Take Shelter and 50/50

The end is near. Or is it?


Take Shelter

Curtis LaForche is having terrible dreams. Something awful is coming; he doesn't know what, exactly, but he can feel its gathering force. Looking out over the fields around his home in blue-collar Ohio, he sees huge thunder clouds piling up on the horizon. A thick greasy rain pours down out of the sky. But no one else sees these things. Is Curtis losing his mind?

Take Shelter is a dark mystery that remains dark and mysterious, and harrowing, right up to the end, when it knocks you sideways. It's a horror movie, of a sort, but the source of its horror is subterranean, hidden, and all the more frightening for that.

The film is mightily powered by a star performance, by Michael Shannon, that's a model of compact technical mastery. His Curtis is a man who has it all: a secure job as a crew chief for a mining company and the devotion of his stay-at-home wife, Samantha (the understandably ubiquitous Jessica Chastain), and their six-year-old, hearing-impaired daughter, Hannah (Tova Stewart). But his mounting fear of whatever it is that's bearing down on him and his world begins to derail his life; and as it spirals into obsession, Shannon, a virtuoso of grim instability, assembles a complex depiction of a man torn by love and fear and an especially tormenting doubt. (Curtis' mother succumbed to schizophrenia in her thirties; he is now 35.)

Although money is tight, and there may be big medical bills ahead if Hannah can get a cochlear-implant operation, Curtis takes out a large bank loan in order to fortify a backyard storm shelter and stock it with canned goods and gas masks. His wife and neighbors—especially his work buddy Dewart, played with nicely layered concern by Shea Wigham—are baffled by his increasingly irrational behavior. But this only turns Curtis ever more inward, and spurs his determination.       

The movie employs digital effects to swell its foreboding mood; but director Jeff Nichols, who also wrote the script, stays focused on the story's precarious human relationships. The blackening clouds, veined with lightning, and a wave of birds tacking frantically across the sky make Curtis' world—the one only he can see—a genuinely scary place. We feel his panic.

Toward the end, a faint light appears at the end of the dark tunnel Curtis is traversing. Even he can see it. But will he ever reach it?  


Showtime's The Big C has set a high bar for cancer comedy. The show's lead character, Cathy, played by Laura Linney, has been diagnosed with stage IV melanoma, a death sentence from which there seems to be no reprieve. But this gloomy fate is essentially only a linchpin, and it allows humor to prevail in Cathy's determination to start living what's left of her life to the fullest, and in the supporting characters' eccentric responses to her plight.

The new movie 50/50 negotiates a trickier dynamic. Here, a young Seattle radio producer named Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) goes to a doctor for back pain and is suddenly informed that he has cancer, at an advanced stage. He is naturally appalled: "I don't smoke, I don't drink. I recycle." But there's hope: Adam has a 50-50 chance of beating the disease. The doctor sends him into chemotherapy, where he meets two fellow patients, Mitch (Matt Frewer) and Alan (Philip Baker Hall) who are managing to mine some laughs from their situation. Meanwhile, Adam's loyal pal Kyle (Seth Rogen) attempts to boost his stricken friend's spirits by urging him to carry on and enjoy life, as if his affliction were a passing inconvenience. Then there's Adam's sleepover girlfriend, Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard), a painter of dreadful pictures; he gallantly offers her an easy out if she wants to bail, but she vows to stick by him. The last person Alan informs of his illness is his smothering mom, Diane (Anjelica Huston), who immediately wants to move in and tend to him—an alarming prospect. His father, Richard (Serge Houde), presents no problem: he has already halfway vanished into the fog of Alzheimer's.

The indeterminate nature of Alan's fate creates a gnawing unease in the film that's basically opposed to comic leavening. But writer Will Reiser and director Jonathan Levine make the story work. The movie has an inescapably autumnal quality, but it's funny throughout, thanks largely to Gordon-Levitt's carefully considered performance. His Adam never erupts into an inexplicable Hollywoodian optimism (except in a scene inventively keyed to the Bee Gees' "To Love Somebody"); but he never sinks into despair, either, even as he comes to accept that he is probably going to die. The actor's low-key, level-headed presence allows the rest of the cast to shine. Howard's flighty Rachael is more than a punching bag for the plot: Her shortcomings are recognizably human. And Rogen—who has squandered quite a bit of audience goodwill in films like The Green Hornet—is back at his best here, tossing off quips and sudden rants while maintaining a gentle emotional devotion. (After Rachael's antic withdrawal from the scene, Kyle takes Adam to a club and encourages him to try scoring with chicks. Adam's new access to medical marijuana proves most helpful in this undertaking.)

The movie really lights up whenever Anna Kendrick is on the screen. She plays a hospital counselor named Katherine, whose job is to help cancer patients confront what may be the end of their lives. Katherine is sweetly, stumblingly insecure (she's not even a doctor yet), and Kendrick's winningly squeaky appeal quickly has us rooting for her and Adam to form a romantic bond. But how would that work—especially as Adam is wheeled off for a risky, last-ditch operation from which he might not return? A lesser movie would wrap this story up with a tidy feel-good bow. But this one doesn't; not really. The uncertainty of Adam's predicament is never fully dispelled. The picture ends with a single perfect line, but it never really lets Adam, or us, off the hook.

Kurt Loder is a writer living in New York. His third book, a collection of film reviews called The Good, the Bad and the Godawful, will be out on November 8th from St. Martin's Press. Follow him on Twitter at kurt_loder.

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  1. The soon to be wife really wants to see 50/50... but now I really wanna see Take Shelter. That looks intense and amazingly shot.

    1. Hey Sudden, do yourself a favor and see them at the Edwards Anaheim Hills Cinemas. Tix are $5 all day Sundays. Also you can eat at Slater's 50/50 before the show! Perfect way to have an excellent Sunday.

      1. A bit of a drive coming from Thousand Oaks just for a movie or two, but I have been meaning to make it down that way sometime for a Disneyland trip (yes, I am a colossal dork) and a stop at The Bruery, so I might make a weekender out of it sometime soon.

        1. Yeah, these both sound pretty excellent.

  2. Really, there is just something about about the way Michael Shannon looks that screams "I'm a mentally disturbed individual!" I dislike his Boardwalk Empire character but I think he'll make a good General Zod in the new Superman movie.

    1. I dunno. The Stamp standard is almost Kryptonian in power.

      1. True, but then again people felt the same way about Jack Nicholson's Joker compared to what Heath Ledger could do. Stamp and Nicholson were the high points in what were otherwise poor films.

        Since Christopher Nolan is producing I'm hoping that this movie will be much better than the campy crap that was Superman II.

        1. It is quite remarkable how Heath Ledger put Jack Nicholson to shame with his interpretation of the Joker.

          1. Well, Jack was given a campy role; Heath was given a serious one. Nicholson was a hell of an actor back in the day.

            1. I sometimes feel that I'm alone in this, but Nicholson has never struck me as a particularly good actor insofar as he always appears to be the same character. Granted, I never saw Easy Rider and One Flew Over back in the day when they initially came out, so maybe I'm lacking some context and the ability to see how he developed, but he just strikes me in every role he does as something other than an actor. It seems to me as though he simply transforms the character he is portraying into Jack Nicholson rather than transforming Jack Nicholson into that character. But every movie of his that I can recall, his character always strikes me as the sarcastic wise ass with anger issues and impulse control problems. I just don't see immense range from him. As the typecast, he does it well because at the end of the day it's who he is, but it's never been anything that I consider particularly accomplished or praiseworthy.

              That, or my seething and blind-rage-inducing contempt for the Lakers as a L.A. resident has made it impossible for me to recognize anything of note he has done.

              1. Sure, it's the same character over and over, but that character is fucking Jack Nicholson.

              2. Did you see "About Schmidt"? That was Jack playing the opposite of himself, a quiet, mild-mannered old man. It was a really jarring, but brilliant performance.

                1. I agree with your premise, Sudden, but also A Serious Man's counterpoint.

                  1. Jack tended to take "Jack" roles, but not always. He was a pretty serious talent in his day.

                    1. Didn't anyone see Chinatown? I thought Jack was great in that one. So was John Houston if you are looking for the embodiment of evil.
                      More could be said but I am hardly a movie critic.

                    2. OK, that's another solid example.

        2. Tim Burton's Batman is a poor film?!? Really? What do you think of Tim's other films?

          Nicholson's performance in that was meant to be cartoonish; it's a fucking Tim Burton film, after all. Ledger's was not. Both are good to great performances of two different Jokers.

          1. Is there any conceivable way to un-cartoon Batman?

          2. Once you get past the art deco set design and Nicholson it's a pretty thin movie. The only good thing that came from it was the indisputably awesome Batman: The Animated Series. You see, that had the Gotham noirish look and actual character development.

            As for his other movies, I can't say I care for Burton. The only two movies he did that I enjoyed were Pee Wee's Big Adventure (that was right up his alley) and Sweeney Todd.

            1. I also liked 'Sleepy Hollow'.

              Robert, Nolan has done an impressive job of 'un-cartooning' Batman. Hell, so did 'Year One'.

            2. I liked Beetlejuice.

            3. As for his other movies, I can't say I care for Burton.

              I don't think I've ever seen a Burton movie I didn't like. Can't think of one, anyway.

  3. Still nothing on Machine Gun Preacher? Mega dissapoint.

  4. I'm the poor man's Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

    1. Didn't you play that retarded kid in Rookie of the Year?

      1. Top five greatest sports movie of all time? (I'm willing to drop to top ten)

        1. Is Rounders eligible or is poker not techinically a sport?

        2. Would a simple documentary recording of a sporting event, or portions thereof, qualify? I'd put in for the original Wide World of Sports show on the [bicycle] Race Across America. It was the first time I heard the theme music of Halloween.

        3. I guess This Sporting Life should rank.

      2. Oh, so you remember Rookie of the Year, but you fail to mention my great baseball flick, Angels in the Outfield?

        1. You didn't become genunely famous until you did The Lookout and 500 Days of Summer. It's one of those cases where you look back and say "Oh, so he did that first".

          1. Yeah. If it weren't for 500 Days of Summer, Manic and Inception, I'd still think of Joseph Gordon-Levitt as that kid from "3rd Rock From the Sun".

  5. Why does Michael Shannon so often play weirdos/nutters: Boardwalk Empire, The Runaways, Revolutionary Road, The Greatest...and that's just the movies I've seen and remember him.

    Looking at his IMDB, there's a bunch of other movies I've seen and don't remember him (or haven't seen) but I bet he played an oddball in many of those too.

  6. application to quality control in HIV screening test.

  7. Would a simple documentary recording of a sporting event, or portions thereof, qualify? I'd put in for the original Wide World of Sports show on the [bicycle] Race Across America. It was the first time I heard the theme music of Halloween

  8. Beedie-beedie-beedie-beedie. Goodnight.

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