Wednesday, 2 December 2015

Movie Review: Me And Earl And The Dying Girl/Creed (2015)


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You know the phrase “You can’t judge a book by its cover”? Well, in keeping with our innate fear of that which is strange and/or different, this is something we still do, myself included. Namely, every so often, a film title will pop out and make me go “Um… no.” purely on how the name sounds. This isn’t even a matter of a name sounding weird; after all, I looked at The Human Centipede initially because it sounded so bloody weird. Rather, because some films invoke images of lame that will no doubt irrevocably paint my opinions. Today’s film, based on the title alone, had better be a cinematic remake of Earl Sweatshirt’s epaR or I will be colossally disappointed. Then again, this has gotten some rather lofty accolades since its initial release, and I am in the middle of my year-end catch-up of as many other releases from the past year as possible, so it was inevitable that I would look at this film at some point anyway regardless of my misconceptions. This is Me And Earl And The Dying Girl.

The plot: Greg (Thomas Mann) is a rather gawky high school kid who does as best he can to make sure he stays on everyone’s good side. When not at school, he makes his own low-budget films at home with his ‘co-worker’ Earl (RJ Cyler). However, he soon gets roped into befriending a girl from his class Rachel (Olivia Cooke) at the behest of his mother (Connie Britton). As they connect through their own awkward graces, they create what can only be described as a genuine friendship.

One of the big reasons why I immediately thought “weak” when I saw both this film’s title and its accompanying trailer is because of three key words: Indie film quirkiness. Juno, Little Miss Sunshine, Napoleon Dynamite; even if you don’t know exactly what it is, you’ve encountered it at some point if you regularly watch movies. It’s a style of writing borne from attempting to better capture how life actually feels for teenagers. Usually, these teenagers are avid movie buffs themselves, characterized to draw heavy-handed parallels between how complicated real life is in comparison to what is shown in films. Now, I say all this not to highlight that the writing style is in it of itself bad, since it’s like any other mode of scripting that can work in the right hands. My problem with it comes from just how prevalent it is and how, with some very rare exceptions, what you see is what end up getting; no real surprises to be found along the way.

Is that the same case here? Well, it is and then it isn’t. We still get the usual character writing style in that, even with how bizarre they can be, they are all memorable in their own rights: The lush of a mother who is one martini away from re-enacting The Graduate, the most laidback and at the same time intense history teacher ever, the father whose attitude to films probably mirrors how I’m going to end up a couple decades from now, and so on. That said, these characters actually do stay within the realms of reality, in that character arcs don’t really exist because none of them are really at a stage in life where they would. How often do you see real-life adults go through true paradigm shifts in their lifetime? If it does happen, chances are you don’t have a camera at the ready to capture it happen in its entirety. This is definitely helped by the casting, particular that of Thomas Mann and Olivia Cooke as the ‘Me’ and ‘The Dying Girl’ of the title, both of whom balance joviality with the darker reality of Rachel’s illness very well. Far better than Miss You Already, at the very least.

Something that puts this a bit further past the typical IFQ is that the main character’s taste in cinema reaches the point of making his own home movies. In terms of how this services the overall production, it’s a double-edged sword. On one hand, the self-aware narration can get a bit much and the assurances from Greg via narration that Rachel will survive were definitely head-scratching. On the other hand, it helps give a nice visual aesthetic to the film as well as some really well-handled subtext about the nature of cinema itself. The film definitely has some motifs that, on the surface, seem a bit off: The use of chintzy Claymation, the “The part where…” title cards, the aforementioned narration; it gives a weird found footage feel by means of The Visit. By that, I mean that these are all production elements that real home movie makers would use, simply because it looks cool and they won’t usually have people chomping at the bit to critique their work. Unless they’re my friends, of course, because I can’t help myself. Or, if you’re studying at film school, you use them because it fulfills a certain visual aspect that you’ll be marked on, regardless of their purpose to the overall narrative.

As we see Greg and Earl make their films, we get a glimpse of something kind of amazing in its own right. Their gimmick is making films that are just a play-on-words of other film titles, kind of like if Colin Mochrie directed for The Asylum: A Sockwork Orange, 2:48pm Cowboy, Ate ½ (Of My Sandwich), A Box O’ Lips Wow; sometimes, the common hatred of puns has to submit to when a master is at work, in yet another weird instance of wishing that I could write this well myself. However, as they freely admit, the films themselves aren’t all that great; in fact, they’re rather embarrassing to the point where Greg initially doesn’t want anyone watching them aside from himself, his family and Earl. But, going back to The Asylum for just a moment, there’s integrity to be found even in that. Cinema is a remarkably powerful thing that isn’t exactly quantifiable by standard means; it’s the main reason I don’t even feign objectivity in these reviews. Even if the films that The Asylum usually put out are meant solely to cash in on a more popular blockbuster, that doesn’t mean that they are automatically worthless. Hell, in some cases, I’d argue that they end up better than the film they’re trying to rip off (Abraham Lincoln Vs. Zombies is legitimately good).

Here, even though these guys are working with rather minimal production values, their work still has merit to it. For a clear example of this, we have the scene where Greg unveils the film that he made just for Rachel which ends up creating a portrayal of this effect in duplicate. In-universe, the effect it has on Rachel is rather profound and shows a proper emotional connection being made, although it isn’t entirely clear what that connection is exactly. Out-of-universe, the scene itself is shown with no dialogue, either from the actors or from the film-within-the-film, with only the music and the visuals to give us a sense of what is happening. And yet, despite Greg’s own admissions that the film he made isn’t that good, there is another connection being made with the audience here through this scene. Maybe it’s as a result of knowing the emotional background of both artist and audience within the film or the production elements of either example just ‘working’ for whatever reason; in any case, this scene is freaking gorgeous. In fact, with how it succeeds in untampered visual storytelling, I almost wanted to go back and re-watch The Tree Of Life because I felt I had gained a new perspective on more visually-fixated films. Yes, this film is so good that it actively made me want to give Terence “Pretense-Rah” Malick another chance; such is the power of cinema.

As a depiction of a teenager in high school, alongside the pseudo-diplomatic stance Greg has towards the different cliques, this is remarkably deft. Throughout, Greg is shown being uncertain about what lies ahead after school, doing his best to stay on everyone’s good sides and even disregarding his school work since, let’s be honest, he’s busy with more important matters. I specify that last one because it’s kind of strange how rare this message is: High school doesn’t matter. At all. The enemies you make, the grades you’re given, the emotional scars you get from interactions with the opposite sex; none of it means anything outside of the school itself. All it does is show that you are capable of following what people tell you to do, something Greg does a little too well. Here, as things progress, the only real arc of the film continues as Greg starts to attain a higher sense of self and what he wants, rather than being forced to befriend Rachel because his mother insists that he do so (among other things).

All in all, as a continuation of the annoyingly-quipped “sick-lit” young adult adaptation trend, this is a damn good sit. The casting is great, the acting is pitch-perfect, the production values fit nicely with the tone of the film and the writing not only gives an accurate depiction of high school life, but also pays tribute to just how potent a force cinema can be. It’s better than Legend as the main character is so much more relatable than Ronnie Kray. Under any other circumstances, that would go without saying, but remember that this is the guy who thinks The Human Centipede II is a cinematic work of art; it took something astounding to connect with me better than Ronnie. However, as an experience, The Martian resulted in a more emotionally gripping watch in the immediate sense, somehow channelling the same sense of pop culture savvy cheese to even greater effect.

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Whenever you think of the words “sports movie”, nine times out of ten it’ll be one of the Rocky movies that immediately comes to mind. Another addition of the Sylvester Stallone oeuvre that has ingrained itself permanently into pop culture, it is also some of the best and, at times, cheesiest boxing action in the history of cinema. Of course, as is the case with any highly-lauded franchise, any new installments are going to be treated with supreme scepticism by the audience. We saw plenty of this earlier in the year with new additions to Mad Max (outstanding), Jurassic Park (pointless) and Terminator (thoroughly disappointing), so we’ve already gotten a decent spectrum of how this could turn out. So, with the upstart director of the surprise success Fruitvale Station at the helm, Stallone coming back as the Italian Stallion himself and franchise producer Irwin Winkler giving his support to the production, how did this turn out? Time to ring that bell and find out: This is Creed.

The plot: Adonis “Donny” Johnson (Michael B. Jordon) is the youngest son of former heavyweight champion Apollo Creed, born out of wedlock and taken in by Apollo’s widow Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashād) after his mother’s death. Determined to make a name for himself in the world of boxing, he seeks the mentorship of Apollo’s best friend Rocky (Sylvester Stallone) who, after some coaxing, agrees to train him. As news of this underdog reaches the press, champion boxer Ricky Conlan (Tony Bellew) wants one last bout before he gets sent to prison, so he challenges Donny to a match that may give Adonis a chance to finally prove himself.

Michael B. Jordon, despite what some of his work from earlier in the year may suggest, is a remarkably charismatic actor and this is a clear example of that at work. His portrayal of Adonis shows a bit of cockiness, a bit of a douchebag streak, but definitely someone with a lot of heart and the will to prove himself. His clean muscle is a bit distracting for a few femtoseconds, most likely after seeing the ripped Gyllenhaal not that long ago, but he also carries off the fights in the ring just as smoothly. Alongside him is Sly Stallone and, not gonna lie, he can get awkward in a couple of scenes. Then again, this is the guy who made his mark in films that he wrote himself; he’s just one of those stars that works best with his own words. However, when Coogler and Covington give him gold, he delivers friggin’ gold. Case in point, his conversation with Adonis in the locker room after he finds out certain information Rocky was keeping from him. What follows is a highly concentrated monologue that pretty much embodies the Spartan warrior coda of the original Rocky films, and should remind audiences just how great Stallone can be when he isn’t completely disappointing people like with Expendables 3. While the rest of the cast do great, the only real weak link here is Ricky Conlan. Not that this is Bellew’s fault, as he infuses enough British hard into the role to make it work as well as he can. The problem with him is that, especially in comparison to Apollo, Lang and Drago, he isn’t that interesting of an opponent.

The crux of the film is one of legacy, both in and out of its own universe. In-universe, Adonis has a thirst to show that he is a reputable fighter on his own terms, and doesn’t have to lean on his father’s legacy to make his mark. Out-of-universe, Creed has to prove that it is capable of standing alongside the original films, considering we’re not only dealing with a relative newcomer as director/co-writer but also with an all-new main character. Last time we saw Rocky hand over the reins to someone else, we got the pretty underwhelming Rocky V. Well, let’s see how it fares when it comes to what it is that makes the Rocky series great. First step, naturally, would be the boxing matches themselves. Even if it means less immediate battle damage, the long shots taken here for some of the fights are done to superb effect. However, something that even the Rocky films themselves seem to forget is that the fight scenes on their own aren’t enough; what occurs in between them is just as important, if not more so. One look at the running times for each of the Rocky movies is a clear enough indicator of that: The longer ones (Rocky I, II and Balboa) usually allowed more time for character development and created more effective build-up for each fight, whereas the shorter ones (Rocky III, IV, V) just focused primarily on the fights and the training montages. Here, we’re definitely in the former category, as the build-up is palpable with Jordon bringing the personal triumphant edge and Stallone doing wonders as the motivator. Like I said, the man is amazing with the right script and he gives chills with how well he gives his speeches here. He might even motivate my lazy gut to get into the gym… possibly.

The big thing that the world remembers the Rocky series for, bar none, is the music. That classic theme, when coupled with the training sequences, made for the stuff of sports film legend; I defy anyone to listen to the original theme and not feel the urge to start running. Enter Ludwig Göransson, sitcom theme composer and right-hand man of Childish Gambino, not to mention half the brains behind the excellent soundtrack from Top Five. Being familiar with his work with Gambino, I was expecting decent work from him here. What I wasn’t expecting was a score that well and truly lives up to the name of Bill Conti. It’s almost as if he studied the man’s style incessantly because he has nailed Conti’s proficiency with horn sections, not to mention drum work that is hand-crafted to accelerate heartbeats. I’d even go so far as to say he creates genuine masterworks for this film, especially when we see Adonis running alongside the bikers; the weaving in and out of different styles brings tears to the music lover’s eye. Unfortunately, while he’s certainly succeeded at reviving the spirit of Conti’s compositions, he starts to falter when he tries to re-use his actual compositions. Yep, we have a slight retuning of the Rocky theme in the final fight, and it pains me to admit this but it just doesn’t sound right. Honestly, the added touches made sound pretty unnecessary and, given how respectful he’s been to the man’s work, it would’ve worked a lot better if he just conducted the original theme as is. His strengths aren’t just in strict composition, as he’s also a damn good curator of music as well. This film basically proves how to construct a hip-hop soundtrack for a boxing film and do it right, unlike the half-arsed attempt in Southpaw. Alongside lyrical heavyweights like Nas, Joey Bada$$ and 2Pac, he also pays tribute to Philly by including artists from the area like Meek Mill, Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes and, naturally, the legendary Fifth Dynasty crew The Roots. The only way this could’ve been better is if Adonis’ entrance music was Stomp, complete with Just Blaze’s blood-boiling shouts, but it’s not like I’m going to knock Hail Mary too heavily here.

All in all, this is a phenomenally good addition to the legendary series. While it may not have the most original elements in the world, Ryan Coogler makes up for it with stone-cold brilliant execution. The acting is fantastic, with Jordon and Stallone working great off of each other, the boxing fights are very well executed and exhilarating to watch, and the music pays tribute to Bill Conti’s eternally remembered score while making its own mark and even manages to improve upon a previously-attempted formula to incorporate hip-hop into the soundtrack (both with Southpaw and with Rocky V). This is well and truly a worthy follow-up, and a pretty damn good sports film in its own right. It ranks higher than Crimson Peak, as the numerous components that make up the final product just clicked together better in this case. However, in comparison to another Göransson-scored film, Top Five provided a more complete arc for the main character.

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