REVIEW: Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

27 06 2015

Me and EarlOn its face, Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” amounts to a fairly simple calculation.  Jesse Andrews, adapting his own novel for the screen, takes the YA weepie “The Fault in Our Stars” and makes teen cancer more palatable by injecting a healthy dosage of hyper-mature, cinematically literate narration comparable to “Easy A.”

If someone asked me to quickly describe this movie, I would probably use some combination of the two movies listed above – and it would be a positive recommendation.  But, like any good movie, “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” is far more than just its sales pitch or just the sum of its influences.

For starters, the film features a vividly realized protagonist in Thomas Mann’s Greg Gaines.  I am still a little uneasy by the egocentric nature of the tale, especially given his interactions with Olivia Cooke’s Rachel Kushner, a classmate undergoing grueling treatment for leukemia.  But the more I reflect on the movie, the more I come to assume this was intended.  After all, “Me” does come first in the title.

Greg reminds me a lot of myself in high school, and I suspect anyone like me who takes the time to write out their thoughts about “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” will probably have some line to the same effect in their review.  He’s a droll, quick-witted teenage cinephile who would rather create and consume fabricated narratives than blaze one of his own.  Greg fashions himself as nothing more than a loser trying to quietly suffer beneath the cliques that dominate the high school hallways, though his detailed taxonomy of every social group demonstrates that he believes himself above them as well.

At first, I wondered why I had such a hard time connecting with Greg.  If he reminds me so much of myself, why should I not embrace this character with whom I so often nod in painful recognition?  Then, I made an important realization – maybe people like Greg (and, by extension, myself) are not the easiest to love.  Especially towards the end of the film, where I slowly stopped identifying with him, Greg begins drowning himself in a toxic combination of self-loathing and self-awareness.

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REVIEW: Escobar: Paradise Lost

26 06 2015

EscobarDespite what the title might imply, “Escobar: Paradise Lost” is not really a film about Colombian cocaine kingpin Pablo Escobar.  The name must have its roots in a marketing meeting because Benicio del Toro’s titular figure shows up about as often as Robert DeNiro’s Al Capone in “The Untouchables.”

For the uninitiated, writer/director Andrea di Stefano provides a little more information about the drug lord than season 3 of “Entourage” can give.  In lightly sketched detail, Escobar’s appeal to the dispossessed in his country becomes a little more clear.  Whether willfully or naively, the film implies most Colombians remained in the dark about his lucrative illegal enterprises but were not asking questions so long as the money kept flowing.

The true protagonist of “Escobar: Paradise Lost,” Josh Hutcherson’s Canadian surfer bro Nick Brady, encapsulates this journey from tentative acceptance to fearful resistance.  Nick falls in love with Escobar’s niece while working in the forests near the Colombian beaches, and he graciously accepts an offer to work on the family farm rather than face harassment from armed thugs.  He suspects something might be awry with his relative and employer but remains silent, to his ultimate detriment.

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F.I.L.M. of the Week (June 25, 2015)

25 06 2015

The ReturnI abide by many mantras, but one I use often in assessing and criticizing movies is, “Never judge a director by their debut film.”  In the case of Andrey Zvyagintsev, however, such would actually be acceptable.  His first feature, 2004’s “The Return,” shows a remarkable command of suspense and tone that results in a gripping experience.

To be clear, “The Return” is not my pick for the “F.I.L.M. of the Week” simply because I am grading Zvyagintsev on a curve.  Regardless of whether this were a director’s first or fifteenth film, I still would have been bowled over by its power.  But anyone who saw this on the festival circuit a decade ago should have easily been able to foresee Zvyagintsev’s Oscar nomination for “Leviathan” last year.

Unlike his film recognized by the Academy, however, “The Return” focuses smaller scale rather than on the state of the entire Russian nation.  Zvyagintsev primarily follows three characters over the course of the film: baby-faced Ivan, his older teen brother Andrei, and their estranged father Otets.  After a twelve year absence, the patriarch mysteriously returns home to command his old family, and he does so with an iron fist.

Tensions already run high between Ivan and Andrei, as shown by an opening scene where the eldest sibling allows a bully to heap masses of humiliation on his petrified brother.  Otets’ arrival simply lights the long fuse to the powder keg of familial tensions.  But Zvyagintsev refuses to let us see the full length, thus keeping us in stomach-clenched agony watching their male bonding trip slowly go south.  Animosity over his absence provides many a heated debate, as does Otets’ favoritism of Andrei and patronization towards Ivan.

The default reaction of the kids, in response to the feuding with their father, is to shut down entirely and offer nothing but a mopey, downcast frown.  Zvyagintsev never tries to psychoanalyze them in “The Return.”  He simply lets us see how each instance of frustration incrementally sets the wheels of chaos in motion.  From our distance, we can only watch in anger, helpless to stop what we know is coming.  Yet anyone paying attention will be hard-pressed to turn their eyes away…





Random Factoid #575

24 06 2015

I have a problem.

Whenever I take Advil to relieve a headache, sometimes I act like I am Cate Blanchett’s Jasmine from “Blue Jasmine” tossing back a Xanax by way of a Stoli martini with a twist of lemon.

Jasmine 1

I don’t think that being an alcoholic or a manic depressive is something worth imitating, to be clear.  But somehow, I think acting as put up and frustrated as Jasmine will drive away my headache.  Or maybe it provides me some comfort to think that my life is playing out like some kind of scripted tragedy, like there is some grander plan to all these headaches.

Jasmine 2

And generally, I imagine this song is playing behind me:

 





REVIEW: Terminator Salvation

23 06 2015

To get one thing straight, I adore the James Cameron “Terminator” films.  I have written a full essay on Sarah Connor’s femininity for class (if you’re interested in reading it, leave your email in the comments) and will gladly stop on whatever cable channel happens to exhibit the morphing metal men on any given weekend afternoon.

Yet as different directors, writers, and creative teams have dragged out the franchise, the movies lose what makes them special.  Sure, the time travel proves fascinating, but the human characters grappling with fate, agency, and responsibility set the series apart.  Fixating on the minutiae of revisionist timelines does little to capture the appeal of the original two films; this proves the primary sin of McG’s “Terminator Salvation.”

John Brancato and Michael Ferris’ script toys around with two pivotal characters in the mythology of the series: resistance leader John Connor (Christian Bale) and his father from the future, Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin).  John must continue to wage the war against the sentient Skynet system that aims to destroy humanity, although he must also ensure that Reese survives until the point when he goes back in time to inseminate Sarah Connor.  The mysterious arrival of cyborg Marcus (Sam Worthington) in the presence of Reese throws a wrinkle in everything and essentially constitutes the entire conflict of “Terminator Salvation.”

If you think this sounds like a movie made for only the most hardcore fanboys, you are correct.  Seemingly, the only aim of “Terminator Salvation” is to add even more wrinkles and potential plot holes to the scrambled clock of the series’ narrative.  If Cameron’s films were mind-involving blockbusters, McG’s movie is just a head-scratcher that cannot even fall back on visuals or performances to save it.  Bale and Worthington, the films dueling leads, each turn in work about as dull as McG’s color palette of muted gray.  They grow the franchise longer, sure, but not deeper or better.  C2stars





REVIEW: Good Kill

22 06 2015

Good KillUsually, we consider a film a success when its form matches its content.  In the case of Andrew Niccol’s “Good Kill,” though, the opposite is true.  The movie, which tackles the escalation of drone warfare in the Middle East, takes on the form of a droning screed itself.

It should have felt particularly damning that Niccol chose to make a film set in the present day, since his features – which include “Gattaca,” “The Truman Show,” and “In Time” – tend to take place in dystopian futures.  But rather than expanding the discourse around the U.S. military’s increasing reliance on unmanned aircraft to do its dirty work, he chooses to preach to the choir with surface-level platitudes.  The target audience for “Good Kill” probably knows the basic philosophical and existential arguments around drones, and Niccol does nothing to explore our complicity in their perpetuating existence.

He sets the film in 2010, the apotheosis of drone strikes in the Middle East, and follows the slow evolution of Ethan Hawke’s jaded Air Force pilot Thomas Egan against the increasingly unethical tasks assigned to him by the CIA.  Of course, he would not arrive at those conclusions without a spring chicken of a female pilot, Zoë Kravitz’s Vera, who does little other than spout off the film’s core message.  Vera is not a character so much as she is a personified Washington Post column.

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REVIEW: Dope

21 06 2015

DopeIf writer/director Rick Famuyiwa’s movie “Dope” were one of your friends at a party, he would be the friend that thinks himself invincible when letting any mind-altering substance enter his bloodstream.  This is the guy that thinks every jumbled fragment that leaves his mouth is divinely inspired and merits inclusion in some kind of philosophical toe.  He is the guy that makes dangerous decisions, assuming they are perfectly reasonable, and somehow convinces you to go along with them.

“Dope” tries to subvert racial stereotypes by having a drug dealer who knows what the phrase “a slippery slope” means (yet does not recognize it as a fallacy) and a main character, Shameik Moore’s dorky Malcolm, who prefers the artistry of ’90s hip-hop as opposed to the commercialism of present-day rappers.  The film attempts to be a coming-of-age story, a romance, a drama that grapples with race, a comic drug caper like “Pineapple Express,” and ultimately a heist film.

In other words, Famuyiwa attempts a lot and completes a little; what he does complete does not feel entirely convincing.

I can let a film that does mediocre humor slide – and with tired gags involving a floozy, coked-out heiress, “Dope” has quite a bit to spare. Not every con film needs to reach the heights of “American Hustle,” either.  But blowing what could have served as a vital discussion about racial identity at a time when America really needs to talk about thee issues just left a really bitter taste in my mouth.

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