Friday, September 30, 2011

"50/50" Review

50/50 is the anti-MOW. Hot off the festival circuit as the much buzzed-about "cancer comedy," its hype doesn't tell the whole story. Directed by Jonathan Levine (The Wackness), 50/50 is a dynamic blend of offhand humor and compelling character study. Just don't go in expecting one or the other.

Loosely based on his own experiences as a twenty-something cancer survivor, screenwriter Will Reiser assembles a flawed cast of characters for his retelling – himself most of all. Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is not a take-charge kind of guy. He greets his diagnosis with cynicism and reclusiveness, and at his age who can blame him? Holding his life at arm's length, he severs ties rather than strengthening them.

It's a notion that Levine actually undercuts. Whether it's his direction or just the conventions of a hero-narrative, Adam frequently comes off better than he deserves to. His cancer gives him carte blanche to abuse and ignore his friends and family, and it's important that those unflattering traits get their due. The cathartic climax is about tearing down those walls.

Levine is more forthcoming with the foibles of other characters. Seth Rogen plays Adam's pal Kyle, a predictably crass and outgoing foil to Gordon-Levitt's narcissistic introvert. Adam's girlfriend (Bryce Dallas Howard) comes away looking particularly ugly, and is admonished by Kyle in one of 50/50's funniest scenes. Anjelica Huston and Anna Kendrick play Adam's overprotective mother and fledgling therapist, respectively, and Philip Baker Hall makes an appearance as a fellow cancer patient with an affinity for pot.

Rounding out the cast is Serge Houde as Adam's Alzheimer's-afflicted father. Unlike Adam however, his condition seems superfluous, occasionally lending 50/50 the maudlin air of an issue film. Which is odd, because elsewhere the filmmakers strive to remove sentimentality from the equation. In fact, the nitty-gritty of Adam's treatment is relegated almost entirely to off-screen action. The film focuses instead on the impact it has on his life. Consequently, and in the interest of levity, the threat is diluted.

In that respect, 50/50 isn't even about cancer. The common storytelling mistake, as Reiser sees it, is treating the disease as subject; Reiser's subject is himself. Cancer is just the shitty thing that happened to him. The film begins like any other buddy comedy, and initially feels stilted because of it. Even the obligatory reveal and diagnosis of the disease comes across awkward. But it gradually builds into something significant.

The beauty of 50/50 is in the way its characters behave and bounce off each other. There's no bromance a la I Love You, Man – the friendship portrayed by Gordon-Levitt and Rogen is subtler. Adam's eventual turn from reticence to reliance makes his transformation as a character more compelling than his struggle with cancer. After all, it's not about that.

I don't envy the marketing team tasked with selling 50/50 to the general audience. Cancer isn't exactly a crowd-pleaser, but you can't bill it as a comedy without being at least a little disingenuous. Resier and Levine's film delivers a unique hybrid of emotion and entertainment that tries, not always successfully, to pave new territory – which is admirable in and of itself. Whether 50/50 is remembered more as a cavalier drama or dark comedy remains to be seen, but you can bet it won't go down in history as another after school special.


Wednesday, September 21, 2011

"Moneyball" Review

Take my review of Moneyball with a grain of salt. Its two-and-a-quarter-hour running time probably rivals the aggregate amount of professional baseball I've watched over the past three years – which is to say, not much. I'm not the target audience for any sports flick, but a great cast delivering an Aaron Sorkin script put me in the seats. On that level, Moneyball delivers.

Sorkin has a knack for finding the humanity in black and white statistics. It's in part what made his telling of Facebook's success story (last year's brilliant, brainy The Social Network) so remarkable. A fitting – if inferior – follow-up, Moneyball is as much about business as it is about baseball. In fact, the thesis of author Michael Lewis, upon whose book Sorkin and co-writer Steven Zaillian sculpted the screenplay, is that victory on the field can be reduced to mere mathematics.

Enter Brad Pitt as Oakland A's General Manager Billy Beane. After being creamed in the playoffs, many of his star players pick up contracts with teams with deeper pockets. The truth as Beane puts it is that baseball is a fundamentally unfair game. Affluent teams can afford the best players, and subsequently win the most games and the most championships. But rather than accept the status quo, Beane hires Yale grad Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), and cooks up a way to build a team around underrated but undesirable players, like a pitcher with unorthodox form and a ex-star pushing 40.

"We're card counters now," Beane explains to his mystified staff. Moneyball plays almost like a heist – and cheating any flawed system is exhilarating to watch. The problems stem from elsewhere; the movie drags in its second half, lacking the concise narrative momentum of fiction. It's a problem from which many biopics suffer, and though Sorkin fares better than most, he doesn't have a David Fincher behind the lens this time around.

Granted, director Bennett Miller is no slouch, having made his Oscar-nominated Hollywood debut with Capote in 2005. With Moneyball, Miller faithfully photographs Sorkin and Zaillian's script, but never elevates it. Pitt and Hill are empathetic underdogs, and their performances convey admirable depth. Still, even in their best moments, it's hard not to wish that more weren't going on onscreen.

Moneyball also gets bogged down by superfluous subplots like flashbacks to Beane's fizzled pro baseball career and his relationship with his twelve-year-old daughter. The sequences give insight into the inner workings of the character's mind, but seldom feel relevant to the main thrust of the plot. Especially when they beget a string of false endings that has the audience on the edge of their seats in the worst sense of the term.

Those scenes don't sink Moneyball, but they somewhat stifle its potential for greatness. The fascinating premise, that computers can pick winners better than we can, is partially buried under content far less novel. I've seen enough strained father/daughter relationships, thanks. The film would likewise run thinner and healthier without Beane's trips down memory lane.

But it still works. Probably the best indication of the film's merit is that it appeals to viewers with no vested interest in the sport. At its finest, Moneyball is about the deconstruction of baseball romanticism, with a straightforward exchange of ideas that feels almost documentary at times. Surprisingly enough, it's the conventional storytelling devices that feel sluggish, unexciting, and repetitive. Not the baseball.


Thursday, September 15, 2011

"Drive" Review

After a summer of cheap thrills, Drive delivers thrills on the cheap. With a budget Michael Bay might have allocated for a single effects sequence in Transformers 3, Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn made one of the best movies of the year. Following Bronson and Valhalla Rising, Refn crafts his most polished, commercial work yet, while retaining all the ambiguity and unbridled aggression of his tough-as-nails art house pictures.

Bearing thematic resemblance to Darren Aronofsky's recent output, Drive is like Black Swan in overdrive. The film pins its headlights on the dark implications of unchecked obsession and good intentions gone haywire. That dangerous duality – humanity on the razor's edge of animal brutality – is played to unnerving perfection by Ryan Gosling.

Rightly among the most reliable names on the Hollywood marquee, the star of Drive plays a crucible of a character. A friendly, fatherly figure to his neighbor (Carey Mulligan) and her young son, he's decidedly less so when the two are threatened. A sort of oblique, ultraviolent superhero, the driver leaps to defend the innocent with bloody determination. If the first half of Drive plays as drama, the second is straight up revenge fare.

Playing on the juxtaposition of calm and calamity, Refn keeps us on our toes throughout. Quiet moments stretch into suffocating silence, and the explosive violence that inevitably shatters it practically tears the frame in half. The audio is expertly mixed; you'll want to see Drive loud. From its roaring engines and visceral blows to its curt dialogue, the film is an altar to the power of great sound design.

In truth, Drive isn't pervasively violent, though its most excruciatingly effective moments leave a memory trail like tire streaks on a sunbaked highway. At the heart of the story is a compelling, surprisingly tender romance. Carey Mulligan has proved herself a similarly reliable talent to Gosling, and has worked in recent years with the likes of Michael Mann, Oliver Stone, and Mark Romanek.

Her fragile character's relationship with the driver is subtle and nuanced in a manner atypical of thriller convention. They're not family, they're not even sleeping together. Drive is not a sexy film. Refn fetishizes neither cars nor women; if The Fast and the Furious is the sleek exterior curves of an automobile, Drive is the greasy, undulating pistons. And it's utilitarian at a lean 100 minutes.

The rest of the small cast also impresses. Albert Brooks plays against type as a cutthroat crime lord, and a note-perfect Ron Perlman plays his meathead partner. Bryan Cranston of TV's Breaking Bad has a small role too, as employer and confidant to Gosling's character. Their relationships shuffle as lines are drawn and redrawn, but none of them comes away unscathed by the film's end.

Drive is either the explosive end to a lukewarm summer movie season or an early autumn adrenaline rush. In machismo, it far outpaces its hundred million dollar competition, leaving overwrought tales of lesser heroes like Thor and Green Lantern in the dust. Its troubled characters, and the bonds of desperation that link them, elevate the film above its genre trappings and shield it from disposable entertainment status.

Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive is an anomaly. It's like a 1200 horsepower hybrid. And it's one of the best movies of 2011.