Tag Archives: Thomas Mann

Me, Earl and the Dying Girl (2015)

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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.

4 stars out of 5

The Stanford Prison Experiment (2015)

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Most people have probably heard of the controversial Stanford Prison Experiment, in which a bunch of elite college students in 1971 got more than they bargained for when they volunteered for an unusual psychological study to play either inmates and guards in a simulated prison environment. There have been a few movies based on the concept, most notably the 2010 film The Experiment (starring Adrien Brody and Forest Whitaker), but I wasn’t aware of a film that tried to depict the actual events — until now.

The Stanford Prison Experiment is largely based on the book by Stanford University psychology professor Philip Zimbardo, the man who conducted the study back in 1971 to test the hypothesis that the personality traits of prisoners and guards are the chief cause of abusive behaviour between them. And so begins a fascinating look into the complex and unexpected dynamics between power and authority, subservience and rebellion, empathy and cruelty. It’s not just the inmates and guards either — the effects of the experiment extended to the teachers and the supervisors, and even to the relationship between Zimbardo and his girlfriend, who happens to be a former student of his.

This is by no means an easy film to watch — some parts are unbearably tense, others just plain unbearable — but it’s one that absolutely captivated me from start to finish. Part of it is indeed the intrigue of the premise itself, though it would be unfair to attribute it all to that since I basically already knew what would happen and what the outcome would be.

It is a low budget film, but it’s also a film that didn’t need much of a budget because almost all of it is set in the simulated prison on the university campus. The filmmakers do a fantastic job of creating a sense of claustrophobia and paranoia, and most importantly they somehow manage to make you believe what is happening on screen despite how little sense it seems to make. It made me incredulous, it made me angry, and it made me sad — it’s one of those surreal experiences that make you question what you think you know about human nature and even yourself.

The film is far from fast-paced, though there’s always enough drama and tension — notwithstanding some repetitiveness — to compel me to keep watching. I suspect it will be remembered as a polarising film, and I can definitely understand if some people dislike it for its dark tones and ugliness.

First announced in 2002,  The Stanford Prison Experiment was in developmental hell for a dozen years before unknown director Kyle Patrick Alvarez managed to get it done with a brilliant cast of established actors and up-and-coming stars.

Headlining the performers is Billy Crudup, who plays the well-intentioned Zimbardo, with a whole bunch of recognisable names — or at least faces — filling out the other roles. These include Ezra Miller (We Need to Talk About Kevin, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and soon-to-be Flash in the new DC cinematic universe), Michael Angarano (The Final Kingdom, Red State), Tye Sheridan (Mud, Tree of Life, and soon-to-be young Cyclops in X-Men: Apocalypse), Logan Miller (Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse), James Frecheville (the fantastic Aussie man-child from Animal Kingdom), Johnny Simmons (Jennifer’s Body, Scott Pilgrim vs the World, The Perks of Being a Wallflower), Ki Hong Lee (The Maze Runner series), Jack Kilmer (Palo Alto; Val Kilmer’s son), Thomas Mann (Project X, Me Earl and the Dying Girl, Barely Lethal), Olivia Thirlby (Juno, Dredd), and Nelsan Ellis (True Blood).

Interestingly, the script is co-written by Christoper McQuarrie, best known for winning the screenplay Oscar for The Usual Suspects and more recently for writing Edge of Tomorrow and directing the awesome Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation.

As uncomfortable and frustrating as it is, I think The Stanford Prison Experiment is a brilliant film that will have you asking yourself how you might react in their situations. Though it’s based on events that are more than 40 years old, the concepts and themes remain as relevant today as they did then, perhaps even more so in light of what we now know since the outbreak of the War on Terror. Thanks to the wonderful performances from the talented cast, a great script and skillful filmmaking, I found myself engrossed in the experiment, much like its participants. It’s a chilling and troubling experience that deserves a lot more attention and discussion than it’s been receiving.

4.5 stars out of 5