review

Me And Earl And The Dying Girl

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I was apprehensive about seeing this 2015 festival favourite from director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon based on Jesse Andrews’ novel. It was another film about teenagers and cancer, like that Fault In Our Stars thing that I actively avoided a while back. Call me cold-hearted but I have no interest in two kids falling in love before dying melodramatically under a pop soundtrack. But this one was free, so I thought it couldn’t hurt.

And boy, am I glad I gave it a chance! The movie follows high school senior Greg (Thomas Mann) as he blends perfectly into the background managing to avoid the attention of every group in the school. His parents are a couple of odd-balls and his friend (or “co-worker” as Greg prefers) Earl, played by RJ Cyler, seems to have nothing in common with him, other than a love for movies. They make their own awful, pun-laden remakes just like I did when I was their age.

When classmate and vague acquaintance Rachel (Olivia Cooke) is diagnosed with leukaemia Greg’s mother all but forces him to hang out with her, for company. Reluctantly, Greg gets past Rachel’s amorous, tiddly, suffering mum to the awkward safety of Rachel’s room where friendship blossoms. This isn’t a romance, as Greg keeps telling us. This is a film about friends and selfishness and unappreciated creativity. Filled with hilarious moments of gentleness, cloaked in warmth and melancholy sadness, something this “cancer film” isn’t is mawkish, morbid or exploitative.

The film isn’t about much, other than three thrown-together friends doing their best to fill the boring, dwindling days before a tragedy they all expect but never mention. Stand-out scenes – when described in summary – read like substandard American Pie sequel set-pieces, but don’t let that put you off: You won’t see funnier then Greg and Earl accidentally on drugs, or sweeter than the terrible movies they make (“Eyes Wide Butt” anyone?). The film is a joy.

The performances from the Main Three are superbly understated. Cooke’s “dying girl” is heartbreaking without ever being manipulative. The changes she instils in Mann’s self-hating teen nobody “Me” happen almost without you noticing. Cyler’s “Earl” is the perfect third wheel; the director of Greg and Rachel’s own little real-life film. I was thrilled with each and every performance in the movie. You couldn’t get better.

If you’re looking for a story that’s happy to let expansive, exploratory dialogue and hard-hitting, meaningful setting slide to the wayside in favour of a more realistic mundanity and awkwardness then this is the film for you. There’s no need for snappy back-and-forth it-means-something-to-us secret greetings when you’ve got the ability to devolve into a subhuman state when things get too much. Sometimes pretending to die is all you need to do to take the edge off the real thing.

I adored “Me And Earl And The Dying Girl”. There’s nothing over the top about it. There’s nothing manipulative or mawkish. Every beat of the story takes you closer to an inevitable end and yet you still trust what you’re told! That’s the power of the characters in this beautiful, ugly gem. Outstanding. Please see it when you can.

★★★★★

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Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell (BBC One)

Finally, the day is come! Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, Susannah Clarke’s epic novel of pseudo-historical, magical realism featuring rival magicians who may also be best friends, has been given a place on our screens! The BBC is airing a seven-part adaptation, the first part of which was shown last weekend. And it is fabulous!

jnI won’t spoil anything, plot-wise, but I would like to enthuse on the perfect casting. I also should say I’m enthralled by the sublime design and the welcome loyalty to the novel. This first episode covers the main points of the novel’s first eight or nine chapters and it does well in keeping the tone and scale of the story without the pages and pages of flowering descriptive prose.

Paul-Kaye-actor-BBC-fantasy-drama-Jonathan-Strange-Mr-Norrell-interview-David-Stephenson-577698So, casting: Bertie Carvel is amazing and annoying as Jonathan Strange, second magician to Eddie Marsan’s Norrell. Marsan is and was always the only choice for the irritable, hermit-like genius. Amazing. Also shining are Paul Kaye as yellow-curtain street-magician Vinculus and Enzo Cilenti as Childermass, Cockney nutbag and Northern growler, respectively. Again, amazing.

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And, without giving too much away, Marc Warren’s Gentleman is chilling, if a little more aggressively evil than I imagined when I read the book. But no matter! The casting, across the board, is perfect. If I had drawn up a casting wishlist it’d be a mass of lines through names as my favourites are crossed off. I did this and Kaye and Marsan were on my list some years ago, for the roles they have now got. I am a happy bunny.

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Clarke’s novel is massive. Hundreds and hundreds of pages, spanning decades. Some of its imagery is difficult to picture. How they’ll realise it is anyone’s guess! But here’s the thing: for all its wonder and wandering, its scale, scope and size, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is a story about people. And the people in this BBC adaptation are just spot on. It’s going to be an odd series, full of surreal and unconventional set-pieces, which I’m destined to love. I hope you’ll love it too.

BBC One, 9pm, Sunday nights.

ITV’s Newzoids – Weak, Weak, Weak!

ITV’s Newzoids has been billed as the 21st Century’s answer to Spitting Image. Sadly, it’s more like 2DTV. In fact, it IS 2DTV – the same “topical” gags (read as: “written quickly”) and mish-mash of celebs and ‘satire’. I wanted to love it because it could have been great, but I didn’t and it really, really wasn’t.

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First, let me talk about what IS good about the show, because some things are. For example, the puppets are superb. I hope that, when the series eventually gets the chop, that they sell them for an embarrassingly small sum. I’d buy Ed Miliband for a week’s wages. And some (not all) of the impressions are great too! I’m no fan of Jon Culshaw; to me his impressions always just sound like Jon Culshaw doing an impression. If you can’t do the voice, don’t do the character. Surely that’s the sensible option? Though even many of his voices hit their mark here.

4845ce20-dd1a-11e4-8808-13fac3ffe9bc_NEWZOIDS_KATIE_HOPKINS_cropI think what’s missing here, more than anything, are the jokes. It’s all well and good to call yourself a topical show and derive skits from things that have happened that week, but it needs to be funny, too! Relying on the old fall-back of Ed’s Bacon Sandwich, the Royals swearing and The-Proclaimers-as-sung-by-the-SNP with the lyrics “sod the English” or something similar (I forget) is weak satire. The whole show relies on stereotypes: Cameron is posh, Pickles is greedy, Ed is hapless, Charles is randy, Clarkson is homophobic and rude, baby Prince George has “commoners’ blood” and so spends his time on-screen singing football chants, swearing and spitting. It’s all just a bit weak.

video-undefined-2794664200000578-320_636x358And then there’s the “edgy” material they have used. One sketch re-imagines a domestic abuse encounter on Jeremy Kyle with Nick Clegg as the abused spouse. It’s a little bit offensive and not in an “edgy” way. See also the sketch where an Asian teenager goes to Syria to fight with ISIS, unaware that his parents are watching his every move on hidden cameras, in Sun, Sex and Suspicious Parents: Syria! I’m never one to call “too soon” but it seems no care at all has been taken whether they SHOULD do it, let alone HOW. The answer is “with care” and it seems that nothing in this show is given any at all.

Topical must mean more than just “happening now”. It has to mean “relevant” too. Sadly, there’s little in Newzoids that feels like it’s relevant. Tired clips of Russell Brand verbosely flowering his way through an interview for Top Gear presenter smacks of desperation. I sat through the whole of episode one and cringed. Will I watch episode two? Maybe. I had a chuckle at the puppets at least; Nigel Farage’s swivelling eye was lovely, even if the material his puppet was spouting was the same old same old.

★★✫✫✫