INDIEWATCH: ‘20 Feet from Stardom’ puts backup singers front and center

Documentary “20 Feet from Stardom” showcases the sass and soul of backup singers from the doo-wop era to now through interviews with Bruce Springsteen, Mick Jagger and the women whose voices complemented their work for decades.

But more than an inside view, this film takes a common belief — that backup singing is somewhat secondary to leading — and flips it on its head.

Writer/director Morgan Neville introduces The Blossoms, the first group to pave the way for female vocalists. Neville explores the insane list of songs they contributed to, which runs the gamut from Frank Sinatra’s “That’s Life” to Bobby Pickett’s “Monster Mash.”

DOO WOP: Darlene Love (middle) of the Blossoms would later rise to fame.

Blossoms standout Darlene Love later worked with and was professionally burned by musically renowned producer Phil Spector. (If they knew then what we know now…)
And that’s part of the allure of “20 Feet from Stardom.” It unfolds like a history lesson on American and British music that you can’t stop watching.

Director Neville interviews Springsteen and Sting, and viewers learn the story behind the Rolling Stones’ hit song, “Gimme Shelter” through Mick Jagger and Merry Clayton, the powerhouse singer whose voice made the song what it is.

At 2 a.m., Clayton got a call from “the Rolling somebodies.” She drove with them to the studio in her pajamas and ripped one of the most paramount hooks in rock history. Director Neville cuts to each artist listening to the song they created.

Merry Clayton and Mick Jagger listen to their harmony in The Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter.”

Watching their reactions — musing the history of a tune I grew up listening to — sent chills down my spine. And this film is full of moments like that.

“20 Feet” also follows background singers who tried, failed and succeeded at going solo and those who prefer to stay in an accompanying role. It offers insights into how they were treated from a dress code that “excites men” in the 60s to the freeing rock revolution of the 70s.

“Everyone was telling us we had to bring everything down, so when the rock ‘n’ roll world came and said ‘No, we want you to sing!’ — it saved us, it saved our lives,” said Gloria Jones. (Her resume includes working with T. Rex, Joe Cocker and Neil Young.)
“20 Feet” also looks at a band’s structural changes of the 90s and onward. While this film shows how the role of backup singing has changed, it doesn’t offer a prediction of the craft’s future.

This documentary covers a lot of ground, and I was engaged completely throughout. It won Best Documentary at the 2013 Oscars, and it’s well worth the nod.
Watch it.

Grade: A+

Available: Amazon Prime, Netflix Instant.

IndieWatch is a weekly review of independent film and documentaries.

 

INDIEWATCH: ‘Short Term 12′ leaves lasting impression

In “Short Term 12,” Grace (Brie Larson) supervises the wards and staff at a home for troubled teens alongside her boyfriend, Mason (John Gallagher Jr.).

She tells a staff newbie that the kids will try to test him at first to see what they can get away with, as she walks into a teen’s room to wake him with a water gun.

“You’re not their parent, you’re not their therapist, you’re here to create a safe environment and that’s it,” she says.

WET AWAKENING: Grace (Brie Larson) awakens a teen with a water gun in “Short Term 12.”

Grace, Mason and the staff play games with the kids and plan parties for teens who are aging out of the system. Grace seems to be the rock of the crew, as she addressed hardships with … well, grace.

During a community meeting, staff newbie Nate (Rami Malek) says he always wanted to work with underprivileged kids. This sets off Marcus (Lakeith Lee Stanfield), the oldest teen in the home. He gives Nate a death look and verbally attacks him, and I was worried there’d be a fight, but Grace manages to defuse the situation by sending Marcus to his room.

Later, she breaks up a physical altercation between Marcus and another teen. Afterward, Marcus is confrontational and aggressive, and Grace inherently knows where to switch tones and how to soothe with just enough authority.

Her knack for dealing with these teens stems from her personal experience as one of them, but Grace begins to unravel when a girl, who may have a similar past, enters the group home.

There’s a lot of hardship in this film, and it cuts deeper because it involves kids with abusive histories, but writer/director Destin Cretton balances this with the right touch of light-hearted humor.

Brie Larson (right) and Kaitlyn Dever in “Short Term 12.”

The staff carefully holds a teen’s arms during a semi-violent rage, where she shoves a birthday cupcake into Grace’s face. As she “de-escalates,” Mason lightly asks Grace how the cupcake tastes.

As a viewer, you’re thankful for a seamless comedic reprieve that doesn’t shatter the dramatic moment.

And the performances help make this film.

Brie Larson plays Grace subdued with a wealth of pain and emotion stirring beneath. (I’ve never seen Larson act so well.) John Gallagher Jr. is the perfect counterpart to her solemn demeanor as her animated partner with his own difficult past. And the child actors were just spot on.

“Short Term 12” arrested my attention from the first frame, and the ending had me ugly-crying at a level on par with “Life is Beautiful.”
It’s so worth a watch.

Grade: A

Available: Amazon Prime, Netflix Instant.

IndieWatch is a weekly review of independent film and documentaries.

 

INDIEWATCH: ‘Be a Man’ a filthy look at masculinity

In “How to Be a Man,” former comedian Mark (Gavin McInnes) posts a Facebook ad in search of a filmmaker to help him document life lessons for his unborn son. At his mother’s urging, Bryan (Liam Aiken) answers the ad and bites off more than he can chew.

They meet at a park for the first shoot, and Mark touts a sign that reads “not a pedophile,” as they film playground bullies. Into the camera, Mark shares ways to counter bullies and assert confidence. Their first shoot ends in an altercation with Mark and a pushy kid exchanging kicks to the groin.

LIKE ‘MY LIFE,’ BUT DIRTIER: Liam Aiken and Gavin McInnes in “How to Be a Man.”

Mark soon discloses they’re filming this because he’s dying of breast cancer.
“So, this film’s like ‘My Life’ with Michael Keaton?” Bryan asks dryly — my sentiments exactly — but “How to Be a Man” is much more vulgar than its 1993 predecessor.

Mark’s documentary quickly turns into an ongoing life lesson for Bryan, who’s an aimless 23-year-old with baggy clothes and unkempt hair. As Mark talks about how his son should dress to be taken seriously, he and Bryan embark on an obligatory makeover scene.

Later, Bryan films Mark miming how to properly wash his man parts, how to score coke and how to approach and please a woman — all pertinent info for men. Mark changes from a guy facing death to the quintessential anti-hero, leading Bryan down the road less traveled of drugs and crime.

This film somehow tries to put a light spin on it, but I wasn’t buying.

ICE CREAM AND HEROIN: Mark and Bryan rally to score some H.

On the flip side, “How to Be a Man” did offer some surprisingly funny moments.

As Mark quits his job, he rants about how he used to be on the “The Arsenio Hall Show.” When he storms out of the room, a younger exec asks, “What’s an arsenio? Is that …”

I laughed out loud.

In another scene, Mark and Bryan bust into a heroin house, and their entrance is offensive and somewhat ridiculously comical.

But mostly, “How to Be a Man” is lascivious and filthy. Normally, I’m not one to stray from comedy that pushes the boundaries, but this film breaks them in half for a worthless punch line. There was an opportunity for depth in this movie, but “How to Be a Man” answered with a fart joke — literally.

Grade: F

Available: Amazon Prime, Netflix Instant.

IndieWatch is a weekly review of independent film and documentaries.

INDIEWATCH: ‘Now Is Good’ not so great

“Now Is Good” starts like any rebellious teen movie — a girl partying late with her bad-influence friend — but unlike other films, this girl is dying of cancer.

Before losing the battle to leukemia, Tessa (Dakota Fanning) is hell-bent on crossing items off of her bucket list, which includes having sex, stealing and doing drugs. But what writer/director Ol Parker makes clear through shots of her longingly staring at canoodling couples is what Tessa really wants is to fall in love.

As she waits, her rebellion wears on a bit predictably.

REBEL YELL: Tessa’s got her thievin’ face on.

She asks a radio DJ for tips to get drugs during an interview, she’s caught stealing and she hops a motorcycle with her neighbor, Adam, while her and her father (Paddy Considine) wait at a stoplight. This grows tiresome fast as director Parker peppers in flashes of Tessa’s family life.

Her father is “cancer-obsessed,” and her mother (Olivia Williams) is a bit flighty to say the least. “Now Is Good” finally picks up a bit when Adam (Josef Altin) enters.

He left college to recover from his dad’s death, and has since moved in with his mother. During a mushroom hallucination, Tessa confesses that the only time she doesn’t think about death is when she’s with him.

It was love at first trip.

I LOVE SHROOMS … AND U: Tessa professes her love of hallucinogens and the (literal) boy next door, Adam.

Fanning plays sassy with a blonde bob and British accent well. She’s hauntingly pixie-like and seems to have shed her child-actor exterior. Considine as Tessa’s father exudes caring, love and denial so well that I was consistently annoyed with her for putting him through the wringer. Actor Altin does his part as a dashing modern-day prince, and my heart went out to him.

Performances aside, “Now Is Good” had all of the elements for a solid coming-of-age reflection on life and death, but it didn’t quite deliver. It’s based off of novel “Before I Die,” by Jenny Downham, which may have been the better medium.

In this film, Tessa is written as very reactionary, allowing little to no time for character development or insight into her inner turmoil as a dying teen. This makes it difficult to empathize with her and see her as more than a defiant kid — and her character is so much more complicated.

If you stick to the end, “Now Is Good” makes up for this in performances and a focused meditation on life. But for an almost two-hour film about how precious time is, this may not be worth it.

Grade: D+

Available: Amazon Prime, Netflix Instant.

IndieWatch is a weekly review of independent film and documentaries.

‘The Loving Story’ devles into landmark interracial marriage court case

“The Loving Story” documents the case that made mixed marriage legal in the U.S. brought on by the Lovings, Richard (a white man) and Mildred (a “colored” woman). They were banished from Virginia when they wed in 1958 in Washington, D.C.

At this time, interracial marriage was illegal in 24 states. This film tells the Lovings’ nine-year struggle for the right to stay husband and wife and return to their home state.

The real hook of “The Loving Story” is the dedication and love between Mildred and Richard.

“It was love at first sight. To marry someone and then have to go through all that they went through — it was nothing but love,” Mildred says in old footage.

Mildred and Richard Loving were banished from their home state, Virginia, for marrying outside of their races. “The Loving Story” looks at this monumental case in U.S. history.

Director Nancy Buirski shows several images of the Lovings’ admiration of one another. Richard, with a military-style buzz cut, is extremely affectionate with his wife — lying his head on her lap, hugging and kissing her. Mildred is shown as very soft-spoken, exuding a quiet elegance while staring into the face of adversity.

Buirski offers insight into this time in our history through interviews with Richard and Mildred’s children, Richard’s mother and southern white men and women reflecting on interracial marriage. Though, she’s smart to juxtapose this with information from historian Edward Ayers, of the University of Richmond.

He says segregation is fundamentally about sex, and it was designed to keep men and women of different races from temptation. “So, the more intimate a space was — a railroad car, a parlor, a restaurant, a school room —- the more likely it was to be segregated,” he says. “Ironically, the Loving case, being about love, being about sex, is actually what segregation was about all along.”

Prepare yourself for racial slurs and phrases such as “mongrel race,” but this film is quick to throw this mindset some sort of bone in that this case challenged racism and nonracists who were simply pro-establishment.

The Lovings.

One of the most interesting videos in “The Loving Story” shows Mildred, Richard and their attorneys, Bernard S. Cohen and Philip J. Hirschkop as they make a game plan for bail and charges if the couple is discovered “secretly cohabitating” in Virginia during court proceedings.

It’s difficult to watch this without an emotional reaction, as well as question if you’d have the same fortitude as the Lovings. Though, watching this, it’s interesting to note how society has progressed the past 60-plus years.

Though, this documentary does end a bit flatly.

Because the Lovings’ story and their court case may only be reflected upon by the attorneys who argued it, “The Loving Story” loses a bit of gusto, sentiment and reflection on civil rights. It would have been a much more powerful documentary had it been made five or six years earlier when Mildred was still alive.

That aside, “The Loving Story” offers an intelligent look at former injustices in the U.S. It’s still (kind of) worth a watch.

Grade: C

Available: Amazon Prime, Netflix Instant.

IndieWatch is a weekly review of independent film and documentaries.

INDIEWATCH: ‘The Big Wedding’ a lightweight disappointment with heavy-hitters

“The Big Wedding” is now available on streaming, and for those who missed it in theaters, you may have saved some dough.

It stars Diane Keaton and Robert De Niro as ex-spouses, Ellie and Don, who reunite for their adopted son’s nuptials. The hitch is they have to pretend to still be married because their son’s biological mom is way religious.

It’s a pretty loose reason for a weekend of chaos, but “The Big Wedding” tries its hardest to make this charming to no avail. With a huge cast of star power — Susan Sarandon, Katherine Heigl, Topher Grace, Amanda Seyfried — there are too many cooks in the kitchen in this modern family rom-com.

Katherine Heigl plays a borderline lush and Susan Sarandon “the other woman” in “The Big Wedding.”

Bebe (Sarandon) is Don’s live-in girlfriend of 10 years, Lyla (Heigl) is boozing from the stress of a failed marriage, and Jared (Grace) is a 30-year-old virgin who’s saving himself for love.

The tamest characters are soon-to-be wed Missy (Seyfried) and Alejandro (Ben Barnes), who fight to stay positive despite looming family drama. Robin Williams plays a Catholic priest caricature who heads the wedding ceremony, and his comedic genius seems a distant memory.

From the get go, “The Big Wedding” plays more off of its cast than its plot.

Ellie (Keaton) walks in on Don and Bebe on the cusp of cunnilingus, Lyla is so drunk she vomits on Don the first time she sees him and Jared (Grace) flips from successful doctor to raucous lothario as he pursues his adopted brother’s biological sister.

It plays out a bit like a soap opera that touts a lot of characters and a lot of shenanigans.

Don (Robert De Niro) gets decked by his live-in girlfriend in front of his ex-wife, Ellie (Diane Keaton) in “The Big Wedding,” now available on streaming.

 

The kicking-someone-under-the-table schtick is used often, and the actors seem a bit noncommittal throughout — save for Robert De Niro.

This Oscar-winning powerhouse delivers moments of depth in comedies “Stardust” and “Meet the Parents,” and it’s no different in “The Big Wedding.”

In one scene, Don and Lyla are reconciling their difficult father-daughter relationship, and De Niro has one pure moment of grief and conflict, that made me nearly tear up.

Except for that, the acting in this film is ho-hum, though “The Big Wedding” does a decent job of sets and clothing — bright and light. The music definitely matches this film’s candid tone, though sometimes overpowering during scenes of hijinks.

“The Big Wedding” looks like a cute family movie, but it has a hard R rating with a lot of swearing and sexual content. If you’re in the mood for a silly escape in lieu of another blizzard, this may work for you, though, I hate to admit, “The Big Wedding” did nothing for me.

Grade: F

Available: Amazon Prime, Netflix Instant.

IndieWatch is a weekly review of independent film and documentaries.

INDIEWATCH: No life in ‘Dead Man Down’

Colin Farrell and Noomi Rapace star in “Dead Man Down,” a movie with delusions of grandeur of Shakespearean proportions.

Victor (Farrell) saves his boss, crime-lord Alphonse (Terrence Howard), during a shake-up, where Alphonse accuses a thug of sending mysterious threats in the mail. We quickly find out — in the silliest of ways —- that Victor is behind the death notes.

Victor’s across-the-street neighbor, Beatrice, talks him into a date, and afterward, leads him to the door of the man who disfigured her in a drunken driving accident. Beatrice says she’ll use a video she took of Victor strangling someone in his apartment as blackmail unless he kills the man responsible for her plight.

Colin Farrell and Noomi Rapace fall in weird, vengeful love in “Dead Man Down.”

This is the most heavy-hitting scene of “Dead Man Down.” Actress Rapace goes from 0 to 100 in 20 seconds, as does this movie that’s all about the heat of vengeance.

Beatrice seeks retribution for her disfigurement, and Victor’s lust for blood stems from the loss of his wife and daughter at the call of Alphonse. Rapace and Farrell play their parts at a level that feels sedated compared to previous roles, and they reveal their deepest motivations at an almost comical pace.

On their second meeting, Victor, who has been orchestrating Alphonse’s demise for years, dumps everything on Beatrice in a matter of minutes. Beatrice follows Victor on his various raids around town. Their connection cements, but the execution feels implausible. The rest of “Dead Man Down” plays out a bit predictably and melodramatically, as Beatrice and Victor fall in love that may or may not be consummated.

Terrence Howard fails to bring the pain as a crime lord in “Dead Man Down.”

Supporting players are a bit wasted. Terrence Howard doesn’t deliver as a crime boss. French mega-actress Isabelle Huppert stands in as Beatrice’s live-in mother, and Dominic Cooper stumbles about as Darcy, Victor’s gangster sidekick who’s trying to solve the mail mystery for Alphonse. Huppert is a powerhouse actress, but there was little to no time for her to shine. Actor Cooper did his part, which culminates in a standoff between him and Victor that falls flat.

“Dead Man Down” may lack a bit in plot execution, but I was taken with the set designs and music. Victor and Beatrice’s apartments felt foreign, and that made their crime world feel like a slight throwback to “The Professional.” Props for the music selected as a backdrop to action sequences, which director Niels Arden Oplev did pretty up to par. Aside from that, I wasn’t thrilled with this film.

“Dead Man Down” has a solid idea: Two seek redemption with vengeance-heavy hearts. But clocking in at almost two hours, the film doesn’t develop this enough for a viewer to invest in their fates. And personally, I checked out about an hour in.

Grade: D+

 Available: Amazon Prime (purchase), Netflix Instant.

IndieWatch is a weekly review of independent film and documentaries.

 

INDIEWATCH: ‘Chasing Beauty’ sizes up the ugly side of modeling

Modeling, glamour and cults is “Chasing Beauty” in a nutshell.

It gives a behind-the-scenes look at the industry, society’s fixation on attractiveness and what beauty is through interviews with supermodels, fashion photographers, psychologists and more.

The pacing is grabbing from the get go and starts with a crazy statistic that 23 percent of young American women would rather lose their ability to read than their figures.

“Beauty is like money, it’s a currency,” says former model Kelly Andersen, and writer/director Brent Huff addresses our culture’s fascination with youth and beauty and how that’s reinforced to young women through television and film.

FIERCE: Model Allison Stepka in “Chasing Beauty.”

Budding models ages 5 to 21 are interviewed amid mildly disturbing footage of kids practicing their catwalks, and we follow an L.A.-bound woman from the Midwest and a high school football star who’s trying to make it as a shirtless Abercrombie and Fitch greeter.

Following them through rejection and resilience is difficult, and the industry is painted as all-business, cold and unforgiving.

Director Huff breaks down how we view beauty as a society through facial imaging analysis, how the most exquisite men and women are Photoshopped 100 percent of the time and the high standard of beauty today.

One modeling agent says fashion designers dictate sizes, which is more important than weight. Eating disorders are showcased, and the same modeling agent said a tell-tale sign a model is bulimic is she orders ice cream after a meal — it pads the burn of purging afterward.

“Chasing Beauty” spares no gory details of model insecurities. The most intriguing, and most distracting, segment is its look at first male supermodel Hoyt Richards’ 20-year involvement with a cult.

VOGUE: Male supermodel Hoyt Richards was in a cult for 20 years.

This felt like a serious sidestep, but it showed cult leaders actively preyed on models as a result of their insecurities, need for positive reinforcement and wealth. This was way too interesting of an insight into modeling that could’ve been a documentary in itself, and here, this film didn’t do this subject justice.

On the plus side, serious props for its view on beauty as a whole.

Modeling scouts and stylists admonish plastic surgery, and “Chasing Beauty” ends with industry heads reflecting on what beauty is.

“To me, a lot of beauty is from within,” says modeling agent Marion Smith, and stylist Brandon Sapin says beauty is “an attitude. It’s an air of confidence. It’s an aura.”
A Beverly Hills plastic surgeon says beauty is just a physical feature.

“We can change it, but the one thing I can’t change is your attitude about yourself,” says Dr. David Sayah. And male model Richards says he considers someone’s spirit and innate kindness more attractive than looks.

“Chasing Beauty” is a well-done documentary that covers a lot of ground, and true to its tagline, it “shows the ugly side of being pretty” — and for me, staring into ugliness has never been more captivating.

Grade: A-

Available: Amazon Prime, Netflix Instant.

IndieWatch is a weekly review of independent film and documentaries.

 

INDIEWATCH: ‘Somebody’ a deadpan look at immortality

“Somebody Up There Likes Me” plays out like a modern-day, indie fable.
It follows Max (Keith Poulson) for 35 years as he stays as young as his first scene thanks to a magical suitcase that spews age-defying, glittery light.

And what does a man with a fountain of youth do with his power?

He steals flowers from a cemetery plot, loses staring matches with kids and marries his co-worker Lyla (Jessica Weixler) who is later wooed by Max’s bestie, Sal (Nick Offerman).

AWWW: Nick Offerman (right) pulls a Ron Swanson in “Somebody Up There Likes Me,” costarring Keith Poulson (left).

Yes, “Somebody” is a little absurd, but there lies a glimmer of charm in its characters.
Max is an antihero with unlimited, misguided power in his magical suitcase. Sal is a hard-nosed bear of a man, and Lyla is unassuming and slightly adorable.

Poulson’s straight-faced and monotone style is perfect for the part of Max, and writer/director Bob Byington hams up Offerman’s deadpan delivery to a tee so well that it feels like Ron Swanson, of NBC’s “Parks and Recreation,” is on screen.

Poulson and Offerman’s banter throughout is witty, dry and seemingly improvised, and Offerman’s real-life wife, Megan Mullally, has a small and hilarious role as Max’s marriage counselor in a bad wig.

CHARMED BAGGAGE: Max takes a whiff of his magical suitcase.
It keeps him young.

These characters had me laughing out loud in the first 10 minutes in their oddball interactions, but one downfall is the charm of Max’s unsympathetic disposition wears off about halfway through.

He’s unfazed by birth, divorce or death, and his sardonic approach to life gets a bit stale — even for him.

“Somebody Up There Likes Me” is definitely not for everyone. It’s a comical ride, but unlike its main character, this film gets old after the first 30 minutes.

Grade: D+

Available: Amazon Prime, Netflix Instant.
IndieWatch is a weekly review of independent film and documentaries.

 

INDIEWATCH: ‘The Hunt’ a solid Oscar contender

You may recognize Mads Mikkelsen as the bad guy in NBC’s “Hannibal” or “Casino Royale,” but he plays a much different role in “The Hunt,” which is up for an Oscar on Sunday.

Mikkelsen stars as Lucas, a divorced kindergarten teacher who’s trying to win custody of his teenage son. He’s a staple in his community with a tight-knit group of friends, and he’s a favorite of the children and staff at his school — until one of his students develops an innocent crush and kisses him.

 He tells her actions like that are for moms and dads, and she responds with an unfounded accusation of indecent conduct.

Susse Wold (left) and Annika Wedderkopp in “The Hunt.”

Watching the school’s principal take unorthodox steps — calling Lucas’ ex-wife and sharing the accusation with other parents before calling the authorities — is incredibly unsettling. Hysteria on par with “The Crucible” sets in, and there’s no turning back even when the student says she lied.

The key difference between “The Hunt” and other films about child abuse —  such as “Doubt” and “The Woodsman” — is our protagonist is innocent, and that makes the shift in this film hard to bear.

I was on the edge of my seat as the townspeople preyed on Lucas with cunning. His friends, colleagues and former students fear and flee him, and avoidance escalates to violence slowly and realistically.

ON GUARD: Mads Mikkelsen in “The Hunt.”

Mikkelsen relays subdued despair and suspicion so well that you’re paranoid for him.

In one scene, his girlfriend asks if he’s guilty. His exhaustion flips to hopelessness then rage as he repeats “You think I’m a sick person?”

Supporting players Thomas Bo Larsen and Annika Wedderkopp take “The Hunt” to the next level, but it’s Mikkelsen’s performance that steals the show.
The direction and cinematography were spot on with earthy tones indoors and out, reinforcing the town as a metaphorical hunting ground.

This film is an engrossing look at our flawed human nature, civility as a social construct and the fragile line between the hunter and the hunted.

“The Hunt” is a solid candidate for an Oscar win Sunday, and it’s definitely worth a watch.

Grade: A-

Available: Amazon Prime, Netflix Instant.

IndieWatch is a weekly review of independent film and documentaries.