Beginners: written and directed by Mike Mills; starring Ewan McGregor (Oliver Fields), Christopher Plummer (Hal Fields), Melanie Laurent (Anna) and Goran Visnjic (Andy) (2011): Set mainly in 2003, Beginners tells us the story of Oliver Fields as he recovers from his father’s recent death and tries to forge a lasting romantic relationship.
Fields’s father (played by Christopher Plummer, who won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for the role) came out of the closet after his wife’s 1999 death, and the movie jumps around in time to show us Oliver reacting to his father’s public embrace of his sexual identity, his father’s lengthy battle with cancer, and Oliver’s own search for meaning.
The movie’s skillfully structured and maintains a nice, organic balance of sorrow and joy throughout. There’s a very cute Jack Russell terrier with some killer dialogue (!), a very cute French actress, some nice little comic moments involving Hallowe’en parties and graffiti, and some beautifully written scenes between Oliver and his father, young Olilver and his mother, Oliver and his father’s much-younger lover (ER’s Goran Visnjic, bouncy as a spaniel), and Oliver and the actress.
The direction is accomplished without being too showy, and Mills comes up with an effective recurring structural motif that comments on Oliver’s state of mind while also reflecting his career as a visual artist. Plummer certainly deserved his Oscar win; McGregor could have at least used a nomination, as he convincingly portrays a withdrawn character in the grip of powerful emotions. Highly recommended.
50/50: written by Will Reiser; directed by Jonathan Levine; starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Adam), Seth Rogen (Kyle), Anna Kendrick (Katherine), Bryce Dallas Howard (Rachael) and Anjelica Huston (Diane) (2011): Seth Rogen plays Seth Rogen in a movie about how Seth Rogen’s friend battles cancer, based on a true story about how Seth Rogen’s friend battled cancer.
Surprisingly dramatic, 50/50 ‘s strengths lie with Rogen and Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s performances, which generally feel as fresh and realistic as perhaps any movie with Seth Rogen can feel. The writing tries to avoid cheap laughs, and the make-up department actually makes Gordon-Levitt look awful as his character undergoes chemotherapy.
Little movie bits do intrude throughout (and even if they, too, are based on reality, they nonetheless become movie bits because we’ve seen them in movies too many times). Older cancer battlers dispense hard-fought wisdom and hash brownies. A cute therapist becomes a possible romantic partner.
Thankfully, the movie remains capable of giving us non-movie bits as well — Gordon-Levitt’s character really is debilitated by his cancer and its treatment. No character is rendered completely unsympathetic. And Gordon-Levitt himself has become a fine, nuanced actor. With sharper writing, this could have been a revelation rather than simply a surprise. Lightly recommended.
The Most Dangerous Game: adapted by James Ashmore Creelman from the short story by Richard Connell; directed by Irving Pichel and Ernest B. Schoedsack; starring Joel McCrea (Bob), Fay Wray (Eve) and Leslie Banks (Zaroff) (1932): Short, sweet adaptation of one of the most reprinted, most adapted, most imitated short stories ever. 63 minutes!
OK, the movie originally clocked in at 78 minutes, but preview audiences got freaked out by some (then) graphic footage, and the pre-release chopping frenzy ensued. Made before the Production Code but released afterwards, The Most Dangerous Game also featured too much skin (you won’t notice), and so wasn’t re-released for years after its debut.
On an island with a surprisingly diverse landscape, an evil hunter who has grown bored with hunting animals now hunts the most dangerous game — man! And he keeps trophies! Can shipwrecked big-game hunter Joel McCrea defeat evil Count Zaroff at his own game?
Well, that’s the plot of the movie.
This is a lot of fun in a short package, and you’ll probably spend a few minutes marvelling at the bizarre yet effective sets (and trying to spot the King Kong sets — this movie was filmed at the same time as King Kong, with the many of the same actors and production staff). Recommended.
The Rite: suggested by a book by Matt Baglio, written by Michael Petroni; directed by Mikael Hafstrom; starring Colin O’Donoghue (Michael Kovak), Anthony Hopkins (Father Lucas Trevant), Ciaran Hinds (Father Xavier), and Alice Braga (Angeline) (2011): A good-looking, moodily directed movie that has a dumb script, The Rite offers us The Exorcist for Dummies. That young male lead Colin O’Donoghue bears a striking resemblance to Evil Dead ‘s Bruce Campbell really doesn’t help the suspension of disbelief.
A young American priest with faith issues gets sent to the Vatican’s Exorcism school. Hilarity ensues as he gets sentenced to do field work with super-Exorcist Anthony Hopkins, playing Anthony Hopkins.
Cats and frogs strike sinister poses — Hopkins’s Father Trevant lives in what looks like a cross between a student ghetto and a small-animal zoo. Are the demons Trevant labours to cast out real? Will faith be restored? Will a character with the name ‘Angeline’ play a pivotal role? Will possessed people get all veiny, do weird gymnastical tricks, and talk in spooky voices about things they couldn’t possibly know? Will there be a demonic, red-eyed mule? Wait, what? Yes. Yes, there will be.
The movie spends a lot of time talking as if it’s smart without ever exhibiting much intelligence. It does look good, though, and the director wrings about as much shock and horror out of a pedestrian script as almost anyone could. All of this is ostensibly inspired by a true story. Not recommended.