Monday, September 29, 2014

Jimi: All is By My Side, Pride, Bird People, Smiling Through the Apocalypse: Esquire in the 60s

Jimi: All is By My Side

Bird People
Smiling Through the Apocalypse: Esquire in the 60s

A Jimi Hendrix movie without his hit songs goes over like a George Washington Carver biopic hold the peanuts in "Jimi: All is By My Side."

André Benjamin (of Outkast) plays Hendrix in an inward-looking performance notable for line readings that come out mostly in monotone punctuated by staccato, exercised bursts of personal philosophy. Deeply felt as these may be, though, they come off as so much hippie-dippy prating. 

Writer-director John Ridley (who penned the screen adaptation of "12 Years a Slave") limits his film to the year before Hendrix hit it big, devoting it largely to his relationships with two women: Linda Keith (Imogen Poots), then the girlfriend of Keith Richards, who discovered Hendrix in a nearly empty Manhattan club and found him a manager; and Kathy Etchingham (Hayley Atwell), the British girl who pushed Linda out and began a stormy affair with Hendrix. Atwell and especially Poots do their best to make the women interesting (and the period clothes are uniformly fabulous), but the problem is the cipher at the center.

The Jimi Hendrix of this picture just isn't compelling enough for its two-hour runtime. Wracked with doubt, the self-sabotaging Hendrix gets violent with Kathy (in scenes the real-life Etchingham has claimed never happened) and complies meekly when some British bobbies, not liking the looks of the happy couple strolling down the street arm in arm, ask him to remove the military jacket he'd bought at a second-hand store. I wish I could say Ridley's choice of timeframes was a fertile one, but you never shake the sense it was dictated more by budgetary (and licensing rights) constraints than by artistic purpose.

Matthew Warchus' "Pride" tells the story of Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners, a London youth group who raised more money than anyone to support the striking National Union of Mineworkers during the summer of 1984. Rising to the challenge of their activist leader Mark (Ben Schnetzer), the requisitely diverse group - lone (at first) lesbian Steph (Faye Marsay); HIV-positive old-timer Jonathan (Dominic West); his boyfriend Gethin (Andrew Scott), who hasn't seen his mum in fifteen years; and 20-year-old Joe (George MacKay, with a smile that doesn't quit), still closeted and living at home - hand-deliver their proceeds to the Welsh village they choose at random, where they're welcomed heartily by locals Paddy Considine, Imelda Staunton and Bill Nighy (in a delightfully restrained performance) and less heartily by certain others. "Pride" isn't a great movie by any means; it's a giant pink ear of corn and, at two hours, significantly overlong. But it's made with a generosity of spirit and a wry sense of humor, and damn if I didn't have a lump in my throat during the "whatever happened to" crawl. If you go, be sure to stay for that.

Pascale Ferran's "Bird People" is one of the oddest movies in memory, a two-character study in which the two characters don't meet until the end. The first half features Gary (Josh Charles), a Silicon Valley executive who, at a Paris stopover on a business trip to Dubai, wakes up hyperventilating and that day decides to chuck it all - his job, his wife and kids - and stay in Europe indefinitely. This is the much less interesting half; Charles, so cute decades ago in "Threesome," never helps us understand how Gary comes so quickly to such a momentous decision, and his Skype breakup (now that's class) with wife Elizabeth (Radha Mitchell, who's never paid off on the promise she showed in "Everything Put Together") feels especially whiny, overfamiliar and unconvincing. 

My advice: time your first movie to let out an hour into "Bird People," then sneak in for the second half, about Audrey (radiant Anaïs Demoustier), a young maid at the airport Hilton where Gary's staying. Audrey, filled with dread at the monotony of her work and the prospect of dozens more rooms to clean, imagines herself as a bird and takes off on a flight of fancy unlike any I've seen on film. This half shows off Ferran's creativity and gives the film its emotional force, as in a near-silent sequence between the Audrey-sparrow and a Japanese painter in a room adjacent to Gary's. Unfortunately, the first half isn't as special, and I nodded off more than once.

"Smiling Through the Apocalypse: Esquire in the 60s" is director Tom Hayes' tribute to his father Harold, editor of Esquire magazine during its heyday and, for that matter, the heyday of magazine writing. Hayes would peek over the desk of one of his deputies and ask, "Who's the most important writer in New York?" and, when the editor answered, would add, "Then take 'em to lunch and have 'em write a piece!" He amassed a stable of talent from W.H. Auden, Candice Bergen and Peter Bogdanovich to Nora Ephron, Gay Talese and Tom Wolfe. The pleasure of the movie lies in the anecdotes - about the making and selection of cover art, the care and feeding of writers, and a great one about the night Frank Sinatra and Harlan Ellison came to blows at a pool hall. Nobody will confuse the younger Hayes with a great filmmaker, but there are enough laughs to pass the time and you'll want to go back and find some of the great articles and illustrations referenced.

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