Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Miles Ahead (2016) **

Don Cheadle wrote, directed, and starred in Miles Ahead, an impressionistic portrait of Jazz legend Miles Davis.  The film follows Davis during a period in the 70s when he dropped out of public view.  When an aggressive Rolling Stone reporter (Ewan McGregor) tries to get an interview with the reclusive artist,  Miles enlists him to embark on a dangerous adventure to recover a lost tape.  In the midst of their odyssey, there are flashbacks to the late 50s when Davis recorded his landmark album Kind of Blue. Cheadle's charisma carries the film even when it goes off the rails with long action/chase sequences that belong in a Lethal Weapon film. Through it all, Davis remains an enigma.  Despite the unconventional structure, the movie does not avoid the cliches common to a music biopic. Despite its shortcomings, Miles Ahead makes for a fine introduction to a remarkable artist.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Elvis & Nixon (2016) **

On December 21, 1970 fading rock star Elvis Presley visited President Richard Nixon in the White House, a moment encapsulated in a photo that is reportedly the most requested at the National Archives. With two heavyweight actors in the lead roles, Michael Shannon as Elvis and Kevin Spacey as Nixon, the film never goes too far off course. The subplots revolving around White House Staff and Presley's "Memphis Mafia" get tedious. To those who are unfamiliar with the story, Presley on a whim tried to get a meeting with Nixon. He wanted to be an undercover FBI agent.  Disgusted by the growing youth revolt and drug epidemic, Elvis wanted help fight the war on drugs.  Shannon plays Elvis with an understated charisma, always speaking in a relaxed tone, masking his melancholy. While Elvis remained popular in 1970, the British Invasion Bands made his music seem safe, even boring. Spacey is a surprisingly benevolent Nixon, an interesting counterpoint his nefarious president he plays on House of Cards.  The King and the President connected through their shared loneliness and sense of having overcome their modest backgrounds. Elvis & Nixon is a nostalgic look at a unique moment in pop culture history, nothing more and nothing less.

Spotlight ***1/2 (2015)

The Best Picture winner of 2015, Spotlight is an old fashioned socially conscious film extolling the best virtues of journalism. So much about Spotlight recalls All the President's Men, especially in the cinematography and editing.  In 2002 the Boston Globe wrote a groundbreaking series of stories on the Catholic Church's institutional wide cover up of sexual abuse committed by its clergy. The title refers to a crack staff of investigative reporters at the Globe known as "Spotlight." Michael Keaton leads them as the seasoned reporter with close sources inside the church. Mark Ruffalo and Rachel McAdams excel as journalists determined to expose the cover up through harrowing interviews with survivors whom the church tried to silence. Spotlight's also a plea for rigourous journalism in an age when digital media dominates. So much of "web" journalism is mere responding to the news, not going out there and creating it. Today the trend continues as newspapers continue to slash budgets and are ever more beholden to their corporate overseers. Directed by Tom McCarthy, who made one of my favorite films of the recent past The Station Agent, does a great job of depicting interpersonal relationships.  In addition to All the President's Men, Spotlight reminded me of Sidney Lumet films like Verdict and Network, taut dramas with a solid emotional core. 

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Return of the Living Dead **1/2

The cult horror movie Return of the Living Dead will, I mean it totally will, send you on a time warp to 1985.  Dan O'Bannon, known for writing classic Sci-Fi movies like Dark Star and Alien, took the director's chair for this one and made one of the more offbeat horror movies of the decade.  The title itself suggests the film is a sequel to George Romero's 1968 horror classic Night of the Living Dead.  Yes and no.  As one character explains, Romero based his film on a true story and simply exaggerated the facts.  The movie begins in a medical equipment warehouse where the manager Frank (James Karen) explains to a new employee Freddy (Thom Matthews) they keep reanimated bodies in barrels, products of a wacky army experiment.  Frank and Freddy awaken the zombies and are forced take refuge in a mortuary (great setting for a horror movie). They are also joined by a group of punk rock kids. The punk soundtrack included songs from the The Cramps and The Damned.  Even the zombies talk and get down. Gallows humor all around. Watch it on a triple feature with An American Werewolf in London and Stephen King's Creepshow for an evening of retro horror. 

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Beavis and Butt-head Do America (1996) ***

Mike Judge's 90s creation Beavis and Butt-head took the slacker ethos to full extreme as two brainless teenagers. The show proved an unlikely hit on MTV and will be forever linked with "End of the Century" pop culture.  They are two couch potatoes who watch endless music videos, make failed attempts to pick up chicks, and pretty much drive everyone crazy. But they were hilarious, remnants of a broken mass media culture and the teenage wasteland it left. The 1996 film now looks like a splendid time capsule of Clinton era America (Clinton himself makes a cameo appearance).  A wonderful blend of benevolent paranoia and easy going satire carry the film, a sort of parody of the road picture.  As Beavis and Butt-head make their way across America to locate their stolen television they end up getting involved with CIA intrigue among other things. Bruce Willis, Demi Moore, Robert Stack, Cloris Leachman, Eric Bogosian, and David Letterman contributed their voices.

Irrational Man (2015) *1/2

Woody''s riff on Crime and Punishment quickly goes off the rails like a hastily written Freshman essay on Kierkegaard. Joaquin Phoenix plays Abe, a lapsed philosophy professor who can find no meaning in his existence.  Upon taking a new appointment at a small college, he is popular with students despite his pessimistic world view. Emma Stone glows as his new muse and love interest, by far the best performance in the film.  Unfortunately the film devolves into an uninspired murder mystery. Phoenix appears uncomfortable with Allen's dialogue, mumbling throughout the entire movie.

American Ultra * (2015)

American Ultra aspires to be a hip homage to vintage 90s True Romance era Tarantino and obscure espionage movies from the 70s like Telefon.  Leads Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart do what they can with a limited script. The action sequences are a make no sense and the jokes fall flat.  Mike (Eisenberg) is a slacker/stoner convenience store clerk from West Virginia who discovers he's a sleeper cell CIA assassin, while trying to hold on to his too good to be true girlfriend Phoebe (Stewart). The cartoonish violence quickly gets repetitive.  American Ultra tries desperately to be a cult film, but comes across as ordinary.

Big Wednesday (1978) ***1/2

John Milius's 1978 surfing epic Big Wednesday is a forgotten gem from the late 1970s. Those who know Milus's work, mostly violent militaristic films like Red Dawn, will be surprised at his sensitive portrait of 1960s California surfing culture. The film stars Jan Michael-Vincent, Gary Busey, William Katt as three legendary surfers who must face the reality of growing up and the challenges of the outside world, namely the Vietnam War. Milius drew upon mythology and John Ford pictures to further his theme on the passage of time.  The performances are authentic and the surfing footage is pretty awesome. Time and place are masterfully evoked.  Big Wednesday is all heart and soul.