The Miles Davis biopic Miles Ahead opens at the Esquire Theatre on Friday, April 15. Cincinnati should feel privileged and proud that it’s the backdrop for the film, in large part because it built—and preserved, more than most cities–the classic architecture that has film makers lining up to shoot movies here. And the story should be as colorful as the threads that Miles sports as he hops around in a sports car trying to recover a purloined reel of tape, gun ready, dark shades covering his eyes. I don’t know that a movie could have picked a better period in the life of Miles Davis to examine. It was the one time he disappeared. No records, no concerts, and a whole lot of silence. Miles had entered that limbo where Chet Baker, Sonny Rollins, Bud Powell, Art Pepper, and other great jazz musicians once resided, with drugs, drinking, artistic burnout, jail time, and asylum visits sometimes playing a role in such matters. What weighed down Miles was a combination of drugs, health problems that weren’t lifestyle related, and the fact that the music he was playing wasn’t connecting with an audiences because it was too far ahead of its time; now all people can do is rave about albums like Agharta and Dark Magus. So he disappeared. Away from the stage and the studio, a jazz musician who had been so busy reinventing himself and his music that reflecting on the past was not on his list of options looked back. Those flashbacks in the film seem like they’ll be more than a device, then: for once, during that period between 1975 and 1979, Miles could take stock of his life to date – and get that damn tape back.
Big doings on Ludlow Avenue last night, what with the premier of Miles Ahead, Don Cheadle’s tribute to Miles Davis that is based on a period when his career (and his life in general) were kind of in limbo. Folks were dressed in their finest, as only befits a film devoted to a musician who, no matter what decade you’re talking about, was known for his stylish threads. I haven’t seen the film yet, but when it opens on April 15th at the Esquire, I’ll forsurely check it out then, as I’ve got good feelings about this one. Shot in Cincinnati, it promises to be both a visual and musical delight.
The other day I arrived at the Esquire Theatre before the trailers had started for Only Yesterday, a Japanese animated film directed by Isao Takahata. At that point there were only two people in the room, and the person two rows in front of me asked if the movie was overdubbed or used subtitles. “You got me,” I said. “If there’s an animated movie on the big screen, that’s all I need to know.” He told that the movie was done with hand-drawn animation, which sounded even better. Only Yesterday has a simple and realistic plot wherein a vacation the main character, Taeko, launches a flood of memories…as well as some major life decisions. Visually a lovely film, Only Yesterday charms with its indoor school and family scenes and awes with its depictions of the woods and fields and the sky—this is definitely one for the big screen. Just as important, the story rings true. It’s fascinating how the tale unfolds piece by piece, leading we’re not sure where…but hang in there, because the ending is both subtle and powerful. I was glad to learn that the Esquire held this for another week, but it won’t be there forever—get there before it’s gone.
During the bitter cold winter weather seeing a good movie in a theater is one of the few recreational activities we all can enjoy, and there’s a great one at the Esquire. Leviathan is a Russian movie that won the 2014 Golden Globe Award for best foreign language film. The Russian have a flair for creating deeply depressing novels, movies, and even symphonies that make you feel the weight of history. Leviathan succeeded on those fronts and goes a step further, as there’s an element of the film that precedes recorded history—and that’s nature, red in tooth and claw (and, on the sea coast where the main character and his family live, gray and craggy and bleak, yet beautiful in its own haunting way). The story is set in the present, but by the time the first human appears—the main character walking out to his car, which makes that alien “beep-beep” sound that confirms we’re in the modern age—you already feel the tension between the present and the past and small and big. Too much plot analysis can ruin a film, so let me just say that the dark, depressing tone I hoped for when I walked in the theater was there in spades. During this Arctic-like weather, the longer the movie the better, and Leviathan clocks in at two hours and twenty minutes. On Sunday afternoon there was a decent-sized crowd, which leads me to suspect it’ll be around a little longer—but don’t lollygag, as there are no guarantees.
The new Richard Linklater movie is now at the Esquire Theatre. Boyhood has been getting press for a long time because Linklater used the same actors through a 12-year period for this story of a boy growing up. That strategy is more than a gimmick, and the movie is more than an interesting experiment; quite simply, the risk paid off. The main character, Mason, is likeable and believable. The movie feels like real life, and it really exposes what it the world is like in a child’s eyes. So what’s it like? Well, it’s uncomfortable. The trouble for children is that they’re surrounded by adults who see themselves as pillars of wisdom when actually they’re often kind of screwy. The children see this, but they can’t do much about it; much of their strategy is just finding a way to lay low.
There are some likable adults in the film, however. One is Mason’s mother, played brilliantly by Patricia Arquette. Abandoned by Mason’s biological father, she then marries and divorces two men who make Mason Sr. seem stellar in comparison. And while Mason Sr. makes his fair share of mistakes, he comes across eventually as a good guy who succeeds admirably—not at first, perhaps, but in the long run—in showing Mason Jr. that he loves him.
It’s the kind of movie that make you darn glad that the Esquire is still around. You might take it for granted, but there was a time when its future was a question mark. This link tells you more about the Esquire, including a period in the 1980s when some people in the Clifton community pitched in and, against great odds, helped save this historical theatre: Esquire History
In the next few days the Esquire Theatre will be hosting two special events in connection with the premier of Mistaken for Strangers, the new rockumentary about Cincinnati’s own The National. Subtitled “A year on tour with my brother’s band,” the movie had been referred to as a comedic documentary for reasons that – judging by the trailer – have to do with the tensions that result when one member of the band is a rock star (Tom Berninger) and one member isn’t (the film director, Matt Berninger). Both the rock star and his brother will discuss the outcome of their year on the road together during the Q&A events taking place at the Esquire this Friday, March 28th, and next Monday, March 31st.
Friday’s live Skype Q&A with Matt Berninger and Tom Berninger will take place after the 7:30pm screening. The event will be hosted by Jeff Thomas from the Jeff & Jen show on Q102. Tickets for the event can be purchased here or at the Esquire’s ticket office.
After Monday’s 7:30pm screening Jim Blase from Shake-It Records will host a live Q&A with Matt Berninger, Tom Berninger and the drummer for The National, Bryan Devendorf. Tickets for this event can be purchased here or at the Esquire ticket office.Both events are being presented in conjunction with Shake It Records. I should note here that Mistaken for Strangers will be a full-run movie at the Esquire, so if you can’t make it to one of the Q&A events, you’ll have plenty of other times to see it. Also, ticket’s for Monday’s event are going FAST, but there are still plenty of seats for Friday’s event. The trailer suggests the film will have plenty of backstage humor along with exciting live footage:
The new Wes Anderson film, The Grand Budapest Hotel, is now showing at the Esquire Theatre. This highly anticipated film was packed on its first weekend, and it was clear from Friday night’s show that this new work by a unique director lived up to its expectations. There was plenty of laughter as well as the cries an audience makes when characters fall off cliffs or dodge bullets. What makes Wes Anderson such an interesting director is the fact that he can make an art film that after a half-hour of setting up some highly formalized frame narration turns out to be hilarious, fast-paced, and action-packed, complete with chase scenes, slapstick humor and bizarre visual effects that wouldn’t have been out of place in an old Buster Keaton silent film. Some wildly imaginative storytelling also gives the film an old-fashioned air (with, of course, a post-modernist spin). In summary, if you see The Grand Budapest Hotel, expect to be entertained. Due to demand it’s showing in two different rooms, and the times are 12:00. 12:40 1:10, 2:10 2:50 3;20, 4:20, 4:55. 5:30, 6:30, 7:10, 8:40, 9:20, and 9:50. Here’s the trailer:
Playing now at the Esquire Theatre, The Great Beauty (La Grande Belleza) features 2 hours and 17 minutes of beautiful camera work and quite often stunning scenery. Appropriately enough it focuses on “the beautiful people” in the social and artistic circles in contemporary Rome. The camera work, symbolism, decadence, grotesques, bold juxtapositions between the ancient and the present, and many other details call to mind films by another Italian director, Frederico Fellini. The moral of the story—for what starts out seeming like more like an impressionistic portrait ends up unveiling a narrative that makes a point—might also have been at home in a movie by Fellini. What the main character, Jep Gambardella, learns is that being at the social epicenter of one of Europe’s most glamorous cities doesn’t add up to much in the end.
There are two ways he envisions escaping from the emptiness he’s beginning to feel. One is to finally enter into a relationship with a woman; the other is to write his second novel. As a young man he had published a novel that, while it seems unlikely that he put his heart and soul into it (or anything else for that matter), was probably better than he realized, and in any case it received enough attention to give him a toehold into elite social circles. Quickly he turned to a less demanding and more socially rewarding brand of journalism that had him rubbing shoulders with the beautiful people and leading a life that would be the envy of many of us. So why does it all feel so hollow in the end? In part, perhaps, because many times “the art world” has so little to do with art and in fact has little substance.
The new Coen Brothers movie Inside Llewyn Davis is showing now at The Esquire Theatre. The film takes us into the world of the 1960s folk music revival during the period where the corporations are starting to infiltrate a scene that originally stood out for its idealism. In the film Oscar Isaac plays Llewyn Davis, an authentic folk musician who has opportunities to sell out but chooses not to. He also makes some career and life blunders along the way, and the movies runs the risk of presenting a character who’s just one more ne’er do well in a long line of losers. It sidesteps that trap, however, and it also avoids the hoaky, two-dimensional portrayal of the folk coffeehouse scene that would have been so easy to stumble into.
I was too young to experience that scene, but as a record collector I caught a whiff of it. It seems like it was always in Clifton that I would find remarkable collections from folkies who were there when it happened. The ten- and twelve-inch EPs and LPs on Folkways, Elektra, Arhoolie, and other labels were more than just black plastic discs that happened to contain music. They were mementos of a movement whose musical depth was matched by a deep social and political consciousness. That was new stuff back then, and it helped lay the groundwork for whatever progress has been made. I suspect that Inside Llewyn Davis will help turn some ears toward folksingers who made invaluable contributions during the revival but have been under-recognized since. Phil Ochs was one of them, and when I started dropping the needle on folk records, this was one the songs that stuck out:
Currently at The Esquire, Wadjda is the story of a 10-year-old girl living in Saudia Arabia. The bare bones of the plot involve her attempts to obtain a bicycle. That may sound undramatic, but the trials she undergoes in her quest end up exposing much of what’s wrong with fundamentalist Muslim society, not just for females, but for everyone. The movie does so in a non-didactic fashion, with rich, fully developed characters.
In this movie you can feel the oppression—even with young schoolchildren like Wadjda and her classmates. Wadjda’s desire to ride a bike turns out to be a radical act, as doing so is frowned up by fundamentalist Muslims. The struggles Wadjda and her classmates undergo are paralleled by Wadjda’s mother, whose inability to bear a second child has her husband seeking Wife #2. The parallels also extend to the director of the film, Haifaa Al Mansour. Because she’s female, Haifaa was forced to jump through all kinds of extra hoops to make the film.
In movies that expose society’s ills characters sometimes feel like stick figures, but not here. Even when they act in a sexist manner, the male characters seem like real human beings. For them, as with the woman, there’s little wiggle room in such an oppressive society, and you sense that, like the women, the men are also ready to see their society evolve. As the charming and industrious Wadjda wheels and deals her way in the direction of bicycle ownership, she finds support in unexpected places. Her allies include the boy who inspired, due to her competitive streak, the desire to own a bike—and someone who, unexpectedly and at the last minute, lends a helping hand.