Miss Sharon Jones!


The show must go on - no matter what.

The show must go on – no matter what.

(2015) Musical Documentary (Starz Digital Media) Sharon Jones, Alex Kadvan, Austen Holman, Homer Steinweiss, Neal Sugarman, David Guy, Starr Duncan-Lowe, Binky Griplite, Saundra Williams, Joe Crispiano, Ellen deGeneres, Jimmy Fallon. Directed by Barbara Kopple

 

Music is something that has an ephemeral effect on all of us. It reminds us of our past; it strengthens us for our future. It gives us hope when we’re down; it gives us joy when we’re up. It connects us with one another and yet is highly personal and individual. Music redeems us and inspires us. Music for some of us is everything.

Sharon Jones is not a household name but by God she should be. For years with her band the Dap-Kings, she has singlehandedly kept the torch for classic soul music alive. With a delivery like Aretha Franklin and a stage presence like James Brown, Jones has been making a good living for more than a decade now, playing to packed houses of true believers. She’s irrepressible and charismatic in a way that a lot of modern pop stars could never hope to come close to.

In 2013 she was diagnosed with stage two pancreatic cancer and that is where the jumping off point is for this fascinating documentary. We follow along with her treatment in upstate New York, living with a friend who is also a nutritionist. We also see her band, struggling to make ends meet as their fourth album and subsequent tour are delayed while Sharon gets herself well. This adds extra pressure to Sharon who knows that there are a lot of people counting on her; she wants to get back on the road not just because of her love for performing but because she wants her band to get paid. Some of them are having a hard time financially because of Sharon’s illness. The band is family and the close relationship between Jones and her manager Alex Kadvan is truly heartwarming.

The performance clips are among the film’s highlights; we can see her with the spirit upon her at shows, shaking her booty and dancing like she’s possessed by the spirit of James Brown. She’s very cognizant of the roots of soul; in one of the film’s best segments, we see her performing Gospel during her recovery at a Brooklyn church. It’s a moving moment, particularly given her situation. Her faith is surely being tested but it’s no contest; there is a purity to her belief although she doesn’t state it as such. It’s just evident in her demeanor and in her performance. I don’t know that she’s a particularly religious woman but she is certainly moved by the Spirit here.

I am at a loss to decide whether the movie is about Sharon Jones, cancer or something else. Right now my gut leans towards the joy and healing power of music and the indomitable spirit of someone who refuses to let anything get her down. Jones recounts on several occasions how a Sony executive dismissed her as being “too dark, too fat, too short and too old” and how that nearly derailed her career before it started. Only her mama’s reassurance that she was talented no matter what people said kept her going. In fact, the only time Sharon Jones cries during the film is when she thinks about her mom, recently passed, and wishes she could see how strong her daughter was in kicking cancer’s ass.

This isn’t like most movies of this sort; yes, there’s a comeback concert at New York’s Beacon Theater but it’s certainly a work in progress; she forgets the lyrics from time to time and the energy, present in earlier performance clips, is muted a bit, understandably so. However, as we see through a montage of performance clips, as time went by she got stronger and her self-assured stage presence returned. Eventually we would discover that the new album, delayed for release until 2015, would be the first Grammy nomination of Jones’ career, something that she talks about during the movie as being a bucket list goal.

I can’t think that anyone who sees this won’t become a huge fan of Sharon Jones – not just as a performer (although I’m sure that once you hear her strikingly modern yet retro soul tunes you’ll be tempted to pick up an album or two) but more importantly as a person. Her spirit lights up the film like a torch that burns from the first frame to the last. There are musical experiences we have in life that are transcendent; they illuminate us from the outside in and allow us to see something of the meaning of what it is to be human. Sharon Jones represents the best of us and this documentary shows that even the music you’ve never heard of can sometimes lift us beyond what we thought possible and bring us into a very real sense of catharsis. This is an absolutely dazzling documentary.

REASONS TO GO: The music will transport you. The film will uplift you. The experience will remind you that the connection between music and life is an incredibly strong one.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the scenes depicting the cancer treatments may hit too close to home for some.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is some occasional mild profanity and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  At the screening of the film at the 2015 Toronto Film Festival, Jones revealed that the cancer had returned and she would be undergoing further chemotherapy.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/19/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews. Metacritic: 77/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: One More Time with Feeling
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: A Man Called Ove

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Miss You Already


BFFs.

BFFs.

(2015) Dramedy (Roadside Attractions) Drew Barrymore, Toni Collette, Dominic Cooper, Paddy Considine, Jacqueline Bisset, Tyson Ritter, Mem Ferda, Noah Huntley, Janice Acquah, Charlotte Ubben, Shola Adewusi, Honor Kneafsey, Anjli Mohindra, Ryan Lennon Baker, Joanna Bobin, Eileen Davies, Sophie Holland, Charlotte Hope, Frances de la Tour, Lucy Morton. Directed by Catherine Hardwicke

Often Hollywood puts out buddy flicks to explore the relationship between two people. More often than not it is of a pair of male friends, generally in stressful situations. Women tend to be more in romantic situations when filmmakers capture their friendships with other women.

Lily (Collette) and Jess (Barrymore) have been friends for, well, like, forever. Jess, an American girl whose Dad had been transferred to London, has grown up to be an environmental activist. She lives on a houseboat on the Thames with her boyfriend Jago (Considine) who is busy trying to get her pregnant, which turns out to be a daunting task (who knew it would be so hard getting Barrymore pregnant?) while Lily is a rock and roll publicist who has married Kip (Cooper), a one-time rocker himself who has settled down to create a successful business. Lily has two kids, a boy and a girl.

But while their lives have been great to this point, life (as it often does) is about to throw a wicked curveball at them; Lily has been diagnosed with breast cancer. Lily, who has quite a bit of vanity inherited from her TV actress mother (Bisset), stresses her way through chemo, hair loss, and wig selection. By her side through all of it is Jess, there to babysit her kids, make them healthy meals they don’t want to eat and offer emotional support for her best friend.

But things aren’t rosy. Lily is unraveling at the seams as the disease runs its course. She lashes out, especially after enduring a double mastectomy which her husband is unable to deal with. Intimacy goes out the window and maybe their marriage with it. Their friendship is sorely tested and with revelations during an impromptu trip to the Moors (in an effort to recapture their wild impetuous youth), perhaps destroyed beyond repair – just when they need each other most.

Hardwicke is best known for directing the original Twilight film. One of the things I really liked about the film is that she cast Barrymore, who generally plays flighty impulsive characters, as essentially the stable, sober one while Collette, who often plays the reasonable character, as the free-spirited one. There is also real chemistry between the two women, making their friendship believable which is at the center of why the film works.

Barrymore is sometimes a little too cloying for my taste but she is much more centered here in giving one of her best performances in years. Barrymore excels when she has a character who is not just a flighty little minx with a heart of gold; she’s a smart actress who can be deceptively intelligent which I quite suspect is very much what she’s like in person – not that I’m ever going to know. She does rock Jess this time out.

However, it is Collette who has the meatier role and the veteran actress runs with it. It would be easy to make Lily a melodramatic martyr, a collection of cancer-related tics and Collette chooses not to. Lily is terrified of dying, even more so of losing her hair and her breasts and occasionally acts out. More than occasionally, actually, but totally understandable.

The progression of the cancer is handled matter-of-factly as we see the ravaging of the body that the disease commits. One of the things the movie addresses is how breasts are often tied in with a woman’s self-image; when Lily’s breasts are taken, her self-image is severely shaken. This is definitely a movie that should win the commendations of breast cancer awareness groups worldwide.

Personally, I think that a case of tissues should be handed out at the ticket office. The movie is cathartic to the max, and anyone who likes a good cry at the movies will come away more than satisfied. While the movie drifts into occasional rom-com cliches, and some of the action feels a bit forced, this is one of those movies that is delightful and touching, funny and sad, and at the core is a very real relationship between two women you might long to hang out with yourself.

Sure, some of this is awfully contrived and some of this is awfully manipulative, but it is well-acted enough and serious enough to make it worth your while. This is one of those movies that upon first examination doesn’t seem to be much more than typical, but once you plop your butt down in the seat it becomes much, much more. Don’t let the subject matter scare you off; this is one of the better movies about women and their relationships that you’re likely to see.

REASONS TO GO: Authentic chemistry between Barrymore and Collette. Cathartic. Excellent performance by Collette. Sober treatment of breasts and how they relate to female self-image.
REASONS TO STAY: Occasionally cliché.  Forces when it doesn’t need to.
FAMILY VALUES: Adult themes, some sexual content and a bit of foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Jennifer Aniston and Rachel Weisz were both at one time cast as Jess but both dropped out, leading to the casting of Barrymore.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/6/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 68% positive reviews. Metacritic: 56/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Brian’s Song
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: Office

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl


Bet you can guess which one is the dying girl.

Bet you can guess which one is the dying girl.

(2015) Drama (Fox Searchlight) Thomas Mann, RJ Cyler, Olivia Cooke, Nick Offerman, Molly Shannon, Connie Britton, Jon Bernthal, Katherine C. Hughes, Matt Bennett, Massam Holden, Bobb’e J. Thompson, Gavin Dietz, Edward DeBruce III, Natalie Marchelletta, Chelsea Zhang, Marco Zappala, Kaza Marie Ayersman, Hugh Jackman, Etta Cox, Nicole Tubbs. Directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon

Hollywood tends to churn out movies aimed at the teen market and why not; teens make a sizable chunk of their audience and even though they don’t necessarily go to movie theaters as often as they once did – many view movies via the internet or other sources – they still are an important economic factor to the studios. Indie films tend to be less teen-centric although that doesn’t mean that we don’t see coming of age films emerge from the ranks of the indies.

Greg (Mann) is just trying to navigate the treacherous waters of high school without hitting a reef. He determines that the best way to avoid being picked on by a clique is to be part of all of them, at least to an extent. So he is friendly with everyone in a nondescript way; he’s carefully built up anonymity at his school. Everyone likes him, but nobody knows him and he wants to keep it that way.

He doesn’t have any friends per se except for Earl (Cyler) and even Earl he refers to as a co-worker. The two spend most of their time making short parodies of famous films with oddball titles and premises; The Godfather becomes The Sockfather; The 400 Blows becomes The 400 Bros and so forth. The two of them spend their lunch periods in the office of Mr. McCarthy (Bernthal), a history teacher who lets them watch movies in his office and is the only teacher they respect.

His parents aren’t the most ordinary on the block. His mom (Britton) mostly is, although she snoops around his stuff which irritates the hell out of him. His dad (Offerman), a college professor, mostly stays at home in a bathrobe, making unusual snacks of foreign delicacies that only Earl seems to appreciate. Neither one of them seem to be into telling him what to do, although his mom worries about his lack of friends. Nonetheless one day his mom badgers him to go spend some time with Rachel (Cooke) who was recently diagnosed with leukemia.

Greg doesn’t really know Rachel at all but his mom insists so he reluctantly hangs out and to his surprise the two of them have a lot more in common than you might think and what was supposed to be a one-time chore for an hour or two becomes a regular thing. Some mistake the budding friendship for romance but as Greg says repeatedly in voice-over narration, this isn’t that kind of story. He allows her to watch his crappy movies and keeps her company while she suffers through her chemotherapy and depression. Greg though doesn’t really know how to handle the really emotional stuff and eventually alienates both Earl and Rachel as well as Madison (Hughes), a very pretty girl who is Rachel’s friend and seems intent on what Greg believes to be manipulating him but could just be a teenage girl with a crush on a guy that doesn’t normally attract girls like her. High school can be a real drag that way.

This movie probably generated the most buzz at Sundance earlier this year and it is for good reason; Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is for coming of age films as (500) Days of Summer is to romantic comedies and that’s high praise indeed. While this film isn’t quite as innovative as the other, it has that same spirit and gives the conventions of a genre a slight twist to give the audience a fresh perspective of that type of film.

You could say that the situation is not unknown in coming of age movies and you’d be right. You could say that this film is full of indie cliches and rote characters and you’d be right on target. And yet still the movie manages to hold my attention and stick in my mind after the film had thoroughly unspooled, and that’s surprising; on paper it would seem like the kind of film I’d forget after enduring it. You don’t find many movies that defy characterization like that.

The young leads – Mann, Cyler and Cooke – all turn in strong performances and all of them show the ability to become big stars in the not-too-distant future. While in Mann’s case the character is given a ton of indie quirks, he manages to overcome the tendency to make him a cliche and instead imbues the character with authenticity. He reacts as a real teen would which is not always the way you would want him to. Greg makes mistakes as all people do but in particular teens who lack the life experience and perspective to make the right decision all the time. This is also true of Rachel and Earl as well.

Cooke as the dying girl refuses to be maudlin; she is terrified of what is to come but she’s also weary of the effects of her treatment. She isn’t a vain person by nature but when her hair falls out it affects her unexpectedly.

The supporting performances are also strong. Offerman is fatherly in a quirky sort of way; his character understands his son much better than Greg’s overly critical mom does even though when push comes to shove his mom has his back more than he realizes. Offerman is offbeat here but never overwhelmingly so and thus fits into the story like a glove. Bernthal, best known for his role as Shane in The Walking Dead, doesn’t play your typical high school teacher, tattooed and a fan of Pho but able to connect with his students in a meaningful way. Once again, Bernthal makes a character that could easily become cliche and makes him believable.

Best of all is former SNL standout Molly Shannon as Rachel’s mom, who is coping with her baby having a deadly disease, and she self-medicates in order to do it. Her relationship with Greg is borderline inappropriate and she always seems to have a glass of wine in her hand, but the role – while funny – never descends into parody and we wind up having enormous empathy for a woman who knows that if her only daughter dies, she’ll be all alone in the world. How unbearable must that be.

This is a movie that rather than being manipulative as these types of films tend to be comes by its emotional payoffs honestly. We become involved in the story and in Greg, and care about the characters in the movie as if they were in our own neighborhood. In a summer full of blockbusters and big studio releases, this might get lost in the shuffle in a lot of ways but is worth keeping an eye out for. It is expanding into a wide release this weekend and is one of those rare teen movies that I can not only recommend to teens but to adults as well. This might just be the best movie you see this summer.

REASONS TO GO: Excellent performances all around. Feels authentic. Gripping when it needs to be, funny when it needs to be.
REASONS TO STAY: Occasionally suffers from indie preciousness. Sometimes feels like it’s borrowing from too many other sources.
FAMILY VALUES: The thematic elements are fairly adult; there is some sexuality, some drug use and a bit of foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Fox Searchlight purchased this film for $12 million at this year’s Sundance Film Festival; it is as of this date the most ever paid for a film at Sundance.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/1/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 82% positive reviews.. Metacritic: 74/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Fault in Our Stars
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: The American Experience 2015 begins!

50/50


50/50

Anna Kendrick and Joseph Gordon-Levitt try to out-bemuse one another.

(2011) Dramedy (Summit) Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogen, Anna Kendrick, Bryce Dallas Howard, Anjelica Huston, Philip Baker Hall, Matt Frewer, Serge Houde, Andrew Airlie, Donna Yamamoto, Sugar Lyn Beard, Yee Jee Tso, Sarah Smyth. Directed by Jonathan Levine

Cancer is a terrifying disease. It brings forth visions of chemotherapy, radiation, hair falling out, nausea and wasting away until death. It is a punishing, painful, horrible disease that kills slowly; it is Guantanamo Bay among diseases.

Adam Lerner (Gordon-Levitt) is 26 years old. He has a girlfriend that he’s just getting serious about – the beautiful Rachael (Howard) – a decent job producing features for NPR in Seattle, and Kyle (Rogen), a great friend that keeps Adam grounded. Adam rarely drinks, doesn’t smoke, jogs and exercises regularly and has his entire life ahead of him.

He also has nagging back pain so he goes to the Doctor (Airlie) to check it out. Thinking he’s going to get a prescription for some pain medication or a regimen of stretching exercises, he almost can’t process what he really does get – a diagnosis for a rare form of cancer on his spine. The tumor is too large to safely remove it surgically; Adam is going to have to undergo chemotherapy to reduce it before it can be taken out. It’s going to be a long, painful road to recovery – assuming he survives at all. According to the Internet, he has a 50/50 shot at surviving.

The cancer affects all of Adam’s friends and family in different ways. His overwrought mom (Huston) who is already caring for Adam’s dad (Houde) who is in the throes of Alzheimer’s Disease, wants to move in and care for Adam. Rogen wants to keep Adam’s spirits up and use his disease as a means to pick up girls. And Rachael? Her nurturing side seems to be out in full force but there are some deer-in-the-headlight moments. There is also Katherine (Kendrick), Adam’s pretty but inexperienced therapist. Even though Kyle reassures Adam that if he were a casino game he’d have the best odds, Adam is fully aware that he has the same chance at dying as he does at living.

The movie is based on the experiences of screenwriter Will Reiser, who underwent a very similar ordeal contracting a rare form of cancer as a young man. He got through it largely with the help of his best friend in real life – Seth Rogen, who urged him to put his experience down as a screenplay. It sure makes one look at Rogen differently.

One of the things I admired about the movie is that it didn’t make Adam a heroic martyr facing his disease with dignity. No, instead it puts him through all the stages of dealing with the disease from denial to rage. Adam is at times overwhelmed by his situation and lashes out. It helps that Gordon-Levitt imbues the character with an inner decency and kindness, leading the audience to form a real bond with the character and a rooting interest for him to beat the disease. Some are calling this Oscar-caliber acting and I can’t say as I disagree.

There are strong performances all throughout the cast, including Frewer and Hall as fellow cancer patients of Adam’s who share weed-laced macaroons and the wisdom – and gallows humor – of facing a deadly disease. Katherine is chipper and unconfident in her abilities, making her a winning and sweet character and Kendrick excels at that sort of thing. Howard gets a thankless role that she runs with; it is one of several that she’s played this year in which she’s served notice that she’s a talent to be reckoned with and one whose performances I look forward to.

Rogen however is at his best here. Yes, the role is not unlike those he’s played before in Judd Apatow movies but obviously this is a part that means something to him personally. One wonders how hard it must have been for Rogen to re-enact what had to be some very painful moments in his life. It’s a terrific performance and I hope a sign that Rogen is going to rise above some of the stereotypes he’s created for himself in his career.

This is a movie that will have you riding an emotional roller coaster. It’s wickedly funny in places and in others, you’ll be reaching for the hankie. There’s one scene where Adam, who has been doing his best to hold it together, finally falls apart in Kyle’s car; another where he finally cries on his mother’s shoulder after doing his best to hold her at arm’s length. Both are amazing scenes and both will have you more than a little misty.

It’s perhaps a bit disingenuous to label this a “feel-good movie about cancer” but that’s about as close a description as I can get to it. Some people might be turned off about a cancer movie, thinking it too grim and emotionally wrenching but let me assure you, this is as far from grim as you can get. It’s a celebration of life and survival and in these times, we can all use a little bit of that.

REASONS TO GO: An unblinking, often poignant and irreverently funny look at dealing with cancer. Gordon-Levitt and Rogen give terrific performances.

REASONS TO STAY: Too many subplots.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a lot of foul language, some sexuality and the usage of “medicinal” marijuana.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The scene in which Adam mentions that among the things he’s never done is visit Canada was filmed…in Canada.

HOME OR THEATER: This has the intimacy of a movie best seen at home where nobody can see you cry.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

TOMORROW: The Names of Love