Talking Movies

September 4, 2015

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl plays as a tragically awful The Fault in Our Stars and Be Kind Rewind mash-up by Wes Anderson.

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Greg (Thomas Mann) navigates high school by being super-nice to all cliques, and a member of none. He avoids the cafeteria turf wars, eating with his sole friend Earl (RJ Cyler) in the office of cool history teacher Mr McCarthy (Jon Bernthal). (You know he’s cool because he has tats and a shouted slogan ‘Respect the Research!’) But then Greg’s odd, odd mother (Connie Britton) forces him to befriend classmate Rachel (Olivia Cooke) when Rachel is diagnosed with leukaemia. Rachel’s weird mother Denise (Molly Shannon) is delighted at this development, and soon Greg’s eccentric dad (Nick Offerman) is hosting marathons for Rachel of the dreadful movies Greg and Earl have made. Greg is losing his treasured detachment, and, despite repeated protestations in his narration, Rachel is going to die; what will the emotional impact be on such a self-loathing figure?

You won’t care, because this film quickly becomes extremely grating. Set in Pittsburgh with an emotionally deadened hero who opens up under female tutelage this invites invidious comparisons with The Perks of Being a Wallflower; but Project X star Thomas Mann is no Logan Lerman, and novelist/screenwriter Jesse Andrews is no Stephen Chbosky. As for director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon who has worked on American Horror Story and Glee… This is his second feature after The Town That Dreaded Sundown. He’s not straying far from familiar settings. His whip-pans, arty tracking shots, hand-crafted animations, long-takes, narration, chapter titles, straight to camera monologues, odd perspectives, and painfully self-conscious quirkiness all play like ersatz Wes Anderson and become increasingly maddening. Having a character die of cancer doesn’t gift your movie instant profundity. Telling us twice that she’s not going to die is just annoying.

Bernthal is the only actor who escapes this farrago with dignity intact, as he has some interesting material on the nature of memory and biography to work with. Offerman is reduced to non-sequitirs and monologues akin to his workshop appearances on Conan. Shannon is creepy and disturbing as Rachel’s overly-sexualised mother, while Britton is unbelievable and bizarre as Greg’s mother pushing him into a weird gesture. Greg and Earl are ‘characterised’ by their love of Herzog, Kurosawa, and the Nouvelle Vague, which they pastiche in home-movies. The result is as infuriatingly pretentious, derivative, and mannered as the central trio in The Dreamers. So of course Greg’s former crush Madison (Katherine C Hughes) suggests making a new movie especially for Rachel. Dying is almost worthwhile if it inspires self-referential self-congratulatory cinema! This truly is Bret Easton Ellis’ nightmare conception of film-school student making films based on films, not on life; a cinematic parallel of Mannerist artists proudly painting based on Old Masters not on observed reality.

Having experienced Nico Muhly’s soundscape for the Wilton Diptych in the British National Gallery, I weep at his music being wasted trying to give Greg’s contemptible film some depth.

1/5

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October 1, 2014

Life After Beth

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Dane DeHaan had never made a comedy before this film. I’m not sure he still hasn’t made a comedy after starring in Life After Beth.

Zach Orfman (DeHaan) is inconsolable with grief after his girlfriend Beth Slocum (Aubrey Plaza) dies from a snakebite while on a solo hike in the hills. Despite the best efforts of his abrasive security guard brother Kyle (Matthew Gray Gubler), and his helicopter parents Judy (Cheryl Hines) and Noah (Paul Reiser), nothing can shake him out of his gloom. Instead he spends his time with Beth’s parents, playing chess and smoking weed with Maury (John C Reilly), and going thru Beth’s clothes with Geenie (Molly Shannon). So far so Moonlight Mile. But when the Slocums’ Haitian maid Pearline (Eva La Dare) flees town, it’s not long before a horde of zombies appears, heralded by a returned Beth – who has no memory of dying, and is now super-strong, insanely jealous of Zach’s reappeared childhood friend Erica (Anna Kendrick), and increasingly hungry…

Warm Bodies approached the conundrum of how you make a romantic comedy with zombies by making the zombies not zombies. Life After Beth keeps the zombies as zombies and instead ditches the romantic comedy aspect. Which can’t be intentional, can it? There are so many good actors onboard that you feel something has gone disastrously wrong. Reiser is more likeable than I’ve ever seen him, and Gubler is fantastically obnoxious. But the lead performances don’t match them. Plaza presumably signed on for eating people and blowing up a lifeguard post, but, while she has fun with the physical shtick, the role mutes her comedic grouchiness. DeHaan’s everyman is ill-served by the puzzling script. What should be deadpan just turns out blank. Reacting blankly to absurd situations does not by itself provide comedy, there does need to be jokes in addition.

Writer/director Jeff Baena co-wrote I Heart Huckabees which makes it all the more baffling what the hell went wrong because he’s not a man short of comedic invention. Technically everyone is at the top of their game. Jay Hunter, who was the DP for Joss Whedon’s crisply monochrome Much Ado About Nothing, bathes this gated community in a sunlight wonderfully inapt for a zombie horror; again displaying flair on a shoestring. Kudos must also go to the casting directors (Nicole Daniels and Courtney Sheinin) who realised that with the right haircut DeHaan and Gubler are perfect as brothers. But technical competence and solid acting can only get you so far. By the end when a gratuitously naked female zombie appears you’re not sure if it’s a ham-fisted nod to Re-Animator, or a stunt to arouse the audience from its slumber.

Life After Beth is a zom-rom-com that’s played so straight that it ends up a romantic drama about a bad break-up and an unstable ex-girlfriend; now with added zombies.

1/5

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