Archive for the Drama Category

Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet

Posted in Animation, Drama with tags on August 20, 2015 by Mark Hobin

Kahlil Gibran's The Prophet photo starrating-2andahalfstars.jpgKahlil Gibran’s The Prophet is a cartoon, yes. However before you rush out to see this movie with the kids in tow, you really should read this review first. It’s not that there’s anything here that young minds shouldn’t see. On the contrary, it’s filled with inspirational life lessons that are perfectly acceptable. It’s just that it is not something a child would find particularly entertaining nor, dare I say it, most adults.

Kahlil Gibran was a Lebanese-American artist, poet, and writer. Born in the Ottoman Empire on January 6, 1883, he immigrated with his family to the United States as a young man. He is best known in the English-speaking world for his 1923 book The Prophet which is an English collection of 26 prose essays. It was wildly successful and has been translated into over 40 different languages. In the Arab world, political leaders considered Gibran a literary rebel. In Lebanon, he is a literary hero to this day.

Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet doesn’t have a strong narrative per se. Rather it’s a succession of animated poems, each one taken from his seminal work. The subjects are freedom, children, marriage, work, eating & drinking, love, good & evil, and death, with different animators for each. Segment directors include Tomm Moore (The Secret of Kells, Song of the Sea), Bill Plympton (Guard Dog, Cheatin’), Joan Gratz (Mona Lisa Descending a Staircase), Nina Paley (Sita Sings the Blues), Joann Sfar (The Rabbi’s Cat), Paul and Gaetan Brizzi (“Firebird Suite” in Fantasia 2000), Michal Socha (Simpson’s couch gag from “What To Expect When Bart’s Expecting”) and Mohammed Harib (Freej). The displays are loosely strung together by the tale of an imprisoned poet named Mustafa (Liam Neeson), who has just been released. He’s on his way to board a ship that will take him home. Along the way, he gives the advice that forms the foundation of the various segments.

The obvious audience for this are devotees of Kahlil Gibran. He is the third best-selling poet of all time, behind Shakespeare and Lao Tzu, so he obviously has his admirers. If an array of animated shorts depicting his words sounds captivating, then I’d surely recommend this to you. The series of 8 videos presented here are all of noble quality – pretty images with spoken word narration. A couple have music to accompany them. My favorite was Nina Paley’s “On Children”. The shadow puppets of Indonesia inspire a mesmerizing visual tableau accompanied by a song by Damien Rice. It presents a pregnant female archer who shoots an arrow into the belly of another pregnant woman, thus giving birth to another human being. It’s utterly hypnotic. The entire movie was produced by actress Salma Hayek, who also gives voice to one of the characters, and supervised by director Roger Allers (The Lion King). The talent behind the camera is considerable and the intentions are clearly heartfelt. It’s a pleasant diversion, but far from necessary viewing. For die-hard fans of Kahlil Gibran’s poetry, however, it should prove enchanting.

Straight Outta Compton

Posted in Biography, Drama, Music with tags on August 16, 2015 by Mark Hobin

Straight Outta Compton  photo starrating-4stars.jpgThe formation and eventual breakup of seminal rap group N.W.A (Niggaz with Attitude) is the subject of Straight Outta Compton. The biopic mainly charts the careers of 5 artists from Compton, California who greatly influenced hip hop in the 90’s and beyond. In 1988 N.W.A was dubbed “the worlds most dangerous group”. Much of this due to their explicit and profanity-filled lyrics about urban crime and the gangster lifestyle. The FBI even sent them a warning letter. In retrospect, they couldn’t have asked for better publicity. Their music, including songs like “F— tha Police,” received no airplay from mainstream radio. Yet publicity fueled the album’s success and their popularity grew with the masses.

Any memoir must edit facts in order to streamline a narrative. Straight Outta Compton is definitely a bit guilty of selective history. The lineup of N.W.A. began with Arabian Prince, DJ Yella, Dr. Dre, Eazy-E, and Ice Cube. Although N.W.A formed in 1986, MC Ren actually didn’t join until 1988 just before the release of their first album Straight Outta Compton. Arabian Prince left shortly after but he did contribute to their debut. As a matter of fact, he appears on the album cover. So why doesn’t he rate a mention here? Even a bus driver gets a credit. Delving a little into this personnel shakeup would’ve been nice.

The film mainly centers on members Ice Cube (real life son O’Shea Jackson, Jr.), Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins) and Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell). DJ Yella (Neil Brown, Jr.) and MC Ren (Aldis Hodge) are key people too but remain somewhat in the background. All of the aforementioned three get ample screen time, but interestingly it’s Eazy-E’s story that is the most compelling. From drug dealer to last minute replacement rapper, his drama is never short on surprises. His solo debut single “Boyz-n-the-Hood” is presented as almost an afterthought. Short of stature with a voice pitched in a higher register, his characteristics belie an intriguing personality. The strength of his business partnership with manager/friend Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti) was a development I wasn’t expecting.

Straight Outta Compton does a nice job of encapsulating a fairly dense plot that juggles a myriad cast of characters. The era leading up to N.W.A’s creation is dramatized but also the period following their breakup. Dr. Dre’s association with Suge Knight is detailed, as well as his split from Death Row records amid rising tensions, to form his own label Aftermath. At 2½ hours, it is a bit long but there is still a lot of interesting material here. The first half that focuses on N.W.A’s inception and transformation is best. Occasionally director F. Gary Gray falls victim to the standard rise and fall cliches of music biographies. The fable succeeds most when detailing the harsh realities of urban LA that inspired the song lyrics of their true-to-life tales. They were rallying against poverty and prejudice. We’re given news events that establish a timeline. The Rodney King trial is referenced for example. In light of current ongoing media investigation of police brutality, their social commentary rings even truer today. The details behind N.W.A is something of which I knew little. Yet the movie gave me a reason to care. The complex evolution of how influential artists popularized a burgeoning subgenre called gangsta rap, is frequently fascinating.


The Stanford Prison Experiment

Posted in Drama with tags on August 6, 2015 by Mark Hobin

The Stanford Prison Experiment photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgUncomfortable, unsettling, unnerving, and any other unpleasant “un” you can think of – the Stanford prison experiment was a simulation conducted in 1971 at Stanford University under the supervision of Dr. Philip Zimbardo. 24 male college students were chosen. Participants received $15 per day (equivalent to $87 in 2015). A hyper-realistic environment was established in a nondescript hallway in the basement of Jordan Hall (Stanford’s psychology building). 9 plus 3 alternates were assigned the role of prisoner while 9 others plus 3 backups were designated as guards. The ascribed parts being determined by a coin toss. No one wanted to be a guard, many determining there was more work involved. Zimbardo monitored their roleplay from another room via surveillance cameras as the superintendent. An undergraduate research assistant assumed the character of the warden. It was to run between 7 to 14 days. Zimbardo pulled the plug on the whole exercise after only 6.

Kyle Patrick Alvarez directs a skilled cast. Billy Crudup is the very real, still living, psychologist Philip Zimbardo who led the notorious experiment which studied the psychological effects of becoming a prisoner or guard. He heads up an impressive cast of up and coming future stars. The production is highlighted by a flawless ensemble that demonstrates the various intricacies of how the whole enterprise devolved. The largest parts going to Ezra Miller who plays the most defiant and Michael Angarano who emerges as the most brutal. Before the venture began Zimbardo instructed the guards not to physically harm the prisoners. However he did motivate them to be controlling, to take away their individuality and to create a sense of fear and powerlessness. The participants adapted to their roles way past Zimbardo’s expectations.

The Stanford Prison Experiment is a frustrating watch. The guards negatively treat the detainees in ever increasing shocking and dehumanizing ways. Initially a few prisoners resist with acts of rebellion, but more often than not they start to concede to their situation. Their passive acceptance is no less disquieting. This conduct over the course of the drama is not easy viewing. What we see is personalties change. These are not prisoners/guards. These are privileged upper-middle-class college students attending Stanford. Guards grow sadistic while prisoners become submissive. They act out the roles expected of them in a way far beyond what anyone involved with the study could have expected. The undertaking is a bit exasperating. I had many questions and concerns about how the whole operation was handled and the validity of the results. However, as a document of a notorious experiment gone wrong (or right depending on what you wanted to prove) I found it to be an arresting study in human behavior. I can’t say I enjoyed The Stanford Prison Experiment, but I did respect the craft that when into making it.



Posted in Comedy, Drama with tags on August 2, 2015 by Mark Hobin

Tangerine photo starrating-4stars.jpgA girl inadvertently reveals the philandering ways of her pal’s boyfriend during a casual conversation in an LA doughnut shop The news compels the deceived to get to the bottom of the situation. Sounds like a rather pedestrian plot, right? Now add that the parties are 2 transgender prostitutes working in a seedy part of Hollywood. Her beau earns a living as a pimp and the whole production was shot on an iPhone 5s. Are you still with me? OK well yes, Tangerine is gonna be a rough journey for some. This is LA, raw and uncensored, right in the heart of where N. Highland Ave. intersects Santa Monica Blvd. Yet deep down, heart is what this picture is all about.

A great story is highlighted by meaningful characters. This diverse ensemble is headlined by a plethora of memorable people including an Armenian taxicab driver (Karren Karagulian), his wife (Luiza Nersisyan) and her mother (Alla Tumanian). Tangerine stars Kitana “Kiki” Rodriguez as Sin-Dee Rella and Mya Taylor as her BFF Alexandra. Both make their acting debut here. The two unite in gritty L.A. during Christmas Eve. Sin-Dee has recently gotten out of LA county jail and she’s looking for her boyfriend/pimp Chester (James Ransone). She has just been informed that he has been less than true. Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. That there is still space to present Alexandra and her dreams of becoming a singer, only adds to the depth of the narrative.  In keeping with the Christmas period, her rendition of the song “Toyland” from the Victor Herbert operetta Babes in Toyland is moving.  The myriad of individuals ultimately descend at Donut Time for a confrontation at the corner of Santa Monica Boulevard and Highland Avenue.

Tangerine is an important film. Not simply because of content. Plenty of movies have dealt with challenging adult subject matter. What sets it apart is uplifting proof that cost is no longer a prohibitive factor when setting out to make an entertaining flick. The fact that the entire drama was photographed on an iPhone 5s is clearly the result of an autonomous mind. The idea that anyone with a unique point of view can make a movie is an exhilarating concept that lies beneath every frame of Tangerine that illuminates the screen.

Director Sean Baker is an American film and TV director and co-creator of Greg the Bunny, an American television sitcom that originally aired on Fox in 2002. Tangerine is actually his fifth feature but perhaps the first to achieve any modicum of fame. In it, he provides an insider’s view of the sordid and dangerous lives of streetwalkers in Los Angeles. Yet it’s not entirely doom and gloom. It’s marked by a light touch. Some of the most laugh-out-loud moments in all of 2015 occur in this production. The screenplay is accentuated by some flippant one liners that are sure to be oft quoted lines of dialogue as the movie undoubtedly makes its way into the pop culture mainstream in years to come.

Tangerine pulses with the unique voice of independent film. The narrative beats with a vitality rarely seen in contemporary cinema. An evocation of LA’s current essence, perfectly captured as any I’ve seen.  It’s vibrant and funny and yes at times pretty bleak.  The humorous touch sometimes undone by the grim truth in the ongoing predicament of the two protagonists. Perhaps that’s being authentic but it also shocks the viewer. One minute we’re laughing at an amusing aside, the next we’re slapped into harsh reality by dead seriousness. Along the way, the script straddles the line between dignifying the two leads and exploiting them. That’s no easy feat. Their fierce attitudes consistently at the fore as the chronicle emphasizes their sassy personalities.  Yet it never resorts to caricature. There’s an inherent sadness within these characters too.  The humanity on display is pretty heartbreaking. Tangerine encapsulates the atmosphere of LA 2015 and distills this into a poignant chronicle for the present generation. The sensibility is clearly the product of our modern time. Like Boyz n the Hood (1991), The Player (1992) & Mulholland Drive (2001), Tangerine is the quintessential LA movie for the current era.


Mr. Holmes

Posted in Crime, Drama, Mystery with tags on July 30, 2015 by Mark Hobin

Mr. Holmes photo starrating-2andahalfstars.jpgLet’s set the record straight. Sherlock Holmes is a fictional character that was featured in 4 novels and 56 short stories written by Scottish author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Mr. Holmes then is a fabrication that envisions the imaginary sleuth as a 93-year-old reflecting back on how a case ended his career 30 years ago. The thing is, the picture is so meticulous, so deliberate and so…uh…well sluggish that you might be inclined to actually believe that this is the carefully studied profile of an authentic man. This is the latter day experiences of an erudite detective where entertaining embellishments are frowned upon in service of reverent restraint.

Writer-director Bill Condon and actor Ian McKellen have worked together before in Gods And Monsters. There the chronicle also centered on a life story. The difference is then it was director James Whale, an actual person. This time we’re detailing a make-believe guy. Mr. Holmes is a handsomely mounted production to be be sure, but one whose sole joy rests in watching a talented thespian act. Sir Ian McKellen, that English Academy Award nominated star of stage and screen, beautifully embodies the role of the agent in this dignified feature. He has a certain presence, but why so serious? This is a fantasy, not a biography where slavish attention to detail is a must. We could have used a little more fun perhaps. Accompanying McKellen are Laura Linney doing her best Emily Watson impression as his housekeeper and young Milo Parker who evokes Freddie Highmore as her son Roger. The allusions to other actors are in no way meant to negate their fine work here.

As a mater of fact, Ian’s McKellen’s scenes with budding star-in-the-making Milo Parker are the highlight of this production. The child has a precocious air that is quite endearing and never grating in the way some youngsters can be encouraged to act. Roger is the inspiration for Holmes to re-remember a mystery from his past: his last assignment. Roger is fascinated by the private investigator and his emotion captures the audience’s interest. Numerous flashbacks recall these details. There’s a lot of jumping around – first to a recent trip to Japan – then 35 years into the past. This for little apparent reason other than to utilize old age makeup on McKellen for the modern setting. Honestly the change isn’t all that dramatic. The real problem is, the case at hand isn’t very interesting. Mr. Holmes has its moments, but if I may quote another English literary character: “Please, sir, I want some more”. There just isn’t enough here to sustain a film. Ultimately it feels more like the studious artifact of bygone history than the fanciful re-imaging of a fictional super sleuth.


The Overnight

Posted in Comedy, Drama with tags on July 9, 2015 by Mark Hobin

The Overnight photo starrating-2stars.jpgYoungish parents Alex (Adam Scott) and Emily (Taylor Schilling) have recently moved to Los Angeles. Trying to fit in, they are longing to make some new friends. One day while out at the playground with their son (RJ Hermes) they meet slightly odd but seemingly genial Kurt (Jason Schwartzman), whose own son (Max Moritt ) has quickly made friends with the couple’s boy. Kurt invites them over for pizza. They tentatively accept.

Using “slightly odd but seemingly genial” to characterize Kurt also kind of describes this film. At Kurt’s grand estate, they meet his French wife, Charlotte (Judith Godrèche) whose smiley demeanor is particularly welcoming. As the evening progresses, the conversation is pleasant. The kids grow tired of playing. The parents agree to let them sleep over. They put them to bed. Then things really get weird.

For a while, you question what is the point of all his. Then it becomes clear. Writer/director Patrick Brice has fashioned a whole comedy around male insecurity. It’s the squares vs. the swingers. Their night of discussion highlighted by an escalating series of outré moments: Charlotte’s acting career, Kurt’s paintings, a dip in the pool, a wine run excursion. I’ll admit there are a few mildly amusing bits here and there. It’s sort of like if Woody Allen directed Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice. Unfortunately, what this ultimately leads to doesn’t justify the entire evening that we have endured with these people. The punchline of an ending is pretty limp. This is a comedy skit, not a movie.  Size doesn’t matter. Yet it’s only a mere 79 minutes.  Still I wouldn’t have even spent that much time in their house. Honestly I wish I hadn’t even attended in the first place.


Infinitely Polar Bear

Posted in Comedy, Drama with tags on July 7, 2015 by Mark Hobin

Infinitely Polar Bear photo starrating-2andahalfstars.jpgWriter Maya Forbes’ (TV’s The Larry Sanders Show) directorial debut is based on her reminiscences of her father — who had bipolar disorder. Set in 1978, our saga focuses on a period when she was 10 years old. He was the primary caregiver for Forbes and her 8 year old sister while their mother was studying for an MBA at Columbia Business School in New York City. Two free spirited daughters being raised by a parent with mental illness, proves to be a formidable task.

The cast is likable. In the movie, the young Maya Forbes is portrayed by her actual daughter in real life (Imogene Wolodarsky). Although the character is fictionalized as Amelia Stuart. Her younger sister China, is named Faith here (Ashley Aufderheide). Both actresses are making their feature film debuts and both are warm and natural. They give the film a genuine, unaffected element. Mark Ruffalo and Zoe Saldana are parents Cam and Maggie Stuart. They’re pleasant enough but their performances are a bit more studied. In particular Mark Ruffalo’s manic depressive father alternates between wacky dad and weird dad. One minute he’s telling his daughters to join him in the forest to pick mushrooms.  The next, mother is locking herself in the car with her daughters to escape his scary behavior. Unemployed Cam never gives the slightest indication he is capable of raising two daughters alone, so it makes Mom’s decision to leave them in his care perplexing.

Infinitely Polar Bear seeks to put a smiley face on dad’s affliction. That colors this account as a very shallow production. The lives of Father and his 2 daughters are presented as a series of highs and lows with little insight into any of it. As the filtered recollections of a child, that would explain the lack of sense.  Obviously the autobiographical tale is a personal project for Maya.  Her husband, Wally Wolodarsky, even co-produced. She presents this earnest drama as a sugarcoated valentine to her father who passed away in 1998. I’ll give the chronicle points for heart and sincerity. But Maya Forbes can’t seem to make the events in these people’s lives seem like anything more substantial than quirky gimmicks. The production is merely a whimsical roller coaster of contrivances designed to tug at your heartstrings. Infinitely Polar Bear comes across more like a sunny sitcom called My Goofy Dad than a thoughtful portrait of a man suffering from a serious mental illness.



Posted in Comedy, Crime, Drama with tags on July 3, 2015 by Mark Hobin

Dope photo starrating-2andahalfstars.jpgMalcolm (Shameik Moore) is a straight A high school geek constantly pushed around at school. His dream is to get into Harvard after graduation. This coming of age story sounds familiar right? OK now let me add that he lives in the Darby-Dixon neighborhood of Inglewood nicknamed “The Bottoms”. He loves 90s hip hop and desses like the 4th member of Bell Biv DeVoe. That’s different because this is 2015. He lives with his single mother (Kimberly Elise) and he’s never known his father. His two best friends are Jib (Tony Revolori) and Diggy (Kiersey Clemons) with whom he has formed a punk band called Awreeoh (pronounced “Oreo” because…oh do I even have to explain it?).

Life is tough for Malcom. He’s picked on by bullies who want his shoes, harassed by neighborhood thugs who want his bike, and belittled by the school counselor (Bruce Beatty) for his Harvard dreams. The playful tone is shattered when the drug dealer’s (rap star A$AP Rocky) party they’re attending, ends in a shower of bullets and a police raid. They escape. However back at school Malcolm discovers several bricks of Molly (MDMA in powder form) and a gun have been stuffed in his backpack. Now he and his friends must find a way to get rid of the drugs without getting killed or locked up.

Dope is one of those movies that really demands a lot from its audience. Smart viewers will think of easier ways out of this mess, but the screenplay doesn’t see it that way. It’s a progression of convoluted occurrences with a hodgepodge of zany gags bolstered by glib racial commentary. Shootings played for laughs and kamikaze disrobings by a sexually promiscuous coke fiend (Chanel Iman) are clumsy attempts at humor. Her filmed outdoor embarrassment becomes a social media meme because well “the Internet”. The script works hard throwing all sorts of random bits at the viewer. It’s a desperate attempt to be funny but the awkward mix of violence and lighthearted shenanigans are tonally off putting.

Dope is highlighted by a game attractive cast. There are moments, mostly in the first half, that had me laughing at its amusing view of nerds in the ‘hood. But the narrative is sloppy. The film vacillates between subverting stereotypes almost as often as it exploits them. I liked Dope when it did the former and not so much when it succumbed to the latter. Malcolm’s college application essay for Harvard is literally spoken at the end as a kind of justification for his actions. It’s a risky (business) move because Malcolm has done many questionable things. Oh and I must fault a script too oblivious to point out that the black male used blackmail.  Talk about a missed opportunity. The author (read screenwriter) has clearly fashioned the moment as a call to stand up and cheer. I suppose life is a series of choices and not everyone is faced with the same ones. Fair enough. Still it’s hard to hang your hat on a movie where the apparent moral is “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em”.


Magic Mike XXL

Posted in Comedy, Drama, Music with tags on July 2, 2015 by Mark Hobin

Magic Mike XXL photo starrating-3stars.jpgOn paper, a sequel like Magic Mike XXL shouldn’t work. It has no plot and no conflict. The director of the original surprise hit has changed (Steven Soderbergh is editor and cinematographer), and major star, Matthew McConaughey, is gone. This is simply a road trip movie with a bunch of guys hanging out, who also happen to strip for a living. They’re on their way from Florida to Myrtle Beach for the annual strippers’ convention. They have conventions? None of them are getting any younger, so this is seen as their last hurrah together. Their vehicle, an old ice cream truck, makes stops along the way. Friends are made in different locales.

Magic Mike XXL stars men, but it’s really about the women. Those they meet on the trip and those for whom they entertain. There’s Nancy (Andie MacDowell) who hosts a group of well-to-do Southern ladies sipping wine at her luxurious estate or Rome (Jada Pinkett Smith), the proprietor of a ladies’ club that caters to an African American clientele. At a beach party Mike meets Zoe (Amber Heard), an acerbic love interest in a truly expendable character. In between getting from point A to point B they perform shows.

The gang’s routines relied on the “classics” in the first film – the fireman, the cowboy, the military number. This time Mike (Channing Tatum) seeks to reinvent their show so that it’s more fun for them to act. He hopes their renewed passion will invigorate the show. Joe Manganiello as Richie steals the spotlight, not once, but twice. In the finale, Joe Manganiello outfitted in a tux, mock proposes to a girl in the crowd. He walks her through a wedding ceremony while Donald Glover sings Bruno Mars’ “Marry You” in the background. (Oh Matt Bomer sings a couple times too and it’s shockingly good.) Then comes the wedding night and “Closer,” by Nine Inch Nails plays. The performance is prurient, but it’s also creative. There are some genuinely hilarious moments too. The guys dare Richie to walk into a gas station and make the unhappy plain jane behind the counter smile with a dance routine to the Backstreet Boys. The scene has a sexual bent but its overall gist is one of sweetness. The scene is shot to amplify the energy of the club.

Star Channing Tatum is charismatic and he can dance. Now I’m not talking the smooth elegance of Fred Astaire or the dazzling technique of Gene Kelly. But Channing exhibits an athleticism that draws on the bump and grind mentality of the tradition. The choreography employs enough gravity defying flair with physical lifting to make what he does seem difficult. His earnest “let’s-put-on-a-show” ethos is infectious and he heads up a cast of dudes that really just want to entertain. Their heart is in the right place, even if their chosen profession is a bit salacious. They enjoy hanging around each other almost as much as they enjoy being onstage. It’s their friendship that unites the spaces in between musical numbers. These are nice guys who happen to be in great athletic shape. In most movies they would be stereotyped as greasy jerks. But these buddies don’t put anybody down and they never act in a mean-spirited fashion. The boys have a relaxed, easygoing camaraderie that is contagious.

What elevates the production is the utter feeling of positivity. Good vibes surround the film. The boys are charming. They have big hearts and they want to make the audience feel good about themselves. Their performances are highlighted by spectators that are average everyday women. These are not gorgeous models picked out of central casting, but average girls who are missing something in their lives. The analogy is made that the dancers are like shrinks catering to “queens who need to be worshiped”. They’re selling a fantasy. The bros are manipulative, but so is the drama. The picture never pretends to be anything less. Magic Mike XXL is such a pure film, it’s practically revolutionary. It’s a surprisingly lighthearted production given the subject matter. The whole thing has an uplifting view of humanity that I wasn’t expecting. Yes the narrative is a (ahem) skin deep examination of this lifestyle, but it’s still a better movie than it has any right to be.


Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

Posted in Comedy, Drama with tags on June 25, 2015 by Mark Hobin

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl photo starrating-4stars.jpgGreg Gaines (Thomas Mann) is a high schooler in his senior year. Despite being on good terms with virtually every social clique there is, he doesn’t deeply connect on a personal level with any of them. OK so there’s his “co-worker” Earl Jackson (RJ Cyler) with whom he remakes classic films into parodies, redubbing them with titles like “2:48 PM Cowboy”, “A Sockwork Orange”, “Eyes Wide Butt”, “My Dinner With Andre the Giant” and “The 400 Bros”. I savor the day the DVD is released and I’ll be able to pause the frame to see every pun-worthy title that sits on that shelf. Together the duo eat lunch in the office of their hip, heavily tattooed history teacher, Mr. McCarthy (Jon Bernthal).

Yes the narrative is twee, almost stridently so. There’s the coming-of-age plot coupled with the sardonic male lead – actually everybody here is pretty cynical. There’s Greg’s voiceover – a style device which lets you know the inner monologue of this artistic fellow. How arty? Well, he goes beyond watching Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and onto Burden of Dreams, the 1982 documentary about the making of that picture. Then there’s the manic pixie dream girl. The one he didn’t want to pursue but did so out of duty. She just so happens to suffer from a fatal disease. Obviously given the title, right? The tragically doomed teen invites recent comparisons to The Fault in Our Stars but this has a quirkiness as filtered through the eyes Wes Anderson.  Film aesthete Greg Gaines is cut from the same angst-ridden cloth as Max Fischer in Rushmore. Rejecting those allusions to other works, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl still stands on its own, an ode to a generation, perhaps even becoming a classic in its own right over time.

The plot concerns a local girl named Rachel Kushner (Olivia Cooke) who has just been diagnosed with leukemia. When Greg’s mother (Connie Britton) discovers that she is a classmate of Greg’s, she forces her son to make a date to go hang out with Rachel for a day. After some prodding, he agrees. This is the beginning of what he calls his “doomed friendship.” There’s no faster shortcut to give a narrative weight than death. The construct threatens shameless sentimentality but the way the drama unfolds, it never succumbs to that. Alfonso Gomez-Rejon keeps the conversations intimate and involving. He’s directing from an honest script by Jesse Andrews which is based on Andrews’ own 2012 novel of the same name. The story slowly works its way into your heart to become a delightful charmer. Greg and Rachel are essentially forced to be together, neither particularly wanting the other’s company. It’s their accidental relationship that forms the heart of the picture.

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl comes with a notable pedigree. It premiered at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival and took top dramatic honors with the U.S. Grand Jury Prize. It’s easy to see why. The chronicle is a sincere slice of adolescent life. Alright so it’s a bit precious too. The account integrates a triad of performances that alternates between cutesy and clever. But the story rises above indie movie clichés to give the viewer a genuinely heartfelt portrait. I embraced this trio. The friendship between Greg, Earl and Rachel isn’t as calculated as it seems on paper. Greg is a wistful lad while Earl is much more pragmatic. Their seemingly incongruous personalities are united by their enthusiasm for cinema. Occasionally their obsessions threaten to disrupt credibility with their “adorable” idiosyncrasies. Yet the saga ultimately hews closer to real life. Their quirks serve the tale, enriching its themes with visual flair rather than derailing it. Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejona got his start as a second unit director on films like Babel, Julie & Julia, and Argo. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is only his second feature but his experience shows a talented director with a facility for different genres. He clearly has something to say and now I am listening.



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