Me and Earl posterSince its buzzy debut back in January at Sundance, I am sure the issue has come up a billion times: Me and Earl and the Dying Girl has an issue with tokenism. During a preview earlier this month it was hard to keep my mind off how isolated the lead character is from his peers, and it translates in the movie in an egocentric manner that becomes hard to shake off for far too much of the movie. By the time the payoff arrives, the cost feels too high, and you just want to be rid of this titular “Me” character.

Thomas Mann gives Greg an awkward charm for a guy who does not wish to stand out at his high school. He is ironically gregarious, trying to make friends with everyone, from goths to jocks, as to blend into the background. Yet, the only person he considers a friend, but refers to as his “co-worker,” is Earl (RJ Cyler), an African-American kid from a destitute neighborhood he has known since childhood. They make home movies together that are naïve-art adaptations of classic movies (their version of The Third Man is entitled “The Turd Man”). But this collaborative relationship and shared affection for the film canon and their smart aleck reinterpretations never seems to fulfill him. It is only after he gets to know terminally ill Rachel (Olivia Cooke) that he finds a true friendship and a genuine urge to create something original at the casual behest of Earl. That he has to learn this from a “dying girl” offers a grim premise that could have said a lot about the disconnection of earthy, grounded-in-reality relationships had the film presented us with solidly developed characters in scenes that don’t feel trite and falter to their manipulative, sentimental designs.

No one is allowed to stand out beyond Greg, and it’s hard to find him likable because the character only seems driven by exterior forces. His mother (Connie Britton) is the one who pushes Greg to spend time with Rachel after she is diagnosed with Leukemia. After he shows up at Rachel’s house, he is invited in by her ridiculously depressed, wine-swilling mother (Molly Shannon). Rachel sees through the farce of Greg’s appearance. Still, after a cynical chat in her bedroom about her prognosis and the abundance of pillows in her room and Greg’s reference to masturbation, Rachel is charmed. The viewer gets an easy way in to Greg because Rachel, a cancer-stricken cipher, who shows little autonomy, is reduced to a person trapped in her bedroom filled with craft projects of her design to characterize her.

Earl suffers his own reduction. He is Greg’s sidekick who either offers callous statements (his catch phrase seems to be “Did you feel dem titties?”) or profound statements that shake Greg image-abd1674e-0988-4c0f-9fc6-0215f92bbc39out of his somnambulant egotism. Earl has an older brother (Bobb’e J. Thompson) who figures into the film in flashbacks to the younger days of the two friends. He’s a mere bully who sits on the porch to his family’s ramshackle house and sicks his pit bull on Greg whenever he comes by. There’s not much more to say about Earl, as the only benefit of his presence is as a kind of conscience for Greg, when he needs it. Otherwise, they have a miniscule almost ambivalent relationship.

Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, brings his talents from television (“Glee” and “American Horror Story”) to infuse the film, adapted for the screen by Jesse Andrews who wrote the original novel, with a saccharine preciousness that grows tiresome quick. Gomez-Rejon overwhelms the drama with wearisome references to Criterion Collection DVDs, making for a convenient litmus for Greg and Earl’s taste for cinema and — God forgive him — about 20 pieces of music from Brian Eno’s catalog of early masterworks, even including obscure collaborations with Krautrock greats Cluster. It’s great music, but beyond a few seconds of atmospheric extra-diegetic melodies for transitions between scenes, the music never has space in the film to meld with the drama and settle in as thematic. Peter Jackson did it much better a few years ago in The Lovely Bones (Brian Eno and The Lovely Bones), a film for which Eno also composed or reshaped his music. The only exception is the use of “The Big Ship” during the film’s climax, a piece that also accompanied a similarly dramatic moment in The Lovely Bones, so even the decision to allow that piece to breath in Me and Earl feels like it loses some credibility. 

me-and-earl-and-the-dying-girl

Criterion product placement and the abuse of Eno’s music can hardly save this film from its problematic story. Referencing so much great art does not transfer over to Gomez-Rejon’s film. Early on, the film is weighed down by the tropes of high school malaise, and when Greg finally comes to his revelation that he has lost a friend, the film hits every trite note that turns loss of a loved one into sentimentality to weary effect. Depending on what triggers the tears for you, the filmmakers try to bring it up. Sure, there were people sobbing all around me in living surround sound, but all I saw was manipulation of heartstring plucking.

Beyond its precious tone that minimizes death to a sentiment, obscuring an egocentric story about a kid who (maybe) learns empathy at the cost of losing a friend to death, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl has that bigger issue: tokenism. A chance for Greg, a white kid, to learn about his best friend and recognize him beyond “co-worker” is never developed. They pair up as outcasts who never connect. Even worse, Rachel is presented as a darling young person about to die throughout the film, as if that’s the only thing that characterizes her as a human being. For all its sincerity, the movie is ultimately a disappointing appropriation of cool without genuine heart that plays the audience in a rather condescending way. A lot people will love it, but it’s only because it’s pushing easy buttons that make us human. Still, there’s nothing really human about this movie, which feels like was produced by an algorithm instead of someone with heart.

Hans Morgenstern

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl runs 105 minutes and is rated PG-13 (references to sex, drugs with some salty language). It opens in limited release at several multiplexes in our Miami area (visit this page for dates screening locations near you in other cities). For indie supporters, it opens at O Cinema Miami Beach on July 1. All images in this review are courtesy of Fox Searchlight who also invited me to a preview screening for the purpose of this review.

(Copyright 2015 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

I try to balance this blog with an interest in both independent film and music. But lately movie reviews have certainly been favored… so much so that I do not feel I can fairly offer a truly objective list of top 10 albums of 2011 (though February will certainly see a list of 20 of the best films I saw this year, as usual). I do plan a year-end music review post, but it will be one of the most subjective year-end posts/articles I have ever written.

In the meantime, as the new year looms, what better time to make my resolution to bring more music coverage to this blog for 2012, starting today with a personal music-oriented excursion that proves I still have a strong interest in vinyl records.

Last weekend, I made by bi-annual visit to Fort Lauderdale, Florida’s Rodeway Inn, about an hour-long drive north of my home, for a small, regular Florida record show that just may be the only routine record collector’s meet in South Florida. The last time I went, about six months ago, I arrived late and came out with scant few offerings to boast about. This time I was going to pay the extra three bucks for early entry (the show has a $7 cover for early entry before 10 a.m. and $5 after that [$4 with the flyer I had]), and it paid off. Below are pictures of the haul with some notes on the records.

One of my early great finds resulted in some awesome David Bowie bootlegs offered at a steal of a price: $3 for vinyl bootlegs, including some of his most acclaimed: Slaughter in the Air, the Thin White Duke and Resurrection on 84th Street. The first was culled from a performance in 1978. I’ve heard that live material well enough on the official Stage live album, and it’s not the greatest period for Bowie in concert. The latter two are both from the 1976 Station to Station tour, the Resurrection set is one of Bowie’s most famous concerts, at the Nassau Coliseum in New York. That has since been reissued on both CD and vinyl by EMI Records, as noted in many of my most popular postings on this blog (Could ‘Station to Station’ be EMI’s final Bowie reissue?; David Bowie’s Station to Station to be reissued in fancy 9-disc package; U.S. release date announced for Bowie’s Station to Station reissue; Advance copies for Bowie’s Station to Station features DVD-A).

I was comfortable to be in the presence of those records but would not see myself playing them over enough, if at all. I was interested in some other Bowie boots that included this cheap, black and white covered version of Bowie’s live appearance on the Midnight Special in 1974, offering previews of music that would end up on Diamond Dogs and covering his earlier hits, entitled Dollars in Drag – The 1980 Floor Show.

Then there was this double LP boot entitled The Serious Moonlight Rehearsals.

It’s another live era that never did Bowie much justice but also saw him selling out stadiums, following the release of his hit 1983 album Let’s Dance. The titles of the tracks, like “I Really Meant to Say” and “Hinterland” intrigued, though those are probably made up titles by the bootlegger of popular Bowie cuts.

I expect “Hinterland” will turn out to be “Red Sails,” but I cannot ever recall hearing that song live from a 1983 performance recording, and the cover and vinyl looked to be in good enough condition to make it worth checking out. But the special icing on this cake of this boot is the fact that guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughn is advertised as having participated, and though he famously recorded guitar for Let’s Dance, giving the album quite a distinctive sound, he did not actually join the tour (Earl Slick came in for that), so this should make for an interesting spin on the record player.

Then there was this “Original Master Recording™” of The Rise and Fall and Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, one of the few essential Bowie albums missing from vinyl collection. Though the cover looked worn, the vinyl did not, and these Original Master Recording™s (yes, they earned the TM on that) from the Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs are no joke.

It’s rare to stumble across Bowie records at record shows, much less a whole stack at cheap prices. Eight bucks for three rare Bowie records. I made up for that early extra cost at that one booth, for sure.

Right next to that seller, another guy was looking to dump this excellent condition Donovan double album, A Gift From a Flower to a Garden, for $12:

All inserts (12 individually printed pages of lyrics for each song on the second LP in a folder) were there and the vinyl records looked great.

Plus, the box looked amazing with no tears or splits. The back cover had a photo of Donovan with the guru of Transcendental Meditation, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, attached to it (I would later learn, that this record indeed covered his feeling of initiation into TM).

I also went ahead and grabbed a great condition Mellow Yellow record from this dealer for $1. The cover looked worn, but, more importantly, as far as vinyl, I saw no scratches at all on the record.

I’ve recently been on a Donovan kick, as I have grown to realize his importance in bridging the gap between folk and psychedelic music in the late sixties. The music is phenomenal and resonates to this day on many contemporary acts. I like both Donovan and Belle and Sebastian for their mutual retro rock feel, though one is of the era and one is paying tribute to the era. Also, both Donovan and Belle and Sebastian frontman, Stuart Murdoch share a similar lilt to their voices, seeing as both hail from Scotland.

This find is a promo-only single for Kate Bush’s “Cloudbusting”:

Though it has the same song on both sides, the vinyl looked immaculate and the cover, a still image from her music video for the same song, is just a gorgeous, very literal (if unscientific) expression of the song title. It screams steam-punk technology before the term “steam-punk” ever came around. Plus, the track is from my all-time favorite Kate Bush album, 1985’s the Hounds of Love. Heck, Hounds of Love is probably one of the greatest albums of that year, even.

That record was $2, and, for the same price, I also picked up OMD’s Dazzle Ships, from 1983, only because I’ve heard it hyped by some musician friends of mine. Trusting them…

It also looked to be in great condition. Though you never know what you’ll get when you put the need to the vinyl, I do try to avoid any easy-to-spot scratches on the vinyl.

Speaking of, some of the more expensive records I splurged on that day included a $15 Music for Films record by Brian Eno, which I bargained down from $20 for a couple of tiny scratches (the music on there is too subtle to mar with pops and surface noise).

At another dealer’s table, I found a record from Hans-Joachim Roedelius, one of the founders of those electronic Krautrock pioneers Cluster (the softer, piano-oriented member): a 1984 album on the EG label, entitled Geschenk des Augenblicks – Gift of the Moment. For a spot of dried, water damage on the record, which I hope to get off with a record cleaning solution, I got half off the $10 asking price.

That same dealer also had an amazing looking version of an original A&M Records release of the Sky’s Gone Out from Bauhaus, with the original inner picture sleeve of the boys in the band and lyrics for $15. With the seller going half on the Roedelius record, I felt this record was also worth going for.

All told, I spent just $67 and walked out with nine records, including a double album and box set. Not bad.

Maybe this will lead to some individual reviews down the road, as one of the great things about hearing albums on vinyl is the rediscovery of a recording that still holds up nicely to this day. I’ve already started putting together a list of older records I’ve found on-line or at local record stores dating from the nineties on back that I hold up as some of the best of all time or of their times. Next year, beyond the smattering of new music reviews and even profiles (I have one interview with a major musician from the upcoming Weezer cruise in the can), readers of this blog can expect the celebration of some nice vinyl records, including original pictures of the artifacts.

Hans Morgenstern

(Copyright 2011 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

As many who read this blog know, I am a big fan of that controversially named alt-rock genre “Krautrock,” the catch-all term that covers the bands that rose out of the ashes of German pop in the late 60s, from Disco pioneers Kraftwerk to the ambient wonders of Cluster to the noisy explorations of Faust to the hippie psychedelia of Amon Düül. I would say Can fall more along the lines of Amon Düül, though I’m not as familiar inside-out with their catalog, as I am with some of the other bands mentioned.

The bands on the Portland, Oregon-based indie label Other Electricities have united to produce a tribute album to Can, available for free as a stream or for download in both MP3 and FLAC formats. Titled Hunters and Collectors: A Tribute to Can.

All the artists, though obscure, really seem to capture the spirit of Can. Low Low Low La La La Love Love Love kick it off brilliantly by slowly driving “Sing Swan Song” under the skin with their lush, dreamy interpretation of the Ege Bamyasi track. E Jugend who– surprise– actually hail from Germany, close the album by stripping away the psychedelia of Tago Mago‘s “Oh Yeah” and reduce it to its minimal Krautrock core. Everything in between proves worth exploring with the patience all Krautrock deserves.

The idea of such a tribute album also proves to be a refreshingly smart marketing ploy by an indie label. Instead of the usual free comp of choice cuts culled from already released or soon-to-be released albums of bands you never heard of, they had their roster of artists record exclusive tracks that pay tribute to an important group in the DNA of alternative rock. Smooth move.

Krautrock and indie rock fans alike, start downloading. Hunters and Collectors: A Tribute to Can does not disappoint. Again, Download it here.

(Copyright 2011 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)