“Miles Ahead”, and Every Inch a Bore

Miles Davis wass a fantastic musician, guaranteed to be forever remembered for his innovation and skill.  He permanently shaped the musical landscape, and those achievements are not to be understated.  Nonetheless, he is not, in a conventional sense, famous.  Although well known in his heyday, today, he remains unknown to a vast majority of Americans.  Those who do know him, music fans and academics, know him by his music, and perhaps a few tidbits about his life.

“Miles Ahead”, Don Cheadle’s elaborate vanity project (Cheadle writing, directing, and starring in the title role), does not understand this.  It can’t be concerned with such mundane things as plot, or characters.  No, “Miles Ahead” is Capital A “Art”.  Littered with ever so precious shots (“We’ll film a series of Polaroids instead of a montage!  It’ll be perfect!”) and often repeated yet never explained platitudes  (“Jazz is just a made up word.  Call it “Social Music”,) the film can’t be bothered to tell us things like who Miles Davis is, how he got to the point we see him at, or why we’re supposed to care.

Read More


The Boy and the Beast: Definitely a Beauty

Fatherhood is a very tricky subject to tackle.  Any bond between a parent and child is filled with a number of deep emotions, but men quite typically present a stoic front.  Show too little emotion, then the relationship comes across as shallow.  Show too much emotion, and the relationship becomes artificial, bogged down by maudlin sentimentality.  Of course, it’s doubly tricky when it’s a father/son relationship, as you have two sets of sealed off emotions to delicately reveal.  Luckily, Mamoru Hosoda’s gorgeously realized “The Boy and the Beast” manages to walk that delicate line, using fabulously expressive animation and tight metaphor to tell the story of a boys relationship to his surrogate father.

Of course, this being a Mamoru Hosoda film, themes of family are wrapped in a whimsical magical realism.  A young boy runs off from home after the death of his mother, his callous relatives and absent, divorced father offering him no comfort, and promptly stumbles into a parallel reality, inhabited by anthropomorphic animals.  He’s quickly taken under the wing of Kumatetsu, a prideful, boorish bear swordsman in need of a pupil to make him eligible to compete to succeed the towns lord.  Renaming the boy Kyuta, they begin a combative relationship that slowly changes them both.

The story complicates as it focuses on Kyuta’s adolescence, first romance, and search for a place in the human world, and contrasts the family life of the seemingly perfect father Iozen, a boar man who is Kumatetsu’s rival for the throne.  Nonetheless, all plot elements serve to highlight the central relationships between Kumatetsu and Kyuta, and the central themes of the effects of loneliness and neglect on the soul, and the difficulty and necessity of repairing through emotional bonds.  It’s a simple fable, richly constructed, and necessary to our current generation in which fatherhood is a lost art, and a toxically independent brand of masculinity the norm.

The animation is gorgeous, blending traditional animation and CGI, allowing subtleties of emotion to come out in the characters deeply expressive faces.  Thick outlines and unshaded colors give the film a distinctive aesthetic, and backgrounds are rich and detailed.  The architecture of the parallel world is particularly noteworthy, the sun-baked stones creating a perfect mirror of Tokyo’s Shibuya ward, in which the majority of the human world action takes place.  Also worth mentioning is the use of sterile, detail lacking security camera footage for the human world, making a neat visual representation of urban isolation.  Action is visceral and well choreographed, and character motion is smooth and natural.

Acting is equally strong, even simple lines packed with emotion without slipping into caricature.  Special applause to Koji Yakusho, who fills the role of Kumatetsu with both aggressive pride and surprising tenderness.

The score is also evocative, done by Takagi Masakatsu, marking him as a force to be reckoned with along the lines of Joe Hisashi.  Like Hisashi, he creates simple, building melodies that nicely mirror the characters emotional development.  The films theme by Mr. Children is pleasant enough, but ultimately forgettable.

The writing is good, but slightly more mixed.  Although solidly written, plotted, and populated, the film occasionally violates “show, don’t tell” and slips into redundant expository dialogue, vastly improving after the first act.  Additionally, while working well within the universe of the movie, the use of Moby Dick as a recurring motif and metaphor is slightly confusing, and relies on a fairly clumsy interpretation of the book bluntly exposited in the second act.  The script is incredibly economical though, all plot elements, metaphors, and motifs working like a well oiled machine to support the films emotional core.  Additional kudos to the script for respecting the audience enough not to explicitly state the moral in any grand speeches (a rare feat for a family picture.)

Hosoda is often referred to as the next Miyazaki, and while I would agree with some other critics that the assessment is not entirely fair, I would disagree that he is somehow the lesser filmmaker.  Miyazaki has managed to capture the American critical mind through his absolute rejection of anime tropes, while retaining a distinctly Japanese sensibility to his films.  Hosoda, however, revels in those tropes, reappropriating them to serve, here as in his other films, themes on family and man as a social creature.  While not inferior, to those not inundated in the conventions and history of anime, his films can feel distinctly modern and lacking in Miyazki’s timelessness.  I would nonetheless argue that Hosoda’s films are no less valid or beautiful than Miyazaki’s, as a general body of work.

Possessing an incredible charm, “The Boy and the Beast” deeply invests the audience in the lives of its characters.  Heartwarming and sweet, it manages to retain and articulate a distinct masculinity, while also portraying the pitfalls of unguided masculine pride.  Hosoda has made another triumph of a film, which stands as a prime example of his skill and heart.

3 1/2 out of 4 Stars

Japanese with English Subtitles

A Note on Film Starring Systems

Starring systems are next to meaningless.  They always have been, and the always will be.  Quick, name two four star films.  I’ve decided to go with “The Godfather” and “Spirited Away”.  What do these movies have in common?  What successes do they share?  They operate on completely different scales, tell completely different stories, and find completely different merits.

I can name three successes they share though:
1) They succeed in fully realizing their stories.  They find success in creating and populating a world, and having those inhabitants act in ways sensible to that world’s logic, fully engaging the audience.

2) They are at the pinnacle of their genre.  For mafia films and family anime, those names will inevitably rise to the top.  They have elevated their genres to new and greater heights.

3) They successfully impart their worldview to the audience.  While not all films necessarily need to educate us about the human condition.  Trust me, I have nothing against action and comedy flicks that don’t have any pretensions of profundity.  But these films try to illuminate some aspect of human nature, or our current society, and leave a lasting impression with the audience.

Because these are the commonalities I see between high quality films, they are the criteria upon which I will be awarding stars.  That way, films of wildly different genres, and different types of quality can be equally recognized.  However, reduction of a films whole to a numerical score is ultimately reductive, and I would urge less attention be payed to the numerical score than the whole of the review. Of course not with the same criteria, but the general principle can also be applied to any review with a numerical rating system.  Differences in type of quality should not be reduced to simply differences in quality.


Zootopia: A Charming City Littered with Potholes

Zootopia, Disney’s latest animated adventure is, if nothing else, a movie of stunning ambition.  What a world we live in, where Disney of all people attempts to make a children’s movie about civic manipulations of racial tension.  I can make no complaints either about the films aesthetics.  Zootopia, as a city, is vibrant and lively, and feels living and fully realized.  The animals bristle with gorgeously rendered fur, and have wonderfully expressive features.  The dialogue and plotting is high quality, giving laugh lines at a good clip, and managing to somehow to cram a very decent buddy cop thriller into the Disney mold.  Why then, can I not manage to give this film a whole-hearted endorsement?

The answer to that question is fairly simple in brief, and monstrously complex in detail.  Zootopia’s central message is an absolute mess.  The central metaphor of animal relationships as a surrogate for the worlds various -isms (racism, primarily, but briefly touching on sexism) does not work, at a fundamental level.

Take for example, the films central pair.  Zootopia follows Judy Hopps, a ambitious, optimistic rabbit seeking to become a cop, and Nick Wilde, a fox con-artist roped in by Judy to solve an increasingly complex missing persons case.  Judy is thwarted, tokenized, and belittled at every turn, while Nick is the subject to endless pseudo-racial prejudice, and it is a testament to the films quality that the audience feels genuinely terrible for the two of them.  But if one stops to think for a moment, and draw the inteded lines of metaphor to their intended destination, those paths grow muddled and frankly disturbing.  Judy can’t compete with the other animals on the force in size, so she makes up for that with her superior intelligence and agility.  Are we implying a racial/gender ability divide?  But Nick Wilde and the rest of the films predators get it even worse.  Anti-predator sentiment runs rampant, based out of fear among the (far larger) prey community.  But how on earth does that fit into a reasoned discussion of racial prejudice?  The film acknowledges a real history of violence between the animals, that is still invoked in anger by predators within the film.  A fear would be perfectly reasonable.  The implication that prejudice is based in reasoned historical precedent (an inevitable implication with five minutes of thought) is extremely uncomfortable.

This isn’t, once again, to completely condemn the movie.  Suffering a troubled production history, and extensive last minute rewrites, it came out incredibly well for its issues, and the inconsistencies can be explained away by simply not enough time to smooth them.  The film is genuinely funny, and on a character level, fairly touching.  The plot also flows smoothly for a film of such a troubled history (avoiding some of the pacing hiccups of similarly troubled films such as “Brave”.)  Action sequences are well choreographed, and even bit characters are memorable.  However, when you’re dealing with subjects as sensitive as race and gender, precision in your message is vitally important, and the sloppy delivery casts a long shadow over the entire film.

Certainly not Disney’s worst film in recent memory, and worthy of praise for it’s noble intentions, Zootopia is a fun jaunt that both succeeds and fails on the quality of it’s premise.  The lush execution makes the film zoom by, but inconsistencies of message leave the audience less than enlightened.

2 1/2 Stars of 4

Hail, Caesar!: A Film Geeks Paradise

Anyone who’s seen a Coen Brothers film has the same, incredibly clear picture of their childhood.  With just one viewing, you can tell the religious fervor with which they attended films, the almost ritualistic quality they must have taken.  This week it’s Ben Hur.  The next it’s Fred and Ginger on re-release.  It’s how they obtained the same mastery of genre that they share with Tarantino.  But while Tarantino’s obsessions spin towards heady video store fare, the Coen Brothers minds spin with the glamour of old Hollywood.  How else could you explain such out-of place fare as 1994s criminally underrated Hudsucker Proxy, charming yet doomed to fail by the irrelevance of Frank Capra films and screwball comedies to the 90’s sensibility.  Luckily, the glitz and glam of 50’s Hollywood is always of fascination, and the whimsical confection that is “Hail, Caesar!” has found a large audience.

The attention to detail comes through in a variety of ways, subtle to overt, rapid fire from the word go.  The opening sequence sets the tone perfectly, introducing us to “Hail, Caesar!: A Tale of The Christ”, with everything from the typography to the melodramatic narration (carried through into the main plot) servicing the old Hollywood aesthetic.  At times, it can read like a bad piece of fanfiction (“and then Roy Rogers and Carmen Miranda went on a date and ate spaghetti and it was awesome”,) but the cast has enough talent and charm to make even the movies thinner moments shine with a mirror polish.

The film follows a day in the life of Eddie Maddix (Josh Brolin), a harried studio executive trying to manage his eccentric stars.  When the star of the studios high-budget Roman epic (George Clooney) is kidnapped by a cadre of communists, he kicks into high gear, trying to solve the mystery while patting down the studios daily flames.  Rounding out the cast are Channing Tatum as a Gene Kelley type, Scarlett Johansson as the worlds most vulgar Esther Williams, Tilda Swinton as twin gossip columnists in the mold of Hedda Hopper, Ralph Fiennes as an auteur director, and a star turn by the new(-ish) Alden Ehrenreich as a lovable, way in over his head Roy Rogers type.  He pulls off the role with charm, innocence, and heart, and draws forth some of the movies biggest laughs.

Of course, Hollywood in the 50’s means lavish musical numbers, and the Coen Brothers do not dissapoint.  Led by Johannson and Tatum, the production numbers nail every detail right, completely embracing the feel of the original pictures while poking fun at their more flamboyant excesses.  The Channing Tatum “No Dames!” number in particular manages to feel like long lost footage from a Gene Kelley extravaganza.

Admittedly, the movie can, at times, be fragmented.  The episodic nature of the plot can be frustrating when you want to get back to your favorite actors or storylines, but no joke overstays its welcome, and none fall flat.  It’s effective in showcasing, however, the relentless frustrations of Maddix’s career, and his quest to find meaning in his hand in producing, for all intents and purposes, glitzy schlock.  While the communists pose a threat to Hollywood from the inside, the real villains of the movie are the creeping banality and malice seeping into the country at that time and darkening the lighthearted fun of Hollywood, personified as the glib, fast talking agents of Lockheed.

A fantasia of charm, clever references, and strong performances makes Hail Caesar a delight to behold.  Although it would perhaps go over the head of someone disengaged from film history, for all movie buffs, the Coen Brothers have prepared a delightful feast.  Dig in, cinephiles, dig in.

3 out of 4 Stars