Monday, April 11, 2016

Local Singer Emily Keener Hits a High Note on NBC's 'The Voice'

Local music fans may recognize Emily Keener from open mic nights at the Winchester, the Barking Spider or Brothers Lounge. But now, the 17-year-old Northeast Ohio native has made her way to your living room TV screen as a live show contestant on NBC’s popular singing competition, The Voice, starting April 11. Keener grew up listening to classic rock and her father sing and play the guitar in her Old Brooklyn home. At 11-years-old, Keener taught herself guitar and began to write songs. She released her first album, A Book of New Beginnings, at just 14 years old and released East of the Sun with popular local folk band the Womacks in 2015. Then a friend of a friend presented her with the opportunity to audition for the show and Keener nailed a four-chair turnaround with Elton John's "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" and chose Pharrell Williams as her coach. We caught up with Keener to chat about the show, her musical style and working with the biggest names in the music industry today.

Q: How did it feel getting Blake Shelton, Pharrell, Christina Aguilera and Adam Levine to turn around during your blind audition?
A: I was freaking out on the inside. I walked into it not even expecting one chair. I just wasn’t sure how to handle it in that moment. You kind of view them as figments of your imagination, they’re so untouchable that you can’t even fathom being a few feet in front of them, having them truly appreciate what you’re doing. There are no words to explain how that kind of approval feels.

Q: Why did you pick Pharrell, and how is he as a coach?
A: I love his mind and the way it works. He just has this deep understanding of music and an amazing ear that allows him to look deeper into an artist. He always makes sure every person feels like they matter; that’s the type of person I want to be working with. My favorite moment with him was after knockouts. He told me he wants me to stay true to myself no matter what anybody says [or] what happens in my life; he wants me to continue down the route I’m going down as a musician and person. That told me I have what it takes to keep going. I think I have a lot more to give.

Q: How do you differ from the other contestants?
A: Everybody on the show is so incredibly talented. The first few times I was coming into contact with these contestants I was extremely intimidated. I’m one of the youngest people left in this competition, so [they] have a lot of years and more experience on me. I spend a lot of time by myself practicing [and] I think I’ve gained a lot more confidence.

Q: How was it working with guest adviser Miley Cyrus?
A: Her knowledge [and] her talent is so intense and in your face. She is unapologetic, confident and fun. She knew all about Joni Mitchell too, [and] thought it’d be a great idea to start off with just me and the guitar making it more meaningful, softer and intimate. That small touch did so much for the performance and really made it. She was digging who I was as an artist. It was really cool to have that affirmation from her.

Catch Keener on The Voice during live shows Monday and Tuesday at 8p.m.

CIFF: 'Love Is All You Need?' Flips Our World To Confront Prejudice

Jacob Rodier and Kyla Kenedy in Love Is All You Need?
Photo courtesy of Genius Pictures
The 40th Cleveland International Film Festival closed this weekend with a record-breaking 102,255 attendees and 500-plus film screenings throughout the region. This weekend, filmgoers saw Love is All You Need?, a follow-up to the acclaimed short that has been translated into 15 languages. 

Love Is All You Need? shocks and convicts its viewers by telling a classic love story in an upside-down world where same-sex couples are the norm and heterosexual couples are bullied. Gender roles are also flopped, so the townspeople watch women play football as boys hustle them water from the sidelines and the sinister minister is a woman (Joy’s Elisabeth Rohm). The film follows the picture-perfect football player, Jude (Step Up’s Briana Evigan) as she falls for the forbidden Ryan, a reporter (Pretty Little Liars’ Tyler Blackburn). The discovery of their love is met with brutal attacks, so difficult to watch that a few people even walked out of the movie. This emotional intensity is coupled with the storyline of a young girl, Emily (The Walking Dead’s Kyla Kenedy), who is bullied ruthlessly and called a ‘Ro,’ slander for a heterosexual, for merely befriending a boy.

What’s most chilling about the hateful texts, merciless beatings and public embarrassment portrayed in this film is that it’s all based on real events. Except the hate in reality was directed toward LGBT people like Matthew Shephard, a gay college student tortured and left to die, and Tyler Clementi, who committed suicide after a college roommate used a webcam to tape Clementi with a man.

Flipping the sexuality norm, makes seeing each one of these ruthless acts even more wicked because the heterosexual audience is now watching themselves get name-called, judged in the hallways and dragged down for being who they are. The film is masterfully effective in allowing everyone to understand the struggles that the LGBT community still faces, and seeing that suppressing someone’s ability to love another person is inhumane and can cause someone to break down to the point of no return.

Director K. Rocco Shields plans to introduce the full-length film into schools as part of anti-bullying education. Since the short was introduced in 2013, a teacher’s contract was not renewed in Florida and a Kansas teacher was asked to resign but eventually got reinstated after showing the film.

The pushback shows that now more than ever, this message that love is universal and essential to our well-being, no matter who you are or who you love, is critical.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

CIFF: 'Hooligan Sparrow' exposes corruption in China

Activist Hooligan Sparrow protests sex crimes in China.
Photo courtesy Hooligan Sparrow
Ye Haiyan aka Hooligan Sparrow posted pictures of herself online offering free sex to migrant workers as a way to get into a brothel and expose the injustices she witnessed. This fearless activist is the centerpiece of a jarring film by the same name that follows Sparrow as she fights for justice for six students sold to an elementary school principal and raped as part of a government favor. In China, a man who rapes a young girl can get a life sentence, but if money was exchanged, the sentence is more lenient. 

Sparrow and her band of activists are constantly blocked by the Chinese government — getting arrested, evicted from her apartment and having her things dumped roadside. As more roadblocks pop up, another dark presence emerges. Plain-clothed government officials appear in several of young filmmaker Nanfu Wang’s footage, leading her to realize every shot she captures is being monitored. She hides audio recorders and even wears glasses with a micro-camera to record whatever she can when filming in public is too dangerous. The tension boils over when spies threaten to beat up Wang, take away her camera and even murder her.

The confrontations make the viewer appreciate the courage of the young filmmaker to keep rolling even when threats loom and expose the oppression for all to see. Although the circumstances also mean viewers are watching overlong shots of the ground, shaky camera work during struggles and first-person explanations from the filmmaker as to how the footage was obtained. These extraneous elements could have been edited out for a smoother final cut.

Despite the constant pushback these brave women are met with, their determination to keep challenging the system is commendable. Some activists may still be jailed, but the group has one protest the Chinese government can’t stop: a lasting document of the atrocities in this daring film.

The Cleveland International Film Festival runs through April 10. For a complete listing of films, visit

Monday, April 4, 2016

CIFF: "Gasland" Director Josh Fox's New Film Takes on the World

Josh Fox's How to Let Go of the World and Love All the Things Climate Can't Change shows April 4 at 7:10 p.m. Photo courtesy of film

Director Josh Fox's thought-provoking 2010 film Gasland appeared just as energy companies were making hydraulic fracturing a household phrase in the United States. It was a damning indictment of the process and was nominated for an Academy Award. Gasland 2 followed in 2014, looking even further into the industry and its potentially devastating long-term effects.

How to Let Go of the World and Love All the Things Climate Can't Change is different than those films and also a logical progression from them. It seems borne of Fox's realization that despite the notoriety Gasland achieved, hydraulic fracturing has only increased across the globe. He arrives at the conclusion that one man can do little to stop the march of huge corporations, rampant consumption and the consequences they bring. At one point he asks, "Can a person stop a wave?" and it's clear the question weighs heavy on his mind. 

Fox's film starts at his family's home in New York state, where predatory beetles are wiping out a beloved hemlock tree. It then moves on to the devastation brought by Hurricane Sandy. It's explained that both are due to global warming, and Fox skillfully lays out his frightening argument that although the Earth will survive, the living things that call it home will forever be changed. Temperatures will rise. Animal species will die off. Coastal communities will ultimately be underwater. There is nothing we can do to stop it, he asserts. It's too late. 

It's all enough to make you want to watch some cat videos on YouTube, and Fox playfully obliges with a few quick clips after laying out his dire diagnosis. But the problem gnaws at him. Despite his success as a journalist and an activist, Fox feels hopeless. He wants to give up. 

But that's when How to Let Go of the World and Love All the Things Climate Can't Change switches gears. It's that moment of hopelessness that prompts Fox to set out to find those who are fighting back in the face of such long odds. He finds hope in a smog-filled Beijing where the city's 20 million residents can't open their windows and many check the day's particulate-matter report on their smartphones like it's the weather. He travels into the Amazon rain forest with those who are cleaning up oil spills by hand — one bucket at a time. 

In one of the film's most poignant segments, the filmmaker joins protesters who are trying to block an Australian coal freighter the size of the Empire State Building. Leading the charge are representatives of small Pacific islands that are slowly being swallowed by rising waters caused by global warming. They paddle out to meet the freighter in hand-carved, traditional wooden boats. 

In each of these stories, the message is clear: Our humanity is most apparent when we stand together. It's not that the people Fox encounters around the world have no choice but to fight back in the face of long odds, it's that they are confidently making one to do so. 

How to Let Go of the World and Love All the Things Climate Can't Change will show again April 4 at 7:10 p.m. For more information and a full schedule of Cleveland International Film Festival films, visit

Friday, April 1, 2016

CIFF: Believeland

You think you know how Believeland ends. You don't.

The ESPN Films 30 for 30, which premiered at the 40th Cleveland International Film Festival last night, doesn't begin with Earnest Byner collapsed on the turf of Municipal Stadium or Michael Jordan hanging in the air over Craig Ehlo's outstretched arm. Of course, those agonizing scenes of our sports misery play out in all their cursed disappointment in Northeast Ohio native Andy Billman's film. And all of our civic ghosts rattle their chains like so many action-movie villains: the burning river, Default, Mayor Perk, the Cleveland Joke, Denny the Kid.

Instead, the story begins in downtown's Huron Square Deli — fittingly, now closed — with a father and son.

If there's a hero in this film, Scott Raab, the former Esquire writer and Cleveland native, is it. A stand-in for tortured Clevelanders everywhere, Raab wears a T-shirt with a faded American flag and still carries the ticket stub from the Cleveland Browns 1964 championship. In scenes at the deli counter with Judah, Raab tries to explain us.

"All these hopes and dreams of a renaissance in Cleveland," Raab tells Judah, "everyone looks to the teams to somehow represent the city in a way that doesn't reinforce that image that it's a Loserville, it's a joke, it's a Mistake on the Lake."

If you focus on Red Right 88, The Drive, The Fumble, The Move, Game 7, The Decision — and this film goes through them all — then maybe it would feel like a reflection of all those stereotypes. But Billman's movie and Raab's narration make it so much more.

"It's about faith and family, loving and longing," says John Dahl, vice president and executive producer of ESPN Films and Original Content, in his introduction at the Connor Palace premiere.

That comes through in interviews with the vanquished heroes — Byner, Ehlo and Indians Mike Hargrove, Kenny Lofton and Jim Thome — and those who covered them.

In maybe the film's most poignant moment, a teary-eyed Byner looks straight into the camera and describes the fumble in the 1987 AFC Championship Game.

“I loved the game,” Byner says. “I loved playing for you all. And I’m sorry for letting you down.”
It dissolves into Browns coach Marty Schottenheimer with tears filling his own eyes: "I've never been around a player that got more out of his talent — and he was talented — than Earnest Byner. And he gave it to you every single play."

That connection among players and coaches, fans and players, players and their teammates, teams and the community and one generation and the next make Believeland special.

[Spoilers from this point forward.]

Toward the end, Browns legend Jim Brown offers a rye chuckle as one who knows what a championship is like, "Every year's next year, all they're askin' for is another '64 — an experience."
Raab knows it's more than that. "You didn't grow up here," he tells Judah at the lunch counter, "I don't expect you to be emotionally invested in this city."

"Well, I think I am," Judah says. "I like Cleveland. I love Cleveland."

A smile sneaks across Raab's face and he pulls his son closer, briefly kissing him on the head.
That's what a championship will feel like, Cleveland.

Believeland will screen again Saturday at 11:35 a.m., Sunday at 10:15 a.m., Monday at 7:30 p.m. and Tuesday at 6:30 p.m., all at Tower City Cinemas.