REVIEW: Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

Do not be deceived–Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is depressing. What begins as an off-beat comedy escalates slowly, but surely to a moving climax, and finally to a bittersweet ending. I don’t cry during movies, but this one made me want to cry more than The Fault in Our Stars.

Warning aside, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is an absolute must-see film.

The plot: “We follow Greg, a high school senior who is trying to blend in anonymously, avoiding deeper relationships as a survival strategy for navigating the social minefield that is teenage life.  He even describes his constant companion Earl, with whom he makes short film parodies of classic movies, as more of a ‘co-worker’ than a best friend. But when Greg’s mom insists he spend time with Rachel – a girl in his class who has just been diagnosed with cancer – he slowly discovers how worthwhile the true bonds of friendship can be.”

I was pleasantly surprised multiple times at the little eccentricities–the parents walk into Greg’s room and he frantically attempts to close his porn windows, conversations touch upon sexually assaulting fluffy pillows, strange and exotic lunches, etc. Anyone who felt awkward or different in high school can relate instantly to this film. It captures the imaginative, uncertain energy of being a senior in high school without all the banal school tropes that you’d find in something like Glee.

If nothing else, watch this film for the camera work. It’s impossible to miss the ridiculously wide angles and outrageous telescopic views and swinging camera, and it makes you feel like you’re adventuring along with our characters.

After watching the film, I wondered why we don’t see more creative approaches to camera movement and lenses. Compare Me and Earl and the Dying Girl to any Hollywood blockbuster and the shot selection of those high budget films seems so much more stale in comparison.

Finally, the acting can only be described as on-point. Each of the main characters delivers a genuine and heartfelt performance, but it’s the supporting actors that really shine. Molly Shannon plays Rachel’s mother, who copes with the sickness of her daughter with hilarity. Nick Offerman (who plays Ron Swanson in Parks and Rec) plays against type as a strange, introverted father. Lastly, Jon Bernthal (of Walking Dead Fame) plays a badass history teacher.

If you only get to watch a handful of movies this summer season, make Me and Earl and the Dying Girl one of them. The trailer is below:


REVIEW: Sundance Animated Shorts

I have a confession to make. I’m not one who usually gets emotional during movies (at least ones that don’t have animals in it. Don’t even get me started with “Eight Below”!) So how is it that last Sunday night, I found myself on the verge of tears as I watched a stick figure lie in a hospital bed, fighting an nondescript cranial illness? I present to you now: the magic of the Sundance Animated Short Films.

These are no Saturday Morning cartoons, my friends. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect going into the show. And I think Sundance is designed to blow away any expectations you do come in with, so perhaps it was best that I was a blank slate. The eight films were purposefully arranged to linearly begin with the “creation of the world” and end with, well, the end of the world. I was stunned by the common theme of grim, almost morbid topics: death, violence, mental and physical decline, loss, scandal, low self-esteem, and oblivion. But maybe by not involving “real humans,” we, the audience, are distanced enough to project our own inner thoughts on the characters in front of us.

One of my favorite films was “Yearbook” by Bernardo Britto. An average man – married, well-fed, has a job – is “hired to compile the definitive history of human existence before the planet blows up” ( He realizes that if anyone survives doomsday, their knowledge of this world rests in his fingertips. Who would you write about? Who should people remember? He begins with Hitler, oddly enough. Then proceeds to list U.S. presidents, Gandhi, Jesus, Martin Luther King, Jr. He begins to list musicians and writers and activists: anyone he can think of who has influenced our world. But the computer only can hold so much data. He must edit his list. Maybe the future doesn’t need to know about Lady Gaga. But J.S. Bach? Now there’s a person you can’t skip. The man basically chooses the ‘after’-life and death of famous people, as if he had the power to decide who is important enough to be remembered. A Philip Glass-ian pensive piano score serenades the man’s commentary, as he realizes that the people who have directly influenced his own life (the barista, the garbage man, his next-door neighbor, his wife) will never “be important enough” to make the list. The piece ends on a melancholy note, but with a good message: Sometimes it’s the people who wouldn’t make the list who can have the biggest impact on a person. So when you find a person like that, cherish every moment you get to spend with them.

One thing that really struck me with these short films was the equal combination of visual impact and story. A short film is like a really good cake. You only have a few minutes to really catch your audience’s attention and make them either fall in love with you or despise you. The ratio? One half substance – the plot – the recipe – the flavor. One half display – appearance – presentation.

Speaking of appearances, the films were brought to life using a diverse array of animation techniques that kept things interesting for the audience. For example, films such as “Yearbook,” “Belly,” and “It’s Such a Beautiful Day,” had a hand-drawn feel to them; “Oh, Willy” used felt puppets to vitalize the strange and endearing film; and “Voice on the Line” combined live footage with digitally cut-out shapes to create a collaged storybook over the history of the telephone operators in the Cold War Era.

The Sundance films give independent directors a chance to produce films separate from the anxiety and distractions of Hollywood Hype. It provides them an opportunity to test the waters, explore deep into human emotions, and experiment. Although there were one or two films that I sincerely disliked, I must remember my previous “cake-baking” metaphor. Ask yourself: was it the substance or the presentation that I disliked? Maybe the story was told in the wrong way. Maybe I disliked the gore and the creepy, robotic voice of the narrator. But boy, I could never even begin to animate a film like that! Cakes are the same way. I used to hate carrot cake. But it always looked nice. And sometimes the niceness of the presentation tempted me to try the cake one more time. That’s the thing about cake and short films – they come in such small pieces that it’s easy to come back to it for a second round. I hope that the Michigan Theater continues this tradition for many second rounds to come.


REVIEW: Sundance Live Action Short Films

This was the first year I was able to see the Sundance Live Action short films. Therefore, the only comparisons I have are to other film festivals and to the Sundance animated shorts from last year.

Many people consider Sundance to be a festival that launches the careers of independent and relatively unknown filmmakers. Each year audiences around the country get to see their live action and animated short film collections.

In their collection description, Sundance stresses diversity, and this is something that is true without a doubt. Ranging from astronauts training in the desert to a BDSM-themed opera remix, the short films brought forth a wide range of emotions. This inconsistency was as much a weakness as a strength, however. Some shorts had clear and provoking deeper meanings, while others were simply entertaining little pieces that didn’t have as much staying power.

One of the best–if not THE best–was “Afronauts,” a fictional recreation of Zambian exiles preparing for a trip to the moon in 1969. Beautifully shot in black and white, it is a chilling commentary on the lengths we go and the sacrifices we make to achieve a perceived goal. My favorite part about this was the actors’ performances that didn’t even require dialogue to do most of the work.

An interesting thing about this collection of films was the importance of the story. Two examples here are “Dawn,” about a young teenager seeking to escape from her sheltered life, and “I think this is the closest to how the footage looked,” about a man striving to recreate the memory of his last day with his mother.

The film quality and production design of these two films is not even in the same ballpark. Yet, despite “Dawn’s” superior look and beautiful shots, I found myself enjoying “footage” much more. “Dawn” plays to tropes and its ending is basically a punchline, whereas “footage” strikes at the raw fears that we all have of losing those closest to us. This was an amazing example of how even films with lower budgets can shine brighter than more cinematic films.

Sundance’s selection of foreign films was refreshing. We had films in Hebrew, French, Russian, English, and a smattering of Mexican Spanish. Not all of them were thrilling, but they were genuine and unflinching depictions of the cultures that produced them. “Love. Love. Love” transported us to Russia and gave us different way to look at intimacy. “I’m a Mitzvah” was a fantastic collision of Hispanic and Jewish cultures in a foreign country.

Overall, a great slate of films. Completely incomparable to the animated films, these films are worth your time if you ever get to see any of them.

PREVIEW: Sundance Live-Action Shorts

Are you looking for something to fill the void before Game of Thrones airs season 5? Do you want to expand your film appreciation palette? You’re in luck, because the Michigan Theater is bringing both its Live Action and Animated short films to downtown Ann Arbor.

In their words “The Live Action program (94 minutes), featuring both fiction and documentary films, ranges from beautiful insight and the struggle to understand life to a hilarious, all-too-familiar government deposition.”

Bring a friend and take a break after that first semester exam by taking a trip to the Michigan Theater.

What: Sundance Live Action Short Films

When: Sunday, February 1 and Wednesday, February 4 at 7 PM

Where: Michigan Theater

Cost: $12

How about a taste of what you’re about to see? Check out the trailer

And while you wait, watch the Sundance Live Action Shorts trailer!

PREVIEW: Sundance Animated Shorts

A scene from “Oh Willy…” by Marc James Roels and Emma De Swaef. Image Courtesy via New York

Looking for thought-provoking animation that goes beyond Bob’s Burgers and Adult Swim? The Sundance Animated Shorts program is a “diverse compendium of eight short films culled from past festival lineups” (Jeanette Catsoulis of The films vary in style, ranging from handmade drawing and painting to puppetry. But don’t assume that animation is substance-less juvenility. Many of the films explore heavy topics, such as death, bodily and psychological decline, as well as apocalyptic themes. It is sure to be a conversation starter and an eye dazzler of a night.

What: Sundance Animated Short Films

When: Two nights only – Sunday, February 1 at 4:30 and Tuesday, February 3 at 7

Where: Michigan Theater

How Much?: $12.80

And while you wait, watch the Sundance Animated Shorts trailer for a preview!

Review: Cyrus @ Sundance USA

Usually I’m running ten minutes late and only hoping to find a seat before the film starts – trying to find a red velvety chair rather than the lap of a stranger.  Thursday night at the Michigan Theater, however, was an event.  There are 1700 seats in the main theater because film going used to be an event – a night out at the cinema.  Unfortunately, Ann Arbor rarely packs the Michigan Theater full these days (recent sell outs have included Michael Moore’s Slacker Uprising and Fahrenheit 9/11 as well as a Lord of the Rings showing).  Thursday night held a sold out crowd, full of excitement.

Honored to be a part of the Sundance USA inaugural series, the crowd cheered Michigan Theater Executive Director, Russ Collins, announcement that we were making history as well as the pre-taped thank you message from Robert Redford.  Unfortunately, once the film started, the crowd’s energy quickly faded.

‘Cyrus’, a new movie from the Duplass Brothers (The Puffy Chair, Baghead), tells the story of Cyrus (Jonah Hill- Superbad, Funny People), Molly (Marisa Tomei- My Cousin Vinny, The Wrestler), and John (John C. Reilly- Chicago, Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story).  Cyrus is the 21-year-old son and life partner of Molly while John is Molly’s first boyfriend since Cyrus was born.  ‘Cyrus’ tells the struggles of this love triangle.  It is only about this relationship as it takes place.  We never receive information about Molly’s past or Cyrus’ childhood- we never even know what city we are in, just a generic American suburb.  ‘Cyrus’ is, at its core, an in-depth analysis of the power struggles between the three.  It makes us question the Oedipal suggestions of Cyrus and Molly’s relationship, the honesty of a divorced and depressed John, and the nature of innocence.  The movie, however, is about a power struggle that has been played out and examined in culture too many times to count.

The Duplass Brothers did not want to make another crass, vulgar humor movie – Jonah Hill’s specialty.  In the mostly-failed attempt to appeal to a wider, more mature audience, the opportunities to laugh with the whole theater were few. Instead of full on laughs, the movie tried to feed us awkward chuckles.  When the movie finally finished, I felt drenched in the soppy relationship humor that plagued the movie.

Jonah Hill saved himself a few points when he came on stage wearing the traditional, maize & blue, block M fitted cap.  His girlfriend, a Michigan student, gave it to him- he told the curious crowd.  The Duplass Brothers saved themselves a few points as they introduced their editor and friend, Jay Doobie- a Northville native.  Sundance USA, the idea, seemed to thrive in the Michigan Theater setting- ‘Cyrus’, the movie, failed to match the hype.

A ridiculous week of arts events awaits us- The Bad Plus on Thursday night, University Dance Company’s (Re)Visionary Dance on Friday Night, and Só Percussion on Saturday Night. That is truly absurd.
When will I do econ, Bennett

‘Cyrus’ Trailer:

Sort of weird, Sesame St. mustache video: