FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #13: Jonathan Levine’s “50/50”

This week, Glenn stumbles forth from a weekend of short film madness to join Daniel and review 50/50, a new comedic drama from director Jonathan Levine and screenwriter Will Reiser, loosely based on Reiser’s own experiences getting cancer at a young age. Can such dour subject matter succeed as a comedy? Tune in and find out (28:54).

[may contain some NSFW language]

FilmWonk rating: 8/10

Show notes:

  • 50/50 is out in theaters this Friday, September 30th.
  • Music for this episode is “Carries On“, from Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, which appears in the film’s trailer.
  • In the podcast, we refer to Adam’s two “chemo buddies”, who are played by Philip Baker Hall and another actor we weren’t familiar with. The other actor was Matt Frewer.
  • Stick around for a blooper if you’re game.

Listen above, or download: 50/50 (right-click, save as).

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2009 Glennies, Part 3: Best Actress

#5: Mélanie Laurent – Shosanna Dreyfus, Inglourious Basterds

Mélanie Laurent in "Inglourious Basterds"

Mélanie Laurent’s character were scarcely even mentioned in the American marketing for this film, so I was quite surprised when her subplot became the most compelling one in the film. Following the deaths of her family at the hands of the SS, Shosanna bides her time incognito as the owner of a Parisian cinema, and plots revenge. As I mentioned in my original review, Shosanna is a familiar character, seemingly drawn from the same well as The Bride from Kill Bill, but Laurent ably makes this character her own, combining a quietly sorrowful demeanor with an unflinching vendetta.

Shosanna is also part of an entirely one-sided “romantic” subplot with a German soldier (Daniel Bruhl)… While his advances aren’t terribly entertaining, her constant rebuffing is occasionally comedic, but mostly downright chilling (“I suggest you try Vichy”). There is also a remarkable scene between Laurent and Christoph Waltz, in which they sit in a Parisian restaurant and eat strudel. As Shosanna faces the SS Colonel, she manages to rein in her terror until he steps out, at which point she immediately starts hyperventilating. Laurent’s performance is ruthless – like so many others in this film – but also quite vulnerable. She brings just the right balance to keep Shosanna sympathetic, even as she commits atrocities on par with the very people she wants to kill. It is a fantastic performance to round out an almost entirely strong cast (I’m lookin at you, Eli Roth), and is certainly one of the most memorable this year.

#4: Zoë Saldaña – Neytiri, Avatar


Zoë Saldaña performance capture in "Avatar"

Zoë Saldaña in "Avatar"This is a performance I really have to take James Cameron’s word on. The various forays into CG characters over the past decade have definitely started to blur the line between animation and live-action, but they were still mostly in the realm of bodily motion capture, with complex facial expressions significantly enhanced in post-production by teams of skilled animators. But while Andy Serkis’ performances as Gollum in Lord of the Rings were not eligible for an acting Oscar, they were a leap forward from the likes of Jar Jar Binks, and Avatar is certainly the next such leap. According to Cameron, the characters in this film were created using performance capture techniques that recorded every nuance of the actor’s performance. Every tic of a facial muscle…every movement of the eyes… They were all made by the real actors. If this is really the case, it is entirely possible that future performances in this vein will be eligible for acting awards. And I would certainly hand one out to Zoë Saldaña.

Neytiri, the Na’vi princess, is just about the only sympathetic (or fully realized) character in this film, and Saldaña plays her with an some surprisingly animalistic ferocity (even baring her teeth and hissing a few times). While the visual spectacle of this film was enough to ensure that I was rapt with attention, it was with Saldaña’s character that I made the greatest emotional connection. She is almost certainly responsible for how well the romance played on-screen, and in light of the complex production process, achieving any believable chemistry could not have been an easy feat.

#3: Anna Kendrick – Natalie Keener, Up in the Air

Anna Kendrick in "Up in the Air"

From my original review:

Natalie is a fascinating character – the consummate young career gal, ruthless and cynical, but with a very human side, full of all the self-imposed deadlines and anxiety about her future that all twenty-somethings tend to have. Anna Kendrick, who I’d only seen previously in a small and ineffectual role in the Twilight films, gives a masterful performance as Natalie, and is surely one of the actresses I’ll be watching for in the future.

This is a performance that grew on me each time I saw the film. The interplay between Natalie and her colleague Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) is simply fantastic. Kendrick plays the character with both a fierce determination and a striking vulnerability, utterly immune to Ryan’s charms (and soundly mocking him for his rhetoric). As their road trip of job terminations goes on, it all becomes more and more personal for Natalie, and Kendrick’s performance completely brings this transformation to life.

#2: Charlotte Gainsbourg – She, Antichrist

Still for Lars von Trier's "Antichrist".

This is a haunting performance in a strange and thoroughly disturbing film. Charlotte Gainsbourg plays the unnamed wife of a couple grieving alone in the woods. Through this unsettling and bewildering performance, Gainsbourg effectively conveys how broken and terrified this character has become. The interplay with her husband (Willem Dafoe) effectively illustrates the disjointed and counterproductive state of their present relationship. Gainsbourg’s performance is utterly fearless, and she maintains it even as her character becomes a paragon of the film’s unrelenting misogyny (“A woman crying is a woman scheming…”). Frankly, I would have a hard time recommending this film to anyone, but if I did, it would be solely because of this performance, which is one of the most effective and frightening I’ve ever seen.

#1: Zooey Deschanel – Summer Finn, (500) Days of Summer

Zooey Deschanel in "500 Days of Summer"

From my original review:

Zooey Deschanel…steals this film. To put it bluntly, this is a character that the audience could easily have ended up despising. And while the character of Summer is mostly well-written, the characterization and non-linear progression of the story demand a great deal from Deschanel. And it is her performance that just manages to make the character sympathetic.

As Tom reflects on his relationship, many of his scenes with Summer are cast in a different light through subsequent flashbacks. On the second run through, the film’s editing calls attention to the slightest glance of the eyes, or twinge of the cheek muscles, or the most minor apathetic tone of voice… In each of these microexpressions, Deschanel’s performance is masterfully subtle. And throughout the film, she brings all the mystery, likeability, and sensuality that the character demands, but couples it with a subtle undertone of cold, mature pragmatism. She manages to force the audience through nearly the same process as Tom, despite our advantages of an outside perspective and sardonic narrator to keep us objective..

Honorable Mentions:

  • Ellen Page as Bliss Cavender in Whip It
  • Rachel Weisz as Penelope in The Brothers Bloom
  • Isabelle Fuhrman as Esther in Orphan
  • Emma Watson as Hermione Granger in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

Click here to see the rest of the 2009 Glennies.

Jason Reitman’s “Up in the Air” – A brilliant and timely character piece

Jason Reitman’s Up in the Air is the story of Ryan Bingham (George Clooney), a corporate road warrior who spends over 300 days a year flying around the country firing people for a living. He spends his life in airports and hotels, brandishing an impressive collection of Executive Gold Club Cards as he bounces from one bastion of transient hospitality to the next.

“When I swipe my card”, Ryan informs us in the opening voiceover, “the system prompts her to say…”
“Pleasure to see you again, Mr. Bingham!” the clerk cheerfully announces.

Ryan is clearly in love with the road, in spite of (or perhaps because of) all the temporary trappings that come with it. The film’s treatment of air travel falls somewhere between Catch Me If You Can and Fight Club, and Ryan meets no shortage of single-serving friends along the way. One of these is Alex (Vera Farmiga), an enigmatic career gal who is on the road as often as Ryan. They bond after a brief hotel fling, and resolve to meet up the next chance they get.

And yet, those chances may soon come to an end, as Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick), a brash, young coworker, proposes to slash the company’s travel budget and switch to firing people via videoconferencing. Facing the end of his life on the road, Ryan reluctantly agrees to take her along to show her the reality of his business. And that reality is a dubious one.

“Anyone who ever built an empire or changed the world has sat where you’re sitting,” intones Ryan as he fires a man named Steve (Zach Galifianakis, in a great cameo), “And it’s because they sat there that they were able to do it.”

This is a line we hear several times, and Clooney’s brilliant, tongue-in-cheek delivery leaves the audience constantly wondering whether or not he believes his own rhetoric. Indeed, his true motivation is one of the film’s central questions…

When Ryan isn’t passing out pinkslips, he makes appearances as a motivational speaker, advising people how to avoid connections in their lives. His message is clear – “moving is living”. He has a silver tongue, and would clearly say anything to convince Natalie why he should stay on the road. And yet as the film goes on, his firing scenes are peppered with what seem to be moments of genuine humanity. During one such scene, in which he fires a white-collar fifty-something named Bob (J.K. Simmons), Ryan gives a touching speech about what Bob needs to do in order to be admired by his kids.

And this may be the most provocative thing about Ryan. Whether or not he believes in his rhetoric, it has exactly the intended effect. Ryan has his own reasons for wanting to stay on the road (including a coveted number of frequent flier miles), but he constantly tries to impress upon Natalie how important and personal the moment of firing is. To hear him describe it, it sounds almost noble. They are the priests, administering the last rites to the doomed before they pass into oblivion, all the while assuring them that there is something bright and beautiful on the other side. “We are here to make limbo tolerable”, declares Ryan, and he is soundly mocked for it by Natalie.

The film constantly tries to have it both ways with Ryan. It is implied that he has had a multitude of one-night stands, and yet the very first one we see – Alex – is the one that might just turn serious. The film grants him semi-omniscient voiceovers that are equal parts self-aware and self-deprecating, but shies away from taking a position on whether he truly believes in what he’s doing. But somehow, Clooney’s performance just makes it all work. He plays with this ambiguity so well that the character is incredibly effective, especially in the interplay with his young colleague.

Still from Jason Reitman's "Up in the Air"

Natalie is a fascinating character – the consummate young career gal, ruthless and cynical, but with a very human side, full of all the self-imposed deadlines and anxiety about her future that all twenty-somethings tend to have. Anna Kendrick, who I’d only seen previously in a small and ineffectual role in the Twilight films, gives a masterful performance as Natalie, and is surely one of the actresses I’ll be watching for in the future.

It is only with the character of Alex that the film comes dangerously close to contrivance. She comes right out and tells Ryan to just think of her as “[himself], but with a vagina”, and assures him that she’s not a girl he needs to worry about. The character seems a bit facile at the beginning, but Vera Farmiga gives a fantastic performance. And as her relationship with Ryan develops, the character seems more and more plausible. And while it’s fairly easy to see where the story is going with this character, she does treat us to one of the film’s best scenes, in which Ryan and Alex share their views on love and marriage.

The script for Up in the Air, adapted by Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner from a novel by Walter Kirn, contains some of the richest dialogue and most effective scenes I’ve had the pleasure of seeing this year. The performances are also something to see. In addition to the three strong leads, Jason Bateman gives a impressive turn as Bingham’s boss – he’s a ruthless company shark with just a bit of a humorous streak to him, seemingly channeling Stephen Root in No Country for Old Men. It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen from Bateman, and I was quite impressed.

We also see dozens of people being fired in this film, and most of them were quite convincingly played by real people who’ve lost their jobs during the recession. The film even includes an end-credits song that was seemingly performed on spec on the director’s answering machine. This could easily have come off as pandering to an audience in economic turmoil, but it just lends so well to the relevance and immediacy of this film.

While Up in the Air bears a few similarities to Reitman’s last bit of corporate satire, Thank You For Smoking, it has a much more somber tone. It retains the same darkly comedic style (and presents another fantastic soundtrack) while covering a lot more ground. It takes a great number of risks, but stops just short of spreading its characters too thin. And it is one of the finest films I’ve seen this year.

FilmWonk rating: 9 out of 10