Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Infinitely Polar Bear, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

                   Successfully Doubling Down on Diseases                                                         
                               Review by Ken Burke
(Please pardon the odd strangeness just below, but I'm trying something new in using 3 related links in the same phrase; this is the only way that it seems to fit this layout.)

 In my —>most recent
—>postings I went on at length (no surprise there) about my chosen subjects, so I’ll give you a break this time with shorter (for me at least) explorations of 2 wonderful current films, Infinitely Polar Bear and Me and Earl and the Dying Girl.  Further, my marvelous wife, Nina, made me an offer I couldn’t refuse, with a suggestion that it’s time for our annual reunion with the Francis Ford Coppola Godfather trilogy (1972, 1974. 1990) where not only do we get 3 nights of 5-star-worthy-film-viewing (from marvelous-Coppola-supervised Blu-ray discs—where you can clearly see in the first one her theory of how Michael’s hair becomes increasingly slicked-back as he accepts his role of emerging Don) but she’s also spared her usual voluntary chores of cooking as I buy some nice Chianti (but no liver or fava beans)cook up some tasty 
spaghetti andmeat sauce (definitely not as finely-authentic an Italian dinner as you’d surely get from my friend-and-fellow-critic, Fiore Mastracci, if you’d ever be honored with such on a trip to Pittsburgh, but I do put in enough garlic to keep the vampires far away), and we indulge ourselves with the Corleone clan for 3 nights.  Thus, I don’t have a lot of time for writing and posting this week anyway, so if you feel that there are improperly-addressed aspects of what’s covered in this edition of Film Reviews from Two Guys in the Dark please leave some comments to allow the conversation to continue.  Otherwise, hang on for a quick ride through the local cineplex turnstiles (well, mostly just some particular ones, as neither of these objects of my affection are in very wide release) and don’t spill your red wine on the light beige carpet like I did (but it’s amazing what a combination of salt, cold water, and a baking-soda-paste can do to help remove the stains if you don’t feel like just joining the cats for licking it up yourself).
Take care, curious readers, for plot spoilers gallop rampantly throughout the Two Guys’ insightful reviews.  Therefore, be warned, beware, and read on when you’re ready to be transported to … wherever we end up.  Please protect your eyes from the dazzling brilliance.
                                  Infinitely Polar Bear (Maya Forbes)

A man from a established Boston family is suffering from bipolar disease, making life difficult for his loving wife and 2 daughters until circumstances force him to take daily responsibility for the girls while the wife’s off getting an MBA in order to enhance future financial stability for them; this is all based on the director’s true story of experiences with her father.
 Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (Alfonso Gomez-Rejon)

A reclusive high-schooler who’s devoted his life to being tolerated by all of the cliques while he makes low-budget-famous-movie-parodies with his only buddy is forced by his mother to befriend a classmate with terminal leukemia; his initial reluctance develops into a true friendship with her, likely something deeper but it takes the insistence of others for him to admit it.
 I'll ask you to take my Spoiler Alert above seriously, especially for my first film under review, Infinitely Polar Bear, as it’s just now expanding from a tiny opening last week into my San Francisco area (maybe your location as well) this weekend, then will start spreading out to other locations soon, so what I reveal might ruin your encounter unless you wait to read it until after you’ve seen ... Polar Bear for yourself.  At least in my addled brain (maybe influenced by the difficult reality that I see sobering aspects of myself in both of the main protagonists of the films under review in this posting) I find enough sympathetic vibrations between these presentations to justify blending them into a consolidated review, but I’ll start with the one just now spreading into more venues so as to finally join my local critical brethren with running my comments on local opening weekend rather than later (although mine’s filled with Spoilers while they’re more traditionally tactful, so, again, keep that in mind if you choose to read on at this point).

What Happens: In Infinitely Polar Bear we have a story normally-not-discussed outside of specific-blood-relatives-and-spouses-coalitions because few of us want to reveal when we have a family member with serious personal/ social problems.  However, writer-director Maya Forbes has done just that, basing this biography on how her father, Cameron Forbes, struggled with bipolar disease (misinterpreted by his youngest daughter—called Faith [Ashley Aufderheide] in the film—into the malapropism that becomes this title) as she and her sister were young girls.  In this slight-fictionalization beginning in 1978 the family name is Stuart, with Cam (Mark Ruffalo) well aware of his difficulties, which have led his tradition-bound-grandmother, Gaga (Muriel Gould), to carefully parcel out a pittance of the immense-familial-wealth to Cam’s struggling brood, yet he’s got a constantly-upbeat-attitude toward his wife, Maggie (Zoe Saldana), and children, Amelia (Imogene Wolodarsky—the director’s daughter, with the inherent-yet-difficult-task of portraying her own mother, which may make this an autobiography if you see this story as being told from Amelia’s viewpoint, a reasonable argument given whom she’s portraying) and Faith, even as his increasingly-erratic-behavior leads to a move from their home in the woods to a rent-controlled-Cambridge-apartment for the females, a lengthy stay for him in a mental hospital followed by a stint in a halfway-house, after which Maggie decides to pursue an MBA (at Columbia, financed by a scholarship) as long as Cam can shoulder the very-challenging-responsibility of caring for their daughters while living in her place (paid for by Gaga, although she won't support the girls attending a better school—to help them build character, I guess).  Because … Polar Bear is much more of a detailed-character-study than a plot-heavy-encounter (although the plot moves along in an efficient manner) the simple recitation here is that after some screw-ups that humiliate the girls (their home's such a mess that they avoid letting friends visit) or infuriate Maggie (Cam locks the kids in one night after she’s begun her degree program while he runs off to a bar, desperate for adult company/self-medication), all ends well after Maggie’s 18 months of weekdays in NYC, leading to her taking a well-paying job there with E.F. Hutton (Boston firms balked at her childcare-needs) so that the girls can live with Dad while going to a private school in Boston, considerably better than the dumpy public one they previously had to attend, with things coming together nicely for the Stuart family (everyone accepting that Mom's in Manhattan most of the time), at least as the final credits roll.

 Things don’t end so well for 1 of the 3 titular characters in Me and Earl and the Dying Girl despite assurances from another of them that she’ll survive her deadly cancer, but then that attempted positive spin in narration from Greg Gaines (Thomas Mann)—the “Me” of the title—is characteristic of how Greg tries desperately to manipulate everything about his life so that it has an acceptable outcome, even if his machinations are just intended to avoid conflict.  When we first meet Greg, he’s a high-school-senior in Pittsburgh (I wonder if he’s a devotee of Fiore’s website and YouTube reviews?  They’re both passionate guys—in considerably different ways—about movies.) who’s given little thought to college or much of anything else except blending in unobtrusively with all of his school’s various (contradictory) “nations,” even the loner weirdoes, so as to not have to deal with any of their inherent dramas.  His only real friend is Earl Jackson (RJ Cyler)—a Black teen just as isolationist (more so than iconoclastic because neither of them intend to challenge their milieu, they just want to stay unaffected by it) as Greg—although Greg doesn’t even want to admit that level of connection so he refers to Earl as his “co-worker” in their after-school-career of making short parodies of well-known-films (42 so far, with titles and content such as Apocalypse Now [Coppola again—father, not daughter—1979] becoming A Box Lips Now, about tulips [it would take too long to explain; just see this film and enjoy it directly] or Rashomon [Akira Kurosawa, 1950] becoming MonoRash; if nothing else is appealing to you about Me and Earl … then I hope the periodic introduction of this silliness will perk up even viewers who aren’t dedicated film buffs, although knowing the originals being referred to helps up the impact of their wickedly-funny-deconstructions), inspired by their daily-lunchtime-viewings in the office of their hiply-tattooed-history-teacher, Mr. McCarthy (Jon Bernthal) of the real artsy-cinema they’re twisting around.

 As with … Polar Bear, though, the plotline here is simple, involving how Greg’s mother (Connie Britton—a hoot of a character, well balanced by her partner in offbeat-parenting [Nick Offerman as Greg’s father, a tenured Sociology Prof. who spends a lot of time at home in his bathrobe (just as I do, typing up these reviews) giving a lot more love to his cat than to his son]) pushes Greg to befriend Rachel Kushner (Olivia Cooke)—suffering from Stage 4 leukemia—the daughter of her friend, Denise (Molly Shannon).  Begrudgingly, boy hangs out with girl, but as Greg reminds us frequently in his voiceovers this is not a romance story although it has a happy ending (just not the one we've been led to expect), so they do become close, although it takes caring-acquaintance Madison (Katherine C. Hughes)—a sweet-dispositioned-hottie whom Greg would make a play for if he had better self-esteem—to convince Greg that he needs to make a video for Rachel, along with Earl pushing Greg to admit his feelings for her, especially as her condition worsens.  After a lot of false starts (and estrangement between Earl and Greg when the latter’s in a rotten mood after being pushed away by Rachel for not honoring her plans to just give up on the useless chemo treatments), Rachel does get to enjoy the finished video just before she dies, with one of her final acts being a letter to Pitt State (she finally got Greg to apply, although she had to write the application for him because he wanted to do it as if he were oddball German director Werner Herzog—by the way, we’re talking here about the assumed-fictional-Pittsburgh State U., PA [probably to avoid confusion—and lawsuits—with the actual University of Pittsburgh] rather than Pittsburg State U. in Kansas, another place entirely that you can read about on the Web) begging the Admissions Office to reconsider their cancellation of Greg’s acceptance after his grades fell drastically due to his time spent with her rather than his schoolwork. Greg follows up with his own letter to the college, including a copy of the complete story of his life with Rachel (seemingly the written basis for this film) and a copy of his video for her (familiar faces, transformed pillows, and abstract color patterns, which fully transfixed Rachel just before her final coma).

So What? Where I think these films connect is with the loving depiction by the filmmakers of their central characters, no matter how plausibly flawed all of them are at some level.  Cam Stuart’s problems are clearly known by anyone who’s ever had contact with him (after his 1967 diagnosis of what was then more commonly called manic-depression)—although even from a distance his chain-smoking might easily be a turnoff for anyone else not so inclined—but Maggie’s a constant bundle of nerves herself, ready to assume the worst about Cam (justifiable, given their circumstances but it puts her almost in a supervisory-parenting role with him, including trying to keep him at arm’s length regarding sex as she treats their marriage as being in a state of trial-separation [at best] even though finances require their continued cohabitation with her sleeping on the couch) while their kids can be as much of a hindrance to their Dad as a help in that they resist his reality, complaining about it more so than trying to help him cope (they howl about their material circumstances as well, calling their home a “shithole,” moaning that “nobody wants what we have”—including their car with a hole in the floorboard).  Still, Maggie’s the spiritual center of her film, with long-suffering-tolerance of her husband’s problems (which do come much better under control when he finally accepts the need of taking his lithium)—also giving encouragement to Amelia to identify as Black even though she doesn't look it like her sister does (the interracial-reality of the couple isn't dwelt on except when Maggie tells Cam that he's merely seen as "eccentric" for being poor while it's a social condemnation for her) just as Rachel’s the purer-heart of her story despite her hesitation at letting anyone get close to her because of her disease (Greg provides subtitled chapters for this entire story that note his “doomed friendship”), especially as she’s in her later stages of withdrawal, emotionally from those around her and physically from her own life.

 By comparison, Greg can be a self-centered-jerk at times, simply because he has so many self-doubts, along with assumptions that he’ll never amount to much so that he has trouble doing anything except making his parodies and keeping Rachel company, especially as she becomes further isolated from what should have been her normal teenage life by having to spend her days in the hospice ward of the local children’s hospital.  Despite all of the gloom that naturally comes with seriously portraying a dying person, Gomez-Rejon keeps the mood light much of the time with constantly-weird-humorous-riffs but also keeps your eye entertained with excellent wide-screen-compositions (all of which I’ve truncated for the layout of these illustrations except for the shot of Rachel in her bedroom just above, to give you a sense of the actual cinematography), active travelling shots within those opens spaces, and the quick pace of the never-quite-know-where-we’re-going-next of the plot.  There’s also a nice sense of complexity in some of the characters (even as we have to wait until the end to see it in “me and Earl”) to offset the zaniness intended with others, especially the male academics, Mr. Gaines and Mr. McCarthy.  The 2 mother figures are especially interesting as Mrs. Gaines goes from being “the LeBron James of nagging” (maybe that now means that she’s no longer the greatest nagger on Earth, at least until she gets to compete in next year’s Finals)—who inserts Greg into Rachel’s life whether the kids want it or not—to a very warm, concerned parent later on trying to help her son navigate the complex emotional waters that she’s pushed him into (still, that doesn’t prevent further nagging about college-application-decisions), just as Rachel’s divorced Mom is a very complex case (with Shannon excellently channeling our memories of her Saturday Night Live skits into a comic persona that plays well off of the seriousness of her situation), purposefully-distraught about her daughter’s condition but dangerously on the verge of putting the moves on Greg, glass of white wine constantly in hand.

Bottom Line Final Comments: Infinitely Polar Bear initially seems far-fetched enough to come across as a screenwriter’s attempt to create a complex character who’ll connect with audiences despite being a cross between a sympathetic, lumbering puppy and a dangerously disturbed man who might easy cause great harm to himself and/or his little children without ever intending to do so (a demanding role given marvelous substance by Ruffalo, which hopefully will be remembered when awards-nomination-season rolls around), that is until you realize that there’s probably not a lot of fiction in this story, given how the screenwriter’s put in so many precise details that likely reflect actualities throughout her actual father’s lifetime (the real Cam Forbes died in 1988; we also get a lot of faux-home-movie-footage of this fictional version of the Forbes family, adding to the sense of authenticity of what’s being depicted here as the Stuarts, although the final credits note that there's some actual Forbes-footage in there as well but it's not easily obvious), with the only semi-false (but likely-logistically-necessary) note coming from the filming being done in RI rather than MA.  With that understanding, this unusual narrative takes on much greater meaning, although it’s told in a manner that anyone with personal coping difficulties or family members suffering from such can relate to, as Cam—whose antics can be quite funny at times when he’s just following his internal drummer rather than making potentially-disastrous-decisions—struggles for a balance that he always knows is necessary to preserve his own stability as well as the family he’s so passionately devoted to, even when he's flying off the handle at any of them (which he often does).

 Given that Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is more fiction than biography (although based on the harsh reality that some teenagers do die of cancer, leaving holes in the hearts of all who cared for and about them) it has room to explore more depression-alleviating-farce in its structure (as with the lonely-therefore-always-eager-to-see-Greg Ms. Kushner) which it does quite well in its quick depiction of the cluelessly-disconnected-high-school-“nations,” the quick alienation Greg finds from his former-mildly-associated-cliques (stemming from the first day that he ventures to the hotly-contested-space [“Gaza, Crimea (and somewhere else I couldn't scribble down fast enough in the dark) all rolled into one”] of the cafeteria to have lunch with Rachel rather than going to Mr. McCarthy‘s office with Earl, leading later to a misunderstood-drug-high blamed on the teacher’s office pot of Vietnamese soup [rather than the pot-laced-cookies from one of Greg’s now-former-buddies]), the insanely-hilarious-film-parodies (with my affection for Orson Welles’ 1941 classic, I can’t help but prefer Senior Citizen Kane, but the pure audacity of turning Midnight Cowboy [John Schlesinger, 1969] into 2:48 PM Cowboy with Earl wandering around in a 10-gallon-hat is just magnificent), the unexpected off-the-wall-inserts (some done in goofy-stop-motion-animation, some literally on-the-wall as with a poster of Wolverine [using Hugh Jackman’s voice] berating Greg for the ineffective tactics he proposes to Rachel to ward off her morbid-well-wishers), all balanced by the exotic beauty hidden within Rachel’s room when Greg sneaks in after her death to find that she’s carved marvelous little landscapes—mostly of her, him, and Earl—into many of the books on her shelves (although one focuses on a polar bear so I've now got my connection between my chosen films secured even if I haven't convinced you otherwise anywhere else in this review).

 In choosing my usual Musical Metaphors to accompany what these films are offering to us, I decided that Infinitely Polar Bear deserved to pair with Leonard Cohen’s marvelous song about difficulties, mercy, and forgiveness (you might be thinking “Hallelujah” [not a bad choice either], but I’ve gone back much further for something I feel is more direct for this situation), “Bird on the Wire” [often sung, as in this clip, as “bird on a wire”] (from his 1969 album Songs from a Room) at com/watch?v=LVDUTAn6Ttg, with footage from a concert in England, 1972; I think this presentation of Cohen—as well as the context it provides for his luminous song—is quite appropriate to the story of Cam Stuart because while the video runs for 10:08 Cohen doesn’t start singing until 6 min. into it with the preceding footage showing him tearful and drained after the concert, just not able to summon up the wherewithal to provide one more encore, even though his devoted fans were still loudly advocating for such.  He’s depleted, has given all that he can on this occasion, just like Cam in so many scenes of his film, yet he asks that “if I have been unkind, I hope that you can just let it go by” because “if I have been untrue I hope you know it was never to you” (Cohen apparently changes these lyrics in many recordings and performances of "... Bird"—as in this clip—but these quotes are from his original album presentation, which you can find transcribed in several places including here, where there’s also a link of him singing this original version of his insightful words).

 Of course, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl deserves its Musical Metaphor as well which I think needs to be Otis Redding pleading out in soulful fashion that “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long” [to stop now] (from the 1965 Otis Blue: Otis Redding Sings Soul album) at https://www. (a clip from the Monterey Pop [D.A. Pennebaker, 1968] documentary of that 1967 festival) because that’s really what’s been going on with Greg and Rachel for the few months that they were able to be together, despite his constant refusal to see her in that light, until her light faded leaving him to carry on—hopefully to Pitt State if they’ll let him back in—with her just as a memory rather than as a potential life companion.  (I say “potential” because how many of us at 18 have truly found their actual soulmates even if we think that we have, or, possibly worse, what if we think we’ve transcended those juvenile crushes to be able to marry at age 23 after knowing our newly-minted-spouse for a whole 6 months prior?  At least in my case the real thing [after that first attempt fizzled 4 years on] finally came along when I was a mere 39 but it was well worth waiting for, thanks to my dear Nina.)  Sadly, you may be better able to find recordings of this song (written by Redding and Jerry Butler), with its various covers from a good number of other musicians from, among others, the Rolling Stones in 1965 (Got Live If You Want It! album) to Ike & Tina Turner in 1968 (Outta Season album) to Etta James in 1997 (Love’s Been Rough on Me album) to Seal in 2008 (Soul album) than you can find screenings of Me and Earl and the Dying Girl as it’s been in only 68 theaters after 2 weeks in release (with a paltry $657,451 gross to date) but I’ll just have to hope that it continues to expand its run because I think it’s clearly one of the best films of 2015, no matter what else comes later.  (Gene Siskel took that stance with Fargo [Joel and Ethan Coen, 1996] despite its March release date, saying no film would be better that year; I still agree, even with The English Patient [Anthony Minghella] taking the Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director—although Fargo did win for Best Original Screenplay [Coens] and Best Actress [Frances McDormand].)  

 Speaking of awards, Me and Earl … has one significant accomplishment already, having won both the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award at the 2015 Sundance Festival competition among U.S. Dramatic Films, one of the few contenders ever to do such (dual Grand Jury/Filmmakers Trophies coupled with Cinematography winners have happened a few times within their Documentary and Dramatic categories but it’s rare for 1 film to take the overall prizes from juried and audience votes; however, in my first visit to Sundance, in 1998, I got to see such a feat:  
Smoke Signals [Chris Eyre] won the Filmmakers Trophy and the Audience Award for Dramatic features), so we’ll see what else comes as the months roll on toward the year-end-awards-season.

 OK, I’m done until next time, so Nina and I will resume our Chianti tastings and wait for the demise of Sofia Coppola in G Part III.  (Her best scene in the whole film:  “Dad …” as she drops to the stairs, dead—yet, after seeing her in this final installment of Michael Corleone’s life story [with his spikey hairstyle in this episode completely defying Nina’s previous tonsorial-choice-thesis] enough times you can begin to appreciate her acting as being like an actual Mafia chieftain’s daughter somehow wandering into this fictional film from a documentary on mob influences on high finance, or enough of the Chianti can help you see it that way.  Fortunately for all involved she found a much more successful career in directing, especially with the marvelous Lost in Translation [2003], only her second feature at the helm but one that garnered 4 Oscar nominations—including Best Picture and an extremely rare nod for a woman as Best Director—with a win for her script in the Best Original Screenplay race).
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Here’s some more information about Infinitely Polar Bear: (6:25 interview with writer-director Maya Forbes and actor Mark Ruffalo about the real-life Cameron Forbes [Cam Stuart in the script], Forbes’ father whose life this film is based on) (82% but only 49 reviews surveyed at my post time so you might want to check back later for a more accurate tally) (65% but only 21 reviews surveyed at my post time so you might want to check back later for a more accurate tally)

Here’s some more information about Me and Earl and the Dying Girl: (scroll down through this and you’ll find some quick excerpts from Greg and Earl’s parody movies) (this trailer pretty well sums up the whole film if you’d rather just watch it and then read my review) (11:26 very recent interview [May 26, 2015] with director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, writer Jesse Andrews [also wrote the source novel of the same name, 2013], producer Jeremy Dawson, actors Thomas Mann and Olivia Cooke)

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If you’d rather contact Ken directly rather than leaving a comment here please use my new email at  Thanks.

By the way, if you’re ever at The Hotel California knock on my door—but you know what the check out policy is so be prepared to stay for awhile.    Ken

P.S.  Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker.


  1. Really liked Me and Earl and the Dying Girl even though it did not seem like a "date night" movie (but in reality could be). Apparently others agree as it has escaped the art house theater in my area and is going mainstream. It is a particularly interesting portrayal of a loner teenage boy who obviously has intelligence and quick wit but low self esteem and goals. There are probably more than a few real life examples in every high school.

    Looking forward to Polar Bear when it hits central Texas. It was a little difficult to read half of the review while avoiding the other half until I see Bear.

  2. Hi rj, Thanks for the comments, glad to know that Me and Earl ... is getting a wider release as I agree that it probably speaks to a lot of people currently in high school or who remember their own incarceration there. Ken

  3. Infinitely Polar Bear finally made it to Central Texas. It is an interesting true story and I recommend it, particularly for it's back story of the daughter becoming the Writer / Director and her daughter playing her younger self in the movie. Add the J. M. Forbes family connection and the potential was great, possibly approaching Foxcatcher in impact and style.

    However, as many critics have noted, it seems the Director's childhood memories may have produced a sugar coated version of Bipolar disease with Mania portrayed as perhaps "cute" and "eccentric", while it's most difficult and dangerous aspect, the severe depression that often follows a manic episode was hardly mentioned.

    Even today it is difficult to manage the more predominant depression aspect of Bipolar disease in an outpatient setting because normal anti-depressants are likely to trigger another manic episode.

    Luckily Polar Bear's real life Cameron Forbes was in Massachusetts where in-patient mental illness healthcare was accessible, but still today most states are extremely limited in this area. As a result, homelessness and suicides are the unfortunate side effect for many with Bipolar. In this case, Cam Forbes passed in 1998 from cancer.

    I felt the issue with the mother's employment rejection by the Family Firm was more racial than a childcare issue, even though twelve hour days are expected of incoming analysts in high powered financial organizations. Perhaps Maya Forbes has another film on the subject still in her.

    On another front, a second, perhaps more accurate look at the Depression aspect is HBO's My Depression: The Up and Down and Up of It, described as a short animated musical comedy (?) and documentary by Liz Swados, a Broadway playwright who has suffered from depression since childhood. Ms. Swados 30 minute perspective is voiced by Sigourney Weaver and Steve Buscemi among others and could be destined to become a clinical education tool. Chicago Tribune Article

  4. Hi rj, Thanks for your extensive, well-informed comments here which add much better depth to the review than most anything I said. Always a pleasure to have you enhance my run-on-ramblings with solid information. Ken