U.S.: Jonathan Levine, 2011, Summit Etertaiment
Your best friend looks you in the face and tells you that he has a rare form of spinal cancer and that his chances of survival, according to the doctors, are 50/50. What do you say? What can you say?
In 50/50, the best friend, a good-hearted loudmouth named Kyle (played by Seth Rogen), listens and points out to Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) -- with whom he works (as a writer) at a Seattle radio station -- that in casino, 50/50 would be the best odds at the table.
Overly glib, predictable wisecrackery? Pitched in the standard Rogenish glibmeister key? Perhaps. But in this case, Rogen actually was the friend who heard the bad news, and he heard it from his pal Will Reiser, a fellow comedy actor-writer with whom Rogen worked on Da Ali G Show. Reiser later wrote the screenplay for 50/50, based on his own experiences with that same form of rare spinal cancer, and that's the script that Rogen has now produced and co-stars in. So we can't exactly say he doesn't understand the character or the situation. He does. He lived it. We didn't.
Ditto for Reiser, whose surrogate character Adam is played by Gordon-Levitt with a self-effacing vulnerability, an unforced sensitivity, and a quiet determination to survive, that definitely suggests a real person, one we'd want to know, reacting in real ways.
50/50 is one of the better American comedies and one of the better dramas of the year, even though, at first glace, the subject matter seems an open invitation to bathos and oversentimentality. Writer Reiser and director Jonathan Levine and the actors elude these pitfalls, and they do it so well that we should really cut the movie some slack for anything it may have missed.
The movie follows Adam relentlessly but compassionately right from the early scene when he learns of the cancer, though his revelation to Kyle, through his sometimes unhappy encounters with his girlfriend Rachel (Bryce Dallas Howard), a mediocre painter whose will to sacrifice quickly evaporates, through his meetings with doctors, therapists, and fellow cancer sufferers, right up to the not-exactly-predictable climax. And even though we might not expect this mixture of heavy, near-weepy drama and sharp-tongued, sometimes bawdy comedy to work all that well, it mostly does.
I did have a slight problem with the character of Adams girlfriend Rachel, not because of the way Howard played her (she'd be the best or near-best actor on screen in many another recent movie), but because Rachel, and Kyle's acerbic hostility toward her, seemed a little like comic payback, and the movie doesn't need it.
But I had no problems with anything Gordon-Levitt or Rogen did, or with Anna Kendrick as Adam's illness therapist, or with Anjelica Huston playing a Jewish mother, or with Philip Baker Hall and Matt Frewer as two terminal patients who befriend Adam, and who have both seemingly reached Stage Five of their journey: acceptance.
Philip Baker Hall is a great movie actor, one of the absolute best we have, or have ever had. His portrayal of a turbulent, sobbing, screaming, semi-drunken, nightmare-stricken Richard Nixon in Robert Altman's 1984 Secret Honor is one of the most amazing tours de force and greatest performances in all of American movies -- and he was also great as Sydney, the quiet gambler in Paul Thomas Anderson's Hard Eight and as Jimmy Gator in Magnolia and in many others, including the little supporting roles he often gets, and always perfectly fills.
Hall is 80. It seems a little unfair that, because of the intrinsic ageism of most American movies and TV, we mostly get only snatches of an actor like Hall, that he's slotted for just supporting or cameo roles, and we don't more often get to see him tear down the house the way he did in Secret Honor.
50/50 is not a perfect movie. But it doesn't have to be. It hits its goals. It moves us and makes us laugh. It's honest, true, very well done, the kind of movie we should see much more often. Reiser does what an artist should do: He uses his life and his technique to illuminate the lives of all of us. As for Rogen, he may be loud, he may act obnoxious (deliberately), and he may make a shtick out of talking dirty. But this movie shows he's a good, if wild and woolly, friend and a good actor, on screen and off, and that, when things fall right, he can get moments of greatness.
Real Steel (B-)
U.S.: Shawn Levy, 2011, Walt Disney
Real Steel, which is about as real-looking and feeling as the top-of-the-line video game it mostly resembles, boasts an ensemble of top Hollywood artist/technicians -- from Robert Zemeckis, Steven Spielberg and the other producers and executive producers, to director Shawn Levy on down -- operating seemingly without excessive financial worry or (probably) too much studio interference, to create a tale about huge eight-foot robots slugging it out in the ring, in a future time where humans no longer box themselves but leave it to these gigantic knockout machines to maul each other for the crowd's amusement.
In this future world, a broken down blue-eyed robot named Atom is rescued from the junk heap by a feisty11-year-old kid (Dakota Bovo as Mat) and his rascally debt-ridden fight-promoter dad (Hugh Jackman as Charlie Kenton). They in turn, befriend and coach Atom and send him out into the giant-robot boxing rings to duke it out with a series of metal behemoths, score a series of improbable victories and, finally, in the climactic bout, go up against the fearsome towering green-eyed champ Zeus. There's also a love interest (Evangeline Lilly as Bailley, gym manager/mechanic/heart-throb), and some villains, and, of course, final redemption, as scored by Danny Elfman.
It's hard to imagine Real Steel being filmed much better than it is here, though you could hope for a script fresher, wittier and less obvious than the one credited here to John Gatins (Coach Carter), a screenplay that hits most of the right buttons but without the kind of mad invention and inspiration this robot-Rocky movie needs. The source is good: a 1956 story Steel by that excellent fantasy and science fiction writer Richard Matheson, who was also the author behind the movies Somewhere in Time and What Dreams May Come. Steel was later made into one of the most famous of all Twilight Zone episodes, with Lee Marvin as a human who enters the future boxing ring disguised as a robot/android boxer. Little of that story remains in Real Steel, which may be a shame. (I'd like to see a new movie, science fictional or not, that had a role for a Lee Marvin.)
One unusual element of Real Steel is the unflinching way it portrays the churlishness of Jackman as Charlie: a bad father, a failed fighter and a bad fight promoter who also has a shaky American accent.
Reckless, selfish ex-boxer Charlie, who owes about $100,000 to impatient creditors, deserted Mat's late mother long ago, and he's only back in his son's life now because Mat's rich aunt (Hope Davis) who wants custody of the boy, is paying Charlie for the summer, so she and her rich hubby (James Rebhorn) can vacation in childless luxury for a while longer. And Mat, of course, resents that.
Part of the reason for the darker treatment of Charlie is the fact that the kid is the real hero, along with the robot. Though Charlie, in the end, does something admirable, it's through their influence.
With the exception of Date Night, which had the benefit of Tina Fey and Steve Carell, Shawn Levy has mostly directed movies I would rather have missed -- like the amazingly humorless Pink Panther remake and the various overblown Night at the Museum entries. Levy is a director who keeps things big and bright and comically lucid, but doesn't get much humanity or depth or surprise. If there's a little more of those latter qualities here and, if this movie works a bit better than his others, it may be because Real Steel, for all its schmaltz and shtick, has a prankish humanistic epic quality that allows it to subvert its own clichés. It has a little more heart, too.
Identification of a Woman (A)
Italy: Michelangelo Antonioni, 1982, Criterion Collection
Michelangelo Antonioni, maker of Identification of a Woman, L'Avventura (1960) and Blowup (1966), one of the great international filmmakers of the 20th century, is an exemplar of that era of artistic modernism that peaked in the '60s: the time of Godard, Resnais, Robbe-Grillet, Sartre, Nabokov, Duras, Barthes, et al.
In Identification of a Woman, a handsome, intellectual motion picture director of few words named Niccolo (Tomas Milian) tries to recover from a broken marriage while moving in elite social circles in Rome -- and drifting, drifting. Niccolo has two love affairs during the story: one with a promiscuous bisexual society woman named Mavi (Daniela Silverio), the other with an earthy gorgeous young actress from the working class, named Ida (Christine Boisson).
Both of Niccolo's affairs end badly, partly because of other people, partly because of Niccolo himself: because of his sealed-off emotions, his uncertain commitment, his probable promiscuity, the way he seems separated not just from his ex-wife, but from other people in general. Niccolo and Mavi quarrel, get lost in the fog (in a great scene reminiscent of a similar fog of fear in Red Desert), one night while driving. There are shots, alarms, a mystery. He loses her. Later, he travels to Venice with Ida and she surprises him with a revelation. He loses her as well. He dreams of another film he might make: a science fiction tale about a spaceship speeding toward the sun.
The script was co-written by Antonioni with his frequent collaborator Tonino Guerra and also by Roman Polanski's frequent co-writer Gerard Brach. Brach was an agoraphobic who rarely left his Paris apartment, and that's probably one of the reasons that his films with Polanski (Repulsion, Cul-de-sac, The Tenant) seem so claustrophobic, and why they deal so often with people trapped in their apartments, or on an island, or in their own psyches. Identification of a Woman is a film of apartments too, and of failed relationships, of rooms that imprison, of lives full of anxiety, and when Niccolo is outside, pursuing his two affairs, the sense of imprisonment is often just as strong as when he's inside, trapped.
Tomas Milian, Antonioni's star in Identification of a Woman, was born in Cuba and settled in Italy. Milian doesn't look like Antonioni, who has the face of an artist and aristocrat, an alienated man. Milian looks tough, moody. He was one of the stars of Italian spaghetti Westerns: the form mastered by director Sergio Leone and his American star Clint Eastwood.
Michelangelo Antonioni was Italy's cinematic poet of the malaise of the upper and upper middle classes -- and Identification of a Woman may have been his last great film. He was a supreme modernist, an architect who became a master of the architecture of cinema and desire: of visual forms, of place, of eroticism, of ennui. Making this film, in collaboration with writers Gerard Brach and Tonino Guerra and cinematographer Carlo Di Palma, setting it in a contemporary world of filmmakers and their lovers, he became more obviously personal, cut to the core of his vision: a stunning view of a world full of beautiful objects, beautifully framed -- the people included -- in a vision that may also be trembling on the edge of an abyss. Or of plunging into the sun. (Extras: trailer; booklet with essay by John Powers and an interview of Antonioni by Gideo Bachmann.)