Moneyball, 50/50, Abduction, Killer Elite, Higher Ground 



The new comedy-drama 50/50 centers around a cancerous presence, and that refers to Seth Rogen as much as it does to the malignant tumor found located on the spine of young Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). Carve Rogen out of the picture, and its chances of being a truly moving picture about people coping in sickness and in health increase exponentially.

This is nothing personal about Rogen, who I generally enjoy watching - heck, I didn't even mind him bringing his slobbery man-boy act to the iconic role of the Green Hornet. But 50/50, inspired by scripter Will Reiser's own battle with cancer, doesn't need his services, which only get in the way of a potentially heart-rending story about how a 20-something who theoretically has his whole life ahead of him must cope with a tragedy that threatens to cheat him out of his future.

Gordon-Levitt delivers a sensitive portrayal as Adam, perpetually trying to get a grasp on emotions that understandably don't know where to go. Adam shares an interesting relationship with his therapist (Up in the Air Oscar nominee Anna Kendrick), a medical newbie who isn't quite certain how to comfort her patient. He has trouble with his girlfriend (Bryce Dallas Howard), who's mentally ill-equipped to deal with a partner who's now bald and barfing all over the place. He bonds with two older cancer patients (Matt Frewer and national treasure Philip Baker Hall) who take him under their wing. And he has difficulties communicating with his mother (Anjelica Huston), a drama queen who's already dealing with an Alzheimer's-afflicted husband (Serge Houde).

These are all intriguing relationships, but every time we become immersed in these particular character dynamics, along comes Rogen as Adam's unlikely best friend Kyle. Kyle clearly has Adam's back, and had Rogen, in his capacity as one of the film's producers, graciously allowed another actor to play the role, we might have had something special. But the film's delicate mood is broken anytime Kyle opens his mouth to talk about shaving his balls or getting laid or basically anything that trumpets his obnoxiousness. 50/50 is a good movie about 60 percent of the time, but a higher percentage would have been appreciated.



Like a businessman settling into his recliner after a hard day's work, Brad Pitt has slid into middle age with an ease that's both pleasurable and enviable to watch. Pitt's always been a fine actor, of course, but around the turn of the century, he's really upped his game, from his quirky turns in Snatch and Burn After Reading to his scene-stealing subterfuge in those Ocean's films to his thoughtful interpretations in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and The Tree of Life. (Go figure that my least favorite Pitt performance of late, as Benjamin Button, is the one that nabbed him an Oscar nomination.)

Moneyball, directed by Capote's Bennett Miller and adapted from a true story by the powerhouse team of Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network) and Steven Zaillian (Schindler's List), finds Pitt as his most dynamic; he's cast as Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane, who in 2001-2002 is tired of losing both games and star players to better funded baseball teams like the Yankees and the Red Sox. Refusing to continue adhering to the old-school philosophies preached by his assemblage of geriatric scouts, he instead discovers a newer religion being espoused by Peter (Johan Hill), an economics major from Yale who possesses a love for the game and a head for numbers-crunching.

Employing a math-based system (sabermetrics, created by Bill James) that finds the value in underappreciated players deemed as too old/awkward/iffy by other organizations, Beane starts collecting these diamond castoffs as if they were baseball cards in the hopes that they'll coalesce into a winning team.

Whether or not one subscribes to the "moneyball" philosophy - it's worked well for some teams, not so great for others - is irrelevant when it comes to enjoying a motion picture that takes a potentially arid subject and makes it sing on screen. Its success has less to do with Bennett, whose mise en scenes show little variance (a similar staidness also dogged Capote), than with the scripters and the actors, all of whom exhibit a quicksilver strategy in keeping this thing popping. Put this one in the W column.



Sure, it's easy to pick on the Twilight guy. Because who's gonna rush to his defense other than smitten Team Jacob fans?

Make no mistake about it: Abduction, in which Taylor Lautner is handed his first starring role in a motion picture, will never, ever, ever be mistaken for a good movie. But the declarations (from critics and Twilight bashers alike) that it's the worst picture of the year strike me as armchair grandstanding - hey, it may star a wooden werewolf, but at least it's thankfully free of any zoo animals who talk like Sylvester Stallone and Adam Sandler.

John Singleton, whose Boyz N The Hood remains continents removed from most of his subsequent work, slides further into irrelevance with a Junior G-Men-type tale that features a stellar supporting cast, some decent action sequences, and a leading man who reacts to every dire situation as if he's just been asked to clean his room. Lautner plays Nathan, a high school kid who has Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) for a psychiatrist and Lucius Malfoy (Jason Isaacs) and the Coyote Ugly bar owner (Mario Bello) for parents.

When he and his classmate Karen (Lily Collins, whose performance is about as monotonous as most of daddy Phil's music) embark on a school assignment that inexplicably leads them to do research on a missing persons web page, they discover an old photo of a little boy who looks like a pre-Taylor Lautner Taylor Lautner. IMs are swapped, Euro-trash baddies arrive to blow up the house, and suddenly Nathan and Karen find themselves on the run.

As these crazy kids try to discover why Nathan is being pursued by grown men who are clearly not Stephenie Meyer devotees, they must also decide whether or not to trust Doctor Octopus (Alfred Molina), the CIA agent assigned to the case.

Fifteen years later, I still fondly recall the priceless Siskel & Ebert moment when Roger Ebert dismisses the action flick Fled by stating, "I guess it sort of holds your attention while it's happening. I mean, something is moving on the screen, so you look to see what it is." (To which a laughing Gene Siskel retorts, "What a compliment!") Abduction inspires the same level of commitment: You look at the screen mainly because it beats staring at the auditorium walls.



Killer Elite is basically what The Expendables 2 would look like if everyone except Jason Statham decided to bail on the project. A fussy action film that's heavy on the firepower and the testosterone but short on anything resembling complexity or wit, this stars Statham as Danny, a former assassin whose mentor (Robert De Niro) is being held captive by a Middle Eastern sheik. The wealthy ruler wants Danny to avenge the deaths of his three sons by taking out the overzealous British operatives responsible for their grisly slayings; Danny is forced to accept the assignment to save his friend's life, and he's thereafter pursued by a maverick British agent named Spike (Clive Owen).

I don't know which is more risible: Owen's mustache, which would have been the envy of any 70s-era porn star, or the fact that someone as tough and charismatic as Owen could possibly be saddled with the name Spike. At any rate, anyone hoping for an intriguing game of cat-and-mouse between Statham and Owen - on the order of, say, Harrison Ford and Tommy Lee Jones in The Fugitive or De Niro and Al Pacino in Heat - will soon realize that their skirmishes, both mentally and physically, can't even match the feud between Tom and Jerry - or Punch and Judy, for that matter.

As for De Niro, he has long stopped mattering as an actor, merely content to collect paychecks with the same frenzy as Pac-Man eating all those dots. Having said that, his presence here is welcome, not only for providing the picture with its most most humane moments but also by keeping him too busy to make another damn Fockers sequel.



Based on the memoir by Carolyn S. Briggs (with the author sharing screenplay duties with Tim Metcalfe), Higher Ground is an honest and probing look at Christianity, a stance that makes it an anomaly in an industry that tends to paint all members of the faith as little more than Bible-thumping rednecks.

Up in the Air Oscar nominee Vera Farmiga, here also making her directorial debut, plays Corinne Walker, part of a close-knit Protestant sect that also includes her husband Ethan (Joshua Leonard) and her best friend Annika (Dagmara Dominczyk). As a young child, Corinne listened to her minister when he insisted that she accept Jesus Christ into her heart, but as an adult, she has occasional doubts that aren't being addressed.

She envies those around her who truly seem gripped by a holy spirit. She bristles when subtly reminded that it's the men who lead their group and that when she expresses her opinions, it sounds too much like she's "preaching." And she witnesses a tragedy that leaves her wondering just exactly how the result could be the will of God.

While the film gently pokes fun at the community members' occasional close-mindedness or outright naivety - one amusing scene finds the men dumbfoundedly listening to a cassette on how to pleasure their wives as God would desire - it never patronizes its characters nor paints them as one-dimensional foils (you would never see these people picketing soldiers' funerals). Instead, it chooses to show how their brand of automatic yet sincere acceptance might be what they need but isn't necessarily right for Corinne, who longs for a comfort she can't quite grasp, as if it were a blanket that's fallen just out of reach off a bed.

Higher Ground grapples with weighty issues in a mature and pensive manner, reinstating a measure of faith in the way Hollywood's disciples are willing to tackle this thorny subject.




More by Matt Brunson

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  • Review: The Accountant
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    Smart movies tend to avoid offering obvious patterns, imbecilic narrative coincidences, and imploding third acts. Unfortunately, The Accountant isn’t that smart.
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