“Miles Ahead” Reveals the Artist That Is Cheadle

I saw this film at the 2016 SXSW Film Festival. The review, below, is an amalgam and expansion of two separate capsule reviews I have previously published: one on my blog, and one for Bmoreart.

Miles Ahead

Miles Ahead (Don Cheadle, 2015)

In his directorial debut, actor Don Cheadle (Traitor) mostly avoids the clichés of the biographical picture and takes genuine creative risks, choosing to focus on a particular moment in time rather than an entire lifespan. His subject? Jazz musician Miles Davis (1926-1991). Cheadle’s approach leads to something much more impressionistic and elliptical than your standard-issue Hollywood biopic; it’s an improvisatory riff that would no doubt make Davis proud. Flashing back and forth between different eras of Davis’s life – yet grounded in the late 1970s, when Davis was going through a particularly bad cocaine-fueled depression – Cheadle keeps us as disoriented as Davis most likely was at that time. He also uses and blends the conventions of other genres – the action thriller, buddy movie and gangster drama – to lend Miles Ahead a texture and feel uniquely its own.

Cheadle, himself, plays Davis, and is riveting in the role. When we first meet our hero, he is deep into booze and drugs at the end of a self-imposed exile that began in the mid-1970s. Ewan McGregor (The Impossible) – a completely fictional free-lance journalist from Rolling Stone – is interviewing him, and just as we settle into a montage of images on a vibrating television screen, we smash-cut back to a car chase and gunfire. And so the film goes, jumping around in a style that initially confuses but eventually brings all the disparate elements together at the end to show us, warts and all, what made Davis both great and awful. Human beings are complex, and a monster can still be a genius. This is a movie to be watched by those who love both movies and music.

If the film has one major weakness, it is that addition of fiction to the proceedings (which Cheadle says he did because he couldn’t get financial backing without a white co-star). McGregor’s character becomes a significant part of the plot, beyond that opening interview. We tune into biopics because they purport to show us the real man/woman behind the myth. Yet how much truth can really survive a compressed version of any human being’s life? Perhaps it is not the worst sin in the world to take overt liberties, if the underlying narrative arc still reveals something honest about that person’s trajectory. Still, while I enjoyed the energy and panache with which Cheadle tells his story, his approach may not be for all. However, even if you cannot abide fiction in your docudrama, I think you’ll still have to admire Cheadle’s command of craft. If nothing else, Miles Ahead reveals the birth of a true director.

SXSW2016, Part 7: The Final Post (Last Few “Hammer to Nail” Reviews and Interviews, plus “Roughly Speaking”)

Final SXSW Post Collage

Here are my final reviews and interviews from the 2016 SXSW Festival, published on Hammer to Nail:

Be sure to read my firstsecondthirdfourthfifth and sixth posts on SXSW2016, as well!

I also did a general festival wrap-up on Dan Rodricks’ Roughly Speaking podcast for The Baltimore Sun, where we played clips from my interviews with Burt Reynolds (about the documentary The Bandit), Andre Royo (about the narrative feature Hunter Gatherer) and Paul Reubens (about the latest Pee-wee Herman adventure). Here is that link. Enjoy!

“Hardcore Henry” Is a Bloody Mess

Hardcore Henry

Hardcore Henry (Ilya Naishuller, 2015)

I saw Hardcore Henry at the recent 2016 SXSW Festival, and my initial reaction to the film has not mellowed in the weeks since. If you like first-person point-of-view video games, then it may be just your ticket. On the other hand, if you do enjoy such experiences, then you may perhaps feel frustrated that the film – though mimicking their perspective – offers you no choice but to sit and accept the director’s idea of what you should see. That idea – such as it is – is carnage layered upon carnage, with a body count so high that the guts and gore all blend together in a blurry miasma of bloody viscera. While I, myself, have no experience with these games – Call of Duty is but one example – I imagine that their appeal lies very much in the adrenaline rush that comes from placing oneself at the center of the story. With the arrival of virtual-reality rigs like the Oculus Rift, such experiences will only become more intense for the user. Whatever one thinks of immersive games or the future of entertainment, however, in the present here and now, Hardcore Henry is the opposite of immersive. It’s one-trick-pony of a gimmick – that we never see the protagonist because we are, in effect, the protagonist – backfires after the first 15 minutes, for want of a compelling narrative, and then is but a repellent device that merely serves to remind us of the absence of screenplay. A must miss, for sure.

SXSW2016, Part 6: The Penultimate Post (with Still More “Hammer to Nail” Reviews and Interviews, plus “Bmoreart”)

SXSW2016 No 6 Collage

Just when you thought we were done with my reviews and interviews from the 2016 SXSW Festival, I have still more Hammer to Nail pieces to share. Six more, to be exact (and there will be one final post after this):

Be sure to read my firstsecondthirdfourth and fifth posts on SXSW2016, as well!

And before I forget, I also did a general festival wrap-up for Bmoreart. Check it out!

SXSW2016, Part 4 (Friday, March 18 and beyond)

If you missed it earlier in the week, here is the list of the SXSW2016 Jury Awards. And here are the Audience Awards, announced yesterday. The last day of the festival, for me, was Friday, March 18 (we left the next day), and I saw only two films for which I will not be writing reviews for Hammer to Nail, and I have capsule reviews of both, below. Here are the reviews and interviews that have been published on Hammer to Nail since my last post:

Stay tuned for more in the next week!

Richard Linklater Dream Is Destiny

Richard Linklater: Dream Is Destiny (Karen Bernstein/Louis Black, 2016)

If you’re a filmmaker or film fanatic in Austin, Texas, you owe a huge debt of gratitude to director Richard Linklater, who founded the Austin Film Society in 1985 and then continued to make Austin his home even after the indie success of his debut feature, Slacker, which was shot in Austin. Linklater’s insistence on bringing the film industry to him (and to his home), rather than on abandoning his roots, is what has helped make his work feel so personal, even when films like the Before Sunrise/Before Sunset/Before Midnight trilogy have taken him far afield. When, finally, in 2015, he was nominated for an Oscar for his 12-year-odyssey of a movie, Boyhood, it felt like a vindication for everyone who has ever wanted to do it his/her way without compromise. Such is the journey outlined in this decently solid, if not amazing, documentary. Indeed, the story is compelling; it’s the filmmaking that’s a bit pedestrian (Bernstein and Black are no Linklater). Black’s insistence on putting himself in the frame with Linklater during interviews is distracting: the folly of a man who was there when Linklater got his start, and now wants to make sure we all remember. But leaving that aside, the film is definitely worth watching for all who care about independent cinema and who appreciate Linklater’s work.Everybody Wants Some

Everybody Wants Some!! (Richard Linklater, 2016)

Sometimes Linklater is no Linklater, either. This enjoyably breezy nostalgic college-party film is filled with magnificent performances and wonderful set pieces, including a marvelous bit where the lead actors sing and rap along to The Sugarhill Gang’s 1979 hit Rapper’s Delight, but it ultimately feels extraordinarily slight (this review on The Verge sums it up quite well). I had a good time watching it, laughed a lot, but started checking my watch after about an hour. I wish there were more to it than just a celebration of alcohol, drugs and sex (or, at least, an uncritical look back at the joy of when those things felt fresh and new). I dug the cast, though, which includes, from among my favorites, Blake Jenner (Ryder Lynn on Glee), Glen Powell (Chad Radwell on Scream Queens) and Tyler Hoechin (Derek Hale on Teen Wolf) as horny baseball jocks, and Zoey Deutch (Vampire Academy) as the lone (somewhat) fully realized email character. It’s a guy’s movie filled with guy’s guys. Bromance all the way.

Be sure to read my firstsecond and third posts on SXSW2016, as well!

SXSW2016, Part 3 (Wednesday-Thursday, March 16-17)

And so the week at SXSW has continued. Since the last post, I have had only two more pieces published on Hammer to Nail – an interview with the director and producer of The Dwarvenaut and a review of The Bandit – but you can expect many more pieces soon. Here are my capsule reviews of three other films for which I will not be publishing reviews on that site.

Miles Ahead

Miles Ahead (Don Cheadle, 2015)

Actor Don Cheadle (Hotel Rwanda), in his directorial debut, has crafted a brilliant cinematic portrait of jazz musician Miles Davis (1926-1991). At times funny, at others tragic, the film is an improvisatory riff on the great innovator that would make the master proud. Kudos to Cheadle for refusing to make a standard biopic; instead, he has opted for an impressionistic approach that flashes back and forth between different eras in the man’s life. Cheadle, himself, plays Davis, and is riveting in the role. When we first meet our hero, he is deep into booze and cocaine at the end of a self-imposed exile that began in the mid-1970s. Ewan McGregor (Beginners) – a completely fictional free-lance journalist from Rolling Stone – is interviewing him, and just as we settle into a montage of images on a vibrating television screen, we smash cut back to a car chase and gunfire. And so the film goes, jumping around in a style that initially confuses but eventually brings all the disparate elements together at the end to show us, warts and all, what made Davis both great and awful. Human beings are complex, and a monster can still be a genius. A film to be watched by all who love both movies and music.

In Pursuit of Silence

In Pursuit of Silence (Patrick Shen, 2015)

In today’s world, it is harder than ever to escape noise. Some people react to this situation with a vow of silence, like Greg Hindy, one of the many interesting characters we meet in this awe-inspiring new documentary from Patrick Shen (La Source). Others study the phenomenon, such as George Prochnik, author of the book In Pursuit of Silence (from which this film borrows its title). Shen takes us on a global journey – beautifully photographed – in which he explores what it means to be a human being, genetically predisposed to a pre-industrial universe, in a landscape of increasingly loud machines. With a musical score that emphasizes silence as much as it accompanies it, the film even dwells, for a bit, on John Cage‘s seminal 1952 composition 4’33”, in which a pianist walks up to a piano, sets it up, and then does nothing for four and a half minutes. The movie is a majestic achievement in which art and philosophy are blended in a perfect meditative mix. It’s an important film for our time.

SXSW2016_2016-03-17_Pee-wee premiere

Producer Judd Apatow, Star/Co-Writer Paul Reubens, Co-Writer Paul Rust and Director John Lee

What a joy it was to be at the world premiere of the new Pee-wee Herman film! The audience went wild as soon as Paul Reubens – aka, Pee-wee Herman – came out on stage. The film went live on Netflix a few hours after the screening, so everyone can now watch it (and you should), but I am so happy I was there for that first night.

Pee-wee's Big Holiday

Pee-wee’s Big Holiday (John Lee, 2016)

To be honest, I was too old to truly appreciate the phenomenon that was Pee-wee’s Playhouse when it hit it big in the 1980s. But the first feature film, in 1985, starring the titular character –  Pee-wee’s Big Adventure – and directed by Tim Burton (Edward Scissorhands), in his feature debut, did make it on to my radar. Still, I was never a huge fan. I was nevertheless dismayed by the persecution that Reubens suffered after his bust in a porn theater in 1991, as he seemed like an otherwise decent enough human being. Well, let us not shed too many tears for the man, as a close study of his biography reveals the many projects – Pee-wee-related and otherwise – that have kept him busy since that unfortunate incident. And now he’s back in full force with a new cinematic adventure for Pee-wee. And it’s a winner. With jokes both dumb and sophisticated, made with zip and pizzazz, the movie should delight Pee-wee aficionados of all ages. Check it out. You’ll be sure to have a good time.

Be sure to read my first and second posts on SXSW2016!

SXSW2016, Part 2 (Monday-Tuesday, March 14-15)

The last two days of the festival have seen me continue with more of the same – movie screenings and interviews with directors and actors. Here are the reviews and interviews that have been published on Hammer to Nail since Sunday, March 13:

And now, below, are my thoughts on the two films I have seen on the ground for which I will not be writing reviews for Hammer to Nail.

Tony Robbins SXSW 2016

From l-r: Janet Pierson, Head of SXSW Film; Joe Berlinger, Director; Tony Robbins, subject

Tony Robbins: I Am Not Your Guru (Joe Berlinger, 2016)

I am a big fan of the two documentaries by Joe Berlinger I had seen previously – Under African Skies and Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger – in both of which he demonstrated a commitment to journalistic principles that is sorely lacking in this, his new film. Tony Robbins: I Am Not Your Guru is a film about the titular self-help goliath – a titan in both physical size and monetary wealth – about whose life and work I knew nothing before sitting down in the Paramount Theater in Austin, Texas, to watch the film. I assumed that, whatever the subject, I was going to be treated to a solid piece of filmmaking by a man whose credentials were more than solid. During his introduction to the film (pictured above), however, Berlinger quite explicitly stated that this was unlike his earlier work, as he had had a life-changing experience recently and was offering up a positive portrait of a man he has come to admire.

He wasn’t kidding.

But more than a “positive portrayal,” it’s an infomercial. Robbins has made himself wealthy by charging high sums for his six-day “Date with Destiny” workshops, in which he practices his own personal brand of physical, and psycho-, therapy. He seems genuinely interested in people, but since the film never offers up much more than surface-level storytelling, we have no way of really discovering anything other than what Robbins wants us to see. That such a man as Berlinger could make such a movie is, to say the least, disappointing.


Learning to See: The World of Insects (Jake Oelman, 2016)

In this beautiful documentary, which filmmaker Jake Oelman (Dear Sidewalk) has made as a tribute to his father – insect photographer Robert Oelman – we witness the transformation of a dispirited fifty-year-old Bostonian into a lively seventy-something visual chronicler of the South-American rainforest. Instead of going to one of Tony Robbins’ workshops (see, above), Dr. Oelman, a psychotherapist depressed by his work, took off in the 1990s for Colombia, where he fell in love with the people and the landscape. Soon, he bought a house, and has lived there ever since. As he settled in, he took an interest in photography, and eventually in insects, and began working with macro lenses to better capture the natural world around him. Now, over 20 years later, Robert Oelman is a recognized artist and documentary photographer, whose work is seen as vital in the global effort to draw attention to our rapidly vanishing biodiversity. As one expert in the film says, “Until you value something, you’re not going to undertake meaningful action to protect it.” Let this lovely little movie stand as a testament to Oelman’s vital contribution to saving our planet.

To read about how the festival began, for me, check out my first post on SXSW2016.

Welcome to SXSW2016!

SXSW 2016

It’s that time of year again, as it was in 2014 and 2015, when I took my first and second trips, respectively, to the annual SXSW Festival in Austin, TX. As I did last year, I have traveled with a group of Stevenson University Film & Moving Image students, pictured below.

STEVENSON SXSW2016_2016-03-13

This year, however, I am not just attending as a professor and blogger, but as an official member of the press, writing for Hammer to Nail during the festival, and preparing post-fest coverage for Dan Rodricks’ “Roughly SpeakingBaltimore Sun podcast and for Bmoreart. What this means is that I pre-watched 10 films before the festival began, and am interviewing those filmmakers (directors and cast) plus a few more whose films I am watching on the ground. That leaves me with less time (for now) to see movies live, but I have still seen a few. What follows is a list of those films, with brief capsule reviews, plus links to the reviews that have already been posted, as of this writing, on Hammer to Nail. The interviews will take longer to appear on that site, as first someone (that would be me) has to transcribe and condense them . . .

Let’s start with the Hammer to Nail reviews that have been posted, so far:

And now here are my thoughts on the few films I have seen since my arrival in Austin, which will not get their own review at Hammer to Nail:

Hunt for the Wilderpeople

Hunt for the Wilderpeople (Taika Waititi, 2016)

New Zealander Taika Waititi (co-director, What We Do in the Shadows) has made a film that is extremely entertaining in its first 15 minutes, but which completely loses its way after that. Like the young boy at its center, the script needs a a firm adult hand to guide it towards coherence. That hand is stuck in adolescent hyperactivity, however, and so much of the good will of the opening quickly dissipates in the chaos that follows. Which is too bad, as both Julian Dennison – as Ricky Baker, a rebellious tween kid brought to a lonely farmstead foster home as a last resort – and Sam Neill (Backtrack) – as the ornery father figure left to care for him – are good, with an easy and funny rapport. As the hijinks in the bush go on, Waititi cannot seem to manage the mix of comedy and tragedy that works so brilliantly at the start. The film has appeal, but not enough to sustain it through its latter half.

Alive and Kicking

Alive and Kicking (Susan Glatzer, 2016)

Susan Glatzer’s debut documentary takes a look at the popularity of swing dancing since the 1980s, when, according the film, the long-neglected (but never forgotten) dance style began it’s slow return. One of Glatzer’s talking-head interviewees points to the 1990s “trifecta” (as she calls it) of Swing Kids (1993), Swingers (1996) and the Gap Khaki commercial (1998) as the turning point in swing’s revival, kicking it into high gear. Whether you care about this history or not, there’s a lot of great dancing on display, and the film is made with a certain pep that keeps it going, even when its narrative falters. For this is the kind of movie where the filmmaking is not as engaging as the subject matter. Glazer’s – and her subjects’ – hearts are fully in this endeavor, so I feel like a heel being so critical, but there is something profoundly irritating to me about history being told by its participants – of course, partisan to their cause – than by actual historians. In other words, a few actual experts – rather than enthusiasts – would give the film greater heft. Glatzer also sets up a a false dichotomy of work vs. play, where almost everyone in the film seems to hate their day jobs, sneering at those who don’t wish to dance – and be free! – as they do. Still, there’s enough here of interest for a qualified recommendation. Do with that what you will.

And Punching the Clown

And Punching the Clown (Gregori Viens, 2016)

Singer/comedian (and singing comedian) Henry Phillips plays a fictionalized version of himself in this follow-up/sequel to director Gregori Viens’ 2009 Punching the Clown. The events of that previous film (which I haven’t seen) are alluded to here, but this is more or less a stand-alone story, requiring no prior knowledge of Phillips or his sad-sack misadventures. Instead, all one needs is a desire to laugh and a tolerance for comedies of embarrassment. Phillips is an engaging on-screen presence – even if not all of his jokes resonate with me (I get tired of his constant borderline-sexist tales of woeful relationships) – and the gags outside of the stand-up routines are very funny. With great support work from Tig Notaro (Tig), her real-life partner Stephanie Allynne (In a World…), J.K. Simmons (Whiplash) and Sarah Silverman (Take This Waltz), among others, And Punching the Clown is a frequently delightful riff and failure and success . . . and failure.

Hardcore Henry

Hardcore Henry (Ilya Naishuller, 2016)

Now that I have been through the hellish experience that is Hardcore Henry, I look back to my (positive) reaction to its trailer and wonder, “What was I thinking?” Why did I imagine that this would be anything other than one continuous bloodbath with a completely incomprehensible story? While it’s true that the opening 10 to 20 (I can no longer recall) minutes of the film have a certain (fascist) exuberance to them, after that what plot there is descends into mind-numbing repetition of one gruesome (and graphic) killing after another. Shot entirely from the first-person point of view of its titular character, Hardcore Henry mimics the aesthetics of many a first-person-perspective video game, a tactic not without interest as a cinematic exercise, but not enough to sustain the movie for its 90-minute length. Unless, of course, all you want to do is kill, kill, and kill, in which case, welcome to your own private nirvana.

Stay tuned for more SXSW film news throughout the week.