MILES DAVIS: BIRTH OF THE COOL (2019, doc)

September 26, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. The idea of a PBS “American Masters” documentary on jazz great Miles Davis could be cause for concern. The series is known for its high-level and mostly favorable profiles of influential people. Would the series go “deep” enough?  Would it gloss over the dark side? Would it be able to capture the essence of an enigmatic man who changed the music world more than once? The final result is a documentary that acts as a terrific primer for those unfamiliar with Miles Davis, and one that should satisfy his most ardent fans as it chronicles each stage of the music. For this we can thank Stanley Nelson, a documentarian who has delivered several projects on the history of African-Americans.

By definition, the ‘cradle-to-grave’ approach limited to a 2 hour run time means certain aspects must be glossed over. We learn that Miles’ father was a dentist in East Saint Louis, allowing them to be the second wealthiest black family in the state. Of course, this did not shield them from racism and segregation, or even domestic violence within their home … a trait that Miles would carry throughout his own relationships later in life.  “Music comes before everything.” It’s a battle cry from the memoir, “Miles: The Autobiography”. The film features actor Carl Lumbly narrating many of Miles’ own words throughout the film – with Lumbly’s voice bearing a sufficient resemblance to Miles’ distinct sound.

Montages of photos are utilized, initially to kick off the film with shots of Miles performing on stage, and then to mark the specific social and political era as the timeline shifts (1944, 1955, 1969, etc). Interviews are conducted with East Saint Louis residents, Miles’ childhood friends, musicians – those he played with and those he influenced, writers, and historians. Each brings their own perspective to telling Miles’ story, and perhaps none is more insightful than former dancer Frances Taylor, who was married to him from 1968-78. This era and their marriage was a key element of the 2015 film MILES APART starring Don Cheadle. Ms. Taylor passed away in 2018, and her recollections hold much weight and insight into Miles off stage.

The advantage of a chronological recap of his career is that it allows for a clear grasp of just how often the music of Miles Davis evolved over the years. At age 17, he was playing with Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, and in 1955 at the Newport Jazz Festival he introduced a new style that shook the industry and landed him a lucrative recording contract. He took film score to a new place with Louis Malle’s ELEVATOR TO THE GALLOWS and later played with the great John Coltrane. Of course Miles’ seminal 1959 album “Kind of Blue” is discussed by many who note the impact it had on jazz and music in general. We hear from Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock and Carlos Santana as each tries to describe a sound that defies description.

As he himself proclaimed, Miles was all about the music; and because of this, it makes sense that the film focuses on his innovative approach. Director Nelson does not, however, ignore the dark side of the man. As far back as high school Miles was “a genius and weird”, but lifelong battles with drugs and alcohol, and his history of being a difficult and violent partner, put the personal side in stark contrast to the beauty of his music. His first two wives, Frances Taylor and singer Betty Mabry, both documented his violent temper, and it’s a little disappointing that his third wife, actress Cicely Tyson was not interviewed for the film. They were married from 1981-88. Ms. Tyson turns 95 years old this year, and is still a working actor. It was the younger Ms. Mabry that revamped Miles’ fashion and introduced him to Jimi Hendrix and Sly Stone, helping usher in the jazz fusion era.

We do learn the story behind the recognizable raspy voice, and the film covers his time at Julliard, his first trip to Paris (where he met actress Juliette Greco), his collaboration with arranger Gil Evans, the influence of Clive Davis, and his performance with Quincy Jones not long before Miles died in 1991. It’s details like Miles Davis music provided the template for Hip-Hop that make the film click, but of course the real joy is derived from hearing his music from 5 decades of work. Someone in the movie states “I want to feel the way Miles sounds.” And we know exactly what she means.

watch the trailer:

 

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BLINDED BY THE LIGHT (2019)

August 14, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Last year we had Queen via BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY, and so far this year we’ve had Elton John with ROCKETMAN and The Beatles with YESTERDAY. Thanks to writer-director Gurinder Chadha (BEND IT LIKE BECKHAM), our latest musical genius to receive the cinematic treatment is The Boss … New Jersey’s own Bruce Springsteen. While this one is not a biopic of Bruce, it is based on the memoir (“Greetings from Bury Park”) of British journalist Sarfraz Manzoor, who co-wrote the script with Ms. Chadha and Paul Mayeda Berges.

Viveik Kalra stars as Javed, a Pakistani Brit living in Luton during the economic downturn of Margaret Thatcher’s run as Prime Minister. It’s 1987 and Javed faces racism and the struggles of a first generation Pakistan family pursuing their American dreams. He is a wanna-be writer who creates recession-era poems and politically-charged song lyrics for his best friend’s pop-synth band. At home, his hyper-stressed father (Kulvinder Ghir) pushes to keep his ideals on track for the family – a vision which does not allow Javed to pursue a writing career.

Javed finds a supportive teacher in Ms. Clay (Hayley Atwell), and things really change for him thanks to his energetic Sikh buddy Roops (Aaron Phagura) who introduces him to the music of Springsteen. Viveik Kalra is a relative newcomer, having only previously appeared in the TV mini-series “Next of Kin”. He shines in this role, and never more than when he conveys the near-religious experience of being touched by music the first time. The more he listens to Springsteen, the more he relates. The music helps him find his voice as a writer, and equally importantly, his place in society.

Another relative newcomer to the big screen is the terrific Nell Williams, who plays activist and rebellious Eliza. She also happens to be the love interest for Javed, and the two are quite fun to watch together. It’s a bit of a shame that the roles weren’t expanded more for both Ms. Williams and Mr. Phagura. Both characters could have contributed more to the story. Dean Charles-Chapman plays Matt, Javed’s long-time musician friend, and Rob Brydon has a comical appearance as Matt’s dad – one who appreciates Springsteen as much as Javed.

The film weaves in the cultural challenges of Javed and his family, as well as some of the Pakistan traditions and the accompanying pressures. Filmmaker Chadha doesn’t deliver a musical per se, but there are definitely some musical moments, including full production numbers that have us singing along. A few too many Jewish Springsteen jokes are included, and some may find the film a bit too light-hearted, but it’s crafted for mass appeal while blasting some classics from the theatre speakers: Promised Land, Badlands, Thunder Road, Darkness on the Edge of Town, Born to Run, Because the Night, Prove it All Night, and yes, even “Hungry Heart”. These songs are the inspiration for the movie, just as they were for Mr. Manzoor. Sure, there are some silly moments, but mostly it’s an entertaining and inspirational message movie wrapped in BRUUUUUCE!

watch the trailer:


WILD ROSE (2019)

July 4, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Quick … name all of the female Country music singers from Glasgow, Scotland! Yep, that unicorn is the premise for this film from director Tom Harper and writer Nicole Taylor, both best known for their British TV work. Rose-Lynn Harlan (played by Jessie Buckley) is being released after a year in jail on drug charges. She uncomfortably adjusts her white boots over the ankle monitor and sets off to conquer Nashville with her singing.

Of course there are a few obstacles to her Music City dream. See, she’s a single mother with two kids, and she’s from a working class area where putting food on the table and paying the bills is a significant achievement. Ms. Buckley stars as Rose-Lynn, and by stars I mean she carries the film and flashes great promise as an actress. Her no-nonsense mother Marion is played by 2-time Oscar nominee Julie Walters, and while Rose-Lynn has stars in her eyes, mother Marion pushes her to take a housekeeping job and be a mother to her kids. The scenes with Rose-Lynn and her kids are devastating, as she has no parenting instincts, and is solely focused on herself.

We know where all of this is headed, and it’s a credit to Ms. Buckley and Ms. Taylor’s script that we care enough to follow along. Rose-Lynn is employed to clean house by the wealthy Susannah (Sophie Okonedo), and we get one of the funniest vacuum cleaner scenes ever. Susannah soon takes on Rose-Lynn as a pet project with the goal of helping her get to Nashville for her shot.

Some rough language is peppered throughout and it’s spouted with the heaviest of Scottish accents, so much of it sounds a bit comical rather than threatening. The film is a bit uneven, but the mainstream approach keeps it from going too far off track, and it quite comfortably fits into the “crowd-pleasing” category. “Three chords and the truth” is used to describe country music, and if that’s your musical taste, you’ll likely enjoy the songs. However, if you prefer ‘Country and Western’, you’re flat out of luck. Either way, look out for Ms. Buckley.

** I saw this at the 2019 Dallas International Film Festival, and it’s now getting a theatrical release.

watch the trailer:


YESTERDAY (2019)

June 12, 2019

2019 Oak Cliff Film Festival

 Greetings again from the darkness. A world without music from The Beatles? It’s hard to “imagine”. It’s not as simple as never having their classics played on the radio, as the number of musicians influenced by their work is roughly the size of the list of every musician who has ever written or sang a song over the past 60 years. Of course, that’s a bit too much to tackle in a movie, so director Danny Boyle (Oscar winner for SLUMBDOG MILLIONAIRE) simplifies things by serving up a 12 second global power outage.

Jack Malik (Himesh Patel, “EastEnders”) is the epitome of a struggling musician. He plays kids’ parties and pubs where the only applause is from his small group of friends who enjoy busting his chops over his “summer” song. His lifelong friend Ellie (Lily James, BABY DRIVER, MAMMA MIA!, PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES) is also his manager and roadie … his only true supporter. There is an unrequited attraction between the two, and since the script comes from Richard Curtis (LOVE ACTUALLY), we know where this is headed.

When the global power outage hits, Jack is on his bicycle and a collision with a bus puts him in the hospital. During recovery, he stumbles on to the fact that he is the only person who remembers music from John, Paul, George, and Ringo. Quickly capitalizing on the opportunity, Jack frantically tries to recall the lyrics to the songs, and in short time is replacing his playlist post-it notes with the familiar (to us) song titles, and blowing people away with “his” formidable songwriting and incredible music.

Fortune shines on Jack and his new songs, and soon Ed Sheeran (playing himself) is helping Jack’s career, while at the same time being humbled by these songs. It’s at this point where Kate McKinnon joins in as the money-grubbing talent agent who recognizes a gold mine when she hears it. Additional comedy is provided by Joel Fry as Rocky, Jack’s new roadie; and a trip to Liverpool follows, as does a world tour and album recording session.

Danny Boyle is known best for his likeable, easy to digest films that are typically crowd-pleasers, but leave me wanting more depth and substance. This one fits right in. It’s funny (“Hey Dude”, Abbey Road is just a road) and has amazing music (of course). However, where Lily James plays her role perfectly, Himesh Patel – despite a fine singing voice – simply lacks the charisma and screen presence to carry the film. We rarely feel his inner turmoil in living this whopper of a lie, and the film never really clicks as a Rom-Com. In fact, the only thing we should be loving here is the Beatles music. The film plays a bit like Rod Serling decided to take “The Twilight Zone” into comedy. The real impact would be lost, but it would still likely draw a crowd.

watch the trailer:

 


ROCKETMAN (2019)

May 30, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. It’s billed as a musical fantasy. If you are familiar with Elton John’s discography and history, you’ll want to keep that in mind as the film unfolds. The reward is a colorful spectacle worthy of one of pop music’s most successful songwriters and greatest showmen. Director Dexter Fletcher (EDDIE THE EAGLE, 2015) and writer Lee Hall (BILLY ELLIOT, 2000) make frequent use of Elton’s music within the fabric of the storytelling. It’s no traditional biopic, nor should it be, given the wild ride of the man whose story is being told.

Taron Egerton tears into playing Elton John like it’s the role of a lifetime. And he succeeds in a way that makes it seem that could be true. Most of us first recognized Taron’s talent as “Eggsy” in KINGSMAN: THE SECRET SERVICE (2014), though I’m not sure we expected such a dynamic step up so soon. This is not some actor merely mimicking the movements of a celebrity. This is an actor taking possession of a role. Without the costumes, Taron doesn’t look much like Elton John. He certainly doesn’t sound like Elton John … though his voice does justice to the classic songs. Despite those things, he is captivating on screen, both in the dramatic moments and the musical mania.

Elton’s childhood and the strained relationship he had with his parents (played here by Bryce Dallas Howard and Steven Macintosh) are given much attention, as is the support and love of his grandmother (Gemma Jones). With two self-centered parents wishing he didn’t exist, the child piano prodigy might never have attended the Royal Academy of Music if not for grandmother Ivy. Of course, the professional relationship that meant the most to Elton’s career was his songwriting collaboration with lyricist Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell), and much of the film is devoted to this prolific partnership – in fact, one of the most spine-tingling moments occurs as Bernie hands Elton the words to “Your Song” and Elton proceeds to set it to music right in front of us and Bernie. Whether that’s historically accurate or not, it provides a thrilling moment on screen for the creative duo.

Elton John in rehab is used as a framing device for the film. This allows him to walk us through his life … after admitting to having issues with drugs, alcohol, sex, shopping and anger. In other words, one of the most successful musicians of all time was a mess. And we get to sit front row as he details his early sexual confusion, his desire to be loved, his early professional frustration, and finally a career that exploded – covering him with money, adoration, stress, and more frustration. We see the warts and all.

Supporting roles are filled by Richard Madden as John Reid, Elton’s lover and manager; Tate Donovan as Doug Weston, owner of Sunset Blvd’s Troubadour; Rachel Muldoon as Kiki Dee, Elton’s collaborator on  their big hit “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart”; and Stephen Graham as Dick James, the famous music publisher who first signed Elton.

As someone whose favorite Elton albums are “Tumbleweed Connection”, “Madman Across the Water”, and “Honky Chateau”, it’s easy for me to appreciate the time period covered here (roughly 1970-1983), and also to recognize the ‘artistic license’ taken with the timelines and events. His 1970 gig at Troubadour features a rowdy version of “Crocodile Rock”, which wasn’t even written yet … although the scene makes for great cinema. Many of the songs that advance the story are used out of sequence, but it’s quite effective to see and hear them in context. His marriage to Renate Blauel and the rehab stint featured both occurred after 1983, which we can assume is the story’s stopping point given the use of the “I’m Still Standing” video as a finale. Even the use of John Lennon over Long John Baldry doesn’t really matter since this is all about the spectacle, and for spectacle, you’ve likely never seen costumes (including eyeglasses and headdresses) used to such startling effect … and so frequently. The baseball “uniform” Elton wore during his 1975 Dodger Stadium gig has always made me a bit uncomfortable, but it’s recreated beautifully for the film.

Given that comparisons to the recent BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY are inevitable, it should be noted that director Dexter Fletcher rescued the final production of that film before finishing this one. Freddie Mercury and Elton John are two of the most fascinating figures in music history, and while both films are enjoyable, it’s ROCKETMAN that is willing to take the riskier path by highlighting the flaws of a creative genius. So criticize if you must, but you’ll probably still be singing in your seat.

watch the trailer:


ALADDIN (2019)

May 22, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Aladdin … come on down!  You are the next participant in Disney’s ongoing mission for live-action remakes of their classic films. And rest easy fans, this time the mega-studio has done right by the original. Now that doesn’t mean there aren’t surprises. How about Guy Ritchie as director?  How about a cast of mostly unknowns? How about modernized songs and even a new one sung by Jasmine? And it probably goes without asking, but how about a lot of CGI?

Mena Massoud (“Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan”) stars as Aladdin, and he gets to showboat early in the film and flash some parkour skills in the familiar and high-octane chase through the village. Aladdin, of course, is labeled a ‘street rat’ and ‘riff-raff’, but he’s also charming, handsome, talented as a thief, and quite warm-hearted. He and his pet monkey Abu – or more accurately, partner in crime – are streetwise and work quite well together, both for theft and love.

Naomi Scott (slated to star in the CHARLIE’S ANGELS movie coming out later this year) is a beautiful and ambitious Princess Jasmine, who wants to succeed her father as Sultan of Agrabah, but is instead forced to choose between a steady stream of suitors – each a Prince, as required by law. Ms. Scott has a terrific singing voice and really gets to cut loose on the new woman power song “Speechless”.

The blue Genie is played by Will Smith, and this is what has fans of the beloved 1992 animated film so flustered. No, Will Smith is not Robin Williams, and few if any, could match the late great comedian for his energy and comedic flair. But Mr. Smith does a marvelous job of staying true to the original, while also adding his own style … a style that works very well for comedy, music, and dramatic moments. He is not likely to disappoint anyone who has an open mind.

So let’s talk about the villain. Marwan Kenzari is Jafar, the man so dissatisfied with being number 2. Personally, I would have preferred a more intimidating bad guy, but given the tone of the film (more on that below), he’s a solid fit. His sidekick and smart-aleck parrot Iago is voiced by Alan Tudyk (it was the distinctive Gilbert Gottfried in the 1992 version). Two other key supporting roles include Nasim Padrad (“Saturday Night Live”) as Dalla, Jasmine’s handmaiden; and Navid Negahban (Abu Nazir in “Homeland”) as the Sultan and Jasmine’s father.

It’s been 27 years since Robin Williams’ Genie entertained so many, and the comparisons to that version are inevitable. It’s a relief that Disney opted to keep the film family friendly (Rated PG) and avoid the dark tone that had their recent projects aimed more at adults than kids, rather than the balance they’ve been known for more than 6 decades. Yes, this is the same director that made SNATCH (2000) and SHERLOCK HOLMES (2009), neither of which any decent parent would allow their young kids to watch. But, Mr. Ritchie has delivered a film which entertained (and didn’t overly frighten) kids as young as 5 in the screening I attended.

Director Ritchie co-wrote the script with John August, who is best known for his work with Tim Burton (BIG FISH, CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY, CORPSE BRIDE, DARK SHADOWS, FRANKENWEENIE). The film runs 2 hours and 8 minutes, 38 longer than the 1992 film … though it doesn’t feel too long. Gemma Jackson’s set design of Agrabah, the Palace, and the Cave of Wonders are all stunning, and then of course, there is the music. Alan Menken won an Oscar for ALADDIN (1992) and his music is back and modernized, and sounds wonderful … especially “A Whole New World” and Jasmine’s new song.

With a talented cast of Arab/Middle Eastern/Central Asian/Southern Asian actors, there should be no cries of “foul”, and there really is something special about a movie that can be thoroughly enjoyed by all ages. The Bollywood-type closing number provides a kaleidoscope of color, texture and dancing … and is a nice twist to “You’ve Never Had a Friend Like Me”. And I’ll leave you with this final offer: you can have the monkey, if I can have the magic carpet.

watch the trailer:


DIFF 2019 Day 6

April 17, 2019

2019 Dallas International Film Festival

 Greetings again from the darkness. The best way I can describe my Day 6 movies is quirky – oddball- unique indie filmmaking at its most deep-cut festival level. It’s doubtful any of the three will receive widespread distribution, yet all three are entertaining in their own special way.

 

 

 

 

Here is my recap of Day 6 movies:

 

INTERNATIONAL FALLS

 It’s so cold!  That’s a running joke in a movie based in International Falls, Minnesota (one of the coldest spots in the U.S.) during the dead of winter time. There are plenty of other jokes included since it’s the story of a local woman who dreams of being a stand-up comedian. We first see Dee (Rachael Harris) greeting Tim (Rob Huebel) as he checks into the hotel where she works. He’s there for a 2 night gig as a stand-up comedian and the two of them immediately clash.

Amber McGinnis directs the script from Thomas Ward, and as you might imagine with a number of stand-up sets shown, there is also a good bit of improvisation. Surprisingly, the comedian sets are the weakest part of the movie. Where it excels is with the self-evaluation that occurs with Dee, Tim and Dee’s husband Gary (Matthew Glove). Rather than a laugh-a-minute approach, there is a heavy dose of introspection as Dee comes to grips with a disintegrating marriage, and learning the ups and downs of stand-up courtesy of her tryst with Tim … yes, they get over that initial clash as soon as Dee figures out she can learn from him.

The film does a nice job of demonstrating how most comedy stems from pain, sadness and disappointment. Many comedians struggle with depression or at least the challenges of being mocked or found unfunny. Tim and Dee spend a good amount of time together over his two days, and he states on multiple occasions that the second show will be his final show. This is all going on as Dee evaluates the stand-up gig as a career, and whether she wants to continue her marriage. There is a terrific scene where Dee and Tim walk around town (yes, it’s cold) to see the sites … including the Bronco Nagurski museum (unfortunately, it’s closed).

The supporting cast is talented and familiar and includes comedian Erik Griffin, Kevin Nealon, Mindy Sterling (AUSTIN POWERS), and Jessie Sherman. Mr. Ward’s script began as his own 2-person play, and it’s easy to see how it benefits cinematically from expanding outside the walls of a hotel room. Sure it’s a bit of a downer, but sometimes that’s the way life goes … the question is what do we make of those down times?

 

SISTER AIMEE

 In 1926 Sister Aimee Semple McPherson was one of the most famous people in the world. If you are like most of us these days, you’ve never even heard of her. She was an evangelist – healer – entertainer – swindler – celebrity and built one of the most popular radio shows of the era. Co-directors and co-writers Samantha Buck and Marie Schlingmann begin by telling us that 5 ½ percent of their film is true, and the rest is imagination … speculation on one of the most bizarre mysteries ever reported on the front page of most newspapers.

Anna Margaret Hollyman delivers a fun performance as Sister Aimee, though unfortunately, the other 94 ½ percent isn’t quite as much fun as we hope for – but it’s enough to keep us engaged. See, Sister Aimee faked her own death/disappearance and then reappeared at the Mexico border a few weeks later, claiming she had been abducted and held hostage. Of course, it took very little investigation for her story to fall apart, but somehow the actual details were never pieced together. This is the re-imagining of her “lost” time.

Tired of her fame and the pressure that comes with being a faith-based healer, we watch as Sister Aimee runs off with Kenny (Michael Mosley, “Ozark”). They secure a guide named Rey (a terrific Andrea Suarez Paz) to take them through the backroads in order to cross the border unseen. Rey has a pretty tall tale backstory herself and might be a nice subject of her own film … the hero with no name.

Supporting actors include Lee Eddy as Hazel, Sister Aimee’s handler and assistant; Julie White as Aimee’s mother Minnie Kennedy; and Amy Hargreaves as Sister Semple. There is a full-scale song-and-dance number that takes place in a Mexico jail that Ms. Hollyman performs quite beautifully. The story involves one famous woman searching for anonymity and one anonymous woman looking for attention. It’s surely the first throat-slitting musical western road trip dramatic mystery comedy arms-dealing adventure film I’ve ever seen.

 

SHOOT THE MOON RIGHT BETWEEN THE EYES

 When you attend the Dallas International Film Festival and you see a feature film debut from a writer/director who was influenced by legendary Austin filmmaker Eagle Pennell, and stars cult favorite Sonny Carl Davis, and the film is based on a song by the even more legendary John Prine and a short story (“Two Gallants”) by the great James Joyce … well, it becomes a must-see and a film that you simply schedule other films around (yes, that run-on sentence was intentional).

Jerry (David Kendrick) and Carl (Sonny Carl Davis) are a couple of elderly con men making their way through small Texas towns scamming women out of money. Hot on their trail is a lovesick Private Investigator named Les (Frank Mosley). He’s lovesick for his current client, who happens to be his ex-wife as well as Jerry’s and Carl’s latest victim. Les hopes to catch up to the con men, get the money back and win back the affections of his ex. While Les bumbles his way through the investigation, Jerry messes up the latest scam by falling hard for torch singer Maureen (Morgana Shaw), their current target.

We are told the film is based in Texas during 2016, and anyone familiar with Austin will recognize Deep Eddy Cabaret, where just about everyone in the film has a drink (or more) at some point, and we hear a few Waylon Jennings songs from the jukebox. However, that’s not the music that will stick with you. All of the key characters get to sing a John Prine song, including one of the strangest versions of “The Late John Garfield Blues” you’ll ever hear. Most of the vocals from the leads are somewhat strained, but it fits with the tone and adds to the charm.

Filmmaker Graham Carter proves to be a worthy successor to the beloved and late Eagle Pennell (check out his classic LAST NIGHT AT THE ALAMO) with this ultra low-budget offering filled with songs and fun characters … and a narrator that guides us through. This one is perfect for late night viewing and a taste of John Prine lyrics.