Stan & Ollie

Release: Friday, December 28, 2018 (limited)

→Theater

Written by: Jeff Pope

Directed by: Jon S. Baird

Unlike the lengthy run the real-life subjects enjoyed in their careers, director Jon S. Baird’s passion project Stan & Ollie seems over before it has even begun. This isn’t me knocking the film for being slight, but because I enjoyed each precious minute like they were little fudge truffles maybe I just wish there were more of them, especially when Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly are involved, and when they are this good together. They truly make this movie worth savoring.

Stan & Ollie is a lovingly crafted tribute to one of the most famous and beloved comedy acts of all time. It provides insight into both the creative genius behind the comedy and the friendship that endured behind the curtains. Coogan and Reilly play Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy respectively and I really don’t know who is better. Both. They’re both better. As history shows, the inimitable double act kept some pretty amazing company, yet even amidst their contemporaries — Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton to name two — they became slapstick icons unto themselves, appearing in over 100 silent and sound productions and with starring roles in more than 20 full-length features from the 1920s into the mid-40s.

They incidentally met as cast members on the set of The Lucky Dog (1921)though they wouldn’t officially be recognized as ‘Laurel and Hardy’ until years later, when they signed separate contracts with producer Hal Roach and shared the screen in the silent short Putting Pants on Philip (1927). Laurel, whose average build looked childlike standing next to the 6-foot, 300-plus-pound Hardy, more often than not played the hapless friend to Hardy’s pompous buffoon and a common theme of their act revolved around simple misunderstandings, demonstrated most often in the visual but occasionally expressed in cleverly conceived dialogue — their “Tell me that again” routine being a classic example.

Rather than turning his tribute into a filmic tick list of everything notable that happened, Baird concentrates on a period much later in their careers, focusing on their urgency to stay in business well after the height of their fame. The essence of their camaraderie — by extension their career — is distilled into a familiar road trip comedy. After getting down to literal business in a key opening scene, one that depicts an unhappy Stan Laurel refusing to renew his contract with Roach (Danny Huston), the story leaps forward sixteen years and follows the aging pair as they attempt to mount a big-screen comeback, a potential spoof of Robin Hood. To that end they embark on an exhausting tour of the United Kingdom in 1953, playing to diminishing crowds in obscure and forgotten music halls*, their close relationship and even their own health becoming strained in the process.

The effectiveness of Stan & Ollie very much mirrors that of the iconic two-man show. It just wouldn’t work without the right personnel, and with the Mancunian Coogan portraying the English Laurel, and Chicago-born Reilly pulling his pants up well past the point of where a traditional waistline goes to become the American Oliver “Babe” Hardy, Baird’s film is in some very capable hands — arguably the ideal hands. Reilly, perhaps more so than his co-star, has staked much of his reputation on playing the lovable oaf his character in this movie became typecast as. Look no further than the projects he teams with Will Ferrell on. Coogan, on the other hand, is a drier wit but no less entertaining. I’m thinking immediately of Hamlet 2.

As an homage to comedy, Stan & Ollie plays out more as a Greatest Hits performance rather than offering a deep dive into the treasure trove. That level of discrepancy allows for a more streamlined narrative, and will undoubtedly disappoint some viewers who might be expecting revisits to certain famous gags. However, we do get treated to some of the classics, like the bedside manners bit from County Hospital (1932), where Laurel, in paying a visit to his bedridden friend, creates quite the ruckus, eventually stringing the large man up over his own cot by his comically oversized leg cast. Baird uses this specific gag (admittedly only the first few minutes of it) to exemplify the depth of their creative and personal bond. When we see Laurel later attempt to rehearse the same sketch with a different actor — this is at a point where the guys are taking some time away from each other —  it just doesn’t feel the same. Laurel’s unease in fact leads to the cancelling of that night’s performance — much to the chagrin of their inept tour manager, Bernard Delfont (a perfectly smarmy Rufus Jones).

Jeff Pope, on balance a formula-friendly screenwriter, also gets inventive with the way he repurposes other bits — a highlight being an inversion of their famous piano-up-the-stairs scene, wherein the duo, having grown quite tired of lugging around their massive shipping container that is their traveling wardrobe, let go of it on a public stairwell and watch it slide down two flights. Yet the writing is rarely more moving than when things start to get a little tense between them. At a party thrown in their honor in London, attended by a number of Important People as well as their respective wives — the uppity but ultimately loving Ida (Nina Arianda) and the kindhearted but helium-voiced Lucille (Shirley Henderson) — past troubles resurface and it all leads to some gentle pushing and shoving, a dynamic misinterpreted by the public as a comedic act playing out in real life. It’s certainly a low point for them, yet the moment isn’t played so seriously it fails to inspire some laughs for us.

The tone of that scene is really Stan & Ollie in a nutshell. The water is never scalding hot nor freezing cold. This isn’t a movie of extremes. Instead it’s one made with reverence, arguably to a fault. It is deathly afraid of coughing in a quiet room. All warts have been removed with an airbrush. Still, I find it hard to resist the simplicity of the tale. Their comedy is brilliantly reimagined by two skilled, modern funny men. The characters are lovable and Coogan and Reilly are relishing the opportunity to pay homage. Even if the story never strays from formula and there is never a shred of doubt over where things are going, I couldn’t help but get lost in the moment.

* this is apparently more for the purposes of demonstration in the film, as in reality the pair even during this time were selling out big venues in major cities

Recommendation: Sweet, charming and very much to the point, Stan & Ollie is a must-see for longtime fans of one of the world’s most famous comedy double-acts, as well as a “You Really Should See” for anyone bemoaning the state of the modern comedy and searching for a re-set button. Also, the film is directed by the same guy who made Filth — if you haven’t seen that one, it’s a decidedly different kind of comedy starring James McAvoy as a brute of a police officer. The difference between the two films is night-and-day. Not sure if that is so much a recommendation as it is a bit of funny trivia. 

Rated: PG

Running Time: 98 mins.

Quoted: [Hardy] “I’ll miss us when we’re gone.”

[Laurel] “So will you.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.thewrap.com

July Blindspot: Swingers (1996)

Release: Friday, October 18, 1996

→YouTube

Written by: Jon Favreau

Directed by: Doug Liman

It is all too easy to assume certain things about a movie titled Swingers. Oh, how does that expression go? The project that launched the careers of both its leads as well as the director is, yes, very much a “dude-flick” preoccupied with the pursuit of happiness via the pursuit of women, but the way in which it extracts genuine, honest emotion out of such simple ambitions is really impressive.

Steeped in the Swing Revival period that swept over America in the late ’90s — a curious echo of the 1930s and ’40s when Benny Goodman was King of Swing — Doug Liman’s break-out comedy is both an homage and a movie of its era. Sampling everything from contemporary revivalist groups like Big Bad Voodoo Daddy to ’50s jump blues icons like Louis Jordan, Swingers builds much of its swagger through its eclectic soundtrack. Luckily there are performances to match the up-tempo musical stylings.

Vince Vaughn and Jon Favreau are a comedic dream playing struggling actors in Tinseltown who spend their days looking for work and their nights for a good time. Trent (Vaughn) is the quintessential Ladies’ Man whose sense of connectedness to this earth is defined entirely by his gift of gab. He’s not the type to invest his energy into anything long-term, anything real. The only commitment he knows is to playing the field. His prototypical extrovert stands in stark contrast to Favreau’s Mikey who, six months after the fact, is still reeling from a break-up from a longtime girlfriend whom he left behind in New York in pursuit of his dreams out west.

Whereas Trent only looks forward to the future (and his next cocktail), Mikey can’t stop looking back. His obsession with the past has really done a number on his self-esteem and his ability to connect to others in the here and now. Favreau’s nuanced performance captures the pain of being socially graceless and, perhaps because his character is also uncannily me, should have received more than a Best Newcomer award. His A-list status today may somewhat belie his true talents. The role is proof that Favreau is an actor first and a director second. Who knew the guy could do awkward and repressed so convincingly?

After an impromptu trip to Las Vegas* fails to revive a heartbroken Mikey, Trent and a few other actor friends — Rob (Ron Livingston, also playing a version of himself as a fresh hopeful in the City of Broken Dreams), Charles (Alex Désert) and a boy named Sue (Patrick Van Horn) — decide that enough is enough. It’s time to rally around their fallen comrade. Famously the refrain becomes “You’re so money, baby, you don’t even know it.”

Though it is a collective effort, it’s really Trent who tries to instill in Mikey all that he knows about the “unwritten rules” of the social scene. However, when push comes to shove, none of the advice seems to help. His boy is too much of a “nice guy,” which concerns Trent because he knows nice guys finish last. But Swingers (Favreau‘s first screenplay) posits this is an outmoded attitude, even in the ’90s. “Finishing last” could mean meeting a Lorraine (Heather Graham, whose well-placed cameo suggests that timing is the only thing that really matters). Ever so subtly the tone shifts away from crassness and towards something approaching genteelism. It becomes apparent after awhile that there are actually drawbacks of being a Trent. It’s probably a stretch to call the film socially responsible, but its flirtation with romance is a wholly unexpected diversion.

Swingers is a movie of simple pleasures and it’s decidedly low-budget. On first watch you’ll probably notice some technical stuff like the shadow of the camera-man against the wall as he climbs stairs in pursuit of the actors. Visible boom mics in a number of shots. Some of the effects are badly dated. If you ask me, all of this adds to the purity of the experience. The movie has such a big heart it just barely manages to wear it on its sleeve. Its passion is persuasive. Its enthusiasm contagious. Swingers is a born winner. And the music ain’t bad either.

Curious about what’s next? Check out my Blindspot List here.

* Fun trivia: the scene that takes place on the side of the highway on the return trip wasn’t shot legally. Permits for shooting are required, and the production team neither could afford one nor would have ever been able to acquire one for this particular location for red-tape-related reasons. So Liman had to improvise and make it appear as though they weren’t working even though they were. Apparently as the undercover shoot took place local cops were standing by, just out of frame.

Recommendation: Fun, uplifting, unexpectedly wholesome. You won’t want to throw it on for family movie night, but if you’re going through a rough patch Swingers is one hell of an antidote. Whether you’re a Trent or a Mikey there’s a lot to be gained out of this treatise on social dynamics — and though times have definitely changed, our innate desire to find happiness in another person has not.

Rated: R

Running Time: 96 mins.

Quoted: “So how long do I wait to call?”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.youtube.com 

Sausage Party

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Release: Friday, August 12, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Seth Rogen; Evan Goldberg; Kyle Hunter; Ariel Shaffir

Directed by: Greg Tiernan; Conrad Vernon

Sausage Party represents Seth Rogen’s strongest screenwriting effort since Superbad. It’s been even longer since he’s been this charming in a lead role as well, and he plays a six-inch-long frankfurter. Or sausage, wiener, whatever. He’s a real hot dog in this outing, a riotous, deliriously perverse bite of modern satire that will in all likelihood cause you to think twice the next time you’re thumbing through greens-turning-brown in your local Wal-Mart.

In the world of Sausage Party, Wal-Mart would be the Warsaw ghetto for perishables. In the world of Sausage Party the Food Pyramid takes on an entirely new meaning, a reality that’s manifested brilliantly via anthropomorphic food groups. There’s hierarchy and a universal belief system that shoppers are Gods. Food items believe they’re destined for great things once they’re Chosen, that they’re headed for a place called The Great Beyond where they’ll enjoy an eternity of being loved and treated like royalty by the human that rescued them from their prisons/shelves. A place where a sausage like Frank (Rogen) looks forward to slipping inside a nice, warm bun. A place where an Arabic flatbread named Kareem Abdul Lavash dreams of being greeted by 77 bottles of extra virgin olive oil that will help him stay lubricated and not dry out and be nasty and shit.

Broader arcs, involving Frank’s quest to save his sweet friends (and even salty foes) from continuing to be blinded to a horrible reality — food gets eaten, not laid — and Brenda’s determination to not act on her own sexual urges in fear of upsetting the Gods, are not exactly revelatory. Nor are the main beats delivered en route to one of the most ridiculous afterparties you are likely to ever see. (Yeah, This is the End may have been blessed by the Backstreet Boys but you’ve never seen food porn until you’ve watched this movie.) Because the story is rather store-brand generic, you’re left sort of worrying if there is a way Rogen and company can wrap things up without cooling off completely or melting down or some other food metaphor that suggests deterioration.

But there is no need to worry. At all.

And broad arcs be damned by the way. Getting lost in this supermarket is just way too much fun. There’s so much to see and do. Rogen, once again reunited with Evan Goldberg and aided as well by Kyle Hunter and Ariel Shaffir (the latter two co-wrote The Night Before with Goldberg, a rare case in which Rogen did not share writing duties), has crafted a genuinely hilarious and heartfelt film that manages to strike a near-perfect balance between satire and sobriety. One wouldn’t necessarily think Sausage Party has any right to be stepping into arenas like proving the existence of God, thereby the purpose of religion, or that packaging certain foods into certain aisles could be viewed as segregation but we should never downplay Rogen’s creativity.

In this adventure there is strength in numbers. That applies both to the mission Frank and friends find themselves embarking on as well as to how we’re able to connect with this strange little world. Frank is joined with varying degrees of hesitation by fellow wiener Barry (Michael Cera), who suffers from serious confidence issues; Frank’s love interest, the curvaceous bun Brenda (Kristen Wiig) and two squabbling neighbors from the International Foods Aisle in David Krumholtz’ Lavash and Edward Norton’s argumentative bagel Sammy (I still can’t believe that was not the voice of Woody Allen). The diverse selection of characters makes the watch more dynamic and energetic. Nevermind the fact that mainstays like Ketchup, Mustard, apples and oranges are wholly unoriginal, they don’t really lend themselves to comedy. And even though a hot dog does take center stage, brilliantly the summer grilling classic is broken down into two distinct characters. And of course we know why.

Food puns abound and as is expected, ethnic, gender and religious stereotypes play a role in deciding which items we are going to spend time with (for example: the non-perishable items are colored as wizened old Native Americans who have seen it all and it’s no coincidence that the film’s primary antagonist is a Douche named Nick Kroll. Er, played by Kroll, rather . . .). Incensed after Frank cost him his chance to go to The Great Beyond during a shopping cart collision, Douche sets out on a murderous vendetta to take out the wiener (and bun) responsible for not only the missed opportunity but his new physical deformity. (In this reviewer’s opinion we venture a little too deep into TMI territory when watching him mentally breaking down, mourning his lack of purpose. And we really could have done without 90% of Kroll’s brutal dude-broisms.)

It wouldn’t be a comedy from the Rogen-Goldberg school of puerility if it doesn’t make you feel at least a little guilty for laughing at some of the things you end up laughing at. Even still, Sausage Party (hehe) finds a number of ways to justify genre-defining tropes like making sex jokes out of literally everything. Wiig brings strength, courage and conviction to the part of a sexy piece of bread. Some things will never change though, as even here Rogen’s every bit the pothead we’ve come to love him for being as he finds room for a scene where a wiener gets roasted with a can of water and a gay Twinkie, and he does it without disrupting the flow of the narrative. The characters are well-defined and each have individual motivations for survival, which is critical in helping us actually “buy into” the situation at hand. (Let’s get real: we never take any of this seriously but we take it far more so than we thought we would when the project was first announced.)

Sausage Party is classic Seth Rogen-Evan Goldberg. It’s rib-ticklingly funny from start to finish, with only a few brief moments where all action comes to a halt in favor of more somber reflections on the state of life in a grocery store that’s about to erupt into civil war. You’ll find almost every alum from previous Rogen-Goldberg offerings here, and, hidden behind the guises of ordinary foods, they become icons. This is far too fattening a meal to keep having, but damn it all . . . why does fat have to taste so good?

Stephen fucking Hawking gum and Michael Cera the wiener

Recommendation: Irreverent, profane, over-the-top, delirious, and bizarrely heartwarming. Sausage Party uses anthropomorphism to its advantage and then some, creating memorable characters out of mundane food items and giving them distinct human personas that we can identity with and care about. (Obviously some more than others.) The rules of course still apply: fans of Seth Rogen’s sense of humor need apply while all others who aren’t big on the guy probably won’t find much mustard to squeeze out of this one. Visiting the supermarket will never be the same again, and I think that more than anything is the mark of an effective comedy.

Rated: R

Running Time: 89 mins.

Quoted: “Banana’s whole face peeled off, Peanut Butter’s wife Jelly is dead! Look at him, he’s right there.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping

'Popstar' movie poster

Release: Friday, June 3, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Akiva Schaffer; Jorma Taccone; Andy Samberg

Directed by: Akiva Schaffer; Jorma Taccone 

Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping represents the strongest extended skit Andy Samberg has developed since his SNL days. Despite the contrived manner in which conflict is resolved, Popstar stays fresh, rarely succumbing to its own silliness as it takes aim at the vapid culture surrounding top-brand pop artists in today’s music industry.

Of course it’s Samberg to whom we’re indebted the most. As he has volunteered himself as the honorary jackass, the simultaneous pro- and antagonist leading the charge in another satirical stabbing at the entertainment industry, he stands to lose the most. He plays Connor Friel, a name that just has to be modified for the stage — Connor4Real. So cheesy it just has to be fattening. Samberg thrusts himself into the spotlight as an ultra-successful, Billboard 200-topping artist whose morbidly obese ego won’t be lost on those who lap up anything with Kanye’s name on it . . . or maybe it’ll appeal even more to those who can’t stand him, I’m not entirely sure. (Don’t let the title fool you; this is a shakedown of the entire music industry, not just pop stars.)

Taking the form of a mockumentary, this feels like something you might catch on VH1, though you might have to tune in at 2 a.m. to get the fully uncensored version. It introduces Connor and his childhood friends Owen and Lawrence (co-writer/directors Jorma Taccone and Akiva Schaffer, respectively), the guys with whom he had found early success since his days with The Style Boyz. As the story develops, so do the tropes: the meteoric rise to fame, the fall from it, the varying degrees of success experienced by each former member thereafter.

We pick up in the present as Connor is preparing to release a follow-up to the sensation that was his debut album, Thriller, Also. Unfortunately said follow-up, Connquest, gets released to scathing reviews and in no short order it’s deemed a massive failure, even commercially. (Figures for the week are something in the thousands, as opposed to the predicted upper-hundreds of thousands, bordering on millions.) Before it’s all over Connor will be bidding embarrassing adieus to his agent (Tim Meadows), his girl (Imogen Poots), his dignity, even the loyalty of the only other remaining member of The Style Boyz.

That’s before he realizes the rift between the Boyz is the very thing that’s holding him back from true stardom. That’s before the epiphany hits: ‘gee, maybe I’m as much at fault for the fall out as the others. Maybe it’s time I humble myself.’ So they get back together again — a veritable bromantic moment that actually carries some weight thanks to the well-established personalities — for a reunion show/finale guaranteed to inspire Justin Bieber and Miley Cyrus to step up their game.

The picture is not only energetic and engrossing (and ruthlessly satirical, in case that wasn’t obvious), but it’s efficient, clocking in at under 90 minutes. Popstar is poignant in the way it captures the various personalities in their natural habitats. Connor’s surrounded by his lavish worldly possessions (think: MTV’s Cribs); Owen can always be found behind his keyboard(s) and Lawrence, disillusioned by the entire music industry, opts for a more rural lifestyle. Now he lives on a farm, tending to his crops. (Pssst, it’s a Judd Apatow production so you know that ain’t okra.)

Even if the execution is largely by-the-numbers, the personalities are larger than life, and it is Connor’s that we’re concerned with the most. Ultimately it’s the only one that really matters.

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Recommendation: I’m unsure if there are any real takeaways from this comedy; you know, other than what any well-adjusted adult already knows to be true of certain celebrities. The vanity surprises no one here and as a result this isn’t exactly the most revelatory satire you’ll come across. To Popstar‘s credit, there’s no lecturing or condescension. It’s kind of a warning siren for stars on the rise Justin Bieber: don’t be a douche. Fans of Andy Samberg/SNL need apply.

Rated: R

Running Time: 86 mins.

Quoted: “Ever since I was born, I was dope.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

Decades Blogathon – Stand By Me (1986)

1986

 

My apologies for a late posting today, folks. But better late than never, right? Joining in the discussion today we have Courtney from On the Screen Reviews. That site is a great one to go to if you’re looking for a variety of film reviews and yearly Top Tens. Check it out if you haven’t already, you won’t be sorry! Thanks again for helping us make this blogathon a great one Courtney, the floor is yours! 


Three Rows Back and Digital Shortbread are hosting the Decades Blogathon, a 10(ish) day event in which film critics take a look at movies from different decades. This month we’re choosing films from any decade with the year ending in ‘6’ (given that it’s now 2016), and there’s no restrictions.

For my contribution, I’ve chosen to cover the coming-of-age classic that made the train dodge a timeless pastime, Stand by Me.

You guys wanna see a dead body . . . ?

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“I was 12 going on 13 the first time I saw a dead human being. It happened in 1959, a long time ago, but only if you measure in term of years.”

With the overhaul of pre-teen movies that force your brain to regress in order to comprehend, it should be unanimously agreed that Stand by Me follows a blueprint of movie making that seems impossible to recreate. Recent movies like Super 8 attempted to capture youthful nostalgia, but didn’t dig deep enough to reach the gritty reality of adolescence. Stand by Me offers no gimmicks, no aliens, no gadgets, but raw human emotion.

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Stand by Me is a movie about four 12-year-old-boys living in a small town in Oregon around 1959 who go on a total boy adventure Labor Day weekend to find an undiscovered dead body. It’s narrated in present-day by a novelist (Richard Dreyfuss) who recalls the weekend that inspired his writing. (That old 80s computer tho! If that doesn’t resonate with you, I don’t know what will!!!)

Their weekend journey is the first taste of real life for the four boys and the last real taste of innocence; I think this is what resonates with viewers like myself the most. It eliminates the awkward introduction of girls into their lifestyle (because they haven’t reached that point in life yet), and focuses on more pertinent philosophical questions of that age like “Do you think Mighty Mouse can beat Superman?” Conversations around the campfire seem endless and pinky swears seem bound in blood.

The movie takes another risk filmmakers refuse to take today — it’s rated R! It’s unpretentious, hilarious and absolutely genuine with its plot and dialogue. Kids at the age of 12 are going to swear as much as this movie suggests, so why bleep it out? Stand by Me keeps it real, most notably with it’s script, which translates to some of the best scenes by young actors in cinematic history.

Here are some of my favorites scenes:

Teddy’s Freakout

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The movie really hones in on small town life and what it’s like to know everybody. In the junk yard scene where the crotchety man calls Teddy’s (Corey Feldman) father “a looney,” Teddy erupts, “I’m going to rip off your head and shit down your neck!” Firstly, what a creative and vulgarly descriptive insult! Teddy’s father allegedly stormed the beach at Normandy, and despite his father being total garbage to Teddy, he has the utmost respect for him. That’s commendable, and it unfolds layers of Teddy’s character that are deeper than one may anticipate. If it isn’t obvious, this movie really shows that boys have emotions too.

Kiefer Sutherland in any scene

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Kiefer Sutherland is a bona fide badass in this movie, and he’s one of the most believable assholes on screen in the 80s! It takes effort now-a-days to convince me that a character is the scum of the Earth, mostly due to poor acting or casting decisions, but Sutherland embodied every aspect of the sociopath Ace. Despite stealing every scene he’s in, the most character defining scene comes at the end where he affirms that he’s willing to kill a kid to get what he wants. Great acting and character embodiment by Sutherland. I would not fuck with him.

Train Dodge

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The train dodge scene is probably the scene most associated with the movie and one of my personal favorites. What I love about the train dodge is the giant metaphor being slammed in your face that the train is your life — it’s coming no matter what, and you damn sure better be ready for it. Not only is it one of the more hilarious, heart-pounding scenes, but it’s an affirmation that some kids can handle it and some can’t.

The Deer

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The deer scene comes as a breath of fresh air in-between dramatic scenes offering a reflection for both the character of Gordie and the audience. It showcases Gordie’s consciousness as a child in that he is in-tune with his creativity as an aspiring writer. There are also subtleties of the scene that I love — his smirk, the comic book he’s reading, the fact that no one else saw the deer and that he keeps the moment to himself . . . until now.

The Closing Scene

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“Chris did get out. He enrolled in the college-courses with me. And although it was hard, he gutted it out like he always did. He went onto college and eventually became a lawyer. Last week he entered a fast food restaurant. Just ahead of him, two men got into an argument. One of them pulled out a knife. Chris, who would always make the best peace tried to break it up. He was stabbed in the throat. He died almost instantly. Although I hadn’t seen him in more than ten years I know I’ll miss him forever.”

I think the last scene of the boys is probably one of the most relevant for the actors. The final shot of Chris Chambers (River Phoenix) walking into the distance slowly fading away is an eerie premonition of his actual fate of an overdose at the age of 23. The final scene really shows how friends grow apart in life, and that’s okay. The boys all have revelations that each is struggling with something whether it’s being bullied over weight or having an abusive parent . . . they all persevere and it shapes their characters. The character of Chris Chambers is one of my favorites, because despite coming from a crappy family situation, he had the ability to make his life better. It may sound cliche, but it shows the power of perseverance without the director making it overly showy.

This is a movie that resonates with me long after viewing and it’s really never left me.

Let me know your favorite scenes from the movie!  GIF 6


Photo credits: http://www.imdb.com 

The Nice Guys

'The Nice Guys' movie poster

Release: Friday, May 20, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Shane Black; Anthony Bagarozzi

Directed by: Shane Black

Well, they’re not quite Robert Downey Jr. and Val Kilmer in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang but The Nice Guys squeak in at a close second, offering up liberal doses of hilarity and action that’s more fun than perhaps it ought to be. Which just leaves Iron Man 3, screenwriter Shane Black’s only other directorial credit, coming in at a relatively distant third.

To Black’s debut crime comedy The Nice Guys owes a great deal, not least of which being the awkward disposal of a corpse, a neon-lit film noir tilt, and the constant banter and infectious chemistry between its starring duo — in this case, Ryan Gosling and hey, what’s this, Russell Crowe? That’s right. Crowe does indeed have a funny bone in his body, and it’s a big one.

Los Angeles in the 1970s. Porn stars and private eyes. Privatized businesses colluding. Birds choking on polluted air. Two private investigators stumble into a possible murder/suicide plot involving a once-prominent female porn star (Murielle Telio), who may or may not be one in a string of victims associated with the shady production and distribution of a new skin flick. When surly, prone-to-violence Jackson Healy (Crowe) discovers there’s another detective trying to get his beak wet on the action, he requests that Holland March (Ryan Gosling) cease and desist . . . by snapping his arm. (As any self-respecting P.I. must.)

It’s a classic case of the odd couple and, despite the familiar blueprint, what follows proves to be among the crème de la crème of the buddy-cop genre. Holland, a single father whose precocious teen daughter Holly (Angourie Rice) consistently calls him out on his bullshit, has the slick suit and a nice house — one he claims they’re just renting while he rebuilds the old one that burned down — and a solid(-ish) reputation around town to lose if this investigation goes south. Jack Healy, on the other hand, is considerably less mannered (and less licensed), towing a fine line between bad guy and misunderstood loner. In short, they make for two equally compelling characters, both destined for a redemption of sorts, that make the occasionally tedious two-hour runtime all worthwhile.

The Nice Guys is moulded by classic buddy cop comedies of old — the likes of detectives Riggs and Murtaugh aren’t very deeply buried inside this nostalgic throwback to the ’70s.  But it also functions effectively as a period piece. The milieu is undeniably retro, though seeing is only part of the believing here. Catch yourself grooving to a pop/funk-infused soundtrack featuring the likes of The Bee Gees, The Temptations and a wonderfully timed Earth, Wind & Fire classic while the sporadic placement of movie titles that would go on to define the decade entrench us further in times that will never be again.

It’s only around the hour-and-forty-minute mark we experience a lull in between major action/comedic set pieces, the best of them all arguably lying in wait at the very end. But even during the slower moments the young Rice provides a welcomed respite from all the foolish antics that pervade. Here’s a character well worth embracing if not for her intelligence then for her morality: “If you kill that man, Jack, I will never speak to you again.” She’s talking, of course, about the primary antagonist of the film, Matt Bomer’s suitably psycho John Boy, a man who has a vested interest in retrieving the film reel her father and Healy are after (but not for the reasons you’re probably thinking). Rice’s character is something of a role model for young girls, offering up a performance that is all too rare in these kinds of movies. She is absolutely fantastic.

The farce occasionally borders on cartoonish, but then again Black always seems to teeter on the edge of self-parody. Playing it fast and loose works so well for him, and it certainly works well for the two leads. Using this as a barometer, the summer slate has a lot to live up to in terms of delivering pure escapist entertainment.

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Recommendation: Gleefully farcical and profane in equal measure, The Nice Guys will best serve fans of Shane Black’s brand of comedy. It recalls the spirit of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang while managing to separate itself just enough. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 116 mins.

Quoted: “I think I’m invincible . . . I don’t think I can die!”

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Everybody Wants Some!!

'Everybody Wants Some' movie poster

Release: Friday, April 15, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Richard Linklater

Directed by: Richard Linklater

All right, all right, all right — so it’s been over twenty years since Matthew McConaughey brilliantly repurposed those famous Doors lyrics, and it might seem a little suspect that director Richard Linklater would take another trip like this down memory lane, in 2016. Has he run out of ideas? How will he find a way to crowbar some long-lost cousin of David Wooderson in to the story? How close was he to leaving the project titled Dazed and Confused 2? Naturally, a project like this raises more than a few questions.

Those concerns all but disappear without notice like a Saturday morning hangover when, after only a few opening scenes, we find ourselves jettisoned back to the days of disco, coke (well, here it’s replaced by a wealth of weed) and, of course, the Walkman. Part of the deal here is remaining open-minded about developing another love affair with a different decade but the same director, and if you’re able to do that you’ll find there was indeed room for one more of these in his catalog. Everybody Wants Some!! may have to wait some time before it gains cult status, but then, so did all those hazy high school hijinks.

Rather than focusing on the culmination of another semester wherein the best and the worst of seniors and their underclassmen alike are brought out, Linklater inverts the time table and builds toward the first day. The story follows a collegiate baseball team through the final weekend of summer, centering on a new pitcher named Jake (Blake Jenner), one of the most talented players at his high school, who finds himself navigating this unfamiliar, deeper pool of talent and competitiveness. Meanwhile he and his teammates negotiate, and largely embrace, the various social stigmas attached to being a college athlete.

Once again Linklater gathers together a cast of relative unknowns to help keep the distraction of celebrity status to a minimum. There’s the mustachioed and most-likely-to-go-pro McReynolds (Taylor Hoechlin); Roper the ladykiller (Ryan Guzman); stoner Willoughby (Wyatt Russell); faux-philosopher Finnegan (Glen Powell); Plummer (Temple Baker) . . . who’s just kinda there; Jay (Justin Street), who’s a total psycho and the team’s current pitcher; the gregarious Dale (J. Quinton Johnson), who also kindly takes on the task of orienting freshmen to the team; Beuter (Will Brittain), a good-old boy with the southern-fried accent; and Nesbit (Austin Amelio), an upper-classman burnout with a passion for the game. There are others as well but this is the core.

They’re wholly believable as an actual college baseball team, and if not that then their perpetual involvement in shenanigans establishes them as the next best frat house behind Delta Tau Chi. It helps that the performances are uniformly fantastic — energetic and naturalistic. There’s genuine camaraderie between them, especially once the movie shifts into its second third, where the boys start figuring out what everyone is all about. On the female side, there are far fewer stand-outs — Everybody Wants Some!! is likely to struggle to pass the Bechdel Test — but Zoey Deutch as Beverly, a theater major Jake finds cute, anchors the film in slightly more romantic territory with her warmth and optimistic outlook on life.

The love child of Animal House and Dazed and Confused, Linklater’s baseball-themed bacchanalia feels like a long lost relic, a film made years ago that’s only now being rescued from the clutches of development hell and resuscitated for audiences too young to appreciate how far out Linklater’s paean to the ’70s really was. It’s a fleeting watch, and it’s not for the narrative-minded. The story boils down to a team learning to gel before the grind of spring training locks them back into regiments and routines. From start to finish this is a raucous party atmosphere and it might be harder to identify with a group of extroverted athletes than say, a cross-section of high school broken down into its many cliques.

Nevertheless, Linklater has once again managed to tease out intensely strong feelings of nostalgia and bittersweetness by stuffing so much into these precious last days of summer. The film, despite itself, is a study of maturity and accepting responsibility. Kids turning into adults is as inevitable as waking up one morning in these houses to find crude drawings all over your face.  Everybody Wants Some!! is about finding your place in a larger group, about figuring out what you can contribute. Find out what matters most to you. That’s true of college but it’s most poignant when you consider the vaster pool of possibilities outside of school.

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Recommendation: A gentle nudge in the direction of some of our glory days, Everybody Wants Some!! functions as a highly amusing diversion (even if it’s not outright hilarious). A game cast combines with a mise en scène that brilliantly pays tribute to the fashion and social etiquette of a decade long since passed. Perhaps it’s best not to make comparisons, but this one’s kinda hard not to recommend to those who fell in love with the director’s previous efforts. Baseball fans might be disappointed to learn how little ball is actually played, however. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 117 mins.

Quoted: “I’m too philosophical for this shit!”

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TBT: Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life (1983)

In my third week of rummaging through the DVD shelves, I stumbled upon a little oldie that likely no one has ever heard of. And by ‘no one’ I mean quite literally the opposite. In fact if this is the first you’ve read about this film, don’t let the cold shoulder surprise you. 😉 Now, saying this anthology is well-known isn’t the same as saying it’s been well-received by everyone. The humor presented is of a . . . well, let me go into those details more below.

Today’s food for thought: Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life.

Serving up philosophical conversation starters since: March 31, 1983

[DVD]

E-hem. Life. It’s for the living.

Let’s sit here for a minute and bask in my incredible profundity. But in all silliness, I can’t pretend like I can compete with Monty Python‘s bizarre yet ingenious embracing of platitudes such as, “what is the meaning of life? Why are we here?” I just don’t have the talent to make the mundane seem insane.

I was here before, some time ago, attempting to soak up all that this British force (or is that farce?) of comedic nature had to offer in its final feature presentation. Forgettable feels like the wrong word to use here but I was surprised in my most recent watch how many segments I felt like I was experiencing for the first time. I think it’s true of most things Monty Python that some jokes/skits land completely firm-footed while others simply crash and burn. This is certainly true of The Meaning of Life anyway, and even while it manages to avoid by a wide margin the comedy doldrums I regret to say that I will probably be forgetting those same parts in a few weeks’ time.

Of course, the opposite still holds true. That which The Meaning of Life succeeds in parodying or, to crib a British expression, taking the piss out of, has always been difficult to scrub from the memory. As much as I might want to pressure wash the walls of my brain of the images of an engorged Mr. Creosote or that particularly hasty live organ donation scene, these images and concepts are stains I can’t get rid of. All of this is to say that when Monty Python is good, it is very, very good. Fortunately, for this last full-length feature installment, the positives (still) outweigh the negatives.

The anthology unfolds chronologically, striving to answer that ever-elusive question, and while those fish in the fish tank are never impressed by how John Cleese and his cohorts go about it, the rest of us who weren’t born with gills are more often than not intrigued by the process. It encompasses the various stages of the human experience, beginning with a segment called ‘The Miracle of Birth,’ during which it is made quite clear that the film was made in a different time given its callous attitude towards women, and concluding with a section surprisingly entitled ‘Death.’

In the meantime, we pop in on a Yorkshire family who has been burdened by a surplus of children thanks to the Catholic church’s disapproval of the use of protection; visit a British public school where boys are taught the finer points of engaging in sexual intercourse (also rugby); get invited to possibly the most inappropriately-timed birthday celebration on a War World I battlefront; learn that one doesn’t have to be dead to be an organ donor; and sit down to dine with the world’s most obese man (shudder).

Given that this is the fifth and final feature film, it’s no secret that a certain level of tolerance for racy and downright offensive, crude humor is required to make it through these bonkers 107 minutes. As well, any hope for narrative cohesion should be all but quashed from the outset. Ideally The Meaning of Life isn’t anyone’s first experience with the gang; hopefully you’ve had some previous exposure, and have come to accept certain realities about Monty Python. One of those realities is that their style values quantity over quality in terms of how gags are delivered, and while some are painfully effective — Cleese’s public school sex ed course being arguably the highlight — other segments, such as The Meaning of Life Part IV (‘Middle Age’), where a middle-aged couple visit a Medieval dungeon-themed restaurant, and the latter half of Part VI (‘The Autumn Years’), a restaurant staffer’s attempt to offer his take on the meaning of life by taking us back to his childhood home register as awkward and unfunny. And then of course there’s the realization that some of the scenes are just plain weird, a la ‘Find the Fish.’

Yet the entire package ultimately works because of the troupe’s camaraderie. Cleese, Graham Chapman, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones and Michael Palin endlessly feed off of one another. Each have their time in the spotlight, no one seems selfish or egotistical enough to feature more prominently than another. Of course, that’s not the same as saying that all skits pay off equally, but if ever there were a group that epitomized comedic chemistry it would be this lot. The Meaning of Life might not be the most consistent production but it’s superior to the gross-out brand of comedy you’ll find in modern films.

Recommendation: Monty Python is known as one of the most influential comedic groups of all time, their impact on the world of satirical/parodical film and stagecraft at large akin to what The Beatles did for music. If that’s not enough to recommend a watch, I don’t really know what is. But I suspect these kinds of films don’t really need much of an endorsement. You’ve either seen them or you’ve given them a wide berth. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 107 mins.

TBTrivia: John Cleese has gone on the record as saying this film was “a bit of a cock-up,” and all the other Pythons agreed that this film is not of the same quality as their previous two (The Life of Brian and The Holy Grail). 

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The Man From U.N.C.L.E.

Release: Friday, August 14, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: Guy Ritchie; Lionel Wigram

Directed by: Guy Ritchie

In The Man From U.N.C.L.E., the stylish new action comedy from Guy Ritchie, Henry Cavill looks short compared to Armie Hammer. So I had to go look up the listed height of his less debonair co-star. Hammer stands a towering 6’5″. . . The size difference is notable, but more importantly it defines the film’s running sight gag — two larger-than-life men stumbling their way around a terror plot steeped in 1960s Cold War paranoia.

At the risk of re-opening fresh wounds, may I remind everyone that Cavill is no physical slouch. At 6’1″ he made for a pretty intimidating Kryptonian in the much-maligned Man of Steel (oooh, careful there, Tom), yet here he’s set up on more than one occasion as the submissive one, the American spy Napoleon Solo versus Hammer’s short-tempered Russian secret agent Illya Kuryakin. The two must join forces (but only after overcoming that awkward phase of being former sworn enemies on the streets of a Berlin torn literally . . . or, rather, politically . . . in half in the aftermath of World War II) to thwart the efforts of an international crime syndicate hell bent on global destruction, an organization led by the beautiful but dangerous Victoria Vinciguerra (Elizabeth Debicki).

Solo appears first. He briefly interrogates a young car mechanic named Gaby (Ex Machina‘s Alicia Vikander) who happens to be on the wrong side of the Berlin Wall. With her cooperation in providing some personal background (e.g. the nature of her father’s work) Solo assures her he can help her escape the Iron Curtain. An exciting chase throughout the ruins of the city ensues when the pair cross paths with Kuryakin, initiating one of several impressively choreographed stunt sequences that Ritchie has by now mastered. It isn’t as quickly paced or as vicious as those featuring in his signature early works. If anything, U.N.C.L.E.‘s suavity is antithetical of the behaviors of those brazen British blokes of the late ’90s and early 2000s. But don’t make the mistake of equating Ritchie’s tempered approach with a boring film.

In fact his style might never have been better. His ability to generate comedy out of the sheer physicality of his leads trumps the familiarity of the screenplay (written by Lionel Wigram and himself). Cavill and Hammer get along great but there’s something more striking than their chemistry, a chemistry that makes sequels seem all but inevitable. How ridiculous are these guys in the roles of secret operatives? Even with dark pasts, the likes of James Bond, Jason Bourne or even Big Chris don’t occupy the same kind of space. Hammer, who, once again, has four inches on Cavill’s imposing frame, takes on a character simmering with intensity and anger who must stuff his emotions down for the sake of the mission; Cavill, considerably more charming and well-adjusted, can still be a brute when push comes to shove. And yet, if Ritchie allowed the pair to play it straight the film would be bleaker and less enjoyable.

Ritchie also judges his female characters well, effectively emboldening any skeptical future director with the idea that it is, in fact, okay to cast curvaceous females in well-written, anti-damsel-in-distress roles. Vikander, though not quite as luminous as she was earlier this year as Ava, offers strong support in the form of a deceptively complex role, one that comes to bear the narrative’s crux — who exactly is an agent to trust in this time of turbulence and . . . erm, distrust? But it’s Debicki’s sinister Victoria, a descendant of tyrannical rule of some description, that is going to stand up to scrutiny. With what little screen time she is given Victoria is a true sadistic. A femme fatale if there ever was one. Of course, the film has a duty to provide more general entertainment so she’s not untouchable. Her demise is actually one of the movie’s missteps, but hey, now I’m just being picky.

Familiarity with the 1960s TV series isn’t a requisite, nor is experience with the director’s previous outings. Ritchie appeases with a Sherlock Holmes-esque touch — it isn’t probably what die hards are going to be looking for but even they are likely to come to accept this for what it is — and crafts a story that, while not wholly original, steadily absorbs through its key players’ charisma, slick cinematography and gorgeous production design. Expanding beautifully on the backs of a well-established core of enthusiastic performances, U.N.C.L.E. is as ridiculously enjoyable as it is ridiculous.

Recommendation: It’s not the most original story you’ll see this year but it’ll be a challenge to find a more enjoyable thrill ride, especially one dressed in the style of the 1960s. The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is one of Guy Ritchie’s best films, and if you call yourself a fan of his brand of filmmaking you owe it to yourself to go pick up a ticket for this right away.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 116 mins.

Quoted: “I was briefed on your criminal career. Your balls are on the end of a very long leash, held by a very short man.”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Me & Earl & the Dying Girl

Release: Friday, June 12, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: Jesse Andrews

Directed by: Alfonso Gomez-Rejon

I’d like to dedicate this piece to my good friend Andy, a man of rare intelligence and passion for rock climbing that the Knoxville community and the world at large lost far too soon.

Me & Earl & the Dying Girl may be unafraid of confronting brutal realities but it has little interest in festering in sorrow and solemnity. In fact the blunt title is a strange acknowledgement that things are going to be okay. Much like Rachel’s frilly purple pillow it cushions us if even just slightly from the gut-punch we prepare ourselves for throughout this meditation on life’s transience.

Sure, there’s a sense of inevitability and dare I say it, predictability, that casts a pall over Greg (Thomas Mann), Earl (RJ Cyler) and Rachel, a.k.a. ‘the girl’ (Olivia Cooke) and the last few weeks of their high school lives but Alfonso Gomez-Rejon and his idiosyncratic crew would be damned if the weight of the material is going to get the better of them. In spite of its originality — first and foremost in the form of a knock-out performance from Mann, whose previous work didn’t exactly instill confidence in his acting prowess — I hesitate to say my relationship with Earl is one of complete, albeit beautiful, cliché. Rarely have I been so impressed with the value a movie places not only on youth but on life itself. To say I emerged from the theater with my outlook even remotely altered would be the cherry on top of that cliché sundae but hey, can I just say it anyway?

I was moved, yes. Yes I was.

That’s him and Earl . . .

The Part Where I Tell You About The Plot.

Greg’s informed by his overbearing mother (Connie Britton) that a school friend — Greg insists she’s just an acquaintance — has been diagnosed with leukemia. His father (a very hippie Nick Offerman), reiterating that the situation “sucks quite a bit,” shares mom’s concern that Greg ought to befriend Rachel during this difficult time. Greg knows Rachel would see through the idea, but goes anyway. And lo and behold she sees right through the idea; she doesn’t need anyone’s pity. Over time, however, Rachel becomes drawn to Greg’s peculiar sense of humor and aggressively self-effacing nature, though he hesitates to place the ‘friendship’ label on any relationships he shares with his peers. Especially with Earl, a longtime “co-worker” with whom he eats lunch daily in Mr. McCarthy (Jon Bernthal)’s office . . . because of air conditioning and fears of getting caught up in any sort of clique constituting the chaos that defines Schenley High’s cafeteria.

Aside from social awkwardness, the pair share a passion for spoofing canonical films. One day class hottie Madison (Katherine C. Hughes) gets wind of this and asks them if they would make a film dedicated to Rachel. Given that their previous efforts are of a rather immature and bizarre nature — avant garde wouldn’t be the worst way to describe them — Greg is primarily concerned with coming up with something that would feel appropriate. When Earl tells Rachel about the idea to make this film, we witness the fall-out: Greg’s self-conscientiousness and Earl’s open honesty clashing with brutal force, with little thought given to how shallow and pointless the conflict really is.

Unfortunately it gives way to a larger rift between Greg and Rachel, the latter who is trying her hardest to deal with the reality of not knowing what the next day brings. All those weeks giving way to months of shared time in her bedroom, a room occupied by a diverse collection of pillows only an indie film could get away with drawing attention to on more than one occasion. Has all this time meant nothing? Was it just Greg’s parents ordering him to be there the reason he kept returning? Greg describes the friendship as doomed, but we’re not exactly sure how serious he is about that sentiment.

And this is the girl.

The Part Where I Act Like I Know How to Critique a Film.

Pervading Earl is a refreshing directness — from the performances to the tight framing of this hectic school environment and the surrounding neighborhood; from physical execution to the various thematic threads, nearly every aspect of the production lives and dies by its willingness to be casually confronting. It’s a film that allows a conversation about death and the fleetingness of existence to come about organically, although there are of course meanderings into subplots involving popsicles, “accidental” drug-taking, and peculiar food only Nick Offerman would be into for real.

As Rachel, Olivia Cooke exudes braveness and it’s a quality that clearly rubs off on her young co-stars. The distinction of most memorable performance may go to Mann but Cooke is damn good. Parenting as a function of the way we grow and experience is wisely given a substantive role as well. Molly Shannon as Rachel’s mother is unhinged but empathetic. She may be a little off her rocker and too often a poor role model for these kids but she’s a single parent desperately trying to deal with her daughter’s illness. Similarly, Greg’s parents are borderline obnoxious but they explain a great deal about Greg’s off-kilter personality. Matured and young adult alike aren’t alienated by unrealistic writing; they’re imperfect, sometimes off-putting but more often than not relatable.

Based on Jesse Andrews’ debut novel of the same name, Earl shares more in common with the ‘me’ in its title: like Greg, the narrative is equal parts profound and humble. Drama doesn’t draw attention to itself until a final tear-jerking sequence of events that simultaneously surprise and confirm early suspicions. The narrative is straightforward but as anyone who has navigated the halls of high school will attest, that journey is anything but. When you factor in a life-altering experience such as the one facing Rachel and those that she’s involuntarily surrounded by, all bets are off on how anyone is going to fare come the end of the storm. Speaking for myself, this isn’t life-changing stuff but it is life-affirming. This is surprisingly uplifting for a film with ‘dying’ as part of the title.

Recommendation: Gomez-Rejon’s sophomore effort proves an emotional experience, a beautiful representation of a difficult high school experience. It’s a great companion piece to 2012’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Simmering with brutal honesty and endearing personalities, Earl isn’t always fun and games but as a big fan of films that refuse to sugarcoat its themes, I find it’s an easy one to embrace. And anyone who can appreciate really off-beat characters are sure to find plenty to sink their teeth into here.  

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 105 mins.

Quoted: “So if this was a touching romantic story, this is where our eyes would meet and we would be furiously making out with the fire of a thousand suns, but this isn’t a touching romantic story.”

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