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Cinema Chat: 'Black or White', 'The Loft', 'A Most Violent Year', 'A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night'

Russ Collins calls in from the Sundance Film Festival for 'Cinema Chat' this week. In addition to providing some breaking news for Ann Arbor's film enthusiasts, Russ and David Fair preview  your film options for the weekend.   

Direct From Sundance

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

The Michigan Theater is honored to continue its relationship with the Sundance Film Festival by hosting a special screening of a 2015 Sundance Film Festival film with guest appearances on Thursday February 5 – and unlike in years past, the Michigan is the ONLY theater outside Utah participating with Sundance this year!  This year we are proud to bring, direct from Sundance, ME AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL.

Based on a novel by Jesse Andrews, who also wrote the screenplay and brilliantly directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, it is a smart, high school comedy with fun and fascinating twist of fate and plot. Set in Pittsburg, Nick Offerman (Parks and Rec) plays Professor Gaines, the father of Greg Gaines, who is a humorously self-hating high school senior - played brilliantly by Thomas Mann. Connie Britton as the mom who incites him to befriend a female classmate struck with leukemia.

That character, Rachel, is played by Olivia Cooke, a talented young British actress. Molly Shannon (Saturday Night Live) plays her mother. Earl, of ME AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL, is since age 5, Greg’s best friend. Throughout middle school and high school, Earl, played by RJ Cyler, and Greg have made spoofs of famous classic films.

Sundance: Why 'Me and Earl and the Dying Girl' Didn't Sell to the Highest Bidder

Take note, indie film executives: The highest bid isn't always the winning bid. After premiering in the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the Eccles theater Jan. 25 and drawing a five-minute standing ovation, Me and Earl set off a frenzy among buyers at an already feverish Sundance market. At the after-party on Main Street, the buzz became deafening, with WME Global's Graham Taylor, who repped the Alfonso Gomez-Rejon-directed film, fielding offers of up to $7 million from five bidders. By 7 p.m., eight bidders were vying, including Focus Features, CBS Films, Lionsgate, A24, Miramax and The Weinstein Co. (Harvey Weinstein watched the film on a screener in L.A., where he was throwing a SAG Awards party.)

At that point, the top offer was $8 million, but bids escalated even higher, with buyers dubbing it The Fault in Our Stars with better reviews. The Hollywood Reporter critic John DeFore called it "film-geek friendly but thoroughly accessible and very funny," adding that it "has the makings of a mainstream hit."  And its chances are good. After all, Searchlight sibling Fox expertly handled Fault, another movie about a terminally ill teenage girl, and made it a worldwide hit.

Sundance Film Review from VARIETY: ‘Me and Earl and the Dying Girl’

Enthusiastically received at Sundance, this cancer-themed dramedy has the potential to outperform last year's 'The Fault in Our Stars.'

Anyone who buys a ticket to a film called “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” goes in fully expecting to cry. It’s sort of a given. The surprise, then, is the laughter: the near-constant stream of wise, insightful jokes that make it so easy to cozy up to characters dealing with a tough emotional situation. The story of a high-school senior forced to befriend a classmate who has just been diagnosed with leukemia, and the sincere, nonsexual connection that forms as a result (sorry, “The Fault in Our Stars,” but there’s no nookie here), this rousing adaptation of Jesse Andrews’ novel is destined not only to connect with young audiences in a big way, but also to endure as a touchstone for its generation.

After landing a coveted spot on the 2012 Black List, the coveted assignment went to director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, who worked as a personal assistant to Martin Scorsese, shot second unit on such films as “Babel” and “Argo,” and oversaw 20 episodes of “Glee” and “American Horror Story” for producer Ryan Murphy. Despite all that experience, there’s nothing jaded about his approach here, which balances the new-toy giddiness of a first-timer (this is actually his second feature) with the wisdom of restraint in key areas. As such, he pushes the envelope with his dynamic camerawork and framing, but pulls back where others might have gone heavy, downplaying the sentimentality and music (from Brian Eno).

Premiering to a standing ovation at the Sundance Film Festival, “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” is the kind of movie that gives the Utah-based sprocket opera its sterling reputation among budding cinephiles — those who associate Sundance with films that defy formulas, take risks and resonate on a deeper level than the studio-made stuff they grew up on. Greg Gaines (Thomas Mann) is just the type of teenager who appreciates such movies. Maybe that’s why he struggles with the best way to narrate it. His isn’t the first “I’m with cancer” story to come along in recent years, although this one doesn’t want to jerk tears. Rather, Gomez-Rejon and Andrews are determined to earn them — and they do, by making us care about the characters, starting with Greg.

He’s a familiar enough guy, played by a normal-looking actor (you might recognize Mann from “Project X”) with all the awkwardness we all feel in high school. Greg’s coping mechanism is to make superficial friendships with all the different social cliques in school. He’s good at telling people what they want to hear, but not so great at real human interaction, as evidenced by the fact he refers to his best friend, Earl (RJ Cyler), as his “co-worker.” The duo spend hours together everyday studying and making short-film parodies of classic movies, most of which even dedicated film majors don’t discover until college. (With titles like “A Sockwork Orange” and “Pooping Tom,” they’re all terrible, but that’s sort of the joke, one that astoundingly never gets old.)

As hobbies go, such amateur filmmaking is designed to spare Greg the hassle of actually having to interact with his peers. He’s especially terrified of girls, which makes the request from his mother (Connie Britton) to visit Rachel (Olivia Cooke) a particularly challenging one. Since the movie is committed to approaching this task with as much humor as possible, Gomez-Rejon casts Molly Shannon as Rachel’s mom, who surely would have reminded underage Greg of “The Graduate’s” Mrs. Robinson, if only he had ventured out a bit farther than the Criterion Collection (which gets primo placement throughout).

Rachel doesn’t have any more interest in receiving pity than Greg does in doling it out, which explains how the two kids, who would never be friends under normal circumstances, manage to shift the focus to other things. Turns out Greg’s a pretty funny guy (those punny movie titles notwithstanding), and as you probably guessed, he stands to gain at least as much from these interactions as she does. Still, it takes Earl’s involvement to nudge the conversations into more personal territory — although he’s been plenty candid with us since the beginning.

Finding Greg’s voice must have been the hardest thing for Andrews, whose eloquent adaptation of his own novel could have turned out wildly different in the hands of another helmer — like Gus Van Sant, who took a more twee approach with his even more “Harold and Maude”-indebted terminal-teen drama “Restless.” Meanwhile, compared with last summer’s “The Fault in Our Stars,” which Josh Boone directed with almost no sense of personal style, “Girl” practically erupts with technique: The camera hardly ever sits still, offering odd wide-angle perspectives and panning in big, self-conscious maneuvers with nearly every shot.

Such a flashy approach comes at enormous risk, obviously, since it draws attention to all the clever surface choices when we should really be trying to focus on the connections being made onscreen. But it also seems to fit a character who is himself an aspiring filmmaker. And it makes the few scenes in which Korean d.p. Chung-hoon Chung (“Stoker”) holds steady and lingers on Greg and Rachel all the more effective. There are two scenes in particular where the jokes cease and these two fragile humans are allowed to reveal their true emotions, which serve to define the movie, in place of all those showy moments when the camera is busy rotating sideways as Greg walks to school or following him from the living room upstairs in one elaborately choreographed gesture. Still, Gomez-Rejon’s tricks should help distinguish the film in the minds of those young viewers impressed by such innovative flourishes.

The same could be said for a few of the more eccentric supporting roles, including Greg’s father (Nick Offerman, playing a culturally curious version of his usually brusque self) and heavily tattooed history teacher, Mr. McCarthy (Jon Bernthal). As Earl, newcomer Cyler stands out as well, evolving from comic relief to a sort of conscience figure as the relationship between Greg and Rachel deepens. It’s refreshing to see that bond flourish as something platonic (romantically speaking, Greg is more interested in another classmate, played by Katherine Hughes), which also allows the film to depict Rachel’s deterioration in a realistic way. There are plenty of young actresses who wouldn’t dare to be seen bald, and a whole other group who would have made a big fuss of it, but Cooke approaches the role with quiet dignity.

And yet, none of this would have worked had the team not found the right Greg. The story demands someone with enough insight into other people’s personalities that he can size them up in an instant, but not so much that he comes off as a jerk. Blending wit and modesty, Mann fits the bill, coming across as an overgrown kid with a good heart, but virtually no practice in relating to others — which is perhaps the thing that makes his experience so profoundly relatable.

Opening at the Multiplex

Black or White

“Black or White” is the story of a grandfather (Kevin Costner) who is suddenly left to care for his granddaughter. When her paternal grandmother (Octavia Spencer) seeks custody with the help of her brother (Anthony Mackie), the little girl is torn between two families who love her deeply. With the best intentions at heart, both families fight for what they feel is right and are soon forced to confront their true feelings about race, forgiveness, and understanding.  “Black or White” opens Friday.

The Loft

“The Loft” tells the story of five guys who conspire to secretly share a penthouse loft in the city--a place where they can indulge in their deepest fantasies. But the fantasy becomes a nightmare when they discover the dead body of an unknown woman in the loft, and they realize one of the group must be involved.  “The Loft” opens Friday.

Project Almanac

In “Project Almanac,” a brilliant high school student and his friends uncover blueprints for a mysterious device with limitless potential, inadvertently putting lives in danger. “Project Almanac” opens Friday.

Opening Downtown

A Most Violent Year

“A Most Violent Year” is a searing crime drama set in New York City during the winter of 1981, statistically the most dangerous year in the city’s history. Starring Oscar Isaac (“Inside Llewyn Davis”) and Jessica Chastain (“Zero Dark Thirty”), this gripping story plays out within a maze of rampant political and industry corruption plaguing the streets of a city in decay.  “A Most Violent Year” opens Friday at the State Theatre.

A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night

“A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night” is the first Iranian Vampire Western ever made.  A joyful mash-up of genre, archetype, and iconography, its prolific influences span spaghetti westerns, graphic novels, horror films, and the Iranian New Wave.  “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night” plays February 1-4 at the Michigan Theater.

Special Screenings Downtown

The Room

The basic plot synopsis of “The Room” is this: Johnny is a successful banker who lives happily in a San Francisco townhouse with his fiancée, Lisa. One day, inexplicably, she gets bored of him and decides to seduce Johnny's best friend, Mark. From there, nothing will be the same again.  But “The Room” is so much more – and so much worse – than that. 

Steve Rose of the Guardian says “To make a movie that's so bad it's good you need vision, drive, luck and obsessive vanity. Fortuitously, ‘The Room's’ writer/producer/director/star Tommy Wiseau appears to possess all of these qualities, combined with a total lack of acting talent.”  “The Room” plays Friday January 30and Saturday January 31 at 11:59 PM at the State Theatre.  Tickets only $8!

Special Screenings

Sundance Shorts

Sundance Shorts are back at the Michigan Theater!  Over the course of its 30-year history, the Sundance Film Festival has been widely considered the premier showcase for short films and has served as the launchpad for careers of many now-prominent independent filmmakers. This year’s Animated Shorts program consists of 8 animated films, ranging in vivid style from handmade drawing and painting to puppetry.  The Live Action program, featuring both fiction and documentary films, ranges from beautiful insight and the struggle to understand life to a hilarious, all-too-familiar government deposition.  The animated shorts program plays Sunday February 1 at 4:30 PM and Tuesday February 3 at 7 PM; the live action shorts program plays Sunday February 1 at 7 PM and Wednesday February 4 at 7 PM.

Boomerang Family

This week’s Korean Cinema Now film is “Boomerang Family,” playing Saturday, January 31 at 2 PM. Fate reunites a dysfunctional and rather quirky family, with their petty conflicts, sibling rivalries and largely unexpressed affection, as they struggle with the challenges of middle age.  Free admission! Presented by the Nam Center for Korean Studies.

Leave Her To Heaven

The Michigan Theater’s Noir series continues with two films this week! In “Leave Her To Heaven,” Gene Tierney portrays a beautiful but unstable socialite who wants to spend all her time with her new husband, but finds it impossible to do so thanks to his work and the frequent visits of family and friends. Her love for him becomes so obsessive, it threatens to be the undoing of both them and everyone else around them. “Leave Her to Heaven” plays Monday February 1 at the Michigan Theater. 

Blade Runner

“Blade Runner,” a blend of science fiction and noir detective fiction, was a box office and critical bust upon its initial exhibition, but its unique postmodern production design became hugely influential within the sci-fi genre, and the film gained a significant cult following that increased its stature.  “Blade Runner” plays Wednesday February 4 at the State Theater.

Contact David: dfair@emich.edu