funny Date Night, was more than a few steps above his previous efforts. That this film has been a success while the under-appreciated Warrior rots in empty theaters is disconcerting to say the least. Still, Real Steel for the most part holds it's own as even with a completely unoriginal story it manages to hang with the median of 2011 action movies, faring better than Cowboys & Aliens and Captain America and perhaps on par with Fast Five. Spend as much on a ticket as you think it's worth, and this sci-fi tale might sneak up on you. Just don't expect to be blown away by anything other than the visuals.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Whole, Not Half and Half

If I were to put together a list of the movies I was most anticipating this fall, it would not be a long one. Sure, there are the big budget blockbusters that are certain to entertain, such as the remake of The Thing, or the mythological warfare film The Immortals. But most of the high-class movies vying for potential award nominations are not making the compelling argument that they deserve to be seen, as I'm taking a wait-and-see approach to Martha Marcy May Marlene, Anonymous, Like Crazy, The Rum Diary, J Edgar, Melancholia, and The Descendants. There will be bad movies as well, many of which I will be readily avoiding like the plague. Even those that fall in the middle are no sure thing, and many I'll see not because they demand attention, but because they're all that is. 50/50 was definitely a film that fell in that category, a dramedy focusing on possibly the most unfunny topic out there. Sure, it sports a cast that was itself 50/50, including the excellent Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Academy Award nominee Anna Kendrick yet the film also harbors the eyeroll-inducing Seth Rogen in a major supporting role. Sure, played right this could have been among the best films of the year but come on; SETH ROGEN!! Sure, he can occasionally be a positive influence in good films, such as his non-corporeal role in this year's Paul, but I still had a hard time believing that he would do anything besides drag a title like this one down from its full potential.

"And how does starring in a film with Seth Rogen make you feel?"
Adam's (Gordon-Levitt) life is fairly steady. He's got a steady job, a steady girlfriend (Bryce Dallas Howard), a best friend who cares for him (Rogen) and he exercises regularly. Overall things are just fine. But Adam's latest doctor visit has forced his life down an unexpected road, as he learns he has a rare form of aggressive spinal cancer. With odds of surviving the disease 50/50, Adam's life and relationships quickly unravel as he struggles to exist in this new, barely survivable phase of his life. He finds no solace in his friends and family and depressed about his chances of still being here when all is said and done.

This is what we call "Bad Idea #1"
50/50 is not your typical "cancer flick", most notably because it's not entirely fiction. The film was in fact based on the real-life crisis of screenwriter Will Reiser, who was similarly diagnosed in his early twenties. Reiser obviously takes liberally from his own experiences, from chemotherapy sessions to the intensity that such a disease brings to the relationships between the afflicted and their family and friends. This isn't an overly sappy sob-fest or an inspirational tour de force, but a story told straight without need of epic dramatic flourishes. There are a few glossed-over or ommitted details (how many chemo patinets keep their eyebrows in real life, I wonder?), it still manages to get most right. There's something raw and stripped down about this, and it makes for a more compelling dialogue about life and living. We are told, and we believe, that having cancer is more than enough of a plot to follow.

Three cheers for medicinal marijuana!
Of course it doesn't hurt the telling when you've got the best cast available for the job. While I'm sure James McAvoy would have been great in the lead role (it was his before he had to back out for personal reasons), but it's difficult now to envision anyone besides Gordon-Levitt and his swiftly-rising star as the courageous and ever-shifting Adam. Adam has to cover a lot of ground as a character, not only affected by his condition but by the changing world around him. Gordon-Levitt is uniquely suited to this task, as he can convey more dialogue to the audience merely by his facial expressions and body language than most people can do by speaking aloud. It's a shame 50/50's somewhat juvenile nature will probably prevent it from attaining top tier status, as there was enough here I thought to make an argument for this fine performer as the year's best actor. The crew around him are no slouches however, as director Jonathan Levine shows that he really knew what he was doing putting this group together. Anna Kendrick once again stuns as Adam's student therapist, drawing amusement from the audience as she stumbles through emotional hoops to try and break through Adam's defenses. This may not be a far cry from her breakthrough role of the young Natalie Keener in Up in the Air, but since she's still charming enough to be cute and new enough for the acting to not be old hat, it works perfectly. Bryce Dallas Howard gives us yet another reason not to like her, though in this case it's because she's so good as making us hate her character, Adam's emotionally-distant girlfriend Rachael. It's only a small role, but the daughter of director Ron proves that she can be used effectively in the correct roles, usually the smaller the better. Furthermore, Anjelica Huston is both amazing and almost unrecognizable as Adam's mother Diane, an overly-emotive and smothering matriarch who was already dealing with her husband's Alzheimer's problems. This is one of the characters revered by the filmmakers, as the dynamic of Diane's and Adam's relationship throughout is one of two that are pivotal. The other is the one between Adam and his best friend Kyle. I'm shocked to be saying this twice in one year, but Rogen proves to be compelling and fun to watch unlike ever before. Though 90% of his performance is just like everything you've seen before from him, there is a certain otherness and honesty to his work here. It probably stems from experience: Rogen played much the same character in real life when Reiser was diagnosed. The result is an above average performance and a cast in which even the most likely flaw emerges clean and sparkling.

Gordon-Levitt's eyebrows are saying "Get the hell out"
After enjoying the movie as a whole for the first 80 minutes, something strange happened. It's often said that I am emotional and cry at the drop of a hat, but I don't believe I've ever broken down and cried while watching a movie in the theater before. The sheer emotion of the film's final moments are almost too much to bear however, and I'm certain most people would have reacted in the same manner. 50/50 is a completely honest, sometimes brutal and thankfully uplifting tale in which we are told that sometimes the best moments of our lives might be brought on by our worst disasters. For a movie I wasn't even sure I wanted to watch, it was quite a surprise to clock it in at #3 for 2011. That might seem a little low, even to me, but the line dividing 50/50, Drive and Moneyball is so thin that any of them could be the top movie this year. With a weak-looking winter field ahead, there's a good chance that these three could still be the top three come January. Until then, they're all must-sees and each worth the price however you invite them inside.