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When Seth Rogen’s friend Will Reiser got a rare form of cancer at age 24, they bolstered their courage by imagining a movie that would be true to their experience.  The movies they knew about people with cancer had characters who were (1) older, (2) transformed into saintliness and transcendence and reconciliation, and (3) by the end of the movie — dead.  Reiser barely knew how to live as an independent adult.  While his contemporaries were worried about dating and figuring out their careers, he was forced to deal with dire, literally life and death decisions.

Resier recovered and wrote this screenplay and Rogen co-produced and played the character based on himself.  The result is a movie that captures the surreal nature of being seriously ill, the way you feel as though you appear to be on this planet but in reality you are living somewhere else, Planet Cancer, and the “normal” life around you is at the same time disconcerting and reassuring.  But this is also a movie filled with hope, and humor, and inspiration.  No one is transformed into saintliness or transcendence but there are lessons learned, losses borne, and hurdles overcome.

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The superb Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Adam, a 27-year-old who works for NPR.  We first see him on an early morning run, stopping at a red light even though there are no cars around for miles.  This is a guy who follows the rules.  And then what he thinks is a backache turns out to be a rare form of cancer, a tumor on his spine, which his doctor describes as “quite fascinating.”  He is still in the early stages of a relationship with Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard), an artist.  “I have a drawer?  We’re getting so domestic.”

Rachael means well and even likes the idea of herself as a loyal girlfriend, but she also feels trapped by Adam’s illness.  Adam’s mother (Anjelica Houston) wants to help, but that threatens Adam’s still-fragile sense of independence.  Adam meets with a young grief counselor (Anna Kendrick as Katherine) who is just as new to counseling as he is to grieving.

Kyle (Rogen) is immature and squeamish, but it turns out that he is braver than he or Adam knew.  What he lacks in judgment and tact he makes up for in heart and candor.  When he hears that Adam’s odds are 50/50, he looks on the bright side with a metaphor drawn from his own priorities: “If you were a casino game, you’d have the best odds!” And then there’s priority number one — Kyle assures Adam that cancer is a real chick magnet.

I don’t know whether that which does not defeat you makes you stronger.  But that which does not defeat you does show you how strong you are, and how strong your relationships are, too.  Reiser’s insightful script and Gordon-Levitt’s sensitive performance make this one of the year’s most satisfying films.

 

Producer/writer/actress Mindy Kaling of “The Office” has a great piece in the New Yorker about women characters in movies.

[W]hat I’d really like to write is a romantic comedy. This is my favorite kind of movie. I feel almost embarrassed revealing this, because the genre has been so degraded in the past twenty years that saying you like romantic comedies is essentially an admission of mild stupidity. But that has not stopped me from enjoying them.

I like watching people fall in love onscreen so much that I can suspend my disbelief in the contrived situations that occur only in the heightened world of romantic comedies. I have come to enjoy the moment when the male lead, say, slips and falls right on top of the expensive wedding cake. I actually feel robbed when the female lead’s dress doesn’t get torn open at a baseball game while the JumboTron camera is on her. I regard romantic comedies as a subgenre of sci-fi, in which the world operates according to different rules than my regular human world. For me, there is no difference between Ripley from “Alien” and any Katherine Heigl character. They are equally implausible. They’re all participating in a similar level of fakey razzle-dazzle, and I enjoy every second of it.

Kaling describes some of the outlandish categories assigned to women characters from the clumsy klutz (“When a beautiful actress is cast in a movie, executives rack their brains to find some kind of flaw in the character she plays that will still allow her to be palatable. She can’t be overweight or not perfect-looking, because who would pay to see that? A female who is not one hundred per cent perfect-looking in every way? You might as well film a dead squid decaying on a beach somewhere for two hours.  So they make her a Klutz.”) to the ethereal weirdo, the career-obsessed no-fun girl, the skinny beautiful woman who eats all the time, the “mother” of the young actor who is only a few years older than he is (Jessie Royce Landis was actually the same age as Cary Grant when she played his mother in “North by Northwest”), and the girl who works in an art gallery because “It’s in the same realm as kindergarten teacher or children’s-book illustrator in terms of accessibility: guys don’t really get it, but it is likable and nonthreatening.”

Read the piece to see what the guy-equivalent of art gallery worker is and why it is just as unrealistic.

Brothers Adam and Mark Kassen co-produced and co-directed “Puncture,” the true story of an idealistic but drug-addicted young lawyer from Houston who took on the mammoth pharmaceutical  companies on behalf of a quirky inventor who came up with a simple and inexpensive new life-saving technology to prevent health care workers from being infected by used syringes.  Because the big companies did not own the retractable syringe technology, they would lose revenues, so they fought to keep it out of hospitals.  Chris Evans (“Captain America”) plays Mike Weiss, the young lawyer, and in addition to co-producing and co-directing, Mark Kassen plays his law partner Paul Danziger.  The cast also includes Jesse L. Martin (“Law & Order, ” “Rent”), Michael Biehn (“Terminator”), and Kate Burton (“Law & Order”).

I spoke to Adam and Mark about the movie and about why so many successful Hollywood teams are brothers.

This is such a powerful story.  What message do you want this movie to carry about the role of corporations in healthcare?

Mark: Adam and I are focused primarily on the movie’s mission and the more it can get out there we hope it will connect to a larger conversation.

Adam:  We’re not investigative reporters.  This is a film, not a documentary.  It is entertainment.  But we hope that it has a larger message.  We hope people will watch it as entertainment and then start a conversation afterwards.

There’s kind of a connection between your flawed hero, who is addicted to drugs, and the industry he takes on, which is addicted to money and power.

Mark: That’s a cool analogy.  It’s an addiction to money, an extra $40 billion that gives nothing back to the industry, growing itself at any cost.  And a drug addict will get high at any cost.  It’s a more fertile ground to an already-burgeoning problem.

Adam: These group purchasing organizations run by the health care industry started out with good intentions.  It was a more streamlined way to get the products to hospitals at the best price.  But that became, like almost everything else in the health care industry, guided by the profit motive.  It turned into the opposite, squeezing out products that doctors want and nurses want, but because of politics, money, and corporations they cannot get them.

You assembled a remarkable cast.  

Mark: Adam’s been trying to get me for a long time.  I had my mom do the negotiation.

Adam: He had so many demands, a big trailer…

Mark: Adam agreed to give me the part if I finally told him he was right.  [Laughs]  Well, first and foremost, we had to get the right actor to play Mike.  We were introduced to Chris Evans by a mutual agent.  We had seen “Sunshine,” the Danny Boyle film, which he was great in.  And whatever he was in, he is always great.  We wanted somebody for that role who would have a sense of tragedy but not self-indulgent but dynamic, charismatic, exciting.

Adam: Like the real guy was.  Chris is this multi-layered actor and he knocked it out of the park.  We cast around him with really great actors.  Jesse L. Martin is a good friend of ours and did it to help us out and because he was excited about the material.  Kate Burton (who plays the Senator) came down for a day.

Mark: There are upsides and downsides to making a small movie like this.  Once we got Chris, we that means you have just this much money to get the movie made.  So, people say, “this guy plays a second lead on that TV show, so he’s worth this much money,” and we didn’t do that.  With our casting directors, we were able to get just good actors, the best we could.  Brett Cullen is actually from Houston.  The last scene in the movie, the camera shoots out the window, you can see the Cullen building.  In Houston we got so many great local actors.  We were surprised by how many people we could get from the area.

For a lawyer who appears in court, Mike was a very flamboyant dresser.

Adam: We talked to so many people who knew Mike, opposing counsel, judges, people he went to high school with and one of the most consistent through-lines beside his brilliance was the way he dressed, where he had them tailored, where he bought them.  There were all these stories about his suspenders and wild colored shirts and how he thought he was the Man!

It’s surprising how many brother teams there are in Hollywood today — the Coens, the Farrellys, the Wachowskis.  What is it about the brother relationship that works in film-making?

Adam: We’re used to being around each other.

Mark: In all honesty, if making a film is all about communication, you’re used to being able to communicate with each other on an intimate level and that gives you a good start.

Adam: There’s a lot of debate and conversation and exploration involved, in a good way, with the actors, the editors, the DP.   Being brothers, we’ve been debating for a long time, and if you are friends as brothers that means you have done it successfully.  Being on a film set is stressful at times, but no more stressful than doing the dishes together after dinner with your parents.  You’re used to debating in that high-stress environment.  And you know each other so well.  You recognize that look that’s been making you angry since you were 10 years old that someone else might not notice.  But it’s over very quickly as well, so arguments don’t resonate.  We have similar creative sensibilities and that really helps.  And we have that basic level of trust.