Monday 26 January 2015

DVD Review: Jimi: All is by my Side

Year: 2013 (U.K Release 2015)
Director: John Ridley
Screenplay: John Ridley
Starring: Andre Benjamin, Hayley Atwell, Imogen Poots


Synopsis is here:


John Ridley's biopic of Jimi Hendrix; Jimi: All is by my Side, is a frustrating experience. Its subject is one of the most influential musicians of the modern age, yet the film doesn't feel wholly invested in him. It's a film in which its main subject believes in giving everything he does a sense of vividness and flamboyance, and yet none of the film approaches the ideal. This is a film about Jimi Hendrix, but only superficially.

Jimi: All is by my Side sets itself in London 1966 before Hendrix travels back to America and the release of his band's seminal debut: Are You Experienced. Played up as an interesting a pivotal point in Hendrix's life, it feels more like the year was picked as the production couldn't obtain any of the music Hendrix wrote. Such a limitation wouldn't be an issue if the film had handled any of its drama with any subtlety. However, Ridley's screenplay is a hodge-podge of lackluster melodrama, bland musical performances and awkwardly shoehorned scenes. What little conflict the film drums up is quickly resolved or forgotten about before the scene ends. While the drama the film does bring up is the type of tried cliché usually seen in more dubious made for T.V biopics.

The most upsetting thing is that All is by my Side has come from the Oscar winning Ridley, whose blistering work on 12 Years a Slave is miles apart from what we have here. The film's screenplay lacks focus, and Ridley does very little to give the narrative a cohesive through line. Moments that should be defining are hastily constructed. Was Eric Clapton really that stunned by Hendrix's playing? If so, why does that moment feel like such a footnote? The same goes for Hendrix's relationship with his father, which is regulated to a limp, one sided telephone call. It feels so tenuous that it could have easily been left on the cutting room floor.

Ridley then tries to force race into the film with little reason other than to try and illustrate his own feelings on it. There seems to be little reason to have Hendrix quibbling with white policemen or holding a dumbed down argument between Jimi and conterversal Black Revolutionary Michael X (Adrian Lester), but both appear with the sole purpose of making sophomoric statements about race. They do little to show how such matters affected Hendrix and his playing, whether or not such aspects ever did alter his views of music at all. 

All by my Side's saving grace (save for a bright performance of Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club) is the performances. While none of the cast has much to work with in terms of depth, the energy they give to their roles is more than substantial. Andre Benjamin certainly looks the part as Hendrix, although the character itself is more of a caricature of what people think the artist was like. Both Atwell and Poots give their flat characters the life they need to make them watchable. It's a shame that Ridley's script doesn't particularly like women, having both characters doing little more than serving the male character. For a film set against the sexual revolution, the depiction of women is quite disappointing.

Jimi: All is by my Side is an awkward and miscalculated piece with has nothing reaching the intensity of the musician's guitar playing. From its visually drab photography to it's on the nose dialogue, the film jumps unremarkably from scene to scene with little flair or verve. It's clear that the cast entered this with the best intentions in mind, but it seems that the life of Jimi Hendrix needed someone who had a clearer vision to lift some of the purple haze.

Review: Whiplash

Year: 2014 (U.K Release 2015)
Director: Damien Chazelle
Screenplay: Damien Chazelle
Starring: Mills Teller, J.K Simmons, Paul Reiser, Melissa Benoist

Synopsis is here:

As cold and bitter as January can be, the month is one of my favorite times of the year. After the first week of sales, a stroll into town is a relatively clam experience. It's the month of my birthday, which makes drinking gin with a large group of gin feel extra special. However, the biggest reason of my love for January, of course boils down to going to the cinema. It's at this time when, the due to the Oscars, the more "prestigious" films find their way into the multiplexes. To me it just means we have an influx of films which are a tad more adult, and with the current cinematic trend feel much like childhood nostalgia running rampant for so much of the year, it brings substantial relief.

A grand amount of alleviation can also be found once we get to the final moments of Whiplash. The film from the start is so tightly wound you can tune it with a fork. Once the film finally cuts to black and delivers the end credits, there was a feeling of exhalation that flowed out of me, as if someone had finally cut a noose from around my neck. We often consider Jazz as unhurried and easy going. Whiplash decides to take the world of Jazz and turn it into a psychological battlefield. An aggressive battle of odds between student and mentor.

Fans of Jazz as a musical genre have argued with where the film is coming from, much like the ballet dancers who complained about how Black Swan didn't highlight their art form in a positive light. Whiplash is not playing in the same wheelhouse as American Sniper, looking at decidedly weighty subjects based on true events. Although loosely inspired by a teacher that writer/director's knew at his time as a Jazz Drummer in high school, the film is more indebted to something like Rocky (1976) rather than realism. The fact is Whiplash never delivers itself as an absolute truth, it only wishes to tell an entertaining story, and does so with aplomb.

Despite having a narrative leaner than supermarket mince, Whiplash is a neatly realised and textured drama. Damien Chazelle details his film with just the right flourishes to give the drama the right edge and to have us invested in its characters. From a foot touching another during a first date to the beads of sweat leaping of the symbols when they're hit. The film brings a rich range of characteristics to envelop us into its world, ranging from bleeding plasters, to battered and bruised hands hitting iced water. Even the contours and veins on Simmons' face. Such small moments make sure that the film, while simple in its plotting, speak volumes.

Miles Teller turns down his more comical tics for a subtly sensitive performance. Giving the type of arrogant straight man performance that goes unnoticed during award season until it's too late. It's a role of heavier lifting than we give it credit for. Playing an instrument convincingly (to a Layman), as well as providing a relatable and naturalistic performance throughout. He also has to be the right combative foil for the viper that awaits him in the other corner. J.K Simmons, as teacher Terrance Fletcher, is a near impenetrable ball of rage. A man sick of mediocre talent being passed off as "good enough", nearly every word that froths from his mouth is a well-oiled put down. Every glance, a look of contempt. Do don't just play in rhythm, you have to play well. You don't just play well, you play beyond. Fully embracing a role that only he was born to play, Simmons' is on fearsome form as Fletcher, a man who strikes nerves by merely grasping at air. This central "relationship" is the jewel of Whiplash as you wait to see who may crack first.

As stated, we're not going to Whiplash for the exact truth, and yet looking at Simmons' intimidating tutor only had me contemplating how many people had a teacher like this. I remember mine looking similar to Simmons and held similar ferocity. There are (or were, if we are to believe parents nowadays) teachers such as Fletcher, who can only gain the results they acquire through fear and thunderous displays of dominance. One of the scariest things Chazelle brings to the table is the idea that as much as we dislike Fletcher's methods or try to disbelieve in them, when his reasons are explained, it's tough not to see it on his side.

That said, when the one of the film's most pivotal piece of information is revealed further along the line and defenses appear to be knocked down slightly. The outcome of the issue feels almost like a shrug. It's hard not to think of the term to make an omelette you have to crack a few eggs, although the eggs we're dealing with a lot more delicate.

Yet, due to Whiplash being a force of nature the film powers through. The sheer drive of these characters is what makes the film so appealing. Despite the preposterous nature the film sometimes delves into, the exhilaration of the film's final 20 minutes brings, in which we see the stakes both mentor and student at their highest, makes the films more extravagant elements all the worthwhile. It's only in the Whiplash's final moments when we the connection between two people in complete sync, do we get the feeling that we can breathe once more. Jazz has never been so thrilling.

Review: American Sniper

Year: 2014 (U.K Release 2015)
Director: Clint Eastwood
Screenplay: Jason Hall
Starring: Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller

Synopsis is here

One of the opening scenes of American Sniper sees a young Chris Kyle standing up for his brother who is attacked by a bully at school. Afterwards, at the dinner table Kyle’s father informs him that there are three types of people in this world: Sheep, Wolves and Sheepdogs and that he hopes for his sons to make sure they are the right type. The scene primes the viewer for the rest of this biopic, based on Kyle, a divisive character who was labelled the most lethal sniper in U.S history. When Kyle witnesses 9/11 on his T.V later in the film you see he’s reminded of the conversation. He knows which type of person he wishes to be. By the end of the film, so do we.

As a director, Clint Eastwood shoots from the hip. His work ethic is short, sharp and to the point. Something that shows in American Sniper. A simply constructed feature, which is built in a way to try and mirror the audience which views it. Gung-ho conservatives will go nuts for the “calm Zen” Kyle kills Iraqi soldiers with, yet the film is also punctuated with scenes that may have bleeding liberals talk about the inner conflicts of a difficult man. Although many are angrier at how Kyle’s heroism is portrayed. The film as a whole, tries to maintain a certain balance. However, said balance will be tipped, by how people perceive the ongoing conflicts that the west have faced with the Middle East, as well as people’s knowledge of Chris Kyle.

Starting with a first act which feels too much like an Army recruitment video, American Sniper’s aesthetics have been so well known in other more pro-army movies or adverts that they have a hawkish feel to them, but they have a corniness that doesn’t ring true. Kyle witnesses the fall of the twin towers and decides immediately to sign up to the marines to fight in the Iraq war. This is dubious when we consider that it’s the war in Afghanistan, which is the response to the 9/11 attacks. But the moment itself, plays with a sense of naivety that cheapens such a large decision.  Much of the film’s first segment has that feel to it, in the same way that blockbusters often simplify the Armed Forces.

The film’s middle segment, in which we see Kyle as he serves four tours with the Marines, hold the film's strongest moments. Held together by the two solid performances from Cooper and Miller and some fantastic firefight set pieces. The film excels is showing the conflict between Kyle’s wish to serve his country and his home life. We witness Kyle struggles with PTSD as the effects of war take his toll. Much has been said about Kyle himself and his lack of remorse over the people he killed. American Sniper softens such aspects and gives the shooter a lot more benefit of the doubt over the “savages” he dispatches. Cooper's Kyle has moments of realisation of how troubling he finds his situation, but such scenes lack the resonance that Kathryn Bigelow provided in both The Hurt Locker (2008) or Zero Dark Thirty (2012).  We observe the western fatalities in stats, but we see Iraqi’s displayed as little more than two dimensional characters, only ever considered as the “enemy” to be shot. Only once or twice does Kyle’s heroism feels earned in the film. One example is a small but affecting scene in which a young injured solider informs Kyle on how he save his life.

The film’s final codec does little to help extend the problematic feelings of Kyle, his character and his beliefs. Softening a man whose viewpoint should be harder to relate to in real life. The characters final moments are not seen, although they are the most telling. As it reminds us of how fractured war can leave a person. One thing the film suggests, and this is also mentioned in Kyle’s book, is his unwavering belief in his countryman as a soldier. However, due to how uninterested the film is in making the secondary characters become believable support, the film stumbles.

Yet Eastwood’s straight shooting style and his avoidance of politics of any real kind often shows just how palpable he makes Kyle and American Sniper for a layman such as myself. It is an interestingly crafted piece of historical fiction. Much like the successful and violent FPS Soldier of Fortune, the enemies against Kyle have no definition, which makes it easier to relate to Kyle and his macho, black and white world view. It’s even more fascinating to see just how entertaining Eastwood can often make the film. The film features solid action sequences, the direction of the actors is effective and with a running time of over two hours, the film rolls at a good pace. Although the likes of Haneke would have a field day with how the film's violence is portrayed.

Despite my misgivings about the film (particularly its final flag waving moments). This is still the same director whose Million Dollar Baby (2004) openly debated assisted suicide with a keen eye and whose Gran Torino (2008) was strong enough to bring a certain amount of sympathy to a bitter conservative racist. Although documentaries such as The Tillman Story (2010) provides more complex insight into a famous soldier, American Sniper still manages to arouse strong feelings about peoples' dealings with middle east, even if the film willfully avoids some of the murkier elements of its subject. American Sniper is not the perfect portrayal of someone that many consider a hero, but it is an engrossing and somewhat troubling examination of how modern warfare can be depicted on screen.