1995 Project: The Bridges of Madison County

bridges of madison countyEarlier this year I found myself defending the movie adaptation of E.L. James’s Fifty Shades of Grey. The movie received almost unanimously terrible reviews. I think, in part, because people were ready to dismiss it based on the reputation of E.L. James’s hugely popular books, which have been maligned for their laughable prose, and for having a largely middle aged female fan-base. Thus, film critics refused to recognize the tiny sparks of wit and genius in a production admittedly tied down by commercial interests and weak source material. A similar thing happened back in 1995, when none other than Clint Eastwood took Robert James Waller’s The Bridges of Madison County, a novel with a reputation as toxic as Fifty Shades, and turned it into a pretty terrific movie.

Even as a defender of the Fifty Shades adaptation, I will have to admit that Eastwood’s Bridges of Madison County is not only a far superior movie, but a superior piece of pop culture history. I mean, how awesome must it have been to see Eastwood, the embodiment of American masculinity decide to tackle one of the most uncool phenomenons of the decade, and the result was such a delight? Eastwood’s sparse and classic style, of course, ended up being the perfect fit for taking a trite and florid airport read and turn it into a low-key, naturalistic, and charming movie about a love that cannot be. With his measured sensibility, Eastwood was the perfect -if unexpected- voice to introduce melodrama to the mainstream in the 1990s.

Eastwood’s muted direction and Jack N. Green’s warm and beautiful cinematography do a lot of the work, but equal praise must be given to the two lead performances. One by Eastwood himself, who might be doing the best work of his career, and certainly the most surprising as the charming (I know!) Robert. The other is a top-tier Meryl Streep performance. The culture that has deemed Streep the best actress alive seems to be particularly impressed by her chameleonic technique, but her best performances rely on charisma and reality more than in artifice. Case in point, her Italian accent in this movie is far from flawless, but her Francesca is so natural it captures something far more valuable than dialectic perfection. She captures a truthful attitude and connects with the audience in a way only a true movie stars can.

If there is anything wrong with this movie, it’s the unnecessary framing device, but that almost goes without saying. Framing devices are rarely effective, and this one – featuring Francesca’s children learning about their mother’s affair after she dies- adds very little to the movie. I guess it’s supposed to be a way to validate our sympathy for Francesca as a character, which seems redundant considering Meryl’s stellar work. That being said, this is still a deeply good movie. A triumph of committed filmmaking over cultural preconceptions, and perhaps Eastwood’s greatest work as a director.

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Standing Still in the Middle of the Dancefloor: A Review of Mia Hansen-Løve’s ‘Eden’

edenThere are many frustrating things about Mia Hansen-Løve’s Eden, but only one of them is symptomatic of the limitations that “serious cinema” has imposed on itself in the past few years. By the way, I’ve decided to use the word “serious cinema” to identify a group of films -mostly foreign and mostly European- that are regarded as prestigious works from prestigious filmmakers without being as extreme in their aesthetics to be considered avant-garde cinema. I’m talking about the movies by directors such as Olivier Assayas, Xavier Dolan, Abdellatif Kechiche, and other Cannes favorites. The thing all those directors -and Eden- have in common? The movies are too long.

Sure, Hansen-Løve is telling a story that spans more than a decade in a DJ’s life, but the movie’s aimless and redundant nature make 131 minutes feel like an eternity. There is no particular reason for the movie to be as long as it is. It constantly feels like the director is just sprinkling scenes in order to make the movie longer. But why the necessity to make things longer? Why the necessity to hammer the point your movie is making over and over again. Why the belief that endless repetition is necessary for your audience to “get” your message? I think length has become synonymous with prestige, and challenging the patience of your audience with being a worthy filmmaker.

As an audience member, I’ll be the first one to admit that I like being challenged by movies, but I also like to be engaged by them. I think these filmmakers have forgotten about the economy that made so many movies -short and long- amazing works of art int the past. How one line or one shot is enough to color a movie with endless amounts of information. What are we gaining by making our movies longer and stuffing them with superfluous repetition that doesn’t change or color the plot or characters in any new way?

Now, there will be those who say that Hansen-Løve is using repetition on purpose. That she is letting us know how Paul (Felix de Givry), the protagonist of her movie, is trapped in his own vicious cycle. That he fails to grow as a person. I have a couple objections to that notion. Any contemporary moviegoer is savvy enough to recognize the tropes of filmmaking, and to recognize a character that is stuck in his own bullshit from just a couple of scenes. Second, what are we suppose to gain from the experience of being numbed by watching a character spiral onto his own self-created hell? Especially when the character is a cardboard black hole like Paul?

I guess this is as good a point as any to start talking about the movie itself. Eden is a recounting of the “garage” music scene that developed in 1990s France. The protagonist is a young man who dreams of making it big as a DJ, but ends up on the margins of the dance music wave. The character is based on the director’s brother -Sven Hansen-Løve- who was himself a DJ dreaming of making it big, and shares co-writing credit with her. I think the Hansen-Løve siblings have failed in believing that other people will find the Sven’s story as fascinating as they do. Maybe they feel a special attachment because they know the people involved in it?

As a final product, Eden has very little forward momentum. Things just seem to happen to Paul, as obsesses with becoming a successful DJ and is led into a depressing rot. As such, the movie is the study of a character and of a particular time and place. As a character study, it fares particularly bad. Mostly because after watching more than two hours of film I can tell you very little about Paul as a character, except that I found him irritating and very uncharismatic. He is engaged in a number of romantic relationships through the years, and every time I failed to grasp why any of these women would be attracted to him. I guess that’s one of the perks of being a DJ?

As a study of a particular time and place, I guess the movie does a little better. Although it spends so much time focusing on Paul that none of the supporting characters are given much depth. Not Paul’s music partner, who probably gets a total of five lines, nor any of his lovers, whose inner life remains relatively obscure. And what little we get from these characters doesn’t make them seem very likable. They have fluffy talks about the nature of their music, and other types of art. Paul in particular is so unkind to his girlfriends and his mother that I guess we are supposed to find him irritating on purpose.

We get a few amusing scenes with the members of Daft Punk -a band that did manage to make it big off this dance music craze- but they’re mostly there to place the story within a similar frame to Life of Brian or Inside Llewyn DavisBoth stories about outsiders living on the shadows of more famous performers (if you excuse me calling Jesus a performer), but both with characters more interesting than Paul. The movie’s failures really come down to its investment on Paul as an anchor for this story. It does feel a little like Sven is doing a Chris Farley Show style “remember when this happened?” recount of his time as a DJ.

As far as the filmmaking is concerned, Hansen-Løve’s realistic style has the camera roaming freely around the characters, but their lives are far too mundane to inspire any enthusiasm. The dance sequences are distant, presented without passion. One of the movie’s parts is subtitled “lost in the music”, but we never see the characters lose themselves in the passion. The most interesting stylistic touch of the movie is the director’s use of editing to jump through time at surprising moments and generate major ellipses in the narrative. Sadly, there is little thematic meat for the audience to fill those ellipses with any meaningful information concerning what might have happened. After all, the movie hinges on its main character remaining in one place and refusing to change his ways.

Grade: 4 out of 10

Hit Me With Your Best Shot: The Red Shoes (1948)

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It seems to me that I’ve had a predilection for shots that break the fourth wall during this season of Hit Me with Your Best Shot. This week, our friend Nathaniel picked the Powell and Pressburger classic ballet saga The Red Shoes (which I had never seen, but am really happy I finally caught up with it) and I predictably chose the most obvious moment in which the movie uses visual iconography to to speak directly to the audience. Although in my defense, there are many moments in which the movie uses symbolism and winking visuals to let its audience in on the themes it is going for.

But let’s get into it. I don’t know if you will need a lot of context to appreciate the shot I picked. The movie is the story of a young woman who dreams of -and dances her ass off- in order to become a successful prima ballerina, and the conflicts that come with her strive to be successful and great on her own right. A metaphor for women’s taste of the self-actualization of professional work thanks to the labor shortage of World War II, perhaps? Or a tale of the prize that comes with success? Perhaps, but that would be an incredibly reductive way of looking at the movie. There is so much to unpack in this tale of conflicting passions, and the fact that the movie is so often indirect about what it’s about makes it all the more intriguing.

Now, that last sentence might sound like a contradiction after I said the movie uses symbolism to clarify its themes. Well, there are many levels to this movie. The first level is, as with most movies I’ve seen, the text. The second level is a level of subtext the film is comfortable letting us know about. It’s the level that lets us know what is going on inside the characters minds, and very often the one that hints at the fact that this is, in its core, a tragic story. The third level is what the movie is actually about and what it wants to say about society, which is the one that is most unclear, and the one I’ve been thinking about.

My pick for Best Shot plays off those two levels of subtext. It comes at the end of the movie’s standout sequence, the “Red Shoes ballet”. To say it is a great piece of filmmaking would be an understatement. I was expecting a great movie, but in that middle section, I encountered one of the very best pieces of filmmaking I had ever seen, and a contender for the best dance sequence in all of cinema history. Ok, that should cover my hyperbole quota. Let’s get back to it. The surreal ballet is based on the eponymous story by Hans Christian Andersen, in which a young woman puts on some magical red shoes that won’t let her stop dancing until she dies. The ballet also ends with the female protagonist dying, but as she breathes her last breath, the Shoemaker takes the red shoes off her feet, and returns to his shop…

Once there, the Shoemaker dances around with the shoes, and right before the curtain goes down, he holds them up to the camera, not only offering the shoes just like he offered them to the unfortunate woman, but daring us to take them.

Going back to those levels of subtext, and taking into account the fact that this is a tragic story, I assume that this is the filmmakers trying to warn the audience through temptation. However, not knowing exactly what the movie is trying to say beyond the sacrifices that come with success, I don’t know what I am being warned against. It’s this underlying uncertainty that makes this the most troubling and stirring moment in a tragic and complicated movie.

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Life of Riley: A Review of Pete Docter’s ‘Inside Out’

Inside Out

Pixar’s emergence as the end-all-be-all of American feature animation was one of the biggest narratives of the last decade. Not only did Pixar manage to make huge commercial successes out of all their movies, but each of their movies was met with practically universal acclaim. But at some point during the trajectory -possibly influenced by parent company Walt Disney Pictures- the people at Pixar were seduced by the commercial possibilities of getting into the sequel business. In the five years, we’ve only seen the release of one original Pixar movie. The rest were sequels, and most of them were forgettable to say the least. So when people started to claim Inside Out to be a return-to-form for the once spotless studio, I received the news with equal amount of excitement and caution.

Turns out caution wasn’t necessary. Inside Out not only fits comfortably among the ranks of Pixar’s best, but it presents the best movie in director Pete Docter’s career. Docter worked mostly as a story guy at the studio before he got to direct Monsters, Incand later helmed the Oscar-winning UpWell, he seems to have taken the emotional resonance of both those movies, and along with co-director Ronaldo del Carmen, created something quite amazing.

The movie centers on what goes inside the mind of an eleven year-old girl named Riley (voiced by Kaitlyn Dias). There, we meet the five emotions in charge of caring for and “piloting” Riley as if they were on the bridge of the USS Enterprise. They are Anger (Don Rickles), Disgust (Mindy Kaling), Fear (Bill Hader), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), and their leader, Joy (Amy Poehler). Their job is to do whatever they can to keep Riley happy, but through a series of coincidences, Joy and Sadness find themselves stranded in the long term memory part of Riley’s head, and must find their way back to headquarters.

But while Joy and Sadness are off on their typical Pixar-style adventure, we realize that this movie is something far more modest and thoughtful than its high concept premise would have you believe. At the end of the day, Inside Out is all about what goes on inside the mind of a young girl. About what makes her feel good, and what makes her feel bad. And about the insecurities and fears that come with aging into a preteen. Like Devin Faraci from Birth Movies Death points out, Inside Out “has the biggest stakes of any movie this year”, and it is all about keeping a young girl safe and happy.

For a long time, and especially at the height of Pixar’s creative and commercial run of successes, people were decrying the fact that all of the studio’s movies seemed to have male protagonists. The studio responded with the lackluster Bravewhich positioned itself as a girl-power narrative, but ended up underwhelming thanks to an uninspiring script. Inside Out, however, seems to be the perfect response to those old plights. Not only is it centered almost exclusively around the well being of a girl, but its two protagonist emotions are also coded female.

In fact, the most remarkable thing about Inside Out is how it manages to seamlessly connect the “outside” narrative of Riley’s family moving from Minnesota to San Francisco, and the “inside” narrative of Joy and Sadness trying to get back to Headquarters, especially considering how much of an emotional impact the movie has in its last third. Above all, the movie stands out for pointing out the importance of allowing all of your emotions to have their time and place. By refusing to turn any of the emotions -or any character for that matter- into a villain, the movie highlights the fact that it’s ok to feel angry, or afraid, or sad. It’s all part of being alive, and it’s all part of being healthy. Not every movie has to be measured by its message, but I’ll be damned if I’m not completely on board on sending this message out to the eleven year-olds of the world, especially little girls.

And maybe it goes without saying, but beyond being emotional (you will probably cry a lot during this movie), Inside Out sports the type of cleverness that made Pixar so acclaimed in the first place. Not only that, but it is also a very funny movie. Some of the characters are one-dimensional (often by design), but that doesn’t keep the movie from (mostly) bending stereotypes and expectations and producing some very amusing bits.

As far as the voice cast is concerned, it is uniformly solid, with Amy Poehler and Phyllis Smith being particularly strong as Joy and Sadness respectively, and their relationship carrying out some of the movie’s best moments. And a special mention must be given to Richard Kind, who does a really good job of using line readings to turns a somewhat lame character into a strong piece of the ensemble, and much more than the metaphor it is supposed to represent.

If there is a weak spot to Inside Out, it’s probably the design and final rendering of the animation. Of Pixar’s features, this one ranks amongst the least visually appealing. Even though the character animation is as flawless as ever, the design elements are a little generic and not quite up to par with the movie’s intelligent screenplay.

All in all, Inside Out is an invaluable piece of filmmaking. It is smart, it is funny, and most importantly, it engages fully with its place as a story about children and growing up. It is truthful in a way that very few movies (especially Hollywood productions) ever dare to be. This is a movie that has actual value. A movie that will speak to children, and say something that will hopefully help them as they become adults.

And before I end this review, let me warn you that the short that plays before the movie -titled Lava– is quite atrocious. It’s not even worth it to go into details here, but I just wanted you to be warned. Don’t be discouraged by the lameness of the short, the movie that follows is quite fantastic.

Grade: 8 out of 10 

1995 Project Batch 3: A Little Princess, Crimson TIde, and Braveheart

Braveheart

The 1995 Project continues…

AlittleprincessposterA Little Princess (Directed by Alfonso Cuarón)
One of the weirdest facts about cinema is how hard it is to make a good (let alone a great) movie that is told from the perspective of a child. It gets harder when the movie is not only told from a child’s perspective but has children as its target audience. And it gets even harder if the movie in question is not an animated movie. One of the few movies that succeeds on all of these levels is Steven Spielberg’s masterpiece of childhood adventure E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, but most movies are not E.T. Making a movie that fits all those criteria is incredibly hard. Even children’s movie that I would call great have apparent weak-spots that must be addressed when trying to think about them critically. ‘A Little Princess’ is such a movie. The movie’s limitations are apparent, but that doesn’t keep it from being one of the best children’s movies ever made.

These days we know Alfonso Cuarón as the director behind the Oscar-winning Gravity, but he started out his Hollywood career with this adaptation of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s novel about a creative little girl and her adventures at a strict boarding school. Although by most accounts, Cuarón’s version owes more to the 1939 Shirley Temple adaptation than to the original novel. Like that previous movie adaptation, Cuarón transposes the plot from London to New York, and he changes the ethnicity of Becky, the young servant girl who befriends protagonist Sarah once she falls from grace, who is a cockney girl in the original, but becomes an African American in this version. It’s a change that strengthens the class difference between the boarding school girls and Becky, and gives the movie a social justice undertone that wouldn’t be there if Becky were white while not hiding away from the politics of the period in which the movie takes place.

Indeed, it is quite fascinating to see how Cuarón presents the interactions between the girls by clearly establishing the “social hierarchy” that these children have built based on how the adult world has taught them to behave, and how it is different for the white American students, Becky, and Sarah, who was raised in India. You know, like it so often happens in real life, the children in this movie only do the things they think to be right based on their surroundings. Cuarón’s commitment to put himself and the movie in these girls’ shoes is one of ‘A Little Princess’s biggest strengths, and why it is so emotionally effective despite its limitations.

So, what are those limitations? It’s mostly the fact that, while incredibly cute, the girls in this movie are way too young and inexperience to carry a movie by themselves. There are a lot of flat line readings and awkward bits of acting, but considering how hard it is to get a great performance out of a small child without traumatizing them for life, I think Cuarón made the right choice to value emotional truth over realism. A decision that serves to work around the movie’s other limitation: the sometimes clunky screenplay (which may or may not owe some of said clunkiness to the source material). The movie is largely about Sarah being a story-teller, and thus, Cuarón wisely directs ‘A Little Princess’ as if it were being told by a child. It is so earnest and honest in its emotions that one can’t fail to be charmed by it.

Just to clarify, I’m not saying that only a movie that fits these criteria can be a good children’s movie. I can think of thousands of examples that defy that logic. Classic masterpieces like The Wizard of Oz or Toy Story, for example. I’m just saying that trying to capture a child’s point of view is incredibly hard, and that is one of the reasons why ‘A Little Princess’ should be regarded as the treasure that it is. There is honest and beauty in this movie. You see it in the movie’s most emotional moments: When Sarah consoles a little girl whose mother has died recently telling her that she has become an angel, and towards the end, when an angry Sarah gives a speech to Miss Michin about all girls being princesses.

These moments sound incredibly saccharine on paper, but they play beautifully on screen thanks to the full-on commitment of the people that made this movie. Sarah’s consolation of the girl comes out of the wisdom she’s gained from personal experience, and her speech to Miss Minchin is much more a way for Sarah to cling on to what little she has left than a way for the movie to make some big pronouncement about the magic of being a child. Sarah is not a magical cheery fairy, she is a real girl.

crimsontideposterCrimson Tide (Directed by Tony Scott)
If nothing else, Crimson Tide is notable for being the first collaboration between Denzel Washington and director Tony Scott. Denzel would define Scott’s latter career, seemingly sharing a predilection for relentlessly stylized action, quick cutting, and a mix of old-school genre seriousness and popcorn-friendly sensibilities. I am not the kind of person who was made to enjoy the bulk of their collaboration. Their movies seem to come from a tradition of manly action vehicles I was too young to get into in my formative years. Having said that, I understand how much of a cornerstone Tony Scott’s filmmaking style is in contemporary action cinema, and thus, I was very curious to take a look at the movie that started this relationship.

Crimson Tide ends up being a very different movie from what I’d expected. I found Scott at his most restrained, working off of a very minimalistic screenplay that doesn’t shy away from the staples of its genre. This is, after all, a submarine movie about militaristic men trapped in a confined environment. It is a battle of wills, moralities, and personalities between the experienced all-powerful captain (Gene Hackman) and the young and idealistic second in command (Denzel Washington), which seems to stand in for a fight between emotional absolute belief and passion versus measured rationality.

The situation is the following: a submarine is dispatched with the intention of keeping an eye on a recent Russian revolt. The submarine is ordered to fire nuclear weapons with the intention of hitting Russian soil, but right before the order can be confirmed, the submarine loses all communications. The Captain insists of carrying out the order before it’s too late, the second in command asks for the crew to hold back on reacting until they re-establish communications and can confirm the order. A battle of ideologies on the brink of human annihilation. Like Dr. Strangelove, but played straight.

The big problem with Crimson Tide is that it’s more than obvious from frame one for the audience to know who is right and who is wrong in this ideological battle. Just the fact that one of the characters is played by Denzel and the other by Hackman (coming off his Oscar win for Unforgiven nonetheless) is enough for us to know who the hero is in this equation. So it’s a testament to the filmmaking at hand that Crimson Tide is as engaging and exciting as it is despite the inherent lack of suspense. I wouldn’t say that this movie has converted me into a Scott fan (it is not a great movie, just a solid entertainment), but it has definitely been integral in my realizing what Scott’s strengths as a filmmaker really are.

BraveheartPosterBraveheart (Directed by Mel Gibson)
Mel Gibson might be a troubled man and a crazy person, but he is a fascinating filmmaking. Gibson and I have practically opposite views of the world, and yet, I can’t deny the fact that he is a talented man, and that his bleeding commitment to whatever it is that is trying to communicate in his movies is infectious. If I look at ‘Braveheart’s structure, I conclude that it is a bad movie. If I look at its representation of history, I conclude that it is almost entirely made up. If I look at its gender politics, I conclude that it is misguided and hateful. If I look at its action sequences, I conclude that it is perturbingly blood-thirsty. And yet, I can’t help but admire it. It might be a failure, but Mel is giving so much of himself I can’t help but applaud the whole enterprise.

Of course nowadays we have the benefit of hindsight, and we know the tragic end of Mel Gibson’s history as a movie star. Like I said, I’m in opposition to his politics, but ‘Braveheart‘ makes me think that he is in opposition too. At this point in his career he seems to be struggling to reconcile his beliefs and his most basic instincts. ‘Braveheart‘ also continues the 1995 trend of movies concerned with the place of “righteous” masculinity in a changing world. Because even though the movie takes place in medieval Britain, its sensibilities are almost exclusively a product of the conservative eighties and the rugged early nineties. I mean, of the things Gibson’s William Wallace looks like, grunge rocker comes second only to Jesus Christ. Of course Wallace is a martyr and a Christ figure. You know this because of the way he rides his horse with arms wide open after the cruel murder of his wife. Saying Gibson is not interested in subtlety would be an understatement, especially when it comes to symbolism.

Although perhaps the obvious symbolism is there for us to understand that Gibson is trying to say something with this whole thing, because trying to find any coherence in the script and plot will certainly proof futile. Case in point, there is no effort to connect the most culturally prevalent element of the movie, Wallace’s battle cry for “FREEDOM!”, with whatever his character arc is. What exactly motivates Wallace to fight? What does he mean by freedom? (never mind the fact that the movie takes place at a time when the concept of freedom wouldn’t have been something men would fight for) When the English kill his wife, he says is because they want to get to him, but he hasn’t really done anything. At least not yet. You see, nothing really makes any sense. Except the fact that Gibson sees himself in Wallace, and understands him as a noble martyr and savior (what does the fact that all pretty women swoon when they encounter Wallace’s presence say about Gibson’s view of himself? Well, that’s a conversation for another time).

He also sees him as an incredibly manly man. Gibson equates traditional masculinity with excellence in battle and being part of a noble cause. The most obvious example of this is the treatment of the effeminate English prince, and his suggested (as subtly as Gibson can, which is not subtly at all) lover, and the way the movie takes their queerness as shorthand for them being bad strategists and weak warriors. All great warriors, according to this movie, are the manliest of men. The kind who don’t flinch before showing their penises to army standing before them. They fight for what’s right and that makes them heroes. And “what’s right” is their right to be manly men (after all, the conflict between England and Scotland starts when the English kind establishes “prima nocte”, depriving the Scots of their right to not share their wives with noble Englishmen). That’s why we’re also not supposed to flinch when our heroes dispose of the English armies in incredibly bloody and perversely imaginative ways.

And that’s where I think Gibson’s inner struggle comes in. He believes in the redemptive message of Christianity, and he believes in moral absolutes, but he also loves action, and the bloodier the better. There are very few directors (working outside the B-horror genre) that are as passionate and excited about the many possible ways in which you can end a life than Gibson. This bloodlust makes ‘Braveheart’ uncomfortably violent (this has to be the most violent movie to ever win Best Picture), but it also results in some of the best directed action sequences of the 90s, and the high standard for kinetic action filmmaking until Steven Spielberg raised the bar with Saving Private Ryan. It is also a very beautiful looking movie, thanks to cinematographer John Toll, who has a field day making the Scottish highlands look as beautiful as they possibly can. After all, ‘Braveheart‘ is a movie of absolutes. The landscape is beautiful, Wallace is righteous, the English are evil… It’s in the violence, and in the director’s relation to carnage, that ‘Braveheart’ starts to show any sort of nuance, and where the movie starts to become interesting beyond its aesthetic triumphs.

…But Mostly Me: A Review of Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s ‘Me and Earl and the Dying Girl’

me and earl

It was as if the Sundance Film Festival had become a parody of itself. When a movie with a title like Me and Earl and the Dying Girl wins both the Jury and the Audience award, some eyebrows are going to be raised. Just the title was enough for critics to become wary of what kind of cutesy indie-trash this movie was supposed to be. By the time I saw the movie my Twitter feed already seemed to hate it. I went into the movie ready to give it a fair shake. If anything, I was hoping I would like it and then be the one contrarian voice defending it. No such luck. The movie starts with the “me” of the title, a high school senior named Greg (Thomas Mann), narrating that this is the story of how he made a movie so bad it killed someone. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl will hopefully not kill anyone, but it won’t be for lack of being terrible.

I don’t really like to use the term “indie trash” that often, since it implies that no good movie could ever be made with this aesthetic, but I think Me and Earl and the Dying Girl could end up being the perfect example of what the term actually means. We’re talking about a movie that seems to be a hollow shell designed to exploit the aesthetics of the genre. What aesthetics am I talking about? As far as the story is concerned, the teenage melodrama. More specifically, the teenage cancer melodrama. And as far as visual style is concerned, the easiest way to describe the look of Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is as a pastiche of indie filmmaking trends. You have a bunch of hand-held long takes, you have a bunch of shots in which the characters are located to the side of the frame, and most apparent of all, you have a movie that wants to look like a Wes Anderson movie (it was even produced by Indian Paintbrush, the production company responsible for much of Anderson’s work), but has been made by people who have no idea of why Anderson’s intrinsically designed and overproduced aesthetic works well in his movies.

While we’re on that topic, let me go on a bit of a tangent. You see, Wes Anderson is one of my favorite filmmakers, but a lot of people don’t like him and I often have to defend myself and my love for his movies. The artificial design of a Wes Anderson movie works because it stands in defiance to the real world. It presents us with a world every inch of which is perfectly designed, where any glimpse of true emotion would seem out of place. His characters resist giving in to their emotions, but they fail. That’s were the drama comes from, and that’s why they’re so effective. It’s the drama of a perfectionist who can’t handle the imperfect nature of being a human. In other words, there is a reason for his movies to look like they do. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl looks like a faux-Anderson design because the filmmakers (led by director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon) thought it would make it look cool, or it would help them appeal to a certain audience. The story of Me and Earl and the Dying Girl has no real relationship to the way it looks.

It doesn’t help that there is not a single bit of originality in the movie’s story. Again, it’s not a matter of every movie having to be something completely new. I mean, the cancer melodrama has been done many times before, including last year’s The Fault in our StarsNow, that movie had problems of its own, but it at least understood where the strength and the “truth” of John Green’s original novel comes from. It focuses on the life of its main character, and tries to do it justice in making the audience look at the world through the eyes of a girl who has suffered from cancer since she was a child. The script for Me and Earl and the Dying Girl was written by one Jesse Andrews, who adapted it from his very own novel, which makes me think the novel must be as much of a hack job as the movie.

The problem with Andrews’s script is that it seems to just be hitting certain bits just because that’s what’s supposed to happen in a movie like this one. Everything is predictable, nothing surprises. The minute we meet Greg’s friend Earl (R.J. Cyler) we know he and Greg will have a big fight toward the end of the movie. The minute we meet Greg’s history professor (Jon Bernthal) we know he will deliver a speech giving him an important life lesson later in the movie. Even the things that are meant to surprise us are predictable. Like narrator Greg assuring us a certain thing is not going to happen later on in the movie only to pull the rug from under us later on in the movie.

But there is an even bigger reason than the predictability for Me and Earl and the Dying Girl to feel as artificial and pre-fabricated as it does. Despite making mention of three different people in its title, the movie might as well be called “Me and Me and Me”, because Greg is the only character it has any interest in caring about. The most infuriating thing about the move is that everyone around this boy is a far more interesting character than he is, and yet, the movie insists on us looking at these people thinking only of how Greg’s life will be affected by them. Now, the movie is narrated by Greg, so it makes sense we would see it from his perspective. It just turns out that his perspective is incredibly selfish and doesn’t really change throughout the movie. If you asked me to describe the arc of the movie I would say it’s the story of how a young girl dying of cancer helps this stupid selfish boy get into college.

And let’s talk about the “dying girl” of the title. Her name is Rachel (Olivia Cook) and she has been diagnosed with Leukemia. Greg’s mom forces him to hang out with her, and they quickly become friends. It is also not long until Rachel finds out Greg spends most of his free time making parody movies with his “co-worker” Earl (Greg has commitment issues, so he calls Earl his co-worker instead of his friend. That’s how annoying the characterization in this movie is). Rachel likes watching the movies these two make, but that’s pretty much it as far as her involvement is concerned. She doesn’t join them, she doesn’t create anything with them, they don’t become friends. That is the movie’s biggest crux. It is not interested in the friendship between Greg and Rachel being a relationship, it is only interested in how Rachel’s situation affects Greg.

The movie is even less interested in Earl, who is a bag full of unexplored racial stereotypes. If you want to read a great, detailed description of the movie’s horrible treatment of Earl as a character, then I recommend this piece by Odie ‘Odienator’ Henderson. As for me, I am saddened that -beyond the stereotypes- the movie has so little interest in even thinking a little bit about Earl in relation to anyone. If the character was going to live in a stereotypically black neighborhood, the movie could have at least gotten some milage out of exploring what it means for these two kids with different backgrounds to be friends, and how it affects their relationship (think, for example, of the elegant way Alfonso Cuarón uses narration to do just this in Y Tú Mamá También).

Most of my problems with the movie can be encapsulated in the fact that Rachel and Earl don’t become friends. Why would they? They don’t really need to interact. They are only there to have an effect on Greg’s life, because of course they do. They are a black guy and a woman, that’s their role in life -and in movies- to help white guys become better. To help selfish white kids get into college. To fuel the stupid patriarchal notion that only stories about a white boy are universal stories. To make me angry. And to make Me and Earl and the Dying Girl a bad movie.

Grade: 3 out of 10

Hit Me With Your Best Shot: Magic Mike

Screen shot 2015-06-16 at 11.20.12 p.m. This week in Hit Me with Your Best Shot, our dear Nathaniel invited us to anticipate the release of Magic Mike XXL by taking a look at the 2012 original directed by the once-prolific-now-alledgedly-retired Steven Soderbergh.

I didn’t quite appreciate the strengths of Magic Mike the way I should have when I first saw it. I still find it to be a flawed movie, but whereas I used to think it was just an ok version of the story it was telling, revisiting the movie has made me appreciate what Soderbergh and his collaborators where trying to accomplish, even though they don’t succeed to the degree I would like them to. In any case, I’m not a big Soderbergh fan in general, but would be an idiot not to recognize Magic Mike as an outstanding work of filmmaking as far as aesthetics are concerned. The cinematography and editing in particular.

I also can’t keep going without relishing in the fact that Soderbergh decided that this particular story about a decadent male stripper would be the perfect way to explore the effect of the 2008 market crash and the most recent economic recession in American life. Even more impressive is the fact that, while indulging in his usual clinically precise and distant style, he didn’t shy away from the raw sexual power and showmanship that comes with the profession he chose to explore.

Case in point, my favorite thing about Magic Mike is Matthew McConaghey’s performance as Dallas. Of all the male performers in the movie, he is the one that goes the farthest out into setting his sexual charisma completely on the loose. This was fairly early in the McConnaissance, and it’s still the best performance to come out of it. Truth be told, it’s been quite disappointing that this outstanding, natural, and immediate performance has been followed by such underwhelming work.

Thank God Soderbergh’s vision is in service of this performance, as evidenced in the long take in which McConaughey teaches the Kid some dance moves while standing in front of a mirror. Not only is it incredibly amusing, but it reflects on the movie’s views on using bodies, sexuality, and images as commodities in a broken economic landscape. It’s the best bit of acting in McConaughey’s career, and probably the best scene in all of Magic Mike.

Screen shot 2015-06-16 at 8.44.44 p.m.