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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Jurassic World


Here comes the cavalry.

Here comes the cavalry.

(2015) Science Fiction  (Universal) Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard, Vincent D’Onofrio, Ty Simpkins, Jake Johnson, Irrfan Khan, Nick Robinson, Omar Sy, BD Wong, Judy Greer, Lauren Lapkus, Brian Tee, Katie McGrath, Andy Buckley, Eric Edelstein, Courtney James Clark, Colby Boothman-Shepard, Jimmy Fallon, James DuMont, Matthew Burke, Anna Talakkotur. Directed by Colin Trevorrow

It is not unusual to be fascinated by dinosaurs. We all look at the great lizards who ruled the world before men walked upright in awe and wonder. Now there is nothing left but the fossilized remains of their bones. We know precious little about them, mostly extrapolating from the few tantalizing clues we’ve discovered over the years. How would it capture the imagination if we could examine a real, living dinosaur – and how insanely dangerous would that be?

John Hammond had a dream. He’d discovered away to clone dinosaurs using blood found in mosquitoes trapped in amber over several million years. He wanted to display them in a biological preserve on Isla Nublar off the cost of Costa Rica. Unfortunately, his plans to open Jurassic Park (as he hoped to call the theme park) met with disaster and death.

However, that was 22 years ago. His dream became reality eventually – in Jurassic World, a high-tech theme park complete with Starbucks and a resort hotel. Hammond is no longer with us, but his successor – Simon Masrani (Khan) – has given the world a major tourist attraction that draws millions every year.

However, like every human endeavor, the shine wears off pretty quickly and people grow jaded, their attention captured by other things. In order to stay competitive, Masrani knows he has to present new attractions to keep the crowds coming. But dinosaurs don’t exactly grow on trees; there are only so many of them to go around. He knows what the public wants – bigger, louder, more teeth. So he sets his chief mad scientist Dr. Henry Wu (Wong) to genetically engineer one, one with the traits of a variety of different dinosaurs – only bigger, louder and with more teeth.

Park director Claire (Howard) has no problem with that. She’s already got Verizon interesting in sponsoring the new exhibit. However, one of her top trainers isn’t so excited. Owen (Pratt), who has a history with Claire (they dated for about five minutes years ago) and a military background, has managed to make some inroads with the Velociraptors who at least have a kind of mutual respect thing going with him and will occasional listen to his commands.  A genetically engineered dinosaur? Messing with nature can only end up in disaster.

And so it does. The new dinosaur – dubbed Indominus Rex or “fierce/untamed king” – using previously undiscovered abilities has escaped from her enclosure and she’s got a mean on. She doesn’t kill for food; she kills for sport. That’s bad news for the other dinosaurs, but worse news for the tourists who aren’t aware that they’re going to become snacks for the new predator. And to make matters worse, Claire’s two nephews – brilliant Gray (Simpkins) and hormonal Zach (Robinson) – have ditched the sitter she sent to keep an eye on them and are about to have an up close and personal encounter with Indominus. She gets Owen to go out and fetch her wayward nephews but once he does, where does he take them when there is literally no safe place on the entire island?

Jurassic World broke box office records opening weekend, proving that there is still life in a franchise that Universal had abandoned some fourteen years previously. Director Colin Trevorrow (Safety Not Guaranteed) who also co-wrote this beast made a conscious effort to disconnect his movie from the other films in the franchise in subtle ways – only Wong, who appeared in the very first film, returns from the previous installments in the series. Fans may miss Ian Malcolm, Ellie Sattler and Allen Grant. However, there are plenty of connections still there, some subtle, some not so much.

First thing that fans are going to want to know is that there are dinosaurs and plenty of them. With CGI technology so much more advanced than they were in 1993 when the first film opened, the dinosaurs are much more detailed and realistically rendered here. There are almost no practical effects regarding the thunder lizards here, which is good and bad. You don’t get a sense of their physical presence as much, although Trevorrow utilized motion capture in order to make them move more realistically.

The park itself is modeled after modern theme parks, complete with Margaritaville restaurants, merchandising and a shopping/dining/entertainment zone in addition to the various attractions. Visitors kayak in a stream with Stegosauruses, roam a paddock in a gyrosphere with Apatosauruses, ride a monorail past the Tyrannosaurus Rex and watch a Mosasaurus leap out of a lagoon to pull a shark into the water before the stands are lowered to watch the leviathan devour its lunch through gigantic glass walls. There is an undercurrent of consumerism throughout that is meant to be a criticism of modern society, which while certainly inarguable is kind of like shooting fish in a barrel. I’m pretty sure most of us have noticed all the corporate sponsorship around us all these days.

Pratt, who shot to superstardom with Guardians in the Galaxy last summer looks to own this summer as well. I can’t recall an actor who has had two back-to-back movies do this kind of box office, and there are some pretty compelling reasons why audiences are connecting with Pratt. For one thing, he is an extremely likable sort with a quirky sense of humor that people first became familiar with in Parks and Recreation. He is also a genuinely nice guy who has connected with fans on a personal level, and that comes through onscreen.

Howard has one of her higher profile roles yet and Ron’s daughter acquits herself nicely. She is playing a kind of ice queen sort early on who has no idea how to interact with her nephews, so she fobs them off on an overworked and harried assistant (McGrath). Eventually she develops an ability to show the feelings she’s submerged over the years and as the movie progresses she becomes more identifiable – most of us know what it’s like to invest too much of ourselves into our jobs.

The supporting cast is pretty impressive, with D’Onofrio playing an InGen executive looking to militarize dinosaurs (which seems to be a potential theme for the inevitable sequel) and Johnson providing some comic relief as a nerdy technician with a crush on another nerdy technician (Lapkus). He also has one of the film’s nicer moments when it is revealed he’s wearing a Jurassic Park t-shirt that he got on E-Bay. The movie also visits the original Park at one point in the movie which is both touching and a bit creepy as well. Greer has a brief but memorable turn as the mother of the nephews and Claire’s sister.

The movie never recaptures the wonder that the first Jurassic Park elicited from audiences, but quite frankly that genii has already left the bottle, so expecting to be wowed in the same way just isn’t realistic. This is an entirely different movie made in an entirely different era so those grousing that the movie isn’t as good or the same as the first one are banging their heads against the wrong wall.

That isn’t to say that the movie is perfect. Like the first movie in which genius kids rescue the entire park, the kids – who put adults in danger by failing to listen to adult instructions – become insufferable because they are apparently more competent than people who have trained all their lives to do what they do. Like Alex the hacker who puts the whole park back online after the computer reboot in the original, the boys manage to elude dinosaurs that have wiped out entire squadrons of security guards better armed than they.

Short of that subplot ringing untrue, the movie has all the enjoyable elements needed for a good summer movie. While it doesn’t measure up to the first (and never intended to), it certainly stands on its own as a fun ride constructed well, although without innovation. While I can agree with those who grouse that the plot is too similar to the first Jurassic Park and follows in the formula that all four of the movies have been constructed with, I have to admit that when something works there’s no point in abandoning it. While I would love to see a JP 5 that eliminates the kids from the equation, it is unlikely that will ever happen. Kids after all make up a goodly chunk of the core audience for this film, so it would be economic suicide to ignore that chunk. This is nonetheless good, solid summer fun and anyone who says otherwise has a dino-sized stick up their rump.

REASONS TO GO: More dinosaurs is always a good thing. The park looks like a place I’d want to visit. Pratt has become a pre-eminent action hero.
REASONS TO STAY: Lacks the wonder that the first film created. Suffers from genius kid syndrome.
FAMILY VALUES: A goodly amount of dino-violence, peril and people being eaten.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Bryce Dallas Howard’s outfit is all white in tribute to the costume worn by the late Sir Richard Attenborough as John Hammond in Jurassic Park. Both of the characters were directors of the park in their respective films.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/20/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 71% positive reviews. Metacritic: 59/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Lost World: Jurassic Park
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Carnage

Misery Loves Comedy


Hanks talks comedy.

Hanks talks comedy.

(2014) Documentary (Tribeca) Freddie Prinze Jr., Amy Schumer, Tom Hanks, Jim Gaffigan, Christopher Guest, Jon Favreau, Jason Reitman, Steve Coogan, Kathleen Madigan, Martin Short, Judd Apatow, Jimmy Fallon, Andy Richter, Jim Norton, Kelly Carlin, Marc Maron, Lewis Black, Bobby Cannavale, Kevin Smith, Lisa Kudrow, Matthew Perry, Chris Hardwick, Sam Rockwell, Jemaine Clement, Greg Proopst, Kumal Nanjiani, Jimmy Pardo, Maria Bamford. Directed by Kevin Pollak

Comedy is like a drug, both to the audience and the comedian. The audience uses the jokes as a means of escaping their daily lives, a way to find insight into those lives and a way to realize that just about nothing is above laughing at or about. The comedian feeds on their laughter, the laughter a validation of their craft and indirectly of themselves.

This documentary, directed by veteran comic, actor and impressionist Pollak who never appears on-camera but can be heard conducting the interview off-camera, has more than 40 subjects many of whom are on the A-list of stand-ups and several of whom have graduated on to bigger and better things. Some of the interviewees are comic actors, others directors of comedies. There are many more interviewees than we had room for at the top of this review, with Rob Brydon, Janeane Garafalo, Whoopi Goldberg, Jim Jeffries, Robert Smigel, Larry Miller, David Koechner, Stephen Merchant, Nick Swardson, Gregg Hughes, William H. Macy and hordes of others.

The interviews don’t really go into the mechanics of comedy – putting together an act, writing jokes and so on – but more into how people become professional stand-ups. It looks at the influences of the various comics, and at what life events prompted them to become comedians. Many of the people interview have traumas at some point in their lives that prompted them to go into comedy, using standup almost as therapy.

It isn’t required for a comedian to be miserable, muses one of them, but “you have to know misery.” That makes a lot of sense when you think about it; to understand what makes people laugh you also have to understand what makes them cry. A good comedian can do both.

You do get a real sense of the insecurities that haunt a lot of the comics; they talk about what it’s like to bomb, what it’s like to kill and how comics bond together hoping that they all succeed. Nobody likes to follow a comic that bombed; the audience is less primed to laugh. When you follow someone who just killed, it’s not only easier to get the audience to laugh but they also laugh harder. Laughter multiplies exponentially.

One thing that is kind of glaring; there is only one African-American comic and no Latino comics among the forty or so interviewees and quite frankly, there’s too many interviewees to begin with. I would have liked to have seen a little more diversity in the interviews which might have given us some different perspectives. A lot of the stories the comics told about not being accepted in high school and so on were a little bit too similar; getting the perspective of minority comics might have really made for a more three-dimensional take on comedy than what we received.

Yes, there are a lot of laughs here but there are some truly affecting moments, as when Prinze talks about his father’s suicide and how it affected he and his mother. Indirectly, Prinze Junior went into stand-up mainly because his grandfather urged him to “clean up what your father effed up” which for a young kid can be kind of a daunting burden, considering the fame his dad had. Bamford also tells us about the first time she talked about her time in a mental hospital onstage, prompting others in the audience to shout out their own experiences. It must be a very powerful thing, having the ability to help others heal through the gift of laughter. It’s also a nice little grace note that the movie was dedicated to Robin Williams, whose suicide likely had people in the business thinking about the link between misery and comedy.

This isn’t a complete primer on what makes us laugh and how the people who make us laugh do it, but it does give us some insight into the mind of the standup comedian and of the others who make us laugh on the big and small screens. It is said that laughter is the best medicine; this is essentially over-the-counter stuff but it gets the job done.

REASONS TO GO: Lots of laughs as you’d expect hanging out with comedians. Powerful in places. Gives the viewer a sense of what the life of a standup comedian is like and why people do it.
REASONS TO STAY: Too many interviewees and only one African-American one and no Latinos. A little bit too scattershot.
FAMILY VALUES: Some fairly foul language and some adult comedy.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Pollak is best known for his standup routine and celebrity impressions, most notably Peter Falk and William Shatner.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/9/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 29% positive reviews. Metacritic: 50/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Aristocrats
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: The Water Diviner

Whip It


Whip It

Ellen Page flies around the track, hoping her Juno reputation isn't following her.

(Fox Searchlight) Ellen Page, Marcia Gay Harden, Kristen Wiig, Juliette Lewis, Drew Barrymore, Jimmy Fallon, Daniel Stern, Eve, Alia Shawkat, Zoe Bell. Directed by Drew Barrymore

The movies have had a love-hate relationship with the roller derby. A number of fine documentaries have been made on the subject of the skaters and their passion for this sport that many dismiss as pro wrestling on wheels (and those that do are ignorant of how physically taxing it is) dating back forty years, but few feature films have captured that world.

Bliss Cavendar (Page) lives in a tiny Texas town outside of the state capital of Austin and like many trapped in tiny Texas towns knows that there are two things expected of those being raised there; that the boys will love football and try out for the team, and the girls will love cheerleading and enter into beauty pageants, which is what Bliss’ hyperthyroid mom (Harden) is pushing her into. Bliss despises it and despises what she is expected to conform into being. She and her friend Pash (Shawkat) are octagonal pegs in rhomboidal holes.

Then, while on a trip to Austin, Bliss spies a flyer for a female roller derby event, and thinking it might be fun, convinces Pash to attend with her. Bliss realizes that this is something that speaks to her, watching girls beat the crap out of one another while whirling around a banked track. Bliss apparently has some sadomasochistic tendencies deep in her teenaged DNA.

She wrangles a try-out with one of the league’s sad sack teams, the Hurl Scouts (so named because they dress like girl scouts…all the teams have gimmicks like that) and to her surprise, she makes the team. She adopts the skater persona of Babe Ruthless (and yes, these are the kinds of names the real skaters take) and quickly becomes a break-out star in the league. She also finds kindred spirits in fellow skaters Smashley Simpson (Barrymore) and Maggie Mayhem (Wiig), as well as a surly rival in Iron Maven (Lewis) who skates for another team, the high and mighty High Rollers.

Of course, the manure hits the fan when mommy finds out and while her henpecked dad (Stern) is all for it, her mom forbids her lil’ angel from competing in a sport where she actually might get…bruised. You see, she neglected to tell her team she’s underaged, a major no-no. With a big match coming up and the clutches of conformity reaching out to grab her, Bliss has to make up her mind to decide to be what others expect of her or to find her own way.

Barrymore makes her directorial debut and quite frankly it’s a pretty good one. Like Barrymore herself, the movie has charm, wit and heart, and an excellent indie rock soundtrack. While Barrymore seems to be at home acting in romantic comedies these days, she actually pulls together this coming of age dramedy quite nicely.

It helps that she has a nifty cast to help pull it off. Harden is making a nice niche for herself as the overbearing mom, and she pulls it off without a hitch. Stern, who was a presence in the 80s and 90s and has gone largely MIA of late, is also satisfying as the dad.

The roller derby sequences weren’t a disgrace either; most of the actresses did their own skating and a number of actual skaters play minor roles in the film. You get a sense of the physicality of the sport and the conditioning needed to be any good at it, which sets it above a lot of sports movies these days which rely overly much on treacle to sell their storyline.

There are a few lapses in logic however. For example, the movie is set in Texas but nobody other than Harden seems to have the twang. I guarantee you if you got this many people together in Austin more than one of them would have the distinctive Texas twang. Also, I find it hard to believe that a mom like Harden would have missed the bumps, bruises and cuts that her daughter surely would have after a full-contact sport like roller derby. It doesn’t seem likely to me that Bliss would escape each of the matches without a scratch.

The movie has a fine empowerment message and looks at the sport and those who participate in it with some fondness and even reverence, which is a change from the low regard it is often held in. For my money, this is some superior entertainment that establishes Barrymore as a director with a future, and adds a little depth to Page’s resume as well.

WHY RENT THIS: The girl empowerment theme is done nicely. Page and her skating cohorts are believable in the derby sequences.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Not enough Texas twang here, as well as other lapses in logic.

FAMILY VALUES: Some of the language is on the crude side there are certainly some sexual situations and drug usage but mild enough that most teens should be okay to see this, although the more impressionable sorts should get a long look before putting this in the DVD/Blu-Ray player.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Writer Shauna Cross was once a real-life skater in the Los Angeles Derby Dolls and took several of the character names, team names and backstage plot lines were taken from her experiences there.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: Perhaps owing to the movie’s disappointing box office receipts, there is a dearth of interesting features here; however, a Fox Movie Channel “Writer’s Draft” series on screenwriter Shauna Cross is a welcome addition.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $16.6M on a $15M production budget; the movie was a flop.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole

For those interested in the real thing, the TXRD website (the league depicted in the film) is here.