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Column Fri Sep 30 2011

50/50, Machine Gun Preacher, What's Your Number?, My Afternoons with Margueritte & Pearl Jam Twenty

50/50

One of the oldest cliches in film criticism is the classic adage "You'll laugh, you'll cry." I'm pretty certain I've never used that expression in my career... until now, because there is truly no better way to describe the cancer comedy 50/50, based on small doses of the experiences of screenwriter Will Reiser, a TV writer and producer who was diagnosed with cancer when he was still in his 20s, and also happened to be good friends with Seth Rogen, who co-stars in the film as the lead character's best friend. What are the odds?

50/50's main character is named Adam, and he is played by the can-do-no-wrong Joseph Gordon-Levitt, certainly one of the most likable and most capable actors of any age working today. Adam is living a good life as a segment producer for a local NPR station, with a beautiful artist girlfriend (Bryce Dallas Howard) and his aforementioned buddy Kyle (Rogen). The diagnosis comes early in the film, and what we get is something you rarely see in disease-oriented films on the big screen — a young person with a chronic illness who goes through the traumatic experience of aggressive treatment. And it's a comedy, which is a brave and necessary approach that draws us in and makes us not just like, but love, these characters.

While Rogen takes the lion's share of the comedic relief, some of the best serious moments in 50/50 belong with Levitt meeting his rookie therapist Katie (Anna Kendrick, the Oscar-nominated actress from Up in the Air). Adam hides behind humor and simply isn't comfortable opening up to even his closest friends and family about the deeply rooted fear he's feeling during this process. But when he's with Katie, he opens up while clearly falling for her at the same time, a dangerous prospect but one we tend to support because we want something good to happen to this guy. And Kendrick's insecurity about being able to handle patients that may die is palpable and honest.

Adam's tribulations range from his girlfriend not being able to handle being with a sick guy to the devastating impact of chemotherapy to his overbearing mother (Anjelica Houston, seeming to step right out of a Wes Anderson film) wanting to move in to care for her son. As much as I love the relationship developing between Adam and Katie, the film's heart — believe it or not — belongs to the men. The friendship between Adam and Kyle is so much fun to watch, and it changes and deepens as the film goes on. The many times I was tempted to cry the most involved what was going on between these two pals, and I think each audience member is going to respond to different scenes in different ways depending on their history with similar circumstances in their lives. The film doesn't manipulate (much) or tell you when to feel something deeply; it happens organically and beautifully.

Director Jonathan Levine (All the Boys Love Mandy Lane, The Wackness) has a perfect knack for refusing to leave a scene until we've learned something new about the characters in it. 50/50 doesn't work unless the character development is deep and fluid. In a strange and fun way, we're not sure that Adam is going to come out of this experience any more enriched as a human being; he seemed pretty great before cancer, so there's no need for a transformation. But that doesn't take away from any of the splendor of the movie, which feels authentic, heartfelt, and full of life. In the end, this is a story about friendship, and I consider 50/50 one of the most emotionally satisfying films of the year.

Go to Ain't It Cool News to read my exclusive interview with 50/50 screenwriter Will Reiser and star Seth Rogen.

Machine Gun Preacher

As with any film based on true events, it really doesn't matter if what we're seeing on the screen is what actually happened, or whether it's a composite or hyped-up version of the real story. If it feels real, I'm into it, and if it feels false, my issues will be many. Director Marc Forster (The Kite Runner, Monster's Ball, Finding Neverland) has taken the life Sam Childers (played nicely by Gerard Butler) and turned it into an inspirational tale about a guy who turned his very bad, drug-fueled life into one dedicated to saving orphans in Africa and building a church in his native Pennsylvania where he can preach an aggressive sermon every so often. Childers' real story is pretty remarkable, and many parts of Machine Gun Preacher absolutely work. But when Butler pulls out an automatic weapon and starts mowing down those who would hurt his precious orphans, that feeling of disbelief started creeping in, and my attachment to this film lessened substantially.

An ex-biker, Childers was released from jail and immediately dives back into the life with his best friend and drug buddy (the great Michael Shannon), much to the dismay of his loving wife (Michelle Monaghan) and family. The specific factors that went into Childers finding God are skimmed over somewhat, but in the end that doesn't really matter. What he decides to do with his charitable ways is go to the Civil War-ravaged Sudan and build an orphanage to save as many children as he can — certainly a noble effort, and at this point in the film, I was still with it for the most part. The scenes with Butler and Shannon are especially troubling, especially when they nearly kill a man together. And even the scenes of Childers attempting to figure out how he's going to do God's bidding are good.

But the film begins to lose focus and crumble at its moral core when Sam starts taking a position in the brutal Lord's Resistance Army in the Sudan, and he becomes a vigilante. I wasn't so much bothered by his violent ways — I always like seeing Butler be a badass; it's better than when he makes romantic comedies — but the film is trying so hard to paint Childers as a good man doing a just thing that I felt like I was being preached to.

Even outside of the violence, Childers is not an easy man (or character) to like. He neglects his family and drains their bank account to buy supplies for his Africa trips, and he's a rage-aholic even when he's asking for people to do good work. Maybe the best scene in the film has Childers nearly ripping the throat out of a banker who refuses to let him open up a third mortgage on his home so he can have cash to take with him on his next trip. But something about the final third of Machine Gun Preacher doesn't come together, and the story spends too much time as an action film and less about characters.

Machine Gun Preacher is easily Butler best work as an actor, and I hope he continues to make more serious works like this. The reason for the film ultimately failing have little to do with his performance, which, admittedly, has him stuck in overdrive for most of the film. And while I see the need to provide some old-fashioned Hollywood action entertainment in a film like this, I think the movie would have been just fine (perhaps, even better) if the filmmakers had stuck to a more down-to-earth, realistic approach to Childers' fascinating world. I guess I'm calling this a mixed review, but tilting toward no recommending it.

Read my exclusive interviews with Machine Gun Preacher star Gerard Butler or a joint interview with the subject of the film, Sam Childers, with screenwriter Jason Keller at Ain't It Cool News.

What's Your Number?

I adore Anna Faris. I'd even go so far that she might be the funniest and most daring comedic actress working today... or at least she has the capacity to be so when she picks the right movie. And while What's Your Number? has a few very big laughs spread across its running time, it doesn't represent Faris at her best, as in films like Scary Movie, The House Bunny or Observe and Report. Instead what we get is a really forced plot about Ally Darling, who refuses to sleep with any more men because she read in a magazine somewhere that if a woman hasn't found a husband by the time she's slept with 20 men, she likely never will. And guess what number Ally is resting on? Instead of looking for new men, she hires her handsome neighbor (Chris Evans) to track down her 20 previous conquests and see if any of them turned into men worth marrying; that way she doesn't have to add to her booty count.

Some of the encounters with these old partners are kind of funny, thanks to brief appearances by Chris Pratt, Andy Sandberg and Martin Freeman. But those humorous moments are fleeting, and director Mark Mylod (known best for his TV work on "Entourage" and "Shameless") rarely taps into the kind of edgy humor that Faris does best. And What's Your Number? is an R-rated film, so the opportunity was there.

It doesn't help that Evans is at his full-on most scoundrelly charming and walks around a lot in his underwear. He frequently makes the trip across the hall to hide from the women who have slept over and he wants to leave. Then there's the unnecessary second plot (it takes up too much time to call a subplot) about Ally's sister (Ari Graynor) getting married. Because why wouldn't Ally pick a very busy time in her family's life to do this big search? And I never quite figured out what the big hurry way to find all of these men.

What's Your Number? is a cluttered mess of a film, produced by Faris, that feels like it's trying to be all things to all people. It wants to be a paint-by-number chick flick, but it also revels in its raunch. And it has the sad misfortune of having the exact same opening bit that the far superior Bridesmaids does, in which Faris wakes up before her latest sex partner (an amusing cameo by Zachary Quinto), does her hair and makeup, brushes her teeth, and makes herself presentable before he wakes up. Even if this sequence was shot with no knowledge of Bridesmaids, shouldn't this new film have shot something new? I'm just saying.

The failure of What's Your Number? to produce any lasting, sustained laughter doesn't make me like Faris any less. I suspect that she'll get more daring and adventurous as the years go on, but fans of hers might want to wait until that happens before venturing back into a movie theater to check out one of her movies. This one is a clunker, and its number is zero.

My Afternoons with Margueritte

I always get a kick out of watching Gerard Depardieu in films. In recent years, he's limited himself to extended cameos or assigned the duty of comic relief because he enormous size, floppy hair, and sizable schnoz make most of us laugh. But in his latest work to hit the states, My Afternoons with Margueritte, he's given a much more fleshed-out character to play, and the results are kind of nice. Depardieu plays Germain, a simple handyman and gardener who lives in a small town and is often mocked for his limited education and brain power by even his best friends. He's a gentle soul who grew up being hated by his mother (he was not a planned pregnancy), whom he lives next door to. He has a lovely, passionate girlfriend, and he can make or fix anything.

One day in the park, he meets an elderly woman named Margueritte (Gisele Casadesus). They share a love of feeding the pigeons, and they end up meeting every so often at the same bench to talk, share ideas, and eventually to read — or more specifically, she reads aloud to him some classic novels, which in turn inspires him to read them as well. She even gives him a dictionary so he can look up some of the big words.

My Afternoons with Margueritte is not trying to break new ground, although the visual of these two together is something you don't see every day, and their friendship is beyond sweet and inspiring. Her fragile frame next to his hulking mass is both humorous and touching. It's sometimes difficult to figure out who's taking care of whom from encounter to encounter. And it turns out that Germain takes to intellectual pursuits with a flair even he would not have guessed. The film's final act is a little too trite and predictable, but by the time we get there, it's easy to forgive director Jean Becker from taking the road most taken. The movie is beautifully shot, features elegant performances, and the entire experience of viewing it leaves you feeling all warm and fuzzy inside. Sometimes, it's OK to feel that way and simply let a movie charm you. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Pearl Jam Twenty

It's difficult for me to accurately judge how a documentary about a band I've loved and been inspired by for 20 years will play to audiences that aren't as enthused or familiar with the band's music as I am. But I'm going to go out on a limb that if at any point during Pearl Jam's long run you've been impressed with their output or integrity, you'll enjoy the hell out of this passionate work by director Cameron Crowe, a friend and fan of the band, but also a filmmaker smart enough to know that he needs to produce an honest profile.

What's remarkable is that the film's first hour is dedicated to the building of the band (from the ashes of Mother Love Bone after the overdose death of its singer) through the overexposure that resulted from the release of the band's first album, Ten. For hardcore fans, the footage that Crowe has been given access to or has found is astonishing, from the band's second-ever live performance to long-rumored film of singer Eddie Vedder slow dancing with Kurt Cobain backstage at the MTV Music Video Awards to writing and recording sessions and countless classic performances.

There are some starkly harrowing moments as well, such as guitarist Stone Gossard talking about the power shift in the band shortly after Vedder was hired as the singer. The band's fight with Ticketmaster early on is handled with due reverence, and the deaths of fans at the notorious Roskilde Festival in Denmark is painting as a singular moment in the band's history that nearly destroyed them. Its clearly tough for the band members to talk about the festival incident, but in the end it seemed to bind them. There are a few musician friends who pop in to talk about how the great guys are, and a funny aside about the number of drummers Pearl Jam has gone through over the years is essential viewing for any fan.

In the end, Pearl Jam Twenty reinforces the band's connection to its audience and encourages the faithful to believe that Pearl Jam still has a lot of years and great music ahead of them. Cameron is exactly the right guy for the directing gig because he knows what footage will make fans crazy (in a good way) and what questions to ask to get this normally press-shy band to open up. It's a fascinating journey, and, although the film is coming out on DVD soon, I hope you get to see it on the big screen with a full house. The shared experience is like nothing else. The film opens for a weeklong engagement at the Gene Siskel Film Center, and I'm guessing it will be a sold-out run (many shows are already sold out), so get your tickets early.

 
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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »

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A/C is the arts and culture section of Gapers Block, covering the many forms of expression on display in Chicago. More...
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