Friday, March 27, 2015

CIFF: 'Dreamcatcher' Provides Hope for Those Affected by the Sex Industry

Photo courtesy of Dreamcatcher
Brenda Myers-Powell spends late nights cruising Chicago streets in her Dreamcatcher Foundation van, looking for prostitutes in need of condoms. Her goal is to have a conversation with the girls and let them know there is another way — and she can help if they are ready. Why does she do this? Myers-Powell spent 25 years a prostitute. Now, she pours every once of herself not reserved for her family into her Dreamcatcher girls, who she also helps through an after-school program for those at-risk.

The film is a raw depiction of the prostitution, human trafficking and sex abuse that is sad, ongoing reality. Girl after girl comes forward with horrifying stories of getting shot, stabbed and raped. Some girls were even molested as young as 4 years old. Some followed their mothers into prostitution. For others, prostitution was the only constant in their life. Myers-Powell helps with necessities such as drug recovery but really becomes the voice of reason for these girls — the first phone call when a crisis arises.

Perhaps one of the film's most tender moments occurs when the usually boisterous Myers-Powell admits in an all-too-rare aside that she is terrified of what is to become of her girls while she has knee surgery and is still tormented by the weight of her time on the street. These gracefully handled intense moments helped earn director Kim Longinotto a World Cinema Directing Award at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival.

Dreamcatcher breaks the painful cycle of abuse and finally shows the girls — and us — that hope can change your life.

See Dreamcatcher at 4:30 p.m. today, March 27, at Tower City Cinemas. The Cleveland International Film Festival runs through March 29. For a full list of films, visit

A Boy's Life: Rocky Wright

Rocky, a sixth-grader at Metro Catholic School, lives with his mom, his 16-year-old brother and his 20-year-old sister in Cleveland His father moved to Texas after his parents’ divorce two years ago, but the two keep in touch over social media and weekly phone calls. When Rocky’s not playing kickball with his brother in the backyard, he’s singing in the school choir or acting onstage.

My best days were when I went into Cub Scouts with my dad. I was chosen for lots of things and there’s camping. We learned how to survive in the wilderness and did some community services. There’s the main club where they choose one little leader. First, it goes from tiger, wolf and bear, and those three groups chose me to be their little leader. They were all my friends and they listened to me. They made me happy just from listening to me and actually not arguing with me. A leader needs to be able to not yell at people and help people out. If you don’t help your pack or your group, they’re not going to listen to you.

I don’t want a friend that’s actually bad. There are lots of times when we’re playing outside in the summer and this kid will start trying to make an argument with me. He’ll start out by saying, "I suck," and stuff. I’ll say, “Please stop,” and he’ll get up in my face. It does make me feel angry, but I’ll still try to control it. I’ll just say, “Please, step away from me. I don’t want to talk to you.” I’m just not a fighting person.

I don’t really like people who judge other people. I worry about people being judgmental about me because I am kind of overweight. I just don’t want people to notice that. I kind of recently got over that because I normally wear a sweater to hold it in, but I lost my sweater so I just decided to go with the shirt. It still showed and no one actually said anything about it. It makes me feel happy because I don’t have to hold anything in. — as told to James Bigley II

[Editor’s Note: This blog series is an extension of the “A Boy’s Life” feature in Cleveland Magazine’s March issue. For all these stories, click on the “A Boy's Life” tag.]

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Parma's Brian Johnson Advances on "The Voice"

Brian Johnson singing Bob Dylan's
"Knockin' on Heaven's Door." Photo courtesy of NBC
Brian Johnson auditioned for NBC’s singing competition, The Voice, four times before he ever saw the back of any chair. “I actually decided that I was not going to audition anymore after I went to the Philadelphia audition,” Johnson says. “ [But] the fact that they were coming to Cleveland, I felt like… it’s literally in my backyard, I have to go audition.” He did, and now the Parma resident has went from the churches he grew up singing in to national TV. While on Blake Shelton's team the soulful vocalist's rehearsal rendition of Bob Dylan's "Knockin' on Heaven's Door" brought mentor Meghan Trainor to tears. And now, Adam Levine has stolen Johnson and is taking him to the show's final round, live performances. “Adam has always been in my court. He came backstage after the knockout rounds and just said it was a no brainer. … I’m really excited about working with [him].” We chat with Johnson about singing for the biggest names in the music business and dealing with newfound fame.

Cleveland Magazine: How did you feel before you went out for your blind audition?
Brian Johnson: When I saw the doors open and I started walking out and saw the backs of the chairs, I was really overwhelmed with fear and nervousness and all the things that could possibly go wrong. Once I stepped onstage, I almost blacked out and I just don’t remember anything after I saw the first chair turn. I had my wife tell me what happened and fill in the spots that I missed, because all I saw was that Adam turned and then Blake turned and I didn’t forget the words. That’s all I could get from the moment. I didn’t know that Adam turned around so quickly. The first time I watched it back was when I realized that he turned before I even sang a word.

CM: Going forward, what do you feel like you need to work on?
BJ: I’ve always struggled with some of my stage presence and just moving around the stage … Adam was just giving me some advice on how to move around stage, and that’s definitely something that I plan on working on as the competition moves on. Having a background in church music, you stand onstage and you kind of have your spot, and you move around a little bit but not a ton. As I’ve been home in the last couple weeks, I’ve been leading a lot of worship at churches and doing some performances around Cleveland at different churches and just trying to get onstage more and move around and do some fast songs. Experience is the best form of practice.

CM: What’s the weirdest part about adjusting to your newfound fame?
BJ: Being recognized in Starbucks was pretty weird. I was just getting coffee the day after the blind audition aired and it’s cool because I was thinking ‘Oh, it could happen. Someone could recognize me.’ And then the first person who walked into Starbucks said, ‘Hey! You’re the guy on The Voice!’ That was really cool.

CIFF: 'Move On!' Shows the Heart of Near West Theatre

Photo courtesy of Move On!
One member was discriminated against for her race. Another was rejected by a casting director for her weight. But not here. These actors are accepted at Near West Theatre. That's the kind of place it is — one where people, whether they may be black, white, gay, straight, disabled or able-bodied, can have a turn in the spotlight.

Move On! captures the heart of the diverse community theater by chronicling the group's farewell show in its former location on the third floor of the Club Building at St. Patrick's Church. Since 1978, the theater has had incredible reach — more than 15,000 adults, teens and children have been a part of its productions. What they do is so impactful that former members, including one battling cancer, came from as far as Iowa and New York to be a part of the final show.

Artistic director Bob Navis Jr. steals the documentary with his colorful comments — This is assaultive theater! — and unconventional teaching methods — pulling out a candle that inspires members to discuss problems group-therapy style. It's soon apparent that while Navis encourages members to build a character onstage, he's really teaching them to use theater as a way to find themselves.

While much of the film mourns a place that became a home for so many budding artists, it also opens the door for another era in Near West's vibrant new $7.3 million space anchoring Gordon Square Arts District and makes the argument that  — if for heart alone — you'll want to grab a seat for their shows.

The Cleveland International Film Festival runs through March 29. To view a schedule, visit Near West Theatre opens its season with Shrek the Musical April 24.

CIFF: 'Just Eat It' Examines Food Waste

Grant Baldwin looks out over a dumpster of perfectly good hummus
(photo courtesy of Just Eat It: A Food Waste Story).

If you've ever avoided an imperfect-looking apple at the grocery store, filmmaker Grant Baldwin's examination of food-waste culture will make you realize that desire for aesthetic perfection is part of the problem. But it's only one dimension of a multifaceted quandary that Baldwin's quick-moving and insightful 74-minute film Just Eat It: A Food Waste Story does an excellent job explaining for those of us with last week's leftovers still hanging out in the back of the refrigerator. 

The Canadian filmmaker's documentary is built on a simple premise: Baldwin and his wife eat nothing but discarded food for a full six months. They start with a box of leftovers supplied by Baldwin's brother as he's cleaning out his home prior to a move, but it's not long before the couple are dumpster-diving for their daily menu. What they find extends far beyond the expected questionable-looking bags of lettuce and reveals a much deeper and disturbing side to the amount of perfectly fine food that is tossed away due to either store policy, appearance or mere convenience. In some cases — such as the discovery of a "small swimming pool"-sized dumpster full of hummus that still has more than three weeks of shelf life left — Baldwin can't decipher the reason for the waste. 

But the film goes beyond the food experiment at its core, talking to farmers, food processors and the like about the waste that is inherent in our food production. It starts in the field and wasteful practices continue up the chain to our homes, where an estimated 25 percent of the food we buy from the grocery store ends up in the trash.

Just Eat It is an eye-opening examination of our attitudes toward food. By the end, you'll never look at that bumpy grocery store apple the same way again. 

Just Eat It: A Food Waste Story screens at 12:20 p.m. March 26. The Cleveland International Film Festival runs through March 29 at Tower City Cinemas. For a full film schedule, visit

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Brunch for the Broke

Inviting a friend to Saturday's annual Coit Road Farmers Market French Toast Fundraiser can be a mouthful, but so are the offerings.

If you don't want to fork over $35 at some hoity-toity spot this weekend (hey, we've all been there), get your fill of French toast made with locally raised free-range eggs, real Northeast Ohio maple syrup, fresh-churned local butter and a cup of fresh apple cider or a steaming mug of Crooked River Coffee, all for $5. That's less than the cost of valet parking downtown. Scrounge up an extra buck to add a side of local pork or chicken sausage. Or bacon.

"You can't have French toast without bacon," says chef Robin Blair, who will be churning out plates for this kid-friendly fundraiser for the fourth year in a row.

Last year's event attracted approximately 200, and if you think that's a zoo, just wait until the kids finish eating, when farm animals such as chickens and goats are brought out for the young ones to learn about and pet.

"It's a lot of fun," Blair says. "Even when people are standing in line, it's still fun. There's talking, there's usually live guitar playing near the line. It's not just for the food."

Once you're finished eating, take a stroll through the historic barn setting to get your shopping done like a locavore.

Saturday, March 28, 9 a.m. to noon at the Coit Road Market (15000 Woodworth Road, East Cleveland). Visit for updates.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Forty Years After Ali, Chuck Wepner Stands Tall

Cadillacs, pinky rings and minks came to the Richfield countryside March 24, 1975, as the Coliseum hosted the heavyweight title fight between Muhammad Ali and Chuck Wepner. Boxing experts predicted a walk in the park for Ali, but Wepner had other ideas, lasting until the waning seconds of the 15th round despite cuts above both eyes and a broken nose. “We tried to get him off his game and piss him off,” says the 76-year-old Wepner from his home in Bayonne, New Jersey. “I fought a great fight, but he was just too good for me.” To commemorate the 40th anniversary of the fight, Wepner was honored with the unveiling of a 30-foot mural in his hometown last weekend. We talk with Wepner about Ali, serving as the inspiration for Rocky and an upcoming feature film on his life.

Q: You knocked Ali down in the ninth round at the Richfield Coliseum. Was it legitimate or did you step on his foot?

A: I hit him with a right hand under the heart. It was a good shot. I could feel it all the way up to my shoulder. Two hours after the fight, Drew Bundini Brown came up with the story that I stepped on Ali’s foot. That’s a bunch of bunk. After I knocked Ali down, my trainer, Al Braverman, said to me, “He’s getting up … and he looks pissed off.”

Q: How did you first learn about Sylvester Stallone using you as the inspiration for Rocky?
A: One of his producers called me a couple of weeks after the fight. He told me Stallone had watched the fight on TV and then locked himself in a room for three days and wrote the movie. I went to the premiere in New York and was standing in a long line until the theater manager brought me inside. When the movie was over, people were jumping up and screaming.

Q: You’re an executive producer on a new film The Bleeder, starring Liev Schreiber, Naomi Watts and Christina Hendricks. What can we expect from the movie?

A: I’m very excited about it, because I’ve been waiting for this for 10 years. The script has been rewritten, and they start shooting in New York next month. It’s not going to be like Rocky. It will be more like Goodfellas. It should be out around Christmas.

By Barry Goodrich