Oscar History

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Months of Meryl: THE RIVER WILD

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Don Cheadle x 4 in "Miles Ahead" 

Nathaniel reporting on the closing night film of the New York Film Festival

Don Cheadle has been an esteemed actor for a full twenty years now. His big reputation began with his breakout turn in The Devil with the Blue Dress (1995) and kept building. Somewhere along the way, despite a Best Actor nomination for Hotel Rwanda (2004) the leading man career didn't materialize (apart from his 4 time Emmy nominated gig on Showtime's House of Lies). The sturdy ensemble player attempts to right that wrong by producing, writing, directing and starring (whew) in a Miles Davis biopic.

Cue the trumpets!

And here we are. Miles Ahead was given the honor of closing this year's New York Film Festival. Sony Pictures Classics will release the film.

It's tough to argue that Cheadle hasn't earned a spotlight as bright as this. [More...

Somewhere along our cinematic way, the biopic became the ne plus ultra of star vehicles in contemporary Hollywood. No other genre works as well for both reputation boosts and Oscar bait and Cheadle's only been nominated once! Enter Miles Davis, juicy role. The legendary jazz musician had the kind of life that routinely makes movie biographers horny, hitting every sweet spot: one-of-a-kind talent, huge fame, drug addictions, intense marriage turned sour, and the ability to get back up again when knocked down for easy arcs. 

The movie springs forth from an interview with a reporter named Dave (Ewan McGregor, another leading man who rarely gets the leading spotlights he deserves) who wants the scoop on Miles Davis's comeback (the musician hasn't recorded in years when the movie begins). "Springs forth" is carefully chosen since "centered around" or "framed by," more traditional screenwriting structures, don't totally apply. Miles Ahead has no center apart from Cheadle's commanding presence and his raspy Davis whisper. And it would be nearly impossible to "frame" something as unruly as this. It's the story of the interview except when it's not. It's the story of the comeback except details of said comeback are extremely vague. If you're feeling generous the movie is structured like improvisational riff as befits the subject of jazz. If you're not feeling it, the movie is simply all over the place. It careens from one tone to another, even one genre to another: It's a Romantic Drama! No, it's a Stuffy biopic. Or perhaps a cynical Showbiz Tell-all. All of the above but also (and boy does it go wrong here) a madcap action comedy!

At least twice during the movie Miles ask Dave to cut the, and I quote, "corny bullshit" but Miles Ahead indulges in exactly that all too often. And I'm not talking about the already somewhat-hated title (that's actually the name of a Miles Davis album so it's semi-excusable if still corny). Edits from scene to scene / usually hopping back and forth between past to in-movie present (or previous-scenes-recent-past-within-movie-present) can often be described as "cute" in their gimmicky connections. Worst of all there are some hoary-ass haunted memories to flashbacks that recall Iron Lady at its most Jim Broadbent's Ghost dire. 

The acting is, thankfully, where it's at with Cheadle engaging as Miles Davis and often unexpectedly funny, Emayatzy Corinealdi, radiant in closeups, does what she can with the all-too-familiar stock character of the long suffering wife and Ewan McGregor gamely matches Cheadle's tonal volleys, ever the generous screen partner.

It's depressing to call Miles Ahead an obviously amateurish movie from respect to Cheadle's clear talent. But what's that they say about breaking the rules in the arts? You have to master the rules in the first place to know when to do so. Don Cheadle is a great actor but the direction and writing are competent at very best and unfortunately veer mostly towards the manic.

The first sequence alone employs flash cuts, strange sound mix choices, jittery hand-held camera work and a darting camera visual strategy that can best be described as "trying to decide what to look at!" No visual strategies stick around long enough during this freeform approach to lend the movie coherence or even to justify it as a cohesive expression of Miles experimental musicianship.

Don Cheadle holds the trumpet beautifully. What might have been had he not also been wearing so many hats?

Grade: C-
Oscar Chances: With the right release strategy and enough generosity from star-loving precursors (the reviews are all over the place) a lead acting nomination is a possibility, though nothing to bank on.


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Reader Comments (16)

Yet you causally passed on every opportunity to see Straight Outta Compton theatrically.

October 11, 2015 | Unregistered Commenter/3rtful

So wait--Corinealdi is playing the woman he was married to from 1958-1968. Do we see either one of his other two wives, like Cicely Tyson (1981-1988)?

October 11, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Outlaw

Nat: I think you need to put Jason Mitchell on the chart. Legend, Southpaw, Miles Ahead and Trumbo AREN'T happening at all. In fact, I wouldn't be at all surprised if, due to how massive a hit Straight Outta Compton was, that those guys manage to take three of the Mus/Com Globe slots. Matt Damon (if he's pitched there) takes the win (because he's Matt Damon), those guys take slots 2-4 and the fifth slot is down to Cranston, Dano, Cooper or Phoenix. If The Martian is pitched as Drama, Damon has an outside shot of being nominated for the Globe (might get superseded by the last embers of Depp lust but get a "surprise" nomination at the Oscar) but not win the Globe if he is and Jason Mitchell gets the Globe win. The other nominees would be two of those four I mentioned.

October 11, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterVolvagia

Paul -- no, just one wife. it covers basically two periods of her career... the time when he wasn't working and his marriage to Frances Taylor I think was her name.

/3rtful --i guess i don't have a clue how Straight Outta Compton is relevant to Miles Ahead?

October 11, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Both are musical biopics. One was on your radar as a potential Oscar player. The other you conveniently ignored.

October 11, 2015 | Unregistered Commenter/3rtful

I didn't see Straight Outta Compton either, but I'll definitely see Miles Ahead. NWA was a moment. Miles was a legend who released records for nearly 50 years.

October 11, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterSan FranCinema

/3rtful, we get what you're saying but implying people here are racist because they won't see STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON is not on.

October 11, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn Dunks

The resident black film historian is attacking me because the mother of the house (we'll just call her Doris) refuses to watch a critically acclaimed nonwhite movie.

October 11, 2015 | Unregistered Commenter/3rtful

LOL. and i never said I wouldn't see it. like i was making a statement. no statement here.

what is this obsession with me seeing this movie? I skip lots of movies every year from bad timing or other things playing or no interest.I did intend to see that but it slipped away and then after it wasn't the hot new movie anymore i heard how long it was and immediately lost interest because bios that are longer than 120 minutes are like daring me not to see them.It's my least favorite genre (as i have been very clear on) and so i generally only see them if they a) have Oscar buzz b) have some prime festival spot (like this one) or c) are about a true person i am interested in or feature star an actor i love.

October 11, 2015 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Dear, /3rtful.
Yep, that's me. 'guy who refuses to watch black movies' because he didn't see ONE that *you* liked. Jesus Christ you try the patience.
-best, Doris

October 11, 2015 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Oh, man!

/3rtful makes me laugh every time.

October 12, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterJoó

I bet Doris haven't seen "The Second Mother" because of her racist bias too.

October 12, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterMarcello

I'm sort of happy Doris hasn't seen Straight Outta Compton yet. Anything that gets on 3rtful's nerves makes me sort of happy.

October 12, 2015 | Unregistered Commenteramir

/3rtful: if you want to accuse someone of being racist it would be best to stop with the hate posts yourself. And Nathaniel has defended MANY nonwhite films. This is obvious. He did it with Ava Duvernay's Middle of Nowhere and many others. Your implications are immature and ridiculous. And referring to Nathaniel as Doris, well I really don't know what to say, but it isn't respectful that's for sure.

October 12, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterJosh

Eh...I liked Straight Outta Compton fine, but it's hardly required viewing. I'd see it if you can find the time, especially if we see more movies like it greenlit because of its success. On its own as a movie, it didn't feel vital to me.

October 12, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterKieran Scarlett

I am not at all surprised that at the same time taking a swipe at Nathaniel for not seeing COMPTON, you take a swipe at me for in the past having gone to see movies about African Americans and attempting to take them seriously as something other than just throwaway fluff (you're still beat up about The Best Man Holiday? Yeesh!) Have you ever tried not being angry for, like, a day? Just not being outraged by everything and assuming everybody is out to commit you some sort of wild injustice?

October 13, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn Dunks

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