In an age when young adult films are dominated supernatural romance garbage and sex comedies, it’s refreshing to see Me, Earl and the Dying Girl, an adaptation of the novel of the same name by Jesse Andrews, who also penned the screenplay. With a superb cast, sweet charm, touching drama and plenty of witty laughs, it’s a bittersweet coming-of-age story that cleverly tricks you into thinking that you’re not being manipulated because of an apparent avoidance of genre cliches.
The protagonist, Greg (Thomas Mann), is a high schooler who prides himself in not being a part of any cliques and can stay on friendly terms with anyone and everyone. His best friend — and only close friend — is Earl (RJ Cyler), and together they have been making short film parodies of famous classics for years using creative low budget techniques. Everything changes, however, when Greg is forced by his eccentric parents (Connie Britton and Nick Offerman) to befriend Rachel (Olivia Cooke), a former childhood friend who had been diagnosed with an illness.
Before you go there, allow me to set things straight. Me, Earl and the Dying Girl is not a tear-jerking love story in the vein of The Fault in Our Stars. In fact, it feels like writer Jesse Andrews intentionally tried to steer away from such a storyline. The film is more in the ball park of John Green’s other film adaptation, Paper Towns (which was somewhat meh) and Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower (one of my fave films of 2012), though it’s lighter on romance and heavier on humour, especially of the dry, self-deprecating kind.
There’s plenty of things I liked about this film: the likable central characters, the amazingly clever short films they created, Greg’s weird-ass father, Rachel’s hilarious mother (Molly Shannon), and the very cool teacher played by Jon Bernthal. I liked how determined it was to veer away from melodrama and the saccharine, without losing any of its charm or wackines. It has just the right amount of adolescence — for once the teens in a movie look like teens and act like teens and have teen issues and problems.
The performances are top notch across the board, and much of the credit must go to the perfect casting. I hated Project X with a passion, though Thomas Mann was one of the things I didn’t loathe about it. Since then he has really done a lot of good work, including in The Stanford Prison Experiment and being the bright spots in mediocre features like Barely Lethal and Beautiful Creatures. He’s going to be seen next year in Kong: Skull Island, the reboot of the King Kong franchise that will culminate in a showdown with Godzilla.
Olivia Cooke is an underrated up-and-coming actress I’ve kept my eye on. She’s mainly known for horror up to this stage of her career (Ouija, The Quiet Ones, The Signal and TV’s Bates Motel) but her screen presence and acting chops suggest to me that she will catch a big break sooner or later. Same goes for RJ Cyler, who has reportedly been cast as the Blue Power Ranger in the upcoming Power Rangers flick.
I didn’t have any real complaints about the film. The pace probably could have been swifter for a 105-minute film and resorts to more conventional genre tactics as it nears its conclusion, though my primary gripe — if it can be called that — is that it’s not quite as emotionally affecting as I had hoped it would be. Perhaps after all that effort to keep the tone light and unsentimental also somehow sapped it of the deeper poignancy that a film like The Perks of Being a Wallflower had hit me with.
On the whole, Me, Earl and the Dying Girl is a sweet little film, well-written and superbly executed by director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon (best known for directing episodes of Glee and American Horror Story). I laughed often and enjoyed it a lot, though in my opinion it still falls a few steps short of the memorable classic it was aiming to be.
All those 2012 movie blitzes bring us to this point — the top 10 films of 2012!
Out of the 109 movies from 2012 (released in 2012, not necessarily watched in 2012) I have reviewed on this blog, these are the cream of the crop. To be honest, I’m fairly disappointed with this list. Looking through it again I think 2012 was a rather disappointing year, with some very good films but nothing really leaving a lasting impression (2011, for example, gave me Drive, We Need to Talk About Kevin and Rise of the Planet of the Apes, all films that would have topped my list this year).
Anyway, I’ve decided to stick to my guns and prepare this list based on my ratings at the time I reviewed the films rather than what I think of them right now having had time to contemplate them in more detail or in some cases watch them again. Here they are, in reverse order (click on film titles for full review):
Despite what you might think, this is not my “worst of” list. Yes, I have selected Prometheus, notwithstanding all its well pointed out flaws, as one of the top 10 movies of the year. All I can say is: bite me. OK, allow me to explain. First of all, I don’t really care about how the film fits in or doesn’t fit in with the rest of the Alien universe (mainly because I don’t know it well enough). I watched Prometheus as a standalone film with elements from that universe, but more importantly as a film with scary creatures and cool special effects. I am frank in my criticism of various parts of the film in my review, but I still think, without having watched it again, that it delivers as an enjoyable horror sci-fi flick. Expectations aside, I really liked it when I saw it, and there aren’t any other films that scored higher than this film apart from those on this list. So there.
This is a film I wonder if I would put on this list had I watched it for a second time, but alas, here it is anyway. Having not read the books when I watched it, I found The Hunger Games to be a lot of fun, driven by a cracker performance by the wonderful Jennifer Lawrence and some stellar special effects. While the premise is not the most original, the execution was strong and the action was dynamite. The set up was a bit overlong (a problem repeated in the sequel, Catching Fire), but once they hit the game arena everything was forgiven. After Twilight, watching The Hunger Games was a real pleasure.
Two entries this year for Jennifer Lawrence, who won the Oscar for best actress in Silver Linings Playbook, the best romantic comedy of the year. As I said in my original review, I’m not usually too high on rom-coms, but this one resonated because of the sweet chemistry between Lawrence and Bradley Cooper, the string supporting cast (Robert De Niro, Jacki Weaver), the witty laughs and its ability to take a quirky angle on the very serious topic of mental illness. Ahh…Jennifer Lawrence…
What more can you say about Ang Lee? The man knows how to make movies. Life of Pi, based on one of my favourite novels, far exceeded my expectations given that it was previously considered unadaptable. And yet Lee somehow manages to deliver one of the most magical, visually stunning and heartfelt movies of the year without drowning us in boredom, philosophy or pointless 3D. I admit it’s the type of film that can polarise audiences for its sometimes preachy tone and fantastical premise, but if you’re in the right mood for it then Life of Pi could turn out to be one of the most rewarding film experiences of the year.
I’m not ordinarily a huge feature docomentary watcher but this one left such a lasting impression on me. The Invisible War documents sexual assault in the US military, and it’s one of the most shocking, harrowing and infuriating movies you could ever see. And it’s all true. Directed with a steady hand that doesn’t sensationalise the claims, allowing the victims to tell their own stories in their own words, The Invisible War is one of the most important movies of the year, or any year.
This is an entry that will probably surprise a lot of people given that it received a lot of mixed and negative reviews. I have been a very outspoken critic of most of Judd Apatow’s movies, so it came as a surprise to me too that I fell in love with This is 40, featuring a seemingly perfect couple played by Apatow’s real-life wife Leslie Mann and one of my fave actors, Paul Rudd. The jokes, often brutal but not as crass as some of Apatow’s other works, are painfully honest and spoke straight to my funny bone. Perhaps they resonated with me more as I am also a husband and father with similar pressures, but whatever the reason I just thought it was one of the most hilarious movies I had seen in quite some time.
Was The Avengers really one of the top four films of the year? In retrospect, I don’t really know, but at least when I watched it towards the start of the year I was in awe of the magnificent feat that director Joss Whedon was able to pull off, and it’s hard to imagine anyone else capable of putting together an ensemble superhero movie with so many big names and making them all fit together and play off each other so perfectly. Not to say I don’t love the growing trend of gritty, “realistic” superhero flicks, but it was also great to see an old fashioned one like The Avengers, where the mood is more relaxed, the jokes are sardonic and the tone a lot less grim. A super popcorn movie that didn’t disappoint despite near-impossible odds.
When I look at all the movies from 2012 a few years from now, The Perks of Being a Wallflower will probably be my fondest memory. Having not read the book (yet — my later review of it is here), I didn’t really know what to expect from it, but I came way thinking that it was the best coming-of-age movie I had seen in years. Directed by the guy who wrote the book, Stephen Chbosky, Wallflower is a sensitive, heartwarming and heartbreaking tale about a damaged boy (played marvellously by Logan Lerman) trying to figure out his place in the world. Emma Watson and Ezra Miller were also brilliant as his soul sister and brother, demonstrating that their acting range is far from limited to the characters they’re best known for. While it is far from perfect, Wallflower has that uncanny ability to creep up on you and latch itself onto your emotions. It’s a sentimental film, sure, but it’s a sentimental film of the best kind.
Tarantino’s best film since Pulp Fiction? I’m not sure about that, but I think it is arguably his most entertaining. Django Unchained is an apologetically violent Tarantino-esque fantasy spaghetti western, and I enjoyed the ride immensely. Like most Tarantino films, Django is a unique experience — you don’t really know where you’re heading but you feel like you’re in safe hands, AND you’re having a lot of fun along the way. A story about a wronged black man who goes on a killing rampage is a premise that probably won’t work in the hands of any other director, but for Tarantino it feels apt. Powered by some awesome performances by Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz and Leo DiCaprio, Django is quintessentially Quentin, filled with slick dialogue, unflinching violence, memorable characters and a truck load of coolness. Yeah, it’s far too long, but most movies are these days.
I only awarded one film the full 5 stars in 2012, and as it turned out, that movie was The Dark Knight Rises, Christopher Nolan’s epic conclusion to his Batman trilogy, without a doubt the best superhero franchise of all time. While many parts of the film either didn’t make sense or were only possible in comic land, The Dark KnightRises offers the payoff audiences have been waiting for since Batman Begins hit our screens in 2005. With Batman more mentally and physically fragile than ever, plus a formidable adversary in Bane and an intriguing subplot in the emergence of Catwoman, The Dark Knight Rises elevated the stakes to new heights before ending with a fitting bang.Strictly speaking, however, I don’t think this is truly a 5-star film, but it felt right to award it the maximum rating after placing it in context as the finale of a magnificent franchise. As I said elsewhere, I think The Dark Knight, which I initially awarded 4.5 stars, is the better overall film, and if I had a do-over I probably would switch the ratings. But The Dark Knight Rises is like how everyone treated LOTR: The Return of the King. Does it really deserve to be one of three films in history with 11 Oscars (the others being Ben Hur and Titanic, though Return of the King was the only film to sweep all its nominations)? Probably not, but voters felt it fitting to reward it because of the quality of the franchise as a whole. That’s how I look at it anyway.
So there you have it, the top 10 films of 2012. I’ll endeavour to put up a worst and best of list for 2013 in the next 3 months! Seriously!
Missing the cut: Argo, Zero Dark 30, Compliance, End of Watch, Pitch Perfect, Jack Reacher, Looper, The Cabin in the Woods
Denzel Washington plays an ex-CIA operative who turns rogue and becomes an international criminal who, unsurprisingly, appears to be more than meets the eye. Ryan Reynolds plays a low-level CIA agent who is tasked with looking after Denzel when the latter is captured and brought to a South African safe house (hence the title. Disaster strikes, and Reynolds is thrust into a dangerous situation in which he must figure out who he can trust in order to discover the truth behind everything.
It’s the type of basic premise we have seen dozens of times before (albeit with slight variations) — where a decent but relatively inexperienced guy out of his depth is paired with a slick professional and there is a big conspiracy waiting to be unveiled (is this considered a huge spoiler?).
I don’t mind these movies per se, but I’m a bit sick of the whole “Denzel is so cool” routine we seem to be getting in just about every film we see him in these days. You know, charismatic, super cool under pressure, extremely gifted in firefights and hand-to-hand combat, acts like he doesn’t give a crap about anything but cares deeply about doing the right thing in accordance with his own principles. As for Reynolds, I’m assuming he just played exactly the same type of character in RIPD (which I haven’t seen yet but will).
Look, Safe House isn’t bad — there’s intensity, action, suspense and a few semi-predictable twists here and there — but there is nothing that makes it memorable or stand out. In fact, I had forgotten a lot of the details and had to give myself a little refresher on YouTube and Wikipedia just to write this review. The performances are solid, but I didn’t like how the action sequences were edited with those quick, choppy cuts that prevent you from seeing exactly what is happening.
On the whole just an OK thriller that fails to live up to its full potential despite Denzel and an all-star cast that also features Vera Farmiga and Brendan Gleeson.
2.75 stars out of 5
The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012)
I swear I still intend to get to the acclaimed book on which this film is based, written by Stephen Chbosky. I’ve heard so many people rave on about the book that it would be an injustice for me to ignore it. Interestingly, the film version is directed by the author, who wrote the screenplay as well. Usually it’s a recipe for disaster to place so much of a story in the hands of a single person, but in this case it was complete justified because The Perks of Being a Wallflower turned out to be one of the best coming-of-age movies I’ve seen in a long time.
Charlie, played by Percy Jackson‘s Logan Lerman, is a high school freshman dealing with a traumatic loss from the year before. Shy and withdrawn, he is a wallflower, someone who observes but is never really part of the story — until he meets step-siblings Sam and Patrick, played by Emma Watson (Harry Potter) and Ezra Miller (We Need to Talk About Kevin), who accept him as part of their group.
Without going into too much more detail, this is a story about the loss of innocence, friendship, falling in love, loyalty, betrayal, and all those things many of us go through as we grow into adults. With full control over the material, Chbosky delivers an extremely genuine and heartfelt story told through a sensitive and delicate lens that I’m sure will be easy for many teens to relate to and conjure up a deep sense of nostalgia in adults. It’s hard to explain except to say that I connected with this film more than I thought I would and that I fully believed in the story from start to finish. Yes it is sentimental in parts but not overly so.
I’m astounded that Chbosky has only previously directed one other film, in 1995. The tone and atmosphere he creates in The Perks of Being a Wallflower is masterful and reflects just how in command of the material he is. He must also be credited for eliciting the best performances I have ever seen from Logan Lerman and Emma Watson. Let’s face it, Percy Jackson and The Three Musketeers are not the best films for a thespian to show off their acting talents, but Lerman is unbelievably believable as the mild-mannered Charlie who is immediately likable but is also clearly holding onto something that prevents him from opening up. Your heart goes out to him. The only complaints could be that he is not quite young-looking enough to pull off a freshman or that he is too good looking to play such a loner.
As for Emma Watson, wow. I always thought she was the most talented out of the Harry Potter trio, but here she completely sheds the shackles of Hermoine and gives us the best performance of her career. The same can be said for Ezra Miller, whom I thought would forever be trapped in my nightmares as the horrific Kevin (from We Need to Talk About Kevin, one of the best movies of 2011). Here he is a completely different character as the giddy and affable Patrick and totally made me forget that he butchered a bunch of kids in his previous role.
In some ways, The Perks of Being a Wallflower might oversimplify or even glamorize some difficult issues in adolescent life, but for me it’s a small flaw in an otherwise brilliant motion picture.
4.5 stars out of 5
PS: I’m almost doing The Perks of Being a Wallflower a disservice by reviewing it as part of a four-film movie blitz, because it deserves a solo review of its own. But I am lazy and I can’t be bothered.
A stylish crime drama of intersecting subplots that feels strangely complicated but is actually very straightforward.
Eric Bana and Olivia Wilde play a pair of siblings on the run after a casino heist has gone horribly wrong. For some reason they must split up so they could reach their goal of making it across the Canadian border under blizzard conditions, kicking off a string of violent events and coincidences that eventually all comes to a head in a climatic flurry. The film is powered by an A-list cast that also features Charlie Hunnam (Pacific Rim), Kate Mara (House of Cards), Kris Krisofferson, Treat Williams and Sissy Spacek.
I found Deadfall a difficult film to grasp because it seems to be moving along confidently, taking the audience in several directions seemingly without aim, but there is actually an underlying strategy all along to pull all the strands together by the end. But at the end of it all, I said to myself, “Is that it?” Despite the intrigue, I was left wondering what the fuss was all about.
That said, I was engaged and kept wondering what was going on through the majority of the 94-minute running time. I suppose you could call it dark, character-driven film, but then again I didn’t really care for any of the characters. Could it be described as a B-grade movie masquerading as an A-grade movie because of its sound technical efficiency and the super cast? I dunno. I can’t decide whether I liked the film, disliked the film, or if I am just indifferent about it. Meh.
2.5 stars out of 5
Seeking a Friend for the End of the World (2012)
Every now and then comes along a really interesting idea for a movie and the execution is nearly good enough to pull it off, but for whatever reason just doesn’t quite get there. Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, starring Steve Carrell and Keira Knightley, is such a film. It starts off brilliantly and has its fair share of genuine laughs and oddly comical moments all the way through, but unfortunately it loses steam halfway through and drifts towards a rather disappointing final act.
The film starts off with the announcement that the world, as we know it, is coming to an end. A giant asteroid is coming to Earth and there’s no Bruce Willis to save us. With just three weeks until impact, the world is understandably flipped into chaos (with drugs and suicides and looting and guilt-free sex dominating), but at the same time there are many lost and lonely individuals out there who have no idea how they are going to spend the last few days of their lives. Steve Carrell, whose wife leaves him in the opening scene, is one of them, until he meets Knightley, who had just broken up with her boyfriend and has no chance to see her family in England one last time.
Seeking a Friend could be described as a road trip comedy-drama, but it’s really a fascinating imagining of how the world would react if everyone thought they had just days to live. Would you keep working in your job because you have nothing else better to do? Or would you stay with family and go have beach BBQs all day? Or will you go crazy and break every law you can think of, just for the sake of it? A lot of the things depicted in this film, as random and outrageous and hilarious as they are, strangely ring true. I laughed often and hard, especially early on.
I’ve never been a big fan of either Carrell or Knightley, so I was shocked to discover that I really liked both of them in this. Despite the age gap (51 to 28), they had a comfortable rapport and a sweetness to them, and the resulting banter was sharp and clicking.
However, perhaps feeling like it cannot be a pure comedy with no emotion (given it is the end of the world, after all), the film starts to become more personal and begins venturing into light melodrama, regretfully sucking out its earlier charm. The closer it got to the end, the more flat and uninteresting things got. Some of the attempts are indeed poignant, but frankly I just wanted more laughs.