Review: Miles Ahead (2016)

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Making films about famous people is a challenging endeavour. Firstly, the length of a picture can ultimately lessen the scope of said person’s life. Secondly, if there is exploration or meaning to be gained from the experience then usually the moral and sentiment is a vigorous half measure, which is delicate in its attempt to celebrate and showcase the hardships of the subjected icon. Miles Ahead, which is the directorial debut from Don Cheadle, is excellent because it does not suffer from this problem. It also has some good direction and a strong central performance.

The film takes place in the midst of Miles Davies’ five-year retirement while also telling the story of his relationship with Frances Taylor, who is in equal parts his muse and wife. The film is impressionistic in its storytelling moving from flashback to present day in a dreamlike manner. For example, in one scene Miles is watching Frances dance, and she is about to fall over and then suddenly the scene cuts the Rolling Stone writer Dave Braden (Ewan McGregor) tripping in a stairway while giving chase to Davies in the present.

One can liken the film’s style to a Jazz piece with impressionism representing the inherent improvisation quality of the musical genre. However, the technique occasionally becomes clumsy as the past and present become muddled in what they are trying to convey. For example, in the third act, we witness Davies’ apparent paranoia that Frances is with another man which is contrasted with him attempting to get back his music tape in the present. As the moments continue, they do not feel seamless or aligned in what they are showcasing, which makes the editing feel incoherent.

However, Cheadle’s subtly is to be applauded. He does construct great moments that are visually indicative of a character or idea. The best example of this is in the aftermath of a violent fight between Miles and Frances. Davies gives Frances an expensive necklace and soon after he gently wraps his arms around her neck. The shot lingers for a good ten seconds, and it strongly illustrates Miles’ controlling nature. He consistently perceives his wife as an instrument which he can easily play, which this moment cleverly conveys in an engaging manner.

Cheadle plays the titular Miles like a hissing cobra that is on the verge of attacking. His words crackle with contempt and a lack of patience, which speak to five years in semi-retirement. However, this prevailing attitude is contrasted with moments of heartfelt emotion which are shown in the smaller moments. One such scene is when Miles is in the elevator of Capital Records. He takes off his glasses and starts looking at the wall which has some of the best-selling album covers of the record label.

In this scene, Cheadle conveys a deep-rooted sadness and a great sense of quiet contemplation of his legacy, which is expressed in his eyes. Additionally, the contrast between Davies in the past and the present is fascinating. In the flashback sequences, the shots of Davies are painterly in composition and innocent in the mood. In some of these scenes, Cheadle brings an indelible charm and infectious energy that is on full display in the moments when he is creating music with his band. It is a brave, bold and ambitious performance, which along with the style of the film tremendously make you feel the power of Miles Davies’ music.

Review: The Jungle Book (2016)

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Quite simply, I was captivated by Disney’s live action interpretation of The Jungle Book. In a year where films such as The Hateful Eight and 2001: A Space Odyssey have renewed my faith in the longevity of the cinematic medium, Jungle Book has fundamentally cemented my view that contemporary cinema can still excite and makes us wonder.

The film is an outstanding example of computer generated imagery being employed effectively. Part of this comes from the effects being used to create an environment that we are familiar with in nature, which is the jungle. However, like James Cameron’s Avatar, the magic of the effects manifests itself in the small little details. The one scene that is indicative of this is when Mowgli (Neel Sethi) meets Kaa (Scarlet Johanson)

Firstly, the build-up to the meeting is illustrated through a change in the colour scheme, which begins with idyllic and radiant uses of yellow and green. These then turn into harsh and desaturated uses of brown, black and green. Secondly, there are many lingering moments where the camera is focused on the ground that shows many of the previously victims of Kaa, which creates a great sense of dread and tension. Finally, there are a measured number of shots that represent the sheer size and majesty of Kaa, which is seen from Mowgli’s point of view as his eyes dart around his bleak surroundings. These moments also shows us another fascinating facet of the jungle, which is the main attraction of this live-action version of Rudyard Kipling’s much-beloved story.

Through his film-making, director Jon Favreau brings the titular jungle to vivid and enchanting life. Whether it is the kinetic and sweeping opening sequence that showcases Mowgli keeping up with his wolf pack via tree swooping. Or the stop motion sequence that depicts the changing seasons of the jungle in a strikingly painterly series of shots. Favreau’s conception of the Jungle stimulates the imagination as much as Cameron’s Pandora.

However, there is more to the picture then its effects and visual look. The film has a compelling primary theme that differentiates itself from the 1967 animated feature. The film is an exploration of man’s ingenuity. On the one hand, it can engender destruction, which is shown in the fear of fire that the animals in the picture dub as “Red Flower.” On the other hand, man’s ingenuity is illustrated as a beneficial thing which is shown in Mowgli’s acts through the course of the film. At first, the animals view the man cub’s inventiveness as mere tricks which fundamentally makes him an outcast.

However, this view is changed at the end of the film when the animals realise that Mowgli’s inventiveness is intrinsically good for their community. He uses self-built tools to free a baby elephant from a pit and devises a way for Baloo (Bill Murray) to have a constant supply of honey for his hibernation.

The theme has particular resonance in the final confrontation between Mowgli and Shere Khan, who is voiced with superb eloquence and savagery by Idris Elba. The man cub comes back to face the fearsome tiger with a burning branch. While running back to his home, Mowgli accidently causes half of the forest to burn. Khan uses this as a crutch to persuade the animals of man’s true nature.

The brave man cub decides to throw this piece of fire in a nearby lake and decides instead to face the tiger with his ingenuity. Crucially, this moment has the two conceptions of man’s ingenuity in conflict with one another and quite assuredly, Mowgli decides to use his wits as opposed to a destructive weapon to defeat Shere Khan.

In the original there was a fatalistically resigned fate for Mowgli, which was that eventually he would embrace his humanity and leave the jungle. Whereas in this live action version, Mowgli’s humanity and ingenuity proves that he can live in harmony with nature and the jungle that he calls home.

Concise Review: What We Do in the Shadows (2014)

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What We Do in the Shadows confidently and firmly drives a stake into the heart of cultural affinity for vampires. Through its candid documentary style, Shadows remarkably makes the life of the creature of the night look banal, mundane and pathetic. Primarily, this is illustrated in the inherent domesticity of the immortal beings, which effectively juxtaposes with the visual showcasing of the vampires’ former lives.

Each of the characters are explorations of longstanding vampire archetypes. For example, Vladislav (Jemaine Clement) is a clear homage to Vlad the Impaler who is said to be a significant influence on Bram Stocker when he conceived of Dracula. Deacon (Jonathan Brugh) feels like a channelling of Colin Farrel’s overtly macho Jerry in the Fright Night remake that came out in 2011.

Quite clearly, Petyr (Ben Fransham) is a visual homage to the cinema’s first conception of the vampire which is Max Schreck’s immortal performance in F. W. Murnau’s Nosferatu. Finally, the overly cautious head of the household, Viago (Taika Waititi) is the closest in embodying the romantic spirit of vampires, which is showcased in a subplot where he discusses his long lost love.

At the same time, the film also showcases the fundamental melancholic edge that comes with being an eternal being with a sub-plot where a human becomes a vampire. Crucially, the film addresses this existential angst without ever feeling the need to compromise its comedy, which is the picture’s primary strength. It essentially lovingly mocks these supernatural creatures that have fascinated audiences since the dawn of cinema.

Review: War of the Worlds (2005)

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There is something distinctively vintage about Stephen Spielberg’s loose adaptation of HG Welles’ famous science fiction novel, War of the Worlds. One of the ways that this is the case is that Spielberg creates a visual look that has a remarkable resemblance to a black and white film. At times, one is convinced that they being transported back to the 1950s.

The desaturated and murky grey look complements some of the film’s dramatic moments. One of the scenes where the visual scheme casts the most substantial impression is when Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise) comes back into his house after witnessing the destruction that a Martian tripod has left in its wake. Ferrier looks utterly bewildered and shocked that he cannot talk for a few minutes when his children ask him what’s wrong nor shake off the white dust that he has all over his face and jacket.

This seemingly quiet and still moment is missing some Bernard Hermann inspired music which would punctuate the moment of Ferrier reflecting on the grisly acts he has witnessed and the implications that they have on the survival of his family. However, as the scene stands it feels like it has the weight of the latter scenes in Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

Spielberg also continues his showcasing of a bleaker outlook on humanity which started with AI: Artificial Intelligence and continued with the compelling and masterfully crafted Minority Report. In this picture, Spielberg illustrates that while humanity is the master of a domain that it has thrived in for centuries, our survival instinct has made us monstrous. The clearest example of this idea being articulated comes in a scene in the middle of the film. Ferrier and his children are driving slowly through a swarm of people, and some of the people take it upon themselves to attempt to take the car through violent means away from Ferrier.

The idea is also strongly expressed when Ferrier and his daughter, Rachel (Dakota Fanning) are taken in by Harlan Ogilvy. (Tim Robbins) Ogilvy is a paranoid person who is determined to attack the aliens back even if it means endangering the people around him. Robbins plays Ogilvy with a great sense of harsh logic and heartbreaking fragility.

Nevertheless, Spielberg’s central illustration of humanity is at it’s most potent when he employs his usual point of view shots from the children’s perspective. In the case of this picture, there are many haunting perspective shots from Ferrier’s daughter, Rachel.

The most striking of which is when she is witnessing an active streaming river. The music and shot composition suggest that the moment is a calm and magical interlude from the destruction that we have seen. However, this momentary thought is shattered when she starts seeing a large assortment of dead bodies pass her by in the flowing river. In this one scene, Spielberg strongly illustrates that in the battle for our evolutionary dominance, our fundamental quality of innocence that comes in the form of our offspring is lost and in some sense our humanity is too.

Review: Batman V Superman- Dawn of Justice (2016)

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In the midst of the colossal central fight between DC Comics’ foremost superheroes, a thought emerged. Despite, the superficial thrills of the battle that involves some of the best effects and action that Hollywood could afford, the fight was intrinsically personal and thematically potent. The Man of Steel was reluctantly fighting the Dark Knight in order to save his Mother. Whereas, Batman’s (Ben Affleck) reasoning for opposing the Kryptonian being was because of a fundamental belief that Superman (Henry Cavill) represents an incredibly real threat to humanity after he witnesses the destruction the super powered being is capable of in a harrowing and effective opening scene.

Bruce Wayne’s overriding viewpoint is punctuated by a scene in which he looks upon the graves of his parents and briefly describes his family’s history to Alfred. (Jeremy Irons) He pointedly expresses that his ancestors were hunters who did benevolent deeds. If Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice is about anything then it is about the weight of ancestral and parental expectation that shapes and drives the moral compulsions of our titular characters.

Towards the end of that battle, Batman mocks the Man of Tomorrow by saying “I bet your parents taught you that you mean something, that you are here for a reason.” The Dark Knight’s pointed insult is at the Kent’s upbringing of Clark Kent and by extension his impetus for doing good. Soon after, Batman states to Superman what his parents taught him which was that if do you do not understand the world, then you have to force it too, which crucially speak to his determinism and resolve to eliminate the Man of Steel. As the hardened and older Bruce Wayne/Batman, Ben Affleck stands out. He brings a deep seeded weariness and cynicism as well as an overt and fascinating vulnerability that manifests itself in the final act when he is fighting with God like beings.

The most surprising performance of the picture comes from Jesse Eisenberg as Lex Luthor. He plays the character as though he has too many thoughts circulating in his head and he wants to articulate them all at once. This aspect of the performance may appear too quirky for its own good. However, it truly masks a fundamentally fragile and terrifying malice. Both of these facets of Luthor’s character are illustrated in the scene where he threatens Superman.

In this scene, it is strongly suggested that Luthor’s hatred of the Man of Steel comes from the fact that a God type person was not there to save him from his father’s constant abuse while he was growing up. Eisenberg’s drops the previously portrayed frantic awkwardness and is instead so clear and cutting in his words to Superman. The scene is emblematic of an another theme that is explored through the course of the film, which is whether or not Superman’s actions are truly helping humanity or threatening it. For every life, he saves, another one is tragically cut short. It is a paradoxical notion that the picture bravely acknowledges in its examination of DC Comics’s greatest superheroes.

Despite these commendable themes and performances, the inherent problem with Batman V Superman is that it represents Zack Synder’s least visually interesting film to date. While there are a few scenes that are cinematically compelling such as a one-take action sequence where Synder masterfully employs the grandeur of the IMAX format. There are hardly sequences in this picture that are cinematically exciting. Man of Steel impressed with its sheer contrast between the HR Giger inspired visual scheme of Krypton and the natural radiant and authentic visual look of the Kansas sequences.

Moreover, none of the film’s various dream sequences compare with the apocalyptic dream sequence in Watchmen, which was visually stunning with its dark brown and orange colour scheme. It is a scene that directly addresses the external threat of the story. It also powerfully spoken to the fear of one of the characters in the film. It is a shame that nowhere in its 133 minutes running time that Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice does not have a potent cinematic moment quite like that.