Miles Ahead @ The Ross

Don Cheadle as Miles Davis

Don Cheadle as Miles Davis

How can yours truly do justice to Miles Ahead, Don Cheadle’s directorial debut in the biopic of the late musician extraordinaire Miles Davis? I honestly do not know if I can pull it off.

Miles Ahead–this film … it is deep; like waaay d e e eeeep; like real down in the ocean deep. The film required two screenings just to get the breadth and scope of Cheadle’s project. He co-wrote and stars in Miles Ahead, and the film is a very rich narrative full of improvisation. If film was jazz, Miles Ahead would be it. Genius. Cheadle handles the iconic Jazz superstar with such care that we see the man—the human being—behind the music. There is no ‘I was born in narrative’; non-existent, too, is the story behind Davis’s interest in his instrument and the genre of Jazz itself.

Ewan McGregor plays Dave Brill, a journalist with Rolling Stone magazine, intent on interviewing Davis in hopes of getting the musician’s comeback story. The film is set in the late 1970s when Miles seemingly has run his course in the Jazz world. He is weary-worn, if not emotionally and artistically spent. He looks unwell and, more significant, out of sync with himself. It is obvious that a facture has occurred between him, his instrument, his music. As a result, he sets himself up in exile in his own Upper West Side apartment. His friend? cocaine, and Dave Brill arranges a drug score from a student drug dealer at Columbia University. A kind of joy ride on the Miles Davis highway of life ensues, as journalist and musician duck & dodge wicked music producers and managers after Cheadle retrieves a tape stolen from his home by one of them.

In all of his darkness, there is love. Davis’s first wife Francis, played with courage and power by Emayatzy Corinealdi, haunts him.

Miles Ahead is a daring project, and Cheadle lands where he wants to be with his subject: a story about a man … an artist who has lost his artistic center but not knowing how to go about finding out what is the matter.

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Miles Ahead plays through May 5th at The Ross Media Arts Center in Lincoln.

Also The Messenger, Su Rynard’s exploration of our deep seated connection to birds, plays through April 28 at The Ross.

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Where to Invade Next @ The Ross

 

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We are in the midst of some very … how shall I say it … peculiar political times what with the current presidency nearing its end and the political hopefuls who practically are beating us over the head with reasons why they are THE perfect one to fill that post. Is it the best of times? Or the worst? Well, if you are looking for some entertainment to ease your … uhm … pain—to lift you up from news overload, do yourself a favor. Hitch up your horses to your covered wagon and ride on down to the Ross to screen Michael Moore’s newest installation Where to Invade Next. It is a documentary that ponders the thought: How to Make America great again, and, seemingly, the answers cannot be found in our own backyards—or can they?

To answer this question, Moore images that the Joint Chiefs of Staff summon him for advice after realizing that war only led to more war and the creation of subversive forces. Michael narrates, “They hadn’t won a war outright since the big one—WW2 … they felt humiliated, embarrassed … their hands were all placed in a … ahem … no fly zone.” After some thought Moore strongly recommends them to “stand down and give our troops a much deserved break. There are to be no invasions, no more using drones as wedding crashers. Instead of sending in the marines, send in me!”

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The No Fly Zone

These places of invasion are Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East, namely, Finland, France, Germany, Iran, Italy, Norway, Portugal, Slovenia, and Tunisia. Moore makes known the communal perks that each country affords its citizens, and you will be surprised to know that these benefits find root in none other than in American soil! In his interviews and conversations with residents, we are mesmerized by the amount of leisure and vacation time Italians are given. The month of August – the MONTH of August, the country practically shuts down. In an average year, he discovers, there are usually 30-35 days of paid holiday, that does not include the 12 days of paid national holidays plus 2 hour lunch breaks. Next invasion: Normandy, France in one of the best places to eat in town: the school cafeteria. You’ll have to see the film to believe the menu!

The most poignant invasion is in Iceland. In Iceland, Moore allows the voices of the country’s women to lay out a solution to peace and national caretaking of citizens. As a panel of women critique the notion of rugged individualism that the United States embraces with fervor, this panel prefers the “we” or the group. Former President Vigdis Finnbogadottir, explains, “It is my belief in women … if the world can be saved it will be women who will do that; and they do not do it with war; they do it with words!” These visions come at the end of the documentary. It is a strategic move given these political times. Think about it.

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Moore plants flag in the home of an Italian couple

Still in all, Moore reminds audiences that our country once espoused certain ideals and values that catered to the general welfare of the country’s people. The fight for the ERA, he tells us, began 8 years before Iceland elected its first female president. Moore’s trek sadly suggests, however, that the halcyon days of yore have been forgotten or simply dismissed. Where was the love? Right here in the United States. But what happened?

 

Where to Invade Next plays through March 24th at at the Ross Media Arts Center in Lincoln.

 

A War @ The Ross

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“I am tired and sick of war. Its glory is all moonshine. It is only those who have neither fired a shot nor heard the shrieks and groans of the wounded who cry aloud for blood, for vengeance, for desolation. War is hell.”

~ William Tecumseh Sherman

I believe Danish writer-director Tobias Lindholm would agree with Sherman’s observations of war. His drama A War is a case in point of the catch-22s every soldier faces on the frontline of the battlefield. Lindholm masterfully moves through the vein of combat as his camera closes in on the emotions of the soldier and the enemy—people military personnel have been dispatched to kill. A War is an in-depth perspective on the perils of conflict, and the film paints a vivid picture of the moral dilemmas each soldier must grapple with; and the decisions a leader determines are in the best interest of the unit. Lindholm’s A War concludes that no matter the good intent, every decision comes a consequence, and these consequences affect those associated with you. Yes, war is hell.

Company commander Claus M. Pedersen, played by Pillow Asbeek, leads men who are fighting in an Afghan province to protect local farmers and their families from attacks from the Taliban. Back in Denmark, Pedersen’s wife Maria, played by Tuva Novotny, manages the home front with their three small children; the eldest suffers separation anxiety over the absence of his father. Back in Afghanistan, Pedersen and his company have been caught in crossfire, and the commander’s is forced to make a decision for the survival of his unit. Pedersen’s call results in heavy penalties.

As would a surgeon, Lindholm, cuts deep into the body of war to dig out and dig up its complexities and to showcase how warfare affects people and their families on and off the battlefield. There are the usual suspects … you know … guns, armored tanks, landmines, grenades, injury, and death; but through the Pedersen Family … Maria, Claus, and children … Lindholm prompts audiences to be aware that at the end of every piece of artillery used in war, there are human beings, and no matter the rules of engagement, at the end of the day, they are just that: human.

A War plays through March 3 at The Ross Media Arts Center in Lincoln.

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Also opening at The Ross is Son of Saul László Nemesh’s film about a Jewish worker at the Auschwitz concentration camp looking for a rabbi to give a child a proper burial.

What would you do if a someone asked to park her vehicle in your driveway … temporarily but then stayed parked for the next 15 years? Nicholas Hytner’s film Lady in a Van explores that question. Set in London, England, the incomparable Dame Maggie Smith plays Miss Shepard, who describes herself as a “sick woman looking for a last resting place”. She camps out in Alan Bennett’s driveway, first as a favor. Of course, if someone stays over 3 days, a relationship is bound to develop. See what happens.

Lady in a Van and another film 45 Years, continue through March 3 at the Ross.

 

Janis: Little Girl Blue @ The Ross

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I remember hearing Janis Joplin for the first time, and I did not know what to make of this voice that sounded like desperation screeching across a chalkboard. When I saw publicity stills of her, I wondered why she appeared so scraggly. Humph. Unkempt. Even more bizarre, she looked young but sounded old … and … loud! Her smile, however, invited me in to know some thing about her.

Filmmaker Amy J. Berg, summons us into the world of Janis Joplin, and Berg has outdone herself in the research of her subject. Her documentary Janis: Little Girl Blue is an awe-inspiring journey into the delicate but hardwearing but complicated heart and soul of Janis Joplin, a compelling force of nature on the landscape of rock n’ roll.

Narrated by singer/songwriter Cat Power, Janis chronicles the singer’s rise to power with commentary from her colleagues and friends. There’s Big Brother and the Holding Company—the band that featured her in the 1960s; Clive Davis, Dick Cavett, Melissa Etheridge, Paul Albin, and John Cooke. The one thing they all agree on: Janis Joplin pierced the veil of the male-dominated world of rock and roll but at a great cost.

Some of us are all too familiar with Joplin’s story: the little girl blue born into a conservative family from Texas who came of age as a singer during the psychedelic times of the 60s in San Francisco, and who died from a heroin overdose at the age of 27.

Berg’s storytelling is so raw so visceral that Joplin’s love for life, and her indomitable spirit that compelled her to take it all in feels like a science fiction movie in 3d. Just as did Joplin through her music, Berg’s documentary probes the singer’s heart, and you will hear it beat when old photographs of her family appear; when her letters to her family are read; when her siblings Laura and Michael Joplin speak; and when her voice sears through the archival footage of her interviews and concerts; The tremors are all too real. Janis: Little Girl Blue is soulful in its intimacy; touching in the details rendered by those who knew her; and, brilliant in its intensity.

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Janis: Little Girl Blue plays through January 28 at The Ross Media Arts Center in Lincoln.

Youth, starring Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel also plays through January 28 at the Ross.

 

Chi-Raq @ The Ross

Teyonah Parris as Lysistrata

Teyonah Parris as Lysistrata

Peace & Love … Afros & Rap … Feuds & Guns …
Young men & women
sportin’ colors
of purple and orange …
holding g r r r r u d g e s

Black mothers
shedding tears
holding posters
of the heads
of their slain
daughters & sons;

the spines of grown men
s h a t t e r e d from a bullet …
now ridin’ in wheelchairs on the concrete …

Chi-Raq

an insurance salesman
comin’ ‘round the ‘hood
confident of that signature on another policy
to cover the body of another baby boy … baby girl

What can the church give?
One thing is for sure: The undertaker
will have its due …

Put da Guns Down!
There’s blood flowin’
in the streets
in Chi-Raq

No Peace? No Piece!

Samuel L. Jackson as Dolmedes

Samuel L. Jackson as Dolmedes

Chi-Raq, the much-anticipated film by acclaimed director, Spike Lee, is powerful chaotic suspenseful raunchy bawdy and full of cussin’ n braggin’ — concern … all spoken in verse. Let me pause to give some background of the term. According to the Urban Dictionary, “Chiraq is a nickname given to America’s third largest city, Chicago . . . because there are more murders and violence that occur in Chicago than the war in Iraq.”

Chi-Raq …

The film is Lee’s adaption of the ancient Greek comedy, Lysistrata, written by Aristophenes. In that play, Lysistrata convinces the women of Greece to withhold sex until peace is negotiated between Athens and the Peloponnesian League led by Sparta.

In Chi-Raq, Lee sets the action in the city of Chicago’s southside, specifically in the neighborhood called Englewood. There, Lee dramatizes the everywhere presence of guns: in the club, on the street, in the house, in the bedroom, and the people who use them without caution …

Chi-Raq

Lysistrata (Parris) outlining her plan for No Peace? No Piece!

Lysistrata (Parris) outlining her plan for No Peace? No Piece!

Once a girl is hit by a bullet from a drive-by, Lysistrata, played with sass by Teyonah Parris, calls for the women in the community to shut down of sexual activity until peace is restored to the neighborhood. Nick Cannon plays Lysistrata’s boyfriend Chi-Raq, also known as Demetrius, a gun-totin’ but talented rapper who has to face his own truth and face the consequences. You will appreciate the performances by Wesley Snipes, Samuel L. Jackson, Angela Bassett, John Cusack, and Jennifer Hudson as they speak in verse to tell the story of lives in Chi-Raq.

Chi-Raq is ambitious and flawed, but Spike Lee shines when he demonstrates that gun violence is inherited by each generation to the next.

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Chi-Raq plays through January 21st at The Ross Media Arts Center in Lincoln.

Also opening at The Ross is The Wonders, Alice Rohrwacher’s story of beekeepers living in isolation in the Tuscan countryside.

A Poem is a Naked Person @ The Ross

Leon Russell

Leon Russell

I came of age swath in the music of the 1970s–rock & roll and rhythm & blues. The Rolling Stones Kiss The Jackson Five Aerosmith Abba Foreigner The Four Tops The Temptations … ah … I could go on and on; yet, in all of my coming of age, I never heard of American musician and songwriter Leon Russell. Curious. The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame notes him as being a Rock & Roll Renaissance man and a veritable superstar of the 1970s. Never heard of him; but, I did know Paul Revere & the Raiders Phil Specter Joe Cocker and the tender love song “A Song for you” sung by Ray Charles; but I did not know that Leon Russell wrote that song, and that he was a most respected and sought after session musician who worked with those groups and solo artists as well.

Les Blank’s documentary A Poem is a Naked Person brings to relief a kind of life & times of Leon Russell, the Oklahoma resident who made it big in the world of rock and roll. Blank, who died in 2013, documents Russell’s work in his studio in Oklahoma 1972-1974. The film, however, languished on the shelf for forty years due to creative differences and legalities. A Poem is a Naked Person finally receives its due thanks to Blank’s son, Harrod. To view the documentary is to witness unretouched performances that challenge our usual expectations of documentaries. They are to be slick, no matter how raw and visceral the subject matter. We anticipate interruptions from and interpretations by talking heads and/or a narrator. A Poem is a Naked Person is a flat-line of a documentary whose only intervals are footage from Russell’s concerts or practice sessions.

This is due in part because A Poem is a Naked Person reveals almost nothing about Russell, the person. As filmed, it is a documentary that requires knowledge of Russell’s socio-cultural imprint on Rock & Roll. Without that, you are searching for your own point of entry into the film. Yet, Blank’s project is a reminder that not everything will be handed to you. He pushes those of us without prior knowledge of Leon Russell to look him up, and that is exactly what I did. Have you heard Lady Blue? How about Roll Away the Stone? Listen to A Song for You. Nice!

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A Poem is a Naked Person plays through November 11 at The Ross Media Arts Center in Lincoln.

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Best of Enemies @ The Ross

William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal

William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal

If you want an education on how to throw daggers at your enemy without serving jail time, then Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville’s film Best of Enemies is the documentary for you! Three networks: ABC NBC CBS – all fighting for ratings in the 1960s with ABC lagging behind. The Flying Nun could not save it. Batman could not rescue it. Not even the good old Doc Marcus Welby could bring it to health. And tell me just how could ABC compete with the likes of the vocal drones of Walter Cronkite on CBS or the powerhouse of the broadcast buddy team Chet Huntley and David Brinkley on NBC? Hmmm! What’s a station to do! Well, you put together two of the most incorrigible personalities in journalism: Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley! I don’t believe the devil would have wanted to contend with these two! Buckley is dubbed by Lee Edwards as “the Saint Paul of the Conservative Movement” and whom Vidal would call a “crypto-nazi” on national television; and, there’s Vidal whom Buckley claimed to be the devil incarnate.

ABC knew it hit gold when executives put these two privileged prep school graduates together in front of a camera AND during a most tumultuous time in our nation’s history: the civil rights movement with its eye on racial issues and poverty, the Vietnam war, identity politics–oh! It was something. They hated each other; you could see it in their eyes!

Filmmakers Gordon and Neville excel in piecing together the archival footage of this moment in broadcast journalism, and they are quite attentive to the biographical sketches of each man to give the context for their appeal. Best of Enemies is a good, solid documentary. Watch and Learn!

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Best of Enemies plays through October 29 at the Ross Media Arts Center in Lincoln.

Also showing at The Ross through the 29th is the post-cultural revolution Chinese film Coming Home, and the Austrian horror film Goodnight Mommy.

Meru @ The Ross

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Alrighty then, yet another movie on the joys and the perils of mountain climbing. But here’s some scuttlebutt: Conrad Anker, one of the subjects of the documentary Meru, found George Mallory’s body on Mount Everest in 1999! Meru, affectionately known as the Shark’s Fin or the anti-Everest is without any sherpas or anyone to facilitate the trek. You had better foster an unwavering trust in your teammates or risk being totally alone in negative 20 degree weather in an unforgiving natural environment. Anti-Everest. Anker, along with his fellow alpinists, Jimmy Chin, and Renan Ozturk, almost reached the top of that mountain in 2008 only to have to descend because that sun was going to set and their ability to camp would be compromised. Imagine that! You could touch the tip of your destination after taking the risk, going through the peril, beating any insecurity, mustering up the courage to trust your teammates, and finally, finally with only 100 meters to go … sigh … The three return home, nurse their wounded pride, and find ways to work the everyday ordinary. Well. Here comes that ego and in snow shoes and in the night: “let’s try it again,” it whispers, “you could be the first to reach the top of that mountain!” So, Anker, Chin, and Ozturk go back onto that ice and snow.

Meru is an engaging story! It really is because Anker, Chin, and Ozturk mark out the sheer love and passion for mountain climbing. Their narration is awe-inspiring as their courage shines through their talk of their efforts worked a team on that mountain. Of interest to audiences is how these mountain climbers make peace with failure but smile at the inevitability of the chance to reach for success—one more time!

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Grandma @ The Ross

Lily Tomlin as Grandma

Lily Tomlin as Grandma

When I was in 7th grade, I asked Ghia, my grandmother, a seamstress, to make me a something different for class night. “Ghia, I no wanno wear white!” So my Ghia sewed up a dress from fabric full of flowers against a backdrop of pink. Imagine my mother’s shock when she had to plant her daughter within a garden of classmates wearing the required white dresses! This is what grandmothers do: they do undercover things for their granddaughters and keep secrets from mothers! What is more, they do not give a rat’s patooty for the consequences! No matter what they are called in any language, Nana, Abuela, Nai-Nai, Ba-whyee, or Ugogo, Grandma is special … yeah … in that way too. Be forewarned: Grandma can be fearless!

Grandma and Jade (Julia Garner) take to the road after car break down

Grandma and Jade (Julia Garner) take to the road after car break down

Lily Tomlin lives up to the tradition of grandmother in Paul Weitz’s sardonic but lovely film Grandma. Tomlin plays Elle, a poet who is moving through the grief from the loss of Vi, her lover of 30 years, and a self-imposed break-up with her younger lover, Olivia, played by Judy Greer. Enter her pregnant granddaughter, Sage (played by Julia Garner) with a request. Grandma is broke; what’s worse, she shredded all of her credit cards and turned them into wind chimes. Huh. Who cares? Grandma has friends who can loan her the money, and film director Weitz deploys the road trip to take us into the life of Grandma Elle. Oh, the scenarios we are privy to: the battle between Grandma and Sage’s boyfriend Cam, played by Nat Wolff. There’s the trip to a tattoo parlor ran by Deathy, played by Laverne Cox; a coffee house wherein Grandma expresses her loud displeasure that it used to be an abortion clinic. The proprietor is none-too-pleased!

Karl (Sam Elliott)

Karl (Sam Elliott)

The most poignant stop on the way, however, is the visit to Karl, Grandma’s former husband with whom she lived on a boat. Ahhhh …. The Halcyon days of the flower child 60s! Sam Elliott who plays Karl, delivers a touching performance as he forces Elle to deal with the decision she made about their child without consulting him.

A deeper analysis reveals that Grandma is a road trip through the women’s liberation movement and its socio-cultural and political meaning that may be lost on the millennial generation of young men and women. Weitz manages a safe distance from the “don’t you young people get it?” as he allows Tomlin to just be her brilliant idiosyncratic self! She does not disappoint as she lays within the vein of the strides women of her generation made that paved the way for granddaughters such as Sage to even make choices to serve them.

Grandma plays through October 8 at the Mary Riepma Ross Media Arts Center in Lincoln.

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Cartel Land @ The Ross

Dr. Jose Manuel Mireles, the charismatic leader of the Autodefensas

Dr. Jose Manuel Mireles, the charismatic leader of the Autodefensas

In Matthew Heineman’s documentary Cartel Land, Mexicans covered in bandannas take hold of a barrel filled with acetone, sulfuric acid, pseudoephedrine, and antifreeze or some of the toxic chemicals used to cook up the drug crystal meth. Nighttime cloaks this deadly but profitable activity. As Heineman’s hand-held camera turns our eyes on toxic liquids poured and stirred to concoct the crystal meth, it becomes apparent that we are in the belly of the drug business. One of the gun-toting chefs who cook the crystal meth explains in Spanish, “We know we do harm with all the drugs, but what are we going to do? We come from poverty.” Cut to Arizona, and we are taken into the mindset of Tim Nailer Foley, the self-appointed vigilante and head of border patrol in what is known as Cocaine Valley. Foley maintains, “technically we are vigilantes upholding the law where there is no law but the phrase vigilante has been given a bad name by the media”. Cut to Dr. Jose Manuel Mireles, a surgeon and grandfather, is the charismatic handsome leader of the Autodefensas, a paramilitary vigilante group in Mexico that has assumed the responsibility of protecting the city of Michoacán from drug cartels. Yes, there are many trains running through this very intense and superbly drawn dramatic thriller.

Tim Nailer Foley, vigilante and head of border patrol

Tim Nailer Foley, vigilante and head of border patrol

… and Heineman refuses to coddle our feelings; his camera pierces through every shootout in Mexico, and every trek made by Foley and his crew in Cocaine Valley. Hold on to your heart! Marie Antoinette nor the Roman Emperor Nero had nothing on the devastation wrought on Mexican citizens by the drug cartels. The blood from severed heads of victims stain the concrete; some of heads are perched on stakes in the city for viewing; there are poignant stories about babies and children being taken by the legs and bashed against stone; husbands set on fire as wives watch and hear their screams. Torture. Fear. Confusion. Betrayal. Assassination attempts all combine to make for a poignant 100 minute of information and discovery!

Dr. Mireles treats a member of his community

Dr. Mireles treats a member of his community

While Cartel Land visually goes where even angels fear to tread, Heineman emerges as the star of the show. The documentary delivers an up-close and personal view of all action that it has to remember to stop and allow the players to give their commentary! At times, it seems as if this director is trying to collect all of the information he can before time runs out! Heineman does manage to conclude that no matter a group’s good intention to protect people from the evils of the world, violence is durable and resilient. Any change of the guard will undermine the good will of a group. What also comes to focus is that vigilantism is fragile, and once its power and influence on communities are sniffed out by the government what becomes of that power and influence? This is the question Heineman answers in Cartel Land!

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