50/50 (2011)

Film #27: 50/50 (2011)

50/50 is a movie about cancer. Well, a movie about cancer and coping with cancer. Written by Will Reiser, who based the script loosely around his own experiences with the big C, and directed by Jonathan Levine, 50/50 takes a comedic-dramatic approach to the story of Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a 27-year-old journalist who finds out he has a rare form of spinal cancer. It’s a total shock, of course. Not only does Adam not smoke or anything, he’s so safety-oriented that he waits for crosswalks to turn white before jogging across the street. This huge disruption shakes him, as well as everyone around him: His almost live-in girlfriend Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard), his best friend and co-worker Kyle (Seth Rogen), and his worrisome mother Diane (Anjelica Huston), already burdened with taking care of his father who has Alzheimer’s (Serge Houde). Adam begins to undergo treatment for his affliction, but his survival is pretty much a coin toss: The survival rate is 50%.


Toy Story 3 (2010)

In 1995 and 1999, Toy Story and its sequel made huge impacts on the world of feature-length animations, combining stunning visuals, solid stories and unforgettable characters – all in the relatively new field of computer animation. It’s been 11 years since we last followed Woody and Buzz. In that time, CGI has become ubiquitous and the Academy Awards have created the “Best Animated Feature” category.

Despite the age of its source material, Toy Story 3 stands up to both its predecessors and its contemporary competition. This is an excellent movie in every way.


Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)

Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid was one of the biggest hits of 1969. The film was a contemporary buddy comedy disguised as a western, and its reflexive, almost satirical humor seems to have divided critics, some judging it as  successfully unique and others as overbearingly silly. I fall in the former camp. George Roy Hill’s classic is one of the best movies I’ve ever seen, with humor and style that holds up over its 110-minute runtime (as well as its 40-year age).

The film stars Paul Newman as Butch and Robert Redford as the Kid. It served as a sort of vehicle for the rising star Redford and the falling star Newman, and both performances are a quality highlight of the film. While it’s true that their dialogue is anachronistic in the early 20th Century setting, and that their sympathetic portrayals depict violent bank robbers as genial bandits, it’s part of the film’s awareness and conscious decision to be a fun, light affair.

For me, it totally works. Newman is fantastically charming as Butch, from his manners and sincerity to the bicycle tricks performed during the famous “Raindrop Keep Falling on My Head” sequence. Redford’s Kid is much more gruff and dangerous, but still able to quip with Butch under gunfire. The stars have a fantastic chemistry that keeps their banter just as funny today as it was then.

The film is interesting in its use of various different sequence techniques. It begins with its credits alongside a silent film era projector showing still images of the Hole in the Wall Gang holding up trains. It then upgrades technology but maintains an old Western feel with an introductory scene done in sepia. By time it transitions to the full color cinematography that the film mostly sticks to, the audience is prepared for a unique and nostalgic ride.

Other sequences also make the film stand out among contemporaries. It seems to borrow French New Wave techniques like the aforementioned filters, the famous freeze frame final shot, and wordless sequences. These sequences, like the “Rain Drops Keep Falling on My Head” scene, are accompanied by cheerful music, a style that has comedic results when Bolivian bank robberies are accompanied aurally only by cheerful a capella. Their journey from the United States to Bolivia is depicted through a montage of old time still photographs, as well. The movie’s definitely not afraid to use montages.

In the middle of the movie, Butch and the Kid endure a relentlessly long chase scene. It actually overextends the definition of a scene and must be called a sequence. The “superposse” hired by the angry owner of the company they’ve been robbing are shown to be the best trackers imaginable, following Bruce and the Kid across every kind of terrain they ride through.  This sequence stands as the apex of the film. The pursuers maintain a distance that lends the entire thing an eerie suspense. They are far enough to be indescribable, yet they never fall out of range and are always looming in the distance. Other critics, including Roger Ebert, have complained about its inclusion, and I can understand, since the whole thing pretty much hijacks the film, but to me it was a well-done and uniquely intense chase sequence that tops all others.

Even for those who might not have enjoyed the superposse sequence, the film picks up again after the heroes escape to Bolivia. Their initial confrontation with the foreign language is the source of much humor, and after an adequate time being lighthearted again after the chase, the film is able to close with an intense and exciting scene.

**Spoiler alert. This paragraph contains spoilers**
The climactic final shoot out is nothing short of amazing. It builds kinetic tension through interludes of silent stillness as the duo take cover and reload. The shoot out soon reveals itself as the hopeless struggle that it is, first when the pair of robbers are shot and injured and finally when the massive armada arrives to surround them. While the rest of the film and the banter leading up to the final minutes are light and humorous, the film ends somewhat majestically as Butch and the Kid go out in a blaze of glory against an unstoppable foe. The iconic freeze frame helps both the story and the film reach immortal status.

Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid was one of the screenings for my first film class at college, but due to a busy schedule it was the first and only screening I skipped in that class. I can’t believe I let such a classic film evade me for two years. I’m glad I’ve finally seen it, because I do consider it one of the best films I’ve ever seen, and additionally, one of my favorites.

Final rating: 10/10

–James A. Janisse




Sunset Boulevard (1950)

Sunset Boulevard is one of the greatest films ever made. I say this as a fact, not an opinion, and it’s not hard to see why. A striking film noir, a harsh and biting look at the Hollywood business, and writing so good that it still retains much of its humor, Sunset Boulevard is the best at many things. Anyone who considers themselves a movie fan is doing a disservice if they don’t watch this film.

Sunset Boulevard begins with a corpse, that of small-time Hollywood writer Joe Gillis. Gillis is played by William Holden, and in an interesting stylistic decision, narrates the entire movie even though we first see him dead. Thus, the film is a flashback, as he recounts his tale of how he came to be a corpse – through an entangled life with former silent movie star Norma Desmond, played by Gloria Swanson.

I’ll get the praise for the acting out of the way first, because it’s impossible to watch the movie without noting the first-class performances. Gloria Swanson gives one of the greatest acting performances of all time. Swanson was a silent movie star herself, so that surely helped her in her depiction of the unforgettable Norma Desmond. Desmond is an ex-star, in an era that has moved on and left her behind. She has grown slightly insane from her isolation and narcissism, believing herself to be adored and loved because of fake fan letters she receives.

Swanson as Norma acts exactly like you’d expect an old silent movie star to act. She’s over-the-top and melodramatic, emoting every last bit of her feelings through exaggerated faces and wild hand gestures. It’s what the silent stars were trained to do, and her strong gesticulating also helps to contrast with Norma’s inability to realize what her life has really come to. As expressive as she is, she’s never able to really express her fears and insecurities, until she’s swallowed up by them and succumbs to her dream world.

William Holden, who would later star in Bridge on the River Kwai, is perfectly suited for the role of Joe Gillis. Holden’s narration wonderfully brings the noir style to the forefront. His dialogue is sharp and acerbic. He’s cynical and pragmatic, and does what he needs to in order to survive in a time where his talents aren’t being asked for. Holden’s narration drives the film, and he brings much of the humor with his witticisms, both internally and externally.

Erich von Stroheim, a former silent film director, plays Norma’s butler Max. He is at the same time the prototypical butler and a smart, knowing, original character. Max protects Norma from the reality of the world behind her, sending her fan letters and keeping her happy. At the same time, by the end of the film when she’s slipped into total dissociation, he is fully aware, and uses her trust in him to get her to cooperate. von Stroheim is excellent and plays his role with a very subdued and knowing edge. Cecille B. DeMille also shows up in a cameo as himself, and he is more than fantastic. Maybe it’s just because he is being himself, but he really comes through as a caring but strong director.

This movie is one that will be more enjoyable the more you know about films. Norma name drops plenty of old silent film stars, and even plays cards with them – seeing Buster Keaton as an old “Waxworth” whose only line is to pass is one of the many highlights of the movie. It’s also interesting to note that this was all filmed where it purports to be filmed – on Sunset Blvd. itself, in Paramount’s studios, and on its backlots. The movie is engrossing even with just a little bit of Hollywood historical knowledge, and I can only imagine how great it would be when it was released and all of these facts were still fresh and newly irrelevant.

Billy Wilder made a near-perfect film with Sunset Boulevard. Its dark humor is modern enough to persist, and its surreal scenes like that of a monkey funeral or when Norma is recognized by an old light technician bring a unique and interesting side to a film made so long ago. Best of all, the stakes and intensity build consistently throughout, as we see the pitfalls and problems in Norma and Joe’s relationship develop. Before long, she has fallen in love with him, something he surely cannot reciprocate. This unrequited desire is just the straw that finally breaks down Norma Desmond, and her descent into murderous madness is at the same time frightening and sad. And so is the entire movie: a combination of interesting darkness, revolting disgust, and pity sympathy for the victims of the Hollywood machine.

Final rating: 10/10

–James A. Janisse

Eraserhead (1977)

After watching Dune as my first David Lynch film, I realized that he might best be approached in a chronological fashion. So I rented Eraserhead, Lynch’s first feature, and sat down to watch it, unaware of what I was in for. I of course knew a bit of Lynch’s reputation as a filmmaker, but no amount of reading or talking about him could prepare me for the surreal grotesque nightmare that is Eraserhead.


Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

I finally saw Lawrence of Arabia, and I feel like I’ve reached a new point in my movie-watching career. This is often referred to as the epic of all epics, and there’s no hyperbole to that claim. Lawrence of Arabia truly is one of the greatest movies ever made.