Monday, October 21, 2019

Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool

A new documentary on the life and music Miles Davis explores his various incarnations as one of the great Jazz artists of the 20th Century. The film takes a straight forward approach and it mostly works. A combination of archival footage, new interviews with those who knew him, and Miles's own words set to narration provide worthwhile insight. His beginnings in East St. Louis and his coming of age in New York and Paris comprise the first act. A prodigy on the trumpet, Davis had a relentless drive to innovate, taking his sound as far it could go and never repeating himself. His encounters with racism and determination to be an independent black artist are also major themes. MIles kept the world at arm's length, never suffering fools, he could also be distant to those closest to him. Not a hagiography by any means, the film never shies away from troubling aspects of his life. He struggled with addiction and was abusive towards women. The release of Kind of Blue in 1959 brought international fame, a string of influential records followed. Periods of seclusion were usually followed by creative breakthroughs that allowed him to keep performing until his passing in 1991. An excellent primer for anyone unfamiliar with the music of Miles Davis, Birth of the Cool is an immersive trip into mid-century America.


Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Joker (2019)

Ominous cellos flutter throughout Joker in an original story focusing on the definitive Batman villain. Set in the early 1980s, Joker attempts to evoke the grittiness of 1970s movies set in New York. Such an approach holds endless creative possibilities, but there were also many bands who tried to emulate The Beatles. Going for a certain aesthetic may look and even feel like Taxi Driver or Prince of the City is only half the battle. While Joker does make you forget it's a comic book movie at times, Joker remains tethered to its comic book universe. 

Joaquin Phoenix stars as the Joker in an intense, dark performance. One could expect no less from Phoenix, but it will remain in the shadow of Heath Ledger's in The Dark Knight. The character here is somewhere between Norman Bates and Travis Bickle, a put upon misfit named Arthur Fleck living in a decaying Gotham City. He shares a place with his needy mother and tries to make a living as a clown and stand up comedian. His only joy comes from watching a popular late night talk show with Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro). Arthur also struggles with mental health issues, struggling with a condition that causes bouts of uncontrollable laughter.

One night on the subway Arthur lashes out with violence after a group of Wall Street traders harass him. The turn to violence creates a change within Arthur and he begins to feel empowered. Meanwhile, like Taxi Driver, there's a political campaign in Gotham with Thomas Wayne running, a Trump like businessman who demonizes the poor. Arthur and Thomas are on a collision course that plays out in a slightly clever way.

There are some memorable scenes in Joker, mostly due to Phoenix's bravura performance. He'll often break into bizarre dance routines and oddly grows more charismatic as the story moves along. But when Joker tries to make a larger social statement it misses completely. The class war theme was explored in The Dark Knight Rises, but here it's even more simplistic. In a comic book story such an approach works, but it comes of as shallow in a movie trying to be more than that. The anti-climatic ending leaves us with an interesting performance trapped in a derivative landscape.

The controversies surrounding the release of Joker were a brilliant marketing gambit presenting the film as something dangerous. But the film offers minimal insight on humanity and the nature of evil, but instead revels in its own routine descent into darkness. 


Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Ad Astra (2019)

An engaging space adventure, Ad Astra explores humanistic themes in the midst of a fairly stable future. Director James Gray has compiled an impressive filmography. From historical films (The Immigrant and The Lost City of Z) to intelligent character studies (Two Lovers and We Own the Night) he's one of the more consistent filmmakers of the past two decades. His first venture into Sci-Fi for the most delivers, avoiding pretension in a realistic vision of space travel. Brad Pitt proves a steady presence as astronaut Roy McBride in search of his father Clifford played by Tommy Lee Jones. 

In a decade of ambitious movies set in space there's been a new emphasis on the realities of space travel. From the space survival story in Alfonso Cuaron's Gravity and the pro-science swagger of The Martian, to the emo/trippy Sci-Fi of Interstellar, all these films are exploring the notion of humans surviving in space. French filmmaker Claire Denis offered a grittier, bleaker vision of space travel in High Life is an outlier to the recent trend. Ad Astra utilizes elements from all these films. There's also the unavoidable influence of Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey

The future in Ad Astra depicts burgeoning colonies on the Moon and Mars. One sequence features chain restaurants on the Moon - looking like any bland airport. Various corporations have carved out spheres of influence on the Moon in a repeat of the wild west, resulting in a buggy chase that's highlighted in the trailer. People are still greedy, still killing each other over resources.

The primary plot device deals with power surges disrupting the electric grid on earth. Emanating from the far reaches of the solar system, the destructive power surges are connected to a mission commanded by Roy's father which embarked on a failed mission to make contact with intelligent life. Roy is drafted (against his will) to discover the the mystery of the mission to save the Earth.

Roy's journey takes him to Mars and beyond. Alternating between action sequences and quiet meditations on loneliness, at just under two hours the film is well paced. Once Roy reaches his destination the big reveal may disappoint some. Gray is more interested in the human condition whether it's immigrants in 20th Century America or Victorian explorers in Africa. Kubrick viewed human exploration as moving towards a destiny, while Gray's more grounded view of space exploration is more concerned with its effect on the human heart. 

As a study of masculinity, women are on the periphery on the story. Roy resents Clifford for abandoning him and his Mom when he was a child. Without children, Roy wants to avoid the mistakes of his father, not wanting to abandon his loved ones in pursuit of some lofty idea. Reconciliation is not the point here - it's catharsis. Not too far from his role as the stern father in Tree of Life, Pitt's quiet performance emotes a perseverance and burgeoning empathy. 

Technically, Ad Astra avoids showy special effects in favor of realistic ones. Space travel is free of the comforts in 2001 and utopia of Star Trek. A claustrophobic depiction of space travel, but still full of cosmic wonder. 

***1/2 out of 4