The Boy Downstairs


The park is a good place for old friends.

(2018) Romantic Comedy (FilmRise) Zosia Mamet, Matthew Shear, Deidre O’Connell, Sarah Ramos, Diana Irvine, Arliss Howard, Deborah Offner, David Wohl, Jeff Ward, Theo Stockman, Liz Larsen, Sabina Friedman-Seitz, Fabrizio Brienza, Jamie Fernandez, Peter Oliver, Natalie Hall. Directed by Sophie Brooks

 

People come in and out of our lives which is just the nature of life. Sometimes people who we thought gone from our lives come back into them unexpectedly which always gives us pause to wonder why we let them out of our lives in the first place.

Diana (Mamet) has just returned to New York after two years in London. She’s an aspiring writer trying to get a book written. She takes a job in a bridal shop to pay the bills and uses realtor Meg (Ramos) to help her find an apartment which she does; after interviewing with landlord Amy (O’Connell) Diana has a new place to live.

However, she discovers that her ex-boyfriend whom she left to move to London for – Ben (Shear) – lives in the apartment downstairs from her which she didn’t know beforehand. At first things are excessively awkward; Diana wants to be on friendly terms with him but Ben doesn’t want anything to do with her. Besides, he is seeing someone else – ironically, the realtor Meg. Diana is reminded of her relationship with Ben at almost every turn and begins to wonder why…well, I think we already covered that. In any case, she begins to think that there’s still a spark there but is it too late to fan those flames?

There are a lot of problems I have here. There are way too many clichés in the script from the artistic bent of the two leads (Ben is an aspiring musician) to the way more than they should be able to afford apartment in a trendy Brooklyn neighborhood to the character of Diana which is quirky and borderline manic pixie dream girl, a character type which has become the annoying pixie dream girl which is exactly how Mamet plays her.

Brooks uses (some might say over-uses) flashbacks to show what’s in Diana’s mind and illustrating how her relationship with Ben rose and fell. Unfortunately it can be hard at times to tell which is flashback and which is set in contemporary Brooklyn. At a certain point, the viewer doesn’t care. Flashbacks like any other cinematic tool should be used sparingly and only when truly necessary; after awhile the flashbacks actually hinder the progress of the story.

This is seriously a movie about people I can’t care about doing things I don’t have any interest in. There are fortunately some good background performances, particularly O’Connell and Irvine as Diana’s BFF who has far more of a believable personality than Diana herself.

There is some decent urban cinematography but then it isn’t really all that difficult to make New York look enchanting. It’s just that this is another indie film chock full of stock indie film characters whose shallowness and quirkiness have become like nails on a chalkboard after you’ve seen enough of them which sadly, I have. If you haven’t seen a lot of indie rom coms set in New York City with quirky female leads, you might find this enjoyable. If you’ve seen every Greta Gerwig film ever, you may have the same reaction I did. If you’re in the latter group and ended up seeing this, we need to go drown our sorrows together; just not in the hipster bars of the type Diana and her friends hang out in.

REASONS TO GO: The performances are for the most part pretty good.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie fails to rise above its own limitations. These are characters I don’t care about doing things that don’t interest me.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, drug references and sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Mamet, best known for her role in the TV series Girls, is the daughter of playwright David Mamet.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/17/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 50% positive reviews. Metacritic: 58/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mr. Roosevelt
FINAL RATING: 4/10
NEXT:
Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle

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Permission


New York is a magical place for lovers.

(2017) Dramedy (Good Deed) Rebecca Hall, Dan Stevens, Jason Sudeikis, Gina Gershon, Francois Arnaud, Raul Castillo, David Joseph Craig, Axel Crano, Bridget Everett, Michelle Hurst, Marc Iserlis, Morgan Spector, Sarah Steele, Lindsey Elizabeth, Mariola Figueroa. Directed by Brian Crano

 

It’s no secret that part of any romantic relationship is sex. Some relationships require monogamy; others allow a more open sexual relationship. One size really doesn’t fit all when it comes to making a romance work.

Will (Stevens) and Anna (Hall) have been dating for more than a decade, since both were essentially old enough to date. They live in a nice loft in Brooklyn and are getting ready to move in to a house that Will is fixing up for them. Will owns a handmade furniture business along with Reece (Spector) who is the husband of Hale (Craig) who is Anna’s brother.

At Anna’s birthday celebration, Reece points out to the birthday girl and her beau that the two have never been with anyone else sexually other than each other and that there was no way for either one to know if they were actually right for each other until they had. Although Reece was drunk at the time, the idea sticks in their craws until Anna brings it up and forces Will to talk about it with her. They come to a mutual agreement (albeit reluctantly on Will’s part) that the two should see other people for sex while remaining together as a couple.

Anna wastes no time, getting into the bed of a sensitive musician type named Dane (Arnaud) who as time goes by starts to show signs he’s falling in love with Anna. In the meantime, Will becomes involved with an aggressive older lady (Gershon) who introduces him to the joys of psychotropics and bathtub sex. She gives him permission to do anything he wants – so he does.

In the meantime, Hale very much wants to bring a baby into his life although Reece isn’t enthusiastic about the idea. Hale’s baby fever is exacerbated by Glenn (Sudeikis), a new father who hangs out in the park that Hale frequents.

Both couples are on the crux of something. Can Reece and Hale add another life into their family without jeopardizing the relationship they have? And speaking of relationships, will that of Will and Anna be able to withstand the infidelity even as permitted as it might be?

In many ways there is plenty of familiar territory being explored here. There have been several movies about couples that decide to allow their partners to indulge in sexual flings and in general it doesn’t end well for those couples who choose to go through with it. I don’t know if that’s an American perspective or not – European films seem to be much less uptight about sexual fidelity in relationships than American ones are.

I like the way there relationship between Reece and Hale is depicted. Too often the gay couple is either comic relief or too good to be true. Hale and Reece have problems, the type of problems that many straight couples have to deal with. The fact that they are gay is almost incidental and that’s true to life. The thing is, gay couples are just couples. They have their ups and downs, they have to deal with the same issues straight couples deal with and they are not always lovey dovey to one another. The fact that the writer/director is gay probably has a lot to do with it but it is nice to see a gay couple presented as just a normal couple struggling to stay together just as a straight couple would be. We need more of that.

Hall and Stevens, both Brits incidentally, have a nominal chemistry between them but nothing that jumps off the screen at you. In many ways that’s what you might expect for a long-term couple who are at a crossroads; it’s getting to the point where their relationship needs to grow into the next level and neither one appears to be enthusiastic about doing so. While the sex thing is a catalyst, one suspects that Will and Anna would be having a crisis even if they hadn’t introduced this permission to cheat into the mix.

The movie does have an abundance of indie clichés – the hipster Brooklyn environment, the somewhat twee score (which becomes a little overbearing at times) and the apparent living beyond their means of the couple in question. This seems to me to have been better off set in Queens than in Brooklyn which is a little too hipster and cliché for the story Crano wants to tell.

I also didn’t care for the ending which was inevitable and a bit telegraphed. I don’t need a happy ending to be happy about a movie but the emotional fallout of the events of the film doesn’t ring true in all cases. Relationships are messy and the ending is a little bit too pat for my taste and therefore a little less authentic. However the filmmaker did make an effort to create a thoughtful movie on a subject that concerns all couples and he gets points for that. I just wish he could have ended it better.

REASONS TO GO: It’s nice to see a gay couple treated as a couple that happens to be gay.
REASONS TO STAY: The ending felt inauthentic and really took me out of the film in not a good way.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity, sexuality and some brief nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Hall and Spector are married to each other and Brian Crano and David Joseph Craig are also married to each other.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play,  Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/10/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 72% positive reviews. Metacritic: 61/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Hall Pass
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
The Ritual

Sunset Park (2017)


You’ve got to be tough to make it in Sunset Park.

(2017) Sports Drama (108 Media) Michael Trevino, Robert Miano, Sam Douglas, Jamie Choi, Vladimir Versailles, John Bianco, Nolan Lyons, Matt Wood, Michael T. Weiss, Eric Arriola, Amyrh Harris, Christopher M. Elassad, Robert Morgan, Khalil Maasi, Rocco Rozzotti, Ras Enoch McCurdie, Kaitlin Mesh, Silvia Spross, Stephanie Thiel, Alanna Blair. Directed by Jason Sarrey

 

Life is hard enough; in some places, it’s even harder. In Brooklyn’s Sunset Park neighborhood, there are more than the usual obstacles.

Duane (Weiss) is a degenerate gambler and an alcoholic who has been battered by life and is not strong enough to take ownership of his own mistakes. His wife died young leaving him with a son (Lyons) he barely knows. He lives with his dad, Gramps Joe (Miano) who was once a Golden Gloves champion. When Duane gets in deep (to the tune of six figures) to the mob, he does what you’d expect someone like him to do – he cuts and runs leaving Joe to raise his kid and the mobster, Sledge (Douglas) is only too happy to transfer the debt to Joe. After all, why chase someone when you can get the money right at home?

Gino (Trevino), the son, grows up to be a talented fighter in his own right. Gramps sends him to be trained by local legend Caelin Roche (Morgan) but times are tough. Rents are going up, Gramps had to go back to work to meet the payment schedule that Sledge set him with to pay Duane’s debt and the economic downturn has caused Gramps’ hours to be slashed. Gino’s good friend Rajon (Versailles) figures Gino can make bank in the underground boxing scene. In the meantime, Sledge has taken notice of Gino’s talents and means to own his career – which would on the plus side wipe out the crippling debt for Duane’s marker but of course would potentially warp Gino’s soul after all the effort Gramps put in to raise Gino to be a good man.

By this time Gino has struck up a romance with Jessica (Choi) but Sledge and his goon Carlo (Bianco) are not willing to take no for an answer – so when Gramps refuses to give them Gino’s career, they set out to make Gino an offer he can’t refuse. Gino will be forced to fight for those he loves in a battle he can’t afford to lose but will he be able to do what it takes to win a life or death fight?

If you’ve seen most boxing movies involving a promising fighter who the mob wants to own and corrupt, then you’ve seen this movie. It doesn’t really add anything new to the mix. Trevino, best known for The Vampire Diaries, does a fair to middling job in the lead but I’m not sure he’s ready for big screen leads just yet.

The boxing sequences quite frankly are atrocious. The actors plainly look like they don’t know what to do and the punches look fake. The dialogue sounds a little clunky as well although the actors try gamely to make it sound natural.

Really, the main failing of the movie here is that there is a lack of energy. I’m not sure if it’s the fault of the actors, the director, the editor or the writer – most likely it’s a combination of all of the above. Still, there’s nothing really for the viewer to hang their hat on and get involved in the story. There are plenty of movies that have taken this story and made it compelling; Sunset Park fails to do that.

REASONS TO GO: The tone is properly gritty for the material.
REASONS TO STAY: The boxing sequences are unconvincing. The film could use an infusion of energy.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence, a bit of profanity and a scene of sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Sunset Park is the first full-length feature film for Sarrey.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/27/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Fighter
FINAL RATING: 4/10
NEXT:
Brigsby Bear

The Light of the Moon


Sometimes you can only hold each other in the dead of the night.

(2017) Drama (Imagination Worldwide) Stephanie Beatriz, Michael Stahl-David, Conrad Ricamora, Catherine Curtin, Cindy Cheung, Susan Heyward, Jessica M. Thompson, Olga Merediz, Craig Walker, Heather Simms, Cara Loften, Christine Spang, Patricia Noonan, Christian Barber, Mike Ivers, Michael Cuomo, Nelly Savinon, Sarah Dacey-Charles, Jennifer Bareilles, Ashley Van Egeren. Directed by Jessica M. Thompson

 

In the wake of revelations about celebrity sexual predators (i.e. Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby and Kevin Spacey) along with a commander-in-chief who thinks it’s perfectly okay to grab the genitals of a woman uninvited, there is no doubt that we have a culture predisposed to rape. To be a woman in 2017 means that she has to be absolutely aware of her surroundings at all times; she doesn’t have the freedom to walk alone at night, to accept drinks from strangers that she hasn’t  watched the bartender pour, to be subjected to the icy predatory stares of men checking her out, the condescending remarks and to be judged more on how she looks than who she is. Being a woman in 2017 to be frank is scary, and to raise a daughter in this time is heartbreaking, knowing what she is likely to experience before she is even old enough to vote.

Bonnie (Beatriz) is an architect working for a firm that is a rising star in the field. She’s been given a major project to lead and she’s putting in a lot of hours, wanting to make a big splash. She lives in the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn only a few blocks from where she works. Her boyfriend Matt (Stahl-David) also has a career that demands a lot of time from him; he was supposed to meet Bonnie and some of her work friends for after-work drinks but had to blow her off to entertain a client.

Bonnie has been through the drill before though and she and her friends Priya (Loften) and Jack (Ricamora) drink heavily, dance like there’s no tomorrow and generally have the kind of good time that New Yorkers seem to instinctively know how to have. As her friends scatter, Bonnie refuses Jack’s offer to share a cab and decides to walk the few blocks home.

Intoxicated and wearing headphones, she doesn’t hear her attacker until it’s much too late. She is dragged into an alley and raped. It isn’t a long, drawn-out attack but to Bonnie it musts have seemed interminable. Her attacker, having done what he wanted to do, leaves her to pull her panties up, gather herself together, wipe herself off with tissue paper and stagger back home. Matt hasn’t arrived yet so she puts her panties and the tissue paper she wiped herself off with and when Matt arrives home and sees the black eye and nasty cut on her forehead, accompanies her to the Emergency Room. Led to believe it was only a mugging, she confesses in a small child-like voice that she was raped.

Matt is devastated, guilty that he wasn’t there to protect her as she should have been. Bonnie wants as few people to know as possible – she tells her colleagues at work that she was mugged but neglects to mention the sexual assault. She also refuses to tell her family that she was raped, leaving Matt, the detectives working her case and the DA who is prosecuting it the only ones who know.

At first Matt is overly attentive, fixing her breakfast, coming home early and cooking dinner. Bonnie wonders why he wasn’t giving her this much TLC before she was raped. She seems to be in a place where she just wants to move on and put it behind her but Matt worries that she’s not really dealing with the trauma. When he suggests she join a support group, Bonnie snarls “I don’t want to join the Sisterhood of Rape Victims.”

Intimacy between Matt and Bonnie becomes a minefield. He is concerned about hurting her; she wants the sex to be as raw and as rough as it was before the incident. Gradually the two begin to move inexorably apart; Matt desperately wants to do the right thing but doesn’t understand what Bonnie needs. Bonnie herself just wants to put her ordeal behind her but everybody who know about her rape treats her like she’s made of glass. When Matt tries to explain “This happened to us” he doesn’t realize how that must sound to Bonnie; nor does Bonnie understand that there is an element of truth in that Matt is affected by her trauma.

I wasn’t sure that this movie was going to be anything but a glossy Lifetime movie version of a serious topic but my fears on that subject turned out to be groundless. This is a powerful, sometimes raw and sometimes very hard to watch look at the aftermath of one of the worst things that can happen to a woman. Survivors of sexual assault may end up being triggered by the movie; although the rape scene itself isn’t very graphic (there is no skin and the scene is mostly dark and a close-up of Bonnie’s face) it is still very realistic and may not be suitable for those sensitive to depictions of sexual assault. You should decide for yourself if you are up for viewing the movie on that basis.

That said it is an educational look at the aftermath which is something that often gets short shrift in the discussion of rape. Bonnie finds that people look at her differently as a sexual assault victim; she becomes an object of pity, one to be handled delicately. Bonnie doesn’t want to be handled; she knows she’s strong, she knows she is a survivor and she simply wants to move on. Society wants her to deal with the trauma and she simply doesn’t want to. Is her approach a healthy one? Most would say no, but who’s to say what’s healthy for one individual may not be for another?

Beatriz gives us a searing performance; Bonnie can be both brittle and fragile, or tough and strident. There aren’t a lot of histrionics here but there are a lot of powerful emotions handled with empathy and with dignity. Beatriz, who is known most for her role on Brooklyn Nine Nine is a star in the making. Performances like this can move her right up to the next level.

There are some things that I wish first-time feature filmmaker Thompson would have done a little differently; the indie trope of the young professionals living in an amazing book-filled apartment in New York City (at a rent that would likely cost them the GNP of a small country in real life) and the overuse of Bonnie going into a dissociative trance with the sound getting muddied like the microphone is underwater. Other than that, this is truly a rich story well told and well acted and tackling a subject that is often taboo but is something that we SHOULD be talking about.

With all the focus on how much sexual assault, molestation and harassment that goes on today it is time that we had a conversation about the real trauma of rape and this movie helps to initiate that conversation. In that sense it is as timely a film as it possibly could be but then again this is a conversation long overdue. Again, some survivors may have a hard time with this and should be aware of what their tolerance for this kind of realism I going to be. Beyond that, this is a movie everybody should see.

REASONS TO GO: The acting performances are strong throughout and Beatriz is absolutely extraordinary. A timely arrival in the wake of the Facebook “Me Too” campaign. A realistic relationship and the effects of sexual assault on that relationship are portrayed.
REASONS TO STAY: There are a few indie clichés in the mix.
FAMILY VALUES: There is an intense depiction of a rape, sexual content, profanity, violence and it goes without saying, adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Most of the crew including the director, writer, cinematographer and editor are either women or minorities.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/5/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: 76/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Accused
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
ADDicted

Crown Heights (2017)


Lakeith Stanfield shows off his intensity.

(2017) Biographical Drama (Amazon/IFC) Lakeith Stanfield, Nnamdi Asomugha, Natalie Paul, Adriane Lenox, Luke Forbes, Zach Grenier, Josh Pais, Nestor Carbonell, Joel van Liew, Bill Camp, Amari Cheatom, Skylan Brooks, Marsha Stephanie Blake, Carlos Hendricks, Ron Canada, Gbenga Akinnagbe, Shana A. Solomon, Brian Tyree Henry, Sarah Goldberg. Directed by Matt Ruskin

 

Justice is portrayed as a blindfolded woman holding a balanced set of scales. This is meant to convey the impartiality of justice. In modern America, experience has taught us that justice sometimes peeks behind the blindfolds and the scales are weighted against the poor and those of color.

Colin Warner (Stanfield) is an immigrant from Trinidad living in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn. He is no saint – one of the first things we see him do is steal a car – but he’s not the devil incarnate either. He’s just a guy trying to make it in a world that isn’t well-disposed towards people with his skin color or economic station. He hopes for a better life and along with his best friend Carl “KC” King (Asomugha) is attending a school to become a certified auto mechanic. He also has an eye on Antoinette (Paul), a neighborhood girl who has unfortunately put him in the friend zone.

One night as he walks home with his mother’s television set which he picked up from the repair shop, he is arrested by a pair of New York’s finest. When he learns that the charge is murder, he is almost incredulous. The more he discovers about the crime, the more confident he is that he’ll soon be freed; for one thing, he didn’t do the crime. He didn’t know anyone involved. He had no motive and no record of violence. Surely the police will see that and let him go.

To his horror, they don’t. Even after they find the man who actually pulled the trigger (Forbes), they refuse to let him go. An eyewitness puts him on the scene; never mind that the 15-year-old boy (Brooks) has a criminal history of his own, or that his story is wildly inconsistent with other eyewitnesses. Even the presiding judge (Canada) admits the evidence is flimsy. Nevertheless, an all-white jury convicts the shocked Colin and he is sentenced to 15 years to life in prison.

Colin’s family and particularly KC are livid and on a mission to get Colin home where he belongs. The appeals process turns into a nightmare as the lawyer that is hired is so woefully unprepared that it is clear that he’s all about getting the cash up front and after that, he doesn’t really much care. KC’s determination leads him to take the process server’s exam so that he can circulate among lawyers and perhaps find a good one to take Colin’s case. Eventually it leads him to William Robedee (Camp) who together with his Irish wife Shirley (Goldberg) run a tiny practice. The lawyer agrees to take the case after looking at the transcripts and discovering what a shockingly inadequate defense Colin received. Still, the system is grinding Colin down and although Antoinette has thawed on the whole romance thing, it looks like Colin might just rot in prison.

This is based on true events which should be enough to make your blood boil. These things really happened and Colin Warner really spent a ridiculous amount of time in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. Ruskin uses contemporary clips of various presidents talking tough on crime to illustrate the tone of the times and reminds us that crime is the political equivalent of a slam dunk – everybody wants to be perceived as tough on crime. The results of the rhetoric was largely cosmetic; the effects on the poor and those unable to afford good representation, devastating.

Stanfield has been turning heads over the past few years with performance after performance, always delivering something special. This might be his best work yet, showing us a man who is pretty laid back and soft-spoken most of the time but frustrated by the injustice of his situation, driven to despair (he wakes up each morning murmuring to himself “Please don’t let it be a cell”) and eventually rage, lashing out at brutal guards and equally brutal inmates. Only his love for Antoinette, his mother and grandmother back in Trinidad and the support of KC keeps him going. Stanfield captures the full range of Colin’s emotions.

I’m not sure where this was filmed but I suspect it was either in a working prison or a decommissioned one. It looks a little too authentic to be a set. I could be wrong on that count of course and if I am, the production designer Kaet McAnneny is to be doubly commended. Ruskin also gives a very stark look at life inside. It isn’t as brutal as, say, Oz but it does capture the feeling of simmering anger and violence that exists in a prison and especially the hopelessness.

The movie suffers from an inconsistent pace. Certain parts of the movie seem to move very quickly (the arrest and initial trial, for example) and others seem to drag. Ruskin utilizes graphics to tell us how long Colin has been incarcerated. There are some jumps in time and quite honestly there is a lack of consistent flow here. I didn’t get a good sense of time passing; other than the graphics, all of the action could have taken place within the same year with the viewer being none the wiser.

Stanfield is impressive here and I wouldn’t be surprised if down the line he became one of the very best in Hollywood, the sort of actor who is a threat to win an Oscar every time he signs up for a movie. He elevates this movie and he is supported by a thoroughly professional cast. The acting is uniformly good and other than what I discussed earlier there aren’t really any serious faults to really distract from what is a very good film. It tells a story that will outrage but sadly isn’t uncommon as graphics near the end of the film show. Definitely this is one if you’re looking for a serious movie to see that may have some outside Oscar implications later on.

REASONS TO GO: Stanfield delivers a performance that just sizzles. A cathartic ending enhances the gritty portrayal of the brutality of everyday prison life.
REASONS TO STAY: The pacing is inconsistent..
FAMILY VALUES: There’s lots of profanity, some violence and sexuality as well as some nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Asomugha is a pro football player who is a two-time All-Pro defensive back for the Oakland Raiders.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/8/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 75% positive reviews. Metacritic: 64/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Hurricane
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Man in Red Bandana

Love & Taxes


Josh Kornbluth gets troubling news.

Josh Kornbluth gets troubling news.

(2015) Comedy (Abramorama) Josh Kornbluth, Sarah Overman, Helen Shumaker, David Keith, Robert Sicular, Nicholas Pelczar, Harry Shearer, Robert Reich, Nile Acero, Misha Brooks, Menachem Creditor, Carrie Paff, Anthony Nemirovsky, Jeff Raz, Kay Kostopoulos, Jenna Davi, Katherine Celio, Lorri Holt, Amy Resnick, Patricia Scanlon, Cindy Goldfield. Directed by Jacob Kornbluth

 

The art of the monologue is somewhat different than the art of stand-up comedy. The latter is joke after joke after joke; the former is a story, generally a humorous one. Louis C.K. is a stand-up comedian; Spalding Gray is a monologist. You’re far more likely to get rich and famous doing stand-up than you are reciting monologues, but that doesn’t stop plenty of people from going the latter route.

Based on a semi-autobiographical monologue by Josh Kornbluth who is shown performing it onstage enhanced by re-enacted portions of it, the cleverly titled film (Death and Taxes mixed with Love and Death, a Woody Allen – clearly a major influence on Kornbluth – film) shows Kornbluth who admits to his tax lawyer boss that he hadn’t paid his taxes in seven years.

To make this further ironic, Kornbluth works for a corporate tax lawyer (Keith) to pay the bills while he struggles to get his career as a monologist going. When Keith finds out that his employee hasn’t filed, he immediately sends him to a personal tax lawyer named Mo (Shumaker). Holistic and a bit New Age, Mo sees his failure to file not so much a tax problem as a tax symptom. Josh has memories of his father (Sicular), a testy communist, refusing to pay his taxes. A revelation, perhaps?

And filing his taxes seems to have helped Josh in many ways. He starts getting bigger crowds at his gigs. He gets the attention of a cheesy Hollywood producer (Shearer) who has Josh living in L.A. five days a week to write a screenplay in hopes that a studio will pick it up. He also gets the attention of a groupie named Sara (Overman) who is nearly as neurotic as himself, but in a complimentary way. Soon they are living together and talking marriage – particularly when Sara gets pregnant.

But Josh’s tax struggles are far from over and soon he finds himself in a bigger hole than he could imagine. Sure enough, things go from blessed to cursed in a big hurry. It’s a condition known to most of us as life.

Josh is a charismatic and engaging personality. He’s a cross between a Berkeley liberal and a Brooklyn Jew which makes for an interesting personality. He’s no matinee idol but he nonetheless keeps your attention whenever he’s onscreen, something that some matinee idols have trouble with. His stage sequences make you want to run right out and catch his act, which I suppose is what he was after all along.

While the movie could have used a little more editing (it drags a bit at the end of the second and beginning of the third act) it still doesn’t ever really wear out its welcome. It’s not the kind of film that is going to have you screaming with laughter but instead elicits a quiet chuckle – a whole lot of them, in fact. The interweaving of stage monologue and ensemble film sequences works well together, keeping the movie humming along for the most part. Sometimes there is a little too much shtick but by and large this is an entertaining and funny movie that is an improvement on Haiku Tunnels, the first film collaboration between the Brothers Kornbluth. I hope the two of them continue to make movies if they’re going to come up with stuff this good.

REASONS TO GO: The weaving of the stage monologue and the acted re-creations is nicely done. Josh is an engaging storyteller.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie runs a little bit too long.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a little bit of mild profanity as well as some mild sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is adapted from a monologue that Kornbluth first staged in 2003 in San Francisco; he later refined it in the Sundance Theater Lab, San Francisco’s Z Space Studios and Washington DC’s Arena Stage.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/2/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Producers (1967)
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: The Last Laugh

Breaking a Monster


There's still room for a purple haze.

There’s still room for a purple haze.

(2016) Music Documentary (Abramorama) Malcolm Brickhouse, Jarad Dawkins, Alec Atkins, Alan Sacks, Annette Jackson, Kevin Jonas, Tracey Brickhouse, Moe Dawkins, Johnny Karkazis, Tabitha Dawkins, Douglas Wimbush, Q-Tip, Nile Rogers, Samantha Sacks, Jolene Cherry, Gary Adelman, Jimmy Webb, Ernestine Charles, Gloria Atkins, Annette Van Duren. Directed by Luke Meyer

 

The music industry is an absolute bastard to break into. Finding success in it is nearly impossible, particularly now in an era of digital downloads and pirated tracks. Success isn’t a function of how hard one works or how talented one is; the road to success is littered with the carcasses of hardworking, talented performers who simply didn’t make it. Sometimes it’s a matter of being in the right place at the right time to meet the right person. Few other careers have luck play as important a factor.

Three young Brooklyn boys have had a yen for heavy metal ever since their dads took them to wrestling matches where the ring entrance music of the wrestlers is almost always metal; also their favorite videogames tended to have a metal soundtrack. Soon Malcolm Brickhouse, Jarad Dawkins and Alec Atkins – three lifelong friends – began to put together a band of their own. Doesn’t sound too unusual, right? Throw in that all three are African Americans (a rarity in the metal world which is almost uniformly white) and that they all hadn’t reached their teens as of yet and you’ve got something different. Add in that they are extremely talented musicians not just for their age but period and you have something special.

The boys practiced in their basements and eventually went to Times Square to play. A passerby caught their performance on video and uploaded it to YouTube. That video went viral and soon it caught the attention of industry veteran Allan Sacks, who on paper wouldn’t sound like a particularly good fit. In the 70s he was in the television industry and helped create the classic sitcom Welcome Back Kotter and by the 90s had switched to the music industry where he helped discover Demi Lovato and the Jonas Brothers. He flew out to New York from the West Coast and signed the band to a management contract. Good fit or not, his clout helped open doors and the septuagenarian manager soon had the band signed to a two-album contract with Sony for a cool $1.8 million.

Most of the film takes from the contract signing onward and gives us a good idea of how the work really begins after the contract has been notarized. The boys meet with stylists who select clothes for them to wear onstage and Malcolm gets a vocal coach which he sorely needs. One of the worries that Sony has about the band is that Malcolm’s voice hasn’t dropped yet so it’s impossible to know what his voice is going to sound like when it does and whether or not he’ll be an adequate singer; for the time being his vocals are…let’s just say raw and leave it at that.

Plus we’re talking about 8th grade kids, not seasoned professionals. The label wants them to do interviews, festival appearances and promotional interviews; the boys just want to play videogames. Malcolm in particular likes to skateboard which gets Alan and Sony all up in arms; the risk of injury is too great and could put Malcolm’s career in jeopardy if he injures his arms or his head. Skateboarding is henceforth forbidden, which turns Malcolm’s mood extra-sour.

Compounded with that is that the band wants to make a record and Sony doesn’t think they’re ready for it. Consequently they put pressure on Alan to get them into the studio and while he counsels patience, have you ever tried to tell a young teen boy to be patient? Ain’t happenin’ folks.

The boys themselves are engaging and charming. They are a bit more focused than the average 13-year-old but that’s not saying much. You don’t get a sense that the fame and money has changed them much, although they do sometimes express that it has changed the way others perceive them which is to be expected. They seem genuinely nice boys and one hopes that the pitfalls of the music industry don’t sour them too much; it’s a cutthroat industry and it takes a tremendous ego to survive it.

What matters most is the music and quite frankly, it’s pretty good. Not good for kids their age but good period. The single that they do record, “Monster” has a terrific hook and some nimble guitar work. Even if you don’t like metal, you can’t help but admire the skill that went into the song. Producer Johnny Karkazis (better known as Johnny K) works with Malcolm patiently trying to get the vocals down, even helpfully suggesting that he clench his fist and pump it during the final chorus to get the right tone. It works.

In fact, I have to say that the overall tone works for the film as well. This isn’t a story that is all that different than any other “making of the band” documentary has covered other than the fact that these are African-American kids trying to make it in a world of grizzled old white guys. In fact, when the point is raised that Sony may have signed them because of the novelty of their situation, in one of the more charming scenes Brickhouse acknowledges it but also follows that with “I don’t care!” Any means of getting the foot in the door will do and Brickhouse at 13 is worldly enough to realize that. In and of itself, that may be the most impressive thing about him of all.

REASONS TO GO: The subjects are engaging and likable. Meyer is wise enough to be an unobtrusive “fly on the wall.”
REASONS TO STAY: In many ways, this territory has been covered before.
FAMILY VALUES: Some profanity is uttered.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Unlocking the Truth continues to play as a band today; however they were dropped by Sony shortly after filming was completed.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/26/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: 72/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Wrecking Crew
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Southside with You