Posts by Clay Cane

Review: ‘Lady Day’ on Broadway

Published by Clay Cane on Tuesday, April 22, 2014 at 12:00 am.

(Photo: Joseph Marzullo/WENN.com)

(Photo: Joseph Marzullo/WENN.com)

When an actor portrays a well-known figure in American history, usually there are similarities. Dorothy Dandridge and Halle Berry had uncanny similarities, both physically and as Black women who broke barriers at the Academy Awards. Mary Bridget Davies as Janis Joplin in A Night With Janis Joplin is a blues singer and resembled the late, great rocker. But there are no such commonalities between Audra McDonald and Billie Holiday, which is why McDonald’s performance is 90 minutes of the most transformative work you will see on Broadway this year.

Audra McDonald is a mezzo-soprano, Julliard-trained Broadway singer. Billie Holiday had a thin voice with a small range, and her training was the do-or-die School of Hard Knocks.

McDonald was born in Berlin and raised in sunny Fresno, California. Holiday was born in Baltimore and lived much of her life in the rough streets of New York City.

Audra McDonald is one of the greatest successes in the history of Broadway — she’s won a record five Tonys. Billie Holiday is one of the greatest tragedies in American music.

It’s no secret the 43-year-old is an acting and singing beast, but when it was announced McDonald would play Holiday, many critics and fans of Broadway thought the casting was a stretch — even for Audra’s great range.  They should have known better than to doubt Miss Audra. She delivered yet another performance of a lifetime. But this is what Miss Audra does… she gave a performance of a lifetime in 2012’s Porgy and Bess, another performance of a lifetime in 1996’s Master Class and even the meanest of critics praised Audra McDonald’s performance in the panned, live version of the Sound of Music. The woman is a freak of performance nature.

From the first note (for a moment I thought she was lip-synching to Billie as a tribute of some sort), McDonald snatched up ever fiber of Billie’s being. The tone, the grit and the specific vocal distinction of Holiday was astounding to hear from another human being that wasn’t Billie Holiday.  Give Audra her sixth Tony.

Beautifully written by Lanie Robertson and directed by Lonny Price, Lady Day takes place at Emerson’s Bar and Grill in 1959 Philadelphia. Staged as a small venue concert and backed by a three-piece band, McDonald opens the show by stumbling to the stage in all her Billie glory, ironically dressed in a white gown and gloves. It’s the last four months of Holiday’s life, fresh out of jail for drug possession and singing in a town that she hates — Philly.  McDonald owns every piece of the stage and strolls through the audience to smoke cigarettes and refresh her drinks with straight gin — no chaser.

Less is more in Lady Day: the show is fittingly set with a small stage and tables for the audience privileged enough to land floor seats. The lighting is an eerie, almost smoky mist, channeling the beat-up Philly bar. Between each song, there are hilarious, disturbing and raunchy stories of Holiday’s epic life. Everything from how she fell in love with music to enduring racism in the Deep South to her tragic family to becoming an addict. With a drink and cigarette, the monologues are filled with n-words, f-bombs, b—–s and other obscenities that surprisingly save the show from the morbid. As sad as Holiday’s life story was, the superb storytelling in Lady Day found a way — like so many people — to present the laughter through the tears. You make do with what you got and don’t worry about what you don’t got.

Lady Day conquers great musical numbers, showcases the brilliance of Audra McDonald and accessibly tells the story of Holiday. Most importantly, the production recaptures the truth of Billie Holiday, who was born Eleanora Fagan. This is not the glamorous Diana Ross version from 1972. Billie was a boozing, chain-smoking, foul-mouthed, uniquely politically-charged broad who believed in telling the truth with no shame. Lady Day is as close to the real Billie as we will get.

The 15 songs included jazz and blues classics like “Crazy He Calls Me,” “Pig Foot (And a Bottle of Beer)” and “T’aint’ Nobody’s Business If I Do.” Audra woke Billie up from the grave when she poured her soul in “God Bless the Child” and “Strange Fruit.” However, it was a shock to not hear Billie’s other signature songs like “Good Morning Heartache” and, of course, “Lady Sings the Blues,” which could’ve easily been swapped out for the lesser known numbers.

Billie Holiday was about the feeling.  Whether it was misery or happiness, no one finessed emotions like Lady Day.  She influenced every artist from Frank Sinatra to Aretha Franklin.  Therefore, what makes Lady Day soar is the feeling.  A feeling that stays with you long after you leave the Circle in the Square Theatre. Billie Holiday is surely raising a glass in jazz heaven.

Lady Day is currently playing at Circle in the Square on Broadway.

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Movie Review: ‘Transcendence’

Published by Clay Cane on Friday, April 18, 2014 at 12:00 am.

(Photo: Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)

(Photo: Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)

Johnny Depp disappointingly returns to the big screen in a flick that is destined to sweep the Razzies — Transcendence. Directed by Wally Pfister (his directorial debut), the film cannot transcend its weak sentiments, implausible scenarios, unlikable characters and painfully boring pace. The only truly transcendent element of the film is how Johnny Depp, now 50 years old, transcends all signs of aging!

Transcendence starts off promisingly with commentary on a world obsessed with social media and technology. We are all connected and disconnected. The idea is nothing original — you can read ruminations on the ills of our society on any random Facebook status — but for an alleged sci-fi thriller, it’s expected that the 120 minutes running time will be a joy ride. Not at all. Outside of Depp’s ageless beauty, Transcendence is another example of how A-list is not always the best.

Depp plays Dr. Will Caster, a prominent researcher in Artificial Intelligence who believes we all “create a God.” After his unexpected death, his wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) uploads his brain, which manifests a digital but dangerous version of Dr. Caster. He must be destroyed, as should everything he created. But the doctor fights back and the rest of the film all leads up to the one-liner, “We’re not going to fight them. We’re going to transcend them.” This “fight” happens an arduous 90 minutes into the epic 120 minutes. By this time, the audience is trying to transcend sleep.

Scene after scene, Transcendence stumbles with a troublesome script and unlikable characters. One epic low is Rebecca Hall’s character having a Lifetime movie moment, arguing with digitized Johnny Depp about her emotions — things aren’t what they seem! He is controlling her! She wants out. The theater busted out in laughter.

There are small roles with Morgan Freeman and Cory Hardrict. But even with a solid cast and the high-profile direction of Pfister, the film is a dud on every level of filmmaking. In one scene, Freeman gives Rebecca Hall a note that reads: “Run from this place!” If I could transcend time, I would hand the cast and crew a note that says: “Run from this movie!”

Transcendence is in theaters now.

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First Look: Trailer For James Brown Biopic “Get on Up”

Published by Clay Cane on Friday, March 14, 2014 at 10:00 am.

(Photo: Universal Pictures)

A biopic on music legend James Brown has been in the works for the better part of three decades, and at long last the film is here. The first trailer for Get on Up, starring Chadwick Boseman as the king of funk, dropped this week and shows a sweeping portrait of Brown’s rough childhood growing up in a whore house, to his rise to fame. One of the most influential musical artists to ever live, Brown’s sound and signature style has impacted everyone from Prince and Michael Jackson to Justin Timberlake.

Get On Up is directed by Tate Taylor, whose debut film The Help was the sleeper hit of 2012. The Help’s Octavia Spencer also stars in the film, and makes an appearance in the trailer. Boseman, who came to notice with his moving portrayal of Jackie Robinson in the 2013 drama 42, looks to be the perfect choice to play Brown.

Check out the trailer for Get On Up below. The film hits theaters on August 1.

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Hot Trailer: Godzilla

Published by Clay Cane on Tuesday, March 11, 2014 at 10:00 am.

(Photo: Warner Bros Pictures)

Hollywood is taking another stab at making Godzilla happen, and from the trailer it looks like no building will be left unturned. Gareth Edwards (Monsters) takes the helm of this reboot of the Japanese classic, with a prestigious cast that includes Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston, Academy Award nominee Sally Hawkins and it-girl Elizabeth Olsen. Unlike the 1998 reboot, which annoyed fanboys with its modern rendition of Godzilla’s look, the creature in this film is closer to 1954’s original Gojira.

We won’t hold our breath for this new Godzilla to take a huge bite out of the box office, but we’ll admit the monster does look interesting. Check out the trailer below and judge for yourself. Godzilla hits theaters on May 16.

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Movie Review: ‘Non-Stop’

Published by Clay Cane on Friday, February 28, 2014 at 12:00 am.

(Photo: Universal Pictures)

Summary: The friendly skies are a living nightmare when a terrorist harasses a federal air marshal with a drinking problem. But this isn’t your average terrorist; it’s a texter with impeccable grammar demanding 150 million dollars. William Marks, played by Liam Neeson, must find out which one of the crafty passengers is the texting terrorist or someone onboard will be killed every 20 minutes.

Review: Liam Neeson is the king of junk food action flicks. Audiences should expect no great plot, mediocre acting and nothing memorable. If you want a formulaic, brainless action thriller, Non-Stop is your movie. Does this mean Non-Stop is a great film? No! Does this mean Non-Stop is a bad film? Nope! It’s an irrelevant action movie without significance, but not without entertainment value.

Non-Stop is one of those movies where you ask the person next to you, “How is that possible?” Start with the most glamorous trans-Atlantic airplane I have ever seen equipped with a live feed to New York 1 across the Atlantic Ocean (you can’t even get New York 1 in Jersey!), impeccable Wi-Fi that can handle video uploading and hacking into a federal computer network — all while suffering through ungodly turbulence. I can’t even get a phone signal during a Nor’easter!

But endure the wild suspension of disbelief, and Non-Stop does its job. The film moves quickly, so it’s easy to ignore the stupidity of each conflict (like the bizarre deaths that happen every twenty minutes) or the hilarious reaction from frantic passengers.  That said, Neeson as the air marshal on the hunt for the texting terrorist is suspenseful enough. It’s a who-done-it in the sky. Is it the stewardess? A frantic NYPD officer? A bearded Muslim who everyone is giving the eye? A muscular computer programmer (Nate Parker)? Maybe Neeson as Bill Marks is the culprit? In the end, the answer is basic and the logic on how the terrorist managed to pull off such an elaborate hijacking is ludicrous.

The film includes a solid and diverse cast with Nate Parker, Julianne Moore and this year’s “it” girl Lupita Nyong’o. Unfortunately, we don’t get much from the fashionista, who is now an Oscar nominee for 12 Years a Slave. Surely Jaume Collet-Serra, the director, would have given the Kenyan actress a larger role had he known she would be up for an Academy Award two days after the film’s release.

An unexpected plus, there is subtle commentary on stereotyping of terrorists. In addition, Non-Stop clearly critiques the media running with a story and not fact checking, which results in more chaos in the sky.

Liam Neeson is the granddaddy of action films. The Oscar winner’s stoic, deep-voiced, monotone, but — most importantly — likable demeanor is consistently entertaining. You want him to win and he always does.

Non-Stop is in theaters now.

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Melissa McCarthy Drops New Trailer for Tammy

Published by Clay Cane on Friday, February 21, 2014 at 10:00 am.

(Photo: Warner Bros Pictures)

Female-centric comedies will continue their hot streak this summer with Tammy. The caper film, written by and starring Mike & Molly’s Melissa McCarthy (an Oscar-nominee for Bridesmaids), just dropped a new — and hilarious — trailer. The clip features McCarthy in the title role, robbing a fast food restaurant with a paper bag over her head, all to the tune of Coolio’s “Gangsta’s Paradise.”

McCarthy proved her box office might last year with the success of The Heat, also starring Sandra Bullock. Tammy, directed by McCarthy’s husband Ben Falcone, follows a woman who embarks on a Thelma & Louise-style road trip with her profane, alcoholic grandmother after losing her job and discovering her husband is cheating on her.

Tammy will hit theaters on July 2.

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Hot Trailer: Kevin Hart Is On Fire in Think Like a Man Too

Published by Clay Cane on Friday, February 14, 2014 at 9:30 am.

(Photo: Screen Gems)

The battle of the sexes lives on in Think Like a Man Too, the hugely-anticipated sequel t the 2012 hit Think Like a Man. This time, Kevin Hart and his crew head to Las Vegas for the wedding of Michael (Terrence J) and Candace (Regina Hall). But before they get to the I Do’s, its competing bachelor and bachelorette parties on opposite sides of the casino.

The first trailer for Think Like a Man Too hit the web on Thursday, and by the looks of it, we’re in for every bit as much fun, sex, bromance and romance as the original film. For a look at Kevin Hart doing his best Risky Business moves in tidy whitey’s, Gabrielle Union getting down to Bell Biv DeVoe and lots of girls in bikinis, check out the trailer below.

Think Like a Man Too hits theaters on June 20.

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Movie Review: “The Inevitable Defeat of Mister & Pete”

Published by Clay Cane on Tuesday, February 4, 2014 at 12:00 am.

(Photo: State Street Pictures)

Summary: After being abandoned by his heroin-addicted mother, 14-year-old Mister and his 9-year-old friend Pete endure the projects of Brooklyn on their own. Race and class intersect in this story of despair and survival.

Review: In many ways, The Inevitable Defeat of Mister & Pete is a classic tale. With the title almost sounding Shakespearean, it’s a story of childhood friends navigating the residuals of adult mistakes, forcing them to grow up at a rapid pace. Set in the projects of Brooklyn, screenwriter Michael Starrbury crafted a nuanced story with the highest of highs, the deepest of lows and enough complexities to provoke thought. For many viewers, the film might feel consistently macabre because there is no Hollywood ending.  Nonetheless, there is a bold joy in the George Tillman Jr.-directed film, which can be credited to Mister and Pete, played wonderfully by Skylan Brooks and Ethan Dizon. Their childlike innocence but adult sensitivities gave the flick an undeniable heart.

Jennifer Hudson stars as Mister’s drug-addicted mother Gloria. Next to Effie White in Dreamgirls, the performance is her best to date. There are also appearances from an unrecognizable Jeffrey Wright, Anthony Mackie and Jordin Sparks — all adding their high-profile chops to the indie flick. That said, the film is not perfect. In many scenes the storyline gets lost in its own poetry. But the direction of George Tillman Jr. and the writing of Michael Starrbury make for a solid cinematic team. In addition, the thoughtful score from Alicia Keys accentuates the  kids quirky and admirable ways to survive.  Mister and Pete see a light, no matter how dim, knowing there is something on the other side of their dire circumstances, which is a reality that resonates with many youths.

Side note: A variety of critics have sounded off on the film, but it’s important to note the version being released today is edited, shorter and includes a different ending than what was seen at Sundance.

The Inevitable Defeat of Mister & Pete is on DVD now.

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Ten Best Movies of 2013

Published by Clay Cane on Tuesday, December 31, 2013 at 12:00 am.

(Photos: Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures; The Weinstein Company)

Some say 2013 was a great year for Black film — but every year there are several stellar African-American films that hit the big screen.  However, this year, these films were easier to find and didn’t require endless searching at your local indie theater.  Regardless of race or ethnicity , check out my fifth annual list for the best films of 2013, which covered HIV/AIDS, slavery, police brutality, civil rights icons, zombies, animal cruelty and more.

10. The Inevitable Defeat of Mister & Pete (2013)

(Photo: State Street Pictures)

There is a bold joy in the film, which can be credited to Mister and Pete, played wonderfully by Skylan Brooks and Ethan Dizon. Their childlike innocence but adult sensitivities gave the flick an undeniable heart.

9. Fruitvale Station (2013)

(Photo: The Weinstein Company)

Raw, real and memorable.

8. Lee Daniels’ The Butler (2013)

(Photo: The Weinstein Company)

A phenomenal continuation of the director’s visionary eye for storytelling, imagery and reality.

7. Blackfish (2013)

(Photo: Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures)

Blackfish proves in our pseudo-reality, entertainment-hungry world that the art of documenting is not lost. Docs can still create change — and for SeaWorld, the perception of the theme park is forever changed.

6. World War Z (2013)

(Photo: Plan B Entertainment)

Zombies in Philly, zombies in Jerusalem — even zombies in the projects of Newark! Innovative and terrifying — World War Z is arguably the best zombie film since 1968’s Night of the Living Dead.

5. Dallas Buyers Club (2013)

(Photo: Focus Features)

The film shows homophobia, racism and sexism indirectly affects all of us — even when you believe you’re not one of ‘those people.’ You never know the circumstances in life that might make you one of ‘them.’ One of the best films of the year.

4. Call Me Kuchu (2013)

(Photo: Cinedigm)

Simultaneously difficult to watch and a must-see.

3. Free Angela & All Political Prisoners (2013)

(Photo: Overbrook Entertainment)

After watching Free Angela and All Political Prisoners, audiences will walk away rejuvenated, thankful and, surprisingly, even more proud to be an American.

2. 20 Feet From Stardom (2013)

(Photo: Gil Friesen Productions)

(Photo: Gil Friesen Productions)

2. 20 Feet From Stardom (2013)
The unforgettable 20 Feet From Stardom highlights the stories of gifted people praying their time is going to come, which transcends music. Isn’t that what most of us hope for?

1. 12 Years a Slave (2013)

(Photo: Jaap Buitendijk/FOX Searchlight)

Equally grisly and beautiful, 12 Years is the reason why films are made. A movie you must-see, no matter how gory or violent. Steve McQueen strangles the psychosis of racism, forcing the viewer to witness ugliness with no escape. A modern day masterpiece.

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Movie Review: “20 Feet From Stardom”

Published by Clay Cane on Monday, December 30, 2013 at 6:00 pm.

(Photo: Gil Friesen Productions)

(Photo: Gil Friesen Productions)

In 2013, we think every story has been told. But with enough digging, there are still some gems left and who knew that 20 Feet From Stardom, about the history of unsung Black background singers, would be one of the best documentaries of the year. Directed by Morgan Neville, the movie is a must-see for lovers of music, but it’s not just another music doc. This is a film that captures the lengths you will go to make wildest dreams come true.

The heart of the film is the legendary Darlene Love. The church singer changed the trajectory of background singers and, in many ways, the sound of contemporary music with her gospel voice adding soul to pop.  She sang background for Sam Cooke, Dionne Warwick, Elvis Presley, Cher and countless others. Whether or not we know it, it’s the infectious hooks sung by background singers that make a hit song. From Donna Summer’s “Bad Girls” to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” — the background singers put in tons of work and don’t get much of the credit.

All of the singers featured in the doc were just “twenty feet from stardom.” Most of them wanted a solo career and clearly possessed the talent, but the viciousness of the music industry overpowered them. 20 Feet From Stardom wonderfully peels back the layers of fame with candid interviews from Stevie Wonder, Bette Midler, Mick Jagger and more. How much do you want the fame?  What price will you pay?  Are you willing to give up everything even if your name in lights never happens?

One of the best moments in the film is Lisa Fischer’s story. Best known for her 1991 hit song “How Can I Ease the Pain,” Lisa landed a record deal, got a hit single and even won a Grammy, but she walked away from being a solo artist. Her reason is amazing to hear in our fame-hungry world of today: She didn’t want to be famous.

20 Feet From Stardom is a must-see for anyone who wants to be in the music industry. The history of music from the days of early R&B in the 1950s to the eventual annihilation of background singers in the 1990s to today’s background singers like Judith Hill is woven together like a perfect melody. Plus, rare footage that includes Ray Charles, Luther Vandross, Tina Turner and more.  The unforgettable 20 Feet From Stardom highlights the stories of gifted people praying their time is going to come, which transcends music. Isn’t that what most of us hope for?  In many ways, we all start in the background.  It’s the drive and ambition that craves the center stage — whatever the “stage” is in your life.

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