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Miles Ahead (2015)
The life and music of Miles Dewey Davis, better known as Miles Davis, is on display in the new bio-pic, Miles Ahead. Don Cheadle wears as many hats as afforded to him playing the title character as well as appearing in the credits as producer and director in a film that showcases Cheadle's talent and offers a strong case in ensuring the Oscar's have some color on the stage at next year's telecast.
The film opens in the later years of Miles' life. He has already reached fame and fortune. But his drug addiction has turned him into a Howard Hughes recluse. And he has temporarily turned his back on music. The story opens with Miles alone in his home when he is aggressively approached by Rolling Stone magazine writer Dave Brill (Ewan McGreggor) who is interested in writing about Miles' new project. The opportunistic Brill gets swept into a fantastical series of events that include following Miles as he confronts his record label, procures cocaine and is chased through the streets in a hail of gunfire by unscrupulous folk looking to advance their worldly standing through the theft of Miles' still-in-progress demo tape.
The events that unfold are not based on historical fact. But it doesn't matter. Miles Ahead is more a movie about the attitude and persona of legend Miles Davis than it is a straight up account of a fraction of the musician's life.
By way of flashbacks, we get a glimpse into the more serene life of Miles Davis before drugs off-tracked his career. A clean cut Davis is seen rising in ranks through the Jazz clubs of America and eventually falling for Frances Taylor (Emayatzy Corinealdi) who would eventually become his wife of 10-years.
The film doesn't dive too deeply into the domestic violence between the two lovers that became headlines back in the early 60's nor does it touch too intensively the racial tensions in America at the time. There is a scene where Davis is unprovokingly harassed by police officers and taken to jail for simply showing kindness to a woman of white skin, but the film has no message to present in terms of Miles' involvement with racial divides at the time. Instead, Cheadle keeps the camera focused on a single day in the broken down icon's history. This works largely to the films advantage but sacrifices giving us a glimpse into the life of the historic character.
Don Cheadle is a revelation as Miles. The raspy voice, the trumpet playing, the belligerence. All are played exactly on key. The supporting cast does amply in tow but there is little to look at outside of Cheadle's performance.
For this particularly story, things do work out well in the end. Relatively. We had hoped for end credit title cards that would have told us more about the man. Those unfamiliar with Miles Davis might have wanted to know if he was still alive or what became of Frances Taylor after their split. Even a short blurb unveiling Miles' nine Grammy Awards would have been refreshingly educational at film's end.
Miles Ahead is not the be-all of musician movies. But I would categorize Cheadle's performance of the late trumpet player as one of the better performances of a real-life musician on screen. It's good enough to recommend the film to anyone. Jazz fan or not.
A Christmas Horror Story (2015)
All Four Stories Deliver
It's the most wonderful time of the year. To die.
Directors Grant Harvey, Steve Hoban and Brett Sullivan all lend their talents in an attempt to turn the happiest day of the year into a horrifying movie experience in A Christmas Horror Story.
Best described as an anthology, A Christmas story interweaves multiple stories with Christmas being the anchor theme. The stories are diverse and in no way repeating. Santa takes on a horde of zombie elves. A family goes Christmas tree hunting where their son gets possessed by a demon. A group of teenagers return to the scene of a grizzly crime to film a documentary where the evil still lurks. And a family is terrorized by Krampus, the anti-Santa Claus.
William Shatner plays a radio DJ host that helps intertwine the stories and provides some spots of levity along the snowy roads to where the film journeys. The stories themselves do not play out in their entirety before moving to the next segment a la say Tales of Halloween or the ABC's of Death. Instead, the filmmakers jump between the stories which allow them to keep audiences on their toes and ensure that the lesser terrorizing / more dramatic scenes are broken up with the moments horror fans relish.
What makes A Christmas Horror Story so different from its peers is that there is not a dull story in the mix. Sure, not all stories share the same enthusiasm, gore or humor, but there wasn't any particular segment I wished would just mercifully end so that we could get to a more interesting one. That is great praise to say the least. I could not say that about Tales of Halloween and that makes A Christmas Horror Story more in line with say Trick 'R Treat than Creepshow.
Yes, Yes, Yes, we still had our favorite. That would be Santa's story on combating zombie infected elves and his eventual showdown with Krampus. The effects, make-up and overall execution of this segment are worth the price of admission alone. Santa comes across as an 80's action hero. His eyes didn't twinkle. His dimples weren't merry. His cheeks weren't like roses. My god was he scary! The Santa/Krampus showdown might be the highlight of the film but one can't ignore the other segments that lead to the climax. Each provide a fun sleigh ride of horror and all three could have been their own movie if the stories were expanded.
A Christmas Horror Story played at the Toronto After Dark Film Festival on Saturday night and the audience clearly got in on the fun laughing at the right moments and offering applause for some of the more gruesome scenes.
There are not a plethora of good Christmas horror films out there. In fact, after Black Christmas you would be hard pressed to name another outside of a Silent Night, Deadly Night. But A Christmas Horror Story brings enough presents in its Santa sack to make this a rather fun film that might just become a 'go-to' film for many horror fans every December.
A Bullet Ballet
"Hey, I know you!" is a phrase you are likely to say to yourself with each new character introduction while watching the new action/thriller Gridlocked. It is stuffed with familiar faces such as Danny Glover (Lethal Weapon), Stephen Lang (Avatar), Dominic Purcell (Prison Break), Saul Rubineck (Unforgiven), Vinnie Jones (Snatch) and Trish Stratus (WWE). It is a gaggle of competent bodies that lend their extensive talents to a film in the vein of John Woo's action adventures where bullets outnumber words on the script page.
Dominic Purcell plays former SWAT leader David Hendrix. David is a no nonsense bag 'em and tag 'em kinda guy. His job is his life and his life is put on the line in the daily pursuit of justice. David's rogue actions require muting when he is paired with movie action Brody Walker (Cody Hackman) who is court ordered to participate in police ride-alongs after his hard partying behavior jeopardizes his career.
The newly formed reluctant couple of David and Brody could not be further apart in their views on life in general but are thrust together mirroring Michael J. Fox and James Woods in 1991's The Hard Way. Brody attempts to win favor of the hardened Hendrix but the bonding lacks reciprocation. Hendrix does however take Brody to secret training lair where his fellow badass do-gooders practice their search and shoot skills.
The evening of fun and guns gets interrupted when a group of mercenaries infiltrate the training complex. Their objective is not immediately clear but their violent resolve is. Little is known of their purpose but they do share a connection with another handful of mercenaries lead by Korver (Lang) who has secured a nearby rural farmhouse much to the shigrinning death of its two inhabitants.
What ensues is a shootout. A shootout between the mercenaries that have breached the perimeter and the police, Hendrix and Brody inside. And then a shootout between more mercenaries and the police, Hendrix and Brody inside. And when Korver reveals his intentions, objectives become clear and bullets become commonplace.
Gridlocked transforms into a full blown shootout on par with a John Woo film. There is a stretch of bullet firing through the films third act that, had I had a counter, might just have set the record for the total number of shots fired within a 10-minute film span. Director Allan Ungar piles up a body count while unleashing an arsenal of unfathomable abandon.
Gridlocked is an action film true and through. There is a story to help jettison the firepower, but the story is worn and used with plot points used more admirably in better films. For what little original story is presented, Gridlocked takes its sweet ass time. Nearly an hour into the almost two hour adventure we still had no clue what the mercenaries were after. Luckily, the two main characters particularly Purcell's Hendrix are interesting and compelling enough to help us wade through the urgency of the villain's purpose.
If you are the kind of individual who enjoy an all-out barrage of bullets then Gridlocked is the chicken soup to your flu like symptoms. Reminding us a lot of John Carpenter's Assault on Precinct 13 is a relentless rat-a-tat-tat echoing through a theatres sound system. An assault of the senses, Gridlocked is the no-holds-barred action film that effectively uses its confined setting to provide a highlight reels worth of bullet ballet.
Great Twist on a Classic Story
A simple trip to a local bar for three women turns into a nightmarish scenario for three young women in the new Frankenstein-esque new film Patchwork.
Jennifer, Ellie and Madeleine couldn't be more different from each other. Jennifer is the straight laced business woman who wears pantsuits. Ellie is the blonde bombshell whose naivety often gets her in trouble. And Madeleine is a quiet freakish kind of girl. But on one night the three find themselves in the same drinking establishment and before morning they will be hacked, sewn and strung together to make a single character out of the best body parts each subject had to offer.
Upon awakening on the operating table the creature that has been Frankensteined attempts to gain control of their individual joints and body parts allowing them movement. The process is harder than can be expected as each personality of each girl controls parts of the new body. But escape it does and alone with the three voices in its head, the creature attempts to put the pieces together as to how, why and most importantly, who is responsible for their horrid creation.
Directed by Tyler MacIntyre based on a script by MacIntyre and Chris Lee Hill, Patchwork is a wonderfully deviant film that is rooted in Frankenstein mythology but tips its hat to cult classics such as Re-Animator and Darkman. Actresses Tory Stolper (Jennifer), Tracey Fairaway (Ellie) and Marie Blasucci (Madeleine) are perfectly cast with spellbinding chemistry resulting in many of the film's laugh out loud moments. Stolper particularly shines and is able to transform into the patchwork creature with B-movie exuberance twitching like Vincent D'Onofrio's Edgar in Men in Black as she learns how to work her new body.
The film is equally dark and humorous. The violence is almost cartoon-like but detailed enough to ensure an R-rating. And the humor is spot on as the three girls struggle to learn about each other and work together in the same consciousness. Think of Patchwork as the horror version of Pixar's Inside Out.
Cut into various chapters which take a non-linear approach to the story the film flips back and forward in time as they introduce the characters while progressing the narrative. It's a perfect device for a film whose main character is a cut and paste creation itself.
And we could not conclude any review without commenting on the stellar make-up effects in the film. The patched female creation looked as good as any make-up effect on an Oscar winning film and should be applauded to its attention to detail.
Patchwork in playing this week and the Toronto After Dark Film Festival and I can't imagine how it will not be a fan favorite at the conclusion of its screening. It was a smart, snarky funny film and should be screened by anyone who appreciates the genre.
The Lobster (2015)
This one's going to be tough to describe. The winner of the Jury Prize at this year's Cannes Festival , The Lobster is the new film from Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos who had me involved while scratching my head at screenings of his previous resume entries Dogtooth (2009) and ALPS (2011). I considered both decent films, but I surely wasn't put in a position to recommend either film to the average film watcher. Even the posters for his first two films were a difficult digestion.
With The Lobster, Lanthimos gathers together a cast that includes Colin Farrell, Rachel Weisz, John C. Reilly and Ben Whishaw to introduce us to a world where all single people over a certain age must report to a hotel to find a mate. If, after a 45-day perusing and courting period, the individual does not find a mate they are then transformed into an animal (you can sign up for any particular animal) and sent into the wild.
Wha? Colin Farrell plays David. David has recently separated from his wife and is therefore deemed 'single' and reports to the hotel for his search amongst the residents. Registered to become a lobster if things do not progress accordingly, David is none too accepting of the hotel's policies and he befriends a group of other disgruntleds in the woods (notably John C. Reilly and Rachel Weisz) where they discuss the unorthodox methods and ideas behind the premise. The group, named The Loners, are a weird bunch to say the least and that doesn't even take into account their names which include "The Limping Man", "Nosebleed Woman" and "Biscuit Woman".
If nothing else, The Lobster is something I haven't quite seen before. In an era of men and women in tight colorful clothing running around saving our cities with their superpowers, The Lobster seemed like a breath of fresh air. But without being able to put my finger directly on the pulse, I was a little baffled and let down by the overall execution.
Weisz is good and her soothing voice is a welcome both in her presence and in her narration of the film. But Farrell, Reilly and others are just too boring to have kept me interested in a truly unique story by Lanthimos and Filippou. The film is a commentary on the whole dating ritual and how the world almost forces us into finding a soul mate, but the characters fail to connect with audiences in a way that would turn The Lobster into an Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
Maybe I just didn't get it. Maybe the film was smarter than me and I failed to pick up on any of the nuances that helped The Lobster walk away with the Jury Prize. I liken it very much to the first Wes Anderson film I saw The Royal Tenenbaums which confounded me but has grown a bit on my soft side like old university ivy.
Whether Farrell's plump David or Reilly's Lisping Man become something I grow affection for remains to be certain. What I do know is that I saw something original. I just don't think I liked it or will recommend it to others.
Where to Invade Next (2015)
Funny Michael Moore is Back
There are many words one might use to describe filmmaker/documentarian Michael Moore and 'preachy' might just be one of them. His films, Fahrenheit 9/11, Bowling for Columbine, Sicko were all highly entertaining and even educational for the peripherally blind. But Moore had lost his fun side. There were moments of levity in each of his films but the humor on display in his first feature Roger & Me had been replaced with a political or prejudice view Moore hoped to express.
Moore's latest documentary, Where To Invade Next takes us back to the fun and wit that made his earlier work so refreshingly entertaining. In this his eighth feature documentary (but first in six years), Moore travels to Europe where he visits countries that seem to have captured the American dream of a work/life balance. We travel with Moore to Germany where we find small companies who pay big wages, to Italy where employees are given more weeks annual vacation than an American can hope for over a five year period and to Slovenia which offers free university tuition. Moore then presents a mock 'invasion' of the country which is presented in a hilarious tongue-in-cheek style of filmmaking.
The presentation does not feel preachy nor does it appear anti-American. Instead, Moore is able to casually walk the line of presenting lifestyles, politics and privileges in other countries that American's dream of or have tied up in political limbo. That's not to suggest that Moore doesn't show the underbelly of the giant. The European way of life may not be sustainable in the long term due to the expense of the support. And Europe is still not without its issues to which Moore is quick to point out to rousing audiences.
A tad overlong at 2 hours, Where to Invade Next is arguably Michael Moore's most enjoyable film. We are not looking at the ravages of the auto industry on Flint Michigan or how sick individuals are denied health care. Here, we take a jovial look at the things that look like a shopping bag of perfect put into a soggy paper bag about to collapse. Moore has an energy and an enthusiasm here that he hasn't shown in years and the results had the audience at the Toronto International Film Festival up off their seats in lauding applause at the conclusion of the screening.
Best Film of the Year
Of the nearly 400 films being showcased at this year's Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), Denis Villeneuve's Sicario was the one film at the top of my 'Must See' list. Having premiered at this year's Cannes Film Festival where it went on to be nominated for the prestigious Palme D'Or, Sicario stars Emily Blunt, Joh Brolin and Benicio Del Toro as members of a government task force who attempt to apprehend a villainous drug lord. Director Denis Villeneuve is on some kind of roll. His previous films Polytechnique, Incendies and Prisoners were all thought provoking character pieces offset by realistic and graphic depictions of violence. Sicario opens with just such a scene as Blunt's Kate Macer leads a rain on a Mexican drug house near Phoenix, Arizona and discovers dozens of executed victims packed into the walls. Audiences will have barely settled in their seats and scrunched on but a handful of popcorn kernels when the shocking revelation is revealed on screen. From here, Macer is forced to work with Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) and Alejandro (Del Toro) who works as a sort of fixer on both sides of the border. Their work leads them to drug trafficker Fausto (Julio Cesar Cedillo) and the group then works to transport the criminal back across the border. Their journey will be met with many obstacles with shoot-outs at border crossings and a tense hunt and shoot inside a drug trafficking tunnel connecting the two countries. The focus of Sicario (which is Mexican slang for 'hitman') is clearly on Blunt's lead character and Blunt is up to the task in being the smartest person in the room while also being the one most left in the dark as to the team's objectives. She will be continually conflicted by her male peers particularly their penchant for instigating or responding forcefully to appeared violence. The action settled between Macer's first-hand education thrust the film forward to a very satisfying and acceptable conclusion. The supporting cast is equally engrossing particularly Del Toro who will be on screen for most all of the film's most memorable shots. Del Toro's character is clouded in mystery and unclear motives and Del Toro gives his best performance since Traffic. Sicario was penned by Taylor Sheridan who played Deputy Chief Hale on FX's Sons of Anarchy. His take on the war on drugs and the violence and human costs that surround the battle are dead on target. The realism results in Sicario being hardly the crowd-pleaser. It is a bleak and grim film that might just be Villeneuve's best work to date. The photography by Roger Deakins is stunning. Expect Deakins to garnish another Academy Award nomination for his efforts here to go with his work on The Shawshank Redemption and Skyfall. Also worthy of note is the music by Jóhann Jóhannsson that grabs you by the balls while the action unfolds. Sicario might be too bleak for Academy voters, but make no mistake of Sicario's impact and brilliance. It was on my 'Must See' list for a reason and did not disappoint. Easily the best film of the year so far.
Exceptional Movie About Reporters Reporting
The awards season may just have found its first forerunner. In a 2015 movie year that has been average at best without any standout films initiating awards conversation, Tom McCarthy's Spotlight rising above the heap to assert itself as one of 2015's best.
With an all-star cast including Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Live Schreiber, John Slattery, Stanley Tucci and Billy Crudup, Spotlight shines a light on a 2001 investigation by The Boston Globe's on the sexual abuse within the Catholic Church.
Michael Keaton plays Walter Robinson who leads the Globe's investigative unit with Michael Rezendes (Ruffalo), Sacha (McAdams) and Matt Carrol (Brian d'Arcy James). Under a new editor Marty Baron (Schreiber), the team begins to unfold a horrific pattern of child sexual abuse by the church that was muted and covered up by high priced lawyers and payoffs to victim's families. As Walter probes further and further into the events (the setting is after the events the 9/11) the investigation reveals layers and layers of injustice of Catholic Priests that were aided by the highest powers of the church in an effort to keep the story muted.
It all starts with a featured column about Catholic priest John Geoghan who was accused of abusing over 100 boys. A civil suit is filed but the details of the abuse were ordered sealed by the courts. Schrieber's Baron puts the team of reporters on the case and within days the evil that lurked with the sacred rooms of local churches begins to reveal is foul and despicable face.
The investigation goes on for months as the team hits roadblock upon roadblock taking one step forward for every two steps back. But the story eventually breaks and the emotionally exhausted team is eventually able to bring to light one of the more depressing and important stories of the early new century.
Michael Keaton was really good in last year's Birdman and named himself many awards and an Academy Award nomination for his part. In Spotlight, he may be even better. Under the direction of Tom McCarthy (Win Win, The Station Agent), Keaton shines and carries a performance of determination, frustration and redemption that is delivered with precision.
Nods to All the President's Men will be inevitable. But that was a different era. A different movie. Spotlight is fresh and invigorating in its painfully frustrating subject matter. Audiences should leave with a renewed belief that investigative reporting is of monumental importance and that stories such as the one originating in 2001 Massachusetts are still out there clouded in red tape secrecy and muffled whispers. It is painful to watch at times. Trusted bonds between people, children, parents and the institution that promotes the opposite to what it sometimes preaches are disgusting revelations that are brought to the screen with sizzling effects.
The entire cast from top to bottom is perfectly cast. And McCarthy doesn't populate his frames with unnecessary spectacular visuals. Spotlight is instead very straight forward. Focused and driven.
Spotlight will be nominated for Best Picture and Keaton should get a nod for Actor. Ruffalo may also sneak his way onto ballot sheets. But whether Spotlight wins any hardware is unimportant as long as we recognize the importance of films such as these. A few years ago I would guess that 99% of the population knew nothing about the Iran hostage rescue highlighted in Ben Affleck's Argo. Spotlight should have the same effect acting as a docudrama that is both highly entertaining and educational at the same time. It is both a very good film and an important one.
Green Room (2015)
Evil Patrick Stewart Shines
I'll admit it Green Room wasn't so much on my list of movies to screen at the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) as it was just a film that fit my schedule. Searching for a film to fill a gap in my schedule after Sicario and before Black Mass, I swept up tickets to the screening more due to convenience than interest.
But that was before I did a little research. Director Jeremy Saulnier would hardly have been a name to which I would have recognized in conversation even though I had both seen and enjoyed his two feature films Murder Party and Blue Ruin. Couple his involvement with a facially recognizable cast that included Patrick Stewart (X-Men), Anton Yelchin (Fright Night) and Imogen Poots (Need for Speed) and I found myself more drawn to a film that I had no knowledge of prior to the delivery of the TIFF Program Guide.
Green Room is not as complicated as Saulnier's Blue Ruin, but it surely is more fun. A punk quartet from Virginia are touring the country when they take a gig at a dive where their booker warns them to not "talk politics" during the set. This warning is held in just as much regard as the three rules to owning a Magwai as the band stands in front of an audience of skinheads and neo-Nazi's while belting out the tune "Nazi Punks F Off" by the Dead Kennedys.
Miraculously, the group gets through their set with their arms and legs still attached, but it is when one of the members heads backstage to the green room to retrieve a cell phone. A startling revelation turns gig-night into a nightmarish where the group barricades themselves in the green room much to the violent chagrin of the bald and tattooed bar patrons that could care less about the group's survival.
The film quickly takes a grab-a-weapon-and-try-and-survive turn and although this takes Green Room from accepting the final award of the night at this year's Oscars, it makes for some grand entertainment which is surprisingly cut among some smart and snappy dialogue. There are plenty of good kills and surprise jolts and the concluding scenes had our TIFF audience vocal in their glorified acceptance.
Patrick Stewart doesn't get to play a bad guy all that often, but much like Ben Kinsley showed us in Sexy Beast, the Brit can turn on the bad when given an out-of-type role and Stewart was a marvel to watch leaving his Captain Picard nice guy persona at the door. He's not 'pure evil' but he is the wheel that turns the gears as the situation bottoms out for our poor survivors.
There is so much to enjoy in Green Room that we don't want to let the dead white supremacist cat out of the bag, but let' just say that the unique use of a confined dingy setting, believable performances and a menacing cast made for a wild ride and puts Green Room squarely in the sights for the Midnight Madness Audience Award at the festival.
The Martian (2015)
Sir Ridley at his best
Ridley Scott knows science fiction. The director of iconic and cult crowned sci-fi flicks Blade Runner and Alien, Scott is no slouch when it comes to futuristic or outerspaceish type scenarios played out through his keen direction.
Scott last dipped his toe into the sci-fi waters in 2012 with the love it or hate it Alien prequel, Prometheus. The film was met with varying degrees of acceptance and disapproval but no one could deny the film was visually spectacular. In 2015, Scott brings Andy Weir's novel of the same name to audiences in the inspiring, The Martian due to hit theatres early October.
Matt Damon plays NASA botanist Mark Watney. Watney along with a small group of other scientists are stationed on Mars when a storm prompts their evacuation. Through a series of events, his colleagues believe Watney dead as they execute their evacuation. But Watney is very much alive. Alive and alone on Mars. With little resources and materials, Watney sciences the poop out of his working assets in an effort to survive. He manages to relay a message back to earth but he is very much aware of the realization that any rescue effort or further mission to Mars is years away from actualization. Watney must live on his wits and faith in hopes that he may one day be reunited with species.
The focus is clearly on Damon's character but maybe more interesting are the team of humans back on earth lead by Jessica Chastain, Kristen Wiig, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Jeff Daniels that attempt to science the poop out of things themselves in an attempt to orchestrate a spectacular rescue. Their pooling of minds will draw reference to NASA's brain trusts in Ron Howard's Apollo 13 and is riveting the exciting to watch unfold though the emotion of the colleagues.
We'll leave the final chapters of the film to your viewing pleasure but make no mistake about it, The Martain is Ridley Scott's best film in years. Damon excels in the lonely character left abandoned. He carries the film with remarkable poise and the intelligence of the script by Drew Goddard (Cabin in the Woods, World War Z) is a marvel as to what man has and can accomplish when faced an unfathomable situation.
The 3D imagery is spectacular and the special effects are sometimes toned and other times on the scale of a blockbuster big-budget extravaganza. But the film is rooted in the triumph of the human spirit. It's hard not to cheer or cry when we see a balls-out effort to what it takes, to use what it takes, to work tirelessly in what it takes to save one human life.
The Martian is destined to be box office hit. Smart, funny, tense and drawing on emotion, it is easily one of the best films of the year and it is the type of film that might just have children once again naming 'astronaut' as the profession that they most aspire to. Yes, it's that good.