For his directorial debut, Don Cheadle certainly did not choose a simple project. Working from a screenplay that he co-wrote with Steven Baigelman, Cheadle stars as one of the most beloved icons of jazz, Miles Davis. And far from following traditional biopic rules, the film channels the improv spirit of jazz, or "social music" as Davis preferred to call it, and the blaxploitation movies of the era in which it is set. The official description of the film as "impressionistic" is accurate, and the overall result does leave an impression. Although it doesn't always hit its mark, it's an interesting, well-acted portrait of a moment in an icon's life.
Miles Ahead opens with Davis (Cheadle) with a serious coke addiction. He's been silent for five years and is under pressure from the record company to produce a session tape. There are young competitors, doubters who think he has lost it and a journalist, Dave Brill (Ewan McGregor), who is unwilling to take no for an answer. After some initial fisticuffs, icon and hack form a swift alliance based on the journalist's ability to score cocaine. When the session tapes are stolen, together they seek the young trumpeter (Keith Stanfield) who might be able to help. Woven in between are flashbacks that recount the entire love story between Davis and Frances Taylor (Emayatzy Corinealdi).
In delivering a piece of Davis's life, the film does give an overall impression of the man and Cheadle, with those amazingly expressive eyes, has clear affection for his subject. McGregor relishes his role as the anything-for-a-story hack and Corinealdi is good in the kind of role that is often written into the background. Anyone looking for a complete life story will be disappointed, but that's what Wikipedia is for. This is a brave and interesting piece of film. 4 Stars
Cert: 15A. Now showing
From its trembling hand-held opening shots of a newborn, you have a pretty good idea what to expect from Louder Than Bombs: cool indie-arthouse stylings with some manner of deep existential plumbing beneath the screenplay's floorboards.
And lo and behold, Joachim Trier's first English-language feature offers exactly this. Were that the sum total of this starry saga of a small family coming to terms with the death of a parent, it would be tolerable. However, a bit like his Danish Dogme 95 semi-namesake, Lars, the Norwegian director wants to be the centre of attention and wastes a lot of time reminding you how much of an auteur he is, even if that means letting the momentum of the whole project die on its feet.
The other thing wasted is that cast. Gabriel Byrne is weather-beaten as Gene, the bereaved husband trying to watch over teenage son Conrad (Devin Druid). Conrad has taken to locking himself in his room, playing video games for hours. Jesse Eisenberg, below, returns to business as usual after the pomp of Batman V Superman, with a studied turn as older brother and first-time father Jonah. He comes home to support Gene but may not be dealing with the death of the boys' mother Isabelle (Isabelle Huppert) so well himself.
Between this and the mystery of her death, there is enough on the table with which to make something resonant. Trier doesn't need to shove in esoteric, trite dream sequences and abstract asides to give further weight to what is going on, but does so anyway. That many of the flashbacks feature Huppert, a powerhouse of European cinema, is one of this pretentious and clumsy film's small mercies. 2 Stars
Hilary A White
Cert: Club. Now showing at the IFI
Fortunately, photographer Robert Mapplethorpe had a fondness for beautiful penises - because watching this documentary on his life and work, I saw quite a few more than might normally be expected on a Thursday morning. Directors Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato have put together an impressive list of friends, admirers and analysts of Mapplethorpe to present a very complete overview of the man.
The film opens with the curators who now revere his art, and footage of US Senators who sought publicity for themselves in the 90s by raising a fuss over Mapplethorpe exhibitions. As mentioned above, the penis count is high in Mapplethorpe's art - but so too is the lily count, as he also photographed flowers. One or two of his best known shots can be described as, er, penetrating, so he did attract attention. But as the doc explains, attracting attention was very much on the artist's agenda from early on.
Although made up of contributions from his family, friends, subjects and lovers there is real honesty about the drive, ego and methods that led to him becoming one of the most celebrated artists of the 20th century. 5 Stars
Cert: 16. Now showing
The trailers aren't terribly promising, and when I say that, overall, Friend Request was better than expected, it must come with the codicil that I feel relief when a horror film is low on heart-stopping and super-gory moments. I fully accept that these are not generally considered bonuses by the average horror fan.
The film, a German film by director Simon Verhoeven, was shot in South Africa in English and is presented as American. It opens with a college lecturer telling his students that one of their classmates has taken their own life. Among the shocked reactions, someone asks if it is true that she filmed her own death. The story then moves back two weeks to when popular student Laura (Alycia Debnam-Carey) takes pity on the misfit Marina (Liesl Ahlers) and agrees to become her only online friend on a Facebook-like social network.
Delighted to have made a friend, Marina exhibits some stalkerish tendencies that incite Laura's friends and her boyfriend Tyler (William Moseley) to suggest she unfriend Marina. Marina does not take this well, telling Laura she has no idea what it is like to be so eternally alone, and it is her death that is announced at the beginning of the film. But death is not the end of Marina or her anger, and revenge ensues. If Laura is to be taught a lesson about loneliness, she must lose all of her friends.
The result here is a fairly good idea, well enough delivered, but rather predictable. The dread this could engender is not too strong and although there is some gore, it is not horribly horror-ific and is probably best suited to teen horror newbies. Genre aficionados might find it rather tame. 2 Stars