Films offer wide variety of plots, action

by Leonard G. Heldreth

The films this month include a complex young adult film, the latest installments in two ongoing series of films and a genre film in the Coen brothers’ tradition.

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

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With its pulp fiction title, its potential sentimentality and its satire of classic films, this cinematic version of a Young Adult novel should have set off alarm bells for me like those triggered by all the recent Young Adult vampire and werewolf movies. Ignoring my expected response, I checked it out anyway and found it to be one of the more humorous, sad and charming films of recent months.

Greg Gaines (Thomas Mann), a high school senior, narrates the story, but like most high school seniors and young film makers, he modifies reality to suit his narrative and his audience. So don’t believe everything he says or even writes on the little cards that intrude now and then onto the screen: “Day 7 of a Doomed Friendship.” Like most high school students, Greg has devised a way of surviving the teenage experience. He detaches himself as much as possible from everything and everybody, referring to his best friend Earl as his “co-worker” because the word “friend” implies a bond that makes him nervous. He stays on the edge of all the high school social groups so that they tolerate him, but never lets himself become involved with anyone but Earl, a black student who lives in a run-down section of town. Despite his mother’s urging, he avoids applying to college because he’s not sure what he wants to do, if anything.

Thus, Greg is blindsided when his mother tells him that one of his classmates, Rachel Kushner (Olivia Cooke) has leukemia. He knows the girl but not well, classifying her as “Upper-Middle Class Jewish Senior Girl Sub-Clique 2A.” Yet to his dismay, his mother insists that he must spend some time with her. When he shows up at her house, she informs him that she doesn’t want his pity, and he assures her that “I’m not here because I pity you. I’m here because my mom is making me.” On that solid footing, their relationship begins. (Earl accompanies Greg on the visit, because he goes everywhere with Greg, and actually makes Rachel laugh, which Greg is unable to do.)

Influenced by Greg’s father and their favorite high school teacher, Greg and Earl’s chief hobby is doing short video remakes of classic films, mostly those in the Criterion Collection, and giving the results awful, punning titles. There’s “A Sockwork Orange” (sock puppets replace the characters in Kubrick’s film), “The 400 Bros,” “2:48 P.M. Cowboy,” “Senior Citizen Cane,” and “Breathe Less”—over forty collaborations so far.

The relationships between Greg, Earl, Rachel, her disease and movie-making develop as the film progresses in a casual, sometimes amusing fashion, despite the subject matter. Rachel tries to cope with her treatments, including losing her hair. Greg, confronted with Rachel’s possibly impending death, finds it hard to maintain the detachment that has served him well in the past, and Earl tries to remain true to himself and his friends.

Much of the film’s success comes from the effective acting of its three leads. Thomas Mann is just right as Greg. At first, he’s as annoyingly self-aware as Holden Caulfield and just as irritating, but when he is forced to face some issues, such as mortality, that he has not looked at before, he starts to become a human being. Olivia Cooke is fine as Rachel, managing to avoid the sentimentality and angst almost built into her role. But the most impressive acting is that of RJ Cyler as Earl. He takes on all the apparent stereotypes of a black teen and turns them into a believable character who refuses to accept any of the phoniness that surrounds him, whether it comes from Greg or his own family.

Since the film is, in some ways, an homage to film-making, it’s not surprising that it includes some claymation sequences, title cards and other such devices, some of which work and some of which—the moose and the groundhog, for example—are just too cute and annoying.

The film was shot by Chung Chung-hoon, who was director of photography on Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy, Sympathy for Lady Vengeance and Stoker, among others, and the shot composition is beautifully done without being flashy. Adding to the realistic look is the location shooting in Pittsburgh, with some scenes being filmed in the house in which Jesse Andrews (author of the original novel and screenwriter) grew up and where his parents still live.

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is a touching, non-sentimental look at the world of teens trying to grow into adults. It manages to avoid most of the cliches of the genre while yet capturing its essential qualities. Don’t miss it. (Me and Earl and the Dying Girl won both the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival.)

Mad Max: Fury Road

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After completing Mad Max (1979), Mad Max:The Road Warrior (1981), and Mad Max:Beyond Thunderdome (1985), Academy-Award winner George Miller waited thirty years before filming Mad Max: Fury Road. In between, he continued directing films such as Babe: Pig in the City and the two Happy Feet films. Now, at age seventy, he’s back, and the years and children’s films have not softened his edge. Fury Road is non-stop, knock-down, drag-out action spectacle and the best action film of the year. It makes the Marvel superhero films look like kids at a Halloween party.

The plot is simple—it’s two long chase sequences with about fifteen minutes in the middle in which people talk quietly and plan what to do next. The film opens with Max Rockatansky, now played by British actor Tom Hardy (Bain from the Batman film and the title character in Locke), walking in the desert (now the Namibian desert instead of the Australian desert), and it takes only a few minutes to forget that Mel Gibson once played the part. Hardy, with his powerful physique and rough looks, fits right in.

Max is captured by Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne, a major villain of the first Mad Max), and with his bleached armor, breathing tubes (shades of Darth Vader!), and death’s head mask, he looks the part. Joe presides over a community called the Citadel, which he controls by allocating the water supply through his minions, the War Boys. Joe sends a convoy to a gasoline supply depot some days away, and driving the tanker truck is Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), a woman with a shaved head and a prosthetic arm who shows she can hold her own against any man. Joe doesn’t know that Imperator has five of his “wives” (women he keeps for breeding stock) in a concealed compartment of the tanker, and she plans to help them escape to the Green Spot, a place where she grew up. When Joe finds out, he rallies his forces and sets out in pursuit. Max, referred to now as a “blood bag,” is fastened to the grill of a truck driven by Nux (Nicholas Hoult); he is connected by a tube to Nux, who seems to need regular transfusions. The pursuit continues through the first half of the film with careening cars, explosions, leaps from speeding car to speeding truck and people shot at from multiple positions on bouncing vehicles. The amazing thing is that Miller develops his characters, introduces complications and new attackers, modifies the settings and exposes the audience to outrageous cars, costumes and situations in such a way that the audience doesn’t have time to be bored. (The screen is almost as cluttered as those last sentences.)

Finally, the tanker and its attendant vehicles reach the Green Spot and find that plans must be changed, which leads to the chase that occupies the second half of the film. I’d say it’s more of the same, but Miller manages to amp up this second half in a way that keeps the audience glued to the action.

Although the film’s ending is predictable, the trip getting there is something else. Viewers expect wild driving, car crashes and violence, but there’s more. Joe has his own portable, heavy metal rock band: some drummers, several huge amplifiers and a guitar player whose instrument spouts flames, all mounted on a rig that leads them into battle. The massively armored tank truck, the bungee poles that men swing on from truck to truck, car frames mounted two or three high on top of trucks and several curious configurations of vehicles whose parts were salvaged from the scrap yards of the desert all add to the visual effects. Then there’s the sandstorm, a very scary sight as it swoops down and envelopes all the vehicles, both pursued and pursuers, in total darkness. Apparently most of the car crashes and stunts were done without computer help–eighty percent according to the official stats. The remaining twenty percent was used for the sandstorm and for creating Imperator’s artificial arm.

Despite the title, Max and Imperator are really co-leads, with Academy Award winner Charlize Theron more than holding her own. When he is unable to take a shot, Max provides a shoulder for Imperator to rest the sniper rifle on as she picks off a pursuer. She is also the one who, wielding a hunting knife, finally takes out Joe in the cab of his own truck. (Rumor is that the next Mad Max film will have her name as the post-colonic suffix.)

Cinematographer John Seale, who previously worked with Miller on Lorenzo’s Oil (1992), essentially came out of retirement to lens Fury Road, and his photography, emphasizing the desert’s orange brown, the blue sky and the exploding reds of the crashes, is austerely beautiful. It reminds us that the film is essentially a Western and that the landscape is essential.

Obviously, if action, grotesque violence and car chases are not your cup of tea, this film is not for you. On the other hand, if they are, then Mad Max: Fury Road is exactly what you want. It’s hard to imagine anything better in the genre.

Cop Car

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The opening shot of Cop Car shows the wide-open spaces of Colorado, appropriate for a film that draws partly upon the Western genre. Two ten-year-old boys, Travis (James Freedson-Jackson) and Harrison (Hays Wellford), who may be running away from home, are walking across a field, reciting swear words to each other. Travis calls out a word, expecting the less-worldly Harrison to repeat it, but he balks at the F-word because “that’s the worst word of all.” The boys approach a ravine lined with trees, and at the bottom, they see a parked police cruiser. At first, they are scared, but curiosity overcomes their fear, and their exploration reveals not only that the driver’s door is unlocked but that the keys are on the front seat. Could two boys resist the temptation to go for a joyride, even if neither of them knows how to drive? Not these two!

Thus begins the act that triggers all the resulting action and mayhem. The boys manage to drive the car out of the ravine, across a field, and onto an empty road. Then, in flashback, the audience finds out how local Sheriff Kretzer (Kevin Bacon) came to leave his car in the ravine, where he was when the boys found it, and why he must retrieve his car before anyone investigates it. The rest of the film alternates between Kretzer and the two boys, as he tries to find them, and they enjoy their newfound freedom. By the time he finally catches up with them, they have opened the car’s trunk, and the wounded man they find there (Shea Whigham of Boardwalk Empire) also wants to confront the sheriff. The result is a shoot-out between the two men with the boys, locked in the car, in the middle of the gunfire.

The switch from comedy to dark violence is typical of the Coen Brothers, and some of the later parts of Cop Car are reminiscent of No Country for Old Men. The opening of the film has a number of laughs, mostly stemming from the boys’ innocence, but there’s also a funny shot of Kretzer in his undershirt running across a field as he searches for his car, and a later one where he tries for two full minutes to pull up the lock bottom on another car. But the latter part of the film has some disturbing moments, as when the boys decide to test fire the guns they find in the car, when a passerby (Camryn Manheim) is killed by the criminal during the shootout and when both Kretzer and his opponent decide nothing will stop them from covering their tracks. As the daylight fades and night comes on, the film becomes darker also. The ambiguous ending, like that of most Coen films, indicates that innocence is not necessarily much protection.

The acting is solid throughout, with the boys making their innocence and silliness believable, and Bacon making his sheriff menacing without totally losing the audience’s sympathy. This story is stripped to the bones: nothing is explained about why the boys are running away; what the relationship is between Kreutzer and the two men he kills, although it apparently has something to do with drugs; and what the back stories are for any of the characters, including the boys. But it tells what is absolutely necessary, and neglecting some of these areas enables it to move rapidly and often in surprising ways. Director Jon Watts knows how to keep an audience’s attention, and once you start watching it, you’ll be hooked.

Magic Mike XXL

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No one, except perhaps director Stephen Soderbergh, expected the first Magic Mike to be as successful as it was, but its box office cash practically guaranteed a sequel, which is Magic Mike XXL. Gregory Jacobs, long-time assistant director to Soderbergh, directs this one, but Soderbergh, using his usual aliases, guides the photography and editing. Channing Tatum and most of the previous dancers are back with the exception of Matthew McConaughey’s Dallas and Alex Pettyfer.

Many ticket buyers for the first film may have been disappointed because, instead of being a succession of male strip shows, there was actually some plot—would Mike raise enough money to start his own business, would he stay with the sister of his young protégé, would the others stay together, etc. Mike XXL is much more like what people expected the first film to be: an ongoing road show of erotic dancing. Most of the plot from the first movie is quickly explained and discarded, as are the missing characters. Mike, for fun (and much of what happens in the film seems to be “for fun”), takes a break from his furniture business after doing a solo dance late one night, and joins what remains of his old group, the Kings of Tampa, to travel to a strippers’ convention in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Along the way, they dance for a girl in a gas station to make her laugh and visit a club overseen by Mike’s old friend Rome (Jada Pinkett Smith) that caters to black women (“queens” as Rome calls them) with black male strippers. They stop at the colonial mansion of Nancy (Andie MacDowell), and finally strut their stuff at the convention. The choreography is amped up, the dancing spills out of the clubs and everybody seems to have a good time.

Anyone who enjoyed the first Magic Mike will find that all the male visuals of the sequel can be enjoyed without the distractions of plot. Sounds like entertainment for the ladies while the men are at camp! (All films reviewed are available as DVDs from local stores. Reviews of earlier films cited can often be found at marquettemonthly.org.)

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