ME AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL (2015)
Because there are so many sophomoric depictions of teenage life in Hollywood movies, when a film tones down its stereotypes and the story offers a sliver of reality, critics (and, often, audiences) act as if they’ve found the Holy Grail.
The most recent critical darling spotlights gloomy, disaffected senior Greg Gaines (Thomas Mann, looking his age—25), who thinks he’s figured out the way to navigate through high school trouble-free—he’s befriended all the important cliques while become part of none.
His thing—every teen has a thing—is creating clever shorts parodying famous movies (and their titles) with his co-worker (as he calls him) Earl Jackson (RJ Cyler), another rather unfriendly outsider. Their films include “A Sockwork Orange,” “My Dinner With Andre the Giant” and “Senior Citizen Cane”; you get the idea. But they seem especially taken by German director Werner Herzog. I would have happily seen a film focused on their creative efforts.
But, instead, Greg’s life changes when his offensively clueless parents force him to “hang out” with a classmate who has just learned she has cancer. Rachel (Olivia Cooke) hardly wants Greg’s pity, but she finds his honesty and disregard for convention amusing.
As much as I enjoyed the lovely shots of Pittsburgh’s narrow brick streets lined with 1930s houses and the oddball movie shorts (half live action, half stop-motion), the characters and situations were as cliché as any other high school drama: sick girl, gifted loner with a best friend of another ethnicity (Earl is black), parents trying and failing miserably to be cool, a lunchroom that resembles a prison yard, and a teacher who thinks he’s in showbiz.
Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, who has directed episodes of “Glee” and “American Horror Story” and served as a second-unit director on high-profile films, seems more interested in creating a showy calling card than telling an authentic story. Though, I think Jesse Andrews’ screenplay adaptation of his own novel brings on much of the film’s problems—it plays as if it’s a first draft.
Why do screenwriters insistence upon turning teens (especially boys) into mumbling, incoherent dullards who are barely capable of carrying on a simple conversation. Sure, in class they barely mutter a word, but once outside the doors most students are unstoppable chatterboxes. And Hollywood really needs a moratorium on these embarrassingly trite, one-time hippie parents—most parents of current teenagers grew up in the 1980s.
I’m probably being too harsh on this small, independent picture—exactly the kind of film I root for amid the franchise crap that fills screens all summer—but it should have been so much better. It isn’t half as good as 2012’s Pittsburgh-set high school film, “The Perks of Being a Wallflower.”
One of Greg’s anxieties is his reluctance to take on anything that he’s not sure will turn out exactly as he wants, an obviously stifling attitude. But I wish the filmmakers would have followed that bad advice and maybe worked on “Me and Earl” just a little longer. Believe me, their character never would have released this film.
LATE SPRING (1949)
I haven’t seen many Yasujirô Ozu films—about a half dozen—but with each one I find more to admire about his deceptively simple filmmaking style. He somehow resisted the flashy camera work, obtuse angles and intense, flamboyant acting that pervaded his era (his most acclaimed films came between1947 to 1962).
Of his films I’ve seen, probably 80 percent of screen time is devoted to variations of a single shot: two or more family members sitting on mats across the small, traditional Japanese table, eating, drinking and, most importantly, talking.
Few filmmakers (or any storyteller) have understood the subtle dynamics of familial relations and the manner that these emotions resonate throughout our lives better than Ozu. Even given the cultural differences, as Ozu made no effort, unlike his directing contemporary Akira Kurosawa, to cater to Western audiences, his insight into the human heart, the choices we make, the unintentional crimes we commit, is revelatory.
The simple plot of “Late Spring” follows the conflict between a widowed father (Chishû Ryû, who appear in nearly every Ozu film) and his daughter (Setsuko Hara) who cares for him. She’s determined to keep things as they are and remain unmarried, devoting her life to his care. Yet he wants nothing more than to see her happily married.
As always, there’s the persistent aunt who’s on the lookout for potential mates, but the father-daughter relationship remains Ozu’s focus.
The film also serves as a poignant metaphor for Japan’s acceptance of Western society following its defeat in World War II. There are constant references to America: Coca-cola signs, a suitor who looks like Gary Cooper, even the professor’s research involves German-American economist Friedrich List (maybe the only time my last name has been referenced in a movie).
This pristine picture, which ranked in the most recent Sight and Sound list as the fifteenth greatest film (his “Tokyo Story” was third), is a perfect starting point for anyone who is unfamiliar with this master’s works.
As an aside, “Late Spring” was movie number 7,000 that I’ve seen since I started cataloguing my viewing in 1978. It wasn’t by coincidence, as I waited to watch something special for this personal milestone; I had received the DVD package (which also includes a documentary on Ozu by Wim Wenders) as a present from one of my students.
I accumulated most of the 7,000 (I don’t count repeat viewings) during the 1980s when I regularly saw close to 300 films a year. At my current rate, I’ll probably be 70 before I hit 8,000. But I must confess that I enjoyed No. 6999—“Chrome and Hot Leather,” a campy 1971 Vietnam vet-biker movie with (believe it or not) Marvin Gaye—almost as much as Ozu’s masterpiece. From the ridiculous to the sublime; I guess that’s what keeps me watching.
INSIDE OUT (2015)
As those of you who have been reading my reviews for awhile know, I stopped fully appreciating feature animation about the time the first computer was plugged in. I wouldn’t trade one episode of “Rocky & Bullwinkle” for the entire works of Pixar. And I inevitably find in the 22 minutes of “The Simpsons” or “King of the Hill” more insight, inventiveness and clever writing than any of these three-years-in-the-making, multimillion dollar projects can muster.
That said, I loved the idea of Pixar’s ambitious new film “Inside Out,” as it attempts to animate the internal struggles of a young girl facing her first hardship of life.
The film introduces Riley at birth, along with her anthropomorphic emotions—Joy, Fear, Anger, Disgust and Sadness—that hold forth in the “headquarters” of her brain. It’s all very amusing as the emotions engage in friendly battles (a modern “Seven Dwarfs”) as Riley goes through the usual ride of childhood. The little girl and her parents are portrayed like a real, if cliché, modern family, yet I have never been able to care about Pixar’s human characters; they all look like inanimate plastic baby dolls.
Joy (voiced by Amy Poehler) runs this operation (and dominates the film), which clearly signals the movie’s outlook on life—it is for kids, after all—but that proved to be a problem for this adult. When Riley’s life is upended by a move from Minnesota to San Francisco, Joy and Sadness (a properly dreary Phyllis Smith) are “lost” in the depths of her memory and Fear, Anger and Disgust take over with little success.
Making emotions individual characters was certainly a great idea, but the writing isn’t very sharp and their banter never rises above the obvious. The real highlights of the film are the occasionally looks inside the parents’ brain-trust; the script’s best one-liners are in those scenes.
There are some poignant moments—who can resist the pathos of an imaginary childhood playmate who roams aimlessly hoping to return to Riley’s memory—but the comedy isn’t sharp enough and the characters are a bit too bland to turn “Inside Out” into anything more than a sentimental diversion.
SLIGHTLY FRENCH (1949)
I’m a sucker for any movie about The Industry. There are a handful of great ones—“A Star Is Born” (twice), “The Bad and the Beautiful,” “Sunset Boulevard,” “The Player”—but most are just an excuse for overacting and tired stereotypes. That’s pretty much the case with this early Douglas Sirk picture staring Don Ameche and Dorothy Lamour, which starts out promising but quickly becomes repetitive and predictable.
Ameche, in one of his best performances, plays John Gayle, an arrogant, heartless director (there is any other kind in movies?) making a career comeback with a big-budget musical. It looks impressive—the film smartly opens up in the middle of soundstage filming of a dance scene—until his French-imported star quits rather than deal with Gayle’s Machiavellian attitude.
As luck would have it, Gayle and his equally jaded sister (Janis Carter) go slumming at a local carnival where he spots the spunky Lamour performing, in various tent shows, as a Chinese, French and Spanish dancer.
Actually, she is a no-nonsense Irish girl named Mary O’Leary, who takes some convincing to take over the starring role in his musical. Needless to say, after intensive singing and acting lessons, she becomes a sensation and, unreasonably, falls in love with the all-business Gayle.
Sirk, who went on to greater glory with his 1950s operatic melodramas, including “Magnificent Obsession” (1954) and “All That Heaven Allows” (1955), brings the kind of directorial touch that keep the film from slipping into romantic mush.
Usually stuck in simplistic, exotic roles, (she was famous for her sarongs) like the Hope-Crosby “Road” pictures, Lamour shows here that she has some acting chops, creating a very sympathetic, believable character.
Ameche may be one of the most underrated stars of the Golden Age of Hollywood. He inevitably sports a regal manner, impeccably well spoken with an above-it-all attitude that carried him through an up and down career. But in a handful of roles—“The Story of Alexander Graham Bell” (1939), “Midnight” (1939), “Heaven Can Wait” (1943)—he showed something more, a better career that might have been. Then, at age 80, he gave his finest performance as a shoeshine man who takes the fall for a lookalike mobster in David Mamet’s touching “Things Change” (1988).
What makes “Slightly French” worth seeing is the overall cynical nature of the characters—they are real adults—and a more truthful than not portrait of the long-gone Hollywood studio system.
LOVE & MERCY (2015)
Jumping rather pointlessly between the 1960s, when Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys were at the height of their success and 10-15 years later when Wilson was just barely surviving under the control of psychologist Eugene Landy, this disjointed mess of a film still has moments of sheer exhilaration.
Overall, this attempt to understand how Wilson went from pop royalty to being a virtual prisoner in his own home, fails as a biography, offering just the tip of the iceberg and spurring more questions than it answers. Yet, if you don’t expect much, there is plenty to enjoy, including Paul Dano’s perfectly calibrated portrayal of the young Wilson and the extensive, enlightening scenes of music making in the studio.
Most baffling and distracting was the decision by director Bill Pohlad (a successful producer directing his first film in 25 years) to have a different actor (John Cusack) portrayal the older Wilson. It makes zero sense, especially when the film only covers the musician’s life into his 40s; it would have been much better to have aged Dano (who resembles Wilson) than to insert Cusack who looks nothing like neither Dano nor Wilson. I was once a fan of Cusack, who, amazingly, turns 50 next year, but he’s done nothing worthy of his talent since “High Fidelity” (2000) and this film doesn’t add much to a faltering career.
Tales of Wilson’s drug, alcohol and psychological problems are part of rock ‘n’ roll legend, but “Love & Mercy,” in the Cusack sections, paints him as a depressed, drug-addled puppet of Landy (Paul Giamatti) and it quickly becomes frustratingly redundant. Not adding much energy to these scenes, is Wilson’s tortured relationship with Melinda (Elizabeth Banks), who ends up taking on Landy and marrying Wilson.
But it’s Dano that brings what magic the film possesses, creating a Wilson who is both an awkward, fragile man-child and a confident musical experimenter. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a better portrayal of music producing than this film’s scenes of the making of “Pet Sounds” and the follow-up single “Good Vibrations.” Wilson directs The Wrecking Crew, the acclaimed collection of Los Angeles session musicians, to create his pop masterpieces, adding Beach Boy vocals in later.
Wilson’s interaction with the studio musicians, figuring out how to layer the music, and displaying innate mastery of record-making makes the film worth seeing. I mean, how can you completely dislike a film in which legendary drummer Hal Blaine (played by Johnny Sneed) has lines? (I’ll write more on The Wrecking Crew once I see the recently released documentary on them.)
Overall, “Love & Mercy” disappoints, but then so does virtually every music biopic made since the bar was set with “Amadeus.” The last 50 years of popular music is so rich with jaw-dropping stories, surely someone can find a great film among all that sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll.
MR. TURNER (2014)
This episodic, superbly acted film desperately needs what in journalism is called the “nut graph.” Mike Leigh, one of the most accomplished writer-directors of the past 30 years, jumps right into the life of Nineteenth Century English landscape painter J.M.W. Turner without a hint of background for those who may have forgotten that chapter of art history.
In a newspaper story, after the writer describes the details of an individual or situation, they then explain why this is important to the reader or why it was written, offering the big-picture point of view—the nut that holds it all together. “Mr. Turner” never steps back from the details of Turner’s life to offer perspective; for much of the picture, the script fails to explain if the painter is an important artist or just a determined curmudgeon. In fact, he was quite famous and successful in his lifetime.
Before I saw the trailer last summer, all I knew about Turner was that he was considered one of Britain’s greatest painters and was known for painting famous sea battles. You don’t learn much more from the film, other than that he was a quirky, unsociable, somewhat crude man.
Timothy Spall, who has played supporting roles in numerous Leigh films, could not be better as Billy Turner, a very common man with an extraordinary gift. To say Spall immerses himself in the character is an understatement; he doesn’t seem to be acting at all. The rollicking, raw performance earned him the best actor award at Cannes, yet the film gives him little to do. The story Leigh presents is virtually devoid of conflict.
The movie could have used a “Citizen Kane”-like newsreel beginning or even a contemporary-set scene in which a Turner seascape is sold for an incredible price to bring the audience into the bio-pic. While I enjoyed the film, I wouldn’t recommend it for anyone who isn’t an art lover or devotee of Leigh.
AS I LAY DYING (2013)
Other than to serve as an understandable dramatization of a difficult, complex story, there aren’t many reasons to recommend this movie adaptation. If you aren’t an admirer of William Faulkner and this insightful, emotionally raw, literary adventurous 1930 novel of a Southern family, you have no reason to see this film.
Yet those who appreciate this masterpiece will be disappointed that director-star James Franco turned this gritty, unconventional work into a by-the-numbers, TV-movie slick production that tells the story, but little else.
The basic plot is as simple as it gets: the matriarch of a poor, uneducated Mississippi family has died and her husband insists that the body be transported, by horse-drawn wagon, to her hometown for burial. The power of the novel comes from Faulkner’s innovative structure—each chapter is told from the point of view of one of the dozen characters—and his ability to create characters that are ignorant, foolish and thoughtless yet bring both the comic and the tragic aspects of the situation alive.
Franco attempts to preserve Faulkner’s style by using split screens throughout the film. Not a bad idea, but it results only in diminishing the words and actions of the characters. Robert Altman, Steven Soderbergh or maybe the Coen brothers might have been able to pull this off, but Franco isn’t up to the task. Despite that, I can’t help but admire the very busy actor for his efforts to bring this great novel to the screen. In between his half dozen acting roles he takes every year, he’s directed a version of Faulkner’s greatest work, “The Sound and the Fury,” (with many actors from “As I Lay Dying”) that should be released this year.
In “As I Lay Dying,” Franco plays Darl, one of the Bundren sons, who, at least at first, seems to be the most sensible. The rest of the family consists of Cash (Jim Parrack), an angry, but expert carpenter who starts on his mother’s casket when she’s still alive; Jewel (Logan Marshall-Green), the mother’s favorite who takes her death the hardest; Dewey Dell (Ahna O’Reilly), the only daughter of the family who has her own problems to deal with; and Vardaman (Brady Permenter), the child of the family who has the most famous line of the book: “My mother is a fish.”
Tim Blake Nelson, a veteran of Coen brothers films, plays Anse, the father of this combative family, who seems to make one bad decision after another, while Beth Grant plays the center of attention, the dead mother Addie. This veteran actress has one very impressive monologue, but none of the other performers leave much of an impression.
Franco, who adapted the book with Matt Rager, directs the script at such a steady, almost somnolent pace, that it’s hard to care about anything that is said or done. Let’s hope he finds a better way to tell “The Sound and the Fury.”
Cameron Crowe has never been a very good director. Even his best works--“Say Anything..” and “Almost Famous”—are disjointed, often tone-deaf, performance-driven film that are elevated by a handful of superbly written, emotionally uplifting scenes, which make you forget the previous 20 minutes of mess.
His latest opened and (mostly) closed without anyone noticing, despite the presence of two of Hollywood’s hottest stars, Bradley Cooper and Emma Stone. I’d be worried if I was Crowe’s agent.
The outlandish plot is unnecessarily confusing and Cooper’s Brian Gilcrest, a special ops guy now working for a mysterious private contractor, seems to change personalities with every scene. While I’d never put Cooper forth as a great actor, as his three straight Oscar nominations may indicate, he certainly is consistently solid and more than capable of carrying a film. So I am inclined to blame Crowe’s direction (or lack of) for the performance’s shifting focus, which adds to the problems of “Aloha.”
Despite the secretive goings on between the U.S. military in Honolulu (represented by over-the-top crazies Alec Baldwin and Bill Camp) and a flamboyant entrepreneur (Bill Murray, engaging as always), the movie succeeds only when examining the timeless human struggle to communicate with one another and the confusing search for lasting love.
As the career-minded, but quirky cute Allison Ng (Stone) starts to fall for Gilcrest, he is attempting to reconcile his feelings for an ex-girlfriend (the irresistible Rachel McAdams), now married with children, but growing frustrated by her nearly mute husband (standing in for all of us uncommunicative males).
Like I mentioned above, Crowe manages to touch a nerve enough times to make “Aloha” worth seeing (actually, the dance sequence pairing Murray and Stone might be reason enough) even if it falls woefully short of being a good film.