Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

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On the surface of it, some may apply hesitation to this film, the combination of a clunky title and a plot that involves a high schooler and his relationship with a girl who has a life threatening illness sounds like adolescent twee overload for those who don’t dig that kind of genre. But don’t let that put you off because Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is one of the most refreshing teen movies in recent times and also a giddy treat for film lovers.

Greg (Thomas Mann) believes he has high school sussed; he belongs to no one peer group, instead flitting between each social group without having any real friendships. The closest he comes to one is with Earl (R J Cyler) who he refers to as his ‘co-worker’ as they make no budget parodies of American and European classic movies (Sockwork Orange, The Rad Shoes, 2.48pm Cowboy). But when his mother (Connie Britton) forces him to hang out with a fellow classmate Rachel (Olivia Cooke) who has recently been diagnosed with leukaemia, Greg’s outlook on life is infinitely altered.

Managing to sidestep the veritable clichés that may arise with the subject matter, Me and Earl instead marches to its own beat, when you think it’s going to go a certain way, it doesn’t, with Greg’s narration even reminding us throughout the film ‘it’s not that kind of movie’.  This is helped in spades by the performances of the young cast who avoid sugary sentimentality and instead produce something funny and tender from their characters. Thomas Mann has the awkward job as the awkward Greg to walk the line between self involved and self loathing but does so with subtle wit. Meanwhile Northerner Oli20150106homeandearl0125magvia Cooke impresses with a quiet dignity that avoids self pity and a spot on American accent.

Director Alfonso Gomez Rejon cut his teeth as an assistant for the likes of Martin Scorsese, Nora Ephron and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu
and it is evident that these, amongst others, have influenced him as his film combines warmth, charm and a love of arthouse cinema, throwing in offbeat scenes and framing into the mix. Not many teen movies would include an ode to Peeping Tom or their young lead character doing a (rather good) impression of Werner Herzog and fewer would do so with such wit and endearment rather than for hipster credentials.

There has been criticism of the film by some who feel that Rachel’s only function is to make Greg a better person but to attack a film that’s heart is in the right place feels snippy. From the offset we are pome-and-earl-and-the-dying-girl parodiessitioned with Greg’s view, the film does not shy away from this but does not present him as the hero; he is a young man with a limited view, highlighted by his inability to connect and the way he only produces remakes of movies. And encouragingly Rachel does not become the love interest or the pixie dream girl, she becomes the heart and though she may enter the film as the catalyst for Greg, she becomes the subject, not the object; her energy reflected in the film that Greg is assigned to make for her.

Me and Earl at points references cult classic Harold and Maude and shares a kinship to that film, it deals with a morose teenager who is detached from his world and who finds a connection in an unlikely friendship and whilst it doesn’t quite avoid all the trappings of the high school movie (what film could when it is a genre that has been satirised over and over again), it averts enough to feel sharp, disarming and mature. And any film that shows love for Harold and Maude will always be a triumph to me.

Napoleon Dynamite at Square Chapel, Halifax

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Some films are like friends, you spent a lot of time together at the beginning, then you lose touch but when you become reacquainted with them, it’s like no time has passed at all. Such is the feeling with Napoleon Dynamite, a film that after its release in 2004 became a cult classic; it was endlessly quotable and spawned a plethora of merchandise such as slogan t-shirts, talking pens and a variety of badges (Vote for Pedro) and warranted repeat viewing (I watched it a lot during my University years). Some people then began to get a little fatigued, feeling that it was over quoted in some circles but that was not the fault of Napoleon and does a disservice to a film that is still a joy to watch.

Napoleon Dynamite was being screened at Square Chapel Centre of Arts in Halifax as part of a pilot scheme to introduce film to their programme with a variety of classics, family favourites and recent critical hits lined up in their schedule. The intimate setting of the historic building added to the sense of nostalgia of rediscovering a once favoured gem.

For anyone unfamiliar with the film, Napoleon Dynamite is centred on the titular character (played by Jon Heder), a socially awkward and alienated teenager, who lives with his Grandma (Sandy Martin), his chat room based brother Kip (Aaron Ruell) and tnapoleon and pedroheir pet llama Tina. When Grandma suffers a dune buggy related accident, their Uncle Rico (Jon Gries) comes to stay with them and clashes with Napoleon, who turns his attention to helping out his new friend at school Pedro (Efren Ramirez) win the class presidency election.

A film less concerned with plot, Napoleon Dynamite instead lets its characters inhibit a world that is brimming with offbeat charm and eccentricities, styled in an indefinable period; it is modern-day for all intents and purposes but feels like the 1980s.  Jon Heder creates an iconic character in Napoleon, he cuts a gawky figure with his curly hair and moon boots, he is the poster boy for school ridicule yet his beliefs in his skills, such as drawing, are unwavering, even carrying a level of misguided arrogance.

uncle rico and kip Though Napoleon may dominate the film with his comical actions and his countless sound-bites, there is plenty of room for each character to add memorable moments, such as Kip, whose relationship with internet girlfriend Lafawnduh (Shondrella Avery) reaches a surprising conclusion or steak eating Uncle Rico who is obsessed with recapturing his college football days. There is someone for each viewer to count as their favourite and the delightful thing is that we are not simply just laughing at these oddballs; director Jared Hess has created a film with warmth for his characters, we want them to achieve, regardless of their peculiar nature.

Napoleon Dynamite may not appeal to everyone, its idiosyncratic brand of comedy is one you either go with or don’t, however if you let yourself fall for its charms it will reward with its grin inducing delights. One of the sweet elements of watching this film again at the theatre was there was a family there of all different ages-dad, mum, two teenagers and a younger child, who all laughed at different points, finding something in its quirky nature that made them smile, discovering (or rediscovering) its diverse charm. I too rediscovered its charm and came to realise that we were still going to be friends.

Mistress America

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Noah Baumbach is currently on a career winning streak- his last two films Frances Ha and While we’re Young dealt with the instability of life, whether it be through friendship, age or aspirations and were done with wit, warmth and a dab of melancholy. And his latest film Mistress America knocks it out of the park again with a spirited comedy of hipster misfits, co written by Baumbach’s onscreen/off-screen muse Greta Gerwig. Though the film can be seen as a follow-up to Frances Ha, with its interweaving themes and its leading actress returning to a role of a conformity dodging New Yorker, Gerwig’s character Brooke in Mistress America is a different breed to Frances Ha. Where Frances was a flawed, goofy but charming heroine, Brook’s blend of charm and charisma comes with a side order of arrogance and a slight air of calculation and delusion. Yet, while we might not necessarily route for Brooke, in Gerwig’s hands it’s hard not to be captivated by her.

The film begins with Tracey (Lola Kirke), a bright literature student who has arrived in New York and is trying to fit in with the new experiences that college presents but is slightly awkward in her execution. Feeling directionless in her studies and her interactions mistress-americawith her fellow students, she is encouraged by her mother to get in touch with Brooke a 30-year-old fellow New Yorker who will imminently become Tracey’s stepsister when her mother marries Brooke’s father over Thanksgiving weekend. Tracey and Brooke hit it off instantly with Brooke becoming Tracey’s social spirit guide as they traverse the streets of Manhattan, taking in the myriad aspects of Brooke’s life, from spin class instructor to interior designer to maths tutor and her latest venture to open up a restaurant. Tracey is seduced by Brooke’s verve and panache and becomes inspired to write a story about her, but by putting pen to paper, she may expose the flaws in Brooke’s persona.

They say that they don’t ma150812_MOV_MistressAmerica.jpg.CROP.promo-xlarge2ke them like they used to, but Mistress America sings with the type of snappy dialogue of a Wilder movie, the sparky wit and one liners of the golden age of Hollywood have been modernised for the hip, intellectual generation. There is an extended scene in the film, where Brooke and Tracey, accompanied by two of Tracey’s fellow students, travel to see Brooke’s nemesis Mamie-Claire (Heather Lind) which plays out like a screwball comedy. Set in a plush mansion, an assortment of characters become tangled, bobbing in and out of the frame to deliver acerbic zingers and heighten the calamity as Brooke’s restaurant plans begin to derail. Always at the centre of the dramatics is Brooke and Gerwig’s performance is one of her best to date, she is an infectious narcissist who manages to deliver the absurdist lines and ideas (‘it’s a restaurant but also where you cut your hair’) with enough conviction and magnetism to convince anyone. Lola Kirke meanwhile as Tracey is an intriguing lead, resonating a naïve demeanour which is peppered with a droll nature and a determination under the surface.  Baumbach’s buoyant direction allows the leading ladies to take centre stage in a sapient take on female friendships which is refreshing and wholly welcome in cinema at this time, it also cements Baumbach and Gerwig as the power couple for post modern prose.

The Gift

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Surprise Package

In the early 90s in cinema there were a slew of thrillers that fed on paranoia, dark secrets and the invasion of the home, from the psychotic copy-cat of the career girl in Single White Female (1992) to the scorned woman who brings terror to the suburbs in The Hand that rocks the Cradle (1992). In recent years, there has been a cinematic drought in quality thrillers, aside from a few notable exceptions such as Prisoners (2013) and Gone Girl (2014), it is a genre that is often overlooked as the trend for jumps on our seats has been populated and over saturated by sub par horrors and cheap sequels (Paranormal Activity Ghost Dimension anyone?) So any film that aims to entertain its audience with psychological suspense is always welcome in my eyes and Joel Edgerton’s directorial debut The Gift does just that, harking back to the 90s thriller but bringing it up to date with sophisticated restraint.

Simon (Jason Bateman) and Robyn (Rebecca Hall) are the perfect catalogue couple, successful and stylish, they buy a beautiful house, moving back to where Simon grew up as his career soars and they plan to start a family. As they shop for interiors for their new home, they run into Gordon (Joel Edgegordorton), an old classmate of Simon’s who was nicknamed Gordo, and who Simon initially does not recognise. However once Simon realises who Gordo is, they have a brief stilted conversation and upon leaving Simon dismisses him as the school weirdo to his wife and they carry on with their blissful fresh start. However Gordo begins to imprint himself into their lives, at first as an awkward dinner guest then by a series of good-natured yet invasive gestures such as filling their pond with fish, leaving various gifts and repeatedly turning up at their house when Robyn is alone. Whilst Robyn sees him as a harmless loner, Simon is rattled by his constant appearances and dismisses him as a creepy loser and as Gordo’s actions become increasing odd and turn personal, a letter eludes to Simons past that Robyn sets to uncover.

Whilst the plot could give way to over dramatics, the refreshing thing about The Gift is that it doesn’t become too theatrical, Edgerton reveals an impressive amount of control in his direction and storytelling, creating a slow build of Hitchcockian tension. The first half of the film focuses on the motives of Gordo however as Simon becomes unravelled, the lines between protagonist and the antagonist become blurred and the theme of past actions coming back to haunt you reach a chilling, accomplished climax.  The film is also bolstered by three excellent performances; Rebecca Hall brings the right layer of paranoia to her performance without giving way to hysteria while Jason Bateman reaches new levels of sleaze, a million miles away from his Michael Bleuth nice guy charm, his smile turned smug, and his mask of decency slipping with every passing scene. However it is Edgerton who is the star of the show on a multi level front for his acting, writing and directing. His performance as Gordo veers between sad sack loner and vengeful creep, his pacing of storytelling is faultless and admirable and his direction resists flashy first time flourishes in favour of composed unease. Sadly in the midst of the fanfare of blockbuster season, a film such as this may become overlooked yet it deserves to be the sleeper hit of the summer, an intelligent grown up thriller The Gift is the unexpected package that cinema needs.