Better than the Real Thing: Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

Sometimes, watching the trailer is better than the real thing. Within two minutes, some previews get you so excited for a movie that you count down the days until it’s released in the theater and you immediately buy a ticket for the day it comes out. And then? Disappointment, generally.

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is the award-winning (and crowd-pleasing) Sundance film that was reportedly offered  a record-breaking $12 million for the distribution rights – although they apparently went with a different deal. It’s pretty typical indie fare – weird parents, quirky characters (like a heavily tattooed Jon Bernthal as a history teacher with the catchphrase “Respect the research”), self-consciously composed mise-en-scene and offbeat narration. It mostly succeeds at what it wants to do – tell a story about teenagers having to grow up too quickly in a situation they didn’t ask for – and has a particularly poignant message about how much we can still learn about a person after they have passed away.

But the film itself isn’t as good as its trailer. Check it out below:

The trailer hits all the right beats (and quirk) of the story, without overwhelming the emotions of the story itself. The actual film gets a bit too bogged down in cutesy details – Greg’s narration keeps reminding us that “it’s not a romantic story” and is transparently manipulative and self-conscious, the film relies a bit too much on the Criterion Collection parodies which stretches an already-thin joke to its limit, and the cutaway claymation scenes are overused that they induce eye rolls rather than laughs every time a subsequent one occurs.

The emotional wallop of the film is dulled because Greg is so self-absorbed and guarded that he doesn’t let any vulnerability through. When it comes time to express something other than sarcasm or cynicism, it doesn’t feel genuine. The film spends too much time building up the arms-length nature of Greg’s relationships (like calling Earl a “co-worker” rather than a friend) but neglects to include scenes of his defenses being incrementally torn down to let people in (at the end of the movie, I think Earl is still considered his “co-worker” rather than his friend).  Greg spends so much time proclaiming that he doesn’t care, that when the time comes that he does care, we treat it with a shrug because it’s too late. Think of a rendition of A Christmas Carol where Scrooge is miserly for three-quarters of the story and then undergoes a miraculous conversion to a kind and generous soul without being visited by the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future. It just feels false and you can see the screenwriter pulling the character’s strings.

That trailer though – easily worth the $12 million.

Ex Machina

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A scene from “Ex Machina.”

What will true artificial intelligence look like? Movies always deal with infallible (when functioning properly) machines that are faster, smarter, and stronger than human beings that never get a math problem incorrect. But a true artificial intelligence has to be able to convince a human that it too is human. It has to blend in with humanity. Getting every math problem correct doesn’t allow it to blend in – humans get things wrong. A true artificial intelligence would have to be flawed – at least, if we want it to pretend to be human.

The line between man and machine is blurred in Alex Garland’s Ex Machina. Just look at the house that Nathan (Oscar Isaac), the reclusive CEO of a successful Internet search engine company, has designed for himself – grey concrete, perfectly Windexed windows and mirrors, minimalist furnishings, and sliding doors lifted straight from Star Trek. It evokes the cold and clean efficiency of a machine, but it’s lived in and used by a man. Nathan is a tortured genius. Tortured because that’s the only reason to explain why he drinks so much. He’s obsessed with passing the ultimate Turing test – convincing a human being that a machine is human, without hiding the machine.

Caleb (Domnhall Gleeson) a young programmer at Nathan’s company, wins a contest to spend time with his CEO at his isolated home in the wilderness. Caleb will be the human portion of the Turing test, and the machine is Ava (Alicia Vikander). Ava is a synthetic robot with a human face and exposed wiring everywhere else. She’s clearly not human, but her programming is sophisticated. As Caleb continues his Turing test “sessions” – with Ava trapped in a small room behind a glass wall – he becomes increasingly convinced that Nathan is hiding something as his feelings for Ava grow deeper.

This is a twisted and ingenious film. It’s clever, manipulative, and plays with our expectations and empathy. There’s a late revelation near the end of the film that instigates the climax and brilliantly juxtaposes Caleb’s reaction to it versus Ava’s reaction. Carefully consider what Caleb does, why he does it, and why we think it is the right thing, and then remember the purpose of Nathan’s Turing test. It’s not really Nathan’s Turing test the film is about, but Garland’s Turing test. And we fall for it. Just watch Ava’s reaction as she later discovers the same revelation that Caleb did and her nonchalant reaction. It’s an inevitable conclusion to the trick Caleb has played on himself (and by extension, ourselves) when all the cards were laid out on the table in front of him.

The one misstep of the film is that it doesn’t follow Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics – which is a glaring flaw and discards the blurred humanity that Ex Machina has spent a feature-length running time building up by starkly pointing out that Ava is not one of us. This choice undermines the devilishly clever trick of the scenes that came before it and disappointingly becomes another warning parable about artificial intelligence when it earlier had been about something much more.

Grade: B+

Sidenote: Sunshine, written by Alex Garland, is a favourite science-fiction film of mine, despite it being deeply flawed. The majority of the film is a feature-length version of the short story The Cold Equations, and presents the disregard for humanity and compassion a small group of astronauts must have to ironically save humanity from extinction. The film’s lofty ambitions melt the closer the crew gets to the sun, but it’s an entertaining and intelligent ride while it lasts.

It Follows

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I’ve always liked it when films can make something innocuous terrifying or thrilling. Like normal household objects. Or driving really slowly. Take the concept of It Follows for instance – the entire film is based on a solitary creature that follows its victims by walking towards them. That’s it. The victim can run away, can travel to remote locations, and can quite easily get away from the monster. But the persistence is terrifying. Despite the creature’s sluggish pace, no matter how far you run, or how far you go, it will find you. And unlike us, it doesn’t tire.

Jay (Maika Monroe) is the latest to be cursed by the terrifying creature. After having what would could be a romantic date in another movie – minus the unsavoury chloroforming of course – Jay learns that she’s caught something from her latest tryst – a sexually-transmitted demon. Thankfully, Jeff (Jake Weary), the gent who passed the demon on to her, explains the rules of the creature (and film): the creature is invisible to anyone who has not been infected with it, the creature will take different forms so you may not recognize it at first, the creature can be “passed on” to someone else through sex, and if it catches up to you, it will kill you. Oh, and if it kills the last person you infected, then it’s coming after you again. There’s no escaping it.

There’s other rules (spoken and unspoken) other than those above, but we only realize them when Jay does. For example, the creature is never seen until Jay is cursed, despite several scenes with the creature beforehand. There is something almost comic about beginning the film with a scene of a person half-jogging in circles in a panic, until you realize what that person is running from.

It Follows creates a constant sense of dread, and kudos must be given to the film’s soundtrack by Disasterpiece. It has an 80s throwback feel with lots of synthesizers, but every song is dark and ominous, and the music often invades the action happening onscreen and overwhelms it…almost like that creature when it gets too close.

The world of It Follows is never clearly defined, and neither are the characters. This works to the film’s advantage to create a dreamy – or nightmarish – unbalancing of the audience. At first, it seems like the movie is taking place in the 80s, complete with a black-and-white television, an old-school movie theatre playing Charade, and jean jackets and knee-high socks. And then a character pulls out a cell phone, and another has an e-reader shaped like a clamshell, and suddenly we’re not sure what time period we’re in. And then Jay, who at first seems to be the older sister of Kelly (Lili Sepe), gets closer with Kelly’s friend Paul (Keir Gilchrist), and then their history together seems to suggest that they could be the same age. Maybe she’s twins with Kelly? Who knows. It doesn’t really matter, or need to be answered – it’s just the constant unease and feeling of something being – off – with this world and characters that creates a sustained tension throughout the film’s running time.

This film, and the other recently released (and equally critically-acclaimed) horror film The Babadook, do something I can’t remember experiencing before, but think should be in every horror from now on: audience paranoia. In this film, once we’ve been told the creature can look like anyone and will walk towards the victim, every extra suddenly becomes the creature that the audience sees but the characters don’t (and sometimes, it’s just an extra, but the terror is still there). With The Babadook, the creature is a black top-hat-wearing penguin-type creature, and the film litters the background of scenes with images that look slightly similar, giving off the sense the monster is in every frame. The audience’s imagination runs wild with this imagery, and it’s more terrifying than any “jump scare” could ever be.

It feels like horror films may be going through something of a renaissance. The “teen-slasher” era appears to be over, and those working in the genre are creatively unearthing what will scare us next. It’s a very exciting time for the genre, and It Follows will hopefully pave the way for more high-concept works that may seem laughable at first glance (“a sexually-transmitted demon? Really?”), to something deeply disturbing.

Grade: A

The Hunt

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Mads Mikkelsen in “The Hunt.”

Innocent until proven guilty is supposed to be the hallmark of the criminal justice system. The prosecution has to prove – beyond a reasonable doubt – that the accused actually committed the crime that he or she is accused of. At least that’s the theory.

The Hunt is a searing dramatic example of this basic failure. Mads Mikkelsen (Le Chiffre from Casino Royale, Hannibal from the excellent television show…Hannibal) is a quiet, friendly kindergarten teacher named Lucas. The kids love him and he has strong support from his community and wide group of friends. But despite a history of being a well-liked member of society, his life unravels because of a horrible accusation. This isn’t a courtroom movie – there is no trial, and the only scene that takes place before a judge happens offscreen. But the community determines that Lucas is guilty without any proof – and that’s that.

This is a frustrating film. In a good way. Lucas is powerless to stop public opinion. He becomes toxic and is treated as a persona non grata. He is shunned by his friends. And you can’t help but sympathize and be furious about the situation.

The film is very clear that Lucas is not guilty of what he has been accused of. The most aggravating scene in the film is when the kindergarten principal and her friend/associate – I think he’s a social worker – ask the little girl what happened with Lucas. The audience knows nothing happened; the little girl knows nothing happened; the adults suspect something happened, but don’t know what. And the “confession” is a series of suggestive questions that the little girl only answers by nodding her head because she thinks that’s what the adults want to hear while she just wants to go outside and play. And with that, Lucas’ fate is sealed.

The setting of the film is important. Lucas lives in a small town where everyone knows him. He seems like a good guy, perhaps a little quiet, but nothing out of the ordinary. The community knows that he has an ex-wife, and is going through a custody battle with her. He shops at the same stores, and goes hunting with many of the town’s men. But despite their familiarity with Lucas and his good nature, he’s instantly branded an outcast without a second thought. The townsfolk exact their retribution in cruel, violent ways, and you wouldn’t be wrong in wondering who the real the monsters of the film are.

Why is it that we can constantly criticize the government for its failings and stupidity, but when that same government accuses a citizen of a crime we blindly accept it’s correct without a second thought? It’s a good question, and one that watching The Hunt brought to my mind.

Grade: A 

Nightcrawler

Nightcrawler-2014I kept thinking about capitalism while watching Nightcrawler. Specifically those individuals that become “titans” of industries and whose lives require mandatory biographies. Alright, I was thinking about Steve Jobs. And how he was a big asshole to everybody but is still revered rather than reviled today. That’s the power of success. I think Lou Bloom is cut from the same mold, albeit a criminal and sociopathic version, so the comparison may be a bit of a stretch.

Nightcrawler is an amoral rags-to-riches tale. Although I wonder about characterizing it as “amoral.” The veneer of power, success, and wealth seems to make ethics a fluid concept. Who cares how Lou Bloom got where he is when he’ll just be envied and idolized for what he’s become?

Lou is a petty thief and scoundrel. He strips copper wire and steals scrap metal from private property. He doesn’t make a lot of money. It’s hard to be a good negotiator when you’re selling stolen goods. Even professional thieves can only get fifty cents on the dollar. Lou settles for less but dreams of more. He incessantly recites lines from self-help business books and websites, but it’s hard to tell if Lou’s encyclopedic knowledge of mantras reflects his belief that hard work really does get you ahead or if he’s just recycling phrases to get to his next score. He eventually finds his calling on the scene of a fiery highway crash: taking freelance footage of crime scenes to sell to the highest television news bidder.

The film plays out like a business textbook case study (albeit the darkest possible version imaginable). Rookie entrepreneur starts out with small contracts and small rewards. The money he earns is invested back in the business to buy better equipment and an employee to be competitive with the larger players. A merger is offered, and declined. The rookie focuses on creating the best product, and one the competition cannot replicate. The competition is eliminated and a hostile partnership with a news broadcaster is solidified, guaranteeing a steady stream of income. The rookie businessman finally has something he’s never had in negotiations before: leverage. And an empire is born.

Jake Gyllenhaal is one of the best actors working in Hollywood today. His latest projects (Enemy, Prisoners, End of Watch) are all fantastic films, and simply having his name attached to a project these days is practically a guaranteed endorsement of its quality. Nightcrawler is no exception to this rule. His portrayal of Lou Bloom in the film is a bug-eyed, electrifying performance and his emaciated appearance is a direct reflection on the emptiness of his soul. This ain’t no heartwarming Gyllenhaal. He’s on full-on creep mode in this film.

What I like about Nightcrawler is its subversion of the American Dream and unapologetic cynicism. Instead of working hard and being rewarded for your hard work, the message is boundless ambition, moral elasticity, and bending the rules as far as possible.

Grade: A

Interstellar

An interdimensional disappointment.

An interdimensional disappointment.

There are just some directors who shouldn’t attempt to do the mushy stuff. Play to your strengths, rather than make a half-baked story about parental responsibility, loss, and the enduring power of love. Christopher Nolan makes cold films, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, considering his filmography contains multiple movies that rightfully deserved to be called masterpieces. But his films are not good at being sentimental, or expressing emotions beyond jealousy, ambition, or dogged perseverance. Any time Nolan’s films have attempted a romantic subplot, they’re always the most criticized and forgettable parts of his films (looking at you Scarlett Johansson in The Prestige, and Katie Holmes/Maggie Gyllenhaal in The Dark Knight trilogy). Sure, the guy can create movies about pining for a lost love (Inception, Memento), but if that love is still alive – fuhgeddaboutit. Interstellar handles the complex themes of family, love, and the “fifth dimension” through clunky, awkward dialogue that’s on par with some of the crap George Lucas wrote for Star Wars Episode Two: Attack of the Clones. This movie is hugely disappointing.

Earth is going through a transition period – humans can only grow corn. At least, I think that’s what was going on. It’s all very confusing, because characters still drink beer, the water system still seems to be functioning, and kids still have to take science classes in school. It really doesn’t seem all that bad. Meanwhile dust storms are commonplace, and archival footage of the folks who lived through these terrible times reminiscing are interspersed throughout the first quarter of the film, and then that faux documentary trope is all but forgotten to move into the outer reaches of space.

But anyhow, Matthew McConaughey ekes out his existence as a farmer (of corn) with two kids – the dull son and the precocious daughter – whilst living with his grizzled father-in-law who moonlights as the kids’ grizzled babysitter. The daughter thinks a ghost lives in her room, and some spoookky occurrences gets Dad to start believing in the supernatural force too. Yada yada yada, ghost leads McConaughey to hidden scientific outpost and off on a rollicking space adventure, minus the rollicking part and heavy on the scenes talking about wormholes, relativity, and the quantum mechanics of love (not joking). There’s also supposed to be some poignancy about leaving your family behind to do something IMPORTANT and how you sacrifice making memories with your kids because you’re doing IMPORTANT things. Yes, the film is romanticizing a world where “work-life balance” is severely tilted to the work side of things.

The biggest problem I have with the film is the motivations of every single character don’t make sense.

1. McConaughey

McConaughey’s character is the dad who has to leave his kids behind to “save the world” but is tortured by the anguish that he won’t get to see them grow up. But he doesn’t have to leave. This is the future, where robots exist, and despite McConaughey being the “best damn pilot NASA has ever seen and the only one who can captain this ship” in the film’s climatic piloting scene McConaughey asks the robot to fly the ship for him to make a difficult manoeuvre. Half of the adventure is spent on auto-pilot while the human passengers slumber peacefully in cryo-sleep. Yet McConaughey is such an integral part of the mission because he can fly so good. Ugh.

Also, he’s supposed to love his children so much, but about half-way through the movie he forgets he has a son. Just watch. There’s a point where he’s crying because both of his children are growing up in front of his eyes, and then later, he’s just concerned about his daughter. I don’t know, I just find it a little difficult to empathize with a character when he doesn’t even really care about his kids.

2. Unnamed Celebrity Cameo

Yep, a Hollywood star pops up later in the film. He has a plan that makes absolutely no sense when you take the three seconds to think about it. Let’s just say he tells a fib, and then when he could own up to that fib, he decides to make it 1000x worse, and I still can’t understand what his endgame was. Please explain if you know.

3. Everyone else

This is getting long-winded, so every character has an issue. The first “Red Shirt” character stands beside a door that leads to safety. Instead of walking through the door himself, he watches for several minutes as another character is carried through the door after travelling a mile away. The stupidity of the character overshadows any of the pathos of his death.

Jessica Chastain’s character is supposed to be brilliant, but can’t see through the weakest of twists. Casey Affleck’s character inexplicably wants his suffering wife and child to die on his farm, even when offered the chance of medical care and safety.

Interstellar uses wafer-thin characters, cheap storytelling twists (way too much deus ex machina for one movie), and dresses it up using first-rate special effects and long-winded technobabble to make us believe that we’re watching something important and goads us to care more about the character’s plights than they do themselves. I didn’t buy it.

Grade: C

 

 

 

The Voices

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Jerry Hickfang (Ryan Reynolds) lives in a Technicolor dreamworld. He has a menial warehouse job where he wears full pink coveralls and spends the day lifting boxes of undisclosed items. He’s the socially awkward but sweet outsider. The type of person who couldn’t hurt a fly. But that’s looking at Jerry with rose-coloured glasses and ignoring the dark signs lurking beneath his simple exterior. Just ask his two pets for the truth – the cat Mr. Whiskers and the dog Bosco. They know Jerry well. So well, in fact, that they speak to him.

You see, Jerry has an undisclosed mental illness that he hides from his co-workers and leads him to well…some unwholesome activities. Think about Norman Bates, and imagine a film from his perspective. That’s the pitch for The Voices.

Despite the dark subject matter, The Voices plays out like a comedy. Mr. Whiskers is a foulmouthed cat with a Scottish accent that constantly berates and belittles Jerry. There’s something innately funny about a little cat dropping F-bombs, even if the joke wore a little thin after the fifth or sixth expletive-laden tirade. Bosco, on the other hand, is a sweet and slow Southerner. He praises Jerry’s efforts at being a “good boy” and tries to steer him away from the darker paths Mr. Whiskers attempts to lead him down. Both Mr. Whiskers and Bosco are voiced by an unrecognizable Ryan Reynolds (to stick with the theme that these voices are just in Jerry’s head) proving that he’s got some voice work chops in case the whole A-lister path doesn’t work out.

The Voices is a solid movie, albeit a slightly forgettable one. It’s nice to see Ryan Reynolds playing against type and intriguing to see a film from the psychotic killer’s perspective, but the film never goes beyond the concept. It’s summed up in one line: cat and dog talk to guy, guy kills someone, rinse and repeat. The film flirts a bit with unreliable narration, which I enjoyed, but I wish they went further with the idea rather than making it literally window dressing. Jerry’s arc is a straight line, when there should have a been a shift from seemingly nice guy to deranged nutcase. The film tries something different, but it doesn’t quite get there.

Grade: B 

Side note: You won’t believe the absurdity of the last scene before the credits. It’s great.

 

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