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

Hope Springs


 

Hope Springs

Meryl Streep may be the greatest actress of her generation but at least Tommy Lee Jones has a Yale education.

(2012) Romantic Comedy (Columbia/MGM) Meryl Streep, Tommy Lee Jones, Steve Carell, Elisabeth Shue, Jean Smart, Brett Rice, Ben Rappaport, Marin Ireland, Patch Darragh, Charles Techman, Daniel J. Flaherty, Damian Young, Mimi Rogers, Ann Harada, Jack Haley. Directed by David Frankel

 

Marriages are rarely simple relationships. The longer you are in one, the more depth it creates, the more layers are produced. This is usually a good thing but sometimes habit can become routine which can become stifling. It isn’t long before a good marriage on the surface can turn into quite something else on the inside.

Kay (Streep) and Arnold (Jones) have been married for 31 years. They live a comfortable existence in Omaha; he works for an insurance company, she works part time in a boutique. They have a grown daughter Molly (Ireland) who is married to Mark (Darragh). They also have a grown son Brad (Rappaport) who is single. When they gather for their parents anniversary, they are unsurprised to learn that their anniversary gift to each other is a new cable package.

The thrill is most definitely gone and while Kay longs for intimacy, Arnold seems far more interested in golf magazines. He’s terse, rigid and really doesn’t listen to his wife at all. Kay is miserable and she has reached her breaking point.

Then she discovers Dr. Feld (Carell), who specializes in couples counseling. She signs up the two of them using her own money for an intensive couples therapy session for a week in Great Hope Springs, Maine. At first, Arnold is aghast at the idea. When Kay (for once) stands up and lets him know she’s going with or without him, he finally relents and shows up on the plane at the last minute.

Once at counseling, Arnold proves to be not much better. He growls and grouses, finding no value in what is being offered, sure that this is some kind of scam meant to take a perfectly healthy relationship (which he believes his relationship with Kay to be) and somehow turn it on itself, creating problems where there were none in order to prolong the agony (and the payments).

Kay grows frustrated an walks away from the EconoLodge they are staying in  (in separate beds – they haven’t slept in the same room let alone the same bed for years) and finds a sympathetic bartender (Shue). Eventually she is convinced to return back to therapy.

Arnold does try a little bit harder but there seems to be an insurmountable gulf between them. Dr. Feld gives them intimacy exercises but after some early success they seem to end in abject failure. Dr. Feld counsels Arnold that some couples come to him to save their relationship; others come to end it. Which one will Arnold and Kay opt for?

Points to Frankel and writer Vanessa Taylor for taking a long, adult look at what goes on inside a real marriage. Usually when Hollywood does so there’s some sort of infidelity involved. That’s not the case here. This is a relationship with real problems (not that cheating isn’t a real problem – it’s just the kind of sexy problem that Hollywood tends to beat with a stick until it’s hamburger, mainly because studio chiefs think forbidden fruit tends to sell a lot of tickets which it does). There are warts here, and to the credit of both Frankel and Taylor along with Streep and Jones there are no attempts to hide the warts with make-up.

Streep is, as I’ve said elsewhere, maybe the best actress of her generation. This is a bit of a courageous role for her; she has to play a shy, girlish and somewhat hen-pecked wife who is coming to terms with a force of sexuality she’s never had to really face. There are several scenes in which she displays sexual arousal to a rather strong degree and it’s quite…stimulating. But this isn’t really her movie.

The movie belongs in every way to Tommy Lee Jones. This is a bit outside his comfort zone thus far in his career; he tends to play testy, irritable people and he does so here; but Arnold is a testy, irritable person with problems he hasn’t yet confronted about himself and during the course of the movie, he does just that. Jones has never seemed comfortable with a lot of self-analysis in his films but he gives an adept performance that carries the film which Streep mostly is content for him to do.

Carell has emerged as one of the biggest comedic actors today but he is curiously subdued, almost a straight man. This isn’t one of his more memorable roles, but he is well-suited for the part and underplays it nicely.

The problems of sex in a long marriage are not really discussed in polite society; we just assume that married couples approaching their sixties don’t have much sex and are perfectly content to do so. In fact, we assume that anyone who doesn’t look like they’re in their 30s at most don’t have sex because…well, ewwww.

That’s not terribly realistic. The sex drive may diminish but it doesn’t go away completely for all of us and there are some couples in their 80s who have surprisingly healthy sex lives. People don’t have to look like Brad and Angelina to have sex although Hollywood tends to reinforce the idea that people who are obese, less attractive or socially awkward are less sexually desirable.

That’s hogwash. There’s somebody for everybody but you have to be willing to take a chance. This movie is really about a couple who haven’t been doing that for awhile; they’ve wrapped themselves up in routines and familiarity so tightly that they’ve forgotten what attracted them to one another in the first place – and that part is still there. So there that it can’t be hidden but it can be overlooked.

REASONS TO GO: Quite funny in places. Great chemistry between Jones and Streep. Carell is also quite droll.

REASONS TO STAY: Mostly predictable.

FAMILY VALUES: The situations are adult and generally fairly sexual; there is also a scene of masturbation.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: There was another romantic comedy named Hope Springs set in New England (in this case Vermont) from 2003 and starring Colin Firth, Heather Graham and Minnie Driver. Other than the title, the two films are unrelated.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/13/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 74% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100. The reviews are solidly positive.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: It’s Complicated

NEW ENGLAND GETAWAY LOVERS: While the charms of a New England village getaway are extolled here, some of the scenes were filmed in New York as well as Connecticut.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: The Campaign

Up in the Air


Up in the Air

George Clooney as Ryan Bingham is home.

(Paramount) George Clooney, Vera Farmiga, Anna Kendrick, Jason Bateman, Amy Morton, Melanie Lynskey, Zach Galifianakis, Sam Elliott, J.K. Simmons, Danny McBride, Chris Lowell, Steve Eastin, Young MC. Directed by Jason Reitman

We all create our own cocoons. Some are membrane-thin and allow a great deal to pass through; others are like solid steel and will deflect anything and everything that comes our way.

Ryan Bingham (Clooney) has an unenviable job. He works for a consulting firm based in Omaha, Nebraska that sends specialists to businesses all over the country for the purpose of informing employees of those businesses  that they’ve been fired. Think of them as the opposite of corporate headhunters; more like corporate axemen. Given the state of the economy, business is booming.

As a result Bingham spends a great deal of his time on the road, travelling from city to city. The nature of his job requires Bingham to be exposed to extreme emotional responses, ranging from anger to grief. He has isolated himself from this by building a thick shell around him, letting nobody and nothing in. He has become the ultimate road warrior; the things that annoy most of us about travel and air travel in particular bring Bingham comfort. He has piled up enough miles to have become a member of the most elite of frequent flier programs, allowing him to sail through check-in whereas most of us normal schlubs must wait in line.

Bingham also has a side business of his own; motivational speaking, or perhaps more accurately, anti-motivational speaking. Using the metaphor of a backpack, he espouses that the fewer possessions that one has and the fewer relationships that one is in, the better. Sort of like 21st century EST, in a way. While most of his speaking engagements have been in relatively small conferences or seminars, he is getting interest from much larger, more prestigious events.

The anonymity of faceless chain hotel rooms suits him, and he numbs himself further with drinks in hotel lounges. In one such he meets Alex Goran (Farmiga), a fellow road warrior from Chicago who is impressed by his collection of hotel loyalty program cards, but most of all by the Concierge Key, an American Airlines program offered only to the most valued customers. There is one plateau, however, that Bingham has yet to meet – the 10,000,000 mile club, only achieved by six travelers ever. More people have walked to the moon, Bingham tells her, than have received this honor.

Predictably, they wind up in bed but the casual nature of their relationship appeals to both of them and they make plans to meet again later. First however, Bingham must return home to Omaha for a meeting at the corporate headquarters where he receives a bit of a jolt – the company is looking at a software program that will allow them to video conference via computer and in short, terminate via the internet. Bingham’s boss Craig (Bateman) has taken the advice of a young hotshot named Natalie Keener (Kendrick) fresh out of college who has come up with the program.

As you might imagine, Bingham very much disagrees with this new direction and tells his boss so. Furthermore, he feels (quite rightly) that the inexperienced Natalie has no clue what the consultants actually do and what the job entails. Craig agrees and orders him to take Natalie with him on the road and show her the ropes. Bingham is reluctant but Craig is resolute – go on the road with Natalie or don’t go at all. Reluctantly, Bingham consents.

Natalie is woefully unprepared for the rigors of the road and the emotional fallout from the work. Bingham shows her the ropes and some of the tricks and efficiencies of travel; which lines to get into at the security check and that kind of thing. He also shows her how to turn around a bad interview around as he does in St. Louis with Bob (Simmons), a longtime employee. When Natalie’s by-the-book script fails, Bingham turns the situation around with a little well-placed information from Bob’s resume, urging the terminated employee to seize the opportunity to chase the dreams he gave up when he started working the job he’s being let go from. “This is a wake-up call,” he tells Bob and in a sense, he’s right.

Natalie and Bingham don’t get along well, but when her boyfriend dumps her via text message during a stopover when Alex is visiting Bingham, they begin to bond a little. Alex and Bingham, for their part, are finding themselves increasingly attracted to one another.

This further becomes cemented when Bingham goes to northern Wisconsin to attend his sister Julie’s (Lynskey) wedding to a wide-eyed dreamer named Jim (McBride) with Alex in tow as his “date”. The older sister Kara (Morton), who is having marital troubles of her own, notes that Bingham has had zero effect on the lives of the two sisters; he’s absent from their lives in a way that he is absent from his own. Still, everyone has to come off the road sometime and Bingham’s ideal lifestyle looks like it’s about to end.

There are some amusing moments but director Reitman (Thank You for Smoking, Juno) hasn’t made a comedy. It’s more of an observational piece, ostensibly on the cold corporate climate that grows more impersonal and dehumanizing by the day.

That makes Bingham the ultimate 21st century worker. His Omaha apartment is a reflection of the sterile, personality-challenged hotel rooms he is most comfortable in. There is nothing personal there, nothing to indicate that a human being lives there. It could easily be the room of a Comfort Inn, only less inviting and less clean.

Clooney fills the role beautifully. He is in many ways, perfect for it; the characters he plays tend to be, emotionally speaking, less accessible than other actors. He is personable enough that people will instinctively like him, but he is so shut off that one wonders if he’s got blood flowing through his veins or machine oil. In a world where most socializing is done remotely via the Internet, he fits in as a kind of ultimate expression of that; a person who may be there physically but not emotionally. As Clooney begins to realize what his life has become, his character panics, leading to some of the most satisfying scenes of the film.

Reitman is a savvy filmmaker and he divides his vignettes with overhead shots of anonymous cities with the name of the city in big graphics; we pass over Wichita, Dallas, Detroit, St. Louis and Milwaukee without getting a sense of the cities at all – like the characters in the movie, there is nothing to connect us to them other than those graphics. It’s a marvelous device and sets up the action of the movie nicely.

Kendrick does an outstanding job in the ingénue role; she is wide-eyed and innocent, vulnerable in many ways but with her own strength and spunk. This is a career-establishing performance and is being given serious Supporting Actress consideration for the Oscars. Farmiga has become a very dependable actress who has yet to really get that plum role that will define her career; this isn’t it either, but she is still memorable in her role.

The ending was a source of disagreement between Da Queen and I; she didn’t like it at all, whereas I understood it and thought it made organic sense. Some may find the message a bit of a downer, but I think it’s refreshingly realistic. In the end, not all of us are cut out for relationships but that doesn’t mean we don’t need them. In any case, this is another solid film to add to Reitman’s impressive resume; it has kind of gotten lost in the shuffle of the Christmas release glut, but perhaps instead of making a fourth or fifth trek to see Avatar you might want to give this outstanding movie a try.

REASONS TO GO: Clooney and Kendrick give terrific performances. Well-directed commentary on the impersonal nature of modern corporate culture and relationships

REASONS TO STAY: Clooney isn’t the most emotionally accessible of actors which makes it hard sometimes to empathize with his character.  

FAMILY VALUES: There is some sex and language concerns, but the concepts here might be a little much for the young.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: With the exception of Simmons and Galifianakis, every person that is fired in the movie is not an actor but a person laid off recently in reality. The filmmakers posted ads in St. Louis and Detroit posing as makers of a documentary on the effects of the recession; those who answered the ad were instructed to treat the camera like the person who fired them and respond either as they had or as they wished they had.

HOME OR THEATER: Much of the movie takes place on airplanes, in hotel rooms or in conference rooms. The intimate feeling lends itself to home viewing.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: The Uninvited