Hey, remember September? Guess what, people, it’s over. Soon the only month where it’s acceptable to cover yourself in fake blood will be upon us and as one of them “horror movie loving freaks,” I couldn’t be more excited.
Fortunately the pain of September passing will be subdued ever so slightly by a pretty solid week at the movies. Want to see Seth Rogen try to make cancer funny? Boom, 50/50 will serve that need and it’s also shockingly sweet and funny given the subject matter. Want to see someone make Sarah Palin look the fool (shouldn’t be too difficult)? Get ready for hilariously confrontational documentary filmmaker Nick Broomfield’s take on the perky Alaskan in Sarah Palin: You Betcha!
And if you want a shitty Gerard Butler movie about a born again Christian biker shooting people and saving orphans in Africa, there’s always Machine Gun Preacher. Okay so that’s a terrible movie, but two out of three decent releases ain’t bad, right, folks? Well, I think so anyway.
The Good: 50/50
If ever there was proof that Seth Rogen has reached that special level of success in Hollywood where he can get pretty well any movie he wants made, it’s his new cancer comedy 50/50. That’s not to say that the movie is some sort of abstract art film designed only to appeal to fine arts majors and recreational drug users. This is still a very funny and warm film that walks the line between vulgar laughs and gentle sentiment that the writer/actor learned from his days in the Judd Apatow school of comedy.
However, it does deal with cancer and uneasy emotions, something that studios don’t tend to like in their popcorn shifting comedies. As a result, it’s unlikely that 50/50 will go on to be the lovable stoner’s greatest hit; however, it’s safe to say the that film will earn him a new level of respect from the critical community and it’s entertaining enough that it should make the cash necessary for Rogen to launch further offbeat projects in the future. I doubt that he’ll suddenly abandon lighthearted stoner fair, but it’s nice to know that he’ll have the ability to take risks when the right project arises.
The film is based on the experiences Rogen shared with friend and 50/50 screenwriter Will Reiser when he was diagnosed with cancer in the 2000s. The pair met while working on Da Ali G Show (that’s right, there’s one more classic work of 2000s comedy that Rogen got his dirty mitts all over) and Rogen was one of Reiser’s few friends who stuck around him during the ordeal, offering an endless series of off-color jokes and a cloud of calming smoke to smooth things over.
In the film, Reiser takes the form of Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s 27-year-old radio producer suddenly struck with a rare form of spinal cancer, while Rogen essentially plays himself as the wisecracking best friend. The early scenes feel like a rough rom-com, but once that cancer sets in the film settles into a compelling, gently dark comedy tone (if anything, the comedy could have used more cancer). 50/50 mercifully never falls into the traps of the typical terminal disease weepy. Gordon-Levitt’s reaction is that of a confused daze, as most would feel in his situation and the humor feels like a natural self-defense mechanism to the unsettling themes.
The subject of the film is more about how those around Gordon-Levitt react to the disease as opposed to his personal turmoil. Girlfriends leave, parents overreact, therapists aren’t sure what advice to offer, and his lone friend suggests they use cancer as a way to pick up girls. It’s unlike any cancer movie that I can think of, never shying away from pain without ever losing laughs or heart.
The delicate balancing act of the film’s tone is executed perfectly by Reiser’s smart autobiographical screenplay (no doubt guided by Rogen and his longtime writer partner Evan Goldberg who served as producers) and Jonathan (The Wackness) Levine’s understated direction. The film isn’t a towering masterpiece, it’s too small and delicate for that. But 50/50 is a minor triumph that takes a painful and harsh subject and makes it really fucking funny. Goddamn that Seth Rogen. How many things does he plan on doing right? He’s really making the rest of us look bad.
The Bad: Machine Gun Preacher
I guess Gerard Butler has decided that it’s time for him to be taken seriously as an actor. The days of mugging his way through banal Jennifer Aniston rom-coms are over and now it’s time for the man who got famous for frolicking in his underwear in 300 to become an artist. I admire the intent, but it’s a shame the first movie he chose to show the serious side of Gerard Butler is Machine Gun Preacher.
The film has an amazing title, but everything goes downhill from there. It’s based on the true story of a former drug-addled biker who found Jesus, cleaned up his life, became a preacher, and then after visiting East Africa on a charity mission, decided to try and make things easier for the inhabitants there. So he saves up, builds an orphanage in a hostile area in need, and then buys himself a machine gun to do some ass kicking against the local militia. Doesn’t sound like a terrible idea for a movie, but whoo-boy! Is this sucker ever misconceived.
The main problem with the film is that even though it’s based on a true story, it couldn’t feel less realistic. The opening scenes of Butler’s renegade biker days are stylishly filmed by director Marc Forster as if he was still working on the last Bond movie. Butler cruises around on a Harley with a shotgun in hand in what feels like a crappy outlaw action flick. Then the guy suddenly finds God in a whiplash character shift that would only be believable to the most ardent religious fanatic.
By the time he winds up in Africa, the film feels so over-the-top and melodramatic that it’s hard to take seriously. With so much ground to cover, Forster relies on tired clichés to get through the labyrinth of a plot as quickly as possible. Watching Butler cry with a recently bombed African child in his arms or tell a drug-addled buddy about the power of the Lord are scenes that should have emotional heft, but come off like overblown cheese. The film won’t move you, it’ll just induce inappropriate snickers.
In the end, I think the story of Machine Gun Preacher is just too strange and vast for a fiction movie. As a “reality is stranger than fiction” documentary it might be compelling, but here it just feels like an overstated mess. (When pictures of the real life characters pop up during the end credits, it’s jarring rather than satisfying. You’ll forget this isn’t a ridiculous Hollywood fantasy within minutes.)
I suppose the filmmakers should be cut some slack for being too ambitious with their project rather than not ambitious enough. That’s nice and certainly rare in Hollywood. What a pity that it doesn’t work other than a handful of tense action scenes that are ironically the type of thing I think Butler was trying to avoid in the first place. Admittedly Butler is decent in the movie and Michael Shannon is his typically amazing self as Butler’s old speed freak buddy. Shannon’s performance is so strong that it makes the insane reality of the movie feel genuine. I suppose that’s what the filmmakers hoped to accomplish overall, but sadly outside of a few scenes it just doesn’t work. Ah well, better luck next time.
The Palin: Sarah Palin: You Betcha!
Someone had to make a damning documentary about that sugary sweet nutjob Sarah Palin and thank god it was Nick Broomfield who ended up doing it. If you’re unfamiliar with the director’s previous work like Kurt and Courtney, Biggie and Tupac, or Aileen Wuornos: The Selling Of a Serial Killer, the British documentarian likes to choose controversial and/or iconic figures to profile and then just show up with a camera and start filming.
He doesn’t get permission and often literally goes knocking on doors while shooting to slowly stumble onto the truth. As you’d expect given the high profile folks he targets, Broomfield doesn’t necessarily end up meeting his subjects, but by uncovering the world around them he inevitably unearths some painful truths.
So, this time good ol’ Broomy (that’s what I call him; we’re cool like that okay, I don’t know him) heads out to Alaska to Ms. Palin’s hometown and finds a community of people terrified to talk about their perky politician. Anyone who has spoken ill of Palin in the past has felt the wrath of the beauty queen and her people, but she’s also burned enough bridges during her unlikely rise to presidential hopeful that Broomfield eventually finds plenty of interview subjects.
The director reveals Palin to be a petty and vindictive politician who has abused her power from her earliest days as a gum-smacking mayor. She’s also kind of dumb as you may have noticed through the media and there are plenty of laughs to be had in the film when Broomfield’s findings aren’t too terrifying for giggles.
Sarah Palin: You Betcha! is an excellent condemnation that the beauty queen politician deserves. It might not necessarily uncover anything people who have been following Palin’s embarrassing legacy aren’t at least mildly aware of, but it will confirm their worst fears. The only unfortunate thing is that the movie will like only preach to the converted as Palin’s legion of supporters are too wowed by her soccer mom magic to even consider how full of shit she really is (not to mention the fact that they already have a self-serving pro-Palin doc in The Undefeated that they can cuddle in bed with every night). That’s a shame, but at least Broomfield’s profile is out there and it should be required viewing for every registered voter if she ends up running for president.
Also released this week: Dream House (a psychological haunting tale starring Daniel Craig, Rachel Weisz, and Naomi Watts, not screened for critics due to a little distracting infidelity between two of the costars), Courageous (finally, the religious cop drama that nobody asked for is here), Tucker and Dale Vs. Evil (finally, the redneck horror comedy that everyone asked for is here; okay, maybe I was the only one asking for it, but I’m still excited), Bunraku (Josh Harnett kung fu action, for cinematic masochists only).