Talking Movies

April 21, 2016

Miles Ahead

Don Cheadle is star, co-writer, and director in this long-gestating passion project, an impressionistic portrait of jazz trumpeter Miles Davis.

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Miles Davis (Cheadle) at the end of the 1970s is in a funk. And not the good Prince kind, either. Rattling around his chaotic brownstone in an equally self-destructive New York City he just gets high, listens to his old hits on the radio, waits for royalty cheques, and absolutely refuses to even touch the trumpet, much less record any new material. And then Rolling Stone journalist Dave Brill (Ewan McGregor) barges in, eager for an interview, a cover feature on Miles’ comeback. Miles’ what?! An angry trip to Columbia HQ sees Miles inadvertently set the stage for a crazy nocturnal chase across NYC alongside Brill on the trail of an upcoming jazzman (Keith Stanfield), his manager Hamilton (Michael Stuhlbarg), his scary bodyguard (Brian Bowman), and the purloined tape of Miles’ secret 1978 session. But addled flashbacks slow his progress…

The flashbacks principally tell the tale of Miles’ romance with dancer Frances Taylor (Emayatzy Corinealdi). As much as Cheadle is really interested in telling a tale, for Miles Ahead is actually at times reminiscent of the impressionistic dreamily floating in and out of scenes through time approach of The Price of Desire. And that biopic of Eileen Gray was so critically savaged at JDIFF 2015 that its British release was pushed back to late May 2016… There is no stricture that a biopic about a musician involving much flashback ought to hew to the template established by James Mangold for Walk the Line. But without such formal rigour there is the danger of not much detail about anything adding up to very little, almost as if Cheadle is presenting two films: a cool jazz romance and a Gonzo blaxploitation flick.

Cheadle (complete with rasping whisper) is an engaging central presence, and under his direction Roberto Schaefer’s cinematography and Hannah Beachler’s production design impressively transform Cincinnati into rundown 1980 NYC. But the WGA credits Cheadle and Steven Baigelman (Get On Up) with the final script, based on a (presumably straighter) story from biopic specialists Stephen J. Rivele & Christopher Wilkins (Nixon, Ali, Pawn Sacrifice). So we get a hazy Finding Forrester intercut with fascinating scenes of Miles orchestrating sessions and, in some unusual historical accuracy, Miles’ proclivity for white women in a Jim Crow time landing him in trouble when a beat cop takes violent exception to his hailing a taxi for a white woman. Such gems amidst confusion make you wish Cheadle had hired Michael Genet and Rick Famuyiwa, who scribed his storming 2007 Petey Green biopic Talk to Me

Miles Ahead is not an entirely satisfying film, especially as you eventually feel Miles was just innovating his way down a cul-de-sac, but there’s enough shambolic charm, good performances, and great jazz to attend.

2.75/5

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July 24, 2013

The Wolverine 3-D

Walk the Line director James Mangold salvages Hugh Jackman’s signature role after 2009’s ho-hum outing by injecting some genuine tension and feeling.

the-wolverine-hugh-jackman-rila-fukushima1-600x472Mangold’s trademark disruptive flashbacks enliven an opening which unexpectedly drops us into a POW camp in Nagasaki just as the bomb drops. Logan, incarcerated in a deep pit to contain him, saves the life of noble young Japanese officer Yashida (Ken Yamamura). He awakens from this memory to find himself talking to Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), but this is a hallucination… Despite 2009’s teaser Japanese bar scene this film is defiantly actually a continuation of X-3; with Logan living peacefully alongside grizzlies in the Yukon, still traumatised by his murder of Dark Phoenix. Forced by his sense of justice into a confrontation in a bar he is unexpectedly assisted by petite samurai Yukio (Rila Fukushima), an emissary of the dying Yashida (now played by Hal Yamanouchi). Logan arrives in Japan to find Yashida wants to capture Logan’s healing power for himself. Can Logan fight the Yakuza as a mere mortal…?

Wolverine’s repeated clashes with Sabretooth in the last instalment were ridiculous as they couldn’t kill each other. By contrast the moment here when Logan first gets a shotgun blast and staggers back in agony rather than taking it in his stride takes the breath away. The initially too busy script by Mark Bomback (Die Hard 4.0) and Scott Frank (The Lookout, Minority Report) layers family power struggles and mutant plots. Yashida’s son and heir Shingen (Hiroyuki Sanada, Emily’s mentor in Revenge) is insistent that his daughter Mariko (Tao Okamoto) marry the justice minister, rather than her true love Black Hand ninja Harada (Will Yun Lee), for Shingen’s political advancement. Yashida though wants his granddaughter as his corporate successor, and has instructed Harada to protect her from the Yakuza, while his mutant biochemist Viper (Russian actress Svetlana Khodchenkova in increasingly outrageous costumes) works on crippling Logan, and furthering her own agenda.

Mangold’s interesting casting of newcomers yields many very distinctive faces, with the instantly adorable Fukushima in particular shining as Logan’s self-proclaimed bodyguard. Visually the Yakuza assault on a funeral is impressively staged, especially in following Harada and his lethal arching along rooftops as he protects Logan and Mariko. The Wolverine’s highlight is a brawl atop a speeding bullet train as a wounded Logan strategically leaps to avoid dying by signal lights and scaffolding, while trying to also take out Yakuza assassins. Thereafter all momentum is lost for a second act in which Logan and Mariko fall in love at her remote cottage: a protracted sequence lifted from Elektra in which a lost assassin connects with someone and so girds themselves for the third act. The third act does deliver a tense medical sequence, a nicely choreographed samurai v mutant duel, and both wonderful imagery and visceral brutality at the snow-covered Black Mountain lair of the Viper. But you feel that Mangold is striving throughout for a level of emotional depth that the script simply lacks, and hasn’t noticed that Jackman is fed precious few good gags to deliver…

Mangold doesn’t quite deliver his gold standard, but silver Mangold is a substantial improvement on Wolverine; and the teaser for X-Men: Days of Future Past, following after Logan’s coming to terms with Jean’s death, bodes well for the franchise.

3/5

February 25, 2011

On Not Live-blogging the Oscars

“If the headline is big enough, then the story is big enough”. Events are only as important as the media deems them to be. Big Brother was a flop when it began on Channel 4 in 2000, not least because the tabloid press sneered constantly at the stupidity of the concept. When they decided to change their tunes and cheerlead for it instead, they created its audience by making it seem that who got evicted when somehow mattered. Big Brother hadn’t become any less inane; the media had merely decided that it was now important. So it was. And this is where the Oscars come in. I was driven to distraction last year by the spectacle of the Irish Times not only wasting space on Saturday simultaneously predicting the winners while sneering at how other contenders were better, but then trumpeting on their front page on the Monday that you could read their blog coverage of who did actually win. The ‘paper of record’ practically apologising for being published too early to be able to list the clowns who won the annual meat-parade infuriated me so much that I wrote a quick snippy demolition of the Oscars after the fact as a tangent to my sequence of articles on media manipulation, critical misperception and popular reception of cinematic successes. I just forgot to actually write that…

I stand by the reasons I gave for not doing a live-blog of the Oscars but I’d like to expand them and properly illuminate the most important one. There is the practical consideration. Why would an Irish media outlet, like Movies.ie who are currently trumpeting theirs, do a live-blog of the Oscars? It does not make sense for the Irish Times as opposed to the Chicago Sun-Times to live-blog the Oscars as most of their readers are asleep rather than watching TV. Automatically the live-blog becomes a stale transcript to be read the next morning. Which leads to my conceptual problem with live-blogging – it is performing live, for a writer. The meaning of performing live, which gives theatre its magic, is in its ephemeral nature. A live episode of ER carried a frisson for the American viewer then, entirely absent for the Irish viewer watching a re-run now, and wondering why people keep forgetting their lines and falling over props. A live-blog, if pure to its own conceptual ideal, would be deleted at the end of its writing. The reference to ER is intentional; it’s a scripted episode, performed live. But a live-blog is an episode improvised as the director shouts plot-points at the actors who try to respond creatively in the moment. I co-directed a comedy script the actors loved to riff on, and twenty minutes of improvisation around a forty minute show produces maybe five moments worthy of being scribbled into the script. Against those odds live-bloggers must write witty insights for post after post, minute after minute, hour after hour. I don’t believe Fry & Laurie writing together could produce something that was good live, and if they did it would be pointless keeping a transcript – writing is considered reflection, not spontaneous rambling, as Lester Bangs infamously discovered when he accepted a challenge to write a gig review live onstage…

Above all my animus towards live-blogging was that it is merely the newest way of giving the oxygen of publicity to an event that desperately needs to be ignored. The coverage by the Irish Times last year explicitly recognised that the actual winners were rarely the best the year in cinema had offered so it is too much to ask that media coverage be dialled down until it reaches the level of saturation the quality of the awards warrants? If the Oscars were a dog show, it would be Crufts. If people wanted to read a live-blog of Crufts that might be their concern, but the BBC pulled coverage of Crufts because of concerns over the cruel breeding that its awarding criteria encouraged, and the Oscars is a Crufts that most years denies entry to the most popular breed of dogs, and encourages only a tiny and unhealthy range of dogs to be bred for competition, while renegade dog-lovers both strive to keep some unfavoured breeds from extinction and supply the other unfavoured breeds beloved of the public. The Academy’s insane predilections have arguably distorted the entire medium of cinema. Walk the Line had trouble securing financing because it was a mid-budget drama. It wasn’t a blockbuster which could be sold to a mass audience, and it wasn’t a low-budget indie drama that could be sold on its Oscar nominations to a small audience, it was merely a cracking film – and that left it nowhere. The Oscars tend to squeeze serious drama into a tiny release window, downgrade the critical esteem afforded to quality mass entertainment, and encourage ‘independent’ movies to adopt a rigid set of clichés (think Sunshine Cleaning) in order to base their marketing campaigns around their Oscar nominations.

Any publicity given to the Oscars only perpetuates this destructive effect and so, as a small individual gesture, until the Oscars recognise quality blockbusters and skilful comedies, and develop a long-term memory greater than three months, this blog will only treat them annually to the healthy dose of derision they deserve. Read some more of the Academy’s greatest mistakes in Oscar Schmoscar Part II.

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