This marks the last round-up post until I can get back into the jive of solo-outing reviews. This edition takes a look at some of the flicks I managed to catch over the course of September. These early Autumn months are usually responsible for some of the more surprising entries of the year, often delivering some of the year’s best. While a couple of these particular films fell a little short of expectations, there is still enough strength to demonstrate how surprising and fresh these closing months always turn out to be.
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (Dir: Alfonso Gomez-Rejon)
I am a sucker for Indie coming-of-age flicks, no matter how quirky they get. If the story has strong, relate-able characters, and an approach I find interesting, I’m there. This year, the stand-out feature for this sub-genre has to be without a doubt Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, a Sundance favourite which only the harshest of critics would degrade.
The film follows Greg (Thomas Munn), a High School Senior about to enter his final year of a carefully manoeuvred High School experience. He has never attached himself to one group, constantly remaining on the outskirts, being pleasant enough and never doing anything to rub any one the wrong way. In his spare time, he remakes his favourite films with parodic titles with his ‘co-worker’ Earl (RJ Cyler), all the while avoiding making decisions about his imminent graduate future. Rachel (Olivia Cooke), a girl in Greg’s year, is diagnosed with Leukaemia, leading to Greg’s mum forcing him to hang out with her. What starts out as a begrudging task soon develops into a burgeoning friendship, one which life changing consequences for both Greg and Rachel.
Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, making his directorial début following working as an AD for the likes of Scorsese and Inarritu, channels that cinematic knowledge knowingly into both Greg and Earl’s lovingly made oeuvre of titles which include th likes of A Sockwork Orange, The Rad Shoes, and 2:38pm Cowboy. His camera-work is sharp and agile, moving with a calculation not unlike that of Wes Anderson, but also one which knows when to stay static and let performances provide the kinetic-ism and focus within certain key scenes. The film is small scale, only really operating out of three to four main locations, but Gomz-Rejon gives the proceedings buzz and energy that allows the film to have a strong sense of momentum.
The film is also a delight in regards to the performances from its young cast. Munn and Cooke have an easy-going chemistry that is pivotal to the emotional rendering of the central relationship. Cooke’s understatement in particular is particularly affecting, allowing Rachel to have a holding on the film, even when she’s not on screen. RJ Cyler is a point of calm amongst the emotional storm, and provides a truly memorable performance. The adult cast is also on fine form, with a zen Nick Offerman once again being a highlight (that’s just how Swanson rolls).
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is a cancer movie for those that hated The Fault in Our Stars; its cynical bent is much more refreshing, its characters that much more genuine, and the experience all that more emotionally devastating and enriching. It is oh so very quirky, but an utter delight that is very difficult not to fall for. 4/5
Legend (Dir: Brian Helgeland)
The story of the notorious Kray Twins, identical twins who were the most high profile gangsters in 1960s East London, is one in which many people have commented on and calimed to be an authority on; anyone who was around in East London at the time had their own story about the Krays. They occupy a unique position in British history due to how they operated, mingling with fellow gangster types and A-list celebrities, but both were very much dangerous men. This take on the iconography of the twins cast Tom Hardy as both Reggie and Ronnie Kray, Reggie being the calmer, smoother of the pair, with Ronnie the more erratic and mentally unhinged of the pairing. It is a platform which allows Hardy to craft two very distinct personalities, but one which also leaves one wanting for a definitive text on the Kings of the East End.
Brian Helgeland, the writer behind LA Confidential and Mystic River, frames his story through the perspective of Francis (Emily Browning), Reggie’s ill-fated wife, telling the tale from beyond the grave as she charts her experience in the world of the Kray Twins. It is an inconsistent perspective, with a coming and going voice-over reminding us of her presence, without truly establishing her as a character as worthy of our sympathy. Helgeland’s script is riddled with genre cliches such as this, all which become very clear in the latter half of the movie. After a blistering and hugely enjoyable first hour, the film becomes very pedestrian in its pacing, as it goes along ticking the boxes of the Kray’s history.
The USP of this film is seeing Hardy as both Reggie and Ronnie, and it does not disappoint. Hardy has become of our modern day screen actors who nearly completely disappears behind his roles, and in his one-two jab as Reg and Ron, he manages to craft two very distinct personalities from very cliched characterisations. Ron is coloured too much as a wide-eyed psychopath, while Reg feels like an audition for James Bond at times, but Hardy brings wonderful quirks and movement to both characters, as well as a respective voice, which concocts chemistry between the two (or himself if you will).
Legend comes across as a cartoon history of The Krays. It is ultra glossy, set to a cool era appropriate soundtrack, and has punch ups and shoot outs that pack a visceral punch but neither entirely seem all that rooted in reality. It is interesting enough to hold your attention, mainly due to the work of Hardy, but one which never feels quite complete enough to work as a worthy account of the history of the Twins. 3/5
Everest depicts the ill-fated events of a climb in 1996 led by two commercial climbing organisations known as Adventure Consultants, run by Rob Hall (Jason Clarke) and Mountain Madness, run by Scott Fischer (Jake Gyllenhaal). The two groups, working together, were left scattered on the fabled mountain following a storm, claiming many lives of the paying customers on the mountain. This account of the events benefits from some strong performances and impressive vistas, but nothing ever quite lands as successfully as it wants, leading to a disaster flick that peddles too much on clichés and wastes talented actors in order to wean an emotional response.
The main problem with Everest, as was the case with the real-life event, there are just too many characters for you to keep a track of or to have all that much of an investment in. The script benefits from positioning the figure of Rob Hall as the lead, as it allows Jason Clarke to exhibit his dependable leading man skills. His story works and provides the most tragic arc, despite a rather cringe-worthy performance from Keira Knightley as the helpless wife at home.
The build-up to the climb, the calm before the storm, is when the film is at its strongest. Relying a lot of on-location shooting, the film positively looks stunning. The vistas on display of Nepal are gorgeous and provide the film with the necessary scope to impress. The 3-D visuals throughout remain impressive, it’s just at times it feels a little obvious what was shot on a sound-stage and what remains on location.
When characters start to succumb to their respective fates, the film does feel devastating, if only because so much death so quickly after a long build up. The cut backs to base camp don’t resonate as they should, in part due to a pretty poor performance from Emily Watson, struggling with her Kiwi accent. Most of these moments are once again enforced by Clarke’s performance, having carefully built-up Rob as a trusty worthy hero.
Everest feels like a bit of a missed opportunity. It features a talented cast, but reduces the likes of Gyllenhaal and Robin Wright to very small and clichéd roles, while it also feels a little cheap at times within moments of devastation. Some of it is affecting, but it never quite captures your attention in an effective manner. For a better account of a mountain-based disaster, you’d be better served by Kevin MacDonald’s Touching the Void. If only because it has a soundtrack featuring Boney M. 2/5
Life (Dir: Anton Corbijn)
The iconography of James Dean is ingrained in Hollywood history in a very unique way. Dean only starred in three movies before his untimely death at the age of 24 following a street-race gone awry. Dean is still discussed with a great deal of passion, and we never seem to stop learning about his life and the person he truly was. With this in mind, Life takes a very interesting perspective, following Dean’s (here played by Dane DeHaan) relationship with photographer Dennis Stock (Robert Pattinson) the man responsible for Dean’s famous photo-shoot in ‘Life’ magazine in 1955, on the eve of the release of East of Eden, with Dean eagerly awaiting news on whether or not he had been cast in Rebel Without a Cause. It allows for an intimate look at both men, and while the film may not emotionally resonate as strongly as it would like, it is still a fascinating look at the icon of James Dean at the turning point in his career.
DeHaan as Dean initially seems a little too awkward and somewhat mumbly to truly convince as Dean, but something occurs along the course of the film, he becomes James Dean. It is a fascinating performance to watch form, as DeHaan becomes more confident as Dean becomes a more relate-able figure. He cuts the right profile and presents Dean as a sweet young man, very much a free spirit, eager to achieve success, but not necessarily the fame that comes with it. DeHaan’s own process with the role adds an element to the character that allows the portrayal to be something worth discussing within the discourse on the iconography of James Dean.
The better performance though arguably comes from Pattinson as Dennis. With knowing little about Dennis, it is up to Pattinson to deliver him as a genuine individual, and he does so through displaying a nervous yet ferocious need to succeed. He pursues Dean vehemently, while he lets his relationship with his young son fall by the way-side in favour of his career. These moments are quietly devastating, as there is clearly little connection between Stock and his son, yet a captivating relationship with Dean. Seeing the two together is when the film rides high, despite some pacing issues (the trip to Indiana, while the more intimate moments, pull the film down to a snail’s pace).
Anton Corbijn, the director of the excellent Control, comes from the photography background himself, having photographed the likes of Joy Division and U2 over the years. Therefore, he is a director who knows a thing or two about iconography and framing, meaning that pretty much every shot of Life is absolutely beautiful. Very point of framing feels carefully designed, with a keen interest in composition and lighting that marks Life as one of the most simply beautiful films of the year.
Life struggles to find a fitting place to conclude, and has too many moments of obvious reflection that undermine the subtleties of the rest of the film. It is a shame, but it does not hamper the experience of seeing these two performances cooperate with each other within a beautifully designed and controlled frame. A must for any Dean fans, if only to have a say on DeHaan’s portrayal, and feel as though you get a chance to hang out with the icon in a new form. 4/5