Late Bloomers (2011)


A nuzzle between old lovers is as sexy as anything you'll see in Fifty Shades of Grey.

A nuzzle between old lovers is as sexy as anything you’ll see in Fifty Shades of Grey.

(2011) Romantic Comedy (Olive) William Hurt, Isabella Rossellini, Doreen Mantle, Kate Ashfield, Aidan McArdle, Arta Dobroshi, Luke Treadaway, Leslie Phillips, Hugo Speer, Joanna Lumley, Simon Callow, Iona Warne, Ryan Quartley, Nicholas Farrell, Sushil Chudasama, Joanna Bobin, Lin Blakley, Phoenix James, Hannah Charlton, Stuart Martin, Kelli White. Directed by Julie Gavras

Cinema of the Heart 2015

One thing about aging; we all do it. In fact, we’re doing it right now, as you read this. That might make you a little bit uncomfortable; I don’t blame you. Nobody likes to think about it. Nobody likes to talk about it, and yet we all age. Our bodies break down, betray us. Eventually, they shut down. Nobody likes to think about that.

Adam (Hurt) and Mary (Rossellini) have been married for 30 years and are seeing 60 approach. They are entering the endgame of middle age and will soon be forced to deal with old age. Mary is somewhat terrified of it – she begins to buy gadgets like phones with huge numbers, and bars for the toilet and bath to aid in getting out of the latter and off of the former.

Adam doesn’t think he’s quite done yet. An architect who has designed some major airports, he has received a lifetime achievement award in his field which he likens to a tombstone. His firm, which has not been getting the sort of projects they once did, is offered the design of a retirement village. Adam doesn’t want to design a “zombie storage facility” as he terms it. A young woman in his office, Maya (Dobroshi) urges him to enter a competitive bid for a museum. Re-energized, Adam decides to go for it. However, his wife – who is a retired teacher – is trying to fill her days with volunteer work with condescending managers and water aerobics in the gym. They are drifting apart and even their grown children sense it. Adam is sleeping at the office more often than not, and sometimes with Maya who has been flirting with him. Can their marriage survive old age?

Gavras whose first feature was the political drama Blame It on Fidel is making her second feature in English (she was born and raised in France) for the first time, possibly to appeal to a wider audience. There are some fine actors in France who might have taken these roles but it’s hard to imagine anyone doing a better job than Hurt and Rossellini did here.

Hurt has always been a kind of ice cold actor, a little bit distant from his audience. Rossellini on the other hand is all heart, all soul. They couldn’t be more different if they tried but they succeed in convincing us they’re a couple, communicating in non-audible gestures and looks although as the film progresses they don’t communicate at all. I suspect that Gavras purposely cast such polar opposites; I know couples like this who have had successful  marriages, but they demand a lot of patience and work. Adam seems to be more passionate about his work than his wife; Mary is unable to get past her obsession with oncoming age. The two can’t seem to get past their differences.

And yet, there’s no denying the chemistry in this couple. The ending is a bit forced, but the only reason it works at all is because of that chemistry between Hurt and Rossellini. They convince you that there is love between them, even when they don’t know how to live with each other. That’s the way it goes sometimes and not every ending is as happy as this one turns out to be.

This isn’t compelling romantic cuddle by the fire stuff, but it is compelling as a look at how relationships survive the aging of the people in it. And yeah, maybe on Valentine’s Day you want to keep the “I wanna grow old with you” to just a declaration of intent, but the fact of the matter is that we do have to eventually grow old and doing so with a partner is just as difficult and hard work as it is growing up with one – but just as rewarding as well.

WHY RENT THIS: Charming performances from Rossellini and Hurt. Unapologetic and frank discussion of aging.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Muddled in places. The ending is a little bit too chipper.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexuality, some drinking, adult themes and a little bit of foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The director is the daughter of Oscar-nominated director Costa-Gavras (Z, Missing, Betrayed).
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD rental), Amazon (not available), Vudu (not available),  iTunes (not available), Target Ticket (not available)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Lovely, Still
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT: Cinema of the Heart continues!

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My Afternoons with Margueritte (La tête en friche)


A sunny afternoon in a park in a small French village is c'est magnifique!

A sunny afternoon in a park in a small French village is c’est magnifique!

(2010) Dramedy (Cohen Media Group) Gerard Depardieu, Gisele Casadesus, Maurane, Patrick Bouchitey, Jean-Francois Stevenin, Francois-Xavier Demaison, Claire Maurier, Sophie Guillermin, Melanie Bernier, Matthieu Dahan, Jerome Deschamps, Gilles Detroit, Regis Laspales, Anne Le Guernec, Jean-Luc Porraz, Bruno Ricci, Lyes Salem, Sylvia Allegre. Directed by Jean Becker

Offshoring

You can never tell who will come into your life and change it forever. Sometimes it’s someone you’d expect – a teacher, a preacher, a parent, a lover – but sometimes it is quite someone else entirely.

Germain (Depardieu) is a middle-aged mostly illiterate handyman living in a small, bucolic French village. He lives in a trailer next to his mother (Maurier) who is showing signs of Alzheimer’s and isn’t well. When she was a young woman (Le Guernec) she was an absolute terror. Germain had been the result of an accidental pregnancy and Mommy dearest made sure that Germain knew at every possible turn that she never wanted him. In fact, she never refers to Germain by name or even as a he – to his mom, Germain is an “it.”

You would think that would make Germain a bitter, mean man but he has proven to be stronger. His is a gentle soul, and most people like him personally – although plenty make fun of him behind his back. He has a beautiful young girlfriend, Annette (Guillermin) who drives the local bus and he sells vegetables from his garden. Between that and his handyman work he squeaks by but in a village like this, life – even just squeaking by – is good.

One afternoon as he sits on a park bench to eat his lunch, he meets by chance Margueritte (Casadesus). She is everything he is not; worldly, well-read, intelligent and tiny. At 95 years old, she is still full of life and joy. They pass a pleasant conversation and Margueritte begins reading The Plague by the existentialist philosopher Albert Camus. Germain finds himself falling for the power of the words and Margueritte lends him a dictionary to help him learn to read.

That goes very poorly as Germain quickly realizes that he is slogging through mud and feeling humiliated, gives up quickly. However, as it turns out, Margueritte has macular degeneration and won’t be able to read much longer. To be separated from books – now that is a living hell as far as Margueritte is concerned. Germain determines to finally learn how to read once and for all – not for himself but for his new friend.

Becker, a second-generation filmmaker, is extraordinary in his brevity. There are no wasted scenes, no unnecessary shots. Vis a vis the story, he simply gets on with it, displaying the salient points and when the story is over, so is the film. There are plenty of filmmakers who can learn from his technique including some who have won Oscars.

Much has been made of Depardieu’s weight in the movie and the “unlikelihood” of a beautiful young woman like Annette falling in love with him and maintaining a romantic and sexual relationship with him. Critics who have written such things need to be given a year off from their jobs so they can actually live in the real world – people fall for people regardless of how they look or weigh. It is only shallow people to whom looks are important and those are generally the people who complain they can’t find anyone to stick around.

This isn’t a movie that bowls you over. Rather, it is one you fall in love with slowly, gradually, until by the end credits you realize that you feel genuine affection for the film. Depardieu has a lot to do with that. One of the world’s best actors in his heyday and still as engaging as he ever was, he imbues the soul of Germain with a kind of sweetness so genuine it is hard not to like the oaf. His chemistry with Casadesus is also genuine which is a relief because the movie revolves around it; in fact, must have that chemistry in order to succeed. Not to worry; you don’t for a second doubt that they have become deep, close friends.

Some people may find the comedy too subtle and low-key and I can understand that. This is going to appeal more to people who have more of a European sensibility and perspective than American; you will either like this or not depending on your tolerance for subtlety. It may not be loud enough for you, but those who prefer movies that don’t have to shout will be drawn to this like moths to a warm, comforting flame.

WHY RENT THIS: The chemistry between Depardieu and Casadesus is delightful. Very charming and sweet.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: May be too low-key for some.
FAMILY VALUES: Occasional foul language, a few sexual references and some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although uncredited as such on the final print, Depardieu served as executive producer for the film.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $14.3M on an unreported production budget.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Offshoring 2014 concludes!

Friends With Benefits


Friends With Benefits

Just a couple of couch potatoes.

(2011) Romantic Comedy (Screen Gems) Justin Timberlake, Mila Kunis, Patricia Clarkson, Jenna Elfman, Richard Jenkins, Bryan Greenberg, Woody Harrelson, Andy Samberg, Shaun White, Nolan Gould, Emma Stone, Masi Oka, Rashida Jones, Jason Segel. Directed by Will Gluck

 

Humans crave intimacy on several levels, beginning with the base physical and into the higher realms of friendship and love. We need it as surely as we need food to eat and air to breathe; without it our lives are empty and meaningless.

Jamie Rellis (Kunis) is a corporate headhunter with a history of relationship issues. Her assignment is to find an art director for GQ Magazine in New York and she thinks she’s found one. Dylan Harper (Timberlake) works as an art director for a small internet company and mainly takes the interview for the free trip to New York, especially after he breaks up with his girlfriend.

It turns out that Dylan and GQ are a match made in heaven, but Dylan is reluctant to take the job offer – he likes it in LA and isn’t particularly disposed to leaving his family and friends behind.  However, a night on the town with Jamie convinces him that New York is the place for him to be so he accepts.

Jamie helps him get settled and soon the two become friends – mainly because Dylan doesn’t know anybody else. One night when he is hanging out in her apartment watching movies with her, the two begin to talk about relationships and sex. Both are single and as it turns out, both are missing sex.

After some discussion, they both come to the agreement that sex shouldn’t need emotional connections – it should just be a completely physical act separate from love. They then agree to have sex without commitment or emotional attachment.

At first it’s a novelty and a whole lot of fun. As time goes on Jamie begins to feel less and less satisfied and realizes this isn’t what she wants at all so she decides to start dating again and lets Dylan know that the sex is coming to an end. She does date again, a man named Parker (Greenberg) and at first he seems to be what she’s looking for but after going to bed with him after the fifth date he calls it off. Furious, she tells him off, then cries about it to Dylan. He invites her to California for the Independence Day weekend and although reluctant at first, she flies west with him.

She meets his family – his father (Jenkins) who’s in the beginning stages of Alzheimer’s and his sister Annie (Elfman) who has been caring for him. Dylan and Jamie share an evening where it appears there’s a deeper connection between them – until Dylan runs his mouth to his sister afterwards, overheard by Jamie, claiming that this is just purely sex for him. Afterwards, she lets him know in no uncertain terms that she wants nothing to do with him.

The two however both realize that they have deep feelings for one another but neither knows how to navigate their way back. Is it possible to salvage anything, and make a relationship out of a purely sexual friendship?

I look at this in a lot of ways as a kind of 21st century version of When Harry Met Sally. The question about sex and friendship between men and women is one that still rages in debate. Gluck, who co-wrote the script, definitely has his ideas on the subject, although he approaches it in a different way than the previous film which asked “Can men and women who are sexually attracted to one another be friends” while this movie asks instead “Can men and women who are friends have sex without ruining their friendship” which is an entirely different ball of wax.

The movie hinges on the leads, and Timberlake and Kunis are very attractive and have some chemistry between them – the relationship doesn’t feel as contrived as it does in other romantic comedies. The problem here is that it just isn’t sure whether it’s a romantic comedy or a raunchy sex comedy – and at times that schizophrenia torpedoes the otherwise good intentions of the film.

Kunis is becoming one of my favorite actresses with stellar performances in Black Swan and Forgetting Sarah Marshall to her credit. She is sexy and sweet, able to do drama and comedy equally as adeptly. She’s come a long way since “That 70s Show” and may against the odds wind up becoming the biggest star to emerge from that show.

Timberlake is developing nicely as an actor and although this doesn’t really build up his career up acting-wise, the box office success continues to cement his reputation as a bankable leading man and to be truthful the performance doesn’t set his reputation back either. He’s still a little stiff in some ways, but he’s definitely getting better at it – he is certainly a star in the making.

I like the dialogue here. The relationship between Dylan and Jamie is acerbic at times, with the two trading snappy one-liners in the style of a screwball comedy in a good way. Maybe the movie really isn’t a raunchy sex comedy or a sweet rom-com – maybe what it really is could be termed a modern screwball comedy. The jury’s still out on it but the results are the movie doesn’t work as smoothly as I might have liked it to and maybe that led me to be harsher in my rating than it deserved because it does do a lot of things right, particularly in the case of Kunis and Timberlake. It just doesn’t add up to a cohesive whole.

WHY RENT THIS: Some decent chemistry between the leads. Snappy dialogue.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Can’t decide whether it wants to be a raunchy sex comedy or a sweet rom-com.

FAMILY VALUES:  As you might guess, there’s a whole lot of sexual content and a fair amount of bad language, some of it sexual in nature.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In director Will Gluck’s last movie (Easy A) Clarkson also played the mother of the lead character (Emma Stone, who cameos here early on as Dylan’s girlfriend).  

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There are about seven minutes of outtakes, mostly having to do with flubbed lines and pranks. The Blu-Ray also has a featurette on the choreography of the flash mob scene.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: No Strings Attached

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $149.5M on a $35M production budget; the movie was a big box office hit.

FINAL RATING: 4.5/10

NEXT: Marvel’s The Avengers!

A Thousand Words


A Thousand Words

Eddie Murphy takes out his frustration after Cliff Curtis reads him some of the reviews of his latest film.

(2012) Fantasy Comedy (DreamWorks) Eddie Murphy, Cliff Curtis, Kerry Washington, Clark Duke, Allison Janney, Ruby Dee, Jack McBrayer, Alain Chabat, Lennie Loftin, David Burke, Emmanuel Ragsdale, Eshaya Draper, Sarah Scott Davis, Brian Gallivan, Steven M. Gagnon. Directed by Brian Robbins

 

Words are paramount. We communicate everything with them; civilization would be impossible without them and yet we use them to obfuscate, to twist the truth, to spin lies. Some of us use words as tools; others as weapons. However, words are meaningless without the underlying concepts and emotions behind them. Without truth, words are as empty as the space they fill.

Jack McGill (Murphy) knows all about words. He is a literary agent, one who makes a living selling words. The irony is that Jack isn’t much of a reader. A good book, he tells his youthful assistant Aaron Wiseburger (Duke), is good in the first five pages and the last five pages – everything else in between is just filler.

Jack has his sights set on Dr. Sinja (Curtis), a new age slash kinda Buddhist philosopher who has been gaining an amazing worldwide following. Rumor has it he’s written a book and Jack can see dollar signs all over the puppy. He goes to Sinja’s temple, posing as a follower and wrangles his way into a personal audience with the good Doctor.

Jack makes his pitch and manages to convince Sinja that he has his best interests at heart, that he believes in his message and wants to spread it. The only message that Jack believes in however is the message that money delivers. And that message often gets in the way of his life.

His wife  (or is it girlfriend? this isn’t made clear) Caroline (Washington) wants to live in a house that is more suitable for a family; they are living in what is essentially Jack’s old bachelor pad and Jack who loves the amenities and the view is loathe to give it up for a suburban split-level. Caroline wants Jack to spend more time with their son Tyler (Ragsdale) but Jack’s manic career precludes that. However, he makes time to visit his Alzheimer’s-stricken mom (Dee) in the home on her birthday; she confuses him with his father, who passed away when Jack was a little boy and for that Jack has been unable to forgive him.

One night a Bodhi tree appears in their yard, fully formed with a thousand leaves on it. Jack is puzzled at first but he quickly figures out that for each word that he speaks or writes, a leaf falls. Dr. Sinja explains that once the Bodhi tree loses all its leaves, the tree will die and since Jack is somehow linked to the tree, he will die as well.

The rest of the movie is about Jack’s attempts to communicate non-verbally in a world where he is expected to speak. There is some hilarity because whatever happens to the tree happens to Jack as well; if it’s watered Jack gets wet; if fungicide is sprayed on it, Jack coughs. If squirrels run around its trunk playfully, Jack is tickled. You get my drift.

It also gives Eddie Murphy the opportunity to mug outrageously with twisted lips, eyes as wide as saucers and arched eyebrows. This gives him the look of a black constipated  Don Ameche from Cocoon doing an impression of Bette Davis while auditioning for “Project: Runway.” It’s unsettling to say the least.

This was actually filmed in 2008 (pre-Tower Heist) and is one in a long line of Murphy mis-fires (i.e. Meet Dave, Imagine That, The Adventures of Pluto Nash ad nauseam). This isn’t strictly a family movie but it isn’t very funny either. The sad part is most of the best humor comes from Duke, who made an indelible impression in Hot Tub Time Machine. Murphy has always been one of the better verbal comics and robbing him of his most effective weapon is a ballsy move but one that ultimately doesn’t pay off here.

Hopefully his work on Heist will have generated some better scripts for Murphy, although clearly his Oscar-winning turn in Dreamgirls didn’t. There is plenty of concept here, but the execution is tired and lame. Nothing unexpected happens, there are no laugh-out-loud moments and the comedy is pretty low-brow generally speaking. Movies like this one, which are mediocre at best, make me wonder how long it will be before Murphy’s films start going direct-to-home-video.

REASONS TO GO: There are a few mildly amusing moments. Duke gets most of the laughs.

REASONS TO STAY: Another family-oriented Murphy comedy that isn’t laugh-out-loud funny. All concept and no execution.

FAMILY VALUES: There are a few bad words here and there, some sexual dialogue and a bit of drug humor.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the third movie that Murphy has been directed by Robbins in, the first two being Norbit and Meet Dave. It is also the first one of the three not to have the lead character’s name in the title.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/20/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 0% positive reviews. Metacritic: 26/100. The reviews are bad, bad, bad!

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Liar, Liar

TREE LOVERS: While the Bodhi tree is a real tree (remarkable for its heart-shaped leaves) the one in the film is not.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: The Maiden Heist

A Separation (Jodaeiye Nader az Simin)


A Separation

Leila Hatami and Peyman Moaadi react to questions from the press as to whether she's a natural redhead or not.

(2011) Drama (Sony Classics) Leila Hatami, Peyman Moaadi, Shahab Hosseini, Sareh Bayat, Sarina Farhadi, Marila Zare’i, Ali-Asghar Shahbazi, Babak Karimi, Kimia Hosseini, Shirin Yazdanbakhsh, Sahabanu Zolghadr, Mohammadhassan Asghari. Directed by Asghar Farhadi

 

Human relationships are very complex and fragile things. They are constantly changing and often confusing. We are all alike in that regard – whether we live in the United States or China or Iran. We are all slaves to our emotions.

Nader (Moaadi) and Simin (Hatami) are in an adjudicator’s office in Teheran. Simin wants a divorce. It’s not that Nader is mistreating her or that they don’t care for each other. It’s just that Nader’s father (Shahbazi) has Alzheimer’s and he’s not willing to leave him to the tender mercies of the Iranian public health system. She wants to move abroad where their daughter Termeh (S. Farhadi)  has a better opportunity to make something of her life. However, since Nader won’t agree to letting Termeh go Simin moves in with her mother (Yazdanbakhsh) instead.

Nader has to work and even if Termeh didn’t have school she is only 11 and far too young to watch over an Alzheimer’s patient so Nader hires Razieh (Bayat) to keep an eye on dad and do a little light housecleaning. Razieh is an extra-devout Muslim whose chador hides a secret. She lives in a dicey part of the city so the commute is nearly two hours long each way.

Her family desperately needs the money. Her husband Hodjat (S. Hosseini) is a cobbler who has been out of work for six months and his creditors are threatening to take him to jail. She brings her young daughter with her but the strain of caring for the old man and the house proves to be too much for her.

One day Nader comes home early from work and finds things in chaos. This leads to a confrontation with Razieh that has unforeseen consequences for both Nader and Razieh as well as both their families. Consequences that might not be entirely predictable.

This was the most recent recipient of the Best Foreign Film Oscar and deservedly so. This is an incredible piece of filmmaking. It isn’t just the story or the setting that grabs your attention, it’s also the way the story is told. Asghar Farhadi is a legitimate talent, one who understands his craft well and is a master at it. He knows which facts to let you know and which to hide so that when the final denouement comes, you are not so much surprised as you are thrilled.

In the hands of a Hollywood studio this would probably have been a by-the-numbers thriller as Nader races to discover the truth about Razieh and he would have ended up with the girl at the end. Instead, this is a slice of life about deeply flawed people interpreting events in their own way with their own self-interest front and center. In other words, they act the way people all over the world would act – including here in the good ol’ U.S. of A.

There are going to be some who will be tempted to turn this into an indictment of Iran and Sharia law (I’m looking at you, Bill O’Reilly…Rick Santorum…etc. etc.) but this isn’t really that. Certainly the justice system in Iran is imperfect – but then again, so is our own. Any legal system that has jurisdiction over other human beings is going to be flawed by definition – people are flawed. Whenever you have laws that are inflexible being interpreted inflexibly justice is going to suffer. It isn’t like every case that goes before an American judge winds up exacting justice.

The movie is well-acted with particular kudos going to Hatami who not only resembles a young Susan Sarandon facially but also in her inner strength and conviction. Simin is a formidable woman who wants only the best for her daughter and her family; she understands Nader’s stubborn stance but doesn’t share it. She places more importance on her daughter than on her father-in-law which is at the crux of the divide between Simin and Nader.

Nader doesn’t look at his stance as a choice between two people; the fact that he is taking care of his father who has nobody else to care for him is the right thing to do. His daughter not only understands but supports this – she is given the opportunity on several occasions to leave and go with her mother but never takes it.

On the other side of the fence Razieh is completely devout whose actions are for the most part charted by the Quran until desperation forces her to do something of which she knows her husband will not approve. She is intimidated by Hodjat but when it comes to her faith nothing can dislodge her leading to a crucial scene near the end of the movie. Hodjat is a hothead who believes strongly that his wife has been wronged and is tired of being stepped on by those in positions of power and authority. He is like the man the world over who has been kicked once too often – at some point you have to stand up and say enough, which is exactly what Hodjat does.

All of the characters withhold information from one another, choose to interpret things in their own way and are mulish about what they believe. This isn’t a film about compromise – that never enters the equation here. This is about people caught up in a situation that spirals out of control largely due to their unwillingness to face the reality of their circumstances (and yes I’m being deliberately vague as to not spoil some of the more intense plot points). These particular humans live in Teheran but they could as easily exist in Atlanta, or Rome, or Kyoto. But that is not the heart of the message director Farhadi is trying to deliver; that’s merely a corollary that comes with it.

I was mesmerized from beginning to end. This is one of those movies that simply takes you down a path that looks everyday and familiar and gives it a gentle tug until things start to unravel. That’s pretty much the way real life works as well. There are those who are going to avoid this movie just because it comes from Iran. People like that should remember that our grievances are with their government, not the Iranian people – and this movie is very much an insight into those people. We turn away and refuse to learn from it to our discredit.

REASONS TO GO: A powerful film that depicts Iranian life warts and all. Well-directed and well-written, hitting all the right notes.

REASONS TO STAY: Mostly shot with hand-held cameras, creating some dizzy-making shaky cam effects.

FAMILY VALUES: The themes and situations might be a bit too much for all but mature children and teens.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Termeh is played by the directors daughter. She was one of the recipients of Best Actress (ensemble) at the 2011 Berlin International Film Festival, one of three Bears won by the film, the first movie ever to accomplish that feat.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/15/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 99% positive reviews. Metacritic: 95/100. The reviews are sensational.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Syrian Bride

LAW LOVERS: A fairly intense and dispassionate look at how Sharia law actually operates.

FINAL RATING: 9.5/10

NEXT:Hotel Rwanda

50/50


50/50

Anna Kendrick and Joseph Gordon-Levitt try to out-bemuse one another.

(2011) Dramedy (Summit) Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogen, Anna Kendrick, Bryce Dallas Howard, Anjelica Huston, Philip Baker Hall, Matt Frewer, Serge Houde, Andrew Airlie, Donna Yamamoto, Sugar Lyn Beard, Yee Jee Tso, Sarah Smyth. Directed by Jonathan Levine

Cancer is a terrifying disease. It brings forth visions of chemotherapy, radiation, hair falling out, nausea and wasting away until death. It is a punishing, painful, horrible disease that kills slowly; it is Guantanamo Bay among diseases.

Adam Lerner (Gordon-Levitt) is 26 years old. He has a girlfriend that he’s just getting serious about – the beautiful Rachael (Howard) – a decent job producing features for NPR in Seattle, and Kyle (Rogen), a great friend that keeps Adam grounded. Adam rarely drinks, doesn’t smoke, jogs and exercises regularly and has his entire life ahead of him.

He also has nagging back pain so he goes to the Doctor (Airlie) to check it out. Thinking he’s going to get a prescription for some pain medication or a regimen of stretching exercises, he almost can’t process what he really does get – a diagnosis for a rare form of cancer on his spine. The tumor is too large to safely remove it surgically; Adam is going to have to undergo chemotherapy to reduce it before it can be taken out. It’s going to be a long, painful road to recovery – assuming he survives at all. According to the Internet, he has a 50/50 shot at surviving.

The cancer affects all of Adam’s friends and family in different ways. His overwrought mom (Huston) who is already caring for Adam’s dad (Houde) who is in the throes of Alzheimer’s Disease, wants to move in and care for Adam. Rogen wants to keep Adam’s spirits up and use his disease as a means to pick up girls. And Rachael? Her nurturing side seems to be out in full force but there are some deer-in-the-headlight moments. There is also Katherine (Kendrick), Adam’s pretty but inexperienced therapist. Even though Kyle reassures Adam that if he were a casino game he’d have the best odds, Adam is fully aware that he has the same chance at dying as he does at living.

The movie is based on the experiences of screenwriter Will Reiser, who underwent a very similar ordeal contracting a rare form of cancer as a young man. He got through it largely with the help of his best friend in real life – Seth Rogen, who urged him to put his experience down as a screenplay. It sure makes one look at Rogen differently.

One of the things I admired about the movie is that it didn’t make Adam a heroic martyr facing his disease with dignity. No, instead it puts him through all the stages of dealing with the disease from denial to rage. Adam is at times overwhelmed by his situation and lashes out. It helps that Gordon-Levitt imbues the character with an inner decency and kindness, leading the audience to form a real bond with the character and a rooting interest for him to beat the disease. Some are calling this Oscar-caliber acting and I can’t say as I disagree.

There are strong performances all throughout the cast, including Frewer and Hall as fellow cancer patients of Adam’s who share weed-laced macaroons and the wisdom – and gallows humor – of facing a deadly disease. Katherine is chipper and unconfident in her abilities, making her a winning and sweet character and Kendrick excels at that sort of thing. Howard gets a thankless role that she runs with; it is one of several that she’s played this year in which she’s served notice that she’s a talent to be reckoned with and one whose performances I look forward to.

Rogen however is at his best here. Yes, the role is not unlike those he’s played before in Judd Apatow movies but obviously this is a part that means something to him personally. One wonders how hard it must have been for Rogen to re-enact what had to be some very painful moments in his life. It’s a terrific performance and I hope a sign that Rogen is going to rise above some of the stereotypes he’s created for himself in his career.

This is a movie that will have you riding an emotional roller coaster. It’s wickedly funny in places and in others, you’ll be reaching for the hankie. There’s one scene where Adam, who has been doing his best to hold it together, finally falls apart in Kyle’s car; another where he finally cries on his mother’s shoulder after doing his best to hold her at arm’s length. Both are amazing scenes and both will have you more than a little misty.

It’s perhaps a bit disingenuous to label this a “feel-good movie about cancer” but that’s about as close a description as I can get to it. Some people might be turned off about a cancer movie, thinking it too grim and emotionally wrenching but let me assure you, this is as far from grim as you can get. It’s a celebration of life and survival and in these times, we can all use a little bit of that.

REASONS TO GO: An unblinking, often poignant and irreverently funny look at dealing with cancer. Gordon-Levitt and Rogen give terrific performances.

REASONS TO STAY: Too many subplots.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a lot of foul language, some sexuality and the usage of “medicinal” marijuana.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The scene in which Adam mentions that among the things he’s never done is visit Canada was filmed…in Canada.

HOME OR THEATER: This has the intimacy of a movie best seen at home where nobody can see you cry.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

TOMORROW: The Names of Love

Rise of the Planet of the Apes


Rise of the Planet of the Apes

British rioters make it to San Francisco.

(2011) Science Fiction (20th Century Fox) James Franco, Freida Pinto, John Lithgow, Andy Serkis, Brian Cox, Tom Felton, David Oyelowo, Tyler Labine, Jamie Harris, David Hewlett, Ty Olsson, Madison Bell, Karin Konoval. Directed by Rupert Wyatt

Most of us have seen Planet of the Apes in one form or another, from the classic 1968 original to the less classic 2001 remake. But how did it get from humans ruling the planet with apes and chimps mute and unreasoning to them becoming the dominant species on the planet?

Dr. Will Rodman (Franco) works for one of the main players in Big Pharma. He’s working on a viral component to gene therapy that if successful will cure Alzheimer’s Disease. He has a stake in this because his own father (Lithgow) suffers from that dreadful disease.

Steven Jacobs (Oyelowo), the CEO of the firm is more interested in the bucks than the cure. He wants something that will improve the corporate bottom line which a cure for Alzheimer’s will certainly do. Rodman has brought his most promising formula, ALZ-112, to testing on chimps – PETA protesters take note. Everything looks pretty copacetic until the chimp goes on the rampage at the worst possible moment – during a board meeting to decide whether or not to fund further tests on human subjects. The project is then shelved and the chimps are put to sleep.

However, one of the chimps left a little present – a baby. The corporate chimp handler (Labine) can’t bring himself to put another animal down and so Will is left with the prospect of putting up the baby chimp for a few days until another home can be found for him. That’s not the only thing Will takes home with him from work – a few vials of the ALZ-112 also make their way into his pocket and then into Will’s dad.

The serum works on Will’s dad and before long it becomes evident that Caesar (the baby chimp that Will “adopted”) is much smarter than the average chimps. Apparently the ALZ-112 was passed on from mama chimp to baby. Caesar’s accelerated learning curve allows him to become fairly fluent in sign language. All in all it’s a pretty idyllic home life for Will; dad is doing fine, Caesar is a loving addition to the family and Will has found a girlfriend in Caroline (Pinto), a primatologist who helped treat some injuries that Caesar incurred as a young ‘un.

As Caesar (Serkis) grows into young adulthood, he becomes more and more aggressive as chimps are wont to do. An incident with an overbearing neighbor leads to Caesar being taken from his happy home and left in a primate care center run by the diffident John Landon (Cox) and tended to by his sadistic son Dodge (Felton). There the apes – and Caesar – are brutalized by Dodge despite the objections of Rodney (Harris), the other caretaker in the primate center.

To make matters worse Dad is turning for the worse; his own antibodies are wiping out the ALZ-112 in his system which is allowing the disease to return with a vengeance. Will is running out of time; he needs a new delivery system that will overcome our own immune system. In the meantime, Caesar is turning out to be much smarter than anyone – even Will – ever suspected and the brutality and betrayal are going to bring things to a head and the fate of humans as the dominant species on this planet hangs in the balance.

This is a nicely done story that explains how the apes came to be intelligent and able to speak; in that sense the movie is realistic. Where it falls flat, surprisingly, is in the CGI. Not the motion capture performances so much (we’ll get to that in a minute) but some of the movements of the apes looks like they were captured on an old silent-era movie camera; they’re downright choppy.

That’s basically the reason that the movie didn’t get one of the higher scores of the summer from me because everything else about it from the acting to the script is outstanding. Serkis in particular does a magnificent job of capturing Caesar as a character and giving him personality and allowing the audience to sympathize, leaving us in the odd position of rooting for our own extinction.

Franco, recently Oscar nominated, remains one of those actors who doesn’t do things the way other actors do and that makes him memorable in most of his roles. Here he has a character that is essentially second banana (pun intended) to Caesar and is terribly underwritten as an impulsive mad scientist type (see Bruce Banner and Victor von Frankenstein) but has a good heart. I would have wished to see his relationship with Caroline fleshed out a bit more but that’s a minor quibble.

The movie is particularly well-written in the sense that it is logically drawn and while there isn’t much in the way of surprises, it is at least tautly written. It is certainly well-acted with Serkis getting kudos for one of the best motion capture performances ever. Franco and Pinto do fine jobs and Lithgow does his best not to make a caricature of a role that could easily become one. Was this great summer entertainment? You bet. Was it better than I thought it might be? Yes, I’d say that was true. Was it all it could have been?  No, it definitely could have been better but for my money, it’s more than good enough to head on down to the multiplex for.

REASONS TO GO: Serkis is phenomenal as Caesar. Nice backstory to explain how the Apes took a giant leap forward on the evolutionary ladder.

REASONS TO STAY: The CG movements of the apes didn’t seem natural in a lot of places. The story was rather predictable.

FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of action and violence, with some scenes that might be disturbing to more sensitive viewers.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Dodge Landon is named for the two fellow astronauts of Charlton Heston in the original Planet of the Apes while Maurice is named for Maurice Evans who played Dr. Zaius in the original. Dodge also snarls “Take your stinking paws off of me you damned dirty ape!!” arguably the most iconic line from the original.

HOME OR THEATER: Hmmm. Tough call on this one. I think that the final battle scene on the Golden Gate Bridge might be better on the big screen but much of the rest of it would probably be just as effective at home. You make the choice.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Jack Goes Boating