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Recent Movies: The Music of Strangers; It’s Only the End of the World; Fire at Sea; Old Movies: A Woman Under the Influence; Opera: Norma

November 11, 2016

Recent Movies

The Music of Strangers

The subjects of this documentary are the renowned cellist Yo Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble, an international orchestra which he created. Some of the other members, renowned in their respective countries and regions, are also interviewed.  They include Kinan Azmeh (from Syria), Kayhan Kalhor (a Kurdish Iranian living in exile), Wu Man (from the Chinese province of Zhejiang), and Cristina Pato (from the Celtic region of Galicia in northwestern Spain).

This film ably juxtaposes the spiritual beauty in discussions of music and culture against the troubles of the world including histories that are current (Syria), recent (Iran), and distant (the cultural revolution in China in the 1960s). These discussions also include the difficulty in maintaining culture and music during such difficult times. Similarly, modern economics is also a challenge to maintaining cultural history which is most important as many musical instruments are unique to certain countries and regions.

As the main interviewee, Ma is inspirational due to his modesty, his intelligence, and his ability to articulate the spirituality he sees in his art. It is also refreshing to witness someone who is world famous but who also seems resistant to the trashy and vulgar sides of fame.

One of the most gripping scenes is where Azmeh visits Syrian refugee camps in Syria and teaches basic music to a group of young girls. An aerial view of the camps is heart-wrenching.

With such a great collective of music, I was expecting a grand finale.  The finale was pleasant though it could have been more emotional. While this film takes on great principles, it occasionally seems a bit too earnest. But when it covers so much beautiful music, art, architecture, and spiritual values, how can one not like it? It’s no surprise that its director, Morgan Neville, directed another musical documentary “20 Feet from Stardom” which was one of the best movies of 2013.

RATING (out of four stars):   * * *

It’s Only the End of the World

In the 1990s, Louis (Gaspard Ullilel) is a gay man in his thirties who is a successful playwright in Paris. After a long absence from his family, he returns to the small town where he grew up in order to tell them of a serious health situation. Once there, past family dysfunction is brought to the surface again. The film is based on the play by Jean-Luc Lagarce.

The relatives greeting Louis are his mother (Nathalie Baye), his older brother (Vincent Cassel), his brother’s wife (Marion Cotillard) whom he is meeting for the first time, and his much younger sister (Léa Seydoux) who was a child when he last saw her. The best scenes are when Louis is one-on-one with each of the women. Among them, there is genuine awkwardness that tries, not always successfully, to hide the feelings of abandonment due to Louis’ absence.

The scene between Louis and his brother Antoine, however, is not so successful. Antoine is in a constant fit of rage and resentment. While Cassel plays the part well (though rather miscast as he is eighteen years older than Ulliel), the characterization feels incomplete.

It’s easy to compare Antoine to the Eddie Maresan character in “Happy Go-Lucky”. But while each are enraged by life, the angry character is more easily understood in “Happy Go-Lucky” than in this film.

In the beginning, one might have thought that Louis’s being gay was the reason for his estrangement but the family seems okay about this. There’s no indication of past or present homophobia. It’s most likely the bad relations, especially those of his brother, that would probably cause anyone to flee.

There is much to ponder in this film and it is very well acted by a fine cast. It is a good film but could have been much better if the character of Antoine was more explored.

RATING:   * * *

Great Old Movies Seen Again

A Woman Under the Influence  (1974 – USA)

In a Los Angeles suburb, Mabel (Gena Rowlands) is a stay-at-home Mom married to Nick (Peter Falk) who works in construction and has good friendships with his colleagues. During the film, Mabel shows signs of mental instability that eventually lead to a breakdown.

If one word could be used to describe this film, it would be “raw”. It is broken into three sections: Mabel’s reaction when weekend plans with Nick are thwarted; the breakdown scene; and a return from the mental hospital. In all scenes, superbly directed by John Cassavetes, the ensemble acting is brilliant.

Rowlands is perfect as the central character. Whether her mental illness is in remission or she is dangerously unstable, she is always believable in a very difficult role. What is equally amazing is the reaction of others to her troubled ways whether they be immediate family, extended family, friends, or strangers. Their awkwardness and discomfort are so real that such scenes can potentially remind one of similar incidents in one’s own past.

Rowlands’ greatness is met by Falk whose character, like others, also lose stability in reaction to Mabel’s condition. Katherine Cassavetes as Nick’s mother, also gives a praiseworthy performance.

This is one of those special films that could generate much discussion and thought afterward. One possible question is whether Nick is the mentally unstable one (aided by his mother) causing Mabel to fall apart.  It was also ahead of its time with its depiction of mental illness and the collective response of “the elephant in the living room”.

It may seem long at two and a half hours but for those willing to see it to the end, the reward is plentiful.

RATING:   * * * ½

OUTSTANDING ACHIEVEMENT:  Directing by John Cassavetes


“Norma” by Vincenzo Bellini at the Canadian Opera Company, Toronto

Norma (Sondra Radvanovsky) is a Druid high-priestess in Roman-occupied Gaul. Pollione (Russell Thomas) is a Roman consul in Gaul and Norma’s secret lover with whom she shares two children. As the Druids become anxious to revolt against the Romans, Pollione’s love interest has shifted to Adalgisa (Isabel Leonard), a young novice priestess.

In the lead role, Radvanovsky was truly astounding. Her ability to hit high notes so frequently was truly remarkable. Thomas and Leonard were also superb in their roles. The duets between Leonard and Radvanovsky were among the highlights.

While there were times the story seemed to slow down, its emotional finale raised it back to its highest level leaving the viewer on a high. A splendid experience, indeed.

RATING: * * * 1/2


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