Novelty. Movies reviewed: Live from New York, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence
Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.
Part of what makes a movie enjoyable is its unpredictability. It has to deliver lots of shocks, laughs and new images to keep the audience watching. So this week I’m looking at three films with increasing degrees of novelty. There’s a documentary about a once-novel TV comedy show; a quirky, high school dramedy based on a novel; and a truly bizarre Scandinavian fantasy about novelty salesmen.
Live From New York
Dir: Bao Nguyen
Saturday Night Live was created 40 years ago by Canadian producer Lorne Michaels as a late-night music and comedy show appealing to the baby boomers. Michaels chose the variety show format, a dying television genre. But unlike most variety shows, the show had a different host each week, supported by a cast of unknown comics called the Not Ready For Prime Time Players, presumably for their adult themes and because the show aired live around midnight each Saturday night.
So far, the show has lasted 40 years, coining countless catch phrases, spawning movie stars and way too many terrible films. But is Saturday Night Live actually funny? Not really. (Is it sacrilege to say this?) Its laugh-to-groan ratio is low. And it’s infamous for stretching a single joke over a long drawn-out scene. And if it gets enough laughs, they repeat variations of the same joke, week after week.
This film is a less of a documentary than a hagiographic tribute to the show. It conveniently leaves out the uncomfortable deaths and ODs that have plagued some of the show’s stars. Does that mean the movie is boring? No, just the opposite. In fact, it’s the best way to appreciate SNL — as an anthology of its funniest lines… with all the bad parts cut out.
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl
Dir: Alfonso Gomez-Rejon (based on the novel by Jesse Andrews)
Greg (Thomas Mann) is a shy high school senior in Pittsburg, PA. He doesn’t like school but has learned to navigate the halls without disrupting anything. His dad is a foodie- hippy, prone to lounging around at home in embroidered burlap caftans. Each day he sends Greg to school carrying iron cauldrons of Romanian organ-meat stews stashed in paper bags. Luckily, he can eat them with his best friend, Earl, in Mr McCarthy (a beat poet English teacher)’s office. He’s known Earl (R.J. Cyler) since kindergarten. Greg us middle-class white; Earl is black and lives in a rundown part of town. Together they regularly plunder Greg’s Dad’s collection of criterion DVDs as raw material for the film parodies they create (Goddard, Herzog and Bergman).
So Greg’s life is offbeat but normal until his mom throws a wrench into it. A neighbor, Rachel (Olivia Cook) has leukemia and greg is drafted to keep her company. So begins their initially awkward but increasingly deep relationship. Soon Greg and Earl are enlisted to direct their filmmaking skills toward a tribute to Rachel. But when Greg realizes that what he does for fun could have real-life consequences… he panics.
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is a self-consciously off-beat movie. The adults – like the kids — are all given quirks: Beat Poet Teacher (Jon Bernthal), Hippy Dad (Nick Offerman), Rachel’s alcoholic single mom (Molly Shannon). But it’s the kids who carry the show, especially Thomas Mann as the everynerd. Though the film seems overly mannered, it’s still very funny. I fell for its humour, its plot and characters. It’s definitely a YA story but it appeals to all ages.
A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence
Dir: Roy Andersson
A pair of morose salesmen ply the streets of Gothenberg, Sweden. demonstrating their wares. They sell entertaining novelties. A rubber mask, vampire teeth, Bag o’ Laffs. One is always angry, the other one depressed. Needless to say, they don’t sell many novelties. They rent sterile, windowless rooms in a boarding house, and frequent Limp-Leg Lotta’s — once a boisterous bar, but now filled with sad, old men sitting alone. At some point, they wander off-map into a sort of a time warp, where an 18th Century gay Swedish king – followed by dozens and dozens of soldiers in three-cornered hats – marches through a modern-day bar on horseback. (Sweden is preparing for battle with Russia.)
Simultaneously, a large flamenco teacher keeps groping her male student, and a school for kids with Down’s Syndrome is putting in a show.
These are just a few of the story lines and gags that fill this strange but hilariously sad movie. It’s set in a timeless era, like a series of New Yorker cartoons brought to life. It’s shot in sepia tones, in a Teutonic, 1920s realist style. The actors all look like they’ve come back from the dead, with pale, powdered fleshy faces and beige clothing. But what does the title “A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence” mean? You (the viewer) are a pigeon observing humanity, with all its violence and sadness, but unable to do anything about it. It’s depressing, it’s funny, it’s uncategorizable. You’ve got to see it – it’s a great movie… and one with high marks on the novelty scale!
Live from New York played last night at Cineplex, and Me and Earl and the Dying Girl And A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Contemplating Humanity both open today in Toronto; check your local listings.
This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website culturalmining.com.