TIFF19 Review: Military Wives delivers a soothing tune

If being called a ‘feel good movie’ would right away make you think of a thoughtless and syrupy offering aiming just to please, Military Wives would shatter that myth. The reason for the ‘feel good’ effect in this case is largely because it is based on inspiring, real-life events. The spouses and partners of a British military base band together for mutual support and socializing when their loved ones are deployed to Afghanistan on a 6-month tour. At first just for coffee and a sip of wine, later they discover the joy of singing together as a choir. The subsequent events lead them to the Festival of Remembrance at Royal Albert Hall, deep friendship, and healing beyond their expectations.

Military Wives
Kristin Scott Thomas in Military Wives. Image Credit: Courtesy of TIFF.

The Military Wives Choir phenomenon had inspired the development of the BBC TV series The Choir. And now its movie version Military Wives has just world premiered at the 44th Toronto International Film Festival. According to their website: There are over 2,000 women with a military connection in 74 choirs based across the UK and in British military bases abroad, including Cyprus, Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands. As well, other countries’ military wives have followed suit, organizing their own choirs. Those with no prior knowledge of this global movement would find this a fresh and interesting subject to put on screen.

Directed by Peter Cattaneo (The Full Monty, 1997) and written by Rosanne Flynn and Rachel Tunnard, Military Wives touts an effective cast to augment their singing. Kristin Scott Thomas is perfect as Kate, the Chair of the social committee on the fictional Flitcroft military base. As the wife of a Colonel, she comes with certain prescribed authority but her bossy personality denies her genuine friendship. Kate has to work together with the leader of the women’s social group, the casual and congenial Lisa (Sharon Horgan). During a brainstorming session, the idea of a choir comes up, something which neither of them has the expertise, or that the group is particularly well-tuned for the task. But living in an isolated military base, the two leaders have to take up the challenge on their own.

Scott Thomas and Horgan are lively foils playing off each other with spot-on comedic timing, both trying to lead the choir in their own way at the same time. Kate is formal and traditional; Lisa is spontaneous and contemporary. While hymns are Kate’s choice for their repertoire, Lisa has no trouble getting the group to belt out pop songs and spark up camaraderie.

Their story however, is deeper than just the catchy tunes. Kate’s son was killed in a previous deployment. Despite her gung-ho and cheery surface, deep down she is still grappling with her loss, and now her husband has gone off to a war zone yet again. Scott Thomas has no trouble bringing out the complexity of her character.

While Kate has to deal with personal loss, Lisa has to raise a rebellious teenaged daughter at the brink of endangering herself. Clashes between Kate and Lisa are inevitable. But instead of telling a mundane, formulaic story, Military Wives succeeds in eliciting genuine emotions and poignancy. These words from a young wife well express their precarious daily life: “every time the phone rings and the doorbell goes, I feel sick.” So, when one of them does meet such a tragic fate, the story gets especially real and poignant.

The ‘feel good’ element is how the women deal with their own personal issue and accept each others’ foibles to work together in harmony, reaping mutual support and deep friendship. The motto of the Military Wives Choir is ‘Stronger Together’. The movie brings out this credo movingly.

 

~ ~ ~ Ripples

 

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Read my other TIFF19 Reviews:

Coming Home Again directed by Wayne Wang

Interview with director Wayne Wang

Parasite directed by Bong Joon-ho

A Girl Missing directed by Kôji Fukada

 

The asset of ‘Yesterday’ is recalling Beatles memory

Ah… Summertime, and the viewing is breezy.

Even if you didn’t know the composer is George Gershwin, or Ella Fitzgerald’s voice doesn’t come to mind, you’d probably know I got the line from something bigger than it is, as the original song lyrics had made its way into our communal usage through the years… “Summertime, and the livin’ is easy.”

Here lies the very original story idea of the movie Yesterday: what if there’s no collective memory of The Beatles, except one person. And it happens that this guy is a struggling, busker kind of a singer songwriter on the brink of giving up his music and submitting to a career as a warehouse grocery stocker. Imagine, what would he do now?

Yesterday.jpg

Richard Curtis, whose expertise is writing rom coms, best known for Notting Hill, Love Actually, Bridget Jones and not the least, Mr. Bean, seems to have gone on a breezy trip imagining his newest work. Director Danny Boyle as well, reprises his rags-to-riches gist as in Slumdog Millionaire to create another fantasy. Yesterday looks to have the privilege of a dynamic duo of movie magic, and it seems they’d planned it as a summer joy ride.

To enjoy a fantasy, viewers have to drop their guards and suspend rationale. Stop trying to reason how a 12 seconds global blackout could wipe out the collective memory of The Beatles, both human and online memory that is, while one man, Jack Malik (Himesh Patel), being hit by a bus right at that moment, wakes up to find he has lost only his two front teeth but his memory is fully intact.

In his hospital bed, Jack says to his manager Ellie (the ubiquitous Lily James), who has had an unrequited crush on him since their junior high days, “will you still need me, will you still feed me when I’m 64?” Sure, but why 64? She asks. There’s the first clue.

Later when he gets out of the hospital, his close friends gift him a new guitar to replace the one that’s crushed by the bus. Keep on writing songs, they encourage him. So he sings his newest for them, it’s called “Yesterday”, and they’re almost moved to tears. Here’s the beginning of a world-wide sensation, Jack Malik, the one man show, creator of fresh, hit songs, and the rest is (new) history.

Now consider another premise, or maybe a philosophical construct: if a lesser known gallery painting is taken out of its frame and thrown on the sidewalk, will people have recognized it as a work of art? In parallel, if the collective memory of The Beatles had been wiped out and a Beatles song is sung by Jack Malik, a dowdy guy who doesn’t have the slightest sense of charisma, will it be a hit? Will it ever be turned into a classic? Well, too much thinking here. This is a rom com after all.

Curtis wants to humour us with quick, spontaneous laughs, and he delivers. Like showing us the Google search results for The Beatles when all such memory is lost, or when the less than attentive parents of Jack’s mistakenly remember the title of his new song as “Leave it be”. Or when Ed Sheeran, yes, the real Ed Sheeran, advises Jack on how to create a better song title, “Hey Jude” is a bit old-fashioned he tells him. “Hey Dude” sounds just right.

Kudos to the filmmakers, Jack’s Indian descent isn’t mentioned; he’s just another dude. It’s a kaleidoscope of humanity on our streets, no need to explain. As for the plagiarism issue, no worries, Boyle and Curtis deal with that at the end. So you can leave the theatre at peace with your conscience if you happen to really like the movie.

Jack’s friend and sidekick Rocky (Joel Fry) reminds us of Spike (Rhys Ifans) in Notting Hill, adding both sparks and silliness, especially in the weak, second part of the movie where it feels gas might have run out. As for Jack meeting a guru type of a guy called John in the last act feels an unnecessary add-on. Now Curtis really had run out of ideas.

On another note, I can’t seem to find much chemistry between James and Patel for them to a strike up an intimate relationship. Maybe they’re following to the dot the exact storyline, quiet, unrequited lover meets oblivious subject. Albeit I do see a chance there which unfortunately the director and writer had not pursued further.

The movie can be enriched if James is given more opportunity to perform. In Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, as young Donna, James has shown herself to be a natural singer and dancer. There’s just one scene in Yesterday, maybe for a minute or less, where we see her character Ellie singing along with Jack in the recording studio. The story could be richer in content and more entertaining if James is given a chance to shine by accompanying Patel in some of his songs. After all, there were four harmonized voices that made up the Fab Four. Further, James’ participation in the music-making could beef up the story and open wider the road to romance as well.

Yesterday has an ingenious idea for a fantasy, Sheeran’s appearance as himself is marvellous. While the storyline turns weak and hard to sustain in the middle of the movie, the 15 Lennon-McCartney compositions save the production. Augmenting Patel’s singing with James’ collaboration would enhance the story and be more entertaining.

So for the overall production, I’ll give 2.5 Ripples, but I’ll still post this as a ‘Fresh’ on Rotten Tomatoes, for the originality of the concept as well as the memory of the Beatles numbers, especially for certain demographics among us.

~ ~ 1/2 Ripples

***

Related Ripple Review:

Nowhere Boy

 

What ‘Greta’ could have been

Greta Poster

Greta has all the ingredients to be a much more elevated film. The stalker and prey duo played by veteran French actress Isabelle Huppert and the popular young star Chloë Grace Moretz make a perfect match, director Neil Jordan has top talents in his helm.

At first, looking at the cast and the director’s filmography, I was expecting a psychological thriller. Jordan had won an Oscar for writing the original screenplay of The Crying Game (1992) which he also directed. Later he brought us The End of the Affair (1999), a memorable adaptation of Graham Greene’s novel, again as writer/director. Greta is the Irish director’s most recent feature.

With the older woman stalking a young, innocent prey storyline, Greta could have developed into a deeper, character-focused movie, with more backstory, maybe even a poignant depiction of loss, loneliness, and obsession. Actually it would have been Huppert’s forte to do just that. As Greta Hideg, a widow living by herself in NYC with only her piano music as companion, the role sheds a little reminiscence of Huppert’s Cannes winning character in The Piano Teacher (2001) directed by Michael Haneke. But here she is simply a violent psychopath.

A young, new transplant to NYC, Frances (Moretz) finds the handbag that Greta has left in the subway train. With good intention and much naiveté, she locates Greta’s address and brings it all the way to her home. The rest of the story unfolds with expected development but unexpected, sudden loud sounds aim to scare and shock. Thanks to the ‘chemistry’ between the two stars and their engaging performance, the movie holds up for the first hour. A third character, the free-wheeling roommate Erica (Maika Monroe) is a balm to a distressed Frances, and I admit, to us viewers as well.

The first 60 minutes of the movie was well grounded for some deeper development of story and characterization. However, writer/director Jordan chose the path of the horror genre and its wares, lapsing the second part into unconvincing maneuvers. Huppert as a revenger in Elle is psychologically thrilling; Huppert as a psychopath goes bonkers in Greta is ludicrous. When you hear laughter in the dark theatre during a horror movie, you can almost gauge the effectiveness of the intention.

As for the prominent leitmotif, Franz Liszt’s Liebestraum (Love Dream), it just serves to stir up yearnings for something deeper and artistically satisfying, instead of, alas, leaving us with an illusive dream.

~ ~ Ripples

**

 

Other Isabelle Huppert’s films reviewed on Ripple Effects:

Things to Come

Claire’s Camera

 

***

 

Merry Christmas!

To all, a Merry Christmas!

Merry Christmas

Sharing with you a song for the Season, sung by the a cappella group Pentatonix.

 

Mary, did you know
that your Baby Boy would one day walk on water?

Mary, did you know
that your Baby Boy would save our sons and daughters?

Did you know
that your Baby Boy has come to make you new?
This Child that you delivered will soon deliver you.

Mary, did you know
that your Baby Boy will give sight to a blind man?

Mary, did you know
that your baby boy will calm the storm with His hand?

Did you know
that your Baby Boy has walked where angels trod?
When you kiss your little Baby you kissed the face of God?

Mary did you know.. Mary did you know

The blind will see.
The deaf will hear.
The dead will live again.
The lame will leap.
The dumb will speak
The praises of The Lamb.

Mary, did you know
that your Baby Boy is Lord of all creation?

Mary, did you know
that your Baby Boy would one day rule the nations?

Did you know
that your Baby Boy is heaven’s perfect Lamb?
The sleeping Child you’re holding is the Great, I Am.

***

Whiplash (2014): What Price Perfection?

This is one movie Tiger Mom can wholeheartedly approve. There’s a line spoken by the critical-to-the-point-of-sadistic music teacher Mr. Fletcher:

“There are no two words in the English language more harmful than ‘good job.'”

In a sense, Whiplash can be taken as the dramatization of that Tiger Mom philosophy.

Whiplash Movie Still

The 2014 Sundance winner is writer/director Damien Chazelle’s second feature. In Whiplash, which he also wrote, Chazelle tells a very original story, the training of a music student and the intense, ambivalent relationship between a mentor and his trainee. How far can a teacher go before crossing the line into abuse, however well the teacher’s intention to draw out the best from the student?

We see the tortuous journey a promising jazz drummer, Andrew (Miles Teller), has to embark on as he freshly enters the fictional Shaffer Conservatory of Music in NYC. I’m not in the position to say whether it indirectly reflects upon which music school, so I better not dwell on this further. But one thing I do agree is that, yes, the Western way is too full of praise. The pursuit of excellence is often replaced by that of fun, and complacency and self-satisfaction (to protect self-esteem) the stumbling block to improvement. Tiger Mom can attest to that too.

Andrew has all intentions to learn and master top notch drumming skills under the demanding tutelage of Fletcher. He doesn’t want to be just a good drummer, he wants to be great, and he is willing to pay the price to get there. Being selected to play in Fletcher’s studio jazz band is a coveted privilege, staying in there requires nothing short of the physical and mental endurance as required in a war zone.

Like the drill sergeant in Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (1987), yelling insults and putdowns at the young recruits, shattering egos and self-confidence, Fletcher keeps his players in shipshape form by ruthless coercion and intimidation. He demands perfection. J. K. Simmons is most impressive in his role as Fletcher. What a transformation to Mr. Hyde from the kind and loving Dad in Juno (2007). It is likely that he will have a place in the award nominations come the next two months.

Miles Teller as Andrew is equally tenacious. Thus we see a dynamic duo in contention, excellent acting from both. Teller may have lots of competition when it comes to a Best Actor nom, but he is still young and has fuel for miles to come. His drumming skills are impressive too, or is it the excellent camera and editing work?

The agile camera is effective in depicting the intensity of the relationship between Andrew and Fletcher, capturing the dramatic effects like a thriller, with manic drumming in impossibly fast tempo and the exasperating face of Andrew’s that exudes both anguish and determination. Seamless editing, gripping cinematography and sound are prominent elements that will likely be acknowledged at award noms.

What price perfection? What does a student have to do to gain acceptance and respect from his teacher, the one whose approval that matters most in his training?

What started off as realistic storytelling a la suspenseful drama in the first two acts begins to transform into a totally different genre more like magical realism in the final scenes. Like Gone Girl is a dramatic exaggeration of a marriage gone wrong, Whiplash is a hyperbole of a troubled teacher/student relationship taken to the extreme.

How to get to Carnegie Hall is not only by way of practice, practice, practice, but also entails plenty of blood, sweat, and tears. We see the free flow of all the above in the movie.

Despite my reluctance to fully embrace the ending sequences, I have thoroughly enjoyed the movie. A very original story idea well executed as a suspense thriller, add in some fine jazz music and mood setting technical effects, Whiplash is an impressive production from a young writer/director with great potential. I can’t help but wonder if there’s any real life similarity between him and his protagonist.

~ ~ ~ Ripples

 Awards Update:

Feb. 22, 2015: J. K. Simmons wins Best Supporting Actor Oscar. Also wins Oscar in Sound Mixing, Editing.

Feb. 21, 2015: J. K. Simmons wins Best Supporting Actor at the Independent Spirit Awards.

Feb. 8, 2015: 3 BAFTA wins for Best Supporting Actor, Editing, Sound.

Jan. 15, 2015: 5 Oscar noms for Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor, Best Original Screenplay, Best Editing, Best Sound Mixing.

Jan. 11: J. K. Simmons wins Golden Globe

Dec. 11: J. K. Simmons gets Golden Globe nom for Best Supporting Actor

Dec. 10: J. K. Simmons gets SAG nom for Best Supporting Actor

Dec. 7: J. K. Simmons wins Best Supporting Actor at the L.A. Film Critics Awards

Dec. 1: J. K. Simmons wins Best Supporting Actor from the New York Film Critics Circle

Whiplash has received 4 Film Independent Spirit Award nominations including Best Feature, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor (J. K. Simmons), and Best Editing.

Downton Abbey Season 4 Episode 2 (PBS)

CLICK HERE to Season 4 Episode 3 (Jan. 19, PBS)

After an uneventful two-hour opener last week, Downton has gone Gosford Park on us here in Episode 2 (E2 on PBS. In UK aired Sept, 2013 this is E3). Don’t forget, Julian Fellowes wrote the Oscar winning screenplay of that Altman directed movie Gosford Park. And so we’re warned from the start. ‘Viewers Discretion Advised’, as scenes may not be bearable for everyone.

Before we move on to discuss that tragic scene, I think there are several good things in this episode. First is, good for plot development, Mary finally has stepped out of mourning. She reconnects with her childhood acquaintance Anthony Gillingham at a weekend house party in Downton. That’s seven months after Mathew’s death, too early? Isobel Crawley may think so. While this is the first time Tom hears Mary laugh, Isobel sadly replies, ‘I find it hard to join in the merry-making.’ Lord Gillingham seems like a decent prospect, but here’s the rub: he’s engaged. Of course, under the pen of Julian Fellowes, that isn’t too big an obstacle.

During that party, Tom feels absolutely out of place. Edna is quick to console. Troubles brewing.

Kiri te Kanawa in Downton

A moving scene is Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, the real-life diva herself, appearing as a guest star in this Episode as the real-life Australian opera singer Dame Nellie Melba upon the invitation from Cora. She sings several arias to entertain the guests. One of them is her favourite, O mio babbino caro, which she dedicates to love and lovers. Kiri Te Kanawa’s mesmerizing voice singing this Puccini aria has made an indelible mark in my movie memory from the Merchant Ivory adaptation of E. M. Forster’s A Room With A View (1985). Maggie Smith (Violet Crawley) must have felt an affiliation with this piece since she herself had starred in that legendary film. (Click here to listen and view a short clip.)

Edith has brought Gregson to the party but Robert avoids talking to him, until money is involved. Gregson has done some heroic poker playing to gain back lost ground for Robert who thanks him for ‘saving his bacon.’ Gregson winning back ‘fair and square’ from the dubious poker player Terence Sampson just might have revealed a bit of his past, schemes he learned in his ‘misspent youth’. This person remains a mystery still. Should Edith be more cautious?

As Dame Nellie Melba sings the love aria upstairs, good-natured Anna encounters evil embodied in Gillingham’s butler Green downstairs. I’m afraid from this point on, she will be a changed person. Green strikes Anna hard on the face and drags her into a room. The subsequent rape is hidden from our sight, thankfully, but we can see the aftermath. The charming voice of a diva singing a love aria upstairs is juxtaposed with the unheeded screams from Anna downstairs makes a powerful and ironic dramatic device. Anna has been the bulwark, a pillar of quiet strength and principle in the Series up to now, I can understand the outcries from fans.

Is this too harsh a dealing from Julian Fellowes? I don’t feel this scene is gratuitous or sensationalized. Why, Mr. Bates has been imprisoned for a crime he did not commit, William dies from a war wound, Lavinia a casualty of scarlet fever, Ethel has to resort to prostitution and give up her son, Sybil meets her end after childbirth, Matthew crashes out, it’s not the first time tragedy happens to Downton characters. No, I wouldn’t want to see Anna suffer either. But if that is the twist in the plot, I’m eager to see what will happen next. This drastic turn will bring some tension between Anna and Bates as she tries to hide the fact of her wounds, worrying that if Bates knows about it, he will likely do something to Green that will send him back to prison or even hanged. Further, the social stigma of being a rape victim would lead to even more detrimental consequences.

Julian Fellowes has just reminded us that Downton Abbey is more than fashion and parties, etiquettes and zeitgeist of the roaring twenties. It is foremost a world inhabited by humans, with all their tragedies and ugliness.

I’m adding this note in. Some of you have provided stats on sexual assaults and a link to an interview with Joanne Froggatt, all point to the unfortunate social reality that crimes against women are still happening today, and, tragically, the stigma of being a rape victim is just as acute as in the past, while reporting only threatens them even more. Like Anna, they are twice victimized; first being raped, and after, silenced.

Yes, Mr. Carson, this is a topsy turvy world you’ve come to.

***

Fresh off the press: Season 4 Episode 3 (Jan. 19 PBS)

Downton Abbey Season 4 Opening 2 hour Special

Inside Llewyn Davis: A Serious Man in Greenwich Village

As preparation for the movie, I bought the CD soundtrack a few weeks before. This has proven to be a mistake, for I’d been listening to it so much that when I watched the film, I wasn’t surprised by the music at all. I consider that a loss. It would have been much better that I were mesmerized by that haunting voice of Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) for the first time as I watched the movie.

Inside Llewyn Davis copy

Music is a major player in many Coen brothers movies, often used to comedic and acerbic effects. The whole odyssey in O Brothers Where Art Thou (2000) comes to mind readily, or Jefferson Airplane in A Serious Man (2009) where ‘Somebody to Love’ reinvents itself, or even in True Grit‘s (2010) ‘Leaning on the Everlasting Arms’ as we see the one-arm Mattie Ross riding into the sunset.

But in Inside Llewyn Davis, music is no laughing matter. Llewyn is the serious man here, a folksinger down on his luck. T. Bone Burnett has crafted an impressive music production. It should be noted too that Marcus Mumford, lead singer of Mumford and Sons and husband of Carey Mulligan, is also involved in the song arrangement and singing, in particular, the part of Llewyn’s duo partner Mike in ‘Fare Thee Well’.

The setting is New York City’s Greenwich Village, 1961. Llewyn is a folk music purist, an idealist. All he wants is a gig to kick off as a solo performer. The backstory is that his singing duo partner had committed suicide by jumping off the George Washington Bridge. The record he has produced as a soloist isn’t selling. It’s cold in NYC, Llewyn is homeless and coatless. Maybe it’s arrogance coming from being a music purist that makes him callous and abrasive, even to fellow folk singers, or maybe he needs to have that aloof hardness as an armour to sustain the slings and arrows life hurls his way.

O, if only Llewyn’s personality were as charismatic as his voice, he probably would have done better in life. Despite his musical talents, our protagonist, like a Shakespearean tragic hero, is trapped by his own character flaws and tripped by no small amount of fate, he slips slides into the wayside. Sadly, that’s exactly where he lands at the end of the movie.

He has friends and acquaintances, but there’s not much that they can do to help. He has already made the best use of their couches, and some of their wives. The latest to get pregnant is Jean, played against type by the sweet Carey Mulligan, all wrapped up in anger, understandably so, for her friend Llewyn is more concerned about a lost cat than her upcoming abortion. Jean has a very limited vocabulary to express herself except the overused expletive. Not a pleasant role to play I’m sure. Her character could have been written with a bit more depth.

Oscar Issac, Justin Timberlake, Carey Mulligan copy 2

Jean and her husband Jim (Justin Timberlake) are also folk singers but ‘careerists’ according to Llewyn. They would one day concede to life in the suburb, settle down and have kids. ‘Is that so bad?’ Jean asks Llewyn. The answer is obvious. Llewyn is definitely not going down that path.

Talented folk singers converge at the Gaslight Café in Greenwich Village during the 1960’s. Why some succeed and others don’t, the Coen brothers seem not so much to offer rational explanations than to depict the misfortunes of one. In that dim, brick-walled and smoke-filled Café, we hear some fantastic singing. We hear Jim, Jean and their friend Troy (Stark Sands) perform ‘Five Hundred Miles’, evoking Peter, Paul and Mary. At one point, to an oblivious Llewyn, we see the silhouette of what looks like Bob Dylan and hear his voice singing ‘Farewell’.

Cinematography (Bruno Delbonnel) sets the mood from the opening scene. In that basement Café, we see the place dimly lit with spotlight on Llewyn’s face, as his ‘Hang Me, O Hang Me’ captivates us right away. We follow him later as he steps outside to a pitch-dark alley where he meets his nemesis. Even during the day, we see him walk on wind-swept streets under dull, grey sky. The overall bleakness can be soothed only when Llewyn picks up his guitar and sing. His voice seems to be able to neutralize any outrageous fortune.

Llewyn takes a surreal road trip to Chicago to try his luck with a club owner Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham, a double for Bob Dylan’s manager Albert Grossman?) He is stuck in the car with the old and sardonic Roland Turner (John Goodman) who wraps up his opinion in one short line: “Folk singer? I thought you said you were a musician.” If the trip seems absurd, it could well be the exact impression the directors intend. We follow one week in the life of Llewyn Davis, a week of failed attempts, gloomy encounters, and bleak prospects. The only light is the voice.

~ ~ ~ 1/2 Ripples

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Related Reviews on Ripple Effects:

A Serious Man (2009)

True Grit (2010)

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Reading The Season: Walking On Water by Madeleine L’Engle

It’s that time of the year when a quiet respite is probably the most precious gift. For the past four years since I started blogging, amidst the cacophony of December festivities, I would pick something to read that anchors me to the spiritual meaning of the occasion.  I call these attempts “Reading The Season”. This year, I took down from the shelf a long-time TBR, Walking On Water: Reflection On Faith And Art by Madeleine L’Engle.

After reading it, I went straight to her Newbery Award novel A Wrinkle In Time (another long time TBR for me). Amazed at its wisdom and depth, once I finished it I went back to reread Walking On Water, appreciated all the more L’Engle’s intricate weaving of intellect and spiritual insights.

At the very beginning of the book, these words jumped right out at me:

I sit on my favourite rock, looking over the brook, to take time away from busyness, time to be. I’ve long since stopped feeling guilty about taking being time; it’s something we all need for our spiritual health, and often we don’t take enough of it.

And just a few pages after that, I found this gem:

Leonard Bernstein tells me … for him music is cosmos in chaos. That has the ring of truth in my ears and sparks my creative imagination. And it is true not only of music; all art is cosmos, cosmos found within chaos.

Bernstein might have echoed a Jungian concept of the power of memory and the subconscious self, but there’s a spiritual reality in the thought.

It all began with the calling forth of light from darkness, splendor from void, life from nothingness, the Creation. Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life comes to mind… the cosmic light and galaxy clouds, the molten lava that spews out of the earth, the roaring breakers of the ocean deep, and my heart resounds: ‘day to day pours forth speech, night to night declares knowledge.’

But what’s most awesome is not just the forming of the cosmos, but the Creator incarnated, the infinite confined, the invincible made vulnerable in order to live the hurts, to share the pains. L’Engle writes:

To be alive is to be vulnerable. To be born is to start the journey towards death… We might paraphrase Descartes to read, ‘I hurt; therefore I am.’

The Creator demonstrated that behind the majesty, there’s the power of love, that driving force behind the willingness to stoop, to be made vulnerable, to be stripped naked, be born a babe. Utterly unfathomable. At one point in human history,  Cosmos entered and lived among Chaos.

And artists, those who write, who paint, who sing, who dance, who act… they are birth-givers. “An act of art is an incarnational activity,” L’Engle writes. Artists partake in the continuation of creation, bringing wholeness to a fragmented world, hope in the slough of despair.

As well, true artists live the vulnerability as the One who first took that cosmic plunge, taking the risk of birth because of love.

Here, take a 3:44 minute respite to enjoy some Seasonal reflections. Click on the video to listen to the music as you read Madeleine L’Engle’s poem:

The Risk of Birth 

This is no time for a child to be born,
With the earth betrayed by war & hate
And a nova lighting the sky to warn
That time runs out & the sun burns late.

That was no time for a child to be born,
In a land in the crushing grip of Rome;
Honour & truth were trampled by scorn–
Yet here did the Saviour make his home.

When is the time for love to be born?
The inn is full on the planet earth,
And by greed & pride the sky is torn–
Yet Love still takes the risk of birth.

Madeleine L’Engle

***

Walking On Water: Reflections On Faith And Art by Madeleine L’Engle, Commemorative Edition, published by Shaw, 1998, 227 pages.

CLICK HERE to Reading the Season 2012: Surprised by Joy

‘Reading The Season’ posts in previous years:

Reading The Season: C. S. Lewis

Reading The Season: Fleming Rutledge

Reading The Season: Madeleine L’Engle’s The Irrational Season

Reading The Season: Luci Shaw

Remembering John Barry this Valentine’s Day

To me, John Barry (Nov. 3, 1933 – Jan. 30, 2011) would always be the romantic of screen music.

As a youngster, I was thrilled by the iconic theme and melodies from all the James Bond movies, unaware of the name John Barry, the composer. I had seen them all, beginning with “Dr. No”, “From Russia With Love”, “Goldfinger”, “Thunderball”, “You Only Live Twice”…  knowing only one name: Sean Connery.  I did not care to find out more about the creator behind the music which had invigorated a youngster’s fantasy, that of the urbane spy hero, gadget-savvy, resourceful, adroit and indomitable, the romance of a childhood.

And then there was the wild world of nature, and the romance against its backdrop to run free and uninhibited. Again, John Barry’s screen score and Don Black’s lyrics had enriched a young heart with the ideal of freedom and beauty, and instilled the notion that “life is worth living, but only worth living ’cause you’re born free”.  I was oblivious to John Barry’s winning two Oscars with his music for “Born Free” (1966).  To me, what was important was to see the lion Elsa being set free into the wild to go back to her real home.

Years later, as the child grew up to become the ever steadfast romantic, I was again mesmerized by John Barry’s melodies set to some most memorable cinematic renderings, utterly enthralled by the simple melodic lines from “Somewhere In Time” (1980). Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour brought out the most heart-wrenching scenario of unrequited love. CLICK HERE to listen and watch on YouTube.

Again a few years later, there emerged the deep yearning and expansive orchestral score from “Out Of Africa” (1985). Another pair of star-crossed lovers entered the romantic landscape. Robert Redford and Meryl Streep poignantly portrayed the auto-biographical sketch of Danish writer Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen). John Barry won another Oscar.  CLICK HERE to watch and listen on YouTube.

Fast forward some more, the sweeping orchestration of “Dances With Wolves” (1990) with Kevin Costner’s epic cinematic depiction of the Sioux nation presented another frame of romantic offering: a people striving to defend their raison d’être, and a man clinging to his own ideals.  John Barry’s musical creation had done it again, capturing another Oscar.  CLICK HERE to watch and listen on YouTube.

There are many more works by Barry, who at the end of a career that spanned almost 50 years, had garnered 5 Oscars and many other accolades.  Some other acclaimed film scores include Best Music Oscar for “The Lion In Winter” (1968), Best Music Oscar nomination for “Chaplin” (1992) and “Mary Queen of Scots” (1971). Still others include “Zulu” (1964), “Midnight Cowboy” (1969), “Walkabout” (1971), “King Kong” (1976), “Body Heat” (1981), “Jagged Edge” (1985)…

This Valentine, I remember John Barry as a romantic. I lament the passing of another figure among a generation of artists who worked with genuine talents and old-school creativity without massive hi-tech glamour. This Valentine, I remember also Sydney Pollack (1934-2008) and Anthony Minghella (1954-2008).

***

The King’s Speech (2010)

CLICK HERE to read my new post ‘Oscar Winners 2011’

Update Feb. 27, 2011: The King’s Speech just won 4 OSCARS: Best Picture, Best Director Tom Hooper, Best Actor Colin Firth, Best Original Screenplay David Seidler.

Update Feb. 13, 2011: The King’s Speech just won 7 BAFTA’s: Best Film, British Film of the Year, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor & Actress, Best Original Screenplay, Best Music.

Update Jan. 30, 2011: The King’s Speech just won the Best Cast in a motion picture and Colin Firth Best Actor at the Screen Actors Guild Awards tonight.

Update Jan. 30, 2011: Tom Hooper just won the Directors Guild Award.

Update Jan. 17, 2011: Colin Firth just won the Best Actor Golden Globe last night. To read his acceptance speech, click here.

Colin Firth must be feeling the pressure now.  I don’t mean the likely Oscar contention.  I mean, how is he going to surpass himself in his next film?  That’s the trouble with having reached your career best, so far.

But that is not going to be an issue at this point, because it is in celebratory mode right now, yes, even before the Oscars.

The King’s Speech first premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, 2010, and won the audience award.  Since then, it has seen more and more accolades.  At present, the film has been nominated for seven Golden Globes and four SAG Awards on this side of the Atlantic.  Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush, Helena Bonham Carter have all won their acting categories at the British Independent Film Awards in December, with David Seidler seizing Best Screenplay, and the movie garnered the Best British Independent Film Award.

A moving real life story about the struggle of King George VI (Colin Firth) to overcome a life-long stammer, as he was reluctantly crowned king after his older brother King Edward VIII (Guy Pearce) abdicated the throne in 1936 for love of an American divorcee.  Bertie, as his family called him, was fortunate to have a devoted and loving wife (Helena Bonham Carter), who found him an unconventional speech therapist from Australia, Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush).  The film builds on the development of their friendship leading to the exhilarating climax at the end, when the King gives his first war-time speech to his nation, rousing up their support against Germany.

It all began with screenwriter David Seidler being evacuated out of Britain to America upon an imminent Nazi attack at the brink of WWII.  To the then three-year-old Seidler, the treacherous trans Atlantic ordeal was so devastating that in his subsequent childhood years after arriving America, he had to struggle with a debilitating stammer.  During the war years, he had listened on the radio to the speeches by King George VI, whom he learned was a fellow stutterer.  With the King as a model, Seidler was motivated to overcome his own stammer.

The idea of telling the true story of his personal hero remained with Steidler for decades. He had been doing research on the King and found the son of his speech therapist Lionel Logue, Valentine, who had preserved his father’s notes.  As a loyal ex-subject, Steidler wrote the Queen Mother requesting her approval to use her late husband’s story for a movie.  The following was the reply from Clarence House, the official residence of the Prince of Wales:

“Dear Mr. Seidler, thank you very much for your letter, but, please, not during my lifetime.  The memory of those events is still too painful”

The Queen Mother passed away in 2002, at the age of 101.  Seidler could now publicly work on a story that had captivated him all his life.  But the Royal Family needs not worry.  The screenplay that Seidler has written, and the film that ultimately comes out from director Tom Hooper is every bit dignified, respectful and artistically executed.  What more, the very human suffering and the exhilaration of overcoming an impediment are movingly told.  Overall, the film is a poignant portrayal of a courageous man, a beautiful friendship, and a loving family.

Colin Firth has presented to us a reluctant hero, won us over from the start with his vulnerability and insignificance, and kept us on his side with his perseverance and loyalty.  As the Queen Mother had put it, it is painful to watch him struggle to be heard.  The walk to the microphone, then an advancement in technology, is as grim as the dead man walking to his execution. No wonder there is the Brahms’ Requiem.

In an interview, Seidler mentions how Firth had asked him for specifics on the stuttering experience, and strived to live it in his performance. Powerful method acting indeed as Firth found himself so involved in the role that he had experienced tongue-tied episodes at public speaking.  Click here to listen to the in-depth interview with David Seidler at Stutter Talk. For a pre-Oscar interview with Seidler, Click Here to find the link to a BBC news clip.

Geoffrey Rush is the crucial partner in the bromance.  Without his devotion and humour, the relationship between therapist and client could not have risen to the level of trusting friendship necessary for effective treatment.  It is not a cure, but the breaking down of barriers, psychological and social.  Herein lies one important element of the film’s success, humour.  We are treated with lighthearted moments in the midst of struggles, unleashing the humanity to shine through.

As for the music. First off, I must say I’ve enjoyed the original music by Alexandre Desplat.  The timing and editing is particularly effective, an example is the rehearsal scene.  But the reverberations have been the selections of German music, in particular, Beethoven’s 7th second movement the Allegretto being used at the climatic King’s speech.  My view is that the war was against Nazism, the tyranny and atrocity committed by Hitler and his regime.  Considering Beethoven’s struggles with his own hearing loss, and his vision of freedom and brotherhood, he could well be a universal symbol of resistance and resilience, significant beyond national boundaries. And who can protest against the lofty and hauntingly moving Allegretto.  I’d say, good choice of music for the climax.  And after that, the mutual look between the two friends into each other’s eyes with the warm, soothing slow movement of the Emperor Concerto, what better way to end the movie.

What better way to start the new year.

~~~ 1/2 Ripples

***

To read my post Oscar Winners 2011 CLICK HERE

To read my post on the book The King’s Speech: How One Man Saved The British Monarchy by Mark Logue and Peter Conradi, CLICK HERE To “The King’s Speech: Fact and Fiction”

To listen to the historical archive of the actual speech by King George VI, click here.

For a review and critique of the music in The King’s Speech:

‘The Music of The King’s Speech’

Movie Music UK: Alexandre Desplat

Mary Kunz Goldman, music critic

To read a detailed Colin Firth Interview

To see a video clip of Colin Firth interviewed at TIFF

Nowhere Boy (2009)

“He’s a real Nowhere Man
Sitting in his Nowhere Land
Making all his nowhere plans for nobody”

—– John Lennon’s ‘Nowhere Man’

Other than the iconic first chord of ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ at the beginning of the movie, there is no mention of The Beatles in Nowhere Boy, which is fitting.  After all, the film is not about the Beatles, but a teenaged boy by the name of John Lennon growing up aimless and angry, and how he found passion and poured his life into a goal that finally led him to become one of the most important music figures of our time.

An apt title.  Lennon had had a tumultous childhood.  Raised by his aunt Mimi since five years-old, he did not meet his birth mother again, Mimi’s younger sister Julia, until he was 15.  The film picked up from there until he went to Hamburg in 1960.  Screenwriter Matt Greenhaigh had crafted a moving relational story based on the book written by John Lennon’s half-sister, Julia Baird, entitled Imagine This: Growing Up with My Brother John Lennon.

I’ve particularly enjoyed the mother-son relationship depicted so poignantly in the movie, and the tug of war between the one who has given birth to and the one who has raised the child.  For me, there is also a bit of competition, comparing the two amazing actors, Anne Marie Duff as Julia, Lennon’s birth mother, and Kristin Scott Thomas, as Aunt Mimi, who has raised the boy, stayed with him through thick and thin, and watched him emerge into a man of importance.

Everyone who watches a movie does so from his/her own frame of reference and perspective. While I’ve enjoyed the pre-Beatles era music and the early rock and roll in the film, as well as the human interest of youth striving to gain some sense of self, I’m nevertheless drawn to Scott Thomas’s role as Aunt Mimi.  She has shown what a mother is, even though she is not the one who has given birth to John.  She is someone who stays and not escapes, who takes care of daily tedium, who instills the ever unpopular notions of discipline and responsibility, and who takes nasty insults and hurting actions from a rebellious and still maturing teenager, all because of love.  Scott Thomas’s marvellous performance as the strict and stern Mimi is an effective foil against Duff’s frolicking Julia.  Both performances are moving.

Aaron Johnson has done a marvellous job in portraying a tormented soul torn between these two women. Meeting his birth mother Julia at 15, he can feel right away the thickness of blood.  On the outset, his musical talent has come from Julia, and his free spirit a natural extension of hers, yet he knows he is also tied to Mimi, and despite her restrained persona, he knows she has loved him deeply.

On his first gig as the Quarrymen, John is introduced to a fifteen year-old well-mannered teen by the name of Paul McCartney, nicely played by Thomas Brodie Sangster. Again, an effective foil between the two.  Paul is gentle, polite, chooses tea over beer, and does not have to bust and bang to release his pent-up emotions.  He also helps John with his guitar skills, teaching him more chords, and suggesting they write their own songs.  Paul definitely has it all collected under a stronger self despite the loss of his own mother just a year earlier.  Thus marks the beginning of a valuable friendship.

The fine production is significant considering it is a fact-based biopic of a period of Lennon’s life that has not been explored on film. Cinematographer Seamus McGarvey (Atonement, 2008) has crafted some colorful renditions for this period film.  The two sisters are also color-coded, Julia in red and pink, and Mimi, back and grey.  A bit too dramatic at times, but the point well taken, maybe something to do with director Sam Taylor-Wood being a visual artist before this her first feature film.  Also, some scenes may look melodramatic, but I was so immersed in the story I had thoroughly enjoyed them. The most moving scenes come at the end, and all the way through the credits.  That is when real photos and actual historical accounts are revealed, a poignant resonance to the film.

At the beginning of the end credits, we see that the film is dedicated to Anthony Minghella (1954-2008), the Oscar winning director who had brought us the The English Patient (1996), Cold Mountain (2003) and The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999), to name a few.  Minghella was instrumental in encouraging director Sam Taylor-Wood to make the transition from visual artist to filmmaker, and had worked with her on her short Love You More, which has earned her a nom for the Golden Palm at Cannes 2008.

Nowhere Boy garnered four BAFTA nominations including Outstanding British Film and Outstanding Debut Director for Sam Taylor-Wood.   Both Scott Thomas and Duff were nominated for BAFTA and The British Independent Film Awards, which Duff won, as well as the London Critics Circle Film Awards. Johnson’s impressive performance also led him to noms and wins.  Overall, a moving tribute to a pop icon and the two mother figures that had shaped his early life.

~~~ Ripples

A Late Autumn Walk

What’s more pleasurable

than a late Autumn walk in the wild

Chopin as companion, ballade cinematic

Tonal colors streamed through earbuds

Sight and sound in perfect harmony

 

.

Stripped of adorning leaves,

the birches displayed their true essence.

Backbones strong against the wind,

Branches lifted to reach the remaining sun

Stoic elegance intertwined Romanze Larghetto

 

.

.

And then we met,

A surprise encounter, a momentary start,

Among the low bushes a deer, antlers majestic,

Eyes darted up from his quiet meal,

Weighing my next move.

 

I walked past without stopping.

It’s not polite to stare,

especially when someone’s eating.

His gaze held me a moment, then let me pass.

I sensed a mutual respect, nature shared.

 

And so we parted, unperturbed,

after just a split second of cautious exchange,

leaving each other feeding freely,

foliage in his mouth,

and Chopin in my ears.

 

***

 

This is what I was listening to… Chopin Piano Concerto No. 1, Second Movement, Romanze Larghetto.