Archive for the ‘movies’ Category

Cable TV has never been a priority for me. I’m hopelessly old school and cheap when it comes to paying for entertainment. I believe this has been a source of some disappointment to my children, but we’ve never paid extra for TV channels. Actually, we do have a basic cable deal that we pay for, but it’s because we have no choice. We live in a community with an owners’ association, and everyone here is required to sign up for the community cable deal. One hundred-plus channels are available to us, and at any given time about one-hundred-plus channels are completely useless to me.

So if there’s a pay-cable series worth watching, I usually wait for it to come out on DVD, and then I wait for the county library system to get a copy. Cheap, cheap, cheap. It’s rare that I care enough about a series to pay for it.

I’ve been meaning to review a couple of cable TV series for oh, about a year now. I guess it’s time. Then I’ll get back to writing sentimental memories that will put me back on the search engine lists for stuff I never meant to be associated with. (Really? I’m now the go-to guy for Tina the Ballerina fans? Who’d have guessed? Or worse, people looking for info about permacaths are directed to my complainy post about getting one for Provenge treatments. Oh well. I hope they’re not too annoyed.)

Today’s topics: cancer, and comedy.

You know, when your life and future get blasted by a cancer diagnosis, and you’re reeling from this impossible turn in your destiny, you’re hit with all kinds of emotions. Usually within a few minutes’ time, you can careen from panic to fear to hopelessness and anger, then cycle through who-knows-what-else before you know what hit you. As you start trying to make sense of it all, it’s a relief to find anyone who understands. You get to the angry stage, and it helps to find angry people. You want to be able to laugh about it, so you look for humor.

But cancer as comedy? Not so easy to pull off. Yes, I do need to laugh. Absolutely. I want to find ways to communicate the experience to others. And I know that I can’t begrudge anyone else’s need to express their experience through comedy. Still, you need to know that I’m a grouch, a man of a melancholy disposition, and I do not want anyone to try to convince me that happy thoughts and humor are the way through my valley-of-the-shadow-of-death experience. Especially if they’re making a career out of it.

However, comedy is a personal thing. I get that. What works for you may not work for me. And your openness to joking will likely vary depending on whether you’re in the lows of chemo or some other treatment, or in the highs of just getting good test results and feeling like maybe, just a little, you can laugh about it.

In the last two years there have been two attempts at cancer comedy, a cable series and a movie. I’m puzzled: Why is this the time for cancer comedy? What does this say about the perception of cancer in American society?

Let’s start with the movie:   50/50 opened nationally in September 2011. I heard that it was a thoughtful comedy about a young man with cancer and how people close to him reacted to his diagnosis. At least that’s what I gathered from reviews. I really did want to see this one, but, oh, I was busy dealing with CHEMO and didn’t have the energy. How’s that for irony?

50/50 just came out on DVD, and I now have the energy to give it a look. Will Reiser, the writer/producer who created the movie with Seth Rogen, went through treatment for neurofibrosarcoma a few years ago and is in remission. In interviews, he’s spoken about wanting to make a movie about the cancer experience, specifically about how strange and funny the experience can be.

So, with Rogen on board, it’s not surprising that 50/50 is a young-guy-cancer-comedy, “from the guys who brought you Superbad” (as the film’s web site boasts). Sure, but is it really “consistently uproariously funny”? (Come on, who writes this promotional stuff, anyway?) Well, at least give them credit for bringing young men into the arena of cancer cinema, which is typically a woman’s world.

To clarify that description, 50/50 is a movie about young single adult men who don’t have emotional depth, but who find themselves in a situation that calls for it. I was generally disappointed with the movie. I don’t recall any part of it being “uproariously funny” — in fact, the laugh-out-loud parts are all in the trailer, if that’s any indication. There is a fair share of gentle humor; the movie is actually quite reserved where it could have played many scenes more broadly. And then there’s Rogen’s character, Kyle, who is so out of his element but blusters through scenes doing what any clueless young guy would do: be self-absorbed, get drunk, and try to pick up chicks.

The problem I had with 50/50 is how the main character, Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), seems to be part of a different movie than his buddy. The further he gets into treatment, the more he glides along in his own little world, blank, drawn inward, and oddly passive. This may be one way to show the sense of isolation that cancer survivors feel, even when surrounded by friends and family. This disconnection is a key theme, but the script and direction treat it both too subtly and (in Kyle’s case) clumsily.

My biggest reservation is Rogen’s character. I freely admit that I’ve never seen any of his movies, and I hear he plays Kyle as the same character that he’s done in virtually every movie he’s been in. Maybe it’s a generational thing (am I too old for his brand of guy humor?). More likely, it’s the explicitly vulgar stuff that keeps spewing out of his mouth, starting within about 30 seconds of his first appearance. I realize that his character was drawn this way to contrast with the obsessive, quiet, almost saintly Adam, but Kyle just became a weight dragging down the movie for me. There were plenty of opportunities to explore Adam’s experience that were left out, and too often Kyle’s overbearing presence neutralizes whatever meaning is developing in Adam’s reactions. And when there’s a subtle moment at the end where we’re offered a bit of redemption in Kyle’s role, I didn’t find it convincing.

However, I’ll repeat my earlier disclaimer: comedy is a personal thing. I suppose some people will find Rogen’s character hilarious; I didn’t. I do credit the writer for getting into some meaningful subjects, and keeping the story generally believable (the biggest lapse being a lose-your-license ethical violation on the part of a certain mental health provider). I liked Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s performance, although his passivity didn’t quite lead up to the big payoff that was obviously intended toward the end of the movie. The director kept the movie light and short, but some connection between Adam’s character and the rest of the movie is missing. On the whole, you have a deeply personal, quiet character sharing the screen with an absurdly obnoxious friend, and the resulting comedy never quite comes together for me.

On to cable-cancer-comedy: The Big C, a Showtime series starring Laura Linney as a crazy, funny, weird, out-of-control suburban mom with melanoma. The series has finished two seasons and will continue with at least a third, but due to Showtime’s no-internet-viewing policy, I’ve only seen the first season on DVD. And I’m very undecided at this point if anything about the show, other than Linney’s acting, makes it worth a recommendation.

The show’s creator, Darlene Hunt, credits the series producer with saying “It’s time for a cancer comedy.” Why, I don’t know. Could this be some weird homage to a show like Breaking Bad, where a high school teacher’s cancer diagnosis is the catalyst for what turns out to be an epic drug lord tragedy? In The Big C, we have  as the show’s premise that a formerly bland suburban mom suddenly turns into a wacky free spirit after her cancer diagnosis. And we are invited to share in the gleeful chaos as she starts acting really strange. Sadly, I’m not sure there will be any epic outcome to the series, at least not on the strengths of the first season.

Unfortunately, season 1 dragged on in an increasingly unbelievable stand-off: Linney’s character tells no one of her diagnosis, except the prickly old lady across the street, whose dog senses the truth. The situations in each episode became more and more unlikely, the whole thing feeling like a wishful hallucination, until the last couple of episodes. Then things got real, and the story could move on. It had the look of a series stuck in its own writing trap: “OK, we’ve got 13 episodes, and we have to hold off on Cathy telling anyone until the last two. So, what do you think—let’s introduce the characters and come up with some insane storylines to fill up the middle 10 episodes.” Didn’t quite work for me, but I know that some people loved it.

I’ve seen a little of season 2, and there may be hope. Maybe the relationships and Cathy’s sense of self will finally start developing into something believable. Maybe the humor will start to feel more natural and less contrived. Maybe, just maybe, I’ll stop being annoyed at the shallow social comedy and gratuitous sex, for the questionable side plots and less-than-believable characters. All these distractions, the R-rated candy sprinkles tossed onto these cable TV cupcakes, just annoy me. The depiction of oncology providers is fast and loose (sorry, but Cathy’s relationship with her young doctor is absurd). Too many characters play a single stereotype or a one-joke role. Too many situations have the feel of a real cancer story with the kind of smart talk that we all wish we had said at the time. What I find discouraging is that the stretch for comedy crowds out the real-emotion moments that make the series worthwhile. And there are, in the end, a few real moments that make me wish for more depth and less comedy.

C’mon, writers and producers, are you really wasting Laura Linney’s winsome performance with this … cancer comedy? The result is a series that feels fragmented, unsure of itself. It’s comedy, but it’s not comedy about cancer: it’s comedy about a woman who sees the world through a radically different filter, one in which mortality is looming. The series tosses out comedy as a distraction but can’t find its own soul in the process. (And yes, all this is subject to revision when I see season 2.)

What really gets me curious is whether there’s another producer quote that was never made public: “Hey, did you see that crazy Canadian series about a woman with breast cancer who turns into a brilliant reality-show star? We should do something like that.” There are no obvious connections between Terminal City and The Big C, but I can’t help wondering if there was something in the first series that sparked the second.

To rewind a little, Terminal City was a 10-episode series broadcast in Canada in 2005 (more recently picked up on the Sundance channel). It’s a satire of media producers, reality TV, and the transgressive extremes producers with no ethical boundaries will go to.  All this centers on a most human story—a woman is diagnosed with breast cancer—as the poker chip they’re all betting with. Within the restraint of only ten episodes, the show was forced to be quick, tough, and beautiful all at once, and it’s a moving, painful, even funny look at what a cancer diagnosis does to a family.

Maria del Mar is stunning as Katie Sampson, the woman pushed into the harsh lights of reality television who pushes back and becomes a media sensation as her life falls apart. There’s a strong interaction between del Mar and Gil Bellows as Katie’s husband Ari: even though they’re both set adrift by the cancer and seem to be flailing in their individual circles, they are the center of the story and are both riveting.

While it’s imperfect, the series plays with many ideas and characters in a very compelling way. Their three children have their own story and characterization that is both realistic and extreme. Some of the side stories are unlikely exercises in gratuitous sex and irrational violence. (So, in Canada, can you really depict underage sex so explicitly?)  The series feels rushed and incomplete toward the end. But it has a rich, dark comedy at its base that lifts it above some of the less believable twists.

The tricky thing with this series is that the crossover between media satire and the structure of the series is a trap: are we being manipulated by this story as we watch the characters and producers manipulate their audience? Is the poetic, edgy, beautiful side of this show just a mirror of the over-the-top show producers who are pushing every boundary they encounter as they try to capture the attention of a young, hip audience?

I liked the series. I really liked del Mar and Bellows, and I was drawn in by the unexpected poetry that would spill out in odd places. There are many moments where the camera lingers on images, allowing a mood to develop with no talky explanations or obvious connections to the story.

And there are many hit-and-run moments where you’re left wondering what just happened. How about this exchange, as Katie and her perplexed, jumpy co-host Jimmy, toss around a quick series of  free associations on Katie’s live broadcast, which is cleverly (?) titled No Show:

Katie: Jimmy Crib, my sidekick. A man who terrifies network executives because he doesn’t like to watch TV.

Jimmy: I like to touch. [reaches out to touch the desk microphone]

Katie: Yes, you do. [laughing]

Jimmy: [falls off the chair, gets up] I can walk.

Katie: Hey—Dr. Strangelove…

Jimmy: Breathe in the air.

Katie: Roger Waters, Pink Floyd… Taking Care of Business.

Jimmy: Greatest rock-n-roll song ever written.

Katie: Really?

Jimmy: It’s post-modern, it’s self-referential.

Katie: Jimmy Crib, you’re on fire!  Cancer.

[Jimmy pauses. Long silence.]

Jimmy: [sigh] An orchid. A white orchid.

[Another long silence. Jimmy wiggles his hands around.]

Katie: And we’ll be right back. Man, I even say it like a pro, don’t I, Jimmy?

Jimmy, the baffled blank slate to Katie’s beautiful No Show persona, delivers a central theme for the series, tossed out in a random moment. Cancer isn’t anything but the fragility of life, put in a container, waiting for us to interact with it. Is that ever-present potted orchid a symbol of Katie’s strength and beauty, or her fragile fear of cancer? Is it a defiant reminder of life in the face of stress and the threat of death? Is it just a beautiful image being used to lull us into watching a manipulative show that uses a human life for its own gains?

Whatever. I won’t try to answer that one. But I do recommend the series. With all its absurdities it captures a luminous view of life, love, and death that doesn’t fade easily.


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To honor the creepy Halloween season, a short film that is touching and disturbing. If you don’t like corpses, don’t watch it.

The dense forest surrounding Mt. Fuji in Japan is the country’s most popular site for suicides. A man with a gentle voice, wearing white gloves, monitors the trails and comments on the motives and methods of the suicidal people who find their way in and sometimes out of the forest.

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An unfortunate trend with cancer movies is that no one makes movies about people being cured. They hardly even bring the idea of remission into the picture. Admittedly I don’t have a vast knowledge of cinematic history, so I may be unaware of movies about healing from cancer. I think this is unfortunate because there are beautiful experiences all the time with people who are cured or have substantial remission after treatment. In fact, from my experience it is more common for people with cancer to survive for months or years on various treatments, outliving the initial prognosis. The big question is not how you die, but how you live during that period of grace.

Is it possible for screenwriters to make use of the cancer experience in any other way than to manipulate audiences? In some cases, yes. There are painfully realistic movies about cancer (I’ll get to those another time), and then there are thoughtful movies that show the reactions of people living with a terminal illness. Two favorites are a fairly well-known big studio film, One True Thing, and a little-known indie film, My Life Without Me.

Both films explore stories in which the cancer patient has to choose how to sort out family conflict, personal needs, and a terminal diagnosis. What appeals to me in particular is that the characters’ choices don’t seem logical or predictable in these movies. If I’ve learned anything from my cancer friends, it’s that the choices we make rarely fit the expectations of the people around us. They often seem counter-intuitive. But there’s a certain logic to our choices. In both of these movies the characters are absolutely true to life in their cancer experience. If I’m not mistaken, both story writers have personal experience with a close family member’s cancer, so it makes sense that they get the emotional side right.

One True Thing has a powerhouse cast at the core of the story: William Hurt, Meryl Streep, and a young Renée Zellweger. Streep is radiant in her pain, maybe a little too radiant at times to be realistic, but I like how she maintains a core commitment to her own happiness no matter what is going on around her. She balances the vulnerability that comes with failing health and the need to make something out of the time she has left. As with many of her roles, she becomes the cancer survivor we all wish we could be.

The plot centers around family relationships that are threatened during the wife/mother’s terminal illness. Zellweger, as the adult daughter who is asked to return home to care for her mother, is caught in the middle of her parents’ separate choices. While Streep’s character is sweet with a subtle depth that becomes apparent toward the end, and Hurt is in the thankless position of playing the overly intellectual spouse of questionable integrity, Zellweger is given the task of mediating between the two, trying to find her own sense of integrity while still respecting both her parents’ choices. The movie beautifully shows how family members dealing with a loved one’s terminal illness don’t make consistent choices, or logical ones. They don’t know how to react to all the uncertainty and grief and loss and unfinished business.

As the movie progresses we see how the relationship between Hurt and Streep has been strained on different levels. There’s the obvious issue of dealing with the illness, but more powerful for me is the need to resolve lifelong issues that may otherwise have been kept under the surface. You can see the pain driving them away from each other, and you see them grieving individually. It seems very true to life that their fear nearly overwhelms them while they can hardly communicate with each other. In the middle of this pain, their daughter struggles to either help or understand.

In the ending of the film, the characters resolve a question that was hinted at in the opening scenes and then largely ignored until the end. That need to find a common answer to a mystery seems to parallel the many questions that cancer survivors and loved ones try to resolve as they deal with an unpredictable disease. Why do cancer survivors make the choices they do? And why do their families react in such unpredictable ways? How do you make sense of the experience? And how can you find resolution in relationships that have been stretched to the breaking point?

A smaller scale movie, My Life Without Me, asks a similar question about the central character. This independent film is directed by Isabelle Coixet, who has made several movies with a similarly narrow focus and questioning attitude. Our main character, Ann, is a very young mother of two who lives in a trailer in her mother’s backyard, working a late shift as a janitor and trying to juggle childrearing duties with her unemployed husband.

When she feels ill and goes to a hospital, she waits for hours, only to finally be told that she has an incurable cancer. While the details of this diagnosis are a bit vague, if you can withhold judgment on that scene, her story unfolds beautifully. I like the quirky doctor who delivers the news and becomes her accomplice, because he’s definitely not a stereotypical cancer doc. He is unusually empathetic, which of course I like too. And he says what you wish every doctor in the world had the good sense to tell their patients up front: “Medicine has terrible limitations.”

The story is a sort of anti-Bucket List: Ann makes a short list of things she has regretted in life and decides to do what she can in the short time she has left. And most surprisingly, she chooses to tell no one of her diagnosis. (Again, you’ll need to withhold judgment on whether that would be possible.) On the surface that seems absurd, but the story (based on a story by Nanci Kincaid) is a unique character study of people who are not particularly sympathetic or even likeable. Still, the movie mines all the nuances of this woman’s choices in a way that struck me as very believable.

Possibly more than any film I’ve seen, the characterization of Ann leads to a believable cancer story. When I first saw the film, I paused the DVD and wrote down snippets of dialogue (and some voiceover monologues by the main character) that spoke clearly to my own uncertainties and frustrations at the time. (A favorite quote: “Nobody ever thinks about death in a supermarket.” Trust me, it makes sense in the movie.) Some aspects of the movie don’t seem realistic, but if you let go of the details and follow the inner experience of the main character, you get a touching and surprising look at the reality of having your life shortened unexpectedly.

Another memorable quote says it all about a cancer diagnosis: “Alone. You’re alone. You’ve never been so alone in your whole life.” While the director takes some risks in making this movie, and throws in some odd details and interesting casting choices (a hairdresser obsessed with Milli Vanilli? Ann’s parents are played by Alfred Molina and Deborah Harry?), what she does admirably is capture that inner experience and the resolution that Ann chooses as she takes care of her unfinished business. Her choices are loving and generous, but selfish and illogical at the same time. The film comes together in a sad but loving way, and its great contribution is that it asks many questions of the viewer that are neither obvious nor easy.

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I’m no movie critic, but I’m becoming a connoisseur of cancer-themed movies, so it’s time for a series of reviews. Cancer is a mistreated topic in television and movies: it’s frequently distorted to fit the limitations of script-writing. Dramatic movie scripts don’t have room to show what it’s like to be diagnosed, go through treatment, wait for test results, experience periods of remission followed by recurrence—and still have time for anything else. Maybe you can do it justice in a documentary, a miniseries , or a full season of television, but not in a single movie.

Still, there are a handful of great movies about the cancer experience. Most focus on one aspect of serious illness or end-of-life issues while still remaining true to the unique experience of having cancer. If you’re lucky, they also have memorable, unique characters that are outside the Hollywood stereotypes. There are also great movies in which cancer plays a secondary role, movies that I think are worthwhile for giving cancer at least a prominent part in the script. And there are movies that misuse the cancer experience, turning it into a cliché, usually for sentimental effect.

My criteria for evaluating movies are based on the following themes:

  • The cancer experience: does it accurately portray what the actual experience of cancer is like?
  • Medical accuracy: is it true to the reality of medical treatment? or does it take shortcuts that run roughshod over medical facts?
  • Cancer as subject: is cancer a prominent part of the movie, or is it being used as a prop to move along a different story?
  • Grit vs. schmaltz: is the movie sentimental or painfully realistic?
  • Cliché count: Does the movie rely on clichéd, overused dialog, such as the old chestnut intoned by a somber physician: “I’m sorry, there’s nothing more we can do”?
  • Hope vs. despair: are you going to hate life or feel hopeful after seeing the movie?

There are better overall summaries of cancer in the movies, including two recommended essays: “The All-Cancer Film Festival” by Gary Sperling (Slate magazine, 2002), and “Reel Oncology: How Hollywood Films Portray Cancer” by Robert A. Clark, MD (Cancer Control journal, 1999). And intriguingly, there have been a couple of cancer-themed film festivals in the last few years, but I haven’t seen any of the films featured in them. While I don’t plan to review all the best-known cancer films, I’ll start with a couple of fairly well known movies to get things going.

Today’s big-screen smackdown: My Life, starring Michael Keaton and Nicole Kidman, versus Terms of Endearment, starring Shirley MacLaine and Debra Winger.

Terms of Endearment is one of the better-known films that use cancer as an important part of the plot. But it’s really a film about relationships: a mother and her daughter, playing out a crazy, manipulative life together as they move in and out of relationships with men. Late in the story, the daughter is diagnosed with terminal cancer, which leads to a certain level of resolution in the story. But she could have had any other illness or an accident to move the plot where it ends up; cancer is convenient because it takes a while for the patient to suffer and die–enough time to resolve the plot’s loose ends.

The movie has much to recommend, especially great performances by some great actors. But in Terms of Endearment, cancer’s just a word for “scary terminal illness.” (See also the old TV movie Brian’s Song or that 1970 gem, Love Story. Or don’t see them. Unless you need a good cry over a sentimental story.)

Wikipedia has a great quote from playwright Rebecca Gilman that summarizes why Terms of Endearment isn’t much of a cancer film—and why cancer is almost always abused by screenwriters:

Look at Terms of Endearment. We’re going along and going along, and there’s not really a plot. Then…oh, she gets cancer. You get it all the time when people don’t quite know what to do, and I think in those cases it is a shortcut to tragedy.

There really is no shortage of that kind of abuse in movies, so this is the first and last cancer-as-shorthand-for-scary-disease movie I’ll mention. I did want to bring it up because people still mention Terms of Endearment as a “cancer movie” when the topic comes up. But, no, it doesn’t make the cut for me.

So what do I recommend? How about another mainstream sort of film that made a meaningful statement about the cancer experience: My Life. Michael Keaton did this movie after his second Batman movie and before The Paper, while he was still a hot commodity (is it just me, or has anyone seen any of his movies after the mid-1990s?). This movie is notable for its blend of grit and sentimentality (heavier on the sentiment). It was typically reviewed with some disdain because of its focus on the emotional process that goes with a terminal diagnosis. Yes, it’s a major tearjerker, but Keaton does an admirable job of playing it straight and realistic. Nicole Kidman is a strong support as the wife who spends their last months together trying to find the real man instead of the superficial husband and public relations bigshot. And the writer (Bruce Joel Rubin) at least knew enough about cancer to mine some very real emotional truths while staying realistic.

The medical side of the story isn’t too detailed, but it’s accurate enough, and the dialog around the “there’s nothing more we can do for you” scene is handled gracefully (how many doctors are willing to say “medicine has some terrible limitations”?). What every cancer survivor cheers at is how Keaton handles the doctor’s recommendation to discontinue treatment. It’s so memorable to watch his face as he leaves the doctor’s office, then turns around in anger, barges into the clinic and confronts his physician. The key line, one of the best in my cancer film list, is: “You think you can take away my hope like that? Let me tell you something—that’s all I have!”

Although I’m not familiar enough with 1993-era medicine to know if the oncologist would really give up so soon after failing just one experimental treatment, I’m willing to overlook the medical brevity because of the emotional reality: you watch this man deal with the shock of a terminal diagnosis; you watch him battle with denying, disbelieving, and finally accepting that the cancer is terminal; and then you see him figure out how he wants to make the remainder of his life meaningful. Some reviewers were dismissive of the details, like his recording videos for his unborn son, but I think you can only dismiss that if you haven’t been touched closely by a similar experience.

Even with its somewhat golden, heavenly tone toward the end, My Life provides a strong sense of what it feels like to confront your own mortality. People with cancer do start out feeling invincible—they’re going to beat it! And sometimes they feel like giving up. And they do seek out weird alternative treatments when there’s nothing else available. They do things to ensure that their family has something to remember them by. And they hopefully make peace with the parts of their life that are unresolved. Go ahead, cry when you watch My Life. Bawl like a baby if you want. It gets the emotional reality just right, and it’s very much worth a look.

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