“99 Homes”

Oh, for an honest day’s work! Director and writer Ramin Bahrani ‘s film “99 Homes” has the audience longing for the plumber, the plasterer and Rosie the riveter to watch and laud. For certainly, Michael Shannon’s one -dimensional portrayal of an immoral Capitalist benefiting  by throwing out families in the midst of home foreclosures doesn’t provide more than a devil to hate.  In this greed screed gone awry, Shannon becomes a caricature as Blair Carver,the man who carves up lives. Yes, I agree that money, especially easy money, is the root of most evil. But without lust,love and loathing,filthy lucre gets boring,just like this picture.

Blair Carver, realtor, cautions construction worker Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield) not to get emotional about real estate. “They ( houses) are boxes. What matters is how many boxes you have.” After foreclosing on Nash’s home, Carver offers a Faustian deal to Nash as a “rookie evictor” .  House-flipping and fraud work hand in hand. Garfield provides more nuanced acting then Shannon, but it may be the script’s fault. Does Carver see something besides opportunity in Nash? Does he really believe that the pursuit of wealth usurps all other values? Nothing is developed. This is a black and white film that longs for a few shades of gray.

Laura Dern is a fine actor,yet no matter how she explains that she had Dennis at a young age,the mother /son dynamic is not American. She could have played his wife more easily. Never does he question her or do anything, but try to protect her. This is another culture being portrayed. Nice, but foreign. For Mama Nash, greed is not the only game in town. Her grandson, Conner, is to be cared for and protected. Her beautician work somehow does not materialize. She wants to go to Florida to live under the roof of her brother. Again, not very culturally savvy.

The incongruous music, something akin to bush drum beats, irritated me more than quickened the film’s pace. The heavy breathing as despair did the same. Lines like Shannon’s ” You work for me. You’re mine” , “Surly homeowners, you need a gun” ring melodramatically. Themes like “America does not bail out losers: America bails out winners.” deserve more than a twenty -second image of a mason jar with repossessed keys. See this film if you want to see foreclosure sheriffs and stuff dragged out to the front lawn. As Dennis Nash deliberates what to do as the movie closes,I am shaking my head,too. This film could have been another “Civil Action”, but somehow one child smiling in a car window manages to profit neither justice nor moral triumph.

“Me, Earl, and the Dying Girl” and “The Fault In Our Stars”

Last year on June 6th, 2014, opening night, I saw John Greene’s film adaptation of “The Fault In Our Stars” with my husband, and two-hundred high school girls all in short-shorts. Evidentially, short-shorts are the “new thing” again, though I surmise their rise saves fabric for the industry as the one button cardigan saved money for the industry a few years back.

Greene’s book was better, deeper, and more literary with its Emily Dickinson allusions and major philosophical glimmerings than the film, but the second half of the adaptation is worth seeing. The first twenty minutes is slow with too much time given to Hazel’s early diagnosis and treatment, but once Hazel and Augustus hit Amsterdam,you remember first love.

Ansel Elgort (Augustus) is wonderful in his ability to show facial emotion, and Shailene Woodley is earnest and so believable as one of the dying teens. I liked Wilhem Defoe in an author’s role~here crazed and egotistical. I wish more time was spent on why Hazel so admired his book. I missed parent’s roles in the film, especially the warmth that the families showed in everyday dialogue. Laura Dern ,as Hazel’s mother, was well-portrayed as the mother who would come running sodden from her shower if need be. Gus’ parents were not given much play in the script. This is a shame because Greene developed these characters so well that Hazel and Gus’ story became their story,too.

This year’s piggyback film, “Me, Earl,and The Dying Girl” is more flawed, and certainly not an improvement on “The Fault In Our Stars”. With my own mother, a dear neighbor’s daughter, and a former student’s child all suffering from blood diseases, I was not in a hurry to be reminded that blood is life’s flow. With dire warnings of depression, nausea, and general hopelessness, I made my way to Director Alphonso Gomez-Regon’s “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times” classic story start. From the general info of “this is what high school is like” with its tribes and nations (what we called “cliques” )the filmgoer is goosed with claymation-like mini-figures of a moose and a chipmunk. These animals and their interplay are supposed to conceptualize our protagonist’s fears when approached by an attractive female classmate.

In fact, crafts play a big part in “Me, Earl, And The Dying Girl”. The lovely and expressive Olivia Cooke (Rachel) scissors vignettes from the middle of her absent father’s favorite books, Earl (R.J.Cyler) slices red felt into hemoglobin cell props for a film gift to Rachel, and Greg ( Thomas Mann) uses self-created miniatures to depict his voice overs and his film parodies. The film parodies are some of the funniest moments as button-faced socks and orange juice become “Sock Work Orange” instead of “Clockwork Orange”, and “Eyes Wide Butt” becomes “Eyes Wide Shut”. “Breathe Less” for “Breathless” and “Rosemary Baby Carrots”, “2:48 Cowboy”, and “The 400 Bros” are a few others.

If Greg is “invisible, self-hating and detached” as Rachel at one time sums up his character. He is also bright and funny in his self-deprecation. The narcissism of emerging adults is well shown. “It’s me, in convenient gel form.” Greg announces to the drug -dosed patient. Later, Greg offers a strong dose of “gregitol”. Placing Rachel in the “boring, Jewish girls sub.group 2A ” further makes Greg seem like he is daily having lunch in Kandahar.

I have not read the Jesse Andrews book, but I did not like the adult depictions in his screenplay. Unlike John Greene’s depictions, Andrews shows well-meaning,but dysfunctional parents. Nick Offerman as Greg’s father is always in his bathrobe,sometimes leather belted,always holding his Persian cat, always eating gourmet entries and talking about his on-going academic thesis. Greg’s mother (Connie Britton)is always pushing and gently nagging,yet she does not seem to be aware that Greg is failing the last semester of his senior year. In one rather funny scene,Britton’s yammering,her non-stop word stream,turns Greg into a swirming worm on his bedroom floor. Her son calls his mother the Le Bron James of nagging. No teacher,not even the favored history/counselor Mr. McCarthy calls or effectively intervenes: all easy support with no effective outcome. Rachel’s mother (Molly Shannon) drinks to numb her pain and “comes on” to the boys for some inappropriate succor. Offering teens alcohol is her added recipe for pain release. Even the “adult” limo driver for the senior prom is an real clown. Rachel’s father primarily talked to her by counting squirrels on their walks. Adults don’t fair well in this film.

Greg offers a few silly ,laughter-causing remedies for Rachel:”Enter a sub-human state” or “pretend you are dead”. The latter he apologizes for,for its insensitivity. Screen headings like “Day One Of A Doomed Relationship” remind us that this is Greg’s journey in befriending a mortality -challenged girl. Rachel is in stage four cancer,yet she helps Greg write his personal essay for his college app. and later sends an excuse for his lack of diligence.We know she is his real mentor for his future. I think this last awakening is the reason for the Sundance  Audience Award. Learning how to keep learning about a lost one is a conscious force of will. Skimming the surface of a person is a poor substitute for diving in. Greg returning to Rachel’s room and finding squirrels among the treed wall paper is one of my favorite scenes.

Brian Endo does a beautiful job with the original score. The cinematography is stifling indoors, but an attempt is made to use stairways and narrow, sky-lit pathways to elevate the horizon. Overall, I preferred the romantic treatment of “The Fault In Our Stars” to the awkward push/ pull friendships in “Me”. And “Dope”, previously reviewed, is a better coming of age film,yet.