The Punk Singer


The amazing Kathleen Hanna.

The amazing Kathleen Hanna.

(2013) Documentary (IFC/Sundance Selects) Kathleen Hanna, Adam Horovitz, Tobi Vail, Joan Jett, Carrie Brownstein, Kim Gordon, Johanna Fateman, Corin Tucker, Tavi Gevinson, Jocelyn Samson, Lynn Breedlove, Kathryn Wilcox, Jennifer Baumgardner, Billy Karren, JD Samson, Leo Galland, Tamra Davis, Allison Wolfe, Jen Smith, Ann Powers. Directed by Sini Anderson

Feminism has deep roots going back to the women’s suffrage movement and Susan B. Anthony and continuing through the 60s, the attempt to pass the Equal Rights Amendment (which remains unpassed) and Gloria Steinem. There were many who thought the feminist movement to be dead. Don’t tell the Riot Grrrls that.

Riot Grrrls is a movement that sprung primarily out of punk music made primarily by women which addressed women’s issues and adopted an aggressive feminist stance. One of the major forces in that movement was the band Bikini Kill and their primary songwriter, singer and frontwoman Kathleen Hanna.

Bikini Kill grew up in the Pacific Northwest but later relocated to Washington DC. They were often misunderstood by the general public and frankly misrepresented by the press as man-haters (which they clearly weren’t as the band’s guitarist, Billy Karren, is male). Hanna was also often described as the victim of rape by her father which she in the film addresses as completely untrue (rape and sexual abuse are frequent topics for Hanna in both Bikini Kill and her next band, Le Tigre).

As a stage performer, Hanna is energetic and passionate. She used her sexuality as a form of expression and her gamine good looks, which remind me of Zooey Deschanel, are arresting. One of her trademarks is to call women to the front by the stage and to ask men to stay in the back; this was a safety issue as at punk shows moshing could get violent and cause women to be injured and molested. Hanna wanted Bikini Kill shows to be safe places for women.

She is married to Beastie Boy Adam Horovitz, which makes for an interesting couple. He comes from a band who has written lyrics about women that are less than complimentary but he comes off as a devoted husband and one who supports his wife and her viewpoint completely. They’ve been married seven years although they’ve been together for much longer than that which is unusually long for relationships among rock musicians.

Hanna stopped performing back in 2005 and for a long while many of those who knew her didn’t know why. She used this film which debuted at last year’s South by Southwest Film Festival (which I personally think is the perfect place for a film like this) to announce that she had been diagnosed with late state Lyme’s Disease which prevented her from performing – she had told her bandmates in Le Tigre that she felt she had written everything she wanted to say which she in the film admits was untrue but that she felt safer in saying that than in admitting she no longer had control over her own body.

Cinematically, the movie doesn’t break any new ground as a documentary. Fans of Bikini Kill and Le Tigre will be happy to discover that there is plenty of archival footage of both bands – some of it never seen publically. There are a great many talking head interviews, mainly with women at Hanna’s request – she didn’t want the film to be “validated” by male experts which I can kind of understand, given her point of view.

Her performance with her new band The Julie Ruin (named for her solo album) at the Knitting Factory in New York City is captured at the end of the movie. It seems that Hanna is going to be back writing and maybe performing (although I can’t imagine she’ll be performing nearly as much) which to my mind is a welcome thing.

I had the pleasure of doing a phone interview with Hanna shortly before she instituted a press blackout after continual misrepresentations in the mainstream press about her band and her philosophy. I was pretty much still finding my way politically so I’m afraid I probably came off as something of an oaf at the time, but I remember her passion, her humor and how articulately she expressed herself. One of the things I remember is asking why the Pacific Northwest seemed to be such a catalyst for social change as well as giving the world grunge. I don’t remember exactly what she replied but the thought clearly amused her. Obviously I was eager to see the film when I discovered it would be playing at the Enzian.

If I had the chance to interview her again, the one question I’d be interested in having her answer is whether the feminism she practices divides the sexes further and whether or not it would be healthier to encourage unity between the sexes. However, I must say that I came away from the film with three things. First, as a film it would have been better if it relied less on talking heads. Secondly, that feminism is far from dead and given the current war on women being practiced by the radical right, that it is needed much more now than ever. Thirdly, I came away respecting Ms. Hanna even more than I already did which was considerably. Even if you aren’t into punk or electroclash music (which my wife isn’t) you can still find a lot to appreciate in this movie.

REASONS TO GO: Terrific performances by nearly all of the cast. A lovely walk down Memory Lane.

REASONS TO STAY: Diverges from fact a few times.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some of the language is rough.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was partially funded through a Kickstarter campaign as well as by a benefit concert at the Knitting Factory headlined by Gordon.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/5/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 82% positive reviews. Metacritic: 75/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Last Days

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom

Your Sister’s Sister


Mark Duplass finds the horizon to be a bit murky.

Mark Duplass finds the horizon to be a bit murky.

(2012) Dramedy (IFC) Emily Blunt, Mark Duplass, Rosemarie DeWitt, Mike Birbiglia, Kimberly Chin, Mike Harring, Kathryn Lebo, Jennifer Maas, Jeanette Maus, Jason Dodson, Dori Hana-Scherer, Steve Snoey, Pete Erickson, Evan Mosher, Seth Warren. Directed by Lynn Shelton

Florida Film Festival 2012

 

A relationship between two people is complicated enough. Add a third wheel and things get really crazy. When there’s also a fourth person in the mix (who happens to be dead) well, then, we’re talking crazy here.

Jack (Duplass) is mourning his brother Tom (Harring) who has been dead a year. Jack seems permanently stuck in the anger phase of grieving; at a party celebrating his brother, Jack seems intent on alienating everyone by explaining what a dick his brother was and that just because he’s gone doesn’t earn him a candidacy for sainthood.

His best friend Iris (Blunt) wisely takes him aside and tells him he needs to take off and put in some me time to work through his feelings. She suggests her family’s vacation cottage on an island in Puget Sound (did I mention this takes place in Seattle?) as the perfect place to sit around with no distractions, contemplate one’s navel and maybe do a little psyche repair work so that he can rejoin the human race. Realizing that she’s right, Jack agrees.

He bikes over to the ferry that runs to the island and quickly realize that he’s a little too old for this. It’s dark by the time he arrives at the cottage and he quickly realizes that the house isn’t vacant. There’s a naked woman in the shower. She turns out to be Hannah (DeWitt), Iris’ lesbian sister but he doesn’t know that and she doesn’t realize that her sister had invited Jack up so she clocks him with an oar.

Eventually the confusion is resolved and the two, with Iris in common, sit around and talk circles around why they’ve come to the island for the solitude – Jack’s grief and Hannah’s own as her longtime relationship (seven years) has ended. Talking turns to tequila, as it often will and tequila turns to sex – as it often will.

Iris arrives the next morning unexpectedly and Jack and Hannah scramble to hide the evidence of their indiscretion. You wonder why seeing as Iris isn’t Jack’s girlfriend – if anything, she had a relationship once upon a time with his brother. But as the three of them hang out and things get awkward we begin to see that the dynamics between the three people aren’t what they thought they were.

This is refreshingly a movie for adults. While the synopsis sounds a bit like a typical Hollywood romantic comedy, this is far from one. Shelton, who has been gathering a reputation as a fine writer/director on the indie circuit (her Humpday was one of the best-reviewed films of recent years) has written these as flawed individuals – as are we all – who do dumb things without really understanding why we’re doing them (and sometimes knowing full well why but powerless to stop the dumbness), even though they’re all basically decent people.

Duplass, a highly-regarded filmmaker in his own right, is developing into a fine cinematic Everyman. He isn’t buff, he isn’t tone and he isn’t always right. He’s just a guy, struggling with his own issues and those that come brightly packaged with being a guy in the second decade of the 21st century. You’ll probably recognize him as someone in your own life – a brother, a boyfriend, an ex, a son or a co-worker. He’s passive almost to the point of inertness, wallowing in an endless cycle of grief that he can’t seem to find a way out of. Most of the things that happen when he’s sober (other than the sex with Hannah thing that is largely his flirtatious suggestion) are at someone else’s impetus and he seems incapable of making decisions for himself until the movie’s end (more on that later). That’s not necessarily a bad thing – a lot of people are like that – but it can be infuriating to watch in a movie.

Blunt and DeWitt are both beautiful and smart actresses. There’s even a superficial resemblance and if you can get past the difference in accents (Blunt is British and doesn’t even attempt to hide it with a faux Yankee accent), they could well be sisters. When Hannah’s betrayal becomes apparent, it drives a wedge between them as you’d expect that it would but the way that they reconcile is also how you’d expect sisters to pull together.

What really hurts this movie is the ending. Not the very final scene, which actually is pretty cool  but the way things get resolved. It’s so Hollywood and doesn’t really resonate as the way real people act which is quite jarring when you’ve been admiring throughout the film that these characters are acting exactly like how real people act. Having seen this on Blu-Ray, I was moved to turn off the movie before said final scene and take a walk outside the house to cool off. I felt a bit betrayed to be honest which if intentional worked brilliantly. However I suspect it wasn’t; it was just a means of moving the film from point A to point B (or more like from point W to point X) and smacked of lazy writing, which I’m not accustomed to from Shelton.

Still other than that this is a standout film. Terrific acting, realistic situations, reactions and characters and a beautiful environment to put them in. While I was bothered by the movie’s resolution, I still believe in Shelton as a talented filmmaker who has plenty of wonderful cinematic moments left in her and hopefully, her best work still remains ahead of her. This one isn’t half bad though.

WHY RENT THIS: Strong performances. Emotionally powerful in all the right places.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Duplass’ character is too passive for my tastes. The ending is an abrupt stumble at the finish line.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexuality, some adult situations and a bit of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Rachel Weisz was originally cast as Hannah but when the shooting schedule for the movie was pushed out, Weisz had to drop out of the film due to a scheduling conflict with her film The Deep Blue Sea.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $1.6M on a $125,000 production budget; the movie was a modest success.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Five-Year Engagement

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Coverage of the 2013 Florida Film Festival Begins!!

Carol Channing: Larger Than Life


Life is a musical number when you're Carol Channing

Life is a musical number when you’re Carol Channing

(2012) Documentary (EntertainmentOne) Carol Channing, Harry Kullijian, Lily Tomlin, Chita Rivera, Barbara Walters, Tyne Daly, Debbie Reynolds, Phyllis Diller, Loni Anderson, Bruce Vilanch, JoAnne Worley, Rich Little, Angela Lansbury, Bob Mackie, Tommy Tune, Tippi Hedren. Directed by Dori Berenstein

There are names and then there are Names. A lot of younger people aren’t that familiar with the name of Carol Channing but to those of my generation and before, she is virtually synonymous with Broadway. She originated the roles of Lorelei Lee in “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” and more notably, Dolly Levi in “Hello, Devi.” In both cases her signature roles were handed off to other actresses for the film versions, Marilyn Monroe for the former, Barbra Streisand for the latter.

These days she is pretty much retired from the stage although she does make appearances from time to time; for example she does a show number at the Kennedy Center Honors with Chita Rivera and Angela Lansbury (which begs the question why hasn’t she gotten one yet) and a number from “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” for a benefit.

Still, she’s recognized as the Ambassador of the Great White Way; while she’s taking a stroll pointing out the various theaters she’s been onstage in, she is seen by members of the chorus line of “Next to Normal” out taking a break between performances and is shown the reverence and love that those who love Broadway understand that she deserves.

Channing (who was 90 when this was filmed – she’s 91 now) is an ebullient force of nature, one who tells stories with genuine wit and warmth and has lots of stories to tell (such as of her first screen kiss from none other than Clint Eastwood). She’s one of those people you can’t help but like after spending just five minutes with her, and that personality shows through here.

There was a lot about her I didn’t know – about her support for gay rights causes and for other liberal touchstone causes. She has been a tireless worker in helping young actors survive the often brutal financial realities of life as a struggling actor, and for the furtherance of theatrical preservation. The more you see here, the more you like and respect her.

She hasn’t always had it easy. Not much is said about her marriage to her third husband of 42 years other than that the marriage ended abruptly and but before the divorce could become final her ex passed away. There have been allegations that it was a loveless marriage in other sources, but none of that is discussed here. Instead, the focus is on her fourth marriage to Kullijian, whom she met at Aptos Middle School in the San Francisco Bay Area and who turned out to be the love of her life, although sadly he passed away one day shy of his 92nd birthday in December 2011. However it’s obvious that they have an easy familiarity that comes from time and simpatico.

This is less of a documentary than a tribute; Berenstein really doesn’t linger too much on the unpleasant aspects of Channing’s life and rarely asks insightful questions. Not that a Mike Wallace-like approach would have been preferable but a look at the person behind the persona would have been welcome.

I still liked the movie a great deal however and wound up really falling in love with the subject a little. She may not be your cup of tea in terms of her life on Broadway, but nonetheless she’s great fun to spend an hour or so with. “Always leave ’em wanting more” is an old show business saying and it’s very true here – I wanted to spend more time with Carol Channing after the movie was done. I just wanted to get to know her better than the filmmakers allowed me to.

WHY RENT THIS: Gives you a glimpse into an amazing woman who’s had an incredible career.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Focuses overly much on “Hello, Dolly” and not enough on maybe her thoughts about certain aspects of her life.

FAMILY VALUES: Nothing here your kids haven’t heard or seen before. There is some smoking and a few mildly bad words here and there.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Channing appeared on Nixon’s enemies list, which she later claimed as “the highest honor of her career.”

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: The DVD is packed with ’em, including a Barbara Walters interview, a look at the opening night of “Hello Dolly” and much more.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $22,740 on an unknown production budget; probably lost money.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Ahead of Time

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Desert Flower

Outsourced (2006)


Josh Hamilton is a colorful character.

Josh Hamilton is a colorful character.

(2006) Comedy (ShadowCatcher) Josh Hamilton, Ayesha Dharker, Matt Smith, Asif Basra, Sudha Shivpuri, Bhuvanesh Shetty, Jeneva Talwar, Suarab Agarwal, Larry Pine, Ketan Mehta, Dipesh Shah, Urmi Mukherjee, Bharat Sarjerao Adhangle, Arjun Mathur. Directed by John Jeffcoat

 

We Americans don’t really mix well in other cultures. Perhaps it’s because most of us are descended from people who have fled from other places – heck, even the aboriginals had to cross a land bridge to get here. We are woefully ignorant of cultures that are different than ours, particularly those from places that are far away from where our ancestors started out.

Todd (Hamilton) works for a Seattle-based novelty manufacturing company whose telemarketing division is being laid off – in fact, he’s given the task of laying them off. Then he’s shipped off to India, tasked with training his own replacement. How bad does that suck? But it has been a reality of business for some time now.

In India he finds a call center that might be modern in some ways but it is woeful compared to their American counterparts as are the operators. The young man Todd is training, Purohit (Basra) is eager enough to learn and is quite courteous and in a lot of ways like Todd himself, a good guy. The two men begin to bond, Todd lost in the Indian culture that surrounds him, Purohit lost in the American culture that he has chosen a career selling.

Purohit needs this job because the salary will allow him to finally marry the girl of his dreams. Todd also finds himself falling for a pretty operator named Asha (Dharker) who is sensible, whip-smart and a bit more inclined towards Western customs than many of her peers. However, she has been committed by her parents into an arranged marriage since she was four years old.

However, the corporate commitment to an Indian workforce is about as solid as thin ice. Already they’re thinking of outsourcing the outsourced work to China. In order to save the jobs in India, Todd will have to commit his crew to a higher bar than he’s ever set which might just net him a career move that will take him into the executive level he’s been waiting for. But what does he really want – a life or a career?

This is one of those movies that came and went, getting almost zero distribution. It hung around long enough to inspire an NBC sitcom that ran a couple of years later for a season. Some may remember the sitcom which had a small but fiercely loyal following. In my opinion, the show which did have its charms was not quite so charming as this. The movie has a surprising amount of heart.

Part of the reason the movie works is the believable chemistry between veteran character actor Hamilton and Bollywood star Dharker (best known in the states for playing Queen Jamillia in Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones). They make a cute couple in every sense of the phrase.

Part of making a successful fish out of water cultural clash movie is that you need to have a really solid understanding of both cultures involved and quite frankly that’s where this movie falls down a bit. It plays too much to the American stereotypes of India, from Bollywood dance numbers to arranged marriages to the general sanitation issues. Now I haven’t been to India myself but I do know that the country is a lot more than that. I suppose when dealing with American audiences you have to paint with broad strokes, but the filmmakers missed an opportunity to give us a better understanding of India and her culture. Even watching a couple of random Bollywood films would give you more insight.

Still, I can understand the filmmakers decision to go this route. They wanted to make a movie that was sweet and funny and romantic and on those scores they get high marks. This isn’t a movie that will give you a thirst for visiting India, learning more about their culture or even heading to your local Indian restaurant. It is a pleasant diversion however and there’s nothing wrong with that.

WHY RENT THIS: Sweet-natured and requires little effort to enjoy. Hamilton and Dharker make an attractive couple.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A little bit condescending towards Indian culture; plays to stereotypes.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a little bit of sexual content but nothing too overbearing.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Jeffcoat was inspired to write the film based on his own experiences in India and Nepal.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There’s a music video as well as a translation of Hindi dialogue from a few scenes in which no subtitles were provided (which was supposed to help illustrate the confusion that Todd felt).

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $703,042 on an unreported production budget; I’m thinking it wasn’t profitable.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Life of Pi

Safety Not Guaranteed


 

Safety Not Guaranteed

Aubrey Plaza applies the old “come-on with Campbell’s” method of seduction to Mark Duplass.

(2012) Comedy (FilmDistrict) Aubrey Plaza, Mark Duplass, Jake Johnson, Kristen Bell, Jenica Bergere, Karan Soni, Lynn Shelton, Mary Lynn Rajskub, Jeff Garlin, William Hall Jr., Tony Doupe, Xola Malik, Grace Arends, Alice Hung. Directed by Colin Trevorrow

 

WANTED: Someone to go back in time with me. This is not a joke. You’ll get paid after we get back. Must bring your own weapons. I have only done this once before. SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED.

So read an actual 2004 classified ad in an alternative weekly in the Northwest (it actually showed up on “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno’s” headlines segment. Someone thought it would make a good springboard for a small budget film. Someone was right.

At a story meeting for Seattle Magazine, the tyrannical editor Bridget (Rajskub) is looking for a story to go into the next issue. Most of her minions are silent but finally Jeff (Johnson) comes up with investigating the classified ad mentioned above. Bridget greenlights the story, allowing Jeff to take two interns – Darius (Plaza), a cute but anti-social sort, and Arnau (Soni), a nerdish Indian-American virgin. Jeff himself is quite the horndog, boasting that he’d already scored with the editor.

But he has an ulterior motive in heading to the small town outside of Seattle. He wants to hook up with Liz (Bergere), a lost high school lover he recently re-connected with on Facebook. He has the interns stake out the post office box and find out who the guy is who placed the ad. It turns out to be Kenneth (Duplass), a brilliant but socially awkward clerk at the grocery store. He lives out in the boonies in a house that he inherited from his deceased parents. Locally, he’s considered flaky but harmless.  When Jeff tries to contact him, Kenneth sends him packing, being a suspicious and paranoid sort. When Darius gives it a shot, her somewhat sharp and caustic attitude seems to attract Kenneth and he agrees to train her.

He is also paranoid and thinks that government agents are following him. Imagine Darius’ surprise when it turns out that government agents are following him. Some of the supplies that he’s purchased to build his time machine (which he swears is the real deal) have raised red flags somewhere and there are thoughts he could be building a weapon of mass destruction.

Still, the reporters think he’s a nutcase but Darius finds herself strangely attracted to him. And why not? He plays heartbreaking songs on the zither, has a refreshingly down-to-earth attitude about earth, the universe and time and isn’t hard on the eyes either. She finds herself opening up to him and letting him inside her very staunch defenses. But he can’t be serious about building a working time machine…can he?

One of the things that struck me about this movie from the get-go is the amount of heart it has. Some movies fake it really well, while others try to manufacture it or force it. This one has it. Yes, there are occasional elements of indie quirkiness but Trevorrow doesn’t stoop to clichés. There isn’t any of that hipster smarm that often makes me want to head over to the Village and open up with an Uzi on the trendy spots. No, there isn’t any indie band name-checking, no artists living in lofts they couldn’t possibly afford, no pop culture-peppered dialogue that will sound lame and dated in six months.

And certainly no romance between odd gamins who are way too smart and way too un-ambitious. The relationship between Darius and Kenneth is organic and realistic. These aren’t just a couple of characters who fall in love because the script calls for them to; this is a relationship that grows in an unexpected way as most love does in the real world. There is a scene during the training sequence when Kenneth is running and Darius is right behind him. The smile and measuring look she gives him tells without a single word of dialogue that she not only finds him interesting but that he is treating her like she’s never been treated before. You know that the love is there maybe before the characters do which is again, not unlike real life.

Plaza, who has a similar role in TV’s “Parks and Recreation” (and for whom the part was initially written) makes a splash in her feature film debut. She has the presence and charisma to be appealing on the big screen. I hadn’t really gotten that vibe from her television work but for my money she has a very bright future. She reminds me of Sarah Silverman in some ways, only less annoying and more charming.

Duplass, who is one of the Duplass Brothers responsible for directing some memorable indie hits like Jeff, Who Lives at Home proves himself an adept actor and quite frankly he’s much in demand – he’ll be appearing in no less than seven films that are slated for a 2012 release in some way, shape or form. This might be the best of the lot. He’s laconic, a little daft, a little edgy and a little romantic. This is a difficult role at best, to make someone so basically unlikable relatable. He’s guarded and standoffish and very much broken, but Duplass gives him warmth and grace. You end up liking Kenneth and root for him and Darius to make it.

Also of note if Johnson as Jeff. Jeff is basically a self-centered douche looking for a hook-up with a high school hottie who, like him, is wearing the years for all to see. As the film progresses we begin to see the layers stripped away as the horndog shows that he isn’t just all about Jeff. By the end of the movie he’s actually quite likable and the lazy, shoddy journalist we thought he was is put to lie as well.

The pacing is slow and laid back, so teens and other attention-challenged persons may find this boring. That’s a bit of a shame because this is as satisfying an experience as I’ve had at the movies this year. Sadly, the movie didn’t get a wide release – it’s not an easy sell and people might get distracted by the time travel aspect (which is a bit of a MacGuffin but kind of isn’t either – you’ll just have to see the film to find out what I mean). Still this is a movie I’ll certainly be remembering for my year-end best-of list. I hope you seek this out in its limited release – it’s a gem worth finding.

REASONS TO GO: A movie with as much heart as you’re likely to find. Cute and clever without being condescending.

REASONS TO STAY: Very quirky. A little too understated for the ADHD crowd.

FAMILY VALUES: The language is pretty salty and there are a few sexual references.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While Darius and Arnau are staking out the PO Boxes, the first man to walk into the post office is the one who wrote the original ad that the movie is based on.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/18/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews. Metacritic: 72/100. The reviews are kinda mixed but more towards the positive side.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Primer

POST OFFICE LOVERS: Darius and Arnau stake out an old fashioned small town post office, one of the sort that is becoming increasingly rare in this day and age.

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

NEXT: The Other Woman

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

Get Him to the Greek


Get Him to the Greek

Fear the Diddy.

(Universal)  Jonah Hill, Russell Brand, Sean Combs, Rose Byrne, Elisabeth Moss, Colm Meaney, Aziz Ansari, Dinah Stabb, Carla Gallo, Kristin Bell, Meredith Vieira, Rick Schroeder, Stephanie Faracy, Lino Facioli, Kurt Loder. Directed by Nicholas Stoller

At one time or another we all dream of being a rock star. Who wouldn’t want to live a life of excess, adored by millions and rich enough that we can afford to indulge our every whim?

Aldous Snow (Brand) has been living that dream for 20 years, but like the rest of the music business, his career is in jeopardy. A spectacular fall from sobriety after an ill-advised album painted the very white British rock star as an “African Child” (don’t ask) has left him on shaky ground, his professional and personal life in tatters. That’s because his girlfriend and baby momma Jackie Q (Byrne) has flown the coop and has taken up with Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich.

Pinnacle Records chief Sergio Roma (Combs) doesn’t care about any of that. He just knows his six kids need new Nikes and the record label is hemorrhaging money. He needs a great idea and fast. Surprisingly, that idea comes from Aaron Green (Hill), a lowly underling on the label publicity staff. It seems that it is the 20th anniversary of Snow’s epic Greek Theater concert that would lead to one of the biggest selling live albums in history. If the present isn’t yielding a lot of great artists, why not mine the past?

Sergio tasks Aaron with bringing Aldous from London to a Today show appearance in New York and then across the country to Los Angeles for the concert itself. Aaron, a bona fide music nerd (I can totally relate), is overjoyed. Infant Sorrow (Aldous’ band) is one of his all-time favorites. The only cloud on the horizon is that Daphne (Moss), his medical intern girlfriend, is thinking seriously of taking a job in Seattle, far from Aaron’s record label dreams.

Snow proves to be quite the handful. Evidently his fall from grace has become a spectacular drop into sheer debauchery. Aldous is more interested in banging every bird he lays eyes on, indulging in every drug that he can get his hands on and drinking every bar in London dry. Aaron, not especially a straight arrow but certainly not used to partying on the epic scale that Aldous does, panics as the time for the flight to New York comes and goes, as it does for each succeeding airline booking that he makes.

They finally get to the Today show studios, a scant 15 minutes before Aldous is supposed to be there. By now Aaron has been sucked into the rock star’s world and it is chewing him up and spitting him out. It doesn’t help matters that Aaron’s cell phone is constantly ringing with an enraged Sergio on the line demanding that Aaron take control of a situation that simply cannot be controlled by anyone. How’s that rock star fantasy looking now?

This is a spin-off from the hit comedy Forgetting Sarah Marshall (Stoller also directed that movie and the titular character makes a cameo appearance here). Brand nearly stole it as the sober yet completely bullcrap-engorged rock star that he plays here as a drunken yet complete bullcrap-engorged rock star. Hill was also in that movie in a different role but one that had one thing in common with Aaron Green – they both worship Aldous Snow.

This isn’t nearly as funny as FSM although it has its moments. Hill and Brand, both of whom have been second bananas in lots of movies, both show they can carry one on their own. Combs, the artist formerly known as P. Diddy, Puff Daddy and quite possibly Prince, is outstanding as the Type A mogul with impulse control issues. The role reminds me a little bit of Tom Cruise’s part as studio boss Les Grossman in that both are over-the-top portrayals that work really well.

The music is pretty good here too; the songs written for Aldous Snow have a bit of an Oasis quality to them and indeed Brand’s vocals are not unlike Noel Gallagher’s, particularly on “Furry Walls” (sung during the movie’s conclusion).

The movie is meant to take the rock star lifestyle to excess, which is hard to do in and of itself. There are a buttload of female breasts (and male butts too), an enormous load of drinking staggering amounts of alcohol, a terrifying intake of drugs and more vomiting from Jonah Hill than I ever want to see again.

This isn’t a movie that is breaking any new ground. It’s funny enough to be entertaining, but certainly not the ride that The Hangover or Superbad are. It’s just a decently funny movie with a surprising heart of gold at its center that you will find easy to get at once you clean off all the vomit.

REASONS TO GO: Hill is a great straight man and Brand is zany enough to be watchable for the whole movie. The soundtrack is surprisingly good.

REASONS TO STAY: Not in the laugh-a-minute category. Most of the plot action is pretty much outrageous for its own sake.

FAMILY VALUES: Sex and drugs and rock and roll. What more do I need to say?

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The band Bob and the Yeoman on the Greek Theater marquee is a reference to Director of Photography Robert Yeoman.

HOME OR THEATER: Nothing epic here. Unless you really have to see it right away, it’s perfectly fine to wait for the home video release.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Lakeview Terrace

Extraordinary Measures


Extraordinary Measures

Harrison Ford is getting tired of Brendan Fraser's claims that Rick O'Connell was a better archaeologist than Indiana Jones.

(CBS Films) Brendan Fraser, Harrison Ford, Keri Russell, Courtney B. Vance, Meredith Droeger, Diego Velazquez, Jared Harris, Alan Ruck, Patrick Bauchau, David Clennon, Dee Wallace, Ayanna Berkshire, P.J. Byrne. Directed by Tom Vaughan

There are no limits to what a parent will do for their children. Once in awhile, there are situations that call for parents to demonstrate that, to risk everything for the sake of their children – particularly when everything is precisely what’s at stake.

John Crowley (Fraser) is a successful marketing executive at a pharmaceutical firm. He has reason to be in that particular business; his daughter Megan (Droeger) and son Patrick (Velazquez) suffer from Pompe disease, a genetic disorder in which the muscles are unable to break down sugars due to the lack of a critical enzyme. The disease is incurable and fatal. Megan has just celebrated her eighth birthday and is showing signs of entering the disease’s final stage. A respiratory failure nearly finishes her off, but she shows surprising fight. Most of the doctors involved in Megan’s treatment are advising Crowley to enjoy what little time he has left with his two sick kids.

He and his wife Aileen (Russell) are on the edge of despair but Crowley has found a lone researcher at the University of Nebraska, Dr. Robert Stonehill (Ford) who has formulated some radical solutions for a possible treatment. It is the closest thing to hope that Crowley has found, but repeated calls to the good doctor have gone unanswered. Taking the bull by the horns, the desperate father goes to Lincoln to meet with Stonehill, only to be stonewalled. Crowley chases him out of the university parking lot and finally corners him in a bar. Stonehill is gruff, but sympathetic. He is nowhere near producing a working drug, and the money it would take just to set up testing for the drug – half a million dollars to start – is prohibitive. Without batting an eyelash, Crowley tells Stonehill that he has started up a foundation that is in the process of initial fundraising and that he could raise the necessary cash. Stonehill gives him a month to do it, but is skeptical that Crowley will raise anything at all.

Instead, Stonehill and his wife roll up their sleeves and get to work. They run fundraising events and call friends, colleagues and parents of children with Pompe like Markus (Vance). They don’t quite make the goal, but they raise $91,000, enough to at least keep Stonehill involved. Instead of doing research at the University, which Stonehill believes doesn’t value his work, he decides to start a new biotech company with Crowley as his business partner. This will mean that Crowley will have to quit his job, which his boss (Ruck) pleads with him not to do; Crowley is on track to get a promotion and a significant upgrade in salary. Crowley however is not swayed; if there is even a shot of saving his kids he has to take it.

The new startup needs to raise some venture capital in order to get off the ground. They approach the Renzler Group in Chicago, headed by Dr. Renzler (Clennon), an old friend of Stonehill’s. The meeting goes disastrously however when Dr. Stonehill has a meltdown when he is questioned about the new start-ups plans to get the drug to market. Stonehill, a career academic and scientist, has never done this before, and the group is understandably nervous about the prospects of investing money in a company whose principals are woefully inexperienced.

In order to get Renzler on board, which Crowley knows is critical for the start-up company’s very existence; he has to give Renzler far more concessions than Stonehill is willing to give. He manages to broker an agreement with Dr. Renzler, but Stonehill is furious at the terms and wants no part of the deal. Crowley responds that he can continue his career of curing diseases in theory but not helping a single patient in reality. Mollified somewhat, Stonehill signs the agreement.

They set up a lab in the middle of Nowheresville, Nebraska and things aren’t going well. They are running through their funds at an alarming rate and their investors are demanding that clinical trials begin on Stonehill’s enzymes or they will pull the plug. Crowley is aware that there is a large biotech firm that has been working on a Pompe treatment as well; better funded and better equipped, they might well reach the market before Stonehill’s group with some sort of treatment. Aware that Stonehill’s theories and scientific genius are salable assets, he convinces Stonehill that in order for their small company to survive they will have to sell themselves to the larger company. Stonehill blows yet another gasket but once again gets on board with the program.

Crowley and Stonehill don’t fit in well initially. Stonehill hates being bogged down with protocols and procedures, while Crowley is constantly butting heads with Dr. Webber (Harris), an executive who is more of a bureaucrat. Time is ticking down on Crowley’s children and he is becoming desperate. Can they come up with a treatment in time to save the Crowley children?

This is the first release by the new film arm of the CBS Network, and some have snickered that it has a bit of a TV movie-of-the-week smell to it, but that’s not completely true. I thought there were a lot of positives to be sure.

This movie is based on a true story, albeit very loosely. While John Crowley and his children are real, Dr. Stonehill is not. He is an amalgam of several scientists, in particular Dr. Yuan-Tsong Chen at Duke University. In reality, Pompe kills most children before their second birthday; Megan and Patrick are eight and six, respectively, in the film,. In perhaps forgivable license, Megan is aged so that she may display spunk and wisdom beyond her years to evoke more symathy from the audience and to be sure Droeger does a credible job in the role.

Ford is an actor who knows his own limitations, but he is also conversely well aware of his strengths and this role is right in his wheelhouse. Stonehill is grumpy, cranky, narcissistic and just plain ornery. Ford imbues him with all the gruffness that he can give him, which is considerable. Nobody does gruff quite as well as Harrison Ford. And while critics have been picking on Brendan Fraser, I think he did a credible job as the desperate father. Sure, there were some maudlin moments but I think that was a function of the script more than a reflection of Fraser’s abilities as an actor (check out Gods and Monsters if you want to see him at his best). What’s criminal here is that Keri Russell, an actress who is wonderful whenever she is given something to work with, is once again shuffled off into the background without much to work with. As anyone who saw her in Waitress will tell you, she is absolutely capable of carrying a movie, so it’s a shame she is reduced to mainly playing a doting/grieving mom. There is a scene in which she and her husband are interrupted in the course of having a rare intimate moment by a nurse coming to their home for her shift; it was one of the few moments when you got a sense of the relationship between John and Aileen Crowley.

Where the movie excels is in its portrayal of the pitfalls, obstacles and long odds that face the development of an orphan drug, and the road it must take to make it into the pharmacies. I found some of the boardroom scenes more provocative than the medical ones, which is fine by me.

It also has to be said that the movie is a little soft on the pharmaceutical industry in general. It should be noted that the drug that was actually developed for Pompe patients, Myozyme, costs about $300,000 a year and must be taken for the entirety of the patient’s life. There have been instances in which American insurance companies have refused to pay for the treatment, which is a death sentence for the patient and yet another talking point on why health care reform is so badly needed in this country (for the record, most other developed countries provide Myozyme for those who need it).

There are some very powerful moments, particularly when the Crowleys are in despair. Once in awhile there is a touch of the maudlin in the brush but the canvas isn’t affected by the unwelcome addition as much as you might think. Still, the film might have benefitted from less dramatic license and more of the struggle not only to find the cure but in getting it funded. Less would have definitely been more in this case.

FOR MORE ON THE CROWLEYS FOLLOW THIS LINK: The Crowley Family Website

REASONS TO GO: An intriguing glimpse at how orphan drugs are brought to the market. Very powerful in places from an emotional standpoint.

REASONS TO STAY: Occasionally veers from emotionally powerful to maudlin. Russell, a fine actress in her own right, is given very little to do. Many liberties are taken with the facts of both the disease and the Crowleys’ story.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a little bit of foul language, but some children may find the frank treatment of the Crowley children’s condition a bit disturbing.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: P.J. Byrne, the actor playing the Crowley children’s physician, has a cousin who is actually treating the real-life Crowley children.

HOME OR THEATER: Nothing here screams big screen.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: The Book of Eli

Love Happens


Aaron Eckhart has hypnotized John Carroll Lynch with his dimple into thinking that they're having a drink together.

Aaron Eckhart has hypnotized John Carroll Lynch with his dimple into thinking that they're having a drink together.

(Universal) Jennifer Aniston, Aaron Eckhart, Judy Greer, Dan Fogler, Martin Sheen, John Carroll Lynch, Joe Anderson, Frances Conroy, Sasha Alexander, Clyde Kusatsu, Michael Kopsa, Michelle Harrison. Directed by Brandon Camp

When we lose a loved one, part of us goes into the grave with them. Moving on with your life can be the most courageous thing you ever do.

Dr. Burke Ryan (Eckhart) has become the guru of grief. His bestselling book “A-Okay” deals with the grieving process and has struck a chord with millions of people in mourning. He is selling out seminars and is on the verge of signing a deal with a major marketing firm to turn him into the next Dr. Phil, something his shark of a manager Lane Marshall (Fogler) has been angling for.

Burke came by this knowledge honestly. His wife had died in a tragic car accident three years prior. Now, he is returning to conduct a seminar in Seattle, where his wife grew up and is buried. While in the hotel, he literally bumps into Eloise (Aniston), a quirky florist who takes great delight in writing two-dollar words like “quidnunc” (a word so rare even my spellchecker didn’t recognize it) behind paintings. Intrigued, he asks her out on a date but she explains, in sign language, that she’s deaf, which apparently prohibits her from dating.

Except that she’s not deaf – the joke’s on him! Miffed, he tells her off, then she tells him off, then he sends her flowers inviting her to dinner. Ain’t love grand? In the meantime, his seminar is going as expected, although Walter (Lynch), a grieving father who drove all the way from Montana to attend the seminar (at the behest of his sister, alarmed that the tragedy had also cost Walter his marriage and his contractor’s business) is proving to be a tough nut to crack, so consumed by his own pain that he can’t see anything else.

Because when a dimpled chin guy who just told you off asks you out on a date you should always take him up on it, Eloise goes out to dinner with Burke. A friendship develops, deepening into mutual attraction. Lane is alarmed because Burke is blowing off meetings with the marketing firm execs, and Burke’s nameless father-in-law (Sheen) has shown up at the seminar in order to brand him a hypocrite. As Eloise gets closer to Burke, she begins to realize that he is anything but “A-Okay.”

This is Hollywood formula romantic comedy trying desperately to masquerade as an indie romantic comedy. Director Camp, who also co-wrote the film, has a good eye and utilizes his Seattle and British Columbia locations nicely – it’s a lovely looking film.

The problem here is the writing is hackneyed and full of clichés. Eckhart’s Burke is a brooding, grieving doctor who stares sorrowfully off the Space Needle, uses alcohol as a crutch and won’t use elevators, ever. Know how he’s finally moving on with his life? He gets on an elevator. Ooooooooo those Hollywood writers sure know how to throw a curveball, don’t they?

Aniston’s Eloise is one of those quirky free spirits who probably should have been played by Zooey Deschanel, who’s much better at it. Eloise’s best friend is Judy Greer, who is also much better at playing the flighty best friend – God knows she does it often enough. Aniston herself is adorable, but little more than that. She can be a really marvelous actress, but she hasn’t found the part yet that lets her shine that way. The closest she’s come to stretching is Derailed but otherwise she just seems to get Rachel parts over and over again, which this one is.

Lynch, who is best known for playing Drew Carey’s brother, is a marvelous character actor who takes over whenever he’s onscreen. His part may be a cliché, but Lynch goes way past that level and gives Walter more depth then any other character in the movie. Sheen lends gravitas to the thankless role of the cantankerous father-in-law.

I don’t mind being manipulated – that’s part of a movie’s purpose after all – but I do mind when I see it coming. The big catharsis for Burke is well-performed by Eckhart, but far too pat and coincidental. Camp tries to bring an indie feel to a major studio rom-com, but submarines himself with intrusive product placement (hellloo Home Depot).

The grieving process has been the topic of few really good movies in Hollywood, and the filmmakers missed their shot at making one here. While some of the advice Burke spews as the grief guru is good, it is mostly pretty pat. It’s too bad the writers couldn’t have come up with real characters dealing with the issues of their grief. Then, instead of love happening at random just because, we might have seen a relationship blossom in a more believable manner. That’s the kind of movie that makes me feel a-okay.

REASONS TO GO: Eckhart and Aniston are attractive leads. Camp makes excellent use of his Seattle and British Columbia locations.

REASONS TO STAY: A cliché-ridden script populated with depthless characters misses the opportunity to do a real examination of the grieving process and moving on with one’s life.

FAMILY VALUES: Nothing that most kids haven’t seen before. The grieving parents might be hard for smaller kids to watch.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Director Brandon Camp is the son of Joe Camp, who directed Benji.

HOME OR THEATER: Perfect viewing for cuddling on the couch on a rainy night.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Monsters vs. Aliens