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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The Family Fang


A family photo of a fractured family.

A family photo of a fractured family.

(2015) Dramedy (Starz Media) Nicole Kidman, Jason Bateman, Christopher Walken, Maryanne Plunkett, Kathryn Hahn, Jason Butler Harner, Josh Pais, Marin Ireland, Harris Yulin, Michael Chernus, Eugenia Kuzmina, Linda Emond, Mackenzie Brooke Smith, Jaiden Kaine, Grainger Hines, Scott Shepherd, Steve Witting, Danny Burstein, Taylor Rose, Genevieve Adams. Directed by Jason Bateman

Florida Film Festival 2016

Family isn’t always the way you envision it to be. Different families have different dynamics and what works for one might not necessarily work for another. And not all families are necessarily benevolent to their children either.

Caleb Fang (Harner) is an Artist (note the capital). He believes in Art above all else. His art is subversive performance art, usually utilizing his wife (Hahn) and children, whom he refers to as A and B. He has the kids pose as bank robbers, street buskers and other bizarre things without the general public knowing what’s going on. Caleb films everything to see the reaction of passersby. In an era before YouTube, he becomes a sensation in the art world but his kids grow up hating that their childhood was essentially hijacked in the name of art.

As adults, Baxter Fang (Bateman) has become a novelist who has written one good book and then one that he characterizes as “divisive,” and in the throes currently of a ginormous writer’s block. Annie Fang (Kidman) is an actress who, like most actresses of a certain age, is getting fewer and fewer good parts. When Baxter covers a redneck sporting event (in an effort to make some cash while his muse has dried up) and sustains a freakish head injury, his parent offer to help him convalesce. Baxter, terrified of being alone with Caleb (Walken) and Camille (Plunkett), convinces his reluctant sister to come along and save him.

Of course, Caleb wants to involve his children in a new art piece but when they refuse he gets extremely angry. Annie is hoping to snag a part that would jumpstart her career again and Baxter…well he’s still recovering and still can’t write a word. However when their parents turn up missing and later their car is found with Caleb’s blood on the front seat, both of the siblings are extremely concerned. Has something awful truly happened, or could this be their greatest prank ever?

Bateman, who debuted as a director with the solid Bad Words does well with this adaptation of the bestselling novel by Kevin Wilson. This is a bit different than his previous effort as there is as much drama here as comedy. Bateman has always been a fine comic actor but shows some dramatic chops here and shows he can actually do some fine dramatic work. Considering he’s working off of Walken and Kidman, both of whom are extremely talented actors in their own right, he not only holds up with them but stands out. This is by far the most complex character he’s had to play in a movie yet.

Kidman and Walken also deliver solid performances, Walken in particular stealing the screen with his patented laser beam stare. Veteran stage actress Plunkett also kicks in with a fine screen performance. In the flashback sequences, Hahn is solid as is Harner, and Burstein and Emond also deliver noteworthy support. Bateman is clearly establishing himself as an actor’s director, and this kind of darkly comic material is right in his wheelhouse.

The only problem is that the middle third is a bit slow but it does kick it up a notch during the final third of the film. Other than that, this is a fine dark comedy with dramatic overtones that examine the dynamics of the dysfunctional family, how parents sometimes don’t do what’s best for their kids so much as what’s best for themselves and finally, the difference between art and Art and why one is superior and the other pretentious.

REASONS TO GO: Jason Bateman gives one of his best performances ever. The humor is subversive.
REASONS TO STAY: Drags a bit in the middle.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a fair amount of cussing.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Nicole Kidman’s father visited her on the upstate New York set, but that was the last time they would see each other as he passed away on September 14, 2014. The world premiere would be exactly one year to the day of his death.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/11/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 78% positive reviews. Metacritic: 67/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: I Heart Huckabees
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Louder Than Bombs

To Be Takei


It's always a great day to be OK to be Takei!

It’s always a great day to be OK to be Takei!

(2014) Documentary (Starz Digital Media) George Takei, Brad Takei, Walter Koenig, William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, Nichelle Nichols, John Cho, Daniel Inouye, Norman Mineta, Lea Salonga, Dan Savage, Howard Stern, Jay Kuo, Tom Ammiano, Eddie Paskey, Lorenzo Thorne, Telly Leung, Jimi Yamaichi. Directed by Jennifer R. Kroot

From an outsider’s perspective, it seems that it must be great to be George Takei. Beloved Star Trek actor, Facebook sensation, activist and advocate for Japanese-Americans and the gay community, he has been described as America’s gay uncle and that might not be far from the truth.

But when you consider the things he’s been through – being imprisoned in two different internment camps for Japanese-Americans during World War II, and the no less damaging prison that came from being a closeted actor throughout most of his career (he didn’t come out until 2005 and then in response to Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s veto of the gay marriage bill.

He has overcome some difficult, dark days but he has emerged on the other end with a disingenuous smile and a live and let live attitude that might lead some to underestimate how forceful and passionate he is for the causes he believes in. Even his feud with William Shatner doesn’t seem to be something he takes all that seriously; I get the sense he doesn’t feel any ill will towards the actor. Shatner, interviewed for the film, comes off as somewhat befuddled about the fuss and a bit standoffish – “I really don’t know the man,” he protests on several occasions.

Still, I don’t know if I could be as cheerful as Takei given his circumstances. What keeps him sane, I think, is his relationship with his husband Brad. Brad is kind of the sensible, detail-oriented one in the relationship. He takes George’s crazy schedule and makes it work. Sometimes he can be a bit of a nag, other times he can be a bit startled at George’s occasional penchant for oversharing, sometimes he can be a bit of a nit-picker. Still, the love that is there is obvious and deep.

In fact, watching the interaction between George and Brad made me think “That’s me and my wife!” There is really no difference in their relationship than my relationship with my wife other than that my relationship is with a woman and George Takei’s is with a man. They both drive each other crazy upon occasion but they both lean on and rely on each other – and there’s no doubt either man would take a bullet for the other, literally and figuratively. That’s how most good marriages work. People who are fuzzy about whether gay people should be married should watch these two gay people together. They are indeed, the prototypical gay married couple.

I did find that aspect of the documentary inspiring; I also found that the scenes of George’s activism with both Japanese-American causes as well as gay causes to be among the most interesting in the film which is something since I’m a proud Trekker and love the little insights that come in from the surviving members of the crew of the Enterprise. As a Trekker I might have wanted more on his era in Star Trek but the film critic in me acknowledges that would only appeal to a certain segment, myself included.

However, the film critic in me frowns on the way that Kroot bounces around in subject matter, from the internment to George’s early Hollywood years to his discovering he was gay in high school to his Facebook stardom to his relationship with his parents. I would have preferred something a little more linear in terms of telling Takei’s story, although something tells me that George himself isn’t the most linear of men.

A project close to Takei’s heart these days is Allegiance, a musical about the Japanese-American experience in the internment camps that Takei starred in (along with Salonga). The show is largely informed by Takei’s own experiences and shows a depth in his acting that he rarely gets a chance to display. The musical set records at San Diego’s Old Globe Theater and is expected to debut on Broadway during the upcoming season.

Takei himself makes a fascinating subject for a documentary and it’s high time that there was one made about him. There are some great archival photographs and such but I think the focus here is rightly on the relationship between George and Brad – which is clearly the central focus in George’s life – and on his activism. It is impressive that in his 70s George Takei has become much more of a cultural phenomenon than he was as a younger man, and continues to work an impressive schedule not only as an actor but with personal appearances as well as speaking engagements for his various causes. Takei is a national treasure and we should appreciate him as such.

REASONS TO GO: Takei is as interesting a person as you think he is and probably more so. Does a lot to further the cause of gay marriage.
REASONS TO STAY: The documentary jumps around from subject to subject in kind of a willy-nilly fashion. May not have enough Star Trek material for some Trekkers.
FAMILY VALUES:  Suitable for family audiences.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Takei was born with the first name of Hosato, but was called George by his father, an Anglophile (as his son later became) after the coronation of King George VI in 1937.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/30/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews. Metacritic: 67/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Before You Know It
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: The Skeleton Twins