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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Movie Review: ‘Blackfish’

Published by Clay Cane on Monday, December 30, 2013 at 12:00 pm.

(Photo: Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures)

When I was a kid, I always gave SeaWorld commercials the side-eye. There was something unnatural about whales popping, dipping and spinning like they were in the club. This year’s Blackfish confirmed what many thought all along — humans and whales were being exploited for profit at the legendary theme park. Directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite, Blackfish exposes the horrors “killer whales” endured as property of SeaWorld. In addition, the tragic stories of the trainers who were injured or killed due to the lack of safety precautions.

The documentary delivers the gruesome details of killer whales, also known as Orcas, in captivity.  The wild animals suffered abuse, starvation, disfigurement and eventual death. Even if you are not an animal rights’ advocate, it’s hard to not be moved by Blackfish. Cowperthwaite’s telling of the story is sharp, educational and compelling.  The use of interviews and archival footage presents hard-to-deny evidence of SeaWorld’s alleged misconduct, which resulted in several lawsuits against the company and, most recently, SeaWorld suing the creators of Blackfish. In a long statement,  a rep from SeaWorld stated, “SeaWorld is a world leader in animal rescue. The millions of people who visit our parks each year make possible SeaWorld’s world-renowned work in rescue, rehabilitation and release … We have rescued more than 23,000 animals with the goal of treating and returning them to the wild.”

Blackfish’s argument is that killer whales should remain in the wild, not a theme park. Furthermore, the documentary turns the mirrors on us as the consumers and asks: Is entertainment more important than safety and compassion? Considering the controversy and response from the public (many musicians have vowed to never perform at SeaWorld again), Blackfish proves in our pseudo-reality, entertainment-hungry world that the art of documenting is not lost. Documentary films can still create change — and for SeaWorld, the perception of theme park is forever changed.

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Movie Review: “Inside Llewyn Davis”

Published by Clay Cane on Friday, December 20, 2013 at 12:00 pm.

(Photo: StudioCanal)

After yawning through one hour and 45 minutes of the Coen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis, I considered not writing a review. Writing a review requires me to invest more precious seconds in this dull, folk musical. Yes, the film will rack up awards and critics will love it, but Inside Llewyn Davis is more about the pretentiousness of filmmaking and less about its audience.

In case you didn’t know, the Coen brothers are darlings every awards season. No one can deny their talent, therefore, it should be no shock that their latest flick is nearly universally praised by critics. But regardless of the accolades, I have to be honest — just imagine I’m strumming a guitar, it might be easier to read: Inside Llewyn Davis earned the distinct honor of being the most overrated film of the year — consider the snooze-fest The Artist of 2013.

The comedy-drama was written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, who have mastered artsy, highfalutin filmmaking. The star of the film is Oscar Isaac, who portrays Llewyn Davis, a struggling singer-songwriter in 1961 New York City. Going “inside” his world, the movie takes us on a week in the life of Davis. He sleeps from couch to couch, loses a cat, tries to land a record deal, argues with his bitter, pregnant lover and plays guitar at random bars in Greenwich Village. Decorated with grey cinematography that appeared to be polished with ash, the moody film is a cinematic tranquilizer.

Inside Llewyn Davis is not a poorly made film. But no matter how much one tries to intellectualize, dramatize or emotionalize Inside Llewyn Davis — the film lacks entertainment value. Yes, the acting is good, there are a few well-written folky ditties performed by Isaac, Justin Timberlake plays a small role, John Goodman is perfect as always, but the flick is inaccessible. Inside Llewyn Davis will be another overhyped, award-winning film that the average moviegoer will never see or hear about beyond 2013.

Inside Llewyn Davis is playing in select cities now.

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Movie Review: Dallas Buyers Club

Published by Clay Cane on Monday, November 25, 2013 at 12:36 pm.

(Photo: Focus Features)

Summary: Matthew McConaughey portrays Ron Woodroof, a homophobic drug addict who was diagnosed with HIV in 1985. Desperate to live but struggling with his own prejudices, Ron finds his unique resources for survival, community and support in the unexpected.

Review: “Based on a true story” is the key phrase when watching Dallas Buyer’s Club.  Yes, some key-facts are missing from the story — such as the legendary HIV/AIDS activists who were presented in last year’s How to Survive a Plague. Nonetheless, the film is riveting without being steeped in politics, skillfully showing the soul of one person who was affected by a disease that was thought to be a death sentence — proving from the start that HIV/AIDS was never a “gay man’s disease.” The major theme: A straight man from Texas is shocked when he is diagnosed with HIV and experiences homophobia, forced to confront his own insecurities. The turning of tables plot-line is nothing new, but director Jean-Marc Vallée and screenwriters Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack created on screen magic, which was undeniably powerful.

Matthew McConaughey gave the performance of his career as a man who only learns to value his life when he is faced with death.  Doctor’s ignore him, friends abandon him and his community exiles him.  McConaughey’s physical transformation is noteworthy but it’s the spiritual reinvention that makes the actor award worthy. However, if you ignore McConaughey’s littering of romantic comedies in his resume, this is an actor who has consistently proved he is more than a shirtless man running around on TMZ — especially when you see his performance in last year’s The Paperboy.

Jared Leto transforms himself into a transgender woman named Rayon, who creates an unlikely bond with Ron. Sure, audiences always praise someone’s acting when a heterosexual actor plays gay or trans (although I would love to see a transgender actor play a role that isn’t trans or an openly gay actor play a character that isn’t gay), but Leto’s performance is less about the exterior. His subtleties is what made Rayon likable and tortured, beautiful but sickly, intelligent and addicted.

Dallas Buyers Club is easily one of the best films of the year.  Most importantly, 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.”

Dallas Buyers Club is in theaters now.

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Review: “After Midnight” on Broadway

Published by Clay Cane on Wednesday, November 6, 2013 at 12:00 am.

(Photo: Walter McBride/Getty Images)

Old school Harlem is revitalized in the elegant After Midnight, which opened at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre on Sunday.

Director and choreographer Warren Carlyle smoothly transports audiences to the golden age of the Harlem Renaissance with over 25 stunning musical and dance numbers that include “Stormy Weather,” “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” and “It Don’t Mean a Thing.” Similar to FELA! and A Night With Janis Joplin, this is a non-traditional musical with the only narrative to entertain as if you are an  audience member in the legendary Cotton Club.

Fantasia Barrino stars until February 9 as one of the many vocalists belting out intricate jazz numbers. Barrino’s vocal performance is a departure from the wailing gospel and blues she mastered over the years. Here, the American Idol alum shows the beauty in the restraint of her voice, singing pitch-perfect, crystal clear notes proving she is always and forever a vocalist.  Soul, pop, R&B or Broadway — Tasia can sang.

Triple threat Dulé Hill (actor, dancer and seriously good singer) returns to Broadway as the host of the Harlem spectacle, holding his own among vets and fresh newcomers.  Hill’s suave style and nuanced voice is the perfect transition to Harlem.

Backed by the Jazz at Lincoln Center All Stars, every cast member transformed into the fever of old time Harlem from the soul in their feet to the jubilation in their eyes.  The jaw-dropping moves of Daniels J. Wattts, Phillip Attmore, Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards (Michael Jackson’s former tap coach!) and many others were incredible to watch. Adriane Lenox was a welcomed left-turn from the prim and proper jazz — a bluesy broad cursing, drinking and singing songs like “Women Be Wise.”  Jared Grimes nearly cracked the stage open as he tap danced like it was his last second on earth during “It Don’t Mean a Thing.”  From Grimes to C.K. Edwards to So You Think You Can Dance’s Lil’ O After Midnight is the best choreography I have ever seen on the Broadway stage.

Infectiously joyful and beautiful, After Midnight is not just a celebration of Black rhythms and dances but a time capsule of American culture — jazz, blues and tap are the origins of pop music.  Conceived by Jack Viertel, the show never boxes itself into the constraints of race — refreshingly not a “Black” version of a white story, but a production that shines on its own originality.

After Midnight is currently playing at the Brooks Atkin Theatre on Broadway.

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Broadway Review: “A Night With Janis Joplin”

Published by Clay Cane on Thursday, October 10, 2013 at 9:00 pm.

(Photo: Walter McBride/Getty Images)

What do you think of when you hear the name Janis Joplin? Depending on your generation, you may not have heard of the Port Arthur, Texas native. You might think she was a hippie chick from the ’60s who sang rock and roll. You might think she was a casualty of the music industry, a member of the 27 club — artists who died tragically at 27 (Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain, Amy Winehouse and many more).

Janis Joplin on Broadway is none of those stories. This isn’t a tragic tale of drug-addicted artist. A Night With Janis Joplin is a fiery celebration of soul music told through the eyes of one of the greatest blues singer ever — white or Black, male or female. Brilliantly written and flawlessly directed by Randy Johnson, this is one of the best Broadway shows I have ever witnessed. If I never see another Broadway show again, I am confident this production is enough to satisfy me for a lifetime. Janis Joplin on the Great White Way is soul that Broadway has never experienced.

Janis Joplin is magically brought to life by the ferocious Mary Bridget Davies — a Cleveland native with rip-roaring vocals. You would think God himself slipped Joplin’s vocal chords in Davies’ throat. One might say Broadway and Janis is a mismatch, but thanks to Johnson and Davies, nothing is watered down or made palatable for the sometimes-conservative Broadway crowd. Davies wails through classics like “Piece of My Heart,” the haunting “Summertime” and the heartbreaking “Ball and Chain.” Her uncanny ability to fully immerse every molecule of her being into Janis gave Davies a standing ovation after nearly every song. If not standing, mouths were dropped with people whispering to the person closest to them, “How is she doing this?”

But Janis wasn’t just about the vocals. She was a woman who deeply felt music. In her performance, Mary Bridget Davies, 35, cracks open the heartbreak, joy, pain, redemption and nuance of “The blues is just a good woman feeling bad.” If Davies doesn’t receive a Tony nomination for her earth-shattering performance, then the Great White Way is clearly out of touch with talent. Mary Bridget Davies is everything a performer should be — musical perfection.

Randy Johnson told the life story of the blues icon via women who made Janis want to sing: Bessie Smith (Taprena Michelle Augstine), Etta James (Nikki Kimbrough), Nina Simone (de’Adre Aziza) and even Aretha Franklin (Allison Blackwell). Where else are you going to see all of these soul divas brought to life on stage? The four women are astoundingly phenomenal, moving the crowd in the way Janis must’ve been moved. One notable performance was Taprena Michelle Augstine having her “And I Am Telling You” moment as she brazenly slayed the audience with “Today I Sing the Blues.” The audience nearly caught the Holy Ghost.

A Night With Janis Joplin tells an extraordinary story of woman who loved music and never forget her roots. We witness how music transforms, inspires and rejuvenates the human spirit. Davies’ vulnerability illuminates the stage, she can not only scream like Janis but she can make you feel like you are sitting with Janis in a bar, hearing the story of many women (and men) who want love, happiness and not to go home alone.

This is the must-see Broadway production of the season. Most importantly, the show doesn’t turn Janis into Broadway.  A Night With Janis Joplin turns Broadway into Janis.

A Night With Janis Joplin is playing at the Lyceum Theatre in New York City.

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Wild Style: 30th Anniversary Remastered Edition Hits Theaters on Friday

Published by Smriti Mundhra on Friday, September 27, 2013 at 10:00 am.

(Photo: Courtesy of First Run Features)

Wild Style, the world’s first hip hop movie, turns 30 years old this week. In celebration, Music Box Films is releasing a remastered version of the film on DVD and a week-long theatrical run in New York City.

The independently-made drama, directed by Charlie Ahearn, revolves around the life of real-life New York City graffiti artist Lee Quinones as he deals with life, work and his relationships. The film features performances by hip hop pioneers like Grandmaster FlashFab Five Freddy and Rock Steady Crew. It’s hard to overestimate the cultural impact of the film, which inspired a number of films about the hip hop, including Style Wars and Krush Groove.

The film was voted as one of the top ten rock and roll films of all time by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and has been exhibited as part of a 1980s art retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago and the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston.

The 30th Anniversary Edition of the DVD — out October 1 — will be loaded with bonus materials, including commentary by Ahearn as well as a 48-page booklet written by the director, featurettes about the film and interviews with the film’s players.

New Yorkers can see the film a one week theatrical engagement at the IFC Center, starting Friday, September 27 through Thursday, October 3. Director Charles Ahearn will be on hand for Q&A sessions for the 9:55pm shows on Friday and Saturday night.

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Movie Review: “12 Years a Slave”

Published by Clay Cane on Friday, September 13, 2013 at 1:19 pm.

(Photo: Jaap Buitendijk/FOX Searchlight)

Summary: The true story of Solomon Northup, a free man who was kidnapped in 1841 and endured twelve years of slavery on plantations in New Orleans.

Review: 12 Years a Slave is the most difficult review I’ve written. I am still recovering from the two-hour and thirteen-minute epic — the brutality, gore and piercing screams are bouncing around in my mind a day later. The sobbing in the theater can only be compared to a funeral. 12 Years a Slave goes beyond film making — director Steve McQueen was a man possessed to tell the story of Solomon Northup. He held nothing back and every time you thought “It’s too much” you remember: This was a true story. No matter how extreme the violence, nothing could fully capture the ghastly horror of living as a slave. 12 Years is the closest we’ll get to slavery and I couldn’t handle being any closer. Welcome to American history…

The London-born director created a timeless film that will go down in history (or at least it should) as the seminal representation of the antebellum South. Based on the 1853 autobiography Twelve Years a Slave, the impeccable script was written by John Ridley, who wove together a complex tale of not only slavery, but the fearless fight for one’s soul. The film will sweep the Academy Awards and Golden Globes — and if the movie doesn’t due to those awkward Hollywood politics, it doesn’t matter. The Fox Searchlight film is more than potential awards and praise from the elite. 12 Years a Slave is a modern day masterpiece.

We begin with Solomon Northup as a free man in 1841 New York with his wife and two children. After being drugged and kidnapped, Northup is sold and “broken” into slavery — broken is an understatement.  Moved to several plantations, Northup never accepts the hopeless finality of being a slave. All he knew was freedom, he never knew slavery. McQueen drags viewers through the most gruesome and terrifying depiction of slavery Hollywood has ever seen. 12 Years makes Django and Amistad seem like Disney. Maybe it’s McQueen’s perspective… finally there is a Black director (with roots in the Caribbean) telling a story of the antebellum South — it’s about damn time.

Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup is the best performance by an actor that I have seen in my lifetime. Ejiofor went deeper than just acting; it was as if the spirit of Northup jumped into his bones. There was the deepest of sadness in his eyes as he breathed a unique life into slavery, which is too often deadpan, mocked or watered down on the big screen. Ejiofor brought the soul of slavery alive like no other actor before him. He gave a once in a lifetime performance that stands right next to Sidney Poitier in Lilies of the Field and Marlon Brando in The Godfather.

Another notable performance was from newcomer Lupita Nyong’o, who is originally from Kenya, as Patsey. She was terrorized with sexual and physical abuse by the master and head mistress, her character merging the grim reality of being not only Black — but a woman on a plantation. A 10-minute scene, shot with a single camera circling around her weak body tied to a whipping post is unbearable. Blood splashes from the whip with Nyong’o’s screaming in never-before-seen terror and pain. It was reported some audiences walked out of the film during this emotional moment, but this is the scene people need to see — the disgusting stain of barbaric racism is as American as apple pie.

Michael Fassbender as an insane plantation owner appeared to be in a manic trance. Viewers can expect nothing but excellence from the Golden Globe nominee, but the film is not the master’s story — thankfully, it is Solomon’s. Other notable appearances included Brad Pitt, Michael K. Williams, Quvenzhané Wallis, Adepero Oduye and the always-flawless Alfre Woodard.

The visionary Steve McQueen clearly had a goal with 12 Years a Slave — to finally show the relentless, unforgiving reality of the antebellum South and immortalize the life of Solomon Northup. Equally grisly and beautiful, 12 Years a Slave is the reason why films are made. A movie you must-see, no matter how gory or violent — this is American history. Murder, rape, suicide, the auction block and the emptying of the human soul is how African-Americans lived for hundreds of years in the “land of the free.” McQueen strangles the psychosis of racism, forcing the viewer to witness ugliness with no filter nor escape. As brutal and heartbreaking as the film is to watch — can you imagine living it?

12 Years a Slave opens in select cities October 18.

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Movie Review: “Winnie”

Published by Clay Cane on Friday, September 6, 2013 at 7:00 am.

(Photo: Ironwood Films)

Summary: A biopic on Winnie Mandela, who was known as “Mother of the Nation” during apartheid-era South Africa and was eventually labeled a corrupt political figure who condoned the murder of a child. Starring Jennifer Hudson, the film tackles forty years of Winnie’s life, including her marriage to Nelson Mandela, who is portrayed by Terrence Howard.

Review: After over two years, Winnie finally opens in select theaters today. The flick originally made its rounds at film festivals, first debuting at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2011. But critics have been rough on the Darrell Roodt-directed film, which is currently distributed by Image Entertainment. Maybe it’s because Winnie Mandela herself is such a polarizing figure, or perhaps people are skeptical of another film about the Mandelas. In addition, Winnie Mandela blasted the movie, which is an adaptation of Anne Marie du Preez Bezrob’s biography Winnie Mandela: A Life. Nelson Mandela’s ex-wife said: “I think that it is a total disrespect to come to South Africa, make a movie about my struggle and call that movie some translation of a romantic life of Winnie Mandela.” There was also discussion about the casting of Jennifer Hudson, with many questioning why a South African actress wasn’t chosen to play a South African legend.

Putting the controversies aside and solely focusing on the movie, Winnie is no masterpiece, but not nearly as bad as the early reviews. Critics argued the movie glamorized Winnie Mandela’s life and glossed over her involvement in the horrific murder of 14-year old ANC activist Stompie Moekets. Plus, the controversial Mandela United Football Club — Winnie Mandela’s violent security team. Winnie tackled these issues without demanding the audience to sympathize or hate her, the viewer is left to make their own decision. Similar to The Iron Lady, the biopic on Margaret Thatcher (a perfect example of glamorizing a woman who was not a champion for equal rights or fair pay), Winnie attempts to morph her into a feminist icon, which she is not. But there is enough balance, which biopics usually lack.

That said, Winnie suffers from an awkward script, plagued with trite biopic scenarios (she comes from poverty, meets the love of her life, becomes a star and loses everything by the film’s end). But when director Darrell Roodt avoids the clichés and touches on the complexities of Winnie, who was once revered, the film finds its lane — at least for a few frames.

Jennifer Hudson becoming Winnie Mandela was a huge task for the Oscar winner. She clearly gave her all but the role consumed her, which could be more a fault of the storyline. Yes, Hudson struggled with the accent, but more importantly, she never seemed to fully capture the essence of Winnie Mandela. There is an important transition of Winnie as an angelic figure to one of the most hated people in the nation — this is never fleshed out. One scene she is perfect, the next scene she is evil. Some finessing of the story might have resulted in a much better performance. Hudson was by no means awful, but she didn’t own the nuanced ferocity needed for Winnie Mandela. In addition, many raised an eyebrow at Terrence Howard as Nelson Mandela, but the Oscar nominee was surprisingly effective. His accent, demeanor and chemistry with Hudson as Winnie made you forget the slick, villainous characters he’s mastered over the years.

Winnie suffered many hiccups and historians will not be satisfied. The story wasn’t told as powerfully as it could have been, but one cannot deny the importance of Winnie Mandela’s tribulations and contributions to South Africa, which the film appropriately highlights.

Winnie opens in select cities today.

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James Brown Biopic Gets Title, Release Date

Published by Smriti Mundhra on Friday, August 30, 2013 at 10:00 am.

(Photo: AP Photo/Mark Duncan, File)

Days after it was confirmed that Chadwick Boseman will play James Brown in The Help director Tate Taylor’s upcoming biopic, the highly-anticipated film has a title and a release date.

The film will be called Get On Up, according to The Hollywood Reporter, after one of Brown’s biggest hits. The title also aptly describes Brown’s journey from poverty to superstardom.

Get On Up will hit theaters on October 17, 2014, Universal has confirmed.

The biopic on the Godfather of Soul, who dominated music for six decades and influenced countless artists, including Michael Jackson, has been over a decade in the making. Brown himself was involved with the development until his death in 2006. At different times, Eddie Murphy and Wesley Snipes were rumored to star.

But the meaty role has ultimately landed in the hands of relative newcomer Boseman, who earned the respect of critics for his portrayal of another historical icon, Jackie Robinson, in 42 earlier this year.

Production on the film begins this September in Mississippi.

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