In this edition of the Film Round-Up: Joseph Gordon-Levitt's attempt to woo the multiplex, solid documentaries on a legendary Yiddish author and a high school band, and an apocalyptic love story for the art house crowd.
One of the nice things about "50/50" is to see Dallas Bryce Howard expertly play another bitch. She's finally found her niche, which is great because her work before "The Help" was less than impressive. You ever see her and Chris "Cardboard" Evans in "The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond"? Oof.
These reviews previously appeared in "ICON" and are reprinted with permission. (Thanks, Trina.)
Thunder Soul (Dir: Mark Landsman). In the 1970s, the Kashmere Stage Band was a phenomenon. Based in Houston's all-black Kashmere High School, the band annihilated its stodgy competitors with funky, pounding arrangements and nifty choreography. After dominating nationally with their groundbreaking content, the kids toured the world and even found listeners decades later, thanks to a popular retrospective album. Landsman's documentary covers band members from KSB's heyday—many of whom have not played their instruments since graduation day—reuniting to play a 2008 concert for their beloved leader and teacher, Conrad "Prof" Johnson. Undeniably upbeat and heartfelt film that shows the impact a good teacher can have on students, especially those who need a father figure. The music, of course, is fantastic. Only glaring flaw: With one or two exceptions, we don't know the members of the band and how their lives fared after their high school glory days. Jamie Foxx served as executive producer. [PG] ***1/2
50/50 (Dir: Jonathan Levine). Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogen, Anna Kendrick, Bryce Dallas Howard, Anjelica Huston, Philip Baker Hall. Adam (Gordon-Levitt), a seemingly healthy 27-year-old, is diagnosed with a nasty form of cancer that comes with a grim outlook: he only has a fifty percent chance of surviving. As the disease begins its onslaught and Adam undergoes treatment, his coarse best friend-wingman (Rogen, who also produced) stands by his side and a cute, practically novice therapist (Kendrick) navigates Adam through the rough patch. Like Judd Apatow's emerging catalogue of bromedies (Knocked Up, Funny People), Levine's effort embraces aspects of testosterone-driven comedy and legitimate, man-friendly drama, though not consistently; 50/50 never completely satisfies as a hearty comedy or as a raw character study. Still, it's a solid, entertaining look at young adulthood interrupted that features good performances from everyone, especially Huston as Adam's overprotective mom, and Kendrick (Up in the Air) as the young professional with strong feelings for her new client. The movie's writer, Will Reiser, is a cancer survivor. [R] ***
Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness (Dir: Joseph Dorman). Aleichem (1859-1916) is probably best known as the creator of Tevye, the lead character in the beloved musical, Fiddler on the Roof. In reality, Aleichem's stories about the Jewish milkman were less than cheerful. They reflected the changing status of Eastern European Jews who, at the end of the twentieth century, were struggling to find their way amidst pogroms and opportunities in the secular world. One interview subject in this illuminating, intelligent documentary puts it best: Aleichem taught Jews how to live in the modern world. Dorman effectively puts Aleichem's cultural significance into perspective. By writing his stories in Yiddish, Aleichem helped turn it into a credible language; his funeral was so massive that it introduced the Jews as an influential demographic in New York City politics. But what's more impressive—and touching—is how the director reveals Aleichem as a writer of the people. The author truly struggled (and coped) like his beloved characters. Other plusses: Terrific interviewees and Peter Riegert and Rachel Dratch offering sublime readings of Aleichem's work. [NR] ****
Bellflower (Dir: Evan Glodell). Starring: Evan Glodell, Jessie Wiseman, Tyler Dawson, Rebekah Brandes, Vincent Grashaw. Highly stylized, borderline incomprehensible drama follows Wisconsin natives and friends, Woodrow (Glodell) and Aiden (Dawson), who aspire to construct a flamethrower a la what they saw as kids in Mad Max. Everything changes when Woodrow falls hard for the wrong woman (Wiseman). That romance, of course, ends badly, causing the poor guy to succumb to a deadening pattern of alcohol and self-pity. Soon, a flamethrower isn't enough and Aiden and Woodrow's goofy intentions darken. Starts off as a quirky take on the Go West Young Man tale, with two nimrods trying to make it in the seedy, unglamorous side of Hollywood. But the plot takes a hard left into kinetic, jealousy-tinged nihilistic nonsense that abandons the characters and exhausts the audience's patience. There's a story in Bellflower. It's too bad that debut director-writer-editor-producer Glodell abandons it for sound, fury, and apocalyptic dream sequences. If Glodell relies on substance more than style, his future work will be worth watching. This one is not. [R] **