Jimi: All Is By My Side (Ireland-UK-US, 2013)

Film as uncanny

Andre Benjamin, of Outkast, is Jimi Hendrix. Well, he isn’t but he certainly does a great impression of the great guitarists even if writer-director John Ridley’s biopic is severely hampered by a lack of copyright clearance for Hendrix’s own music. Like Don Cheadle, in Miles Ahead, the film works because we appear to be eavesdropping on a great. Of course, all biopics are an interpretation but Ridley’s work seems to be more than necessarily contentious: Hendrix is shown beating his girlfriend, Kathy Etchingham (Hayley Atwell superb too), who has denied it happened.

Ridley sensibly focuses on one year from Hendrix’s ‘discovery’ by Linda Keith (Imogen Poots), then Keith Richards’ girlfriend. The film knowingly lays out the position of women in the ’60s; future Hendrix manager, ‘Chas’ Chandler (excellently embodied by Andrew Buckley) doesn’t know who Keith is (a Vogue model) until she says she’s the Stones’ guitarist’s girlfriend. The film finishes just before Hendrix’s triumph at Monterey Pop and the film climaxes with The Jimi Hendrix Experience playing ‘Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’, released just three days earlier, to an audience including a couple of Beatles.

I knew little of this part of Hendrix’s life, hence the film was of particular interest as I love Hendrix’s guitar playing (an ex-colleague told me once he’d seen Hendrix play in Ilkley, a small town on the edge of the Yorkshire Dales – it’s a slightly surreal idea that this elemental rock god played there). In focusing on one year Ridley avoids the necessary lacunas required to cram a life onto celluloid. In addition, Ridley dips into the editing tricks of the French new wave that had made its mark at the time (1966-7). Discontinuous editing, that Godard might have been proud of, and displaced soundtracks help give a sense of the joie de vivre of ‘swinging London’. The social class differences between Keith (posh) and Etchingham (northern), though, aren’t really explored, which is a pity as that was a staple trope of ‘swinging sixties’ films.

One disadvantage of the film stopping as Hendrix was about to become a big hit is we don’t get experience the tragedy of his early death. At the time this was something of a ‘fashion’, Brian Jones and Janis Joplin amongst others, so I suppose it’s fair to avoid this convention though there’s not even a few end titles about what happened next. I think to assume everyone knows what happened is wrong, as I’m not sure younger generations are particularly aware of the man’s greatness.


Greta (Ireland-US, 2018)

Not Greta Thunberg

I really enjoyed this classy piece of schlock. Classy not only because of the presence of Isabelle Huppert, but also Neil Jordan’s direction. In addition, the sound design by Stefan Henrix is outstanding. Added to these, Seamus McGarvey’s sumptuous cinematography ensures we know that this film oozes class whilst delving into Grand Guignol narrative.

One Guardian reviewer complained the film wasn’t about anything however the intergenerational clash seemed to me to chime perfectly with the current one being played out regarding the lack of action on climate change. In the UK we have been regaled by middle aged news anchors patronising youngsters as they take part in Extinction Rebellion protests. There couldn’t be a better illustration of the necessity that young people take action to sort out the response to climate change because the old fellows have failed.

Huppert plays a lonely woman and Chloë Grace Moretz the youngster who mistakenly befriends her. We know it’s a mistake when the music goes all ‘sinister’ when Huppert’s Greta is seen googling the young woman. Such obviousness places the film in the thriller mode that was popular in the 1990s; Single White Female (1992) sprang to mind. There is a danger when treading well-trodden ground that little surprises but Jordan, and co-scriptwriter Ray Wright, insert enough difference to ensure this is a genre piece that isn’t too ‘samey’.

Excellent as Moretz is, and Maika Monroe as her friend is great too, the film belongs to Huppert whose performance is such that when the psycho-woman appears there is no sense that this isn’t also the sweet older lady we met at the start of the film. I particularly liked the denouement, which I won’t spoil, that not only wrong-footed me but ensured, ideologically, the film was progressive.

Despite all this it was probably the sound design that impressed me the most. Presumably because of technological developments, sound in film is (well it seems to me) becoming more detailed. mother! was a case in point but as that was an expressionist inferno the foregrounding of sound was entirely appropriate. Sound isn’t used in the same way in Greta but the interplay between diegetic (in the narrative world) and non-diegetic music is exceptionally effective. Writing about sound in film is much harder than images because there’s usually more than one layer in the mix at any one time and, of course, it can’t be pictured in visual memory.

It’s Jordan’s first film for seven years and he’s too classy a filmmaker for such a hiatus. Greta isn’t going to rank amongst his highest achievements but it is well worth seeing.


The Favourite (Ire-UK-US, 2018)


The Favourite seemed to be a good way to start cinema-going this year as it had been on many ‘best of’ lists. Then again, so was Phantom Thread. It irritates me when people declare a film to be ‘rubbish’ as if their view trumps all others; though it can be a nuisance to append ‘I think’ throughout. But that’s what they mean: ‘I think it’s rubbish’, as I do The Favourite. It’s rating is over 8.1 on imdb and has received rave reviews so I am, as far as you can objectively get in matters of opinion, wrong.

The cast is great, the set and costume design exemplary and the cinematography (apart from the use of fisheye lenses) marvellous. So I’m guessing my problem is with the director, Yorgos Lanthimos. I liked neither Dogtooth (Kynodontas, Greece, 2009) or The Lobster (Ire-UK-Greece-France-Netherlands, 2015) despite their interesting premises. It’s difficult to pin down what it is about Lanthimos’ filmmaking that I don’t like but I think he is an ‘arch’ filmmaker in that he keeps a distance between himself and his material. In The Favourite this is evident by the use of ‘comedy’ (it’s labelled as such but I rarely found it funny), much of which seemed to be sourced from the swearing we are not accustomed to associating with royalty or the upper classes. The fact that Olivia Coleman’s Queen Anne says ‘fuck’ didn’t raise a chuckle within me and there’s some slapstick comedy, but not much. Lanthimos, and/or his scriptwriters, seem uncertain about how to portray the material, hence there’s a lack of commitment evident in my eyes.

More damningly, the film ignores the historical significance of the time; or at least assumes knowledge in the audience (which I don’t have). So the parlaying for influence in Parliament, which becomes the motivation for positioning themselves as Anne’s ‘favourite’, is fairly meaningless.

Not a good start to the year… but things can only get better?

The Little Stranger (Ireland-UK-France, 2018)

Decline and fall

The film version of Sarah Waters’ novel seems to me to be a rare example of Todorov’s ‘fantastic’, a ‘genre’ in which the supernatural happenings may have natural causes. This is in contrast to the novel where the ghostly goings on are more obviously really ghostly. Set in the post-war era the Ayres’ stately home is falling into dilapidation symbolising the shift from the old deferent order to the Labour government of the Welfare State. Domhnall Gleeson’s socially mobile doctor inveigles himself into the Ayres’ household having become entranced by the house when visiting once as a child. Ruth Wilson plays the sister hauled back to nurse her brother, injured during the war.

Lenny Abrahamson’s direction is solid and I liked the way the Gothic horror elements slowly infiltrated the movie; even the house, at first, seemed to me to be innocuous. The scene where Charlotte Rampling’s mother gets trapped in her room is genuinely scary and Ole Bratt Birkeland’s cinematography is suitably atmospheric.

Spoiler alert: ‘who is the little stranger?’ remains a question in the book but the film is more direct in the final scene where the doctor, as a child, remains in the house. In addition, the death of the sister is more directly dramatised, more than hinting at the perpetrator. Otherwise the film is a faithful adaptation of a good novel but it is good there are divergences otherwise what would be the (artistic) point?

Calvary (Ireland-UK, 2014)

Crisis of religion

Crisis of religion

It’s impossible for an English atheist to understand the impact/stranglehold the Catholic Church had upon Eire until recently when the ceaseless revelations of scandals undermined its authority to the extent that Gay marriage was easily approved in the referendum earlier this year. Peter Mullan’s The Magdelene Sisters (Ire-UK, 2002) had shown the disgusting treatment of young women, who were pregnant out of wedlock, up until the 1980s. John Michael McDonagh’s film (like Mullan he scripted and directed) puts the pedophile priests in its sight and, with a brilliant narrative set up, starts with a ‘confession’ that Father James (the brilliant Brendan Gleeson) will be killed the following Sunday because he is a good man. This, the perpetrator feels, would be a justice of sorts. The small west coast town setting is full of ‘characters’ and James spends the week deciding what to do.

McDonagh’s debut was the well-regarded (though not by me) The Guard (Ire, 2011); Calvary suggests he might be a special talent. The slightly flippant humour that runs throughout (one priest reads, boggle eyed, The God Delusion) might have derailed the seriousness with which the film is intended to be regarded; fortunately it works to relief the ‘heaviness’ of the crimes committed by the clergy. Child abuse is used too often as a ploy to shock; in Calvary the abuse was real and by approaching it tangentially McDonagh offers us powerful insights into the relationship between ordinary people and the Church in the aftermath of the scandals.

Clearly actors, including Chris O’Dowd, Aiden Gillen and Gleeson’s son, Dohmnall in a cameo, are keen to work with McDonagh. Calvary shows us why.

Once (2006, Ireland)

Platonic romance

Platonic romance

This is an unusual film built, as it is, around the musical talents of the leads (Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová) rather than a strong narrative drive. The extended musical sequences may suggest a musical, but they aren’t used to progress the narrative. By showing complete songs (which are good) the narrative, basically concerned with the protagonists working out their relationships, pauses and so takes us away from the usual ellipses that drive stories onwards. This necessarily means a lack of momentum and so it’s crucial that the music engages us.

Judging by the Oscar, for best original song, on the +8 rating on imdb.com, this does work for most people (not enough for me however). It seemed that much of the street footage (Hansard plays a busker) is shot candidly which gives the film an immediacy that is engaging.

Certainly worth watching though I guess I wanted to know more about being a migrant in Ireland (Irglova’s character is Czech) but that would be a different film.