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Rating History

The Faculty
The Faculty (1998)
4 days ago via Rotten Tomatoes
½

People who love classic works of literature often take a very puritanical view towards adaptations which update the setting, change the language, or otherwise make them more teen-friendly. They hold that the likes of Shakespeare, Dickens and Austen hold up without having to make concessions for more modern forms of speech and custom, and that repositioning them for adolescents doesn't so much pull in a new audience as provide them with an easy excuse for never reading the books in the first place.

While many people will watch a period drama without ever reading the book on which it may be based, the opposite view holds just as much water. When done properly, modern, teen-friendly takes on classic stories can demonstrate just how hardy and universally appreciated these tales can be - and in the late-1990s and early-2000s, there were plenty of examples from which to choose. Jane Austen fans had Clueless (based on Emma), Shakespeare fans had Get Over It (A Midsummer Night's Dream), and fans of sex and vengeance had Cruel Intentions (Dangerous Liaisons). And then there's The Faculty which, while far from perfect, demonstrates the lingering influence on our culture of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

There's certainly an argument for making a late-1990s version of 'Body Snatchers, given the large number of adaptations which have preceded it. The original film, directed by Don Siegel, was a classic 1950s B-movie which reflected McCarthy-era fears in America of communist infiltration, with the pod people standing in for 'reds under the bed'. In the late-1970s, Philip Kaufman's terrifying remake satirised the 'me' generation and post-Watergate paranoia, with an ending which is still one of the scariest and bleakest in 1970s cinema.

The 1980s and 1990s saw two different, sideways takes on the story, namely John Carpenter's They Live and Abel Ferrara's Body Snatchers. While primarily based on the short story Eight O'Clock in the Morning, They Live has 'Body Snatchers running right through it, using it to send up consumerism, advertising and the kind of anti-intellectualism that the likes of Neil Postman and Aldous Huxley had warned about. Ferrara's 'Body Snatchers, which came hot on the heels of Bad Lieutenant, pared the story down and confined its setting to an army base to make a point about social conformity and a loss of purpose for America after the Cold War had ended.

The Faculty has a lot of John Carpenter running through it, reflecting the premise in They Live of ordinary people finding out that the powers-that-be have been supplanted, but substituting construction workers for high school students. It attempts, and largely succeeds, in using the different cliques in high school as a vector for paranoia; people who would never normally socialise are forced to work together, with each one being asked to trust people who would naturally withhold information from everyone who isn't in their friendship circles.

The main point of reference, however, is Carpenter's remake of The Thing, with the pens filled with drugs standing in rather creatively for the petri dishes full of blood. The Faculty doesn't have the same unrelenting claustophobia that The Thing possessed - high school is, despite what some may feel, less oppressive than the Antarctic. Its ending is also more predictably upbeat - but that's not hard, given how cold and nihlistic The Thing's final scene was. But the film follows all the main beats of Carpenter's film quite nicely, keeping as much suspense as it can while still being more of a crowd-pleaser than a fully-fledged shocker.

Taken as an adaptation of 'Body Snatchers - with bits of The Stepford Wives thrown in here and there - The Faculty works rather well, transliterating all the major plot developments and character arcs within a conventional but believable setting. The CGI is less overtly scary than Rob Bottin's groundbreaking effects from The Thing, but until the final showdown with the queen the effects are well-rendered and have a logical physicality to them. Some of the twists are well-executed and surprising, others make sense but are telegraphed to the audience; you won't shrink into your seat in terror like in the Kaufman version, but there's plenty of little jumps here and there.

Where the film starts to falter is in its desire to be somewhat self-aware. While the script had been kicking around Hollywood since 1990, it wasn't put into production until the success of Scream, with Bob and Harvey Weinstein bringing in Ghostface creator Kevin Williamson to do rewrites. The film does have a post-modern quality to it, with characters making quips about touchstones of the genre, and this desire to be snarky and slightly above the material often works against the need to create a creepy, unrelenting atmosphere.

The film is also firmly in the shadow of The X Files, which was hitting its peak around this time - it even shares the same typeface as the show's title sequence. Despite the rich heritage of 'Body Snatchers, the film occasionally has the scale and feel of a TV episode; you almost expect Mulder and Scully to turn up any minute and take over the investigation (like the FBI so often does in stories like this). Robert Rodriguez - who was very much a gun for hire on this film - wrings the most he can out of the set-up and the potential for splatter, but it's still a modest, little offering.

Because it's so rooted in the high school sub-genre, The Faculty is also guilty of making too many concessions to generic convention. A pre-Lord of the Rings Elijah Wood puts in a good performance here, but since he survives up to the halfway point, it quickly becomes certain that he will still be alive at the end - the legacy of Revenge of the Nerds as much as 'final girl' horror scenarios. Equally, the whole sexy teacher routine that Famke Janssen puts on is made just about credible by her knowingly ripe performance, but it's also a lazy bit of writing designed to pander to the target audience (albeit less lazy than Liz Hurley's similar get-up in the Bedazzled remake).

Aside from Wood and Janssen, the other performances in The Faculty are a complete mixed bag. Josh Hartnett is a convincing and likeable screen presence, which makes it all the more perplexing why his career didn't continue on its upward path after 40 Days and 40 Nights. Laura Harris - who had a small part in the It TV miniseries - is also enjoyable as Marybeth, managing to maintain her dignity in the locker room scene even with the gratuitous nudity. Otherwise, Robert Patrick and Selma Hayak are playing completely to type, and there's a needless but thankfully brief cameo from Harry Knowles, founder of Ain't It Cool News.

The Faculty is an enjoyable and entertaining take on Invasion of the Body Snatchers which makes up for its many faults through some good performances and largely decent special effects. It's hardly the most original or best executed take on the story, and its efforts to cash in on the success of Scream are seldom to its advantage. But taken on its own, as either a bunch of horror references or a high school drama with a difference, it's hard to pass up.

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl
11 days ago via Rotten Tomatoes

In my review of Still Alice, I complained about the way that Hollywood films often depict life-threatening illness, seeking to preserve the glamour of the actor or actress in question rather than trying to capture a believable portrayal of whatever disease they may have. Invoking the example of Gus van Sant's Restless, I said that "if the film is about, say, a cancer patient, the patient will look as healthy and as well-fed as any member of the cast before suddenly declining in the final reel and popping their clogs."

I am by no means the first reviewer to have carped about this tendency of Hollywood, which has led many a cinema patron to abandon the mainstream and seek out how the independent film scene deals with death. Here, though, there is another, often more irritating problem: many independent films go out of their way to make death as quirky or pretentious as possible, and we come to hate the ailing characters so much that it takes all our moral courage to not shout "hurry up and die!". Fortunately, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is not one of these films; instead it overcomes its early snarkiness to end up as surprisingly tender.

When I reviewed The Perks of Being a Wallflower, I complained that the film's characters were "frustratingly smug", with writer-director Stephen Chbosky going to great (and clunky) lengths to prove how well-versed he was about music and teenagers. The post-modern technique of drawing attention to Hollywood cliché to make a point about how un-Hollywood your story is has long started to grate, whether it's in a visual motif or a line delivered by the characters. This overbearing desire to be different (whether it's un-Hollywood or un-anything else) is present in spades in the opening ten minutes of Me and Earl; its turned-up-nose voiceover is almost enough to make you shut the whole thing off.

Fortunately, the film very quickly abandons this approach and settles into a pleasant rhythm which is offbeat without drawing attention to itself. Once it's proved its indie credentials - trying too hard to be Wes Anderson in the process - it emerges more confidently as its own story, particularly once the central triangle of friendships has been laid out. There are still familiar touches in both the narrative decisions and their presentation to the audience, but the film is more settled and mature with regard to them, calmly acknowledging and almost embracing its lineage rather than spitting in their face like a hypocritical, snot-nosed punk.

One of the main reference points for the film is Be Kind Rewind, Michel Gondry's film from nine years ago in which Jack Black and Mos Def have to re-enact old Hollywood films after accidentally wiping all the tapes in a rental shop. Alfonso Gomez-Rejon cut his teeth directing episodes of Glee and American Horror Story; while his character construction is a welcome departure from Ryan Murphy and his ilk, he shares with Murphy a deep love for cinema and an intrinsic understanding of how genre works. The enthusiasm between Greg and Earl as they create their little bits of cinema feels genuine because it reflects the director's own passion, without any of the artificiality that J. J. Abrams displayed on Super 8.

By making filmmaking such a focal point of the story - or at least, such a prominent means of moving the plot forward - Gomez-Rejon makes a point about just how emotionally powerful storytelling and narrative memory can be. He may essentially be paraphrasing or pastiching Cinema Paradiso in this regard; the sequence before Rachel falls into a coma uncannily follows the beats in the final twenty minutes of Giuseppe Tornatore's work. But he does it very well, bringing emotional warmth and believability to what in other hands could be an exercise in total indulgence.

One of the criticisms of Me and Earl has been that the film uses the illness of its female character to tell a very male story. Max Weiss, writing in Baltimore Magazine, summed up her review by saying: "Rachel's dying isn't really about Rachel at all. It's about Greg. In fact, everything that happens in the film is about Greg." You would certainly find its hard to argue that Greg isn't the central protagonist, or that his arc is the one which develops the most over the course of the film - the clue, after all, is in the title. But Rachel doesn't get completely short-changed in the way that Zooey Deschanel did in (500 Days of) Summer; she's still a well-written character whose actions are more than mere plot machinations.

What you get with Me and Earl is a handful of teenage relationships which are driven by an inability to communicate in a meaningful way. Greg and Earl work on their films because it is the only means they have of expressing their feelings towards each other; it is an adolescent form of engagement, which Earl grows out of by the end of the film, with their friendship endings as their means of communication is removed. Their confrontation towards the end of the film is a tearing down of emotional walls, releasing anger and compassion that neither character entirely knew that they were capable of feeling.

Equally, Greg's distance from Rachel is not just temporal, it is emotional; he cannot comprehend the right thing to say with confronted by something so serious, because pretending and being flippant is all he knows. Rachel has agency here too, having to deal with her illness in a way which is stoical while still true to who she really is. Their companionship, which blends sympathy and a sense of distance, is very touching, and the more time we spend with them the more we find ourselves enjoying their company, even amongst the odd line or action which causes us to roll our eyes in derision.

This awkwardness, reluctance and inability to either reach out or break through emotionally has been a feature of coming-of-age and counter-cultural filmmaking for decades. Me and Earl may not be the most groundbreaking film in its treatment of this condition of modern youth, but it is among the more honest and naturalistic offerings in this field. Its teenagers feel like real teenagers, and the moments in which they irritate older viewers (like myself) is in a way testament to the strength of their characterisation. This is not a film full of sanitised, model teenagers played by people in their 30s - it's a film made to resonate with people the age of its protagonists, at least in its approach to their interaction.

Where Me and Earl begins to score points in a more universal fashion is in its treatment of Rachel's illness. It isn't a Hollywood treatment of illness, with all the edges taken off, but neither does it try to be edgy or radical by shoving her symptoms down our throats in a desperate bid to induce empathy through shock. Like Julianne Moore's character in Still Alice, Rachel deteriorates gradually and at her own pace, so that all the down turns feel authentically sad and the brief moments of hope and life are all the more radiant. The make-up work is excellent given the film's relatively low budget of $8m, and the lighting is sensitive without telegraphing anything to the audience.

The other nice touch to the film is the role of the adults, who are just as emotionally inept as their offspring if not sometimes slightly worse. The spectre of Wes Anderson loom large over this portion of the film too; it's a similar pre-conception to that which he employed with some success in Moonrise Kingdom. But while Anderson used it as the basis for an off-puttingly clinical study of his characters, Gomez-Rejon uses it to promote what good qualities his young leads have. The way that all the adults seem either apathetic towards the kids' plight or dealing with it in all the wrong ways pushes us towards Greg, Earl and Rachel, if nothing else to give us comfort that we may deal with a similar situation in a better fashion.

There are a couple of issues with the film, besides its snarky opening, which prevent from being a total success. While the central three characters are believable, many of the high school scenes feel like the director settling for convention; they don't play an enormous role in the film, and you get the impression that Gomez-Rejon was happy filling them with stereotypes if it meant he could get them done and dusted more quickly. The subplot regarding Greg's college application also feels a little redundant; it adds a secondary character objective where it is unneeded and unwanted, and its resolution is far too neat.

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is a tender and charming independent effort which overcomes its irritating opening to leave us genuinely moved. Gomez-Rejon directs assuredly, balancing his life of his chosen art form with a desire to keep the characters at the centre, and he is ably complimented by a trio of good performances from his three leads. It isn't as good as Still Alice, and much of it is rooted in very familiar territory, but as an antidote to Hollywood's continuing attitude to illness, it is a very welcome offering.