Don Cheadle – Miles Ahead

April 23, 2016 by  
Filed under Interviews

After legendary jazz trumpeter Miles Davis was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2006, Davis’ nephew Vince Wilburn, Jr. announced that a biopic about his late uncle was being produced and that Oscar-nominated actor Don Cheadle (“Hotel Rwanda”) was going to portray him. It was all news to Cheadle.

“I didn’t even know there was going to be a film about his life,” Cheadle, 51, told me during a sit-down interview at the South by Southwest Film Festival last month to talk about his new biopic “Miles Ahead.” “That’s when the gauntlet was thrown down.”

A decade later, Cheadle, best known today for his role in the Showtime series “House of Lies” and as War Machine in the Marvel comic-book franchise, not only stars as Davis, he also directed, produced and co-wrote the film, and even learned how to play all Davis’ trumpet solos, too. In “Miles Ahead,” the narrative springs back and forth between Davis’ life during his burgeoning career in the 1940s to the late 1970s when he becomes a drug addict and social recluse.

Was getting you involved in this film just something Miles’ nephew hoped would happen?

It felt more like a proclamation. (Laughs) I mean, I admired [Miles’] music for many years. I started listening to it when I was 10 or 11 years old. But the movie found me. It’s not something I was trying to make happen. The family got in touch with me and we started talking about different approaches to the film and what stories we would tell, [but] I didn’t really spark to anything they pitched.

If I was going to do a movie about Miles Davis, I wanted it to be really innovative and crazy and gangster. I wanted to do a heist movie with Miles Davis. I wanted to do a movie Miles would want to be the star of. I didn’t want to do a movie about Miles Davis. I wanted to be Miles Davis. They said, “Wow, that sounds great!” I said, “OK, well, when you guys have something like that, call me and I’ll show up and do it.” It became apparent to us pretty quickly that the only way that was going to happen is if I wrote it and created it and directed it.

What is it about Miles’ music that makes it so timeless?

I think we hear his music now in the music we listen to today. There’s really no Kendrick Lamar or To Pimp a Butterfly without Miles Davis. His music spans generations and genres. Even today, I hear new things all the time when I listen to it. His music is a reflection of the time he is in, but it’s also a reflection of his ever-changing self. Miles used himself as the palette. There was always a different look and a different car and a different style. There was always a new way Miles approached his life with everything he did.

Many times in Hollywood, we see minority actors having to create their own work for it to become a reality. If you didn’t make a Miles Davis film yourself, do you think it would’ve ever happened?

I know they had been trying to make the movie for many years before I became involved. In general, making any kind of movie is daunting and very difficult. So, clearly, a movie that is seen as niche in any way becomes more difficult to make. If the subject matter is something that seems to appeal to a smaller audience like “jazz” or “period film” or “black film” or a “black jazz period film,” everyone looks at those metrics and goes, “What’s the chance I’m going to get a return on my investment?” It is challenging. I don’t know if the movie would’ve ever been made without me. Perhaps. Stars rise and fall at different times.

If Michael B. Jordan becomes the next Denzel [Washington] and said he wanted to do a Miles Davis movie, it may have been easier to get it made than for me to get it made. It depends on how you’re trying to cobble it together. I don’t think there is any definitive answer about what makes someone say yes or no. In Hollywood, people who hold the purse strings are more often than not looking for excuses to say no and not reasons to say yes.

This being your directorial debut, did you borrow anything from any of the great directors you’ve worked with during your career like Paul Thomas Anderson and Steven Soderbergh?

Just money. (Laughs) Yeah, I learned a lot from them. If you stay aware and awake and open, especially as an actor, you’re in a pretty privileged position to be a fly on the wall [on the movie set]. [Actors] are the focus of attention, so we get to see how every department is working to make this thing happen around you.

Some of my favorite stuff to do is stay on the set and hear the conversations the DP is having with the gaffers and hear what the director is talking about with the production designer. You get to learn a lot and start seeing how to be a problem solver. A lot of times, that is what you are as a director. You have to be malleable. You have to be able to call an audible.

What I’ve learned from the best directors is that they do their initial job at hiring the right people. And then they let them do what they’re supposed to do. They entrust the people they’ve brought on for their specific talent and allow them to do it. They don’t micromanage every decision.

What did you learn about the trumpet itself?

That it’s a motherfucker. It’s mean and unforgiving. I’ve got a new horn, a Monette, that [jazz trumpeter] Wynton [Marsalis] actually got for me. It’s beautiful. It’s so much easier to play than the other trumpets I’ve had. But still, if you don’t stick with it – if you put it down for a week – it’s like you have to start all over. The corners of your mouth hurt after 15 minutes and you’re like, “Really?! Is it this hard?!” All the solos in the film I’m playing. I’m not just faking the fingering.

How do you feel about the backlash actress Zoe Saldana has received for her decision to take on the role of Nina Simone in an upcoming biopic?

I don’t know that she needs to be taking the backlash. [Journalist] Ta-Nehisi Coates just wrote a really interesting essay about it that everyone should read. He gets granular about the subject. It’s a complex issue like this #OscarsSoWhite thing.

People want to focus on that one aspect of it and not bring in everything that is underpinning all of these decisions. That’s really what has to be focused on –this endemic and systemic and institutionalized point of view about standards of beauty and depictions of our stories in film and commerce versus responsibility to historical accuracy. There are just much bigger issues than an actor taking a good role and attempting to bring their artistic truth to it. I think she is being singled out and vilified for saying yes to taking a role as opposed to the powers behind it and the powers surrounding all those issues.

Next year will mark the 20th anniversary of “Boogie Nights.” Where do you think Buck Swope would be today?

Where’s Buck? Oh, gosh. Poor Buck. If it’s raining outside and he looked up he may have drowned. I don’t know where Buck is. I hope he’s raising those kids that I’m sure he’s had and has taught them all karate. And hopefully out of porn, although his “talent” was big.

Flight

November 2, 2012 by  
Filed under Cody, Reviews

Starring: Denzel Washington, Don Cheadle, Kelly Reilly
Directed by: Robert Zemeckis (“Cast Away”)
Written by: John Gatins (“Real Steel”)

Though the circumstances differ a bit, merely hearing the plot of “Flight” will remind people of pilot “Sully” Sullenberger’s miraculous plane landing in the Hudson River in which he was able to spare the lives of all 155 passengers in 2009. Factor in that the film’s main character is not-so-subtly named “Whip” Whitaker and it becomes clear that inspiration is often found straight from the headlines. More than just a new starring vehicle for Denzel “Wash” Washington, “Flight” also marks the return to live-action for director Robert Zemeckis after a 12-year stint in the world of motion-capture animation. It’s a comeback that leaves a lot to be desired.

When a flight piloted by “Whip” Whitaker (Washington) loses control midair, Whip must make dangerous maneuvers to try to save everyone on board. Though the plane crashes, he is able to save a majority of the crew and passengers. When he wakes up, however, he finds an investigation open that reveals drugs and alcohol were found in his system. Along the way, Whip develops a very unique and close relationship with a heroin addict named Nicole (Kelly Reilly)

Considering the talent both behind and in front of the camera, it is staggering just how much of “Flight” doesn’t work. The performance by Washington is solid, but ultimately a little unsatisfying when he isn’t playing drunk. Perhaps the best member of the cast is Don Cheadle, who plays Whip’s defense attorney. One of the biggest problems with “Flight” comes in the form of script and tone issues. At times, the film tries to be “edgy” and dark with its humor. It ultimately misfires. Structurally speaking, Zemeckis spends far too much time on average-written storylines that are uninteresting, often to the point of becoming completely painstaking. Even the cinematography and camera movements are boring and stale.

Though “Flight” is quite strong in its portrayal of Whip’s alcoholism, Zemeckis and company completely dropped the ball with Nicole, who is apparently the most successful recovering heroin addict of all time. There are scenes of the torment that Whip must go through battling with the temptations to drink and scenes that portray how non-functioning he becomes when he drinks too much. And with Nicole? Other than her initial hospitalization for an overdose there are no temptations, no struggles and no withdrawal symptoms. She essentially quits heroin cold turkey. Impressive.

Perhaps the most distressing thing about “Flight” is that the core relationship of the film is woefully unsuccessful. Nicole is introduced to the film in such a disconnected way that it ultimately has nowhere to go as the film moves forward. From that point on Zemeckis force-feeds the relationship between Whip and Nicole to the audience. Not only does it not make sense, it is completely ineffective in registering any type of emotion.

Like the fabled plane in the film, “Flight” has problems almost immediately after it takes off and ultimately crashes and burns. The end result is a flaming pile of wreckage that ironically wouldn’t even be entertaining on an airplane ride. Though the premise of the film is admittedly interesting, “Flight” makes every subsequent turn a wrong one and occasionally nose-dives into excruciatingly bad cinema. One wishes that Zemeckis wouldn’t have been on auto-pilot for his long-awaited return to live-action.

The Guard

September 9, 2011 by  
Filed under Cody, Reviews

Starring: Brendan Gleeson, Don Cheadle, Liam Cunningham
Directed by: John Michael McDonagh (debut)
Written by: John Michael McDonagh (Ned Kelly)

If the McDonagh brothers’ portrayal of the Irish were to be believed, one might think that they are a foul-mouthed, morally-corrupt and politically-incorrect population. In fact, as Sergeant Gerry Boyle (Brendan Gleeson) is being chastised for racially insensitive comments during a briefing, he matter-of-factly explains that racism is part of the Irish culture. Written and directed by first-time filmmaker John Michael McDonagh, the brother of Martin McDonagh (director of the outstanding and widely- acclaimed 2008 dark comedy “InBruges”) “The Guard” has “Irish culture” on full display. While not for the easily offended, the film is a satisfying, and often quite funny, dark twist on a buddy-cop comedy.

During the film’s opening scene, Sergeant Boyle’s morals quickly come into question as he nabs and drops acid from a dead car crash victim. As uptight FBI agent Wendell Everett (Don Cheadle) comes into the small Irish town to investigate a massive drug smuggling ring, Boyle, using his own unique form of communication, links it with a recent murder. Boyle and Everett then form an unlikely alliance to try to bring down the ring and clean up the corruption the criminals leave in their path.

Brendan Gleeson is nothing short of brilliant in a role that is equal parts over the top and emotionally grounded. With a wickedly dry and sometimes almost mean- spirited sense of humor, most of the laughs in the film come at the hands of Gleeson. After seeing him as the “normal” member of the duo in “In Bruges,” it is a very welcomed change of pace to witness Gleeson let loose and show off his comedic abilities.

Don Cheadle is good, but ultimately overshadowed in his role as agent Everett. Most of his screen time is spent in disbelief at the things that are coming out of Sergeant Boyle’s mouth or struggling to communicate with the disrespectful Irish community. It should be noted that because most of the cast is Irish, the dialect is often muddy and hard to understand, so pay close attention to the dialogue.

“The Guard” will unquestionably bring comparisons to “In Bruges,” mostly because of the relation of its creators and its sharing of a principal cast member. While there are similar elements such as the fish-out-of-water story or the crass and sarcastic nature of its characters, “The Guard” is much less black and lighter in tone than its counterpart.

Although some quick edits and worn-out scenes in the script make “The Guard” feel unpolished and rough around the edges, it is a film that has its own unique voice – even if it is a vulgar and sometimes unintelligible one.

Iron Man 2

May 7, 2010 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Mickey Rourke, Sam Rockwell
Directed by: Jon Favreau (“Iron Man”)
Written by: Justin Theroux (“Tropic Thunder”)

If personality makes up the majority of a superhero’s likability, Iron Man should be considered the Marvel comic book character you’d love to hate.

That’s not to say two-time Academy Award-nominated actor Robert Downey Jr. has lost all the charisma that made the 2008 original blockbuster film so downright entertaining and original. Even when Downey Jr. isn’t donning the maroon and gold mechanical suit that transforms him into a weapon of mass destruction, he has another captivating persona he can fall back on.

Meet Tony Stark. While you might know him from the first “Iron Man,” the sequel, aptly called “Iron Man 2,” allows us to meet the man inside the machine on a more personal level. In the film, Tony seems to be running on fumes. As Iron Man, he can still hold his own against anyone that comes his way, but as a mortal, the genius billionaire industrialist has a serious problem.

The power source embedded in his chest, which is keeping him alive, is also slowly poisoning him. Along with his health issues, Tony is butting heads with the U.S. Senate, who wants him to turn over his Iron Man machinery. The Senate says his invention is a threat to national security especially if a country decides to copy the technology and use it against the U.S.

Tony refuses to relinquish his work stating that it would take years for someone to duplicate what he has done. He is oblivious to the fact that Russian physicist Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke) has already engineered his own version of the suit and fastened it to himself to transform into the electromagnetic super villain known as Whiplash. When he teams up with Tony’s major weapons competitor Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell), the two set out to develop an army of drones that would take the arms race by storm.

Replacing Terrance Howard from the original, Don Cheadle plays Lt. Col. James Rhodes, who later attempts to put a stop to Tony’s destructive ways caused by his alcohol problem. Although he manages to spiral downward fairly quickly, love interest Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) doesn’t give up on him that easy. Neither does S.H.I.E.L.D. front man Nick Fury (Samuel L.  Jackson) who makes sure Tony’s talents aren’t wasted. His stubbornness to join the secret agency known as the Avengers will be short-lived since all these Marvel movies are linking together for one giant superhero reunion in the next few years.

No matter what is being planned for the future, “Iron Man 2” is able to stand on its own. It works well with enough action sequences, fight scenes and some interesting characters, none of which match the humor and charm of Downey Jr. who again makes the movie his own personal and egotistical show.

Hotel for Dogs

January 8, 2009 by  
Filed under Kiko, Reviews

Starring: Emma Roberts, Jake T. Austin, Don Cheadle
Directed by: Thor Freudenthal (debut)
Written by: Jeff Lowell (“Over Her Dead Body”), Robert Schooley (“Sky High”) and Mark McCorkle (“Sky High”)

Call off the rescue mission. “Hotel for Dogs” is in so much trouble from every filmmaking aspect, not even a massive St. Bernard with one of those little brandy-filled kegs around its neck can save it from dying a cold and bitter death.

Based on a book by Lois Duncan, who jumps to another genre after writing the novels that inspired the “I Know What You Did Last Summer” slasher series, “Hotel for Dogs” is an absurd family film about a pair of foster siblings who spend their time rescuing dogs and housing them in an abandoned hotel.

Andi (Emma Roberts) and Bruce (Jake T. Austin) have been shipped to five sets of foster parents in the last three years because of behavioral issues. They’re social worker Bernie (Academy Award nominated actor Don Cheadle, who’s doing some cinematic slumming here) tells them that if they act up again, he will be forced to place them separate homes. Getting out of their present situation isn’t a bad idea (they’re living with two rude wannabe rockers played by Lisa Kudrow and Kevin Dillion) but Bruce is too dependent on his big sister to handle another home on his own.

The kids, however, decide that they’re love of dogs far outweighs the advice of their case manager. Instead, they start saving stray dogs off the street (who just happen to all be purebred, clean, and well-trained) by rounding them up in a condemned hotel near their home. They get help from other kids in the neighborhood who seem to be the only ones in the entire city to notice the vacant hotel has new tenants.

Starting a doggie day care is far easier than one would imagine. Since Bruce is a novice inventor (a trade he learns from his father although nothing else is said about the kids’ parents), he creates a network of pooch-friendly machines and simulators that allow the pets to walk themselves, feed themselves, and play catch all on their own. Forget that at the beginning of the film Andi and Bruce have to hustle a pawn shop to afford food for one stray dog, now they can somehow feed them by the dozens.

While Roberts and Austin are likeable as actors (she is Julia’s niece and did fairly well as the title character in 2007’s “Nancy Drew” and he is a Disney Channel veteran), you can’t help but wonder who really stunk up the joint, the dogs or the humans. When one of the characters exclaims, “We’re out dogged,” you’ll know you’ve had your fair share of puppy jokes for the day. Easily-entertained young children and biased dog lovers might enjoy the cuteness of man’s best friend, but when a script is this pointless you have to wonder why producers didn’t just print it out and use it as a puppy pad during production.

Traitor

August 30, 2008 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Don Cheadle, Guy Pearce, Jeff Daniels
Directed by: Jeffery Nachmanoff (debut)
Written by: Jeffery Nachmanoff (“The Day After Tomorrow”)

The timing couldn’t have been better planned. Just as the Dems were wrapping up their histrionic national convention and attention turned to the GOP and their efforts to prove to political fence-sitters that Barack Obama’s ideas on national security are about as durable as two geeky kids holding hands during a game of Red Rover, John McCain’s potshots would coincide perfectly with the finest in film fearmongering.

Terrorists are running amok in Traitor, the espionage thriller starring Academy Award-nominated Cheadle (Hotel Rwanda), and, based on the large number the film shows infiltrating America, chances are you run into a few of them on a daily basis. One of them is probably watching you read this sentence right now (Shhh! Whatever you do, don’t look up).

At least not until the FBI tracks down Samir Horn (Cheadle), a former U.S. Special Forces Officer and devout Muslim who’s become a bit too cozy with some jihadists in Yemen. When agents Roy Clayton (Guy Pearce) and Max Archer (Neal McDonough) finally catch him selling a truckload of detonators to some shady Arabs and lock him away, it doesn’t take long for Samir to quickly develop a friendship with Omar (Taghmaoui), another Islamic inmate, who includes him in a successful prison break.

From here, Traitor becomes less like an international spy movie and more like an episode of Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? with better production values and more explosives. When trigger-happy suicide bombers start killing innocent civilians across the globe, evidence leads back to Samir, who has taken control of a new terrorist cell. At this point, it’s not apparent whether the film’s title indicates Samir’s disloyalty to the U.S. or his betrayal of comrades who remind him of the regime that killed his father in Sudan when he was only a boy.

Despite his always-intense demeanor, Cheadle’s talent trails off as Samir’s blood feud grows increasingly desperate. As Cheadle’s career has progressed over the last 25 years, he has demonstrated that when the script is substantial, he’ll make a distinct impression, whether it’s in a supporting role (’70s porn-star-turned-stereo-salesman Buck Swope in Boogie Nights) or the lead (‘60s radio talk-show activist Petey Greene in Talk to Me). Unfortunately, first-time director Nachmanoff (claim to quasi-fame: The Day After Tomorrow screenplay) wrote the film based on an idea from the wild-and-crazy mind of actor Steve Martin (who gets “Story” credit).

While Cheadle scrapes by, others like Pearce and McDonough are written into a corner as a two-headed good cop/bad cop unit spinning their wheels. Gone are the days when foot chases were paired with mind games like Tommy Lee Jones hunting Harrison Ford in The Fugitive or Tom Hanks tracking Leonardo Di Caprio in Catch Me if You Can. Instead, Nachmanoff creates a conventional hybrid of passable action sequences, cliché analogies, and geopolitical drama while still finding time to point out all the terrorists hiding in your backyard. Now that’s what I call Homeland Security.