Out of Omaha


Twin sons of different others.

(2018) Documentary (DreamvilleDarcell Trotter, Darell “Rell” Trotter, Wayne Brown, Barbara Robinson, Yono Jones, Eric Lofton, Anthony Beasley, Dr. Jef Johnston, Dazmi Casterjon, Yvonne Beasley, Kenneth Scott, Christopher Trotter, Anthony Kellogg, Aubrey Caballero, Shay Murph-Bookhardt, Keiara Ritchie.  Directed by Clay Tweel

 

After the formation of the Black Lives Matter movement, many on the right – some well-meaning, I grant you – responded back that “All Lives Matter.”

They’re missing the point.

African-Americans in this country have been marginalized ever since being delivered here in chains. They may no longer be the property of plantation owners but they are marginalized by poverty, by a lack of opportunity and an excess of suspicion. They are put into ghettos where crime and despair run rampant and even should they manage to get an education and become pillars of the community, they can expect to be pulled over with regularity by the police or have neighbors call the cops when they are working in the garage of their own home.

No matter the size of the city, the racial divide is palpable. Omaha, Nebraska isn’t exactly a megalopolis but it is a good-sized Midwestern city that prides itself on its heartland values. Those values seem to end at the border of North Omaha, the poverty-stricken African-American community which is plagued by gang violence and drugs. Into this world twin brothers Darcell and Darell Trotter were born.

Omaha has one of the highest per-capita murder rates in the country, largely thanks to the violence in North “O.” It also has a high concentration of millionaires living in lovely split-level homes surrounded by beautifully manicured lawns. The Trotter twins knew nothing of that other Omaha. Their reality was the gangs and drugs of the north side.

Documentary filmmaker Clay Tweel, who has been responsible for films such as Gleason and Make Believe, spent seven years off and on filming the twins as they try to escape the poverty and hopelessness of their environment. Primarily focusing on Darcell’s story, the film watches him leave the gang life which consumed his brother Rell and the drug addiction which trapped his father Shane, taking advantage of a program called Avenue Scholars which allowed him to attend the University of Nebraska Omaha in pursuit of a music production degree with an eye on becoming a hip-hop producer and entrepreneur.

However, he is fated to be in the wrong place at the wrong time when he attends a party in which a violent robbery takes place. Despite the fact that he left at the first sign of trouble, he is identified as one of those involved and his face is plastered all over a Crimestoppers segment on the local news. When Darcell, whose loyalty to his friends was forged as a gang member where it was drilled into him that you never give up your friends, refuses to name the other people involved, he is sent to jail, a scared 19-year-old kid in a scary place. Eventually the charges are dropped but the damage is done.

He moves in with his brother and their father in Grand Island, Nebraska, 150 miles away. With an African-American population that makes up just 2% of the total population, they are looked upon with some suspicion but both of them work hard and start to make something of themselves. Their father, hooked on heroin, abandons them, leaving them with nowhere to live. Aubrey Caballero, the mom of their friend Ricky, takes the two boys in.

The boys are accused of sexual assault which once again puts them on the front page of the local news but their accuser recants and admits that she made up her story. Their exoneration gets absolutely no coverage at all – go ahead and Google Darcell’s name and see what comes up – which leaves them with a blight on their record. Nevertheless, they both continue to work hard and when Darcell fathers a young daughter, he finds reservoirs of strength he never knew he had.

The movie is enormously powerful in the sense that you get a first-hand look at what young African-American men are facing; how their opportunities are restricted by poverty and racial profiling, and yet both of the twins aspire to something better for themselves, the comforts of life that those who grew up in comfortable suburban lives take for granted. Tweel is non-judgmental about the choices the brothers make (and they aren’t always wise ones), not making excuses for their poor choices but neither blaming them for them. In many ways they are conditioned to see the world through a sheen in which the only escape from the hopelessness is through drugs and crime. Tweel has come a long way as a filmmaker over the years and this might just be his best film yet.

This is very much a cinema verité experience as the camera follows the boys and watches their story unfold. There are a few interviews, such as with Wayne Brown, a man who with his wife Niki managed to get out of North Omaha and become respected professionals but still had to put up with police officers pulling them over every few days while driving to work. Mostly, though, this is the story of two boys who grow up to be men but never lose their hope for something better despite everything thrown their way. While the movie ends on a hopeful note – the twin brothers are preparing to open up their own appliance store in Grand Island – it may not be an earth-shattering triumph but considering the journey they took to get there, it is as inspiring a story as any epic tale.

REASONS TO SEE: Tweel is growing as a filmmaker. Unvarnished cinema verité.
REASONS TO AVOID: There is nothing really game-changing here.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a shitload of profanity, some drug use and descriptions of violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was executive produced by rising hip-hop star J. Cole.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Starz, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/1/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Princess of the Row
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
The Game Changers

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Master Z: Ip Man Legacy (Ye wen wai zhuan: Zhang tian zhi)


Jin Zhang and Michelle Yeoh have a tete a tete.

(2018) Martial Arts (Well Go USA) Jin Zhang, Dave Bautista, Michelle Yeoh, Tony Jaa, Patrick Tam, Xing Yu, Naason, Chrissie Chau, Yan Liu, Henry Zhang, Brian Thomas Burrell, Kevin Chang, Adam Pak, Yuen Wah, Adel Ali Mohamed, Mathieu Jaquet. Directed by Woo-Ping Yuen

 

The Ip Man series of films (currently at seven and counting – another one is set for American distribution in July) have yielded big box office success in China and Hong Kong over the years. The series revolves around Ip Man, the revered and legendary martial arts master whose claim to fame in the West is that he mentored Bruce Lee. Most of the Ip Man movies revolve around the master defending the citizens of Hong Kong from the excesses of the corrupt British colonialists and deadly local criminal gangs. Although highly fictionalized accounts of the master’s life, the popularity of the series in Asia is undeniable.  It was inevitable that a spin-off would be created. Does it deliver on the action goods as the original series did?

Wing chun master and formerly the head of a prestigious school Cheung Tin-chi (J. Zhang) lost a closed-door match to Ip Man (the only connection to Ip Man and an outrageously tenuous one at that) and has been reduced to beating up people for a low-life criminal (Wah). Disillusioned by the way his life has turned out, Cheung elects to walk away from fighting. He opens up a tiny grocery store and sets about raising his rambunctious yet precocious young son Fung (H. Zhang) himself.

Nana (Chau) is hooked on drugs and is deeply in debt to local crimelord Kit (Chang). He is the hot-headed younger brother of Cheung Lok matriarch Kwan (Yeoh) who yearns to take her criminal enterprise legitimate, much to the consternation of Kit and her underlings who in the words of one, only know crime. Nana’s soon-to-be sister-in-law Julia (Liu) pays off Nana’s debt. She is the sister of Fu (Naason), one of the leaders on Hong Kong’s notorious garish Bar Street. He owns the successful Gold Bar, where Nana – his fiancée – works as a waitress and Julia sings. Kit though is not satisfied with the principle being paid off; he ants the interest too and refuses to release Nana. The feisty Julia manages to yank Nana away and the two women flee don an alleyway trailed by a pack of Kit’s goons here they run into Cheung making a delivery.

The goons are no match for Cheung, who now finds himself having acquired the enmity of Kit who firebombs Cheung’s store in retaliation. Cheung and his son, who lived above the store, have no place to go so the compassionate Julia puts them up and Cheung gets a job as a waiter at the Gold Bar. Still, Kit isn’t finished with them and when he goes too far leading to tragedy, Cheung knows he won’t get justice through the corrupt police ho are in the pockets of Kwan and Kit. Justice must be acquired the old-fashioned way.

The thing about most martial arts films is that the plot is pretty generic, the acting over-the-top and the characters barely developed at all and this is true of Master Z. However, Jin Zhang (also known as Max Zhang) is a charismatic lead who could appeal to audiences in much the same way as Ip Man’s Donnie Yen does. It doesn’t hurt to have Yeoh, easily one of the most accomplished actresses in the globe and a terrific martial artist in her own right, on the marquee. Tony Jaa, the spectacular fighter from the Thai series Ong Bak cameos as a mysterious assassin employed by various factions in the Hong Kong criminal underground, as well as former WWE wrestler Dave Bautista as a vicious racist restaurateur who is the drug supplier for Kit. Bautista’s British accent is a mite unconvincing though.

The real stars here are the production design and the fight scenes. Bar Street which in its day was a garish cross of Times Square and the Vegas strip. Recreated on a sound stage, it is a fantasy land of light and motion and a perfect place to stage spectacular fight scenes. The film is set in the early 60s judging from the costumes and the hair style of the women (lots of beehives and bouffants). While the era is inexact in some ways, the look is undeniable eye candy.

Despite having one of the greatest martial arts fight choreographers in history in the director’s chair, the fights are curiously uneven. The first in which Cheung encounters Kit’s goons in the alleyway is surprisingly tame; the next one, among the neon signs of Bar Street, is spectacular. Yeoh and Zhang have some nifty fights including one with a whiskey glass which they endeavor to pass from one to the other without spilling a drop. However, the climactic fight between Bautista and Zhang is once again not as thrilling as it might have been. When the fight scenes are at their best, though, they are stupendous.

There is certainly potential for sequels to Master Z and it did quite well at the box office when it was released in China earlier this year. In all fairness despite the star power in the cast (and behind the camera) the movie doesn’t really add much to the genre but it is entertaining in its own right and that’s enough for the martial arts enthusiast like me.

REASONS TO SEE: The production design is dazzling. Michelle Yeoh is always worth the price of admission.
REASONS TO AVOID: Some of the fight sequences (like the first one) don’t measure up to the show stoppers. The plot is pretty generic.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a whole lot of martial arts violence, some mild profanity as well as drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although the character of Ip Man (played in the series by Donnie Yen) doesn’t appear in the film, Yen remains on as a producer for it.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/13/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 81% positive reviews: Metacritic: 72/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Ip Man 2
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Ramen Shop

In the Fade (Aus dem Nichts)


You just can’t keep Diane Kruger down.

(2017) Drama (Magnolia) Diane Kruger, Denis Moschitto, Numan Acar, Samia Muriel Chancrin, Johannes Krisch, Ulrich Tukur, Ulrich Brandhoff, Hanna Hilsdorf, Yannis Economides, Rafael Santana, Karin Neuhauser, Uwe Rohde, Siir Eloglu, Asim Demirel, Aysel Iscan, Christa Krings, Hartmut Loth, Adam Bousdoukos, Henning Peker, Laurens Walter, Jessica McIntyre. Directed by Fatih Akin

 

Our lives can be turned upside down in an instant. One moment we are surrounded by a happy, content family. The next – everything is gone. Dealing with that kind of pain is almost inconceivable to most of us but it happens far more regularly than it should.

Katja (Kruger) has that kind of life. She married Nuri Sekerci (Acar) while he was in a German jail for dealing drugs. He has since turned his life around, having become a respected member of the Kurdish community in Hamburg as a tax preparer and translator. Katja and Nuri have an adorable young son Rocco (Santana). While both Katja and Nuri are still a bit rough around the edges, there’s no denying that they are devoted parents.

One rainy afternoon Katja drops off Rocco at Nuri’s office so that she can visit her very pregnant friend Birgit (Chancrin) and share a spa day together. Returning home after relaxing, she is horrified to discover flashing police lights and crowds gathered at the street where she had earlier that afternoon left her family. All that’s left of the office is a charred and obliterated shell. A nail bomb was detonated there and her family was in a microsecond reduced to filleted meat.

At first she is in shock. It can’t be happening and her eyes show her agony. Her mom and her mother’s boyfriend, Birgit and Nuri’s parents have gathered to lend their support and express their own grief. The police seem intent on investigating Nuri’s past indiscretions; Katja believes that neo-Nazis are behind the bombing. Her lawyer Danilo (Moschitto) tends to believe her and in a not-very-smart moment gives her some illegal narcotics to help her cope…and sleep.

Eventually things get sorted and the culprits are caught. Now it’s time for the trial, but the German legal system is much different than our own. For one thing, everybody’s got a lawyer – including the co-plaintiffs, which are normally the families of the victims. Will justice be done? Or will Katja have to seek it out herself?

Kruger, one of the most beautiful actresses in the world, has been a Hollywood fixture for years. Incredibly, this is her first German-language film and she capably demonstrates that she could well be one of the finest actresses in the world as well as being an attractive one. This is the kind of performance that should have been rewarded with a Best Actress nomination but inexplicably wasn’t. It was at least as strong a performance of any of the ladies who did get the nomination. Kruger poignantly shows the numbness of grief, the rage, the despair. Much of it is communicated through her eyes.

Katja isn’t a perfect wife, mother or woman. She makes mistakes and she’s a bit on the raw side. With her many tattoos, her own drug use and an explosive temper, she is flawed enough to bring our sympathy to the fore. She’s never so unbelievably pure that we can’t believe her. Rather, we don’t disbelieve her for a moment. Kruger is raw, authentic and powerful here.

The movie is like a raw nerve being scraped through the first two acts but in the third one it falters. I can’t describe why without really going into details that are best left unrevealed until you experience it; suffice to say that it shifts tone into something  that really the film shouldn’t have become. More than that I will not say.

Fortunately, Kruger’s searing performance outweighs the movie’s faults. This is definitely a bit rough to watch in places – anyone who has lost a friend or family member in an untimely violent way will likely be triggered – but it is honest in not only exploring cultural differences but also in finding the balance between the need to inflict pain and the need to expiate it. This is certainly one worth looking out for.

REASONS TO GO: Kruger delivers the best performance of her career. This is an emotionally wrenching film from beginning to end.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie goes off the rails a little bit during the third act.
FAMILY VALUES: There is quite a bit of profanity, violence and some drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The home video segments were all shot on smartphones.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/19/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 73% positive reviews. Metacritic: 64/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Killing Jesus
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Hunting Season

Catch 22: Based on the Unwritten Story by Seanie Sugrue


A party with macho guys, lots of booze and drugs and a mouthy hooker? What could possibly go wrong?!

A party with macho guys, lots of booze and drugs and a mouthy hooker? What could possibly go wrong?!

(2016) Thriller (108 Media) Brock Harris, Al Thompson, Dónall Ó Héalai, Michael Rabe, Jayce Bartok, Charmane Star, An Nguyen, Phil  Burke, Cameron McIntosh, Gerard Assante, Zachary Clarence, Charles Kennedy, Melissa Crisafulli, Seanie Sugrue, Donald Paul, Malik Uhuru, Josh Folan, Olivia Howell, Zack Auron, Dana Eckley, Gloria Kim, Emma Lieberman. Directed by Josh Folan

 

Sometimes a movie tells you right off the bat what kind of movie it’s going to be. In the case of this one, the opening scene starts with a toilet in which the water is stained with what appears to be urine. In comes one of the characters and throws up into the commode. Eventually he notices that there’s a dead Asian girl (Star) in the bathtub.

There are five guys who have passed out in the living room; Smoke (Harris), Bird (Thompson), Vince (Bartok), Seanie (Rabe) and Mikey (Ó Héalai). Most of them have criminal records; one of them is headed to prison for dealing shortly; in fact, the party is a farewell party to their buddy. And now this happens.

What transpires over the next several hours is an attempt to figure out what happened to the girl. As one of the men says to the others, “We’re not gonna f*** each other.” And that’s just what they proceed to do. It’s a bit like a Bizarro World Hangover in which nobody can remember what happened over the past 24 hours until bits and pieces begin to return to memory in segments that are preceded by a static sound like a old television being tuned on UHF.

This is definitely a micro-budgeted indie and while there’s nothing wrong with that, someone needed to spend a little more of the budget on lighting; much of the film is dimly lit to the point where at times it is hard to tell the difference between some of the actors who with the exception of Thompson all have similar looks.

The relationship between the guys feels genuine to be fair. They talk like guys who have been friends from womb to tomb. They dress similarly in the way that guys who have bonded tend to dress the same. They act like they’ve been friends forever. I don’t know if there was any pre-existing relationship between the actors but it sure feels like they’ve known each other forever. If they haven’t, then all the more kudos to them.

I would have liked to have seen a bit more character development; all five of the guys tended to blend together somewhat to the point that at times I couldn’t remember who it was that was talking. Still, the story is mildly compelling and there is enough here to make me think that the filmmakers have a future, but there’s not enough here that lends itself to an unhesitant recommendation.

REASONS TO GO: The dialogue and male relationships are authentic.
REASONS TO STAY: The lighting is perpetually dim. The flashbacks are annoying. There’s a whole lot of man-posturing and not enough character development.
FAMILY VALUES:  The theme here is plenty adult; there are also graphic nudity, sexual content, a surfeit of drug use, some violence and a whole lot of profanity including racial slurs.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  The real Seanie Sugrue appears in a cameo as a vagrant.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Vimeo,
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/17/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Very Bad Things 
FINAL RATING: 4/10
NEXT: The Ivory Game

Knocked Up


The odd couple.

The odd couple.

(2007) Romantic Comedy (Universal) Seth Rogen, Katherine Heigl, Paul Rudd, Leslie Mann, Jason Segel, Jay Baruchel, Jonah Hill, Martin Starr, Charlyne Yi, Iris Apatow, Maude Apatow, Joanna Kerns, Harold Ramis, Alan Tudyk, Kristen Wiig, Bill Hader, Ken Jeong, Craig Robinson, Tim Bagley, Loudon Wainwright, Adam Scott, Mo Collins. Directed by Judd Apatow

Cinema of the Heart 2016

What says I love you more than having a baby together? Well, that isn’t always the case – sometimes babies are made of bad choices, accidents of chance and/or alcohol. Or sometimes all of the above. Nonetheless, the baby doesn’t know the difference and getting someone knocked up is only the beginning.

Ben Stone (Rogen) is a Canadian slacker living in L.A. whose idea of entrepreneurship is setting up a website that collates all the nude scenes for every actress in every major Hollywood film. An idea whose time has come? No, it’s an idea whose time has been but don’t tell Ben and his stoner roommates that. Ben is slovenly, jovial and pot-addled but basically a nice guy.

Alison Scott (Heigl) is beautiful, poised and talented; she has just hit a career jackpot by getting an anchor job on a major cable network. She goes out to celebrate but meets up with Ben and somehow the two hit it off and end up in her bedroom. The morning after is awkward but cordial; Alison can’t wait for her over-the-two-drink-minimum mistake to go home while Ben knows he has managed to tap way beyond his league and kind of wants to see where it goes. Alison makes it clear it’s going nowhere.

But that’s not going to happen. In the festivities of carnal relations, Ben rang her bell and she’s pregnant. Although she is advised to get an abortion, Alison doesn’t want to do that. She decides to bring the baby to term and so she tells Ben what’s happening.

 

At first Ben is a little bit terrified, then he throws himself into impending fatherhood with as much enthusiasm as he can muster, which is considerable. Perpetually broke, he leans on Alison for expenses which doesn’t sit too well with her. As they get to know each other, they realize how wrong for each other they truly are but Ben perseveres out of a sense of responsibility.

Alison, who lives with her married sister Debbie (Mann) and Debbie’s affable husband Pete (Rudd) whose own marriage has its ups and downs, is scared of what’s going to happen to her and her baby, and frightened at the prospect of raising a child alone. However, when Ben gets to be too much for her, she realizes she may have to do just that.

This in many ways was Apatow’s break-out movie; sure The 40-Year-Old Virgin was a hit but this was a HIT and kind of set up the Apatow brand which would rule cinematic comedy for the last half of the decade and on into this one. It has a cast that includes some of the funniest people in the business, from SNL to Second City to stand-up stars to TV comedy stars and even a few straight non-comic actors.

What really impresses me about this comedy is that when you separate the laughs, the drug jokes, the dick jokes and the crude humor, there really is some intelligence here. Gender roles are looked at with a fairly unflinching microscope and the way men and women tend to interact also merits examination. So often the sexes tend to talk at cross-purposes, neither understanding the meaning of what we each have to say. Knocked Up finds the humor in the disconnect, but there’s a serious message behind the laughter.

What doesn’t impress is that the movie tends to take the low road at nearly every turn. I don’t mind raunchy humor or low comedy at all but sometimes it feels like the intent here is to shock rather than amuse. How funny is it really to be taking a dump on your roommate’s bed to give them pink eye? That’s when it starts to veer off in little boy humor and that wears damn thin quickly. Also the last third is a tad cliché and the ending more than a tad pat.

Thankfully, there are some major talents in the cast and for the most part the players take their roles seriously and give some pretty decent performances. For Rogen and Heigl, this established them as legitimate movie stars and launched their careers, while Rudd, Hader, Segel, Hill and Mann also garnered plenty of notice on the way to making their careers much more viable. It’s hard to imagine what the modern comedy landscape circa 2016 would look like without Apatow’s films.

This is in many ways a landmark film and in many ways it is an ordinary film. There are those who say it is too raunchy to be romantic, but what is romance without a little raunch? There is actually a surprising amount of true romance here, more so than in other films that are much more serious about the romance in their comedy. This may occasionally go into the gutter for its humor, but it is a much smarter film than most give it credit for.

WHY RENT THIS: Takes a surprisingly mature look at sexual expectations and gender roles. Fine performances by a standout cast.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Overdoes the raunch. Runs a smidgen too long.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of drug use, some sexuality and quite a bit of foul language and innuendo.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Originally footage from a live birth was going to be used, but that plan was scrapped when it turned out a work permit would have to be obtained for the unborn child.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: The traditional Apatow extra Line-o-Rama is here, as well as a gag reel. There is also outtake footage of the children on the set, as well as scenes of Rogen that he did for some inexplicable reason without a shirt. The Blu-Ray has additional comic features including a fake casting doc on the part of Ben Stone, as well as the “sixth” roommate who decided to bail on this movie to do the latest Woody Allen film. Not exactly priceless, but certainly different than what you usually find on the average home video release. Also please note that this is available in most places in both the theatrical version and uncut version.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $219.1M on a $30M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray Rental only), Amazon (unrated), iTunes, Vudu, Google Play, M-Go
COMPARISON SHOPPING: This is 40
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Synchronicity

The Night Before


Kickin' it, old school.

Kickin’ it, old school.

(2015) Holiday Comedy (Columbia) Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogen, Anthony Mackie, Jillian Bell, Lizzy Caplan, Michael Shannon, Heléne Yorke, Ilana Glazer, Aaron Hill, Tracy Morgan, Darrie Lawrence, Nathan Fielder, James Franco, Miley Cyrus, Kamal Angelo Bolden, Baron Davis, Jason Jones, Jason Mantzoukas, Randall Park, Mindy Kaling, Lorraine Toussaint, Theodora Woolley. Directed by Jonathan Levine

The Holly and the Quill

Christmas traditions, established when we are young, can sometimes last a lifetime but some of those traditions, particularly of the sort that most wouldn’t consider Christmas-y have a tendency to die out as we mature. When we reach a time in our lives in which we’re making a turning point into adulthood, traditions of all sorts change.

That seems to be happening for a trio of friends who have gone out every Christmas Eve ever since the funeral of Ethan’s (Gordon-Levitt) parents in 2001 when they died in a tragic car accident. His good friends Isaac (Rogen) and Chris (Mackie) took Ethan out partying that night to get his mind off his grief, and it became a tradition of sorts; going to see the tree at Rockefeller Center, hanging out in their favorite karaoke bar (and doing a killer rendition of ”Christmas in Hollis”) and searching for the legendary Nutcracka Ball, the Holy Grail of Christmas parties in New York.

Being that this is a Seth Rogen movie, there are also copious amounts of drugs, supplied in this case by Isaac’s wife Betsy (Bell), a good Catholic girl who is days away from giving birth and wants to reward her husband for having been “her rock” throughout the pregnancy by allowing him to have a good time with his buddies, no questions asked.

All three of the boys are on the cusp of becoming men as they hit their thirties; Isaac about to be a dad, Chris – now a pro football player – having the best season of his career although it is suspiciously late in said career….well, that leaves Ethan who is still struggling with adulthood. His failure to commit has cost him his longtime girlfriend Diana (Caplan) whom he runs into at the karaoke bar, partying with her friend Sarah (Kaling). While serving canapés dressed as an elf at a hoity toity Manhattan party, he runs across tickets to the Ball – and knowing that this is their last hurrah, the three intend to send their traditions out with a big bang.

There are celebrity cameos galore, including Rogen’s bromance buddy James Franco, playing himself (and Sarah’s date) sending dick pics to Sarah which Isaac gets to see since the two accidentally switched phones; Michael Shannon plays Mr. Green, a mysterious drug dealer who might be a whole lot more than he seems; former Daily Show regular Jason Jones also shows up as a semi-inebriated Santa who appears at a particularly low point in the evening for Ethan.

The movie is surprisingly heartwarming, and while allusion to Christmas tales like A Christmas Carol and Die Hard abound, this is definitely a Rogen movie (his regular writing partner Evan Goldberg is one of the four writers on the project) although to be fair, Isaac is more of a supporting character to Ethan who is the focus here.

The chemistry between the three leads is solid and you can believe their friendship is strong. Levine wisely uses the comedy to serve the story rather than the other way around which most comedies these days seem to do; there are some genuinely funny moments as the night becomes more and more surreal (it’s also nice to hear Tracy Morgan narrating and make a late onscreen appearance). Of course, being a Seth Rogen movie (as we’ve mentioned) the drug humor tends to go a little bit over-the-top and those who think Cheech and Chong are vulgar are likely to find this one so as well.

The good news is that the performances here are solid and the likeability of Gordon-Levitt gives the movie a whole lot of cred since the characters on the surface aren’t terribly likable. Hanging out with the immature can make for a trying cinematic experience but fortunately the fact that all three of the actors here are so genuinely likable and charismatic saves the movie from being a drudge and actually elevates it into maybe not Christmas classic status, but certainly a movie that might generate some holiday traditions of its own.

REASONS TO GO: Really, really funny. Some nice performances by Gordon-Levitt, Rogen and Shannon.
REASONS TO STAY: Overdoes the drug humor.
FAMILY VALUES: A ton of drug humor, lots of profanity, some graphic nudity and a good deal of sexual content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Gordon-Levitt, Rogen and director Levine all worked together in the film 50/50.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/27/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 67% positive reviews. Metacritic: 58/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Knocked Up
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Kensho at the Bedfellow


New York can be a real lonely zip code.

New York can be a real lonely zip code.

(2015) Romance (Kensho Films) Brad Raider, Kaley Ronayne, Steven Klein, Grainger Hines, Kathryn Erbe, Sahr Ngaujah, Christina Brucato, Dana Ashbrook, Kiran Merchant, Danny Deferrari, Madison McKinley, Mara Davi, Shyaporn Theerakulstit, Matt Burns, Michelle Cameron, Meliki Hurd, Chaka Desilva, Sally Gifford, Michael Hogan, Maximilian Frey, Lindsey Gates. Directed by Brad Raider

Discovering who we are is never an easy process. Sometimes we are taken in by easy joys – sex, drugs, alcohol – and we end up losing our way. Sometimes that’s because we can’t bear the pain.

Dan Bender (Raider) at 33 years old is stuck in a rut. Once a promising playwright, he works the overnight shift at the Bedfellow Hotel with his roommate Max (Klein) who is in the midst of presenting a seven night stage festival of seven different seven minute long plays each night. Dan, who hasn’t written a thing in years, at least since his sister April (Cameron) died of a drug overdose, for which he blames his father (Hines) who used to do drugs with her when she was a teen. That event has been a central milestone of his life; he continues to talk to April and occasionally, she talks back. His inability to form lasting relationships with others can be traced directly to her passing.

The Bedfellow is full of characters – Darpak (Merchant) who talks to his cat and seems overly enthusiastic about fresh towels just out of the dryer; there’s also Byron (Theerakulstit), the hotel’s security chief who is a Korean who converted over to Judaism, which Dan, a natural-born Jew, is entirely skeptical about. He also hangs out with Ashley (Brucato), his former girlfriend who isn’t quite convinced they’re broken up. She manipulates him somewhat, but he also doesn’t mind having sex with her now and again.

After a sexual encounter with a hotel guest (Davi) gets him fired from his job, Dan begins to spiral into complete emotional chaos. Already on the edge financially, with Max having had to cover his rent already, the self-absorbed Dan begins to alienate the few friends he still has. Then, he encounters Kate (Ronayne), an old friend from his childhood who is back in New York working with an aid organization that reunites families torn apart by civil wars in Africa. Kate finds this work appealing, while Dan who is becoming very attracted to her, lies about his situation in order to keep from scaring her away. Of course the truth eventually comes out, especially when Dan pilfers some drugs from his dealer (Ashbrook) which is probably not a very good idea. In fact, it certainly isn’t.

When Dan hits rock bottom, having lost everything, an unexpected act of kindness from an unexpected source leads to something of a spiritual experience for Dan. The trouble is, how is he going to share his new-found wisdom with the world when the world basically has no desire to hear anything he has to say anymore?

This micro-budgeted indie was shot on the RED Epic camera in both the New York City area, but also in L.A. where Raider now calls home. For tyro filmmakers just starting out, a viewing of this film should be a good primer as to what is possible with almost no budget but with the right equipment, the right cast and the right crew. This is an exceptional looking film that looks like it was shot on much more expensive equipment with a professional crew.

The cast is also quite professional; most have a fair amount of experience (although Erbe, as Kate’s boss for the non-profit is the best-known for her work on Law and Order: Criminal Intent) there are also actors here who had regular roles on shows like Twin Peaks, Public Morals and Last Resort. Usually it’s not a good sign when you see someone who is directing, writing and starring in the same movie; more often than not they end up putting more focus on one or two of the roles at the expense of the third. That doesn’t happen here; the writing is pretty strong (although there are a few areas in which it seems that Raider was utilizing some indie tropes), the direction assured and the acting – well, let’s just say that Raider looks like the love child of Tom Cruise and Zachary Quinto and has the chiseled features of a superhero. He has all the elements he needs to be successful in this business.

Raider is trying to write a movie that explores our own self-awareness and that’s not an easy feat and it can be forgiven if there are a few stumbles along the way; however, he does seem in places to be striving too hard to be deep and I think that hurts the film a little bit. Towards the end, Dan ends up in a hotel room with a giant cat who leads him on a psychedelic journey of discovery which in and of itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing but it just comes out of left field and is a bit too 2001: A Space Odyssey-esque for my tastes. While I admire the imagination, it just doesn’t fit in with the rest of the movie.

All in all, this is a solid feature. It’s just beginning to hit the festival circuit as we speak and hopefully it will make it to a festival near you. Keep an eye on their website (you can get there by clicking on the photo above) for future screenings. In any case, this is a surprising but solid debut by someone I think we’re going to hear a lot more of in the very near future.

REASONS TO GO: Raider is a star in the making. Surrounded by good acting.
REASONS TO STAY: Psychedelic sequence comes out of left field. Reaches a bit too hard for depth.
FAMILY VALUES: Some foul language and sexuality, as well as a bit of violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Bedfellow is an actual hotel in the Tribeca area of New York.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/18/15: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Greenberg
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Racing Extinction