Tag Archives: Joseph Gordon-Levitt

Character Growth

In April, I was invited to see a sneak preview of the upcoming film “50/50,” which concerns 27-year-old Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who’s fighting cancer, and Kyle (Seth Rogen), the pal who stands by him. It’s based on the true story of Will Reiser, writer, Rogen associate and cancer survivor. I felt like it was fine — sure, it killed a character off just after we got to like him, but by and large it played fair and found some laughs in an experience few of us could imagine. I was sure that, before the movie opened at the end of September, I’d have the chance to think about it more from my distant, abstract, wouldn’t-know-what-it’s-like perspective.

In May, I realized I didn’t like my doctor. So I got a new one. In June, my new doctor poked and prodded me and thought that my liver felt big, so he prescribed an ultrasound. I got one, eventually, on the 19th. And on the 22nd, I was called and asked to come in as soon as possible. My liver was fine, but there were “unusual changes” in my right kidney: a mass about 2 inches across. Which turned out to be cancer. And then, sympathizing with the characters of “50/50″ got much, much less abstract and the end of September felt a lot further away than it did before.

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Character Growth

In April, I was invited to see a sneak preview of the upcoming film “50/50,” which concerns 27-year-old Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who’s fighting cancer, and Kyle (Seth Rogen), the pal who stands by him. It’s based on the true story of Will Reiser, writer, Rogen associate and cancer survivor. I felt like it was fine — sure, it killed a character off just after we got to like him, but by and large it played fair and found some laughs in an experience few of us could imagine. I was sure that, before the movie opened at the end of September, I’d have the chance to think about it more from my distant, abstract, wouldn’t-know-what-it’s-like perspective.

In May, I realized I didn’t like my doctor. So I got a new one. In June, my new doctor poked and prodded me and thought that my liver felt big, so he prescribed an ultrasound. I got one, eventually, on the 19th. And on the 22nd, I was called and asked to come in as soon as possible. My liver was fine, but there were “unusual changes” in my right kidney: a mass about 2 inches across. Which turned out to be cancer. And then, sympathizing with the characters of “50/50″ got much, much less abstract and the end of September felt a lot further away than it did before.

If I were a doctor, I’d know all about cancer — its medical history, the fact its name is from the Latin for “crab” after the knurled, tough masses pulled from dead men, the fact that there are as many kinds of cancer as there are kinds of sandwiches or trees, the survival percentages calculated over five- and-10-year periods with surgery, chemotherapy and/or radiation. But I’m a film critic, and all I know about cancer is from the movies. This doesn’t sound so bad, but, then again, if you knew about sex only from the movies, and watched only ’80s films, you’d think people made love by lowering their faces toward each other in front of blue-lit Venetian blinds, at which point Tom Cruise just brushes Kelly McGillis’ chin and she explodes in pleasure. Since I know that isn’t the case — sorry, Ms. McGillis — I had to assume the movies weren’t that well-informed about cancer, either.

Diagnosis: Drama

Perhaps the greatest cinematic use of cancer is that it gives guys something they can cry about at the movies without feeling unmanly. In the movies, we’re taught that a real man can walk off any injury, illness or state of distress — see “Die Hard,” “Reservoir Dogs” or, for that matter, “The Last Temptation of Christ.” Therefore, feeling any sympathy for an injured, ill, or distressed man on-screen is, for guys, a big-time no-no.

Except for cancer.

You can’t man up to beat cancer, and you can’t beat it up or shrug it off — meaning that when it’s time to go, it’s time to go, thus making it a perfect dramatic device for when dudes need a trip to the waterworks. “Brian’s Song”? Big-time weepie, especially when James Caan gives that speech. “Magnolia“? Jason Robards reconciles with scumbag son Tom Cruise thanks to Philip Seymour Hoffman in a circle-of-life moment that will have even the hardest-hearted fool reaching for the Kleenex. Akira Kurosawa’s most emotionally moving film, “Ikiru,” is about a man facing a diagnosis of cancer that gives him less than a year to live — a year he intends to live to the fullest. “The Bucket List,” with Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman going through a list of fun things to do after busting out of the cancer ward, also makes guys cry — in many cases, though, because it’s just bad and boring.

If you want to put a bromance through some real bro-pocalypse, bring in the cancer. 

This is what “50/50″ does — with no small amount of success, modern humor and reefer smoke — and that level of drama is a pretty solid go-to for screenwriters and directors and actors. Of course, when an actor dies of cancer, they get up after someone says “Cut!” Those of us who have HMOs instead of directors aren’t that lucky. I myself would have loved to have whipped up some drama — and I did — about my diagnosis, but I was held back somewhat by my doctor’s insistence that there was a 10-15 percent chance it could be a cyst — in which case, I would be fine, just fine. Presumably this was either a) true or b) said to keep me from freaking out, but either way, it kind of sapped the movie-learned melodrama from my diagnosis. Wasn’t all this supposed to make me like Debra Winger in “Terms of Endearment”: calmer, wiser, more loving, with better hair? I thought, “If I have cancer, that’s awards-season stuff the academy loves, baby; if I have a cyst, that’s not even a Lifetime movie.”

Body Horror and Bawdy Humor

And now that I think about it, keeping me from freaking out was probably a major goal of my medical team. The idea of something growing inside your body, beyond your control, is the sort of thing David Cronenberg makes movies about. “The Fly,” “Shivers,” “Rabid” — a lot of Cronenberg films feature rogue, or new, or misbehaving organs. (Cronenberg himself has stated that “The Fly” was his way of processing his thoughts on aging and death.) I don’t know if I could have asked  and, frankly, I didn’t want to — but the medical team never offered to show me anything from their tests, like the ultrasound, the CT scans, any of the graphic imaging of the mass.

Good thing, too, I should say, because I’ve seen “How to Get Ahead in Advertising” and “Alien” and “The Manitou” and plenty of other films that show lumps and bumps and bulges manifesting themselves as horrible creatures. My doctors keeping the actual image of the mass away from me was fine, as the movies give us all overactive imaginations. Although, it’s probably no coincidence that a film I returned to during all of this was John Carpenter’s “The Thing” from 1982, with its invading alien composed of nothing more than fluid, shifting, hostile cells, each one with dark purpose, each one independent — and really, I can’t think of a better definition of cancer than that. But I didn’t have to get chemo or radiation — it wasn’t an option for my kind of tumor — so I didn’t have my body changed; I just knew it was changing, and that was odd enough. 

Of course, there are also films that mine cancer for comedy — usually the bleaker and blacker the better. “Fight Club“‘s time among cancer support groups has a comedic edge as finely honed as the blade of a scalpel. From the get-go, with Edward Norton as a quizzical poseur looking for emotional relief in cancer support groups, it savages the language and group-think of the modern age. The Kids in the Hall’s scabrous flop comedy “Brain Candy” mocked the way the media makes cancer into an industry with “survivors” as products through Bruce McCulloch‘s turn as a character named, yes, Cancer Boy. Denys Arcand’s “The Barbarian Invasions” shows the friends and family of a cancer victim coming together to say goodbye, only to realize the patient is not going gentle into that good night, or even the following day. And in “The Royal Tenenbaums,” Royal (Gene Hackman) claims to have stomach cancer to stay with his family in order to reconnect with them, but is exposed as the lowest of the low for his callous deception. There were some laughs in my circumstance — when I was told I had to have a complete kidneyectomy, a friend suggested that was a great heavy metal band name — but not a lot. And nothing as good as Ed Norton between Meat Loaf’s breasts or the Kids in the Hall.

Going Out Swinging

Plenty of movies use cancer specifically as a nice, fat, phony-baloney ticking clock to make sure a character only has so much time before performing some essential task. It’s also useful for giving characters an out — an escape hatch where, since they’re dying, they can do whatever they want, and whatever the movie needs. In “Gran Torino,”Clint Eastwood‘s Walt is clearly dying from lung cancer — at one point coughing up blood like Camille — and, thus, when he goes on a multicultural killing spree later, we’re supposed to think “Better to go out in a blaze of glory, full of fire, than go out on a bed, full of tubes.” John Wayne, in “The Shootist,” also has cancer — at least he has Jimmy Stewart to tell him, which I’m sure was a comfort — and decides to spend his last remaining days cutting other people’s remaining days short. Wayne, of course, would himself later die of cancer, possibly sped along by his time on the set of the 1956 release “The Conqueror,” where the producers’ two biggest bad ideas were a) hiring John Wayne to play Genghis Khan and b) shooting near what used to be nuclear test sites. (People magazine disclosed in 1980 that 91 of the 220 cast and crew members had developed cancer in the intervening 24 years — not including extras, or studio workers exposed when the production shipped the radioactive dirt back home for matching shots.

In the original, 1960 version of “Ocean’s Eleven,” Richard Conte confronts a doctor about a diagnosis with one of the most jarringly try-to-be-cool lines ever uttered: “What is it, Doc — is it the Big Casino?” The film never makes it clear what it is Conte dies of exactly — Is it cancer or a heart attack? — but for my money, there’s never been a better euphemism for cancer than “the Big Casino,” and Conte’s knowledge that death is coming is a big part of the film’s finale. Same for “Space Cowboys,” where Tommy Lee Jones’ aging astronaut has some bad news (“What is a pancreas, anyhow? I mean, I don’t know what the damn thing does for you, besides give you cancer.”) that he turns into good deeds. In the absence of such firm and frightening news — and a casino to heist, or a space shuttle to fly alongside Clint Eastwood — I couldn’t take advantage of that movie tradition, either.

Happy Endings

On July 25, just over a month after it was found, doctors at Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles removed my right kidney and the mass inside it. My chest X-rays and CT scans were clear, meaning no cancer had migrated — metastasized — to other parts of my body. I went home. I watched movies. I took painkillers. I wondered why the one did not improve the other. I felt horrible. Then I felt better. And a week after my surgery, at the follow-up, my physician told me with German thoughtfulness that they had examined the mass, and, yes, it was malignant. And apparently gone. “While we do not like to say ‘never,’ because of the way mathematics and the universe work,” he explained, “this is something you should not have to worry about ever again.” In a few months, I’ll get a blood test; a few months after that, a CT scan. And I’ll always wait and wonder if my own little cancer movie is going to get a sequel, some story meeting ticking away in my cells and body to write an unexpected new chapter. Probably something else will kill me — a truck, a killer clown, an Adam Sandler film that really does burst a blood vessel in my head.

Until then, I think I’ll do things I like, including — especially — watching movies. And if anyone ever tells me they have cancer and asks if there are any good movies to watch, I’ll say that movies are a diversion, not a diagnostic tool; they’re entertainment, not education; they’re therapeutic, not therapy. And then I’ll tell them the most important thing the movies about cancer taught me about life — namely that, really, watching “The Bucket List” is a waste of time no matter how much of it you have.

From my article at The Hitlist

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The Next A-List

http://entertainment.msn.com/beacon/editorial12.aspx?icid=MOVIES2&GT1=MOVIES2&ptid=809c338b-9c96-415d-8582-92a643ccb892.

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Joseph Gordon-Levitt Rocks Out With Hesher

In the festival breakout hit “Hesher,” Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays the title character, a strip-mall Rasputin with long hair, amateur tattoos and a trail of chaos, cigarette smoke and heavy metal in his wake. Hesher winds up becoming part of the life of a young boy (Devin Brochu) and his father (Rainn Wilson), both dealing with a tragic loss, as Hesher becomes a force for change — for good and for ill.

Speaking with Gordon-Levitt in Beverly Hills, I asked him how much anthropological research he got into Hesher’s heavy-metal mindset. “It’s funny, because on the one hand, you talk about an anthropological study of the stereotypical hesher” — slang for “heavy metal obsessive” — “but actually, I don’t think this character has that much to do with that stereotype,” he said. “I think on the surface he’s easy to reduce to that, and I think he likes it that way. To me, that’s not what the character was about. I wasn’t interested in embodying a stereotype. I wanted him to be unexpected; I wanted him to be a surprise. I grew up listening to Metallica, so that didn’t take any extra research.” ‘Hesher’ Trailer

A big part of the performance is the sheer physicality of it: wordless glares and movements. I asked Gordon-Levitt about playing those. “I always love moments without words. I love words, too. I guess I like them both,” he said. “A character like this where you can accomplish, you can communicate the story without having to speak — that’s cinematic. One of the things that movies can sometimes do that other mediums can’t do as well. We wanted him to come off a little magical, perhaps. At the same time, I knew the filmmaking would accomplish that. I made it my duty to make sure he stayed a grounded human being and not feel like you were watching a symbol or a stereotype, but that you were watching a unique, individual person. I think it’s that dichotomy that keeps it interesting.”

In keeping with the film’s world — and based on Gordon-Levitt’s admission of his own metal past — I asked him to name the top three heavy metal albums of all time. “‘Kill ‘Em All,’ ‘Ride the Lightning,’ ‘Master of Puppets,'” he said. Really? An all-Metallica top three? Gordon-Levitt smiled: “They’re called Metallica. You asked for heavy metal albums.”

With “Hesher” filmed before “Inception” — and with Gordon-Levitt just signed to take a role in “The Dark Knight Rises” — I asked if this was the kind of career he was hoping to have: moving between big- and smaller-budget films. “To me, it’s less about budget and more about the material, the filmmaker, the intention, and the passion and love for telling stories,” he said. “Whether that happens in a big-budget movie or a small-budget movie is less important to me.” If need be, Gordon-Levitt will take the smaller trailer or the less expensive lunch? “I’ve done movies without any of that, any of those amenities. That’s not what I do it for,” he said. Finally, I asked Gordon-Levitt if he had the ultimate metalhead automotive accessory. He laughed and shook his head: “No, I do not have a tape deck in my car.”

From my article at The Rundown

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South by Southwest and the Best of the Fest — So Far

With the South by Southwest Film Festival only four days old at this writing, there are still plenty of buzzy films screening, from surprisingly insightful show-business documentaries to blood-curdling strangeness. Here are a few highlights, with more to come.

“Kill List”: New from director Ben Wheatley of “Down Terrace,” “Kill List” is one of those rare films where if anyone tries to tell you more than adjectives, just punch them. Full of surprises — and an incredible sense of dread — “Kill List” starts as an ex-soldier takes a freelance contract that’s highly illegal and that leads to terrifying consequences. I can’t compare “Kill List” to other films for fear of giving things away, but I can tell you it left me scared, wound-up and deeply impressed. “Kill List” was picked up for distribution by IFC Midnight — just like “Monsters” was in Austin last year — so you’ll have a chance to see it for yourself.

“Attack the Block”: The directing debut of British comedian Joe Cornish, “Attack the Block” is a hybrid of old-school ’80s B-movie sci-fi and mid-’90s gangster film, as space aliens fall from the sky … just over a rough-and-tumble inner-city London housing project. Can the local hoodie-wearing toughs band together to not just survive, but repel the invasion? And can Cornish balance tension and laughs? (Uh, yes and yes.) A brisk blast of energy, “Attack the Block” is speedy, slick and strong — and Cornish is a talent to watch.

Hesher“: The script, with Rainn Wilson and Devin Brochu as a father and a son in mourning after a death, has some problems — but Joseph Gordon-Levitt‘s performance as the long-haired metalhead who may offer ruin or rebirth (or both) is a thing of wonder. Ratty, feral, scary and funny, his work as a parking-lot Rasputin with charisma and chaos to burn is a real piece of brilliant acting that represents one of Gordon-Levitt’s best performances in years.

“Bellflower”: A Sundance buzz film, and rightly so. A weird mix of John Hughes and “Mad Max,” “Bellflower” is the story of a love gone wrong and two friends who dream of the end of the world — and might be one of the most strong and stylish critiques of the idiocy and confusion in young manhood since “Fight Club.” Handmade and heartfelt, “Bellflower” is intense and darkly gorgeous, with the sunburned intensity of a high-summer fever dream.

Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop”: Chronicling O’Brien’s multi-city Legally Prohibited From Being Funny on Television tour in the wake of his leaving “The Tonight Show,” this doc does have great jokes and great music (like O’Brien and Jack White singing “Twenty Flight Rock”) — but it’s also a portrait of an entertainer turning an 80-20 mix of anger and sadness into work and play. O’Brien doesn’t always come off so well in the film — which is another reason to appreciate it.

From my article at The Rundown

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The Rundown at MSN Movies: Inception and The Sorceror's Apprentice

“Perhaps the trickiest thing “Inception” has done in its pre-release is maintaining more than a little mystery about the film, with fragmented trailers and an enigmatic hint of restraint. I asked Ellen Page if maintaining mystery about the film made doing press for the film problematic. Page, whose air somewhat suggests she would rather give a shark a dental cleaning than do press interviews, actually spoke with joy about what “Inception”‘s hush-hush atmosphere meant for her as an actress and audience member: “No, I love not talking about it. I love going into movies where I don’t know. I love the approach that Christopher Nolan takes. And the secrecy, it doesn’t feel that secret to me, it’s just … don’t put the script online, so that when you go see it, it’s going to be this magical, engaging, immersive, surprising experience. I mean, I know for one that’s what I love, so, I love being able to be like ‘Sorry, can’t talk about it.'”

Co-star Joseph Gordon-Levitt was of the same mind when I asked him about loose lips sinking cinema: “When I know that there’s a movie coming out soon that I really want to see, that’s coming out soon, I avoid the trailer, I avoid reading anything about it …I just want to see it as the filmmaker intended.”

As opposed, I ask, to our age of information overload? Gordon-Levitt digressed charmingly: “Well, I mean, the thing about our age of information is that you can choose what you do and don’t see. It’s not like broadcast 20th century media — you can curate your own content. You don’t have to read the reviews, you don’t have to see the trailer if you don’t want to; if you want to, you can.”

At the press conference for “Inception,” Nolan spoke about the worry that secrecy and quiet would become a kind of hype in and of themselves: “Well, it’s certainly difficult to balance marketing a film and putting it out there to everybody with wanting to keep it fresh for the audience. My most enjoyable movie going experiences have always been going to a movie theater, sitting there and the lights go down and a film comes on the screen that you don’t know everything about, and you don’t know every plot turn and every character movement that’s going to happen. I want to be surprised and entertained by a movie, so that’s what we’re trying to do for the audience. Obviously, we also have to sell the film; it’s a balance that I think Warner’s is striking very well. I suppose that at a point, keeping something secret does lend itself to its own degree of hype — but I don’t really think of it as secrecy. I just think of it as an appropriate … you know, we invite the audience to come and see it based on some of the imagery and some of the plot ideas and the premise, but we don’t want to give everything away. I think too much is given away too often in movie marketing today.”

– from The Rundown, July 14 2010


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