TBT: Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987)

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If you’ve been following along with this segment, you might be aware I’ve spent the last several installments picking titles at random — and in a slight panic, with several of them being decided upon (or even watched) at the very last possible second — so it’ll be nice to reintroduce some semblance of consistency here again, in the form of Holiday Cheer movies. Granted, the next several posts should be fairly predictable. Let’s just say that I’ve graduated from scrambling for random film titles to scrambling to find an appropriate monthly theme. 😉 With all that said, I know this entry today revolves around Thanksgiving rather than Christmas but you know what, I’m prepared to take the flak. You want to hurt me? Go right ahead if it makes you feel any better. I’m an easy target. 

Today’s food for thought: Planes, Trains and Automobiles.

Planes Trains and Automobiles movie poster

Being victimized by public transportation services since: November 25, 1987

[Netflix]

I can’t believe I’ve only now sat down to watch for the first time Steve Martin interact with the comedic genius that was (is?) John Candy. Now the real question: is that something I should have admitted?

I suppose it doesn’t matter as I can say with Del Griffith-like confidence that John Hughes’ classic fits snugly into the brand of comedy I cherish more than any other. That’s not to say, however, that Planes, Trains and Automobiles is the kind of story you can’t find reproduced elsewhere. It’s a tried-and-true road trip adventure featuring two distinct personalities who, despite all odds, wind up growing on one another having endured several days’ worth of mishaps that border on the (amusingly) catastrophic. Replete with sight gags and punchlines that, by comparison to today’s standards, feel sophisticated and novel, Planes is of course capped off with a happy and wholly satisfying ending that epitomizes the feel-good spirit of the holiday season.

The film explores the dichotomy of the psychological effects the hectic holiday season has on people. Ignoring the isolated incidents that seem to occur on Black Friday, the day where everyone seems to take pleasure in being their worst selves, the days and weeks leading up to Christmas have potential to be some of the most stressful all year. It’s that reality that Hughes taps into using Martin, who plays an uptight and rather uncharitable marketing executive named Neal Page, and his polar opposite in Candy’s happy-go-lucky, perpetually cheerful shower curtain ring salesman Del. While it might be more comforting — beneficial, even — to assign personalities and dispositions to a spectrum ranging from very negative to positive, there’s no denying the stereotype is alive and well during the holiday shopping season.

In Planes, Neal faces one setback after another in his attempts to get back to his family for Thanksgiving dinner, starting with missing a taxi to the airport that almost causes him to miss his flight home to Chicago from New York. This is where he first bumps into Del, who would later laugh about how amusing it was that Neal tried to steal *his* cab. Wouldn’t you know it, the two end up sitting next to each other on the flight, one that ultimately ends up having to land in Wichita due to a terrible snowstorm in Chicago. Del is quick to remind Neal once on the ground that given the circumstances it will be next-to-impossible to book a hotel room anywhere, and the two end up taking a room at some seedy motel miles away, which sets up the iconic “I don’t judge you, so why do you judge me” speech.

Things only get worse from there, as Neal is faced with the prospect of continuing to travel with Del as he seems to be the only way he’s going to get out of this crummy town. They board a train that later breaks down and end up having to cram into a city bus that threatens to fall apart at any moment. Much to our amusement the quality of transit vehicles only adds to Neal’s mounting frustrations. It all culminates in a literally explosive car ride that sees the pair brought to their knees at yet another cheap-o hotel, where the question finally must be asked: “is it me, or is it just everyone else around me that’s crazy?”

Existential rumination aside, Hughes’ judgment of character development couldn’t have been more satisfying. There are so many instances throughout the course of this escapade where we think there’s no way Del can screw things up any more than they already are; there’s no way Neal can possibly be any more unpleasant than he was trying to rent a car. And yet developments belie expectations, but only to a point. There’s a wonderful scene at another rundown motel in which the pair are confronted by their own consciences. It’s not like the humbling process isn’t unexpected. Even if you’re unfamiliar with Hughes’ filmography, it should come as no surprise the slide into relative despair can’t be sustained; this is a road trip comedy after all. Yet it’s the aesthetics of the scene that really impact. There’s something about the faux-wooden interior of this particular room that resonates warmly.

In the end, Planes‘ episodic nature epitomizes the oft-exaggerated emotions and experiences of the holiday season. Whether it’s finding the ideal gift for a loved one, putting together a master shopping list for the big dinner or simply attempting to shoulder the responsibilities of throwing a seasonal party, this time of year presents stress in many forms. Hughes is keenly aware of that reality, and he has a field day with it thanks to the interplay between these comedic greats.

Planes Trains Automobiles Martin Candy Fire

Recommendation: Planes, Trains and Automobiles satisfies on many levels with its diverse and highly effective collection of comedic situations and running jokes. It’s another one of those entries that makes one sorely nostalgic for the days of quality comedy. Thanks to great turns from Steve Martin and John Candy this is a film that fans can re-watch over and again.

Rated: R

Running Time: 92 mins.

TBTrivia: Perspectives are a funny thing. John Candy and Steve Martin have both named this film as their favorite films of their own. Ask other crew members who worked on the film and they’ll describe the shoot as “hellish,” as they were obligated to drive back and forth between locations on the East Coast and the Midwest since each time they arrived at one place the snow they were hoping to find melted too quickly. According to some crew members, John Hughes was in a terrible mood for much of the process as he was enduring difficult times in his personal life.

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

Photo credits: http://www.filmschoolrejects.com; http://www.haphazard-stuff.blogspot.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.”

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 

The Best Man Holiday

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Release: Friday, November 15, 2013

[Theater]

Reunited — and it feels so good!!!

For a film that’s been released nearly forty days removed from it’s wintery afflatus, The Best Man Holiday sure knows how to ring in the holiday spirit in very appropriate, and surprisingly emotional doses. Director Malcolm D. Lee (Undercover Brother) gathers up another impressive ensemble cast in. . . whew, here we go:

Morris Chestnut, Taye Briggs, Terrence Howard, Regina Hall, Harold Perrineau Jr., Nia Long, Sanaa Lathan, Melissa DeSousa, John Michael Higgins, Eddie Cibrian, and Monica Calhoun — for a sequel that is now 14 years in the making.

As a follow-up to Lee’s hit The Best Man, it might be difficult to think of this film as anything more than a shameless cash-grab. However, one would be wrong to dismiss it thusly; there is some reward in seeing all the guys back together for Christmas, gathering at Lance (Chestnut) and Mia (Calhoun)’s gorgeous mansion for a celebration of life, love and Michael Jackson impressions. It’s certainly not free of every cliche, every convenience and every seasonal trope you can think of, but that doesn’t necessarily doom this flick.

Coming into any sequel blindly can make that experience tough to sit through without getting too confused or losing interest; fortunately because this is a feel-good movie and the ensemble cast has strong chemistry — it wouldn’t surprise me one bit if half the time Terrence Howard isn’t even in character while cameras are rolling — the story actually moves along at a comfortable pace, enough to make certain loose ends easy to ignore (again, if you’re coming in without seeing the original).

Years removed from a bitter rivalry that sent Lance and Harper (Diggs) on their separate ways, Harper finds himself growing desperate to reclaim his status as a successful, published author having struggled for years to do so. His latest idea is to track down his former best friend Lance for a biography since he’s retiring from a career playing for the New York Giants. With encouragement from family and friends Harper and his wife accept the Sullivan’s invitation to join them for a Christmas celebration, but Harper needs to find a way to put his and his buddy’s differences aside for the sake of him getting. . .well, paid.

Because, you know. . . nothing says brotherhood more than exploiting your friends for financial gain, especially during the time of Jesus’ birth. Call it a Christmas un-miracle.

Over the course of a weekend (?) friends will bump heads and bump uglies. . . and one soon-to-be-mommy’s bump gets bigger. Indeed, you do have the whole stocking of good feelings (and some bad) in this two-hour-long comedy. Most of the scene-stealing moments come from Terrence Howard’s  Quentin, who is always there to lighten the mood whenever things become too dramatic. But others have their moments as well, including a surprisingly enjoyable Melissa De Sousa as a Real Housewife of Somewhere whose job it is is to be the drama queen. Reading that may cause eyes to roll, but she’s actually quite funny.

Yet, for all of its conviviality, The Best Man Holiday also offers up a more somber subplot that may not have managed to hit so close to home in The Best Man. No spoilers here, but suffice it to say Lee’s follow-up to his successful first ensemble film ends up sending us home with a little bit to think about. In one particular scene Lance is heartbreaking to watch. Fortunately friends like Quentin will always have their boys’ backs, and no moment might be better than when Howard steps forward and cuts the silliness, if just for a second.

The Best Man Holiday is ultimately not anything too special, but it managed to exceed the low expectations I had of it coming in, especially having no previous knowledge of the movie that came before it. I may have broken a personal rule of mine regarding seeing sequels, but no harm, no foul in this case.

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3-0Recommendation: It may feature an all-black cast, but this is certainly not a race-related flick, which really affords more credit to director Malcolm D. Lee. See The Best Man Holiday to get you into the Christmas cheer that much sooner, and also for a very light night out at the theater. It’s a solidly-acted and comfortably-paced two hours filled with some chuckles, a bit of tension and the usual drama amongst life-long friends.

Rated: R

Running Time: 123 mins.

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