Sundance Docs: From Nina Simone to Scientology

Sundance 2015 was full of worthy documentaries to screen.  I caught three of them, Listen to Me Marlon, The Black Panthers:  Vanguard of a Revolution and Larry Kramer:  In Anger & Love.  However, here is a brief synopsis of those and some others that had a lot of people buzzing while I was in Park City... nina simone poster

WHAT HAPPENED, MISS SIMONE?

Directed by Liz Garbus and making its debut at Sundance before premiering later this year on Netflix was What Happened, Miss Simone.  Garbus sensitively explores the constant state of opposition that trapped and tortured Simone—as a classical pianist pigeonholed in jazz, as a professional boxed in by family life, as a black woman in racist America—and in so doing, reveals a towering figure transcending categorization and her times. The film stays true to Simone's subjectivity by mining never-before-heard tapes, rare archival footage, and interviews with close friends and family. Charting Simone’s musical inventiveness alongside the arc of her Jim Crow childhood, defining role in the Civil Rights Movement, arrival at Carnegie Hall, self-imposed exile in Liberia, and solitary life in France, this astonishingly intimate yet epic portrait becomes a non-fiction musical—lush tracks and riveting story resonating inextricably.

There were two prolific nights featuring the music of Miss Simone.  After the premiere screening, John Legend performed his version of "Please, Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood".  Footage is courtesy of J. Adler.

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Later on in the week, Common, Erykah Badu, Aloe Blacc other stellar artists took the stage for yet another musical tribute.  Here are some of those highlights...

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LARRY KRAMER:  IN LOVE & ANGER

While at Howard University completing my degree in Broadcast Production, I decided to run for Miss America.  Of course, you have to win a local and then the state title in order to do so.  I called Atlantic City, got the info of where to compete in Maryland and ran for a local.  I won and was elated to have to opportunity to run for Miss Maryland and if I were lucky move on to Miss America.

During those days talent and interview made up more than 70% of your total judging score.  Rock Hudson had just died from A.I.D.S. and America was in a panic, as they associated this dreadful disease with only being related to the gay community.  Having lost two family members and a multitude of friends in the theatre community to this dreadful disease, my emotions were very raw when it came to this subject.  Remembering it like it was yesterday, my interview was all fun and games until one of the judges presented me with this question, "Do you think A.I.D.S testing should be voluntary or mandatory?'  I couldn't believe someone would even contemplate such a thing.

Needless to say, I responded, "AIDS does not discriminate.  It doesn't care if you are black, white, rich or poor.  It is a disease like any other and strikes at any given time...I don't recall anyone ever asking if there should be voluntary or mandatory testing for polio or cancer".  I'm pretty sure that answer did me in and I never made it to Atlantic City.  However, I stood up for what I believed and my opinion was based on the facts not rumors.  My Mom was a registered nurse and made sure that I was educated properly on this issue, because like I said...I had family members and friends taken out by full blown A.I.D.S or HIV.

Si, it suffices to say, when I read about a documentary being screened at Sundance on Larry Kramer, it was a necessity for me to attend.

Larry Kramer - In Love & Anger is the story of how one person said NO! Using that two letter word is how you start a movement and how you change the world.  Kramer, affectionately known as the worlds's "Angriest AIDS Activist" was Yale educated and started out with a job finding projects for Columbia Pictures to produce.  Some of those projects include such iconic films "Suddenly Last Summer".  It didn't take long for Kramer to catch on producing a film called "Women In Love", which is notoriously known for a naked wrestling scene in front of a fireplace that ironically earned him an Oscar nomination.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xY_Kb5Qkj-4

Kramer had many accomplishments along his journey writing many books and plays.  The Normal Heart opened on Broadway in 1985 and was made into a television film for HBO that garnered nominations for its stars Mark Ruffalo and Julia Roberts.

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His anger over gay rights and discrimination leading to the delay of the AIDS cocktail, that ultimately saved millions of lives led to the birth of organizations like The Gay Men's Health Crisis and ACT UP!  His tenacity paid off when after year of berating the FDA the cocktail was made public and saved many lives including his own.

The film is set to be released on HBO in June just in time for Kramer's Birthday in June 2015.  I don't have a clip of the trailer yet, but here is speech Kramer gave in 1993 and it will give you the essence of this passionate, brave soul...

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THE BLACK PANTHERS:  Vanguard of the Revolution

imagesI don't know about you, but I wholeheartedly associated the The Black Panther Party with varying images of Huey P. Newton from eh 60's.  My knowledge about them, what they stood for, how they came into existence was limited at best until I attended a screening at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival in Park City.

What I learned is that 50 years later, there is very little progress in the civil rights movement for citizens of the U.S. With incidents happening in New York, LA and in  Ferguson (located in the suburbs of my hometown - St. Louis), it feels as though all the lives lost to make way for a better way of living have been for what?????

Director, Stanley Nelson declared that he had "always been interested in the Black Panther Party...I was 15 years old when they started and I thought they had swagger."  It is Nelson and producer Laurens Grant's wish that the film m will be used to educate young people when it premieres a year from now on PBS (although they are shooting for a limited theatrical release in fall of 2015).  Having just completed editing of the doc Monday, January 19th, it was seven years in the making and sheds the light on the reality vs the myth of the Black Panther Party, its members and its goals.

We were treated to a Q&A with the wife of BPP member Eldridge Cleaver - Kathleen Cleaver.  She's a tough cookie and still adheres to the code by which she and the BPP lived so many years ago, but is very clear about what that code is (I AM A REVOLUTIONARY) and why it was and still is important in the 21st century.

Even though many members like Elaine Brown, David Hilliard, Jamal Joseph, Jim Dunbar, Willian Calhoun, Roland Freeman, Kathleen Cleaver and others were interviewed, there was a noticeable absence of Bobby Seale (who is still living in the Bay Area).  It was understood that Seale may be holding out to tell his own version of the BPP story, how it unfolded and reached its demise.

To date, there are still 20 members of the Black Panther Party incarcerated.  The party met its untimely demise when Newton and Cleaver had differences of opinion on how the party should continue, meddling to tear the party apart from the inside out by Herbert Hoover and the CIA and the shift in responsibility from Newton from community to drugs.

Although there is no trailer available at this time, here is an interview with the Director Stanley Nelson

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FRESH DRESSED

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With funky, fat-laced Adidas, Kangol hats, and Cazal shades, a totally original look was born—Fresh—and it came from the black and brown side of town where another cultural force was revving up in the streets to take the world by storm. Hip-hop, and its aspirational relationship to fashion, would become such a force on the market that Tommy Hilfiger, in an effort to associate their brand with the cultural swell, would drive through the streets and hand out free clothing to kids on the corner.

Fresh Dressed is a fascinating, fun-to-watch chronicle of hip-hop, urban fashion, and the hustle that brought oversized pants and graffiti-drenched jackets from Orchard Street to high fashion's catwalks and Middle America shopping malls. Reaching deep to Southern plantation culture, the black church, and Little Richard, director Sacha Jenkins' music-drenched history draws from a rich mix of archival materials and in-depth interviews with rappers, designers, and other industry insiders, such as Pharrell Williams, Damon Dash, Karl Kani, Kanye West, Nas Jones, and Andre Leon Talley. The result is a passionate telling of how the reach for freedom of expression and a better life by a culture that refused to be squashed, would, through sheer originality and swagger, take over the mainstream. (this description of the film comes from www.Sundance.org)

Check out this interview with Deadline Now...

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GOING CLEAR:  Scientology and the Prison of Belief

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When I first moved to Los Angeles, I had my own little up-close brush with the Church of Scientology.  It was not a pleasant nor positive experience and that is all I will say about it in public.  Having said that, this doc was the talk of the festival for one reason - Tom Cruise.

In Going Clear - Director Alex Gibney profiles eight former members of the Church of Scientology, including  A-list Hollywood celebrities.  Shining a light on how the church cultivates true believers, including their experiences and what they are willing to do in the name of religion, the film covers a broad range of material from the church's origins—punctuated by an intimate portrait of founder L. Ron Hubbard—to present-day practices and alleged abuses as reported in the media.

Check out this interview done by the Associated Press with Gibney and other key players associated with Going Clear...

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LISTEN TO ME MARLON

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LISTEN TO ME MARLON

There is no doubt Marlon Brando was one of the most brilliant acting talent of our time!  Director/Screenwriter Stevan Riley gives us the greatest gift of all by allowing us to witness a master class in humanity and acting with The Godfather himself - Marlon Brando.

Listen to Me Marlon sheds light on the artist and the man. Charting Brando's exceptional career and extraordinary personal life with the actor himself as guide, the film explores his complexities, telling the story entirely in his own voice. No talking heads, no interviewees: just Brando on Brando.

Like most celebrities, we feel as though we know their whole story, but we only have the opportunity to scratch the surface.  Marlon Brando was an activist against those whose voices were muffled in American and abroad, Black Americans, Indians and Tahitians.  He used his status to shed light on these injustices at the risk of placing his own mortality in jeopardy.

His goodwill would soon be eclipsed by his womanizing, family tragedies and eccentric behavior as he became older in a business that doesn't embrace age or loss of good looks.

About 30 minutes too long, it was enjoyable and I wouldn't have traded that experience for anything in the world.  Listening to Brando lit a fire under my behind creatively and I will forever be grateful for that master class in the dark.

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Birdman Takes Off Leading 2015 Oscar Nominations and Surprises

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Unknown Well, it suffices to say that this awards season has kinda like being a bride and the day before the wedding the groom changed his mind.  It's been a real roller coaster ride and there don't seem to be any real frontrunners in sight.

Let's begin with the obvious.  It's been no surprise that I'm a huge supporter of the exceptional, stellar and groundbreaking.  So, it is not without a heavy heart that I express my disappointment for Angelina Jolie and Ava DuVernay's  lack of recognition with a nomination for the 2015 Academy Awards.

I'm guessing,  Jolie was just a little too high profile and they just couldn't give her props in the same manner in which Ben Affleck was dismissed with Argo.  Unfortunately, I believe DuVernay's snub came as a result of Hollywood and studio politics swimming around release dates, late arrivals of screeners and contesting of facts swirling about in the media.

It's unfortunate for both, especially since we celebrate the life, legacy and birthday of Dr. King and a nomination for the aforementioned, Oyelowo and other deserving collaborators on Selma could have given the film a fantastic box-office boost leading the ceremony on February 22nd.  However,  President Obama is scheduled to host a screening of the Selma this Friday, January 16th.  The latest in a line of Oscar contenders like last year’s “Mandela” and 2012’s “Lincoln” to at the White House.  Cast and crew from the movie “Selma” are expected to attend.

Clint Eastwood missed out on possibly becoming the oldest directing nominee, but I'm sure he's not to  worried about that.  Whiplash was good enough to be nominated for Best Picture, but again it's director Damien Chazelle was omitted from the list.

I'm baffled...a film can not come to fruition without a casting director to find the talent and a director to pull the puzzle pieces together and make it look seamless.  Why are casting directors still not recognized in the process by the Academy and why are directors not recognized alongside their films?  Just saying...

The Lego Movie was a big hit at the box office, but not so much with the Academy.  Have to say, I kinda agree with them on this one.  The Lego Movie wasn't one of my favs...great film...but I connected with other nominees like Big Hero 6 and The Boxtrolls a little better.

In the acting categories, it would be sage to say Boyhood’s Patricia Arquette and Whiplash’s J.K. Simmons will most likely take the Supporting Awards. Playing an Alzheimer’s victim in Still Alice, Julianne Moore is the one to beat for lead actress, if only for the well-publicized fact that she is overdue. If anyone had a shot to upset her, it might have been Jennifer Aniston for Cake.  Sadly, she didn’t make the cut for a really fine performance and a great campaign that brought her Globe, Critics Choice and SAG nominations. The mere fact that so many are listing her among the “Oscar snubbed”  is a real testament to how far she was able to come since that Toronto Film Festival debut in September.

As for the Lead Actor race, it really could be between a couple of recent Golden Globe winners,  Birdman’s Michael Keaton and The Theory Of Everything’s Eddie Redmayne. Although, I have to admit I was shocked at the omission of Jake Gyllenhaal for Nightcrawler.

Timothy Spall and the helmer Mike Leigh with Mr. Turner peaked too early with the film’s debut at Cannes last year. Not to be completely disappointed, Spall won the Best Actor at Cannes and more recently took home the top acting prize from the National Society of Film Critics.

Amy Adams and Jessica Chastain both got lost in the Oscar shuffle, although Adams took home Globe Gold this past weekend for Big Eyes (also shutout).

Life Itself, The Roger Ebert docu directed by Steve James had the audience crying with loss and appreciation when it debuted at Sundance last year. Today, the movie about the great movie critic was dry when it came to Oscar love and the same could be said for one of my other favorite docs, I'll Be Me about Grammy Winner Glen Campbell's battle with Alzheimer's.  Although, the title song written by Campbell I'm Not Gonna Miss You is nominated.

As far as Best Picture is concerned, it could be anyone at this point.  It would be great to see Selma win, however, Boyhood nabbed the Golden Globe and the sentimental value of taking nearly 12 years to complete may very well play into that decision, as well as, the fact that it's a sentimental favorite.  The same goes for Best Director, although it is my humble opinion that Alejandro González Iñárritu for Birdman will give folks a run for their money.

Here is video from the Academy on the announcements in full...Don't forget the 2015 Academy Awards will air live on ABC-tv, Sunday - February 22nd

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Here is the full list of nominees...

Nominations for the 87th Academy Awards

Performance by an actor in a leading role

  • Steve Carell in “Foxcatcher”
  • Bradley Cooper in “American Sniper”
  • Benedict Cumberbatch in “The Imitation Game”
  • Michael Keaton in “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)”
  • Eddie Redmayne in “The Theory of Everything”

Performance by an actor in a supporting role

  • Robert Duvall in “The Judge”
  • Ethan Hawke in “Boyhood”
  • Edward Norton in “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)”
  • Mark Ruffalo in “Foxcatcher”
  • J.K. Simmons in “Whiplash”

Performance by an actress in a leading role

  • Marion Cotillard in “Two Days, One Night”
  • Felicity Jones in “The Theory of Everything”
  • Julianne Moore in “Still Alice”
  • Rosamund Pike in “Gone Girl”
  • Reese Witherspoon in “Wild”

Performance by an actress in a supporting role

  • Patricia Arquette in “Boyhood”
  • Laura Dern in “Wild”
  • Keira Knightley in “The Imitation Game”
  • Emma Stone in “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)”
  • Meryl Streep in “Into the Woods”

Best animated feature film of the year

  • “Big Hero 6” Don Hall, Chris Williams and Roy Conli
  • “The Boxtrolls” Anthony Stacchi, Graham Annable and Travis Knight
  • “How to Train Your Dragon 2” Dean DeBlois and Bonnie Arnold
  • “Song of the Sea” Tomm Moore and Paul Young
  • “The Tale of the Princess Kaguya” Isao Takahata and Yoshiaki Nishimura

Achievement in cinematography

  • “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)” Emmanuel Lubezki
  • “The Grand Budapest Hotel” Robert Yeoman
  • “Ida” Lukasz Zal and Ryszard Lenczewski
  • “Mr. Turner” Dick Pope
  • “Unbroken” Roger Deakins

Achievement in costume design

  • “The Grand Budapest Hotel” Milena Canonero
  • “Inherent Vice” Mark Bridges
  • “Into the Woods” Colleen Atwood
  • “Maleficent” Anna B. Sheppard and Jane Clive
  • “Mr. Turner” Jacqueline Durran

Achievement in directing

  • “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)” Alejandro G. Iñárritu
  • “Boyhood” Richard Linklater
  • “Foxcatcher” Bennett Miller
  • “The Grand Budapest Hotel” Wes Anderson
  • “The Imitation Game” Morten Tyldum

Best documentary feature

  • “CitizenFour” Laura Poitras, Mathilde Bonnefoy and Dirk Wilutzky
  • “Finding Vivian Maier” John Maloof and Charlie Siskel
  • “Last Days in Vietnam” Rory Kennedy and Keven McAlester
  • “The Salt of the Earth” Wim Wenders, Juliano Ribeiro Salgado and David Rosier
  • “Virunga” Orlando von Einsiedel and Joanna Natasegara

Best documentary short subject

  • “Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1” Ellen Goosenberg Kent and Dana Perry
  • “Joanna” Aneta Kopacz
  • “Our Curse” Tomasz Sliwinski and Maciej Slesicki
  • “The Reaper (La Parka)” Gabriel Serra Arguello
  • “White Earth” J. Christian Jensen

Achievement in film editing

  • “American Sniper” Joel Cox and Gary D. Roach
  • “Boyhood” Sandra Adair
  • “The Grand Budapest Hotel” Barney Pilling
  • “The Imitation Game” William Goldenberg
  • “Whiplash” Tom Cross

Best foreign language film of the year

  • “Ida” Poland
  • “Leviathan” Russia
  • “Tangerines” Estonia
  • “Timbuktu” Mauritania
  • “Wild Tales” Argentina

Achievement in makeup and hairstyling

  • “Foxcatcher” Bill Corso and Dennis Liddiard
  • “The Grand Budapest Hotel” Frances Hannon and Mark Coulier
  • “Guardians of the Galaxy” Elizabeth Yianni-Georgiou and David White

Achievement in music written for motion pictures (Original score)

  • “The Grand Budapest Hotel” Alexandre Desplat
  • “The Imitation Game” Alexandre Desplat
  • “Interstellar” Hans Zimmer
  • “Mr. Turner” Gary Yershon
  • “The Theory of Everything” Jóhann Jóhannsson

Achievement in music written for motion pictures (Original song)

  • “Everything Is Awesome” from “The Lego Movie” Music and Lyric by Shawn Patterson
  • “Glory” from “Selma” Music and Lyric by John Stephens and Lonnie Lynn
  • “Grateful” from “Beyond the Lights” Music and Lyric by Diane Warren
  • “I’m Not Gonna Miss You” from “Glen Campbell…I’ll Be Me” Music and Lyric by Glen Campbell and Julian Raymond
  • “Lost Stars” from “Begin Again” Music and Lyric by Gregg Alexander and Danielle Brisebois

Best motion picture of the year

  • “American Sniper” Clint Eastwood, Robert Lorenz, Andrew Lazar, Bradley Cooper and Peter Morgan, Producers
  • “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)” Alejandro G. Iñárritu, John Lesher and James W. Skotchdopole, Producers
  • “Boyhood” Richard Linklater and Cathleen Sutherland, Producers
  • “The Grand Budapest Hotel” Wes Anderson, Scott Rudin, Steven Rales and Jeremy Dawson, Producers
  • “The Imitation Game” Nora Grossman, Ido Ostrowsky and Teddy Schwarzman, Producers
  • “Selma” Christian Colson, Oprah Winfrey, Dede Gardner and Jeremy Kleiner, Producers
  • “The Theory of Everything” Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Lisa Bruce and Anthony McCarten, Producers
  • “Whiplash” Jason Blum, Helen Estabrook and David Lancaster, Producers

Achievement in production design

  • “The Grand Budapest Hotel” Production Design: Adam Stockhausen; Set Decoration: Anna Pinnock
  • “The Imitation Game” Production Design: Maria Djurkovic; Set Decoration: Tatiana Macdonald
  • “Interstellar” Production Design: Nathan Crowley; Set Decoration: Gary Fettis
  • “Into the Woods” Production Design: Dennis Gassner; Set Decoration: Anna Pinnock
  • “Mr. Turner” Production Design: Suzie Davies; Set Decoration: Charlotte Watts

Best animated short film

  • “The Bigger Picture” Daisy Jacobs and Christopher Hees
  • “The Dam Keeper” Robert Kondo and Dice Tsutsumi
  • “Feast” Patrick Osborne and Kristina Reed
  • “Me and My Moulton” Torill Kove
  • “A Single Life” Joris Oprins

Best live action short film

  • “Aya” Oded Binnun and Mihal Brezis
  • “Boogaloo and Graham” Michael Lennox and Ronan Blaney
  • “Butter Lamp (La Lampe Au Beurre De Yak)” Hu Wei and Julien Féret
  • “Parvaneh” Talkhon Hamzavi and Stefan Eichenberger
  • “The Phone Call” Mat Kirkby and James Lucas

Achievement in sound editing

  • “American Sniper” Alan Robert Murray and Bub Asman
  • “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)” Martín Hernández and Aaron Glascock
  • “The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies” Brent Burge and Jason Canovas
  • “Interstellar” Richard King
  • “Unbroken” Becky Sullivan and Andrew DeCristofaro

Achievement in sound mixing

  • “American Sniper” John Reitz, Gregg Rudloff and Walt Martin
  • “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)” Jon Taylor, Frank A. Montaño and Thomas Varga
  • “Interstellar” Gary A. Rizzo, Gregg Landaker and Mark Weingarten
  • “Unbroken” Jon Taylor, Frank A. Montaño and David Lee
  • “Whiplash” Craig Mann, Ben Wilkins and Thomas Curley

Achievement in visual effects

  • “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” Dan DeLeeuw, Russell Earl, Bryan Grill and Dan Sudick
  • “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” Joe Letteri, Dan Lemmon, Daniel Barrett and Erik Winquist
  • “Guardians of the Galaxy” Stephane Ceretti, Nicolas Aithadi, Jonathan Fawkner and Paul Corbould
  • “Interstellar” Paul Franklin, Andrew Lockley, Ian Hunter and Scott Fisher
  • “X-Men: Days of Future Past” Richard Stammers, Lou Pecora, Tim Crosbie and Cameron Waldbauer

Adapted screenplay

  • “American Sniper” Written by Jason Hall
  • “The Imitation Game” Written by Graham Moore
  • “Inherent Vice” Written for the screen by Paul Thomas Anderson
  • “The Theory of Everything” Screenplay by Anthony McCarten
  • “Whiplash” Written by Damien Chazelle

Original screenplay

  • “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)” Written by Alejandro G. Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Jr. & Armando Bo
  • “Boyhood” Written by Richard Linklater
  • “Foxcatcher” Written by E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman
  • “The Grand Budapest Hotel” Screenplay by Wes Anderson; Story by Wes Anderson & Hugo Guinness
  • “Nightcrawler” Written by Dan Gilroy