Saturday, April 30, 2016

Review: High-Rise

Image courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.
J.G. Ballard's 1975 novel "High-Rise" is an unsettling dystopian vision of how an enclosed environment - in this case, an apartment building where the social classes are kept separate with the rich on the top floors and lower class on the not-so-well-maintained bottom floors - can wreak havoc on the psyche. I read the novel a few years ago and found it to be, much like his disturbing "The Atrocity Exhibition" and "Crash" (I haven't read the book, but am a big fan of David Cronenberg's brilliantly warped film), an unnerving depiction of a society on the brink of collapse.

Ben Wheatley, the British director responsible for the creepy "Kill List" and the trippy "A Field in England," has adapted the book into a new film that is stylish and visually impressive, but seems to be missing an ingredient that made the novel so effective.

In the film, a medical school lecturer named Laing (Tom Hiddleston) has moved onto the 25th floor, which puts him below the super wealthy who live at the top and the poorer classes who dwell in the building's lower depths, of the titular building, which includes enough amenities - a grocery store, swimming pool, etc. - that its residents would likely rarely have to ever leave the property.

He meets and gets involved with a single mother named Charlotte (Sienna Miller) and sort of befriends a documentary filmmaker named Wilder (Luke Evans) and his wife Helen (Elisabeth Moss), but is also sought out by the building's designer and penthouse resident, Royal (Jeremy Irons, doing that creepy thing he does so well), who has taken an interest in him.

Some minor power failures and grievances among the residents - such as a group of kids from the lower floors being kicked out of the pool by the rich denizens - leads to further tension, which then erupts in a smorgasbord of violent behavior, suicides, sexual assault and other horrific incidents.

Laing is stuck in the middle, while Wilder attempts to play revolutionary and Royal's thuggish security team struggles to keep everyone in check. For a novel, this material resulted in a compelling - and often disturbing - narrative, whereas Wheatley has mostly mined it for stylistic flourishes and the occasional sex and violence.

The director certainly has talent. His debut, the gritty crime drama "Down Terrace," had a sense of dread that expertly ran throughout it, while "Kill List" - his best, in my opinion, effortlessly jumped from genre to genre, culminating in a shocking ending. His "Sightseers" didn't do it for me and "A Field in England," although visually stimulating, was a mixed bag. "High-Rise," although an independent film, finds the director working with a name cast and, seemingly, a higher budget. But there are times when it feels as if he's too willing to borrow visual cues from other filmmakers, such as Stanley Kubrick or Cronenberg, who have handled this type of material much more successfully.

Something has been lost in translation from page to screen and while it's difficult to pinpoint what exactly is missing, one of my problems with the film is that it never feels as if it's more than just a series of events taking place. The characters are thinly drawn, despite the performances being good, and their motivations are rarely clear. Also, Ballard's book does an excellent job of the slow decay of societal mores that leads to the orgy of violence that overtakes the building, whereas the film's depiction of it is sudden and less convincing.

Thematically, the concept of a caste system in a tight-quartered space that results in resentment and revolt should lead to an intriguing execution - and, in fact, it has: Bong Joon Ho's "Snowpiercer." Although Wheatley's picture is more a science fiction story of the mind - as is much of Ballard's work - and Ho's is a straight-up futuristic action thriller, the latter is an example of how well a story of this type can be translated to film. Alas, "High-Rise" is a mediocre adaptation of a powerful novel.

Review: Keanu

Image courtesy of Warner Bros.
I'll admit: I'm only moderately familiar with the work of Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele (yes, I've seen Luther, the anger translator), but if "Keanu," their first film as lead roles, is an indication, I'd say they are a pretty funny and talented pair.

The film isn't quite the funniest thing you'll ever see, which is what I'd been led to believe it might be by the high praise bestowed on their television work - alas, my TV watching is primarily dramas - but it's still funnier than most Hollywood comedies and there's a certain sweetness between the lead characters and the titular cat that goes a long way.

The picture opens with a violent shootout during which a group of Latino gangsters is gunned down by two particularly frightening guys with long hair in a warehouse. The adorable tiny kitten we'll come to know as Keanu escapes the scene and winds up on the doorstep of Rell (Peele), who is lying on his couch depressed after having been dumped by his girlfriend. But the appearance of the cat seems to revive him and, moments later, he has a new lease on life, which is instantly noticed by his cousin and best pal Clarence (Key), a buttoned up suburbs father and husband who has a fixation on George Michael.

But shortly after a night out at the movies a few weeks later, they return to Rell's house to find that it has been broken into and Keanu has been snatched. Through some investigating, they learn that a local drug selling outfit known as the Blips - the rejects from the Bloods and Crips - are responsible for the break-in after confusing Rell's house with that of a local dealer.

Rell and Clarence unbelievably - but humorously - infiltrate the gang by pretending to be two hard core gangster types - although they are both softies who look like preppies - and they are mistaken for the fearsome duo responsible for the shootout that opens the film. They gladly take the roles in order to steal back the cat, but end up being asked by the gang's leader (Method Man) to school his minions on the criminal life. The scenes that follow are among the most clever in the film and I like how eager some of the gang members are to engage in the team building that Clarence is offering.

There are some truly funny sequences along the way - especially an early one during which Rell nervously attempts to get Clarence to not order a glass of wine at the gang's bar and another when Clarence surprises everyone with a backflip that I couldn't properly describe here if I tried.

Some other jokes are carried on a little too long. There's only so much mileage to be had out of Rell and Clarence's put-on gangsta voices and the ongoing joke involving Clarence's obsession with George Michael starts out funny, but eventually gets a little tiresome. Also, the romantic interests for both characters - Clarence's out-of-town wife and Rell's budding relationship with a female gang member - feel a bit forced.

That being said, "Keanu" is a fun movie and Key and Peele both have the types of personalities with whom it's nice to spend time. There's a fair amount of violence and other wild behavior during the picture, but the camaraderie between the duo as well as Rell's love for that adorable kitten give it a light touch. Plus, it's funnier than any other recent film I can think of off the top of my head. Oh, and Keanu Reeves makes an appearance - well, of sorts. So there's that.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Review: The Huntsman: Winter's War

Image courtesy of Universal Pictures.
The obligatory and unnecessary "The Huntsman: Winter's War" isn't so much bad - which is not to say that it's good -  as it is uninspiring. Yes, I realize I am not the target audience for the picture, but it's so by-the-book and safe that it nearly brings back fond memories of "Snow White and the Huntsman." Note, I said nearly.

In this prequel-sequel, two sisters - one fairly good spirited (Emily Blunt) and the other (Charlize Theron) not so much - rule the fairy tale land where they live. Theron's Ravenna is a spiteful and nasty creature who is beholden to the mirror on the wall that tells her that her beauty will be outdone by Freya's (Blunt) daughter, so she takes drastic action - one that leaves Freya bitter and alone in an icy kingdom far, far away. So, if you're looking for a grouchier version of "Frozen," you're in luck.

Freya raises her own army, training them to be warriors and instilling in them that love, you know, sucks. However, that can't stop the blooming romance between her two finest warriors - Eric (Chris Hemsworth, reprising his role from "Snow White") and Sara (Jessica Chastain, sporting a grimace that notifies us that she knows she likely has better places to be than this one).

Freya, angry that someone else is having a better time than she is, pulls a passive aggressive move and breaks apart the two lovers, who spend years wandering the wilderness before running into one another again and setting out on a quest from preventing Freya from getting ahold of her sister's powerful mirror. Along the way, they pick up some dwarfs, fight some ogres and fall back in love because what else do you expect to happen?

"Winter's War" attempts to create some suspense as to whether what we know to be almost certain will happen actually happens. No such luck. The only real surprise in the picture is that Snow White's character is revisited only through dialogue referencing her and literally one shot of her looking in the mirror, but from behind.

As I've mentioned, this is a movie that likely exists due to its predecessor performing well enough at the box office and not because this was a story screaming to be told. It's competently enough made, although its solid cast could be put to better use elsewhere. It's not the fairest of them all, but merely fair.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Review: Tale of Tales

Image courtesy of IFC Films.
Although with some reservations, I'd recommend Matteo Garone's baroque, occasionally funny and even more often messy "Tale of Tales," a collection of three stories based on the works of Giambattista Basile, who was, for those not in the know, a Neapolitan poet and fairy tale collector from the 16th and 17th centuries.

There's not particularly a unifying theme or concept behind the three visually sumptuous stories that Garrone has chosen to interlock here - aside from, perhaps, people learning that valuable lesson about being careful what you wish for - and the stories themselves are a bit uneven. One of them is an absolute riot, another only moderately engaging and a third is pretty decent, but has no ending - and, by that, I don't mean it's open ended, but rather just stops without concluding its story as if the filmmakers forgot its existence.

That last story I referenced is actually the first to unfold and it involves a queen (Salma Hayek) whose need to bear a child is so all-consuming that her husband, the king (John C. Reilly, a great actor who is oddly cast here), enlists the advice of an oracle, of sorts, who tells him that if he slays a sea monster and his wife eats the heart, she will soon thereafter bear a child. This series of events leads to some spellbinding imagery, the most incredible of which involves Reilly's character attacking a large beast underwater.

However, not only does Hayak - whom, as you can see above, does indeed devour that heart - become impregnated, but so does a servant girl, who cooks the heart. The two young boys, both with shockingly white hair, to whom they give birth become friends, but Hayek's queen becomes concerned about her son befriending a peasant and takes some drastic steps to try to separate them. The story starts out strongly, but eventually devolves into some curious plot devices before never-quite culminating.

The second story concerns a randy king (Vincent Cassel, who else?) who becomes entranced when he spots a woman walking down the street with her face and body covered. As it turns out, she's horribly deformed, but with the help of a witch she becomes a beautiful young woman and is soon married to the king. Her sister, also deformed, shows up at the castle and starts making trouble and, if it isn't already clear, that spell the witch cast wasn't meant to last indefinitely. This story has its moments, but it also ultimately ends up getting pushed aside by the film's final - and easily best - tale.

The third story is so bizarre and engrossing that it probably could have been its own film and been the better for it. It starts with a bored king (Toby Jones) whose daughter, Violet (Bebe Cave), becomes obsessed with getting married. But before that plot thickens, the king suddenly becomes entranced by a flea - yes, a flea - that dances around on his arm. He takes it back to his room, feeds it blood and, some time later, it has grown to abnormally large proportions.

Then, suddenly, one day the flea dies and the king decides to hold a competition, in which the man who can guess what type of animal the skin of the creature - the flea - that has been hung up on a wall in the palace is will be given the hand of the king's daughter. As it turns out, one of the suitors is an ogre and, well, take a guess. This story, which is alternately weird and gory, is easily the best of the bunch, in no small part due to Jones' hilarious performance as the king and Cave's portrayal of Violet, who goes from being a gloomy princess trapped by the decisions of others to, let's say, something else.

So, "Tale of Tales" is a pretty decent film overall due to its strengths outweighing its problems, of which there are some. As I've mentioned, one of the stories is just so-so and another feels curiously incomplete. However, my biggest issue with the picture is how Garrone cross-cuts back and forth between the stories - and for seemingly no reason. He also chooses odd moments to transition from one story to the other. Rather than leave us on a cliff-hanger involving any particular story, he merely seems to grow bored with one story and then ventures back to one of the others.

For those unfamiliar with the director's name, Garrone is responsible for the impressive and violent 2008 Mafia drama "Gomorrah" as well as the uneven "Reality." His latest, which is also his first film in English, involves some bold and memorable stylistic choices that, ultimately, don't add up to a whole lot, other than some well-made - and grim, pun intended - fairy tales. It's neither a step forward or backward for the filmmaker, but merely a - more often than not - entertaining oddity.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Review: Green Room

Image courtesy of A24.
Jeremy Saulnier's latest low budget thriller is an example of a film that I can admire for the obvious skill on display, while at the same time not being completely thrilled about its content. "Green Room" is a tense, mostly well made film that combines elements of horror, action and music - all fairly well - and yet it's also off putting in its devotion to depicting all manner of violence against the human body.

The director's previous feature was "Blue Ruin," a solid, micro-budget thriller about a guy who carries out an act of revenge, only to see his life spiral out of control when it sets off a chain reaction. "Green Room," which also features a chain reaction of sorts, tells the story of a hardcore punk band who gets a gig at a creepy, backwoods venue run by neo-Nazi skinheads and a particularly ruthless leader known as Darcy (Patrick Stewart).

For starters, one of the stranger elements of "Green Room" is how it depicts the world of hardcore punk rock. Full disclosure: while I'm an avid fan of everyone from the Sex Pistols to Richard Hell and the Voidoids, I'm mostly in the dark when it comes to hardcore. But it would seem to me that Saulnier has little love for the genre, which he portrays as mostly violent, not-so-casually racist and very, very angry.

When one of the bandmates witnesses the murder of a girl at the club, the group tries to split, but ends up being imprisoned in a locked room with a skinhead brandishing a gun. After they manage to get ahold of the weapon, the band tries to bargain with Darcy and his band of "red boots" - a group of skin head followers - and things quickly go south. So far, so good.

But once the violence is unleashed - and, boy, is it unleashed - things quickly go south for the film itself. Look, many films that I adore - from the bloodbaths of Quentin Tarantino to the splattery horror pictures of the 1970s and 1980s - feature violence. But it's all about how it's used.

In "Green Room," a man is choked to death before having his stomach sliced open with a box cutter. A guy's hand is left dangling after nearly being torn off by a dog. Another character's throat is torn out by the same dog. And another girl is later mauled by the same damn dog. A guy's cheek is blown off by a shotgun. A machete meets a neck. A knife is sticking out of the side of a girl's head and, for no effect other than to repulse, it's later removed and a fountain of blood spurts out. Multiple people are shot in the head and neck in startling close-up.

The only bit of levity in the picture is a running joke involving which acts the group members would pick as their desert island band. It makes for an amusing - and much needed - humorous payoff late in the film.

So, while I can admire the talent behind the camera here, it's hard to become invested in the material - first, because the characters' primary purpose is to be ground up like so much meat, rather than actually being developed and, second, because the grinding of that meat is gratuitously depicted. "Green Room" is well-shot and often intense, but a fairly unpleasant experience. It's not a bad film, but it leaves a bad taste in the mouth. Saulnier certainly has ability, so I'm hoping that next time his talents are put to better use.

Review: Sing Street

Image courtesy of The Weinstein Company.
One of the most common problems with films about fictional bands is that the music they perform during the course of the movie isn't typically good enough to convince an audience that the group could be a phenomenon. For example, I recently watched the 1976 remake of "A Star is Born," which is set in the world of 1970s rock 'n' roll, with Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson and, needless to say, I wasn't buying that the music in the picture would have reached a wide audience.

John Carney's latest film, "Sing Street," has no such problem. Not only is the picture a wonderful surprise - perhaps, the sleeper of spring 2016 - but the songs performed by its fictional band are catchy and feel at home during the time when the film is set - Ireland in the mid-1980s.

All three of Carney's films that have screened in the U.S. - the lovely "Once," the decent but slight "Begin Again" and, now, "Sing Street" - have focused on the act of making music, whether it's cutting a record as in the case of the first two films or, in his latest, the creation of songs and music videos.

The film kicks off with Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) strumming on his guitar and using his parents' (Aidan Gillen and Maria Doyle-Kennedy) loud fighting in the background as fodder for his lyrics. The family calls to order a meeting during which Conor and his siblings learn that, due to money constraints as a result of Ireland's weak economy, Conor will be pulled out of his private school and sent to a free local school operated by the Christian Brothers.

From the moment he sets foot in the place, Conor knows he's in trouble. Overrun by young hoodlums eager to pick on him and operated by a tyrannical priest, the school is a nightmare. But he spots a pretty and - as it turns out, complicated - young woman named Raphina (Lucy Boynton) across the street from the school and works up the courage to talk to her. She tells him she's planning on being a model and, on the fly, he asks her if she wants to be in a video that he and his band is shooting. The problem is: there's no band.

In search of band members, Conor puts up a flyer at his school and enlists a group of kids who all have musical talent and, most likely, are also picked on by the school's rough and tumble crowd. Among the motley crew are a small redhead who acts as the band's manager, a pair of brothers, the school's only black kid and a boy whose father is a lounge lizard type and has the ability to play virtually any instrument.

On the one hand, "Sing Street," which is the name of the band and a riff on the school - Synge Street - they attend, is a wish fulfillment fantasy that, one could argue, is likely the stuff of movies and not real life, although its time and place add a fair amount of grittiness. On the other, the picture is so utterly winsome, good spirited and well made that it hardly matters.

One of my favorite elements in the picture - which is accompanied by a touching dedication right before the credits roll - is how Conor's older brother Brendan (Jack Reynor, who gives the impression of an Irish Seth Rogen) takes his younger sibling under his wing as the boys form their band, schooling him on The Cure, Duran Duran, Spandau Ballet, Joe Jackson and other popular acts of the era. Brendan also takes on the role of parent to Conor, albeit one who's just as likely to blaze up a joint as they are to send you to your room, when the brothers' actual parents are spending much of their time screaming at each another.

It's also amusing to watch how Conor and Sing Street progress artistically as they concoct each song and their music videos become more complex - a fantasy sequence involving the film's best original song is accompanied by a "Back to the Future" homage, for example. Their outfits and hairstyles - one minute Robert Smith, the next Simon Le Bon - also go through various stages.

And at the center of it all is a budding friendship - and occasionally more - between Conor and Raphina, which gives the film its emotional kick. More than anything else, the film is bittersweet. While romance buds and catchy songs are written, there are also out-of-work parents, abusive guardians and dreams deferred. Or, as Brendan tells his younger brother, the state of being "happy-sad," which he punctuates with a spin of a Cure album.

This is a very well made, good hearted and highly enjoyable movie. Similar to "Once," it's another great film - by the same director - on how music, or any type of art for that matter, can inspire us, forge bonds between like-minded people and provide an escape, even if temporary, during difficult times. "Sing Street" is the year's most pleasant surprise.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Review: Louder Than Bombs

Image courtesy of The Orchard.
It's often when foreign filmmakers attempt their first feature in English or shot in the United States that they flounder. But in the case of Danish-born director Joachim Trier, whose first two features were set in Norway, it's an example of a filmmaker who has managed to flourish when making the jump across the pond.

I could be in the minority on this one. Trier's debut, "Reprise," was a critically acclaimed film, but I thought its overabundance of style occasionally overshadowed everything else. His follow up, "Oslo, August 31st," was an improvement, but it's his third feature - "Louder Than Bombs" - where the director has best managed to combine his stylistic flourishes with some very good performances and narrative choices.

The film, which jumps back and forth between the past and present, tells the story of a larger-than-life photographer (Isabelle Huppert), whose death that has not quite been ruled an accident has left a gaping hole in the lives of the three men in her lives - her husband (Gabriel Byrne) and two sons (Jesse Eisenberg as the eldest who has recently seen the birth of his first child and Devin Druid as the high school-aged younger son).

As the film opens, Eisenberg's Jonah, who leaves his wife and newborn child in the delivery room to go find a snack before getting sidetracked after running into an old flame, appears lost. When he's given the news that a former colleague (David Straitharn) of his mother's is going to write a piece that might reveal that her death may have been a suicide, it's as good an excuse as any for him to trek home and evade his own life for a while.

Once there, he finds his father, Gene (Byrne), floating through a mid-life crisis that involves sleeping with his youngest son's teacher (Amy Ryan). And his brother Conrad (Druid) is a loner who spends most of his time holed up in his room playing violent video games and, on occasion, dancing wildly to music from his computer.

One of the elements of the picture that I truly admired was how the script sets up Conrad to be another in a long line of gloomy suburban teenagers whom we expect to do something drastic - such as shoot up a school, a concern which Jonah even voices aloud to his brother - and then flips the cliche on its head when Trier and company go out of their way to treat Conrad's story with more thoughtfulness than you might expect.

The teenager is obsessed with a girl in his class who is out of his reach and the film builds us up to expect some sort of sequence of horrendous embarrassment and, instead, there's a nice moment shared between Conrad and the girl that is neither unrealistic or what you'd expect at all. And the film's highlight - a sequence where Trier gets to show off his filmmaking chops in the sort of manner that didn't quite work for me in "Reprise," but does so here - is when Jonah reads aloud a very well-written passage in his brother's journal that is scored to - of all things - Tangerine Dream's synthesized "Risky Business" score.

"Louder Than Bombs" poses many a conundrum for its central three protagonists, many of which are never quite resolved, adding to the proceedings a sense of realism. Although Huppert is as magnetic as ever here as the mysterious Isabelle, if the film falls a little short in any department it's that her character is only developed well enough for the film's three leads to react to her haunting their memories.

But, in my opinion, this film is a step up for the director and proof that he can put all of the stylistic trademarks you'd expect in his work to great use. The performances here are all very good - especially Druid, who goes beyond the typical teen angst you'd expect in a role such as the one he inhabits. Although the story of "Louder Than Bombs" is fairly straightforward, this is a complex movie in terms of the way it handles emotions pertaining to loss, relationships and responsibility. It's a gripping movie that stays with you long after the credits have rolled.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Review: The Invitation

Image courtesy of Drafthouse Films. 
Karyn Kusama's "The Invitation" is a perfect example of how horror movies or thrillers that emphasize tension and suspense through character building, mood and atmosphere are significantly more effective than jump scares or other cheap tactics. This low budget picture isn't technically even a horror movie until its final 15 to 20 minutes, but there's a feeling of dread and unease throughout that is masterfully maintained.

The film opens with a man named Will (Logan Marshall-Green) driving through a wealthy, hilly Los Angeles neighborhood with his girlfriend Kira (Emayatzy Corinealdi) as they make their way to a dinner party that promises to be a tense affair. The party is being held by Eden (Tammy Blanchard), Will's ex-wife, whom Will hasn't seen for two years following the tragic death of their young son. Eden and her new husband, David (Michiel Huisman), have returned from a long sojourn in Mexico and are bringing together their old group of friends for a reunion.

As Will and Kira drive through a winding lane, they hit a coyote that Will must then put out of its misery with a tire iron. It's a foreboding piece of foreshadowing for things to come. Once they reach the house, Will reunites with some of his old friends, a multicultural group of pals that includes a gay couple, Asian couple, a single woman, a guy whose wife couldn't make it to the party and, of course, Eden and David, with whom Will is obviously uncomfortable.

Shortly after arriving, Will spots a partially clothed woman peeking out from the corner of a room in the house, which was where Will once lived, and he begins to suspect something is amiss. The group meets Sadie (Lindsay Burdge) and Pruitt (John Carroll Lynch), two of Eden and David's friends from Mexico, and there's something a little off about them both. Will begins to wonder if something unusual is afoot at the party or whether the trauma from his past coupled with his seeing his ex-wife for the first time in a few years is making him paranoid.

Sure enough, things begin to get stranger. One guest who was supposed to attend is unexplainably missing. In addition, David and Eden announce that they had been involved with a group known as The Invitation during their time in Mexico. They show their guests a video that gives off the impression of being some sort of recruitment tool and ends with a cult-like leader giving a speech about the group as well as a scene in which a woman dies from what appear to be natural causes.

While most of the party's guests are put off a little by the video and one even leaves after a party game gets a little too intense, Will continues to get the sense that something possibly dangerous is taking place. But the more he tries to point this out to the other attendees, the more paranoid and hostile he comes across.

Needless to say, all of this tension eventually explodes during the film's tense finale and the picture ends with a creepy shot that puts the entire story into a wider - and scarier - context. Visually, the film is not showy, relying mostly on shots of people gathered around a living room or dining table. "The Invitation" is a low budget film, but it makes great use of the confined space its characters inhabit.

Although Marshall-Green - as the film's point-of-view - does the heaviest lifting, the rest of the cast is solid as well, especially Blanchard as the possibly sinister earth mother Eden and Lynch, whose Pruitt comes off as the most frightening of the bunch. Kusama kicked off her career with the indie hit "Girlfight" before attempting her hand at studio genre pictures - the misfires "Aeon Flux" and "Jennifer's Body." This film marks her return to independent filmmaking and it's a triumphant one. "The Invitation" is an eerie, nerve wracking thriller.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Review: Miles Ahead

Image courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics. 
As an art form, one of jazz's key components is improvisation - or, the act of creating spontaneous alterations, flourishes or new melodies over a continuously repeating cycle of chord changes. Don Cheadle's directorial debut, "Miles Ahead," follows the trail blazed by the jazz legend Miles Davis (also played by Cheadle) by incorporating an improvisatorial style into its otherwise straightforward narrative about the ups and downs of a landmark musician.

Most music biopics follow a straight line - humble beginnings, a big break, rise to fame, corruption by fame, drugs, dysfunctional relationships, hitting rock bottom and a culmination that typically involves rebirth or death. Recent examples of this archetypal story are the pretty solid Chet Baker biopic "Born to Be Blue" or the not-so-well-received Hank Williams film "I Saw the Light."

Only a few biopics of musicians from recent years stand out, most notably Todd Haynes' remarkable Bob Dylan film "I'm Not There" and F. Gary Gray's N.W.A. picture "Straight Outta Compton." In both cases, the narrative was about more than just the music. So, while Cheadle's Miles Davis bio isn't quite up to the standard set by those two films, it's still pretty solid, mostly due to an excellent performance by Cheadle, a creative use of film stocks and an improvisatorial style that would have made Miles proud.

I'm not completely sure how much of the film actually follows Davis's life - did he really pull a gun on all of the people he does during the course of this film? - but I'm pretty sure that the Rolling Stone reporter played by Ewan McGregor here serves the same purpose that James McAvoy did in "The Last King of Scotland" - that is, a fictional character who acts as an entryway into a famous person's life.

The film opens in the mid-1970s with McGregor's Dave Brill knocking on Davis's door to try to score a story about some unreleased material that Davis has been sitting on for some years. At the time of Brill's appearance, it's been five years since Davis has played publicly or released an album. Needless to say, Brill's showing up doesn't make Davis - who is quick to throw out a threatening word, punch or insult - particularly happy.

The film skips back and forth as Brill ingratiates himself to the jazz legend and the duo attempts to steal back his latest recording session from some shady characters who've snatched them and are attempting to hand them over to record studio executives. Again, I'm a bit skeptical as to whether anything of the sort took place in Davis's life and more convinced that it's a narrative device. Either way, it doesn't particularly matter.

In the meantime, Davis flashes back to his iconic recording sessions where he crafts such masterworks as "Kind of Blue" and "Sketches of Spain" and his troubled relationship with his wife Frances Taylor (a very good Emayatzy Corinealdi). Similar to other great musicians of biopics past, Davis has drug problems, philanders and occasionally gets into physical altercations with his significant other. In this film, the latter are handled pretty well. It's a warts-and-all approach that forgoes hagiography and doesn't flinch from showing its central character's personal flaws.

A number of the scenes from various eras depicted - including the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s - are shot with film stocks that would likely have been used during those eras and this technique gives the film a rich visual style. It also helps that Cheadle completely disappears into the lead role, raspy voice and all. Cheadle is among the most underrated actors in American movies and this is one of his strongest performances.

So, while in the end "Miles Ahead" is - to some extent - just another biopic of a landmark musician, it's one that is well made and acted and occasionally stylistically bold. It's definitely worth a look and should create some excitement for whatever Cheadle - hopefully - does next behind the camera.

Saturday, April 2, 2016

Review: Everybody Wants Some!!

Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures.
Richard Linklater's films are frequently plot-free and driven by dialogue, rather than characterization, although there's no doubt that the people populating his pictures are certainly characters. No, the je ne sais quoi of a Linklater movie is how it inundates you with musical cues, nonstop banter and a sense of time and place and how, after a while, you realize that the director has snuck up on you with profundity from places you'd least expect it.

And that's certainly the case with "Everybody Wants Some!!," the director's self-proclaimed spiritual sequel to his 1993 classic "Dazed and Confused," although the picture also has elements in common with his 2014 masterpiece "Boyhood." Yes, this picture is funny - often riotously so - and, yes, there's great music galore and a cast of virtual unknowns who deserve to be so no longer. But while the film follows its leads from one party to the next and there's more than a fair share of bacchanalia on display, there's something deeper at play here that takes its time to present itself.

While "Dazed" was set during a 24-hour period on the final day of high school in 1976 for a handful of characters, Linklater's latest takes place during the final weekend before college starts at an Austin school in 1980. Although the film is arguably an ensemble piece, our guide is in the form of Jake (Blake Jenner), a good looking and mostly unassuming freshman who will live in the baseball house with his teammates. Linklater apparently played a few years of college baseball and this film is alleged to be based on some of his experiences.

There's a whole roster of great supporting characters populating the house, most notably Finnegan (Glen Powell), a motor-mouthed pseudo philosopher whose reigning philosophy is getting laid and adapting to any scene to do so. There's also Willoughby (Wyatt Russell, son of Kurt and Goldie Hawn), a stoner with elaborate philosophies of his own, as well as Plummer (Temple Baker), a fellow freshman and lovable meathead, the uber-competitive McReynolds (Tyler Hoechlin, a dead ringer for Billy Crudup) and Dale (J. Quinton Johnson). I could go on and on, but suffice it to say it's a great cast.

A few reviews have referred to Jake as a "bland" character, but I prefer to think of him as a blank slate, which suits the purpose of this film perfectly. Similar to many incoming freshman, his is a personality not fully formed. And while it may be slightly unrealistic that he would come to find himself, so to speak, over the course of a weekend, it works in the context of the picture.

One of the most fascinating elements of the film is how Jake and his crew of horny teammates - all of whom leer at every woman who crosses their paths of vision and, yet, prove over time that they are not assholes - adapt to any situation in order to score with women (although they get rejected more often than not) but how, in the end, the various cross cultural experiences they undergo make them more well-rounded. During the course of their wild weekend, they start at a disco club, venture into a country and western bar, get dragged to a raucous punk show and end up at a party being thrown by theater students.

This latter party occurs as the result of Jake's becoming smitten with Beverly (Zoey Deutch), a lovely and bright theater major who also happens to be the only fully formed female character in the movie. And there's a reason for that. We are purposefully entrenched with the baseball players, so that Jake - and, perhaps, his teammates - can later understand that there's a bigger world outside their parties and juvenile behavior.

A funny thing I realized while watching the film was how long it actually took for us to see these guys play baseball. In fact, there's only one scene in the entire movie, but it's gracefully handled. It also provides a great opportunity to build further camaraderie between the characters and gives us new perspectives on some of them. For instance, McReynolds originally comes off as a competitive jerk, but during a scene in which he confronts another character who is showboating, he instantly becomes more likable. And there's a scene of such a type that accompanies nearly all of the character's films, which is further proof of Linklater's generosity as a filmmaker.

"Everybody Wants Some!!" is often very funny, but there's much more to it than being a knock-off of "Dazed and Confused" and its characters discover some profound truths along the way. There's an early scene in which Willoughby tokes up along with Jake and a few others, expounding on the musical prowess of Pink Floyd and making the point that great music - and, perhaps, life - is about finding the "tangent in the framework." Or, in other words, doing well with what you've got.

During a scene late in the film, Jake surprises Beverly and helps to quash the stereotype of the dumb jock when he discusses his college entrance exam, on which he combined the myth of Sisyphus and baseball in an insightful manner, writing about how the Gods actually gave the Greek a gift in the form of something he could focus on and perfect. Jake and Beverly ponder the concept of working with what life gives you - AKA the tangent in the framework - and how that can be a beautiful thing. Not surprisingly, when Jake finally makes it to his first class, the teacher has scribbled the quote "frontiers are where you find them" on the blackboard.

So, while "Everybody Wants Some!!" shares in common many elements with "Dazed and Confused" - such as its era, music, casting, setup and style - it can also be seen as a spiritual continuation of "Boyhood," which ended with its protagonist on his first weekend in college, where he also found a romantic interest and, perhaps, realized that his raison d'etre was awaiting him somewhere out beyond that vast sky he gazed upon. The smile that crosses Jake's face at the culmination of Linklater's latest picture is a possible indication his is out there somewhere as well. "Everybody Wants Some!!" is very funny and an overall great time, but it's also thoughtful and of-a-piece with Linklater's increasingly impressive body of work.