Review: Miles Ahead (2016)

Director: Don Cheadle

**

This review was originally published on Scannain.com

“Don’t call it jazz, man. That’s some made-up word.” This is the advice given by Miles Davis (Don Cheadle) when journalist Dave Brill (Ewan McGregor) attempts to label his music as such (Davis’ suggestion? “It’s social music.”). Similarly, whatever you say about Miles Ahead, don’t call it a biopic. Clearly born of a deep passion for Davis’ music, Miles Ahead takes inspiration from its subject by refusing to cleave to a template. (How anyone can want to stick to standard portrayals of musical lives onscreen after Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story skewered the whole genre is baffling). Yet for all its style and clear admiration, Miles Ahead is stuck in some kind of rut; it sticks to the tune for as long as it can tolerate, and then begins making up completely new notes. It’s daring, but the tune ends up sounding awkward and choppy.

Putting the lives of musicians on film comes with a great degree of prestigious and structural baggage, often seen as a quick way towards awards glory and acclaim. The formula (Early days, success, excess and redemption are covered, in that order) works to a point, but the most memorable films of this ilk are the ones that break the mould. From Amadeus to I’m Not There., musical genius requires filmmaking genius to match. Thus, Cheadle has saddled himself with a particular challenge for his debut behind the camera. We’re introduced to Davis in the film in his retirement of the mid-1970s. More specifically, we’re watching him and Brill being chased down a New York street by an oncoming car with a handgun poking out the window. The concept behind Miles Ahead is a portrayal of Davis as a gangster-like figure, with this particular ‘70s-set foray portraying him as a particularly mean and vicious down-and-out. In the title role, Cheadle immerses himself in the part from the first frame, unafraid to grapple with the abrasiveness and drug-fuelled paranoia that defined Davis in the late 1970s. Of course, this is just half the story. Try as Cheadle might, he is ultimately forced to recourse to flashbacks to the various stages of Davis’ life and career from the early 1940s to the early 1960s.

As reticent as Cheadle might be towards their conventionality, the scenes of Davis’ early career are when Miles Ahead works best. Scenes of Davis in the studio offer glimpses of an artist at once improvisational and in control. All the best art makes that which seems freeform seem effortless, despite the hard work that has gone into making it. Cheadle absolutely nails Davis’ passion whilst playing music, his ease when on stage, and his abrasiveness in most other aspects of his life. Miles Ahead takes care not to smooth its subject’s rough edges. The film boasts plenty of colour and energy, but never at the expense of Davis’ imposing character. Taking the brunt of his tumultuous behaviour is his first wife, Frances Taylor. In the role of Taylor, Emayatzy Corinealdi delivers a breakout performance. This woman gave up a lot out of love, but there is a refusal to paint her as a victim here. Corinealdi’s scenes with Cheadle are the film’s highlights; on this evidence, one can only wish this material might be revisited to present a George-and-Martha-alike standoff. Their moments are when Miles Ahead feels most engaging, not least because these scenes are its most honest.

In the ‘70s segment, Davis finds Brill on his doorstep one morning looking for an interview. A punch to the face, some bumbling and a misunderstanding later, and Davis has Brill in tow to Columbia Records’ offices, pulling a gun on executives for not paying up a previously-agreed retainer. These events are a combination of fact (the retainer), hearsay (Davis’ temper) and all-out fantasy. Brill is a creation of Cheadle and co-writer Steven Baigelman, as is the vast majority of the ‘70s-set events. The eventual theft of a master recording of new material from Davis’ apartment sees Davis and Brill off on a Starsky and Hutch-aping cross-city jaunt to find the culprit (A weasley music producer, played by a miscast Michael Stuhlbarg). This combination of fact and fiction only serves to leave the viewer wishing for these two films and plotlines to be separated. One might have been conventional, and the other just plain odd, but at least they wouldn’t have ended up strangling each other. Miles Ahead’s structure is a manifestation of Cheadle’s commitment to Davis’ improvisational style. This isn’t a jazz biopic; it’s jazz fusion. It’s just a pity that the fusion of genres and plots doesn’t translate into anything approaching harmony.

 

Review: Star Wars, Episode I – The Phantom Menace 3D (2012)

Director: George Lucas

**

Everyone loves a universal hate figure. Society coalesces surprisingly well around a common figure of contempt. Jar Jar Binks is one such figure, and arguments against The Phantom Menace centred first and foremost around the fact that George Lucas found a need for this jibbering and racially insensitive frog abortion to exist. Well, guess what? He’s back! In three dimensions!

The addition of 3D to the first episode of the Star Wars saga was never going to heal the scars inflicted upon many sci-fi nerds by the prequels. Neither the passage of time (it’s been 13 years since the initial release) or the addition of 3D makes Jar Jar more appealing or makes Jake Lloyd any less annoying. He’s the moppet playing Anakin Skywalker, the boy who would grow up to be the biggest badass in the universe, Darth Vader. A young slave on the planet of Tattooine, he’s discovered by Jedi knight Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson, lending some much needed dignity to this picture) and his apprentice Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor, doing a terrible Alec Guinness impersonation and sporting an even worse mullet). Cue a convoluted plot to get the boy out of slavery and put him on the path to becoming a Jedi. As annoying as the kid is, hindsight is a wonderful thing; next to Hayden Christensen, he’s John bloody Gielgud. Meanwhile, the planet of Naboo (ruled by Natalie Portman’s Queen Amidala) is under attack from the Federation in a dispute over tax (Tax in 3D? The kids’ll love that!) and the Senate is squabbling over the appropriate response. Sadly, Han Solo won’t be born for another few decades; wisecracks and fun are out, while solemnity and posturing are in. Oh, joy.

It’s unlikely the passage of time will make you care any more about intergalactic politics or the taxing of trade routes to Naboo. However, if you can look past claims that “Jar Jar raped my childhood”, there’s a lot to like in The Phantom Menace, at least in the broadest blockbuster terms. The central Pod Race (part of the bet to free Anakin) is still thrilling, the visuals are still great (as is John Williams’ score), and Darth Maul is still a great villain. His lightsabre duel with Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan is still one of the best scenes in the series, and the 3D makes it all the more dazzling. Still, Maul and pretty scenery are not enough to compensate for Jake Lloyd, a dull Portman, her ridiculous costumes, the convoluted plot, virgin births, racist alien design, the kiddy-friendly tone, all that midichlorian bullshit or Jar Jar bloody Binks! Star Wars used to combine fun with genuine wonder. The Phantom Menace is sadly lacking in that sense of worthy awe, and all the 3D in the world can’t fix that.

Review: Haywire (2011)

Director: Steven Soderbergh

***

Movies can originate from very simple ideas. For example, Steven Soderbergh saw MMA star Gina Carano fighting whilst flicking through the channels on the TV in a hotel he was staying in. He thought she’d make a great lead in an action move, and that movie is Haywire. Despite the erratic nature of the quality of his output of late, Soderbergh’s instincts seem right on the money.

Haywire is another action movie that does everything but take itself seriously. Thank goodness it doesn’t take itself seriously, because that would just suck all the fun out of it. Contagion offered no levity of any kind, just a boring and bored Matt Damon shifting units of Purell. Haywire opens with Mallory (Carano) and fellow agent Aaron (Channing Tatum) beating the almighty crap out of each other in a café. Had Matt Damon been in this, it would’ve been po-faced. However, the very pretty Carano kicking seven shades of proverbial out of the almost-equally pretty Tatum (Even he must know he’s a model posing as an actor.) is hilarious. They’re not physically matched, he comes in all preening and tough, and he starts the fight, but she just lays him out flat. She then takes a hostage (Michael Angarano), commandeers his car and tells him us how she came to be on the run. The story’s sub-Bourne hokum; after a job in Barcelona, which is exciting and full of running and punches, Mallory gets sent on a job to Dublin by her boss/ex Kenneth (Ewan McGregor, sporting a combover despite not being bald). The Dublin job’s a setup, and Mallory proceeds to run, punch and then run some more. In the process, she beats the hell out of Michael “where’s my goddamn Oscar?” Fassbender and takes us on a tour of the rooftops of Dublin’s fair city. Despite the excellent supporting cast, which includes Michael Douglas’ CIA man and Antonio Banderas’ Spanish agent, Carano is the deserving focus of Haywire. With looks reminiscent of Linda Fiorentino in The Last Seduction and reflexes that threaten whiplash just by watching her, Carano has the potential to be a movie star, and evidence of sufficient acting chops to back her up.

Lem Dobbs‘ script makes sure Mallory has enough international locales to provide interesting backdrops for the fight scenes. Let’s face it; Haywire exists so audiences can watch Carano do what she does best. The talk is perfunctory; action is the goal. Soderbergh may be an auteur at heart, but Haywire is a barebones action flick: Bourne without the brains or Bond without the suits. What it does have, however, is its fair share of exciting punch-’em-ups and a leading lady who demands (not requests, demands) your attention. Haywire may be forgettable; Carano is not.

Review: Perfect Sense (2011)

Director: David McKenzie

***

It’s typical, isn’t it? You meet a highly attractive member of the opposite sex and the world starts crashing down around you. Romances set against the backdrop of disaster have come and gone, but the hypotheticals in Perfect Sense show how a worldwide catastrophe can impact on just one relationship. Don’t expect Titanic-style melodrama; it’s the tangibility factor that gives this one its edge.

Susan (Eva Green) is an epidemiologist in Glasgow who’s assisting with research into a quickly-spreading disease that causes its victims to break down with overwhelming grief and then, as soon as they stop crying, lose their ability to smell. Around the same time Susan meets Michael (Ewan McGregor), a chef whose restaurant is feeling the effects as the smell-bereft stay away. At first, the mutual attraction and affection helps Michael and Susan overcome the loss of their sense of smell. It’s only when the sense of taste follows, and the inevitable chain of sensory deprivation becomes a greater threat, that cracks begin to appear. Marrying sci-fi and romance in some sort of even balance is not easy, so fair dues to writer Kim Fupz Aakeson for giving both the love story and the disaster element room to breathe. The simplicity of removing the senses one by one builds a sense of dread throughout the film. It also causes us to consider our reactions to such a disaster. Michael and Susan admit to themselves and each other that they can be unfeeling and unlikeable; are the senses being removed because of our failure to use them to our betterment and the betterment of others? Perfect Sense will certainly give pause for thought. The only problem is that it’s hard to feel any great hope for the romance when there’s little sense of hope or survival. Green and McGregor bare themselves (in every sense) in committed performances and generate sparks together, but the relentlessly increasing misery of the pandemic threatens to swamp them.

Director David MacKenzie (Young Adam, Hallam Foe) shows his usual preoccupations with human interaction and sexuality, but also shows a great knack for slow-build angst. Give him the reins of a thriller; it may prove very interesting. However, he does feel the need to squeeze whatever emotion he can out from under the disease angle; hence Max Richter’s tear-wringing score and romantic montages in fluid slo-mo. Perfect Sense works best if taken as a minimal apocalypse movie; it’s more heartfelt and relatable than anything involving a meteor heading towards the Earth. It’s just a pity that the central romance is often threatened by an unrelentingly bleak outlook and morbid sense of profundity.

Review: Beginners (2011)

Director: Mike Mills

****

Many times in life, we are forced to compromise our happiness. Then, we are freed from societal pressures and can once again search for whatever may complete us. In Beginners, Hal (Christopher Plummer) and his son Oliver (Ewan McGregor) are beginning the search for that completeness. Oliver is embarking on a relationship with Anna (Mélanie Laurent), whilst Hal readjusts to life after the passing of his wife. How? By coming out as a gay man at the age of 75. Clearly, happiness is a concept that differs from person to person.

Writer/director Mike Mills (who also directed the underrated Thumbsucker) takes inspiration from his own father, who also came out after a lengthy marriage. Beginners jumps back and forth through time, from Oliver and Anna’s relationship in 2003 back to a few years before, to Oliver’s time with his father from his coming out to his death from cancer (we learn this happens in the film’s opening. No spoilers here!). It’s the bedrock of many an indie movie: characters coping with the most unusual of circumstances. Where Beginners differs is in its refusal to get too maudlin, even when the big ‘C’ lurks in the corner. Like the character of Hal, Beginners takes events as they come with a big smile on its face. Oliver meets Anna shortly after Hal passes, and seeing this depressive guy and this feisty girl hook up is all kinds of wonderful. McGregor gives one of his warmest performances here, whilst Laurent is a delight, filled with sensual charm. Best of all is Plummer, as he embraces life and loves with a wry smile and a distinct sense of mischief. With renewed vigour, his lover Andy (Goran Visnjic) and his dog Arthur (a frequent scene-stealer), Hal fills his days with writing, shopping and laughter. The erstwhile Captain Von Trapp may need to have speeches ready come awards season.

Mills’ script is full of identifiable warmth; for such a happily energetic film, Beginners feels remarkably intimate. As Hal’s condition worsens and Oliver and Anna’s relationship gets rocky, the pace becomes more subdued, but the reaper’s gotta be paid sometime. Mills deftly handles the jumps in chronology, but his direction veers towards brash on occasion. Mopey voiceovers and montages scream indie cliché, but there’s simply too much joy and warmth in Beginners for it to be anything less than beguiling.