The Founder


Ray Kroc worshiping at the Golden Arches.

(2016) Biographical Drama (Weinstein) Michael Keaton, Nick Offerman, John Carroll Lynch, Laura Dern, Linda Cardellini, B.J. Novak, Patrick Wilson, Justin Randell Brooke, Kate Kneeland, Griff Furst, Wilbur Fitzgerald, David de Vries, Andrew Benator, Cara Mantella, Randall Taylor, Lacey King, Jeremy Madden, Rebecca Ray, Adam Rosenberg, Jacinte Blankenship. Directed by John Lee Hancock

 

Most of us are more than familiar with McDonald’s. It is Main Street, America on a global scale; on a typical day the fast food chain will feed something like 8% of the world’s population. They are convenient and in a fast-paced world where meals can be afterthoughts, a necessity. But how did they get to be that way?

Salesman Ray Kroc (Keaton) is having a spectacular lack of success selling his five spindle milkshake mixer to diners and drive-ins in the Midwest. When he gets an order for five of the machines from a burger joint in San Bernadino, California, he is gratified – gratified but amazed. The operation he visits is staggering; lines snake through the parking lot. Counter service only, he makes his order for a cheeseburger, fries and a coke and gets it delivered to the window in less than a minute. Dumbfounded, he sits down to eat his meal – and it’s actually pretty darn good. The restaurant, named McDonald’s for the McDonald brothers who own it, looks promising as visions of a franchise operation begin to dance in his head.

At first the brothers – Dick (Offerman) and Mac (Lynch) aren’t too interested. They’d tried something like it before and ended up with franchise owners adding their own flair – fried chicken, barbecue, straying from the formula of keeping the menu simple and the quality high. Kroc thought he could make that happen by being a hands-on boss. As it turned out, that didn’t quite work out the way he expected.

At home, his wife Ethel (Dern) lives a life of loneliness and boredom, living for those precious times when they go to dinner at the local club. He uses those occasions to snare investors and Ethel tries to help in her own way. Soon though Ray’s dreams are fast outstripping those of his partners as well as those of his wife. The wife (Cardellini) of a potential investor (Wilson) catches his eye. As for the McDonald brothers, they are content with having a quality restaurant and what Ray is looking to build is more than they intended to take on and their reluctance to change or to compromise quality becomes a major frustration for Ray. He becomes aware that the biggest hurdle in making McDonald’s a household name are the McDonald brothers themselves.

I’m not too sure what the executives at the McDonald’s corporation think of this movie; they are in a very real sense the descendants of Ray Kroc and they owe their position to his vision and his drive to achieve it. I think they appreciate the free advertising but Ray doesn’t come off terribly well here in many ways although he did do a lot of the less savory things that are depicted here, including taking credit for some of the aspects of the image that the McDonald brothers introduced (like the golden arches) and effectively excising the brothers from the history of the company (he labeled an Illinois franchise McDonald’s #1 when in fact it was the ninth store to open). Keaton imbues Ray with a surfeit of charm without ignoring the man’s more vicious traits; he also gives Ray enough energy and charisma that when he does some pretty bad things, one still roots for him. Maybe there’s something in that secret sauce that compels us to but I think that Keaton’s performance has a lot to do with it too.

The film only covers a short period in the history of the fast food Goliath and doesn’t really get into the globalization of the brand or examine the effect of their product on the obesity epidemic in this country which has disappointed some critics but not this one. There are plenty of things one can get into concerning the pros and cons of McDonald’s from their catchy advertisements, their shrewd marketing to children with the play areas and Ronald McDonald and their recent move to adding more nutritional selections on their menu and offering a wider variety of food in general. I think the movie accomplished what it set out to do and examine how McDonald’s went from being a small roadside burger joint in California to the global giant it is today and that’s plenty of story for one movie.

There’s plenty of dramatic conflict that goes on but this simply isn’t going to appeal to those who are easily bored. Although there might be a niche group interest for those who are interested in how corporate entrepreneurs achieved their success, I’m not sure if America (or anywhere else) is waiting for movies about Col. Sanders, Sam Walton (founder of Wal*Mart) or Bill Gates. I did find Keaton’s performance fascinating and that kept enough of my interest to give this a mild recommendation.

REASONS TO GO: Keaton delivers a solid performance.
REASONS TO STAY: Some might find this a bit boring.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: All of the McDonald’s restaurants depicted in the film were built from scratch in parking lots and vacant lots because producers couldn’t find suitable locations that matched the look of the film that they were aiming for.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/15/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 83% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Social Network
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: It’s Not My Fault (And I Don’t Care Anyway)

New Releases for the Week of January 20, 2017


xXx: The Return of Xander CageXXX: THE RETURN OF XANDER CAGE

(Paramount) Vin Diesel, Samuel L. Jackson, Donnie Yen, Toni Collette, Tony Jaa, Nina Dobrev, Deepika Padukone, Ruby Rose, Kris Wu, Ice Cube. Directed by D.J. Caruso

An elite team led by the enigmatic Xiang is pursuing a powerful weapon named Pandora’s Box. This team is so deadly as to be nearly unstoppable, prompting the government to try and persuade Xander Cage, the legendary “Triple X,” to come out of “retirement.” He assembles an elite team of his own to take on Xiang but discovers that not everything that is happening is the way it seems.

See the trailer, clips and a featurette here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard, 3D, IMAX 3D

Genre: Action
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG-13 (for extended sequences of gunplay and violent action, and for sexual material and language)

20th Century Women

(A24) Annette Bening, Elle Fanning, Greta Gerwig, Billy Crudup. As the 70s come to an end, a 50ish single mom in Santa Barbara finds raising her son a challenge and enlists the help of two younger women to help raise him to be the man she hopes he can become. Bening got a Golden Globe nomination for her performance and has a good shot to see some Oscar love as well.

See the trailer and clips here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Dramedy
Now Playing: AMC Disney Springs, Enzian Theater, Regal Oviedo Marketplace, Regal Waterford Lakes

Rating: R (for sexual material, language, nudity and some drug use)

The Founder

(Weinstein) Michael Keaton, Nick Offerman, John Carroll Lynch, Linda Cardellini. The story of Ray Kroc, a milkshake machine salesman who one day stopped off at a popular burger joint in San Bernardino and discovered their method of producing burgers could revolutionize the way America eats. He determined to hitch his wagon to that restaurant and in doing so made it one of the biggest businesses in history. Today there’s a McDonald’s on every corner – and you have Ray Kroc to thank for it.

See the trailer, clips and a featurette here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Biographical Drama
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG-13 (for brief strong language)

Paterson

(Bleecker Street/Amazon) Adam Driver, Golshifteh Farahani, Nellie, Barry Shabaka Henley. Paterson, a bus driver in Paterson, New Jersey (yes, they have the same name) spends his days watching the world go by his windshield. Snippets of conversations and his own observations make it into a book of poetry he has written but allows nobody to read. He likes his life and is content to let it remain as is. His wife, an artist, however is changing as new dreams inspire new creations. They love each other very much but are they drifting apart? This is the latest from director Jim Jarmusch.

See the trailer, interviews and clips here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Dramedy
Now Playing: Regal Winter Park Village

Rating: R (for some language)

The Resurrection of Gavin Stone

(BH Tilt/High Top) Brett Dalton, Anjelah Johnson-Reyes, Shawn Michaels, D.B. Sweeney. A former child star, fallen on hard times gets arrested and sentenced to community service at a local megachurch. In order to land the role of Jesus in the annual Passion Play, he pretends to be a devout Christian. Soon enough he discovers that the role requires more than just lip service.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Faith
Now Playing: AMC Altamonte Mall, AMC Disney Springs, AMC Loew’s Universal Cineplex, AMC West Oaks, Cinemark Artegon Marketplace, Regal Oviedo Mall, Regal Waterford Lakes

Rating: PG (for thematic elements including a crucifixion image)

Split

(Universal/Blumhouse) James McAvoy, Anya Taylor-Joy, Haley Lu Richardson, Betty Buckley. A gifted young man with 23 distinct personalities fighting for dominance within him kidnaps three young women. His psychiatrist realizes that a 24th is set to emerge, one that is vicious, evil and set to dominate the others. Can the three kidnap victims find a way to escape their captor before the world is introduced to The Beast? This is the newest film from M. Night Shyamalan.

See the trailer, clips, interviews, featurettes and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Horror
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG-13 (for disturbing thematic content and behavior, violence and some language)

Sing


Ta-da!

Ta-da!

(2016) Animated Feature (Universal/Illumination) Starring the voices of Matthew McConaughey, Reese Witherspoon, Seth MacFarlane, Scarlett Johansson, Taron Egerton, John C. Reilly, Tori Kelly, Jennifer Saunders, Jennifer Hudson, Garth Jennings, Nick Kroll, Peter Serafinowicz, Beck Bennett, Jay Pharoah, Nick Offerman, Leslie Jones, Rhea Perlman, Laraine Newman. Directed by Garth Jennings

 

It is said by some, not without justification, that this is the golden age of animation. Studios like Pixar, Ghibli and Laika consistently turn out features that enchant, illuminate, entertain and excite. They don’t dumb down their movies to basic levels because these studios have more respect for kids than that; they create stories that address things that matter, create unforgettable characters and transport us to worlds that elicit wonder.

And then there’s Illumination. The studio, which has a long term deal with Universal, hit their first pitch out of the park with Despicable Me but their output since then has left a lot to be desired. Their world building has been haphazard and their stories basic, utilizing cliché over imagination and marketing opportunities over characters. It is, in every sense of the word, corporate animation.

Sing is meant to appeal to those who find American Idol and America’s Got Talent to be supreme entertainment. It sends a message that anyone, no matter how large or small, can achieve their dreams if only…if only…well, if only someone markets a singing contest, which Buster Moon (McConaughey), a koala with a somewhat slippery moral compass, organizes in order to save his theater which is overrun by creditors and about to be seized by the bank. However, his ditzy assistant accidentally ups the amount of the prize from $1,000 to $100,000. Oops.

And so all sorts of animals inhabiting Anthropomorphic San Diego come crawling out of the woodwork to audition, including put-upon piggy mom Rosita (Witherspoon) who is in a perpetual state of exhaustion from taking care of 25 piglets and a seemingly uncaring husband (Kroll) who takes her for granted like a boss; Mike (MacFarlane), an arrogant mouse who cons his way through life and croons like one of the rat pack. Then there’s Ash (Johansson), a punk rock porcupine determined to emerge from the shadow of her boyfriend, and Meena (Kelly) an elephant with a case of stage fright as big as…an elephant. Finally there’s Johnny (Egerton – who has the best voice in the movie) who is the scion of a gorilla criminal and has the leather jacket to prove it, although just because this is a kid’s movie, Johnny has absolutely no criminal intent whatsoever. Get that kids? Crime doesn’t pay!

There are something like 85 songs (mostly snippets) that have at least some vague familiarity and are mostly from the last five years or so. In fairness, most of them are sung well or at least competently but it points out another depressing flaw in modern culture; we have become all about the singer and give absolutely no thought about the song. Apparently dreams should be about becoming stars, not becoming artists. Make money, not a lasting contribution to our culture is the message here.

Egerton is an amazing singer and McConaughey’s voice is virtually unrecognizable but it is still a fine vocal performance. To be fair the movie picks up steam in the second half and the finale is pretty nice, if predictable. While most of the animation is fairly rote it is at least entertaining to the undiscerning and some of the images are cute.

And it is this last adjective that really drives the movie; they’re not going for great, they’re going for cute. They want to see these characters on action figures, video games, fast food meals and whatever cross-promotional activity they can think up. You’ll walk out of the theater remembering none of the characters who were in it, nor will you be affected by the story in any way. What you will remember are the songs and if that’s all you’re after, that’s fine but what this amounts to is a 90 minute karaoke contest that really isn’t going to inspire repeated viewings unless you are six years old or the parent of one. Unless you have a child who absolutely insists on seeing this, there is far better movies that deserve your attention.

REASONS TO GO: Some of the animation is engaging and some of the performances are cute.
REASONS TO STAY: This is more of a marketing opportunity than a complete movie, with little thought given to characters other than how they’ll do as toys and absolutely no thought to story.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some rude humor but nothing most parents would be offended by.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This marks the first occasion that Illumination has released two films in the same year. It is also the longest movie to date that Illumination has produced.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/13/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 70% positive reviews. Metacritic: 59/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: American Idol
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: La La Land

Hotel Transylvania 2


Drac is back.

Drac is back.

(2012) Animated Feature (Columbia) Starring the voices of Adam Sandler, Selena Gomez, Andy Samberg, Kevin James, Steve Buscemi, David Spade, Keegan-Michael Key, Mel Brooks, Asher Blinkoff, Fran Drescher, Molly Shannon, Megan Mullally, Nick Offerman, Dana Carvey, Rob Riggle, Jonny Solomon, Chris Kattan, Jon Lovitz, Nick Swardson, Rose Abdoo. Directed by Genndy Tartakovsky

People and monsters may look different, but inside they really aren’t. The things that don’t conform are usually the things we fear; if we can’t keep everything in its proper compartment, the world becomes a much scarier place.

Dracula (Sandler) is in a happy place. His daughter Mavis (Gomez) is happily married to human Johnny (Samberg) and the two have had a baby named Dennis (Blinkoff). Proud grandpa is sure that the baby is going to be a monster but Mavis isn’t so sure that Dennis won’t turn out to be human and therefore be raised among humans. This terrifies Drac who doesn’t want Mavis to leave for the human world of Santa Cruz (where Johnny’s parents live) and lose both his daughter and grandson, so he concocts a plan to force Johnny to “get his fangs” which must happen before his fifth birthday.

So as Mavis is checking out California, Drac and his friends are trying to find ways to force little Dennis to find his inner monster before the dreaded fifth birthday. Drac is desperate as Mavis seems to lean more to going human – so desperate he’s even willing to enlist the help of his own father Vlad (Brooks) who doesn’t approve of human-monster intermarriages. And when all these monsters and humans get together, all hell is going to break loose.

Director Tartakovsky is proving himself to be one of the ablest directors of animation in the business currently. I can only imagine what he would do with the resources of a Pixar, but nonetheless he generates some of the best stuff out there. This really isn’t up to par with the best of his work but it’s still better than most of the animated features out there.

Sandler’s live action output in the last few years has been mostly lackluster but he seems more at home here. Many of his pals from his live action films are here, including James, Spade, Riggle and Samberg are here mainly reprising roles from the first film. Having Smigel in as a writer helps a lot; the plot is actually a little bit more sophisticated than the first film

The animation is pretty solid, although there is a bit of a cartoon-y feel to it which is just fine. The level of sophistication skews younger here but again, that’s five. There’s nothing here ostensibly offensive and parents won’t be bored watching this with their kiddies. Certainly the writing is better than most, as the movie explores themes of tolerance and acceptance and will give the kids something to think about – maybe their parents too.

Still, this isn’t anything that’s going to make the animated fan sit up and take notice. It’s pleasant and charming and of course anything with Mel Brooks in it is worth investigation, even if the comedy legend is barely in the movie at all. It’s a diversion for the older crowd and a video babysitter for the younger. I won’t recommend it highly but it’s still a recommendation.

WHY RENT THIS: Kids will undoubtedly love this.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Not terribly memorable.
FAMILY VALUES: Some mildly scary images and rude humor.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Jonathan’s parents are played by real-life married couple Offerman and Mullally.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: Lots here as with most kid movies. There’s a music video from 5th Harmony as well as a look at the development of the drawings from sketch to finished product. The Blu-Ray edition also includes a karaoke track, instructions on how to throw a Hotel Transylvania-themed party, a how-to guide on drawing the various characters and a feature on how the sound effects were made.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $468.2M on a $80M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray Rental only), Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, Google Play, M-Go
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mad Monster Party
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Jane Got a Gun

A Walk in the Woods


Lost in the woods.

Lost in the woods.

(2015) Dramedy (Broad Green) Robert Redford, Nick Nolte, Emma Thompson, Mary Steenburgen, Kristen Schaal, Nick Offerman, R. Keith Harris, Randall Newsome, Linda Edwards, Susan McPhail, Andrew Vogel, Derek Krantz, Gaia Wise, Tucker Meek, Chandler Head, Sandra Ellis Lafferty, John Schmedes, Valentin Armendariz, Danny Vinson, Valerie Payton, Stephanie Astalos-Jones. Directed by Ken Kwapis

All of us have a connection to the natural world. Deep down, we pine for it; while most of us will profess to loving the civilized life of home and hearth, every so often we get a yen to go out into the woods and pitch a tent. It reminds us of our connection to this planet, that we are born of it and part of it and that it is conversely part of us. Nothing clears one’s head quite so much as a walk in the woods.

Bill Bryson (Redford) is a semi-retired travel writer who has written some fine books but is about as socially awkward as a 13 year old at a state dinner. He says the wrong things at funerals, cracks incomprehensible jokes that nobody gets and grumps to his saintly patient wife Catherine (Thompson) that talking to people is just something he doesn’t do.

After being upbraided by a smarmy talk show host (Newsome) about having written nothing about his own native country, he chances upon a leg of the Appalachian trail near his New Hampshire home and struck by inspiration. Bryson hits on the idea of walking the entire trail from Georgia to Maine. Catherine takes about as kindly to the idea as she would about having a hole drilled in her noggin. When she sees she can’t dissuade her husband out of the scheme, she insists that he take someone with him.

The trouble is, nobody he knows is willing to go with him. That is until he gets a call out of the blue from Stephen Katz (Nolte), an old friend he had a falling out with a decade or so ago. He’s not choice A for the trip but beggars can’t be choosers so Bill gets himself equipped at the local REI (with Offerman making a cameo as a clerk) and before long Katz and Bryson are putting on their hiking boots.

Katz is, contrary to his self-description, woefully out of shape and is huffing and puffing away like a walrus before he’s gone ten feet. Still, the two manage to make progress although not as much as they probably should. They have to put up with rain, snow, never-ending hills, burying their dookie in the woods, annoying know-it-all hikers (Schaal) and bears. But most of all, they’ll have to put up with each other – and themselves.

Kwapis has a history of creating films that are audience pleasers more so than critical darlings and judging from the scores below has done the same this time out. And what’s not to love? A strong, well-known cast in beautiful settings, that’s for sure. The Appalachian Trail passes through some of the most beautiful scenery on the planet and Kwapis takes full advantage of it.

Redford and Nolte have only been in the same film together once before, that being the 2012 drama The Company You Keep and then they only shared a couple of scenes together. It’s a shame they haven’t done more together because they have amazing chemistry together; they banter like an old married couple and play off of each other like the two old pros they are. Their relationship holds the film together.

Nolte, in particular, is noteworthy; gasping like an asthmatic bear and growling in that gravelly smoker’s voice of his. He’s essentially the comic relief, making of Katz a kind of charming womanizing rogue gone to seed, cheerfully evading his responsibilities. Redford by contrast does what Redford does best; being likable even when he’s supposed to be a curmudgeon.

Which brings up a point. Both of these distinguished actors are in their 70s – in fact, Redford is 79 – but the real Bill Bryson was in his mid-40s when he hiked the Trail and so much of the book’s focus had to be changed. The movie spends much more time dwelling on the decrepitude of the leads than the book did on the inexperience of its leads. Lovers of the book (and there are many) might not be too pleased with that. They’ll be pleased that much of Bryson’s comic tone was retained. I haven’t read the book probably in 15 years or so, but my guess is that it was extensively re-written for the screen, so be warned on that score.

Da Queen really loved this movie; the bonding with nature and the friendship between Redford and Nolte really spoke to her; she proclaimed it her favorite movie of the Summer (I didn’t have the heart to point out that it wasn’t released until September 2nd, after the official summer release season had ended) which considering how delighted she was with Jurassic World is quite an accomplishment. I’m a little less enthusiastic about the film but found it to be genuinely entertaining, sentimental and only occasionally descending into schmaltz and cinematically beautiful.

In short, this is solid entertainment which will likely appeal strongly to an older demographic but those who appreciate movies with a heart will also enjoy  it. I do like an occasional nature walk although my condition prevents long hikes like this one but still it inspired in me a desire to walk the Trail myself. It won’t happen, but it’s nice to imagine that it could. If these two can do it, so can I, right?

REASONS TO GO: Beautiful scenery. Wonderful chemistry between Redford and Nolte. Some genuine laughs.
REASONS TO STAY: Occasionally clunky. Too many codger jokes.
FAMILY VALUES: A few mild expletives and some sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Originally, this was meant to be the third team-up between Redford and Paul Newman when the film was optioned in 2007; however, Newman’s declining health and eventual passing prevented that from occurring. Newman would have been cast in the role that Nick Nolte eventually filled.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/14/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 45% positive reviews. Metacritic: 51/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: :Wild
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Sci-Fi Spectacle Begins!

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl


Bet you can guess which one is the dying girl.

Bet you can guess which one is the dying girl.

(2015) Drama (Fox Searchlight) Thomas Mann, RJ Cyler, Olivia Cooke, Nick Offerman, Molly Shannon, Connie Britton, Jon Bernthal, Katherine C. Hughes, Matt Bennett, Massam Holden, Bobb’e J. Thompson, Gavin Dietz, Edward DeBruce III, Natalie Marchelletta, Chelsea Zhang, Marco Zappala, Kaza Marie Ayersman, Hugh Jackman, Etta Cox, Nicole Tubbs. Directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon

Hollywood tends to churn out movies aimed at the teen market and why not; teens make a sizable chunk of their audience and even though they don’t necessarily go to movie theaters as often as they once did – many view movies via the internet or other sources – they still are an important economic factor to the studios. Indie films tend to be less teen-centric although that doesn’t mean that we don’t see coming of age films emerge from the ranks of the indies.

Greg (Mann) is just trying to navigate the treacherous waters of high school without hitting a reef. He determines that the best way to avoid being picked on by a clique is to be part of all of them, at least to an extent. So he is friendly with everyone in a nondescript way; he’s carefully built up anonymity at his school. Everyone likes him, but nobody knows him and he wants to keep it that way.

He doesn’t have any friends per se except for Earl (Cyler) and even Earl he refers to as a co-worker. The two spend most of their time making short parodies of famous films with oddball titles and premises; The Godfather becomes The Sockfather; The 400 Blows becomes The 400 Bros and so forth. The two of them spend their lunch periods in the office of Mr. McCarthy (Bernthal), a history teacher who lets them watch movies in his office and is the only teacher they respect.

His parents aren’t the most ordinary on the block. His mom (Britton) mostly is, although she snoops around his stuff which irritates the hell out of him. His dad (Offerman), a college professor, mostly stays at home in a bathrobe, making unusual snacks of foreign delicacies that only Earl seems to appreciate. Neither one of them seem to be into telling him what to do, although his mom worries about his lack of friends. Nonetheless one day his mom badgers him to go spend some time with Rachel (Cooke) who was recently diagnosed with leukemia.

Greg doesn’t really know Rachel at all but his mom insists so he reluctantly hangs out and to his surprise the two of them have a lot more in common than you might think and what was supposed to be a one-time chore for an hour or two becomes a regular thing. Some mistake the budding friendship for romance but as Greg says repeatedly in voice-over narration, this isn’t that kind of story. He allows her to watch his crappy movies and keeps her company while she suffers through her chemotherapy and depression. Greg though doesn’t really know how to handle the really emotional stuff and eventually alienates both Earl and Rachel as well as Madison (Hughes), a very pretty girl who is Rachel’s friend and seems intent on what Greg believes to be manipulating him but could just be a teenage girl with a crush on a guy that doesn’t normally attract girls like her. High school can be a real drag that way.

This movie probably generated the most buzz at Sundance earlier this year and it is for good reason; Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is for coming of age films as (500) Days of Summer is to romantic comedies and that’s high praise indeed. While this film isn’t quite as innovative as the other, it has that same spirit and gives the conventions of a genre a slight twist to give the audience a fresh perspective of that type of film.

You could say that the situation is not unknown in coming of age movies and you’d be right. You could say that this film is full of indie cliches and rote characters and you’d be right on target. And yet still the movie manages to hold my attention and stick in my mind after the film had thoroughly unspooled, and that’s surprising; on paper it would seem like the kind of film I’d forget after enduring it. You don’t find many movies that defy characterization like that.

The young leads – Mann, Cyler and Cooke – all turn in strong performances and all of them show the ability to become big stars in the not-too-distant future. While in Mann’s case the character is given a ton of indie quirks, he manages to overcome the tendency to make him a cliche and instead imbues the character with authenticity. He reacts as a real teen would which is not always the way you would want him to. Greg makes mistakes as all people do but in particular teens who lack the life experience and perspective to make the right decision all the time. This is also true of Rachel and Earl as well.

Cooke as the dying girl refuses to be maudlin; she is terrified of what is to come but she’s also weary of the effects of her treatment. She isn’t a vain person by nature but when her hair falls out it affects her unexpectedly.

The supporting performances are also strong. Offerman is fatherly in a quirky sort of way; his character understands his son much better than Greg’s overly critical mom does even though when push comes to shove his mom has his back more than he realizes. Offerman is offbeat here but never overwhelmingly so and thus fits into the story like a glove. Bernthal, best known for his role as Shane in The Walking Dead, doesn’t play your typical high school teacher, tattooed and a fan of Pho but able to connect with his students in a meaningful way. Once again, Bernthal makes a character that could easily become cliche and makes him believable.

Best of all is former SNL standout Molly Shannon as Rachel’s mom, who is coping with her baby having a deadly disease, and she self-medicates in order to do it. Her relationship with Greg is borderline inappropriate and she always seems to have a glass of wine in her hand, but the role – while funny – never descends into parody and we wind up having enormous empathy for a woman who knows that if her only daughter dies, she’ll be all alone in the world. How unbearable must that be.

This is a movie that rather than being manipulative as these types of films tend to be comes by its emotional payoffs honestly. We become involved in the story and in Greg, and care about the characters in the movie as if they were in our own neighborhood. In a summer full of blockbusters and big studio releases, this might get lost in the shuffle in a lot of ways but is worth keeping an eye out for. It is expanding into a wide release this weekend and is one of those rare teen movies that I can not only recommend to teens but to adults as well. This might just be the best movie you see this summer.

REASONS TO GO: Excellent performances all around. Feels authentic. Gripping when it needs to be, funny when it needs to be.
REASONS TO STAY: Occasionally suffers from indie preciousness. Sometimes feels like it’s borrowing from too many other sources.
FAMILY VALUES: The thematic elements are fairly adult; there is some sexuality, some drug use and a bit of foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Fox Searchlight purchased this film for $12 million at this year’s Sundance Film Festival; it is as of this date the most ever paid for a film at Sundance.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/1/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 82% positive reviews.. Metacritic: 74/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Fault in Our Stars
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: The American Experience 2015 begins!

New Releases for the Week of June 26, 2015


Ted 2TED 2

(Universal) Mark Wahlberg, Seth MacFarlane (voice), Amanda Seyfried, Jessica Barth, Giovanni Ribisi, Morgan Freeman, Sam J. Jones, Patrick Warburton, Michael Dorn. Directed by Seth MacFarlane

The magically animated teddy bear Ted is living the good life now. Although his thunder buddy has broken up with his girlfriend, Ted’s relationship has blossomed and he is going to get married, and the two are even thinking about having a kid. The trouble is, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts needs Ted to prove that he is human. That’s going to require some legal-type stuff and there’s a hottie named Samantha L. Jackson who might just be the ticket to Ted’s happiness – and his pal John’s as well.

See the trailer and clips here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard (opens Thursday)
Genre: Comedy
Now Playing: Wide Release
Rating: R (for crude and sexual content, pervasive language and some drug use)

Max

(Warner Brothers/MGM) Thomas Haden Church, Josh Wiggins, Lauren Graham, Robbie Amell. Max is a specially trained dog that sniffs out bombs and mines for the army in Afghanistan. When his handler is killed in action, Max is severely traumatized and is taken out of service. He is shipped back stateside to the family of his beloved handler and makes a bond with their teenage son. However, when a dangerous situation threatens the family, the hero in Max will need to re-emerge if he and his new friend are to save the day.

See the trailer, a clip, an interview and a music video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Family Drama
Now Playing: Wide Release
Rating: PG (for action violence, peril, brief language and thematic elements)

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

(Fox Searchlight) Thomas Mann, R.J. Cryler, Olivia Cooke, Nick Offerman. A high school senior tries to remain as invisible as possible to avoid any sort of relationship which might cause him discomfort. He spends most of his free time making film parodies of classic movies with his only friend, who he describes as a co-worker rather than a best friend. However, when his mom insists that he spend time with a girl in school who has just been diagnosed with cancer, he finds something that is worth all the trouble he had tried to avoid. This was perhaps the most acclaimed film to come out of Sundance this year.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and a featurette here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard (opens Thursday)
Genre: Dramedy
Now Playing: Enzian Theater, AMC Downtown Disney
Rating: PG-13 (for sexual content, drug material, language and some thematic elements)