Sean K. Cureton

Archive for March, 2016|Monthly archive page

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl Passes the Torch

In Movies on VOD: Reviews and Recommendations on March 19, 2016 at 11:41 am
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl Review

Fox Searchlight Pictures

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (2015)
Directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon
VOD Rating: Liked It

Coming from a recent veteran director of television melodrama primarily aimed at the adolescent milieu, Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is acutely aimed at the hearts of many a misanthropic teenage misfit whittling away at their high school years, all in the anticipation of the great unknowable chasm that is college and a life beyond that of being a student. As disaffected, asocial nobody Greg Gaines, actor Thomas Mann takes on the role of an erstwhile caregiver and amateur classical film satirist with great aplomb, exuding a certain understated despair entirely specific to pre-undergraduate work and ambition. When Greg is forced to grapple with the terminal cancer diagnosis of a fellow classmate Rachel Kushner, played with surprising maturity and fierce intelligence by Olivia Cooke, his world of tightly held together affectless cool comes apart, and his own underlying self-loathing is brought under closer scrutiny than the young man had perhaps ever previously allowed. As his best friend and fellow social outcast, or “co-worker” as Greg facetiously calls him, the up and coming actor RJ Cyler lends his own particular charm and immature grace to the role of Earl. Collectively, Mann, Cooke, and Cyler form a tightly knit trio of erstwhile friends and confidants who appear to resemble the very same social ephemera that often makes up for so many of our interactions with peers in high school, and all three performers make Gomez-Rejon’s second theatrical release as a director compelling despite its underlying thematic redundancy and conceited ego.

It is perhaps too easy, and potentially hypocritical, to cite all of the assumed errors and moments of dramatic stagnancy and flat moments of storytelling that make up for one of the most well worn and tired dramatic sub-genres in film. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is yet another coming of age drama that resembles all of the films like it that have come before, but thanks in no small part to Gomez-Rejon’s penchant for strikingly visual aesthetic flourishes, coupled with the immediacy of the film’s cast of lead actors, the movie is often better than many of its kith and kin. There are better films of its kind, see Mike Nichol’s The Graduate, but it also stands on a par with certain motion pictures that are its temporal contemporaries both tonally and temporally, see Zach Braff’s Garden State. Much of Gomez-Rejon’s film proves to be less than that which it aspires to be, and yet its hard to find fault with a cinematic narrative that is ultimately just one more story that screams with the desire of its subject, adolescent turmoil an endless, if regressive, inspirational well of pure emotion from which to draw perpetually. Greg Gaines is no Ben Braddock, but in some of the film’s more viscerally realized moments Mann proves to be a far more capable dramatic performer than Braff in kind.

By turns unremarkable and incendiary, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, which was adapted for the screen by novelist Jesse Andrews who wrote the book upon which the entire production is based, is a good movie, though not a great one. Perhaps the greatest stumbling block of the independent film movement that has arisen out the early 2000s, with films like Braff’s aforementioned navel-gazing directorial debut, has been the perpetual lack of overt direction in said production’s individual visions. At times many of these movies feel like retreads of past experiments in the medium, which is perhaps why it is so easy to lump Gomez-Rejon’s subjectively moving picture in with other lesser works of the same aesthetic sort. Yet what makes Me and Earl and the Dying Girl stand out ultimately is in its undeniable voice that arises from a generation divorced from both that of Nichol’s late 1960s post-graduate, as well as Braff’s preening early twenty-first century liberal malaise. For the most part, Gomez-Rejon seems to be speaking to the adolescent teens of the now in the 2010s, and as such his film feels pretty spot on in terms of articulating their generational angst and depression, however much it may resemble the follies of past youths.

Greg, Earl, and Rachel look twee and conveniently positioned from a dramatic perspective at first glance, and the story that Gomez-Rejon and Andrews choose to tell is one perennially well known. But such a reading would be giving short shrift to the persisting vibrancy and staying power specific to Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, and of the coming-of-age sub-genre in total. For many viewers of the Millennial generation, Gomez-Rejon’s film will be burned into their emotional memory, and all subsequent films that try to tell the same story for succeeding generations will ultimately fall short in striving to replicate and replace the one that they know so well already. Such is the case for those who grew of age in the early 2000s, and for whom Zach Braff proved an indispensable barometer of counter-cultural whimsy, merriment, and melancholy, on film and television alike. And such will be the case for those reaching maturity now in the 2010s, and for whom Mann will forever remain the paragon of all young adult yearning, and Gomez-Rejon’s film set to become The Graduate of an entirely different generational sort, with future successors primed to pass the torch of youth in kind, ad infinitum.

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is currently available through HBO GO, and is My VOD Movie Review of the week.

Advertisements

Evangelical Paranoia in The Witch

In Movie Reviews: 2016 on March 5, 2016 at 12:39 pm
The Witch Review

A24

The Witch
Directed by Robert Eggers
3 out of 4 stars

Robert Eggers’ directorial debut premiered at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, but it wasn’t until this year that A24 acquired the rights for distribution in the United States, though that hasn’t stopped the film from gaining momentum leading up to its theatrical release. The film centers on a New England family in 17th century America, whose staunchly held religious beliefs force them outside of their small colonial settlement into the wilds of uncivilized native lands that my be home to more than an enigmatically feral-seeming stray rabbit. The entire production is laced heavily with Puritanical Christian themes that more often than not revolve around the concept of sin and evil, all of which quickly devolves into an apparent spirit in the woods who begins devouring each of the seven family members’ sanity, one by one. Much of the film’s script is devoted the sense of alienation and dislocation that the various members of the nuclear unit feel upon their late separation from their English home of origin, which manifests itself in a physically manifested witch, whose object reality becomes a central question with which Eggers’ leaves his viewers’ by film’s end. It’s easy to conclude that the witch spirit, or spirits, that inhabit the film are a figment of insanity brought on by evangelical hysteria, and yet much of the film’s evocative imagery and coyly depicted dramatic events make for a supernatural horror thanks in no small part to said fervency of faith.

The actors chosen for their roles in Eggers’ film are spectacularly casted, as each member of the film’s modestly assembled theater troupe are so peculiar in manner and physiognomy that they feel intuitively right for the time and place in which the film is said to take place. Pulling from the roster of Game of Thrones medieval character actors, Ralph Ineson and Kate Dickie exude a certain archaic foreboding as the parental unit in their very essence, as both performers strike a fine balance between archaic dignity and primitive antagonism. Pulled into the fray are some of the best child actors to be seen on the big screen in quiet some time, all of whom are led by the spiritually corruptible Anya Taylor-Joy as the young Thomasin. It is in Taylor-Joy’s apparent willingness to indulge depravity and wickedness that proves to be her ultimate undoing or salvation, depending on how you read the film’s thrilling and surreal final sequence, and which makes Eggers’ film so sympathetically compelling. There is something undeniably at work upon the small family throughout the film’s unbelievable taut and claustrophobic 92 minute runtime, though from whence said tension arises is left to the power of its actors, who exude all of the horror for which the film falls into the realm of genre fiction.

Which brings the entire conversation back to the film’s apparent supernatural elements that threaten to override Eggers’ script’s obvious indebtedness to the more psychological and theological elements that make the entire production worthwhile. Like William Friedkin’s The Exorcist of 1973, The Witch examines the socio-cultural under-pinnings of contemporary belief through the history of religion, specifically the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of England, respectively. But where Friedkin is always aimed at finding the ways in which good will always triumph over evil, Eggers’ new film appears primed at examining the temporary desire for the pleasures of corruption, with the devil being a more alluring figure in his ephemeral appeal to the senses. The witch of the woods appears in the guise of whatever fantasy each of the members’ of the archetypically doomed household want the most dearly, and subsequently consumes them when they give into said carnal appetites. As Thomasin finally discovers at film’s end, sin is a far more attractive alternative to the dedication and hard work required of basic goodness, though the former indulgence will change you into a spectral shadow of one’s former self.

There’s plenty to continue to ponder after the credits finally role at the end of Eggers’ impeccably crafted first film, with the final sequence being one of the most obtuse and alienating experiences in recent memory. Eggers leaves his viewers with no easy answers or clear path out of the labyrinth of religious paranoia and colonial greed that he leads them into, and only continues to confuse the pertinent message underlying the visual tapestry of illusion, metaphor, and fantasy with the use of supernatural fiction. Which is all to say that the film works its way into unsettling the viewer in more ways than one, and provides a psychological horror story fit to bear the picture’s subtitle of being, “A New England Folktale.” Based in part on historical accounts and legends of the time passed down across generations and centuries, The Witch is half fable and half docudrama, though none of it ever purports itself to be literally or figuratively true. Which is all to say, again, why the film works so well, as all of the unreality of its visceral horror may finally be felt as psychological insight, however manically acquired said revelation is delivered.