50/50. Usually, atypical urban settings in movies kind of bug me, coming across either like pandering or kitsch. But in 50/50 -- set in Seattle, filmed in British Columbia -- the oppressiveness of the perennially gray Pacific Northwest adds to the mood. Combined with excellent performances from a smart, understated script and a concise, muted visual style, that gauzy, enervating mood captures some of the mechanics of dealing with grown-up stuff. Like getting spinal cancer at 27, then finding out your girlfriend is lame, all the while dealing with a neurotic, overprotective mother who has to caretake a husband with Alzheimer's.
Maybe I'm racing too far ahead. Maybe it's because I feel like the grown-up stuff has been piling up in my life at an alarming rate in the last few years. And that terminal illness among my peer group is one thing I've mercifully been able to avoid. Maybe it's because Joseph Gordon-Levitt is so convincing and heartfelt as a young guy navigating a world that's rough and complex even without impending death in the mix.
Whatever the reason, this is the first movie in a long time that brought me to the verge of tears. And it came by it honestly, no less. I was ready to like 50/50, but the trailer made me expect a broader, self-referentially clever indie comedy take on the subject. Sure, those elements are in play, especially when Seth Rogen gets to do his thing as the freewheeling raunchy best friend. But the movie is grounded and real. Also, I like Anna Kendrick more every time I see her. She plays super-cute with remarkable depth. In doing so, she neatly embodies the tone of this movie. It could so easily have been saccharine and loathsome, but is instead touching, funny and honest. R. 100m. At the Broadway, Mill Creek and Minor.
THE GUARD. This film also avoids succumbing to genre convention, but a bit more narrowly. It is the story of slightly long-in-the-tooth Irish police sergeant Gerry Boyle (Brendon Gleeson), who wakes up one morning to find international drug traffickers at work in his sleepy suburb outside Galway. And the FBI is hot on their trail.
A couple of crucial elements save this from the gristmill of contemporary European caper cinema. The movie's attitude certainly helps, as it tends more toward comedy than self-important seriousness. And the abundant western Ireland local color rings true more than it feels forced. But most important are the tough, funny performances by a number of heavy hitters.
Gleeson plays it with a mix of melancholy, joy, restraint and exuberance. His Boyle comes off like a hybrid of Santa Claus and Harvey Keitel's Bad Lieutenant. He's equally genteel and at home visiting his ailing mother in a care facility, returning a weapons cache to the IRA, and being serviced by call girls in cop uniforms.
Clearly writer-director John Michael McDonagh (whose work shares something with his brother Martin's In Bruges) deserves credit for creating the character, but Gleeson brings him convincingly to life. Unfortunately, Don Cheadle can only do so much as FBI straight man Wendell Everett, who is written as a one-note American stereotype, despite some efforts to the contrary: He's from the Ivy League but talks street! His kids are named after Black Panthers! He wears a weird velvet suit!? Mark Strong is a standout, as usual, making his bad guy funny, jaded and bloodthirsty all at once.
Overall, The Guard is a cut above average for cops-and-criminals potboilers, but mainly because the actors do such a good job with the material. Without them, it would be another easily dismissed, if cleverly written, riff on an all-too-familiar theme. R. 96m. At the Minor.
WHAT'S YOUR NUMBER? That brings me tidily to this little exercise in futility. The notion of revisiting past lovers with the intention of potentially rekindling something is hardly new. But this time the protagonist is female, and the numbers are inflated. So this is an unnecessary retread. Basically, Ally Darling (Anna Faris) skims a magazine article asserting that women with more than 20 sexual partners are unlikely to find a mate. That, and the fact that she slept with the incessantly finger-sniffing boss who just fired her, are enough to make her change her wanton ways and try to re-bed one of the previous 19 losers and get him to marry her.
Before I get any further I should say this: I really like Anna Faris, but I have no idea why. Every time I watch her, she plays gross or dumb or insufferable in some other way. But I keep watching her movies. (I actually like Gregg Araki's Smiley Face, but she's still pretty hard to watch in that one.)
Moving on. Ally eventually enlists the aid of her similarly inclined neighbor, Colin Shea (Chris Evans, fresh off his infinitesimally less believable turn as Captain America) to track down the 19. They gradually realize they have more in common than they thought. Girl bangs boys, boy bangs girls, girl meets boy, girl leaves boy, girl re-meets other boy she banged before, "stop the wedding," etc.
This isn't a really bad movie, and I'm maybe being a little too snide. My wife enjoyed it quite a lot, particularly for the scenes Faris and Evans share. To me, it was a little scattered and unsexy for a movie about sex and love. R. 107m. At the Broadway, Mill Creek and Fortuna.
DREAM HOUSE. This would-be psychological thriller is also surrounded in a miasma of the unnecessary. Although Daniel Craig, Naomi Watts, Elias Koteas and Rachel Weisz are all excellent as usual, the dread and atmosphere necessary to make the story effective never materialize. And the twist upon which the whole movie turns comes too early and is too obvious and familiar.
Spoiler alert, such as it is: Just re-watch Shutter Island. Same twist (almost exactly), but in that case it's unexpected. Then re-watch Layer Cake and Cronenberg's Crash to get your Craig and Koteas fixes. R. 110m. At the Broadway, Mill Creek and Fortuna.
REAL STEEL. Giant boxing robots! Not much more to say about this one, really. Hugh Jackman stars as Charlie Kenton, a "coulda been a contenda" who's been pushed out of the ring by ... giant boxing robots! His estranged son convinces him to build his own contenda 'bot. PG13. 127m. At the Broadway, Mill Creek and Fortuna.
IDES OF MARCH. George Clooney directs, cowrites and stars in this political thriller, which follows an inspiring presidential candidate (Clooney) and an up-and-coming press secretary (Ryan Gosling) into the Ohio primary. What a cast! Philip Seymour Hoffman, Marisa Tomei, Paul Giamatti, Jeffrey Wright ... did I mention George Clooney? R. 101m. At the Broadway.
Not happy with the Coming Attractions Theatres selections? Here are some alternatives: Deaf Jam, a documentary about deaf New York teens discovering American Sign Language poetry, will be shown (free!) Thursday at 6 p.m. at the Morris Graves Museum of Art in Eureka. The Humboldt County Library's "Based on the Book" series returns with a month of Hitchcock. Tuesday night Michael Logan hosts the trippy 1958 classic Vertigo (free!) at 6:30 at the library's main Eureka branch. The Arcata Theatre Lounge has a full movie lineup, starting with Sci-Fi Pint and Pizza night this Thursday, a double-bill of House on Haunted Hill (1959) and The Amazing Mr. X (1948). Free (!) with $5 food or drink purchase. Doors at 6 p.m. Saturday night is Ocean Night. The monthly fundraiser's October edition features the documentary Water on the Table, the short film Journey of the Blob and the postapocalyptic surf flick Year 0000. $3 donation. Doors at 6:30 p.m. Sunday at ATL is Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (the 1971 Gene Wilder movie) at 6 p.m. Admission is $5. And finally, Tuesday night ATL hosts a fundraiser for the Environmental Protection Information Center (EPIC) with Patagonia Rising, a documentary that "brings voice to the frontier people caught in the crossfire of Chile's energy demands." Doors at 6:30 p.m. $10-$25 sliding scale, $5 with student ID.
ABDUCTION. Taylor Lautner's abs sure are toned. PG-13. 106m. At the Broadway, Mill Creek and Fortuna.
CONTAGION. Society is faced with a fast-moving, lethal, airborne epidemic. For Humboldt movie fans: It's kinda like Outbreak. Rated PG-13. 106m. At the Broadway and Garberville.
DRIVE. Stunt driver by day, getway driver by night, badass throughout. Rated R. 103m. At the Broadway and Mill Creek.
DOLPHIN TALE. True story of an injured dolphin saved by a prosthetic tail so that she could star in a ridiculously adorable movie. Rated PG. 113m. In 3D and 2D at the Broadway and Fortuna, 2D only at Mill Creek.
THE HELP. A racially diverse group of women form an unlikely friendship around a secret writing project in segregated 1960s Mississippi. Rated PG-13. 146m. At the Broadway and Minor.
KILLER ELITE. Jason Statham stars in a Jason Statham movie. Bang bang. Rated R. 116m. At the Broadway and Mill Creek.
THE LION KING 3-D. Simba, Pumbaa and Timon ... in 3D! Rated G. 89m. At the Broadway and Fortuna.
MONEYBALL. When assembling your baseball team, don't go with your gut. Rated PG-13. 133m. At the Broadway and Mill Creek
RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES. This is when it all went bad for us humans. Thanks a lot, James Franco. Rated PG-13. 110m. At the Broadway.