The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble


The joy of music.

The joy of music.

(2015) Documentary (The Orchard) Yo-Yo Ma, Kinan Azmeh, Kayhan Kalhor, Cristina Pato, Wu Man, Jeffrey Kipperman, Edward Arron, Leo Suzuki, Shaw Pong Liu, Camille Zamora, Carlos Castro, Siamak Aghaei, Claude Chaloub, Son de San Diego, Doug Mattocks, Long Yu, Roberto Comesana, Lee Knight, Paco Charlin. Directed by Morgan Neville

 

Leonard Bernstein famously said that music is a shared language between all people. We are all united by it, whether we listen to country and western, J-pop or Chinese opera. Music transcends and defines cultures, bringing us closer to understanding each other when we hear the music of other cultures. Language may be a barrier but great music unites us all.

Cellist Yo-Yo Ma, one of the most celebrated musicians of our time, founded the Silk Road Ensemble in 1998. His goal was to use music as a unifying force to promote cross-cultural understanding. Many of the musicians, some of whom are profiled in the film, live in areas torn by civil war and political upheaval.

Some of their stories truly tug at the heartstrings. Kayhan Kalhor, an Iranian, plays a traditional Iranian stringed instrument called a kamancheh, a kind of spiked fiddle. He has been critical of the current regime which has put a stranglehold on what art and music is acceptable to the state and which isn’t. He hasn’t been allowed to perform in his own country and the government refuses to issue a travel visa to his wife. In order to make a living, he must leave Iran and so he spends a great deal of time alone and without the stability of the one who loves him most (and incidentally she’s absolutely gorgeous in the way that Middle Eastern women are).

Kinan Azmeh comes from Syria, whose civil war and repressive despotic regime have sent vast numbers of refugees fleeing its borders, including Azmeh. He plays for refugees and teaches the young people in those camps the history of their culture through traditional songs of their people, songs that are being robbed from them by their displacement.

Not all the stories are like that though. Cristina Pato is from the Galician region of Spain and has become a huge pop star there, playing a traditional bagpipe-like instrument. She comes to understand the criticisms that have been leveled against her and seeks to find a middle ground in terms of traditional music versus personal evolution. There is in fact a common ground, showing respect for what comes before while still expressing your own muse.

Ma, on the other hand, is a figure whose joy and smile are positively infectious. You can’t look at him, grinning with an almost otherworldly delight, and not feel that joy. In fact, you can see that expression on the faces of all the musicians when they play together. It is transcendent; the music takes them to another place and the collaboration between musicians allows them to share it in a way that defies borders, stereotypes and labels. The things we use to divide each other are torn down by the shared experience of beautiful music well-played.

Neville excels at musical documentaries as he showed in the Oscar-winning 20 Feet From Stardom which he directed. His strength as a filmmaker is being able to get us into the thoughts and hearts of the musicians he profiles, allowing us a glimpse into their lives and motivations. He personalizes these people and makes them stand out rather than being names on an album cover or images on YouTube. You will identify with these musicians, sympathize with them but most of all, admire them as artists and as people. When Wu Man, a Chinese musician, demurely says “There’s no East and no West; there’s just a globe,” her sincerity is not only charming but right on the money.

There are lots of interviews of the talking head variety and the film takes a little time in getting going. It initially feels more like an academic venture and those who don’t like the more cerebral documentary may have a hard time getting into this one initially. My advice is to stick with it; by the time the end credits roll, you will find  the impact of the film is resoundingly straight to the heart and less to the head, although there is plenty of that. Besides, you don’t want to cheat yourself of the amazing music that these musicians make. I only wish there had been more of it.

REASONS TO GO: Life-affirming in the best possible way. Some of the stories are truly heartbreaking. Ma’s joy is infectious and transformative.
REASONS TO STAY: A little too talking head for my taste.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s some harsh language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ma in his career has played on more than 90 albums, 18 of them Grammy winners.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/24/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews. Metacritic: 72/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Wrecking Crew
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: The Bodyguard (2015)

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If I Stay


A dream that is a waking nightmare.

A dream that is a waking nightmare.

(2014) Romantic Fantasy (New Line/MGM) Chloe Grace Moretz, Jamie Blackley, Mireille Enos, Joshua Leonard, Aisha Hinds, Stacy Keach, Liana Liberato, Gabrielle Rose, Jakob Davies, Ali Milner, Gabrielle Cerys Haslett, Lauren Lee Smith, Adam Solomonian, John Emmet Tracy, Chelah Horsdahl, Christine Wiles, Arielle Tuliao, Sarah Grey, Aliyah O’Brien. Directed by R.J. Cutler

There is a fine line between cathartic and manipulative. We can generally use the former, but we usually get the latter instead. One doesn’t necessarily mind being manipulated though, as long as it’s done for a good cause.

Mia Hall (Moretz) – no relation to Monty – has a great life. She lives in Portland, Oregon with exceptionally cool parents. Dad (Leonard) was a member of a seminal alt-rock band from the 90s and Mom (Enos) was and is an artist. She has a little brother (Davies) she adores and has discovered a talent for playing the cello that might just get her into Julliard if she isn’t careful.

Even better, she has a boyfriend named Adam (Blackley) who fronts his own indie rock band that looks like it might be getting signed to one of those hip indie labels – not those un-cool dinosaur major labels that haven’t been relevant since the iPod came out, mind you. Because everything connected with Mia’s life is unmentionably hip.

It all changes in an instant. A car crash on a snowy road leaves Mia hovering between life and death. Her body is in a coma, tubes sticking out of every which way (and she manages to look angelic in her coma, rather than like the gaunt entity most coma patients tend to look like. Of course, most coma patients don’t have a Hollywood make-up man to help them look their best while they’re fighting for their lives.

However, Mia’s spirit is running around, flashbacking like crazy and going through a period of terrible angst. You see, Adam and Mia had just split up when the crash occurred. She might be waking up with nobody in her life except her heartbroken grandpa (Keach) to take care of her. Does Mia want to stay in a life that would be intolerably painful, or does she want to slip into oblivion?

Based on a young adult novel, the movie neatly sidesteps any spiritual discussions although we are at times treated to bright lights which indicate some sort of afterlife I suppose, although Mia doesn’t see any dead people which is proof positive that M. Night Shyamalan didn’t make this movie. She doesn’t have any encounters with anyone in fact – she is all alone even though she is surrounded by everybody including a sympathetic nurse (Hinds) who implores her to fight.

Moretz has emerged into a bright young talent with all sorts of cinematic presence. She needs to expand her emotional repertoire a little bit but otherwise she is fully capable of being an A list star for the next 30 years if she chooses the right roles. She has the most impressive doe eyes in Hollywood at the moment and the camera loves that but she has a tendency to be a better actress when she lets loose a little bit more than she does here. Mia is fairly closed-off and that kind of role doesn’t suit Moretz as well.

I did like Leonard and Enos very much as Mia’s folks. They are down-to-earth and still clearly in love with each other. They are perhaps a little too cool to be true – I can’t imagine there’s a teen who sees this film that wouldn’t want them as their own parents. While I loved the characters a lot, I ended up wondering if it would have served the movie better if they had been a little less perfect.

I did like the irony that while Mom and Dad love the hip rock that the kids love, Mia rebels against them by going full-on classical. Alex from A Clockwork Orange would have made a fine Droog out of her no doubt although I’m not sure Mia would have loved the ultra-violence as much as she loves good ol’ Ludwig van.

There was a really good, insightful movie to be had here but having not read the book this is based on, I’m not sure if it is the fault of the source material or the screenwriter that interpreted it. The basic question is whether or not life is worth living in the face of intolerable pain and rather than talk to the target audience as if they had brains and ideas in their head, the filmmakers opt for the easy way out and go with the slam dunks instead of the three point shots that would have made this truly memorable. One of the big mistakes that I think the movie makes is at the very end it tells you how she chooses. I think had they left her final choice ambiguous – did she stay or did she leave – the movie would have been far more powerful.

Cheap tears can make the viewer feel good but when all is said and done, the viewer is more than an emotional marionette. Give them credit for being thinking people who can handle tough questions and complicated concepts. While I realize that most people are lazy and will choose spoon-fed nearly every time out, maybe if they had the option to go to movies that engaged not just their hearts but their heads we might all end up surprised.

REASONS TO GO: Moretz is rapidly becoming a strong leading lady. Enos and Leonard as the indie rocker parents are wonderful.
REASONS TO STAY: Disappointing ending. A little bit too manipulative for my taste. Needed a dose of reality particularly in the characters who were largely caricatures.
FAMILY VALUES:  A little teen sexuality, some fairly adult thematic material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Moretz had a very difficult time learning the cello. At last a cello-playing body double was enlisted and Moretz’ head inserted into the frame digitally.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/10/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 38% positive reviews. Metacritic: 47/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Heaven Can Wait
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: When the Game Stands Tall

Truly, Madly, Deeply


Holding on to the last remnants of the dead.

Holding on to the last remnants of the dead.

(1990) Romantic Fantasy (Goldwyn) Juliet Stevenson, Alan Rickman, Bill Paterson, Michael Maloney, Jenny Howe, Christopher Rozycki, Stella Maris, Deborah Findlay, Ian Hawkes, Arturo Venegas, Richard Syms, Mark Long, Teddy Kempner, Graeme Du-Fresne, Frank Baker, Tony Biuto, Nitin Genatra, Heather Williams. Directed by Anthony Minghella

Grief is never easy under any circumstances but when the person you’re grieving is the person you expected to spend the rest of your life with, it’s a special kind of agony. It’s like not only is the person you love dead, so is a part of you. You go from having everything figured out to having no future.

Nina (Stevenson), a translator from Italian to English, is going through that. Her man Jamie (Rickman), a cellist, passed away suddenly and unexpectedly – one day he woke up with a sore throat and the next day he was gone. She is having trouble dealing with it; she feels his presence everywhere she goes, hears his voice. Oddly, he’s speaking Spanish – a language he didn’t know in life and which he’s speaking with an atrocious accent.

Then one night, when she is playing piano he is there in the flesh. Well, as in the flesh as ghosts get – he’s most definitely dead. Nina isn’t sure that she hasn’t gone mad but frankly she doesn’t care – she has what she wants and needs. The two caper about at first like mad teenagers, with the only real difference being that Jamie is perpetually cold and needs the heat turned up to nearly unbearable levels.

Nina’s support group of her amorous building super, the plumber, the pest-control guy she calls to deal with a rat problem and her boss are….well, supportive but not understanding of everything but they give her a lot of leeway. Then she meets Mark (Maloney), a social worker who is deeply caring, just a little zany and sweet on children. In short, the perfect guy…and Nina really likes him. The trouble is that Jamie is still around, even though he’s begun to act like a real twit, bringing his fellow ghosts to Nina’s flat to watch videos. “Was he always like that” Nina wonders about her dead boyfriend. Maybe he was, maybe he wasn’t but can she let go of him either way and move on?

I love love LOVE this movie. Not just because it deals with grief in a fairly realistic fashion despite the fantastic nature of the plot (ghosts aside) but because it utilizes the talents of its leads so perfectly. We get the sense of how deeply compatible Nina and Jamie are, literally harmonizing in a scene where they sing pop love songs together, but we also see the other side – Jamie can be a right demanding bastard sometimes.

Stevenson is much better known across the pond than she is over here but she is a truly gifted comedic actress and musician (she plays her own piano here). There is a scene early on where she is talking to a therapist about her grief and breaks down – it’s so well done that your heart literally breaks for her and you just want to give her hugs.

Minghella, who’d later go on to direct The English Patient (and win an Oscar for it) as well as The Talented Mr. Ripley and Cold Mountain ,lays it on a bit thick in places here. Mark, for example, is so dang perfect that you half expect him to walk across the Thames – and not on a bridge either. What I do like here is that this isn’t a silly mindless supernatural love story like Ghost was – a film that quite frankly I loathe. There are layers that I appreciate. For example, one thing you should keep in mind while you watch is that there’s a reason that Jamie comes back and it may not be the reason you think. The movie’s last scene is absolutely perfect in a subtle way when you think about what’s going on. At the time I saw it I scarcely thought twice about it but when I thought back upon it later and realized what it signified, I was floored. That’s truly impressive when an ending is actually better after thinking about it than when you first watch it.

WHY RENT THIS: Treats grief as a real thing and doesn’t marginalize or trivialize it. Rickman and Stevenson harmonize well together, figuratively and literally.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A little mawkish and too-good-to-be-true in places.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is a smidgeon of bad language and some fairly adult themes going on here.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The working title for the film was originally Cello, not only referring to Jamie’s instrument of choice but also a play on the Italian word cielo, meaning Heaven. It was originally made for British television.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There’s an interview with the late Anthony Minghella as well as an introduction by him to the DVD package.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $1.6M on a $650,000 production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Ghost.

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

NEXT: Getaway

An Education


An Education

They'll always have Paris...

(2009) Drama (Sony Classics) Carey Mulligan, Peter Sarsgaard, Alfred Molina, Dominic Cooper, Rosamund Pike, Sally Hawkins, Olivia Williams, Emma Thompson, Cara Seymour, Matthew Beard, Amanda Fairbank-Hynes, Ellie Kendrick.  Directed by Lone Scherfig

There comes a point in all of our lives when we are just on the cusp of blossoming from awkward teenager into adulthood. The world is alive with possibilities then, and our future is positively limitless. There is a magic in that period, one that we never ever re-capture except in memory.

It is London in 1961, not the swinging London of Carnaby Street but a London that is more 50s than 60s. The Beatles were still backing up Tony Sheridan then and the counterculture were brewing more in the American Beat generation than in the shores of the UK. It is a staid, conservative place and stifling for 16-year-old girls with stars in their eyes and dreams in the heart.

This exactly describes Jenny (Mulligan), whose parents Jack (Molina) and Marjorie (Seymour) want to get her into Oxford where she can put some of her intelligence to good use. They even have her join the student orchestra so that she has a better chance of matriculating there, but the thought of having her attend a concert to hear the music she’s learning to play never occurs to them. Jenny is tired of the pimply attempts at seduction by awkward boys and the trifling conversations of her peers. She wants more out of life.

Out of the rain comes David (Sarsgaard), a charming man nearly twice her age. He gives her a lift on a rainy day, taking her and her cello back home. They discuss the music of Edward Elgar and she finds him fascinating. He offers to take her to a concert; she agrees to it.

This might seem creepy, a 30-something man taking out a teenage girl – and it is – but Jenny is no ordinary teenager. She is fully aware that David’s attentions might turn to sex, but she’s adamant on waiting until she’s of legal age (which at the time was 17), and in the meantime she means to plunder every experience she can from the older man and he’s okay with that. They attend a series of art auctions and nightclub performances of jazz and classical music. He introduces her to champagne and cigarettes. He even takes her to Paris, promising her parents that they would be chaperoned by his aunt who lives there – and of course, someone whom she never actually meets. Her parents are as charmed by David as she is, but something like this can only end in tears and so it does.

Director Scherfig, who made the sadly underappreciated Italian for Beginners and the upcoming One Day, does a lot of things right here. She captures the period excellently, from the conservative suburban English attitudes of Twickenham to the sophistication of David and his friends Danny (Cooper) and Helen (Pike). She also cast very wisely, from brief but scintillating cameos by Thompson (as an uptight headmaster with subtle racist attitudes) and Hawkins, to meatier roles by Williams as a sad teacher who knows the waters Jenny is navigating well.

Molina, a veteran character actor who has many memorable performances to his credit, may have outdone himself here. Jack is naïve but his heart is in the right place; he is completely out of his depth and Molina captures that without getting maudlin. Seymour also hits all the right notes as the mother who may very well be living vicariously through her daughter the lifestyle she always wanted but never had. Sarsgaard oozes charm and snake oil as a character that is thoroughly rotten and knows it, but is just repentant enough to be relatable. His actions have no redeeming qualities, but the character does.

However, the movie belongs to Mulligan. She deserved the Oscar nomination she received here and although there was some grumbling that she was playing 16 as a 23-year-old, she truly brings Jenny to life, making her an indelible character that may well go down as one of the most memorable movie personalities in any single film of the decade. She has been compared to Audrey Hepburn by some critics, but I think it’s more accurate to say that Jenny is influenced by Hepburn, although Mulligan does share those gamine features that Hepburn was famous for. It is her transformation that makes the movie worth watching, and she carries it squarely on her shoulders. With the right roles, she could well be a star in the making.

The movie does rely a bit overly much on the charm of its actors and there is a low-key vibe that I think clashes with some of the serious aspects of the film. There is also a sexual frankness, mainly in dialogue, that might startle those who are sensitive about such things.

The movie is based on the memoirs of British journalist Lynn Barber, and it is worth noting that the screenplay was written by Nick Hornby, author of such books as “About a Boy” and “High Fidelity,” both of which were turned into pretty decent movies. I think it was Hornby’s doing that softened David up a bit and made him less of a creep and more of a pitiable creature; while Barber’s account treats her relationship a little bit more matter-of-factly, there’s a sense that the David-Jenny romance is being looked back upon with a bit of a sheen of sentimentality, which makes perfect sense. The education referred to here is not about Jenny’s romance with David – it’s about Jenny’s romance with life.

WHY RENT THIS: An Oscar-nominated performance by Mulligan and an overlooked supporting performance by Molina. Sarsgaard is also charming. Period capture is dead on.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Fairly low-key which handles a serious subject with a very light touch. Might be too sexually frank for some.

FAMILY VALUES: Some pretty adult thematic material as well as plenty of period smoking.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Orlando Bloom was initially cast as Danny but dropped out a week before shooting began; he was replaced by Cooper, who had previously been in talks for the role.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s some footage from the film’s Los Angeles premiere if you’re into that sort of thing.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $26.1M on a $7.5M production budget; the movie was a hit.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: Kung Fu Panda 2